God’s Lonely Man: Taxi Driver and the Onslaught of Modernity

Has there ever been a film as influential and provocative as Taxi Driver? It may seem a strange choice at first. Even among director Martin Scorcese’s filmography, it is hardly the most acclaimed (Raging Bull, GoodFellas), nor the most controversial (The Last Temptation of Christ, The Wolf of Wall Street). And yet it is Taxi Driver, above all the others, that has struck a nerve in the American consciousness that refuses to heal even forty years on. It is, more than any other work of art in the past half-century, a testament to the crippling power of modernity, and the alienation of the individual in a world without God.

A taxi emerges from a cloud of white steam, billowing from a sewer grate. The opening shot of the film has been imprinted indelibly within the mind of every viewer. Its driver, as we soon learn, is Travis Bickle, but who is that exactly? We learn that he is a former Marine and a Vietnam veteran to boot, but for all intents and purposes, he is a blank slate, one of us. There is not a soul living in the modern world that has not at some point felt like Travis Bickle; the loneliness, the existential angst, the dread of not knowing what comes next after this life. Most are just better at hiding it than Travis.

In the first scene of the film, Travis visits a taxi station looking for a job. His interview is short and to the point:

PERSONNEL OFFICER: So why do you want to be a taxi driver? 

TRAVIS: I can’t sleep nights. 

PERSONNEL OFFICER: There’s porno theatres for that. 

TRAVIS: I know. I tried that. 

Like many young men of the world today– including many who call themselves Muslims– Travis is both repelled and titillated by illicit sexuality, simultaneously repulsed and attracted by the dark allure of pornography. While damning the debauchery of the prostitutes, pimps, and johns he encounters on his nighttime journeys, he at the same time finds himself helplessly drawn to softcore pornography theaters, despite displaying no signs of pleasure at the acts depicted. In one of the film’s many famed shots, Travis crosses and uncrosses his fingers over his eyes while the empty moans of the cinema echo around him, attempting to shield himself from the on-screen depravity. Like Travis, many of those who attempt to rebel against the soulless, materialistic bonds of modernity find themselves mired in sins they internally recognize are wrong by virtue of the fitrah [1]. Far from releasing us from the guilt-ridden bonds of faith as promised, secular materialism has merely trapped us in a pit of guilt with no means to repent.

As the West lurches more and more towards the complete abandonment of Allah ﷻ, the question of where our ethics must now originate from grows more pressing every minute it sits unanswered. Even the most admired leaders and authors of the atheistic movement find themselves unable to offer a convincing explanation for the continued existence of purpose in a world without Him. Like many others among the great masses of the godless, Travis structures his life around a series of meaningless aphorisms, which he constantly repeats to himself as though attempting self-hypnosis.

“I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person, like other people”

“You’re only as healthy, you’re only as healthy as you feel. You’re only as…healthy…as…you…feel”

While Travis’s musings may seem off-putting and bizarre by our standards, in reality, they are no more bland or meaningless than the regurgitated instructions by contemporary, secular society to “treat others the way you want to be treated”, or to merely “do the right thing” (whatever that might be). Later on in the film, as Travis’ thoughts turn increasingly towards violence, he asks for advice from a fellow cab-driver, Wizard:

WIZARD: …I envy you your youth. Go out and get laid. Get drunk, you know, do anything. Cause you got no choice anyway. I mean we’re all f*****, more or less, you know.

TRAVIS: That’s just about the dumbest thing I ever heard.

WIZARD: It’s not Bertrand Russell, but what do you want?

Ironically, not even Bertrand Russell, the famed atheist and humanist philosopher, could answer Travis’s problems. Already in our societies we are experiencing a mass wave of disillusionment towards the hedonistic lifestyle propounded by Wizard, particularly in the more materially developed sections of the world. Depression, chronic loneliness, suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse are rampant throughout the West, and all our political leaders and intellectual thinkers are clueless as to what to do. It is not a physical issue. It’s a spiritual disease. 

Travis’s adrift sense of purpose soon finds an anchor in Betsy, a campaign volunteer with whom he develops an obsession.

