'True Detective' season 2 literary references explained | EW.com


'True Detective' season 2 literary references explained

(Lacey Terrell/HBO)

We already explained The Western Book of the Dead, and the references made to it in True Detective season 2’s first episode. Now, we’re diving into the smaller stuff: Books that appear on screen, names of significance and themes that are likely to carry throughout the season, given writer Nic Pizzolatto’s far out philosophical sensibilities from season 1. The following is a comprehensive guide to the literary references in True Detective season 2, episodes 1-3.


First things first: Rachel McAdams’ character’s name is Antigone. In Sophocles’ tragic play, Antigone, Antigone and Ismene are sisters with two dead brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, who died leading opposite sides in Thebes’ civil war. Antigone wants to bury Polyneices, though Creon, the ruler of Thebes, prohibited it. When Ismene refuses to help Antigone out of fear, Antigone disowns her. Antigone is engaged to Creon’s son Haemon, and Haemon tries to prevent his father from punishing her, but the conversation ends in argument. Creon decides to bury Antigone alive, when Tiresias, the blind prophet, warns him that the gods are not pleased, and that Creon will lose a son for his crimes. But it’s too late to save Antigone: She hangs herself in the tomb, and Haemon stabs himself in grief.

So, in True Detective Rachel McAdams’ character also has two siblings who died by suicide, and two living ones who are in jail. Perhaps the blinded, dead Ben Casper is some twisted allusion to Tiresias.

Meister Eckhart

The Western Book of the Dead quotes Eckhart more than once, and a Meister Eckhart book is shown on a desk in a future episode of True Detective. Eckhart was a German theologian, philosopher, and mystic who lived between 1260 and 1328. He was tried for heresy by Pope John XXII, but died before the trial reached a verdict. Eckart was largely forgotten between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, but experienced a revival in the 20th century. Some believe Eckhart contributed to the text Theologia Germanica,which can be read in full here, but here is one vital excerpt:

Let us remember how it is written and said that the soul of Christ had two eyes, a right and a left eye. In the beginning … she fixed her right eye upon eternity and the Godhead, and remained in the full intuition and enjoyment of the divine Essence and Eternal Perfection; and continued thus unmoved and undisturbed by all the accidents and travail, suffering, torment, and pain that ever befell the outward man. But with the left eye she beheld the creatures, which were better or worse, nobler or meaner…

Now the created soul of man hath also two eyes. The one is the power of seeing into eternity, the other of seeing into time and the creatures. … But these two eyes of the soul of man cannot perform both their work at once; but if the soul shall see with the right eye into eternity, then the left eye must close itself and refrain from working, and be as though it were dead. … Therefore whosoever will have the one must let the other go; for ‘no man can serve two masters.’

Compare this passage with what Antigone’s father tells his followers at his yoga/ spirtual center, Panticapaeum:

When you see only with God’s eyes, you see only the truth, and you recognize a meaningless universe. Ginsberg said this to me once, and it was a gift. So today’s exercise is to recognize the world as meaningless, and to understand that God did not create a meaningless world. Hold those thoughts as irrefutable and equal, because this is how we must live now, in the final age of man.

In the show, Antigone’s father seems to draw on teachings from both Eckhart and The Western Book of the Dead, wrestling with the world’s meaninglessness, the idea of being able to see clarity and truth, and the dark idea of “the final age of man.” As Panticapaeum seems to be some type of retreat in addition to its spiritual elements, it’s worth considering whether part of the teachings will involve yogis leaving their bodies before death. Meister Eckhart is also quoted in Western Book of the Dead:

  • “Eckhart, the great medieval mystic, said: ‘All men are born as creatures, few attain the glory and the dignity that are a human being.’” 

Image Credit: HBO

Hagakure: Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo

Along with a few manuals about knives, Hagakure: Book of the Samurai, sits on Antigone’s desk. Hagakure is composed of brief anecdotes and sayings, recorded over a period of seven years, which cover a wide array of subjects, and seek to illuminate the “Way of the Warrior.” Hagakure teaches, for example, that a true samurai must be prepared to die at any moment. You can read the text here.

The Samurai must also live as if he were already dead:

  • “This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he pains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”

And again, we’re back to the idea of living as though you’re dead, separating yourself, in a sense, from your physical body. Is Antigone living as though she’s already dead? Is Paul?

Hopefully, with these strange, mystical and sometimes bizarre new texts in mind, this season of True Detective will make a little bit more sense—as much as it possibly can, anyway.

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