Once seen as over-reliant on sequels and prequels, Pixar seem to have hit their stride of originality again. Following last year’s Onward, Soul has been hailed as a return to form. The film’s worldbuilding, however, is not especially original. It is built on a trope so prevalent that it has its own page on TVtropes.com: the afterlife as a bureaucracy.
Soul’s protagonist, struggling jazz musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), falls down another trope (sorry, I mean a manhole) having just landed the gig of his life, and finds himself on a conveyor belt of souls being ferried into an afterlife called The Great Beyond – an impersonal ball of pulsating light. Attempting to escape lands him in The Great Before, where souls are prepared for life. The Great Beyond is staffed by a bean-counting celestial hologram called Terry, The Great Before by similar androgynous, translucent avatars who are “the entirety of the universe condensed into forms humans can understand” (but you can call them “Jerry”). Joe’s attempts to return to his own body are held up by the bureaucratic edicts of Jerry and Terry, who insist it can’t be done.
Despite its trope status, the celestial bureaucracy passes somewhat under our radar. For some reason, a baseball field for ghosts remains our most memorable fictional afterlife. Yet it has been around for a while. It’s there in Beetlejuice, Good Omens, Supernatural, even The Screwtape Letters. There are nods to it in Disney’s Hercules. The most developed example is, of course The Good Place, premised upon a woman being posthumously assigned to “the Good Place” rather than “the Bad Place” due to a clerical error. The show’s central conflict gradually shifts to a struggle against the irrational rules and regulations of an out-of-touch afterlife.
So when did the afterlife become a bureaucracy?
It seems to emerge in the middle of the twentieth century, notably with Harry Segall’s 1938 play Heaven Can Wait, which centres around a man prematurely removed from his body by an officious angel. The play was adapted on-screen as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and again later under its original name (1973).
We might think that the Aeneid, with Virgil’s myriad ancient tortures, and Dante’s sprawling Virgilian afterlife in The Divine Comedy, were the first celestial bureaucracies. However, the last thing Virgil and Dante’s afterlives are is impersonal or inefficient. They’re almost too personal: Dante infamously places very specific people throughout the afterlife, with very bespoke fates, all very efficiently administered. No, the point of the celestial bureaucracy is inattention to the individual, and hilarious amounts of posthumous inefficiency.
So if that’s when the afterlife became a bureaucracy, we might then ask why it became one.
To say that the afterlife has become bureaucratic is to say the afterlife has become Kafkaesque.
Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a prophet. Dying in obscurity of tuberculosis at age 40, he requested that his unpublished works be burned. History owes his friend, Max Brod, an inestimable debt for refusing. Unfinished works such as The Trial and The Castle put their finger on something about the modern, industrialising world which the cataclysmic developments of the mid-to-late twentieth century vindicated. Translator Michael Hoffman has said that “It is as though the Holocaust, Communism, Existentialism and Cold War all had to happen to validate a handful of [Kafka’s] texts written in the first quarter of the twentieth century.”
You may, at some point, have found yourself like Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad – nodding when something is called “Kafkaesque”, with an awkward sense that you should know what that means.
It describes situations which are nightmarishly bizarre, complex, and illogical in the context of an inscrutable and dehumanising bureaucracy. So in Kafka’s The Trial, Josef K. is arrested and tried without being told his crime, bungled from one set of increasingly nightmarish, anonymous administrators to the next. In The Castle, a man is trapped in the regulations of a village governed by inaccessible, mysterious authorities in the titular fortress.
In the Kafkaesque, humanity and individuality drain away. People are handled according to red tape. The familiar and convivial village life of a pre-industrial world gives way to anonymous offices and tenement blocks, physical labour to paper-pushing, gentleman’s handshakes to form-filling. Kafka diagnosed that human life in the twentieth century was becoming basically impersonal. Man was now just a number.
This makes further sense given that Kafka wrote in a world of ascendent Darwinism. Just as modernity rendered human experience impersonal, so evolution rendered the universe itself impersonal – a truth Kafka, a Jewish atheist, recognised. As well as just a number, man was now just another beast, dehumanised not just by bureaucracy but by biology. Hence, in Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa famously awakes to find himself “changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.”
If we did date the origin of the celestial bureaucracy to Heaven Can Wait in 1938, we might simply say that Harry Segall and the rest of the world were finally catching up to something Kafka had noticed and depicted decades earlier. In Kafka’s estimation, the universe has become ultimately impersonal – both in daily experience and material reality.
And, despite its sunny family-movie exterior, Soul shares the same estimation.