“I first saw her at Palantine Campaign headquarters at 63rd and Broadway. She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. They…cannot…touch…her”

Lacking a true anchor or purpose to build his life around, Travis develops his own idol around a fictitious ideal of a perfect, angelic woman. After successfully asking her out, he takes her to a pornographic theater for their first date. Disgusted, she leaves at once. Travis is baffled by her response. We are of an age in which the moral principles and standards that underpin society are fluid and subject to change at any moment. If a society accepts the existence of pornographic theaters and their patrons, and accepts the institution of premarital relations, why wouldn’t it accept “dates” being conducted within such premises? The fault is not with Travis, nor with any of the alienated youth of today who feel isolated from the current social expectations of interacting with the opposite sex, but rather with a society that has shifted its moral standards so far from the commands of Allah ﷻ that there is no longer any shared consensus on how to behave. The late film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Taxi Driver could be viewed as a series of failed attempts to connect with others, but the problem reaches far deeper than this. Without an understanding of who we are and what we are doing on this planet, connecting with others becomes a near impossibility.

After his abortive date, Travis rapidly spirals downwards into nihilism and self-destruction as he prepares for a final vengeance-fuelled act of violence: the assasination of Charles Palantine, the presidential candidate for whom Betsy had worked.

“The idea had been growing in my brain for some time. True force. All the king’s men cannot put it back together again”

After purchasing several guns illegally from a “travelling salesman”, he undergoes a form of ritual purification to ready himself for his upcoming act, a perverted form of spiritual absolution.

“I gotta get in shape now. Too much sitting is ruining my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on, it will be fifty push-ups each morning, fifty pull-ups. There’ll be no more pills, there’ll be no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on, it will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight”

The idea of physical transformation as a catalyst for spiritual renewal (taharah) is an important one, one that is upheld by Muslims with every wudu [2] or ghusl [3], or even in the shaving of the heads of pilgrims after hajj. But for Travis, there is no spiritual renewal, nor light at the end of the tunnel. We see him mortify the flesh of his wrist over an open gas flame, but for what purpose? Like many others of the world today, he has the drive and desire to improve himself, but no theology to give it shape and guide him on the Straight Path. Even his supposedly revolutionary act of violence is ultimately meaningless. As he previously confessed to Betsy, he knows nothing of Palantine or even politics. Palantine is merely a focal point for the inexpressible, nihilistic anger he feels towards the world in general. In a scene that has been mocked, parodied, and satirized for the last forty years without losing any of its original impact, Travis rambles in front of his bedroom mirror, trying to form some kind of reason or motivation for his planned act.

Listen you f******, you screwheads, here is a man who would not take it anymore. Who would not… let–

Listen you f******, you screwheads, here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the c****, the dogs, the filth, the s***. Here is someone who stood up! Here is— you’re dead”

The archetypal rebel-without-a-cause, Travis is fated to wander endlessly through the night with only his anger to guide him, eternally tilting at windmills in a ceaseless quest for some sort of solace. Without Islam to sublimate these desires in a righteous jihad, intended solely for the cause of Allah ﷻ, the nihilistic violence glimsped in Taxi Driver is inevitable.

It is at this point in the film where Travis meets his second obsession, a child prostitute named Iris who earlier tried to escape in his cab before being pulled away by her pimp. After securing a “meeting” with her through her pimp, Sport, he refuses sex and tries to get her to leave prostitution, but Iris shows no interest.

TRAVIS: But you’re the one that came into my cab. You’re the one that wanted to get out of here.

IRIS: Well, I must have been stoned.

TRAVIS: Why, what do you mean? Do they drug you?

IRIS: Oh come off it, man.

TRAVIS: What are you doing?

IRIS: Don’t you want to make it?

How lonely is the condition of the believer today. He is surrounded on all sides by debauchery and moral chaos, in a world that shows no signs of evolving or even understanding that what it is engaging in is wrong. While Travis is not a believer, he too is faced with a situation he knows deeply within him to be wrong, yet is unable to prove its evil through the secular ethics of his time. When Travis takes Iris out for breakfast, he is again confronted by this rhetoric.

IRIS: Why do you want me to go back to my parents? I mean, they hate me. Why do you think I split in the first place? There ain’t nothing there.

TRAVIS: Yeah, but you can’t live like this. It’s a hell. A girl should live at home.

IRIS: Didn’t you ever hear of women’s lib?

The modernist focus on “liberation” has been a disaster for humanity. At every step, the so-called “humanist” project seeks to free us from the natural obligations and relationships that in fact make us human, from our servitude to God to our familial bonds. The result is endless atomisation: each man is an island unto himself, unable to call out for help from the One we need most. Travis himself, while forced into the role of a traditionalist during his interactions with the especially wayward Iris, suffers from this anomie most of all, drifting ceaselessly through the nighttime hellscape of a decaying metropolis, at once surrounded by people and yet totally alone. In the one hint we receive as to his background other than his military service, Travis drafts an anniversary card for his distant parents.

