Posted by: cctracker | October 7, 2013

Louis C.K.’s Mystical Experience: “The Forever Empty”

I’ve been wary of Louis C.K. for years, keeping him at arm’s length in spite of sensing that he was among the cleverest, most cerebral comic voices of today. A few days ago, a friend sent me a link to a remarkable interview he did with Conan O’Brien.  I’m officially a fan, now.


Before I send you to that interview, a little context.

My first exposure to Louis C.K. was indirect: an offhand comment by my son. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I heard conflicting messages. First: “This guy is brilliant and hilarious!”  But also–more subtly between the lines: “I’m not recommending him to you, Dad. Pretty dark and offensive.”

The few glimpses I had of his stuff after that confirmed both messages. I saw some very creative and original bits on the classic comedic theme of what is really going on inside the human mind as the world swirls around us, but I also heard a torrent of gratuitous f-bombs and obscenities woven into stories about the irredeemable darkness of the human situation. I kept my distance.

The trouble is I have a “Void-O-Meter” in my chest. It thrums a warning in the presence of anything drawing seductive energy from the moral anti-matter of ugliness, cynicism and nihilism to entertain an audience.


You know when you’re watching one of those movies about a meltdown in a nuclear reactor or the release of a toxic, alien virus in some sci-fi lab?


There’s that deep, resonant, repeated blaring of an alarm.  A horrible, gauzy red light flashing down a corridor. That’s how it feels.

I’ve found it to be especially sensitive to the presence of corrosive cultural material when kids are around.

I’m a huge fan of movies, but they’re the most frequent trigger.  My sons know about the void-o-meter without our ever having talked about it. They remember what it was like to be with me at the video store. I felt like Holden Caulfield on some ridiculously high plateau. My kids running through the rows of videos, pointing or reaching, oblivious to the danger all around them. The void, looming, reaching out, trying to get inside them. I was a madman.

“No Freddy Kruger under any circumstances!!” Heart of Summer

“How about the next “Pink Panther, instead?” 


I’m not going to pretend my void-o-meter measures objective truths about the quality of one cultural artifact vs another. It makes up its own mind, making me feel the soullessness of a movie before I’ve even taken a moment to think about the underlying values driving the characters or the story.

That’s how it was with American Pie. My students were talking about how funny it was. I suspected the worst, but rented it one night so that my critique would be honest. Though I railed against it for years, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t watch it for more than a few minutes. It bothered me that much. When students asked if I’d seen it, I lied.

But here’s the thing: it barely even beeped for Animal House. I was a freshman in college. I laughed so hard it nearly made me sick. Years later when my own boys saw it in high school, I took great delight in replaying my favorite scenes.











I realize this is subtle, subjective territory, but it seems like all the void-o-meter needs to stay quiet in the presence of crude, ugly or dark content is an “inner cue” of some kind–a crucial bit of context in a plot, sometimes just a simple facial expression– to let the audience know that somewhere, underneath the events being depicted , a human soul still breathes.

It needs to hear the voice of one soul saying to another:  “I know this is potentially corrosive stuff, but I’m with you. We’re in this together. I’m not using you in asking you to look; this isn’t a private peep show  for your dark, solitary obsessions. I’m sharing this with you. So, it’s OK. Let’s laugh together.”

You know that moment when Belushi looks back at the camera up on the ladder? Hardly an edifying moral moment for an impressionable teenager, right? And yet, isn’t there something very generous, very human, about it?

When “The Simpsons” first aired there was quite a stir in ” youth formation” circles. What would selfish smart aleck Bart Simpson do to the souls of our children? They needn’t have worried; the show was full of affection for  its characters.  And despite all this dysfunction they loved each other! Besides, Marge was clearly the norm for the Satire and she was as good as gold.


Whereas even the most innocuous detail from an episode of “Family Guy” sets off the void-o-meter full tilt. family_guy

“Hatred” is not too strong a word for my reaction to that show. Everything is mocked. Everything exposed as ugly. Nothing authentically affirmed. No one really loved.

