The Gordian Knot: Morality, Justification and Saving the World in Watchmen

Narrativist analyses of Watchmen must inevitably confront the novel's peculiarly abrupt closure upon concluding its climactic Chapter XII. Consequently, attempts towards the mapping of Watchmen's teleological footsteps end, perhaps irreconcilably, with the novel's silence. Moore offers no denouement, no clear moral stance that identifies an archetypal villain and an archetypal hero, and no ends to justify Veidt's means. The reader is therefore unable to turn to the author to provide closure. Given the weight of Moore's silence, his refusal to adjudicate closure for the reader, the separation of characters along a good-evil moral axis is inevitably immaterial. We cannot be certain of Adrian Veidt's morality because we lack the historical retrospective vantage point from which to discriminate. We are similarly unable to catalogue Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, etc., within a taxonomy of heroic archetypes because Moore is silent in his arbitration. In fact, Moore's silence bespeaks a broader thematic emphasis on the essentially indecipherable and--consequently--unsolvable psychology of humanity. Moore articulates his vision of humanity as the Gordian Knot: an infinitely entangled problem that, owing to the intrinsic quality of a knot, invites endless attempts at untying, delineating, solving. Moore emphasizes the importance of the Gordian Knot in providing humanity with a moral impetus to solve its problems and save itself, but cautiously avoids suggesting that human society is capable of realizing a teleological fantasy of Utopian perfection wherein all complications have been subdued by the victory of human faculties. In his silence regarding the canonical resolution of Adrian Veidt's master plan, Moore allows the reader to relish a temporary (albeit

costly) victory in which nuclear eschatology is narrowly avoided. However, the reader is left without closure of Rorschach's gambit. Instead, the traditional narrative trope of the happy ending is transformed into the question mark. Moore's silence towards questions of moral absolutism may suggest artful deflection of arbitrative powers naturally associated with authors, as the reader may depend on the author to provide reconciliation and closure to a narrative, to provide some means of separating protagonist from antagonist, victor from defeated. However, Moore's narrative should not be mistaken as devoid of a manifest moral gradation, the extremes of which are characterized within Rorschach and Adrian "Ozymandias" Veidt. Where Veidt is pragmatic, ambitious and grandiose, Rorschach is single-minded, zealous and mundane. Contextually, the relationship between Rorschach and Veidt is analogous to a collision between two unstoppable forces. Both men possess mutually exclusive visions of morality: Veidt logical, Rorschach ideological. Consequently, Rorschach and Veidt practice two incompatible methods of unraveling the Gordian Knot. In his "Watchmen Observations", Stephen Blatt notes the allegorical significance of the Gordion Knot: The Phrygian Gordius ascends to kingship upon receiving an omen from the Gods and, subsequently, fastens two ox carts together with a knot, promising dominion over the entire world for whosoever unties the knot (1). Attracted to the Classical tradition, Veidt articulates his motivations through an allegorical reference to the Gordion Knot while delivering his villain's exposition to Rorschach and Nite-Owl: "The World's greatest ancient puzzle was there. A knot that couldn't be untied. Alexander cut it in two with his sword. Lateral thinking, you see. Centuries ahead of his time" (XI.10.2). Veidt models himself against the Classical, epic model of heroism, wherein his interpretation of Alexander's history

becomes an Alexandrian hagiography. Here, the Gordion Knot signifies the apparent and complicated dilemma of nuclear war which, owing to his superior intellectual faculties and near limitless resources, Adrian Veidt solves by severing entirely. Veidt's "solution" ignores the delicate dexterity required in undoing the diplomatic "knot" and, instead, forces resolution in a clean sweep. His means are equally grandiose, if heartless, fabricating a paranormal catastrophe at the cost of seven million lives to jolt humanity into union. Nevertheless, the merit (or lack thereof) of Veidt's "master stroke" depends wholly on historical perspective--a resolution Moore conveniently avoids by closing his narrative prior to denouement. The reader cannot be certain if Veidt's methods achieved a greater peace and, therefore, cannot categorically justify or dismiss Veidt's morality. Consequently, uncertainty breeds suspicion, and we are forced to re-examine the conditions referenced by the Gordian Knot allegory: If Alexander's lateral thinking failed to conquer the world beyond his short lifespan, how would an identical solution provide a greater result in a much more complicated world? Rorschach responds to Veidt's solution with absolute disgust. Under the terms of Rorschach's moral code, history is incapable of justifying the essentially and uncompromisingly wrong Veidt: "No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise" (XII.20.8-9). Rorschach, intent on revealing Veidt's plans and therefore destroying the peace consequent of Veidt's careful machinations, refuses compromise and departs. Here, Manhattan disposes of him in the interest of protecting a greater peace. However, the final panel punctuates the persistence of Rorschach's gambit and creates uncertainty in an otherwise clean conclusion. A publisher reaches into a pile of material, hand precariously hovering above Rorschach's journal (XII.32.8). Veidt's justification depends

