Nomadland: Cinema and Foucault’s Courage of Truth

Michel Foucault’s The Courage of Truth – his series of lectures given at the College of France between 1983 and 1984 – concerns Plato’s use of the notion of parrhesia, or the necessity of truth-telling. Truth-telling is not only a philosophic idea but also a way of life, a “mode of life” (p. 146). Courage in truth-telling, for Socrates, “risks death” (p. 37). Speaking truth to power, thus, is not merely an abstract idea; Socrates lived the life of truth-teller. Not many are willing to live as truth-tellers, or die in the name of truth. But is that not the heart of Plato’s philosophy? Is this not what Socrates teaches?

Frances McDormand plays a character named Fern in Nomadland (2020): a remarkable film. She is a Socratic truth-teller. Her “mode of life” and truth-telling “risks death” in the midst of tragedy. Fern lives the life of a nomad in her broken-down, beaten-up van – off the grid – after her husband dies. His hard-hat, a few photos, dishes, a radio and memories remain. Living on slave-wage, working class jobs here and there, Fern finds a community of people living in vans and broken-down RVs in the desert.

The significance of the desert might slip by some viewers. Desert-dwelling has a long history in Christianity, with the beginning of monastic life with St. Antony in Egypt, as reported by one Athanasius. There is a long history in Christianity of monastic dwelling in the desert seeking truth and perhaps the divine, spiritual well-being, what Plato called care of the self or care of the soul. Michel Foucault talks about Plato and care of the self as inextricably tied to truth-telling. One cannot live as a truth-teller without caring for the self, or the soul.

One of the most striking moments in the film Nomadland is perhaps an overlooked moment when Fern confronts her brother-in-law – who is a real estate mogul glibly turning profits by engaging in predatory lending. Fern speaks truth to power and confronts him stating – in so many words – that there is something wrong with predatory lending. Fern asks her brother-in-law angrily: How can you lend money to people full well knowing that they won’t be able to pay back their loans? This glib wealthy brother-in-law stops his ridiculous conversation and just looks at Fern as if to say, how dare you?!

How is it that wealthy Americans amass so much money when the majority suffer from working horrible jobs? Scenes of Fern working at an Amazon warehouse, cleaning bathrooms at an RV park, shoveling rocks at a mine, cooking up burgers and fries at a junk food restaurant stand in stark contrast to the life lived by a real estate mogul who lives unethically and immorally.

Ferns sees through the horrors of domestication; rather, she works at slave-wage jobs, faces unemployment, homelessness and poverty. She suffers in the nowhere land of the desert. In Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, he writes about these kinds of horrors, the horrors of subsistence living, of slave-labor, of alienated labor, early death and the horrors of work that steal one’s life and in the end kill.

What is most striking in the film are the horrors of domestication. The normalcy of domestication, the normalcy of Thanksgiving dinners and babies disgust Fern. Those who live comfortable, domesticated lives, who think nothing of procreation in a world where the biggest global threat is not, in fact, global warming, or even nuclear proliferation, but over-population. The carrying capacity of the earth cannot handle any more people. Nobody gives this much thought. This is not a new idea, of course. Scientists have been warning of the over-loading of the carrying capacity of the earth for at least thirty years.

Domestication – a theme that consumed Nietzsche – and normalisation – a theme that consumed Foucault – go hand in glove. Nomadland is a film that depicts lives lived outside of both domestication and normalization.

This film is not about romanticization of poverty, as some might interpret it. It does not glamorize the hard lives of those who have lost their homes, incomes, families and even loved ones to early death and disease perhaps because of the horrible jobs they have had to suffer their whole lives. Working class life in the United States kills.

The majority of patients in hospitals who die young, or age beyond their years suffer working class lives, live on subsistence wages and have to work two or three jobs to pay the rent; they barely have enough food to eat. Children growing up in working class families depend on school lunches in order to survive.

During the pandemic, children in working class families have suffered hunger and deprivations that real estate moguls have never suffered. Marx wrote about the evils of landlords, lords of the land, who take advantage of the poor, who care more about their own profits than the sufferings that they cause to those who fear them, who work under slave-like conditions and can barely pay the rent.

Nomadland is also a film about memory and loss, death by slave-labour, disease and about endings. Fern’s facial expressions are often glassy, empty; her memories seem to overtake her as her grief over the loss of her husband never fades. Freud wrote about Mourning and Melancholia and suggested that if one does not move through mourning, melancholia turns one into a stone. McDormand’s character is stone-like throughout the film. There are forms of grief that never fade, loss that never gets healed over. Steady in her grief, emptiness pervades this character. There is little happiness in her life. In fact, happiness does not seem to be important to her. Twice McDormand’s character is offered the comfort of domestication and both times she says no. She is always already traveling – always already a nomad in the desert of her psyche.

