Young Dwayne's Vow of Silence

Inquiring minds who have seen the film Little Miss Sunshine will wonder what connection there is between Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher pictured on the young man’s wall, and the taking of a vow of silence. The film is smart enough to know not to be too smart, and therefore does not in any way delve into the complex philosophy involved in establishing such a connection. The film only hints, and this particular hint is not at all expected. To be brief, Nietzsche said this:

One no longer loves one’s insight enough once one communicates it.

This is from Beyond Good & Evil (1886), a favorite of many scholars. From the moment I first read this short observation, I pictured the scene. Nietzsche returns from his mid-day walk having had what he considers a brilliant idea. He is smiling. He passes an acquaintance who asks him what he is smiling about. He explains the idea.

The instant he does so he regrets it. As he is speaking his mind is suddenly changing, his emotions deflating. The smile becomes a concerned frown. He goes home and writes down number 160. He no longer loved his insight enough. Communication ruined it. The young man in Little Miss Sunshine goes to another extreme—he expands the psychology of this scene into a religion, and takes a vow of silence, an act infused with comic arcanery when set in our world of cell phone over-communication.But N did not need a world of cellular to understand what Dwayne does -- one must limit one's communications; one must choose not to share.

Certainly there is an element of selfishness in any such attitude. In a moment of glee Nietzsche has shared his idea, but he doesn’t really like to share, and his resentment of the acquaintance for inquiring combined with his unhappiness with himself for being unselfish mars the whole moment, and the idea (however brilliant) becomes marred right along with it. But we’re talking about Nietzsche here, who would ask, 'selfishness'? Yes that’s a word, but the process it describes is complicated, and full of “I”s that can be divided and subdivided, as he demonstrates in his deconstruction of Kant and Shopenhauer in BG&E (25-27).

Note that what allows for this romance to occur is Nietzsche’s initial “love” of his insight. We see that Nietzsche, a lonely semi-invalid, develops relationships with his ideas. Once there is love involved at this cerebral level, communication of ideas can be like “whoring out” one’s lover. As a philosopher Nietzsche must strictly analyze his every thought. When a thought occurs to him it becomes like an audition. N looks at it for a long time and judges it, in which process he becomes like a connoisseur of human thought, and therefore begins to appreciate only the very best. A connoisseur is so picky, and must reject so much, his faculties for admiration and love become repressed and they build up to a point that when something does come along that satisfies his strict taste, he cannot contain himself. He falls in love. Only when in love can one experience the pain of falling out of love and that in my view is what is happening in #160. He shared his lover, and after that it wasn’t the same.

To my knowledge Nietzsche never discusses the proposition of silence as the cure for this emotional crisis, that in order to maintain one’s cerebral relationships, one must simply stop talking. Notice the difference. Nietzsche merely writes down his frustrations, and patch-works them into his writings. Young Dwayne takes action. Or should I say negative action. Through silence, he will preserve his love of his ideas. By remaining silent, Dwayne will protect the harmony of his thought life. He will remain on a constant idea high. We could see this as a young man learning from his elder. Dwayne sees Nietzsche’s communication heartache (expressed in #160) and discovers a way out—utter prolonged silence. Dwayne’s solution is an extreme measure, and is certainly not prescribed in any way in his hero’s books, but it is in line with Nietzsche’s personality. Dwayne has overcome himself. Dwayne is self-inducing a handicap—muteness. Humans are supposed to talk, but Dwayne has discovered that he doesn’t have to. He can shut up, and reap the psychodramatic benefits—a mind full of love. He can go beyond.

Now if I am correct, Dwayne is a most extraordinary 16-year-old— a close reader who is able to relate to and learn from a dead man with very advanced mental capacities—able to visualize subtle observations and incorporate their ramifications into a personal religion complete with a practical guide to life. But am I correct? I ask because when we look again we can see Dwayne as one big fake, forcedly contradictory character (a vehicle for the film’s irony theme)— Dwayne as the paradox of the egotistical nonconformist intent on a military career, the free man dreaming of confinement. Hmmm. Maybe Dwayne is just a kid who happens to have a Nietzsche poster, to which he has learned how to point when asked certain questions. I wonder even more when Dwayne does break his vow of silence, and he sounds like an idiot. By film’s end, Dwayne has disappeared. Our curiosity dissolves as talking Dwayne becomes the true Dwayne, utterly typical—a kid with a poster. We find it hard to believe that young Dwayne has even made it past the introduction of his Nietzsche book. On the pier when Dwayne starts to speak, Frank says he likes talking Dwayne. And it’s supposed to be a poignant bonding moment, character-to-character and (by extension) character-to-audience, but that’s only what it’s supposed to be. In this case Frank speaks as best he can for the desires of the writers and filmmakers, but he does not speak for the audience.

The audience finds more to like about mute Dwayne than talking Dwayne, because talking Dwayne is the Dwayne that has broken his vow. Mute Dwayne intrigues us by communicating in symbols. Talking Dwayne ruins our attempts to connect the unconnectable.

But I do not criticize a film that has told the bigger truth. The truth is in our world N is merely a poster, pierce-able by any tack, affixable to any wall, prone to the points and nods of whoever.

copyright 2007, by Christopher Duckett