entirely on the luck of the Publisher's draw. In fact, the final panel illustrates a broader concept associated with the Gordian knot, one that Veidt and Rorschach are incapable of understanding. The Gordian knot is inherently impossible to solve. Even a seemingly successful unraveling possesses no permanence, as the knot once again fastens itself over time. Alexander, Veidt's model, severed the legendary Gordian knot, hence conquering the world. Upon his death, the Alexandrian Empire fragmented into disarray, suggesting an entropic historical model wherein history progresses in cyclical epochs catalyzed by violent attempts to create order from embryonic chaos. Therefore, Veidt's logic is far from sound, as his ambitions towards "saving the world" echo grandiose visions of his own kinglike importance, rather than a broad perspective encompassing every facet of impending nuclear eschatology. Blatt discusses Moore's vision of a paradoxical human nature--simultaneously chaotic and yet compelled towards justice--in The most critical problem raised by Watchmen...the events on the streetcorner immediately preceding the disaster. These final events go to show that people are complicated...[Veidt's] hopes for a dazzling transformation of mankind as a whole are wildly overoptimistic. It will take more than artificial aliens to put an end to racial tensions or lovers' quarrels. (11) Blatt's "streetcorner scene" references a brief humanist episode woven into the fabric of Veidt's otherwise cold exposition, wherein a passing stranger interrupts a violent attack on a woman by a scorned suitor. Catalyzed by his act of selfless intercession, a crowd soon forms around the scene to rescue the victim. Here, the narrative is metatextual rather than

contextual, dictating Veidt's vision of a new, Utopian world created after his fabricated disaster: "The brutal world [Comedian] relished would simply cease to be, its fierce and brawling denizens rushing to join the mastodon in extinction" (XI.24.7-9). Veidt describes the destruction of Comedian's nihilistic world (and, necessarily, the Comedian himself) and subsequent replacement with his own Utopia. However, the brief glimpse of humanity illustrated by the streetcorner scene complicates the veracity of Veidt's vision. Instead, Veidt's words become ironically re-arranged by association with image: Altruism rescues brawling denizens, even beneath the threat of imminent extinction. Regardless, the "streetcorner scene" cannot adequately represent Moore's rhetorical voice, and it is instead a single permutation within a multifarious collage of human emotion. Blatt's critique of the streetcorner scene is structuralist, juxtaposed necessarily beside the murder of Mason at the conclusion of VIII: "Moore is not foolish enough to suppose that solidarity is the only possible response to fear. Witness the knottops and Mason" (11). The murder of Mason closes VIII in circumstances closely mirrored to the streetcorner scene at the conclusion of XI. Here, however, the paranoid, violent top-knot mob illustrates a form of psychological response violently opposed to the altruism of the street-corner. Mob mentality overturns sensibility, and the lingering fear of Doomsday agitates a knot-top gang into violence. Careful scrutiny of the murder of Mason reveals image-textual attempts towards pathos. The panel's artwork is detached, unfocused, removed from the action of aggressor and victim, instead portraying the mess of mob violence between retrospective fragments. Panels posited within the present narrative are devoid of dialogue, while panels illustrating a retrospective flashback feature the indeterminate shouts of the present narrative.