This film is deeply psychological. It has little to do with overcoming loss and grief, or getting a better job, or moving on. There is no moving on. Fern is the stone of melancholy. This is a hard pill for Americans to swallow. But with the pandemic still a nightmare for many across the globe this film is timely. Those lost to COVID-19, or to joblessness, homelessness, death, there is no overcoming. Many walk around with that empty look in their eyes. Stony melancholy is the age that Nomadland has captured, even though it has nothing to do with the pandemic per se.

We are fooling ourselves if we think the pandemic is over; it is a global disaster still. And what happens in India – with the massive pyres burning, dead bodies piling up in the street – to Brazil, with mass graves – to the United States with bodies still in refrigerator trucks hidden from public view, many are walking around in stone-like melancholy. The idea that in the fall we will all be back to normal – normalisation – and school will just start up as if nothing has happened – more normalisation – will only make for confusion and a lingering sense of impending doom and anxiety that this pandemic isn’t over; the hovering residue of loss might cascade, as empty, vacant stares permeate the classroom or workplace. Perhaps those of us who have suffered with COVID or have lost loved ones or friends to COVID will experience that emptiness inside, not knowing what to do with grief and loss. COVID signifies Otherness like Nomadland.

Jacques Derrida and Catherine Malabou wrote a book titled Counterpath: Travelling with Jaques Derrida (2004). The overarching theme of the book is about traveling and thought. Derrida writes in the book that travel enabled him to think; being discombobulated enabled him to jar his everyday life into something else, into new ways of thinking and being in the world. Being a nomad – in this sense – opened up paths, or counterpaths to thinking, to doing philosophy.

But Counterpaths is not the same as enforced exile, or becoming nomad-like, say, in the film Nomadland. Frances McDormand’s character lived a life of unbearable loss and suffering, homelessness and horrible jobs; she moved around like a nomad as she pleased, but only for a time, as she had to go back to more horrible jobs. Still, she did not want to live the life of the domesticated middle class home-maker. That too, is an empty horrible life, in fact, even more horrible than being on the road, moving from place to place, living in a run-down, beaten up van. Certainly, she did not choose to live this way because it somehow helped her heal her grief. It was just the way that she lived.

Fern seemed more of a stoic than anything; happiness was not her life goal. And perhaps it should not be, after all. This thought is so anathema to Americans; wealth is key to happiness in America and as Calvin Coolidge once said “the business of America is business.” And business will make some wealthy; is it this wealth after which we should all strive? Marx understood clearly that money is not what life is about. Those who live only to make money, live lives of “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau might have put it. Jeff Bezos’ might not live in “quiet desperation,” but Amazon is despised by many American workers because it symbolizes greed, avarice. Mega-yacht and multi-millions, Bezos’ wealth breeds contempt and resentment.

Nomadland and John Donne

John Donne’s poem Death Be not Proud – in the context of the Nomadland – raises serious philosophical questions around life and death, the denial of death and what that denial means for living a life. The point of Donne’s poem is this: death might think that he has the upper hand; Mr. Death feels proud because in the end he gets you! But Donne argues that death – as if death is personified – is mistaken because in the end he (death) does not win-out. Death does not win-out because death is not really death. There is no death because in the Christian life; rather, death is followed by the after-life. Therefore, death is not real. Death is merely a fraudster. Nobody really dies because after death is another life. The next life is better than this one any way, Donne intimates. This idea that death is not the end is a comfortable one for many Christians; this assumption gives solace when the truth is too hard to face; the truth of death is just too much to bear, endings are not tolerable. But recall, Foucault argues that truth-telling takes courage; Donne is not speaking truth because death is real.

As a chaplain, I have heard Christians say the next life is better. This belief is a shock to me. I am a stoic at heart understanding that death is the end. We die. Period. The end is real. Americans cannot handle unhappy endings.

Literary critic Susan Gubar, in her Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer, states that the reason that there are so few books on ovarian cancer is that a) not many women survive long enough to tell their stories b) publishing houses do not like unhappy endings. Seventy percent of all women who get ovarian cancer die within 3-5 years after diagnosis, regardless of surgery, chemotherapy and the rest. Progress in treatment has not changed in the past 40 years. Research monies for cancer go to breast cancer and prostate cancer. Ovarian cancer gets little attention and less research money because there are hardly any happy endings. But that story – which is also mine – is for another day.

Nomadland does not end happily, but curiously. A self-made counselor in Nomadland tells the story about his son’s death by suicide. He says that he can never get over his grief. He and Fern bond over the stone-like melancholy they both bear. Curiously, this self-made counsellor ends the film by saying that nobody is really gone – even from Nomadland because eventually he “sees them down the road.” The desert nomads and van dwellers go to the same kinds of places; parking their vans for free. They see one another “down the road.”

The self-made counselor’s mantra: “I’ll see you down the road” is another version of Death Be not Proud. “I’ll see you down the road” means nobody really goes away, nobody really leaves, nobody really dies. The self-made counsellor claims that he will see his son – down the road – when he dies, just as Fern will see her dead husband – down the road – when she approaches death.

This ending of this film did not sit well as it reiterated the lie that death is not real. This lends comfort and gives solace to those who have none. However, it is a dangerous life-denying meta-narrative about which most Christians do not give a second thought.

