Never Compromise: Self-Reliance in Watchmen
In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson often radiates an arrogant and self-important tone, writing, for example, “A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me.” Although prideful, Emerson’s work is known for its empowerment of the individual, an idea that several facets of contemporary American media have adopted for their own uncompromising and self-reliant characters. In Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, the character development of Rorschach reveals important points of Emersonian philosophy in terms of individualism, truth, conformity, and integrity, making him a character Emerson would admire in certain respects.
The overarching belief of Emerson’s philosophy in “Self-Reliance” is the importance of individualism. As Emerson wrote, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” Valuing this idea above all, including love, society, and religion, Emerson believed that the ideal man must “live truly” in order to “see truly,” that is, to reach transcendence and attain self-reliance. In order to do this, a man’s goal must be to seek truth and to “trust thyself.” Rather than conforming to societal norms, “a man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.” And it is not just certain people, Emerson argues. All men have this opportunity to transcend, including the cynical anti-hero Rorschach, in his search for the brutal truth.
The transformation of Walter Kovacs into Rorschach involves the character coming to his personal truth that Emerson so desperately urges men to find. As Emerson writes, “It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth.” Prior to the main events in Watchmen, Rorschach develops an individualistic temperament, as revealed by his sessions in prison with psychologist Dr. Malcolm Long. In these meetings, the difference between Walter Kovacs and Rorschach is explained. Although the same physical person, they are two distinct personalities. Rorschach also conveys his philosophy to Dr. Long, attained through his search for truth. It is Rorschach’s conclusion, however, that Emerson may not agree with. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson optimistically wrote that all men can “follow the truth” and come out the other end happier for it. Rorschach is the exact opposite. But as Emerson writes, “if you are noble, I will love you.” No matter what conclusion Rorschach reaches, the fact that he attained it through truth justifies it in Emerson’s eyes. Moore invokes the case of Kitty Genovese through the sessions to illustrate the development of Kovacs’ philosophy. “Raped. Tortured. Killed. Here. In New York. Outside her own apartment building. Almost forty neighbors heard screams. Nobody did anything. Nobody called cops. Some of them even watched… I knew what people were, then, behind all the evasions, all the self-deception.” Disgusted by humanity, Kovacs came to believe that all of mankind was rotten, including himself. So Kovacs adorned “a face that I could bear to look at in the mirror,” thus seemingly rising above human morality and nature. However, as Rorschach later recognized, “I was just Kovacs. Kovacs pretending to be Rorschach.” Kovacs had not yet completely transcended. In order to do so, he had to fully become Rorschach by taking on a “certain kind of insight.” Emerson would reject Walter Kovacs, calling his ideology “a foolish consistency” and a “hobgoblin of little minds.” As Rorschach explained, “all Kovacs ever was: man in costume. Not Rorschach. Not Rorschach at all.” Imitation is inherently shameful, Emerson argues, saying that “envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide.” Kovacs just dressing up like Rorschach does not make him a hero. Rorschach, on the other hand, has a transcendent understanding of the world. It is a fully realized conclusion reached by the pursuance of truth, something that Emerson would surely admire.
This ultimate truth that Rorschach realizes is that there is no intrinsic positive morality in human nature at all, nor is there a moral gray area. Therefore, criminals deserve no mercy. Rorschach laments to Dr. Long on how he used to be too “soft on scum… Let them live.” Once again, Emerson’s views on human nature are much more optimistic than Rorschach’s. However, truth is still valued over all, as he writes, “truth is handsomer than the affectation of love.” Nowhere does Emerson state exactly what the conclusion the individualist should reach is. But Emerson does stress the importance of morality, writing, “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” All of Rorschach’s decisions follow a strict moral code, using truth as the guiding principle. The trigger of transformation between Kovacs and Rorschach was the brutal killing of a criminal who kidnapped, abused, butchered and then fed a six year old girl to his dogs. After Kovacs burned the man alive, he was “reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.” By fully becoming Rorschach, he transcended above the rest of humanity and its flaws. Much like his mask, there was no gray area to morality; only black and white.
In the years following the full moral realization of Rorschach’s character, he rejects conformity and authority by enforcing justice through the often brutal murders of criminals. Rorschach might as well be the poster boy for this Emerson quote: “Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none.” When the Keene Act is passed in the novel, an ordinance that outlaws superheroes, Rorschach continues fighting crime anyway. Dr. Manhattan details the effects of the law on the superheroes, describing how Rorschach “expresses his feelings toward compulsory retirement in a note left outside police headquarters along with a dead multiple rapist.” The panel depicts the note taped to the rapist’s chest, scrawled out, bolded, and underlined, “Never!” Emerson might understand even this middle finger to authority, as he writes in “Self-Reliance,” “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” As Rorschach explains, “We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we are compelled.” Justice must be served in Rorschach’s eyes, and following Emerson’s philosophy, “your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.” This avoidance of conformity to the rest of human morality and adherence to truth guides all of Rorschach’s decisions, no matter what the stakes or cost.
In the climax of Watchmen, Rorschach’s moral integrity results in his death, effectively making him a martyr for truth. The ending sees Ozymandias, the novel’s antagonist, saving the world by killing three million people. On the brink of nuclear war between America and Russia, Ozymandias created a fake alien threat to destroy major cities around the world, thus unifying the warring countries together. As Dr. Manhattan says, “exposing this plot, we destroy any chance of peace, dooming earth to worse destruction… If we would preserve life here, we must remain silent.” For any normal man, this moral dilemma is devastating, as Nite Owl aptly asks, “how can humans make decisions like this?” However, Rorschach, being completely transcendent of human morality, is able to immediately answer. “No. Not even in the face of armageddon. Never compromise.”
This success of integrity in Rorschach’s character would put Emerson in utter awe. As Emerson writes, “nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” When Rorschach makes his way back to America, he says, “people must be told. Evil must be punished.” However, he is stopped by Dr. Manhattan. Emerson complains in “Self-Reliance” that men are too “afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other.” Rorschach, on the other hand, embraces truth and death, accepting his fate at the hands of Dr. Manhattan. “Of course. Must protect Veidt’s new utopia. One more body amongst foundations makes little difference. Well? What are you waiting for? Do it.” Emerson once wrote, “When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the footprints of any other, you shall not see the face of man.” Emerson admires these characters who become utterly unique, alone, and defiant in mindset, just as Rorschach has.
Of all the heroes in Watchmen, each eventually fails and gives in to the flaws of human nature. The graphic novel is unique in the way it challenges the idea of the perfect superhero, exploring the shortcomings of all men. Rorschach, whose only positive trait is integrity, is far from being the model American hero. But at the very least, Rorschach is the only character who has become self-reliant in Emerson’s vision, and nothing but truth and integrity brought him there.
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