Allow me, please, to issue a provocative statement: the Huxtable narrative did more to promote the ideas and ideals of existential philosophy during the last 15 years of the 20th century than any other singular text did. In fact, the entire Huxtable hegemony is, at least in many respects, structured upon a decidedly progressive and leftist existential ideology and offers a pronounced allegorical representation of late 19th and early 20th century existential thought, with Cliff Huxtable serving as something of a Friedrich Nietzsche analogue (while outside of the purview of this analysis, the case could also be made that Claire Huxtable serves as something of a Simone de Beauvoir analogue and Theo Huxtable functions as an analogue of Jean-Francois Lyotard). My claim, ultimately, is this: that Cliff Huxtable’s brand of practiced and prophesized existentialism is drawn, largely, from the ideologies and philosophies—and, by extension, hermeneutics, epistemologies and ontologies—of both Nietzsche and that Cliff serves as something of a Postmodern representation of the ideal of the Superman (Übermensch).
The Huxtable hegemony, professed and practiced with such gumption and enthusiasm over the course of the first several seasons of the Huxtable narrative (and voiced most directly and particularly throughout such episodes as “Pilot” ((1.1)), “Goodbye Mr. Fish” ((1.2)), “Independence Day” ((1.14)), “Rudy Suits Up,” ((2.7)), “Play it Again, Russell” ((2.17)), “Full House” ((2.19)), “Theo’s Holiday” ((2.22)), “Food for Thought” ((3.2)), “Theo’s Flight,” ((3.7)), “Vanessa’s Rich” ((3.8)), “War Stories,” ((3.11)), “Hillman” ((3.25)), “Call of the Wild” ((4.1)), “That’s Not What I Said” ((4.6)), “Autumn Gifts” ((4.7)), “Truth or Consequences” ((4.12)), “The Lost Weekend,” ((4.15)), “It Comes and Goes” ((4.20)), “What He Did for Love” ((4.24)), “Day of the Locusts” ((4.25)), “Theo’s Gift” ((5.5)), “Cliff la Dolce” ((5.11)), “Cliff’s Nightmare” ((5.14)), “Mr. Sandman” ((5.19)), “What’s It All About?” ((5.22)), “It’s All in the Game” ((6.5)), “Clair’s Liberation” ((6.12)), “Theo’s Final Final” ((6.14)), “It’s Apparent to Everyone” ((8.6)), “Cliff Gets Jilted” ((8.18))) fits very much in line with basic tenets of existential philosophy. The Huxtable hegemony insists, much in line with the ontological ideal of existential, that existence does, indeed, precede essence in so far as one’s destiny is, indeed, self-created and not merely given by some outside agency. Furthermore, the willingness with which the Huxtables are able to reflect upon the past suggests that for them time is of the essence (something might be better termed “ekstatic temporality”). While the Huxtable hegemony asserts a decidedly anti-Romantic and pro-Newtonian belief in the supremacy of reason and science, such also adheres strictly to the decidedly existential ideals of humanism, freedom and responsibility. The Huxtable hegemony, then, for all of its pronouncements on behalf of capitalism and surrender to authority, is nevertheless structured upon a decidedly existential philosophical ideal.
However, the Huxtable narrative not only celebrates the ideals of existentialism, it also offers an implicit critique of such. In the series pilot (“Pilot,” 1.1), Cliff offers a sharp rejection and renouncement of Theo’s particularly Shelleyian Romantic (and rather existential) assertion of independence by insulting him (“that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”) and insisting, quite boldly, that “I brought you into this world and I can take you out!” This singular, and downright nihilistic and oppressive assertion serves not only to define the dynamic of Cliff and Theo’s always complicated relationship, but also the essence of Cliff’s pronounced—if not quite believed and enacted—nihilistic epistemology and hermeneutic and fundamental connection to—and disconnection from—the ideas of Nietzsche.
The biographical, psychological and some philosophical parallels between Nietzsche and Cliff Huxtable are readily apparent: both endured tremendous childhood tragedies; both watched close family members die before them (Nietzsche’s father died following a brain injury and Cliff’s brother James died of fever when he was quite young) ; both engaged in half-hearted and ultimately failed military careers; both resisted traditional forms of philosophical education (see Nietzsche’s Human, All to Human and Cliff’s interaction with his former philosophy professor in “Hillman” ((3.23)) for more insight into this interesting avenue of thought; consider, also, Nietzsche and Cliff’s shared disinterest in and seeming rejection of Descartes); both had complicated relationships with woman and a string of early sexual failures; both ignored or rejected the possibility of the present existence of God; both take great delight in music and dramatic performance; both are always willing to offer provocative, polemical, and nihilistic aphorisms; both often communicated in strange and anguished language (Nietzsche: “One must speak with thunder and heavenly fireworks to feeble and dormant senses!” Cliff: “Hey! Let me tell you something, Skippy!”); both seem to have suffered from severe opium addiction at various points in their lives; and both finally went absolutely insane in their later years. Of course, one well-versed in both Nietzsche and Cliff Huxtable will also point out the striking differences between the respective ideologies of the two men. Nietzsche’s ultimate rejection of authority is hardly matched by Cliff’s constant overt celebration on behalf of such. Cliff’s ready acceptance of scientific principles hardly matches with Nietzsche’s critique of science as an absolute value. Nietzsche’s call for self-obedience, doubting of the existence of supreme truth, embracement of immorality, belief in self-knowledge, as well as his sustained attack on Christian ethics would all be surely met with doubt, outright scorn or mockery by Cliff.
The true connection between Nietzsche and Cliff, though, can be located not within the pronouncements Cliff often issued in accordance with the Huxtable hegemony, but rather within Cliff’s subconscious. While Cliff seems to promote something of an anti-Nietzschian ideology over the course of the Huxtable narrative, he often nevertheless acts in accordance not with his professed Apollonian instincts but, rather, in defiance of such, in turn embracing his decidedly Dionysian desires. Over the course of the Huxtable narrative Cliff moves increasingly toward embracement of his Dionysian desires for jazz, fatty foods, opium, sex with Claire, and the enactment of terror throughout the Huxtable household. Facing the particularly Postmodern ideologies of his offspring, Cliff—again, much like one of his closest literarily analogs, Shakespeare’s King Lear—becomes increasingly unable to deny his Dionysian desires. While he still speaks on behalf of his Apollonian wishes for order, logic, rationality and form, Cliff ultimately gives way to his illogical and sensual Dionysian desires. In many respects Cliff’s sudden return to relative sanity and balance at the conclusion of the Huxtable narrative seems to serve as an allegory pertaining to Nietzsche’s ideal of the Hellenic balance between the forces of Apollo and Dionysus. Furthermore, Cliff would seem to stand as something of a representation of the Nietzschian ideal of the Superman (Übermensch). Throughout the Huxtable narrative Cliff always demonstrates a remarkable will to power; a powerful desire for life and existence above all else; a sense of self in ultimate possession of a downright messianic quality; a man fully lacking in blind indifference, hypocrisy and fear; he is a man who renounces nihilism, who refuses to choke upon the bones of his own reason, who is willing to suffer (consider, for example, Cliff’s downright Camusian and moreover Sisuphusian task of fixing the broken doorbell of the Huxtable home over the course of the eight season of the Huxtable narrative) and who is willing to constantly recreate himself. While Cliff might remain, at least until the final season of the series, unable to fully invoke Nietzsche’s ideals, he nevertheless serves as a Postmodern representation of a (super)man developing toward—in strict accordance with Nietzsche—meeting the supreme challenge of the human spirit, to overcoming the limitations of mere manhood to become, indeed, that which shall be the meaning of the earth, the Superman.