Soul as Kafkaesque
Describing Soul as “Kafkaesque” may seem odd at first. It’s not a surrealist nightmare, certainly. It’s colourful and bouncy. There’s a cat. It has jazz, Tina Fey, a comical New Zealander. Its lovable amorphous souls are all primed with individual personalities, and both leads go on their own personal journeys.
Yet a veneer of humanity and personability often occurs in Kafka. Pummelling impersonal systems arrive affably. In The Trial, K is ushered into his coat by smiling warders; when he meets the next initially affable supervisor, he is “overcome with pleasure at meeting a reasonable man at least.” Joe experiences the exact same in Soul when he first encounters the Jerrys in The Great Before.
The world of Soul is, behind it all, staggeringly impersonal. When Joe dies, he finds himself on an endless chugging conveyor belt of cookie-cutter souls, who were inexplicably shovelled into life before being shovelled out again by clipboard clutching holograms, not knowing from whence they came or whither they go. The afterlife is a pulsating ball of anonymous (and apparently ecumenical) light. Would you want to spend eternity in that?
Of course, this isn’t literally what director Pete Docter (who has stated publicly that he is a Christian) thinks about the universe – but it seems to be what he really thinks about it. Just as ghost stories aren’t really about ghosts, afterlife movies aren’t really about the afterlife – they’re about this life, and this world. So what does it say about your estimation of reality when The Great Before is an orientation seminar and The Great Beyond is a conveyor belt? When the impersonal Kafkaesque reality of modernity can’t even be escaped before birth or beyond the grave?
In its defense, Soul’s worldbuilding does a good job of pushing back at excessive individualism. Tina Fey’s 22, like every soul, needs to find her “spark” before she can start life. Both she and Joe assume this means finding her special purpose or dream. But it’s revealed there’s no such thing, and those who obsess over this search become “Lost Souls”, wandering the spirit-world, malformed (as per Virgil, Dante, and Lewis) by their particular vice. Ironically, Disney has possibly done more than anyone to convince three generations of children that they need to have their own personal dream in life, but Soul is a helpful corrective. A soul’s “spark”, we discover, is merely their readiness to start living and treasure each day in their body.
This message is illustrated by a parable told to Joe after his “gig of a lifetime” leaves him deflated, despite going perfectly:
I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to an older fish and says: ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ the older fish says, ‘that’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This’, says the young fish, ‘this is water. What I want is the ocean!’
We all risk being the young fish – wanting an abstract ideal more than the physical reality of life. Christians should embrace this message on one level: the Biblical view of the good life is no abstraction, but the tactile and simple (if elusive) vision of Ecclesiastes, in which we “eat and drink and find enjoyment in [our] toil” (Ecc. 2:24) without it being whisked away.
Yet whilst it’s right to reject individual Disneyfied “destinies”, do human beings have a purpose as human beings? Yes, on one level the water is the ocean… but on another it isn’t. Otherwise, we’d just call it water.
Soul leaves us with no answers.
And how could it? This is perhaps the film’s most tragically Kafkaesque feature: its cosmological bureaucracy is not geared toward any end.
Part of the nightmarish effect of the Kafkaesque is how pointless everything is. The laws, the red tape, the regulations – they aim at nothing. Aristotle viewed politics (which, in his terms, is more akin to “human life in community” than what we mean by it) as “truly the master art” which pulled together all areas of life and pointed them together towards “the good.” But Kafkaesque systems are geared towards nothing. They command all areas of life, like Aristotle’s ideal politics, but unlike his politics they aim them toward nothing. Kafkaesque systems are curved inward and relentlessly self-perpetuating, and so is the world of Soul. Although we are glad to see Joe and 22 get ready to start living, there is no master art which pulls them, or any of the other souls, together. They drop individually into the world and must individually make the most of it. It is all water and no ocean.
So if the Kafkaesque is so dreadful, how did it make its way into a well-reviewed family Pixar movie?
The tragic conclusion of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Winston Smith comes, truly, to love Big Brother – a near perfect Kafkaesque bureaucracy. He has no choice. There is no alternate reality available to him. He must love Big Brother or go mad.
This is perhaps why in Soul and The Good Place, celestial bureaucracies have become so pleasant and successful. With no alternative, we have had to learn to love the Kafkaesque. Kafka’s disenchanted Darwinian world has gone nowhere. We may think we’re a long way from his world of brutalist European modernism, with lives we can tailor so finely – endless variety of streaming options, next-day Prime deliveries, tailored social media presence. Yet these are simply the thin, personable veneer on the Kafkaesque realities beneath – targeted algorithms, Amazon warehouses, a dearth of in-person relationships
Much of Soul’s audience may in fact be comforted by the idea of someone with a clipboard seeing them in and out of life. And why not? That is how we live. It may as well be how we die. For a long time, celestial bureaucracies were usually nightmarish. But latterly, Soul and The Good Place have made them warm and appealing, as if introducing a metaphysical open-plan office or casual Friday to loosen things up.
