The Truman Show

Lights, Camera, Action! Cogito ergo Sum

Kimberly A. Blessing

[Excerpted from Kimberly A. Blessing, “Deceit and Doubt: The Search for Truth in The Truman Show and Descartes’s Mediations,” chapter one of Movies and the Meaning of Life: Philosophers Take on Hollywood, ed. Kimberly A. Blessing and Paul J. Tudico (Peru, Illinois; Open Court Publishing Company, 2005) pp. 5–6.]

Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank

Almost four hundred years before the making of The Truman Show, French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes (1596–1650) locks himself away in a poêl (that’s French for a stove-heated room) and begins to think.  Instead of constructing the world’s largest television studio (Guttenberg had only recently invented the printing press), Descartes imagines that the entire world external to him is a grand illusion cooked up by some clever and malicious demon.  “I will suppose…some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all of his energies in order to deceive me.”1  Should such a demon exist, even the most simple and universal truths like ‘2 + 3 = 5’ and ‘squares have four sides’ would have to be called into question.  By the end of the first of his six Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes is forced to conclude that

the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment.  I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things. (p. 15)

One can’t help identifying the character of Christof with Descartes’s deceiving demon, both of them master tricksters.  Whereas Descartes’s malicious demon deceives for the sake of deceiving, Christof deceives for the sake of something greater—television ratings!  He makes it so that nothing in Truman’s world is real: not his childhood, not his job, not his marriage.  Everyone…is complicit in the lie: his perky, impeccably coiffed wife Meryl (Laura Linney), a capable actress making a killing on well-timed product placements, his best friend Marlon, whose friendship with Truman comes across as perhaps the most genuine of any of his relationships, even his own mother (Holland Taylor), who guilt-trips Truman over the “accidental” death of his father.  (Christof actually had Truman’s father “die” in a boating accident, once the actor tried to let Truman in on the ruse.)  Christof even goes so far as to manufacture Truman’s fears, like his fear of water, which is used to keep him from escaping the island-set of Seahaven.

The Truman Show depicts the difficulty in maintaining such an intricate and elaborate falsehood.  Things go wrong: camera lights fall from the sky, actors don’t follow their cues, and stages and sound sets are eventually exposed.  It will take the entire movie for Truman to discover the extent to which he is being deceived.  When he does put it all together, Truman bravely confronts Christof.  Contrary to Christof’s prediction, Truman resolutely rejects the world that his adoptive father so carefully constructed for him.

In Descartes’s Meditations, Descartes was both producer and star of his own show.  Some people might see genius, others lunacy, at forcing himself to maintain such hyperbolic doubts, against his own will.2  The subsequent drama that unfolds in the Meditations has to do with wondering how Descartes will beat the demon at his own game.  Like Truman, Descartes comes to realize that there is at least one thing about which he can’t be deceived.  Truman points out that Christof could never get the camera inside of his head.  For Descartes, the Evil Demon can never make him doubt his existence as a thinking thing: “and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing as long as I think that I am something…I am, I exist, is necessarily true…” (p. 17).