Consequently, the narrative becomes violently jarred, fragments of present action iterating into flashbacks, the juxtaposition of which simultaneously illuminates Mason at his glorious, heroic prime versus Mason in the present: Mason the elderly murder victim (VIII.27-28). A fractured image-textual aesthetic suggests a fractured, violent collective psychology resultant of nihilistic, fatalistic culture. Here, the murder of Mason directly supports Adrian Veidt's disdain for the "fierce and brawling denizens" of Comedian's "brutal world". The "knot top" evokes imagery implicit of the Gordian Knot socio-historical motif permutated throughout Watchmen's discourse, specifically iterated here as a hairstyle and rebellious expression. The Gordian Knot exists outside of Veidt's fantastic obsessions with symbolism and antiquity, instead inextricably embedded within basic human conscience. It is the manifestation of conterminously the human compulsion towards solving problems and the human frustration in its collective inability to achieve a state of permanent equilibrium. By wearing a knot at their heads, the knot-top gang effectively submits to and champions the aforementioned dilemma. Consequently, the knot-tops embrace disorder, immersing themselves into a recklessly irreverent lifestyle justified by a nihilistic surrender to inevitable nuclear Doomsday. The End-Of-The-World becomes a progressively unsolvable and increasingly inevitable situation. A consequent attitude of nihilism begins to take root within the psychologies of the defeated and, ultimately, leads to an atrophy of order, sensibility and compassion. This is the world Adrian Veidt sought to destroy. Among the residents of this atrophied moral landscape, Moore characterizes "The Comedian" as their foremost and prophet. The Comedian represents a peculiar anomaly for Veidt. Possessing far-reaching insight and clarity of vision, but lacking in the mental fortitude to shoulder the weight of the truth, Comedian becomes the victim of his own brilliance. He,

like Veidt, recognizes the Gordian Knot in the inevitability of nuclear catastrophe. Unlike Veidt, Comedian resigns into nihilism, sheltering himself in some small pride that he, singular in the world, understands the "cruel joke" of existence. During a narrative flashback coterminous with the Comedian's funeral ceremony, an early meeting of costumed heroes explores the brief ideological conflicts between Comedian and Veidt. Comedian dismisses the fantasy of a superhero organization as a child's fantasy, incapable of understanding the scope of America's problems, but an excuse "to play cowboys and Indians". Lashing out at Veidt, Comedian produces a lighter and sets fire to a presentation: "It don't matter squat. It don't matter squat because inside thirty years the nukes are gonna be flyin' like maybugs" (II.10-11). Comedian's insight proves correct. Nuclear disaster proves imminent, though his estimate of "thirty years" proves ironically optimistic. Defeatism becomes the fuel for Comedian's unprincipled megalomania and solipsist insistence on his own, unique understanding. He takes pleasure in witnessing--even furthering--a descending global spiral towards self-annihilation to vindicate his nihilism. Therefore, as Comedian begins to learn of Veidt's master plan, he recognizes it as an elaborate practical joke born of Veidt's superior intellect and, most importantly, a scheme entirely capable of saving the world and dismantling Comedian's core philosophical impetus. The discovery leads to Comedian's gradual existential withering, such that the final encounter between Comedian and Veidt (prior to Comedian's execution by Veidt) is described by Veidt as one of mutual understanding, wherein Comedian resigns himself to his death. Despite his temper and arrogance, Comedian is, at his core, a defeatist, resigning himself to Veidt's victory in the same manner he resigns himself to the senselessness of his existence. The Gordian Knot therefore transcends its limitations as a narrative device or

allegorical fixation of an obsessive Adrian Veidt to situate his megalomania within a grandiose classicism, representing instead the essential engine of human motivation. While Veidt's understanding of the "Gordian Knot" expresses itself through the allegory of the impossible challenge (opening the knot leads to control of the world), the "knot" reiterates itself within the psychology of any given character as the persistent fear of inevitable nuclear eschatology, the unsolvable "problem" of securing a peaceful existence. Comedian and the knot-heads are among the many who, unable to exorcise themselves of the phantom of Doomsday, resign themselves to nihilism. Some few, such as Adrian Veidt, believe in the victory of human intellectual abilities over Gordian Knots of our own making.