I could run through a long catalog of other examples from popular culture, comparing one voice to another trying to capture the line between spirit and void:

Why I think Richard Pryor, even at his crudest moments, rarely triggered the void-ometer…


…and how, after many years of delivering extraordinary, soul-affirming material, something went terribly wrong in the heart of George Carlin.


But this post is getting long and I haven’t gotten back to the Louis C.K. interview yet. Let me add one more bit of context before you take a look at it.

So far I’ve only spoken of “the void” in negative terms, as something menacing, something from which to protect small children. Something that threatens the child-like vulnerability and openness of every human soul.

I’ve expressed the visceral alarm I’ve felt when I sense that a person is being is manipulated–ultimately used–by those who cynically arouse their desires for sex, violence, revenge, superiority or security, so that they can temporarily satisfy those appetites in a commercial consumer transaction.

Louis C.K. works a very different angle.

Even before I’d seen the Conan clip, I should have caught that difference between C.K.’s message and the horrifying commercial soullessness of a film like American Pie or the relentless, empty obscenity of a comedian like Andrew Dice Clay in his younger days. (Who really redeems himself in his recent performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine) Voices like those are cashing in on fundamentally manipulative–and therefore deceptive– content.

Louis C.K. is making plenty of money, but his take home pay is the fruit of a clear intention to share the truth of how he sees the world with adults who have to be thinking pretty hard about the meaning of life to get the humor. Respect and authenticity are woven into the very fabric of his humor.

I once heard prayer described as a “long, loving look at the real.” The little I’d heard from Louis CK gave me the sense that his comedy had emerged from a “long, loving look at the void.”

“Emptiness,” however, is one of the classically honored doorways to an experience of God. And in Christianity our “poverty” before the forces that surge around us and through us–which is another way of saying our acceptance of them– is the inner secret to our strength.

I still didn’t trust him.

“Absolutely nothing is sacred,” I heard him saying between the lines. “And I’m going to make you laugh in recognition of that brutal truth.”

I had serious “theological” objections to that message. What hope was he offering in the midst of all the darkness? What was worthy of love and affirmation amidst all the ugliness and dishonesty? Why love even your children, much less the rest of humanity?

Now, about the video.

He begins by talking about why kids shouldn’t have cell phones. That leads him to describe what it means to be a “person.” Then he really gets going and the mystical insights come one after another:

Their is a great sadness to life.

It must nevertheless be faced, known and accepted.

What comes after is an even deeper happiness: gratitude for being alive enough to feel the sadness.

He doesn’t say the next part out loud, but his vocation is witness to it: that gratitude is the energy from which one draws the strength and hope to share one’s life with others.

His remarks are one of the best articulations of the perils and graces of the inner life I’ve ever heard. I find them profoundly spiritual, even implicitly Christian.

Take a look.

Embracing The Ability To Just Sit There « The Dish.

Louis C.K. is reminding us that having the courage and honesty to look squarely at the inescapable void, the emptiness and vast sadness built into our experience of the world, is a necessary step to living an authentic and creative life.

There is an essential kind of “letting go” that enables a person to embrace being, despite its vulnerability before nothingness,  in such a way as to allow gratitude–we could simply call it happiness–to well up within.  This is one way, perhaps, to capture what it means to “put on the mind of Christ.”


He may be using other words, but Louis C.K. is saying all of that in this interview. I hear faith in his words, even if he and I wouldn’t agree on whether they correspond to religious language.

To close this post, here is an extended passage from a recent reflection by Richard Rohr that captures Louis C.K.’s “spirituality” in more explicit terms:

“We fear nothingness. That’s why we fear death, of course, which feels like nothingness. Death is the shocking realization that everything I thought was me, everything I held onto so desperately, was finally nothing.

“The nothingness we fear so much is, in fact, the treasure and freedom that we long for, which is revealed in the joy and glory of the Risen Christ. We long for the space where there is nothing to prove and nothing to protect; where I am who I am, in the mind and heart of God, and that is more than enough.

“Spirituality teaches us how to get naked ahead of time, so God can make love to us as we really are.”


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