To say that there are many questions to be pulled out of Alan Moore's The Watchmen is an understatement. While most of the events in it are fairly clear, the motivations of the characters, and the meanings of the tightly interwoven symbolism has provided twenty years of speculation by both comic book geeks and lovers of serious literature. At the very least, the thick symbolism provides a relief for comic book geeks who would otherwise have to rehash debates on who the best Green Lantern is.
There was one particular part of the book's plot that puzzled me, and that my comic book literati friends seemed to be split upon. It involved an episode in the Watchmen that drove Rorschach, the already brutal vigilante, well into the depths of insanity. Rorschach believed that a kidnapped girl had been killed and fed to dogs by her kidnapper to hide his crime. This ghastly act turned Rorschach from a normal vigilante to one who would kill criminals without hesitation. The question that I asked, and that there seemed to be mixed answers for, is whether the girl had ever been killed at all, or whether Rorschach just imagined that she had. There is no actual proof that the bones belonged to the girl. Rorschach's conclusion is not unfounded, yet it is also not foregone.
Two pieces of further circumstantial evidence suggest it might not have happened the way Rorschach imagined it: Rorschach has taken liberties with reaching two conclusions before. First, when Kitty Genovese is murdered, he believes it is her who ordered the dress he makes his costume out of, even though his only evidence is the woman was "Young. Pretty. Italian name." This seems to be quite a stretch. In the central story of the book, Rorschach discoveres a wide-ranging conspiracy, but believes that the instigator of the conspiracy, Ozymandias is actually its victim.
So did Rorschach come to a hasty conclusion on the event that robbed him of his sanity? It could be argued both ways. His very name suggests that he can find patterns where none exist, and it is from this that I put this that I came to a revealation about how this episode fits in with the theme of the work on a whole. The question becomes how we would judge the cognitive skills that Rorschach uses to analyze his world. After all, the same skills that Rorschach is using to analyze crimes must be used to analyze his own mental state. The same is true for the reader of the comic. And, in a flash of insight, I realized that this problem comes down to :
Who watches the watchmen?
This question is often considered to be a statement on the use and abuse of power, which is an important reading of it. However, it could just as clearly be analyzed as an epistomological question. Is it possible for people to watch their own analysis of the world? It is a vital question within the story, as the central moral question of the book- Ozymandias' utilitarian plan to murder millions of people to save the world's population, depends on both a pragmatic and moral knowledge that he very well might not have.
A further important question this raises, again through the use of tightly wound symbolism, is the question of the anthropic principle. One of the common arguments for the universe being designed "for people" is a metaphor involving a watch: if you find something as intricately designed as a watch, out in the desert, you would assume that it had a designer. But of course, since we were raised inside of the universe, and our cognitive faculties are part of that universe, it is perhaps not possible for them to judge whether or not the universe makes more or less sense than it should. We can not "watch" our own "watching" of the "watch", so to speak. Since this idea of a designer for the universe has a possible answer to the problems of morality, it seems to be kicking out yet another leg of our epistomlogical stool.
In other words, from this episode, and the question of whether or not Rorschach is imagining the various conspiracies around him, we are led to question not only whether what the answer is, but whether there can be an answer at all.