In one of my favourite episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Lelial, a higher dimensional being whose shadow exists in the third dimension, traps Shinji within itself. Darkness stretches eternally all around him, and I cannot help but think this event is an allegory for our inescapable loneliness.
The series posits that the core human condition is loneliness. To exist as an individual, is to exist in isolation, for the essence of individuality is separation. One is alone in one’s mind. Because of this, one can never fully understand another person. Not only will one’s experiences of the world differ, but one’s interpretations as well. One is alone in one’s subjectivity.
Every person one meets, creates an image of oneself—unique, imperfect representations, bounded by subjectivity. Expectations form, along with prejudices and more superficial connections such as interests, habits and aesthetics. When the self others expect one to be, clash with the self one thinks they are, alienation occurs.
Inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis, the characters in Evangelion behave as they do due to past traumas. Each loses a core aspect of their being and is left irrevocably damaged, with a forlornness that cannot be filled. Through various coping mechanisms, they seek to overcome the loneliness of their existence—all attempts, however, end in suffering.
This suffering reveals the absurdity of life; that although to exist as an individual is to be alone, one still attempts to overcome loneliness through companionship. The world meets the yearning and expectations of each character with cold, awkward, indifference. They are reminded of their impossible pursuit for a transcendent state, where both individuality and complete union intertwine.
Asuka attempts to reject meaningful companionship altogether, and live only for herself—the cruel irony being that the only way she can do this, is by affirming it through others. She must proclaim, as loudly as possible, that she lives only for herself. Once the other ceases to exist, or her proclamations wither, there is no more meaning assigned to her existence. She in fact relies desperately on others to reassure herself that she lives only for herself. She tries to escape from the human condition, but instead becomes fully integrated into it.
Shinji desperately seeks companionship, but due to past trauma, is terrified of being abandoned. His relationship with the two other pilots exacerbate these issues, with one hiding her true thoughts behind a bravado that confuses and frightens Shinji, and the other voicing little of it due to her social and emotional inexperience. Believing he is wanted only when he assumes the role of a pilot, Shinji relinquishes his free will, and allows others to prescribe his existence. He acts in bad faith, adopts defeatism, and rots under depression.
At first glance, Rei would seem the closest to Camus’ answer to the absurd. She holds no aspirations and lives day-to-day in a state of detached apathy. She doesn’t seem affected by loneliness, and is shown to be self-sacrificing—committed to defeating the Angels. Much later, it is revealed that she does not follow orders out of duty, but out of a wish to die. Rather than an absurdist, she is a nihilist, who, although grows fond of Shinji, does not find value in her own life. She would rather escape life’s absurdity through death, than rebel. Near the end of the series, she dies for Shinji—an event that leads only to her second rebirth. She continues to struggle for meaning within a deathless existence.
The concept of free will is explored in both Shinji’s mind at the end of the series, and in the physical in End of Evangelion.
In the metaphysical exploration, complete freedom is shown to exist only in a void, where the self is effectively a God. Once the self begins to define the world, it limits the possibilities of it. Definitions reduce freedom. The self becomes restricted within the physical and abstract laws that govern the world. A spoon is an object. Gravity is tied to mass. Time is relative.
However, complete freedom would be pointless without any objects to interact with. This is the paradox of freedom. For freedom to be exerted, one must have choice—and to have choice, one must have a world to interact with. Even a world of pure thought is grounded by language. This language would define concepts, and therefore limit freedom. One is most free, when one has nothing.
It is this battle, between loneliness, individuality and freedom, that the characters of Evangelion face. One is not free to overcome loneliness, without sacrificing individuality. This ultimately occurs in the End of Evangelion, when Rei frees herself from her imposed duty. She, along with Shinji and Eva-01, initiate the Human Instrumentality Project, and all human consciousnesses are united into one. In this bleak, beautiful reversal, loneliness is overcome, at the cost of individuality.
From the primordial ooze, however, individual consciousnesses can will themselves back into being. Here we see a different form of freedom emerge—a synthesis of Camus and Sartre’s ideas.
Sartre believed our freedom was limited only in our ability to perceive it. By dismantling all prejudices and norms, one is free to redefine oneself. One’s values are then reflected through one’s actions, with meaning arising as a side effect. This is the path Rei approached by initiating Instrumentality. Rei undergoes complete psychological, biological and metaphysical ego death. In claiming her freedom from Gendo, she is allowed the greatest freedom of all—to die. She manifests into the metaphysical representation of ego death—a force that devours individuality, and ends all human suffering.
Both Shinji and Asuka, then, reclaim their individuality and are reborn.
Shinji comes to understand that although life is suffering, life is also joy—and to deny one is to deny the other. His previous attempts at chasing companionship only amplified the human condition, casting a veil on all the good that had come in between. No matter the intentions behind Instrumentality, all humans deserve to choose their own fate, and to rebel against the absurd. Rather than limit humans to one state, or the other, he and Rei create a world where every consciousness must decide for itself. All human life is free to reclaim their individuality, and accept the responsibility of defining themselves. After this Sartrean revelation, he falls into Camus’ school of thought, no longer attempting to find meaning, or escape loneliness. He concludes that meaningful moments will still come into his life, even if he himself does not pursue them.
Asuka comes to a different conclusion. For much of the anime, she is driven by her mother’s suicide. Insanity had left her mother unable to recognise Asuka. She had placed all her attention on a doll instead, and committed suicide, in the belief that death would bring them together. Asuka, overwhelmed by grief, but unable to face it, closes her heart to the world. She rejects all future bonds, and swears to never be dependent on another. In an unconscious attempt to claim the attention her mother never gave to her, she claims the attention of those around her instead. Near the end of the series she is attacked by Arael, an interstellar being which infiltrates her mind and reveals the reality of her empty existence. She slits her wrists in a bath, and falls into a catatonic state. Only when Asuka separates the mental-illness from her mother, does she realise her mother had never abandoned her—she had been protecting her all along as Eva-02. Asuka overcomes her need for external existential affirmation, supported by the newly constructed, internal representation of her mother. She falls into Kierkegaardian existentialism—her existence no longer tied to earthy bonds, but rather in a spiritual concept beyond the absurd.
Despite hours of crushing despair, Evangelion ultimately carries an uplifting message: one is not alone in one’s loneliness; and one is free to make of that what one will.