Friday, July 15, 2011

Pulp Fiction: A Study in Plato and Aristotle

Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Travolta’s Vincent Vega (short for “Vegas,” Sin City, just like the red-light district of Amsterdam he’s so fond of visiting) are opposites: Jules is a man of contemplation, whereas Vincent, being a man of appetites, really likes food and drugs. Because Vincent's appetites control him, Vincent necessarily interprets the “miracle” of them not having been riveted with bullets earlier in the day with a freak accident; whereas Jules is a “jewel” because he sees the value in what happened and interprets it—not only as a miracle that they weren’t hurt—but also as a sign. 
Vincent and Jules present the classic split in philosophy between Aristotle and his teacher, Plato, and forever depicted by Raphael in The School of Athens, where Aristotle points to the earth (upon which his philosophy was based) while Plato points towards the heavens where he believed reality to be. Like Aristotle, Vincent tries to explain the world by the world, whereas Jules explains the world by the heavens. 
The full view of the School of Athens by Raphael.
It’s not that Aristotle advocated living according to one’s appetites, rather, Tarantino ties Vincent to his appetites in exploration of the world of drugs and amorality so prevalent today; please excuse me but there is really no delicate way of putting it, Vincent is “full of shit,” and that’s why we always see him on the toilet, and whenever we hear anything that Vincent says, Tarantino wants us to think about how everything Vincent "consumes" goes "straight through him" because it's not worth holding onto.
Vincent's way of thinking leads to death, literally and spiritually.  
Detail: Plato on the left, Aristotle on the right.
When Jules and Vincent talk in the Hawthorne Grill, we have already seen Butch (Bruce Willis) shoot Vincent with his own gun, so that we know Tarantino has put these words into the mouth of a dead man and what Vincent does and how he lives his life leads to death: Vincent's gun is not only a symbol of his supposed power (because he can take life away with it) but also his way of life because, unlike Jules who is retiring, Vincent refuses to give up his way of life, and that's why Butch shoots him with it, after, of course, Vincent steps out of the bathroom. Those who live by the sword die by the sword, and those who live by their gun, die by their gun.
When Mia (Uma Thurman) overdoses on drugs, it requires a shot of adrenaline straight into her heart to pull her out of it; this symbolically relays that Mia was willing to cheat on her husband Marsellus (Ving Rhames) because she dances with Vincent (anyone who has ever read a Jane Austen novel knows that dancing is the quintessential courtship for mating, and whoever the characters dance with during the novel is who they will mate with, to put it bluntly).  The shot of adrenaline is what Mia needs to know not to cheat on her husband, as the bullets passing through Vincent and Jules and hitting the wall is the “shot of adrenaline” Jules needs to leave his life of crime and pursue a life of contemplation.
Vincent and Mia "doing the twist," but Jane Austen knows better.
When Jules and Vincent enter the guys' apartment in the beginning of the film, Jules takes a huge bite of a hamburger and sips loudly on the Sprite: this means that Jules has entertained his appetites and "drunk deeply" of life, but when his life is unexpectedly preserved, he knows he must now follow God. Vincent has seen two signs:  the bullets passing through him and Mia being brought back to life from her overdose and it’s still not enough to save Vincent from death. This is the meaning of Mia’s bad tomato joke:  Jules and Mia are the mother and father tomato, and Vincent is the baby tomato (immature) and since he lags behind in understanding what “is happening around him” he’s told to “catch up” but in doing so, he’s killed.  Ironically, this refers to the discussion Vincent and Jules have about “little things” that people in different countries do, like slathering their French fries in mayonnaise and not ketchup; instead of talking about something important, Vincent wastes his time even though he only has another day to live.
Vincent stares into the case wherein he faces that which is most important.
As Jules and Vincent leave the diner after the robbery, they both hide their guns in their pants, but the simultaneous gesture means two radically different things:  Vincent won’t be firing his gun again because it will be fired on him and Jules won’t be firing again because he’s giving it up for good. Like their names suggest, Jules “wins the field,” and Vincent lives Vegas style and dies Vegas style. Jules doesn’t give into Vincent mocking him for the choice he is making; it’s easy for him to give up his “loaded wallet,” i.e., his earthly possessions to hold onto something more precious; lastly, when Jules turns over the briefcase to Marsellus, he goes to the bathroom to “cleanse out his system” so he can progress and go on with the plans that he has made.  Jules going to the bathroom contrasts with Vincent because Vincent has done nothing but “wasted his time” but Jules, having led a life of crime, humbly realizes he needs to be cleansed before going on.
Jules and Vincent with guns, but with different guns.
In making Pulp Fiction about the schools of thought of two of the greatest thinkers who ever lived, Tarantino delivers an ultimatum to the viewer:  are you going to go down the path of Jules, or Vincent?
It's a decision every person has to make.