“Dear Father and Mother: July is the month I remember which brings not only your wedding anniversary but also Father’s Day and Mother’s birthday. I’m sorry I can’t remember the exact dates, but I hope this card will take care of them all. I’m sorry again I cannot send you my address like I promised to last year. But the sensitive nature of my work for the government demands utmost secrecy. I know you will understand. I am healthy and well and making lots of money. I have been going with a girl for several months and I know you would be proud if you could see her. Her name is Betsy but I can tell you no more than that…I hope this card finds you all well as it does me. I hope no one has died. Don’t worry about me. One day, they’ll be a knock on the door and it’ll be me. Love, Travis”

More painful than anything else is Travis’s lack of honesty, his inability to communicate openly with even his own family. We have become so separated from even those who should be closest to us, that the slightest appearance of imperfection appears as a weakness. Instead, he is forced to craft a series of vaguely disquieting untruths about his job, his romantic life, and even about him ever seeing them again (if his assasination plans are successful). His isolation is total.

At last the moment arrives. In one final pre-assasination ritual, Travis polishes his boots, sets fire to the rejected flowers originally meant for Betsy, shaves his head into a mohawk, and leaves some money for Iris. As the camera pans over a large and bustling rally for Palantine, Travis delivers the most ominous line of the film:

“Now, I see it clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. I see that now. There never has been any choice for me”

Far from freeing us from the deterministic constraints of religion, the tired secular humanism espoused by modernity has actually made our lives more fatalistic than ever. We must follow our desires, we must do everything that gives us pleasure in the moment, with no regard for the future. If we ignore the Book of Deeds, we are instead still bound by our genetic code. It’s no accident that many of the leading atheist philosophers of today openly disbelieve in free will.

Travis’s assassination plans are quickly foiled when a Secret Service agent spots him reaching into his Marine jacket. Fleeing the scene, he drives back to Iris’s block. In a finale so controversial that Scorcese was forced to mute the colors in order to pass through censorship, Travis massacres Sport, his accomplice, and a visiting john all in front of a horrified Iris. Badly injured, he turns the gun onto himself and attempts suicide, only to find it out of bullets. As the police burst in upon the bloody scene, Travis presses his fingers to his head and fires an imaginary gun. One final act of madness.

The film picks up an indeterminate amount of time later. Travis is now out of the hospital and physically recovered. Far from being prosecuted for his killings, society has hailed him as a hero for ridding the world of filth and degeneracy. Newspaper clippings that decorate his apartment walls praise him as a savior to the city, Iris’s parents thank him effusively in a letter, and even his former obsession, Betsy, enters his cab and treats him with respect and admiration. As western civilisation has drifted towards more allegedly “humane”, non-corporal forms of punishment in the last century, there has evolved a widespread belief in the immorality of classical penal systems such as the hudud [4] , and the prescription of physical punishments such as lashings and amputations for certain offensives. However, it is evident from our modern world that society bridles under the injustice of such lenient sentencing for the wicked and depraved. If justice is not meted out through the judiciary, societies will necessarily invent persons such as Travis to accomplish it through murder and immorality. The vigilantism exhibited by Travis and its enthusiastic reception is merely a reaction to a society-wide failure of justice.

Dropping off Betsy at her home, Travis refuses to let her pay the fare, merely giving her a mysterious smile before driving off into the night. In the final seconds of the film, just before the credits roll, Travis becomes agitated over something he sees in his rear-view mirror, and his eyes flash as he does a sinister double take. Nothing has changed. His empty violence has redeemed nothing. The anger, the fear, the angst, the existential dread is still there, simmering, waiting for a chance to rise to the surface once more. In our modern age, how many others resemble Travis, having slipped through the cracks of an uncaring and unfeeling society? In a world that has abandoned any trace of the spiritual in favor of the material, there can be no true life, only a soulless imitation. Our bodies stir, yet our hearts lie dormant. We are, all of us, a lonely race, whom only the One who brought us forth from this Earth can guide. 

Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man” [Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver]

“Those who believe, and whose hearts find satisfaction in the remembrance of Allah: for without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find satisfaction” (Qur’an 13 28).

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitra
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wudu
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghusl
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudud

About the Author: Luqman Quilliam is a guest contributor. He aspires to one day become a student of shariah. His interests include indigenous British Islamic heritage, statecraft, Islamic economics, and film. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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