Yet this warmth is only imagined, like the smile beneath Big Brother’s moustache. Despite the sweeping celestial reforms enacted in The Good Place, (SPOILERS) its warmth runs out eventually. “The Good Place” itself, by the show’s end, amounts to a heavenly retirement village: a faux-personal respite in the context of a system which, however you frame it, remains indifferent. The heavenly pleasure complex wears thin, and the show’s “triumph” is giving its characters the opportunity to reject existence itself and enter into nothingness. If existence is ultimately bureaucracy, then The Good Place says the best you can do to bear it is to throw a really good office party. But however fun they are, none of us want to hang around office parties too long. We want to go home, back to the personal. But there’s no home to go in The Good Place. Faced with the void or bureaucracy, can we blame them for choosing the void?
Humanity can only push against reality like this for so long before reality snaps back. The Kafkaesque never went away; it has merely disguised itself more effectively in the technological age. The events of the mid-twentieth-century vindicated Kafka, and inevitable reckonings in the twenty-first which will do the same again. Perhaps they are already doing so.
Good News for the Kafkaesque
As the world snaps back, the Church must be ready with the truth about reality: that it is fundamentally personal, because it is the creation of a personal God. And this is good news in a Kafkaesque world, for either side of the grave.
Beyond the grave, the universe itself is not merely brute, material fact. Rather, it is the overflow of love and being from Father, Son, and Spirit. Saint Athanasius wrote that God “does not begrudge being to anything, he made all things from non-being through his own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Among all the things upon the earth, he was especially merciful to the human race.” Physical matter is a result of God’s gladness in giving being, something true even more so of human beings. This is why we must not drive a wedge between the water and the ocean: a world made by a personal God is both – water and ocean, myth and fact. And that world created in love will be redeemed in love, with its physical matter being perfected in a New Creation. We will not be souls shovelled into the unknown on a conveyor belt, but souls and bodies redeemed together in the presence of their Maker.
And on this side of the grave, despite the horrifying realities of Kafkaesque systems – whether bureaucracies, governments, labour conditions, Big Tech – the Church is the antidote to their alienation and dehumanisation. This was true in Kafka’s lifetime during the industrial age, and remains true now in the technological age. The tactile, sincere interactions of life lived together, centred around the physical worship gathering, is hope to a world where so much of life is mediated via screens – now more than ever.
We made a passing reference earlier to the surprising endurance of Fields of Dreams and its baseball field for ghosts (it came out over 30 years ago). Field of Dreams is a truly bizarre film. Yet its staying power may be down to how personal and unbureaucratic its afterlife is. It rests on two things you will never find in Kafka: a man satisfied with the labour of his hands, and a rewarding personal connection (between Kevin Costner and his youthful baseball ghost-dad). As hammy as the film is, it gets that those things matter in the universe. Meaningful work and personal connection are part of how man was created (in Adam’s mandates to work the earth, and to multiply into community) and part of how man will end up (with those mandates perfecte in the New Creation). If afterlife movies are really about this life then Field of Dreams is metaphysically superior to Soul.
When a Kafkaesque celestial bureaucracy can creep, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, into a Pixar movie, the Church should be alerted to how out of touch with created reality our world is. And we should be spurred to embrace and revel in how much better is the truth of a reality flowing from the personal, Triune God.
When taught and lived out, this Christian view of reality should make Soul’s worldbuilding, if not unthinkable, then certainly unappealing. There’s a reason C.S. Lewis saved the bureaucracy for Screwtape.
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- Michal Hofmann, “Introduction” in Metamorphosis & Other Stories by Franz Kafka, trans. Michael Hofmann (London: Penguin, 2007), vii ↑
- Franz Kafka, The Trial, trans. Idris Parry, (London: Penguin, 2015), 8-9 ↑
- Mark Moring, “Peter Docter, Pixar’s Star Director, Talks ABout HIs CHristian Faith, Christianity Today, May 26 2009, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/mayweb-only/pete-docter-pixars-director-talks-about-christian-faith.html ↑
- Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics”, Book I, 1094a.27 ↑
- Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 3 ↑
We watched Soul the other night. I enjoyed a lot of it, but the image of the afterlife (both the bureaucracy of the “before” and the cosmic bug zapper all the souls were moving toward on the conveyor belt) bothered me, but I couldn’t place why. Thanks for putting words to my thoughts.