It is not clear whether Fern buys into this Death Be not Proud ending; the “I’ll see you down the road” mantra. But this is the way the film ends, perhaps to give solace and false hope to an audience that cannot stand unhappy endings. The desert scenes coupled with Death Be not Proud – “I will see you down the road” are reminiscent of the suffering and resurrection of Christ. I do not know whether the film-makers were fully aware of this Christian gloss or not. However, I found it disturbing.

Foucault in his late lectures writes about common and perhaps Christianized interpretations of Plato that he resolutely refutes. Foucault draws on the commentary of Dumezil who “gets annoyed and says: Socrates has nothing in common with his colleague in sophistry, Sakyamuni. Socrates was not a Buddhist, and it is absolutely not a Greek idea, a Platonic, or a Socratic idea that life is an illness of which we are cured by death” (p. 97). Dumezil says that Socrates was in no way life-denying, as are some Buddhists (still, Mahayana, Theravedan and Tibetan Buddhists all radically differ in their theologies.) Foucault, following Dumezil, argues that Socrates was not life-denying (as are Christians who follow Donne’s Death Be not Proud, I would add). Christian and even Buddhist interpretations of Plato are not true to Greek thought, especially in Plato’s rendering of it. Curiously, Greek thought, often gets Christianised – as does Spinoza or Levinas – read through a Christian lens. But Greek, Jewish and Christian thought radically differ.

Just as Foucault pushes back against generations of scholars who read the death of Socrates as a kind of pseudo-Christian story, where life after death wins out over life lived, I push back against the interpretation that Fern in the film Nomadland buys into the “see you down the road” narrative. Fern does not live in a life denying way. Although happiness is of no interest to her, Fern’s stoicism is not a balm of Gilead or a denial of her suffering.

Suffering does not make life unworthy of life. Suffering is life. This is part of the narrative of Buddhism and Christianity as well. But the ending of suffering is not after-life or even Nirvana, the extinguishing of the flame of suffering and melting into nothingness – so as to put one at peace. Melting into nothingness is just that: nothingness. And that is the ending most cannot tolerate. What is so unbearable about nothingness? Leibniz famously asked: why is there something rather than nothing? His answer of course is a proof for the existence of God. But again, his answer is unconvincing. Why does there have to be an answer at all? Why does there have to be a prime mover? What if there isn’t? And what if when I die, I won’t see you “down the road”? Is that necessarily so terrible? As Adorno once put it: there are worse things to suffer in life than dying. But too, that does not mean that a suffering life is not worth living at all.

Foucault’s late lectures in The Courage of Truth return to Plato. Interestingly, toward the end of Foucault’s career what became important to him was what Socrates called care of the self, which Foucault writes extensively about by deconstructing Plato in these series of lectures. Care of the self is ethically bound up with truth-telling and speaking truth to power without gloss or happy endings.

Nomadland as Philosophy

Nomadland is philosophical film; it is cinema-philosophy. The courage not to gloss over suffering and not to read into a depressing story something that it is not takes reflection, study, time. Study releases us from status quo narratives that get us caught in happy ending mantras and easy explanations to complex life occurrences.

Isn’t it easier to think that I will see you down the road? Isn’t it easier to think that Fern will see her dead husband when she dies? Isn’t it easier to think that God is the reason that there is something rather than nothing? But what if I do not see you down the road? What if Fern does not see her dead husband when she dies? What if there is something rather than nothing for no reason at all? Something just is. Nothing just is. Why are these so hard to think? Consolation and miracles are easier to think than embracing The Courage of Truth. Care of the self takes courage.

Life’s obstacles and psychic deserts that we face as we age are easier to psychologically manage if we lie to ourselves. Yes, to lie is easy. To face truth is hard. The lie that I’m homeless because it’s God’s plan, the lie that “I’ll see you down the road” after I die are easy to swallow. But lies are not truth. What is true is hard and truth-telling risks discomfort. To live the “courage of truth” means having the guts to face the real, to face hardship and death.

The desert is actually rich with life; but it is also merciless. People get lost and die in the desert. Or they accidently eat something hemlock-like and die. Death by hemlock is not God’s plan. Nomadland’s truth is hard, suffering is hard, death is hard, endings hurt.

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Full Citation Information:
Morris, M. (2021). Nomadland: Cinema and Foucault’s Courage of Truth. PESA Agora.

Marla Morris

Marla is Professor of Curriculum, Foundations & Reading, in the College of Education, Statesboro Campus, Georgia Southern University, GA, USA. She studied philosophy at Tulane University, religious studies at Loyola University, New Orleans and Education at Louisiana State University. Her main interests are postmodern philosophy, psychoanalysis, curriculum studies and systematic theology. She has published papers on Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Michel Serres, Simone de Beauvoir,  drawing extensively on the work of Gaston Bachelard and Donna Haraway. Marla has also worked in Holocaust studies, trauma studies, medical humanities and chaplaincy.