“Woody Wednesday” Allen on the meaning of life (part 2)

Ecclesiastes 1

Published on Sep 4, 2012

Calvary Chapel Spring Valley | Sunday Evening | September 2, 2012 | Pastor Derek Neider

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Ecclesiastes 2-3

Published on Sep 19, 2012

Calvary Chapel Spring Valley | Sunday Evening | September 16, 2012 | Derek Neider

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September 3, 2011 · 5:16 PM

Woody Allen on the Emptiness of Life

In the final scene of Manhattan, Woody Allen’s character, Isaac, is lying on the sofa with a microphone and a tape-recorder, dictating to himself an idea for a short story. It will be about “people in Manhattan,” he says, “who are constantly creating these real unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves” because they cannot bear to confront the “more unsolvable, terrible problems about the universe.” In an attempt to keep it optimistic, he begins by asking himself the question, “Why is life worth living?” He gives it some thought. “That’s a very good question,” he says, “There are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile.” And then the list begins: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter Symphony,’ Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato Head Blues, “Swedish movies, naturally,” Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, “those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s . . . Tracy’s face.”

This list acts as an important hinge in the film’s narrative, the point at which Isaac suddenly becomes aware of his feelings for Tracy and resolves to go after her. But within this list there is also something greater being communicated, something which, I believe, can be described as the central subject of nearly every Woody Allen film, or, perhaps, what compels him to make films in the first place. Isaac is conveying here a belief in the sheer power of art, its ability to provide a sense of worth to an otherwise empty existence. Art, Woody Allen seems to be saying, is the only valuable response – or the only conceivable response – to the dreadful human predicament as he sees it.

~ ~ ~

“My relationship with death remains the same: I’m strongly against it.”

~ ~ ~

Recently, at the Cannes Film Festival, Woody Allen was asked about what motivates him. He simply laughed and said, “Fear is what drives me.” Work, for Allen, is a wonderful distraction from the “terrible truth” – the ostensible meaninglessness of life, the apparent futility of all human endeavour, the inevitability of sickness, the unescapable prognosis of death. Film-making, like the “unnecessay, neurotic problems” dreamt up by the characters in Isaac’s short story, diverts Allen’s attention away from this reality, from the fear that presents itself when he stops to think about the fact that eventually everybody dies, “the sun burns out, and the earth is gone, and . . . all the stars, all the planets, the entire universe, goes, disappears.” So this fear is the reason for his prolificity, the impulse behind all of his artistic achievements. Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Sleeper all came about, first of all, as distractions, projects that prevented him from having to “sit in a chair and think about what a terrible situation all human beings are in.”

I believe that there is a lot of truth in Woody Allen’s perspective. We distract ourselves constantly, we refuse to think about the meaning of our existence, we skirt around the inevitable. Certainly – and he acknowledges this – Allen is not the first person to have hit upon this truth. It has been recognised by such thinkers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, the Buddha and the writer of Ecclesiastes. And Allen knows, too, that one cannot live in perpetual awareness of this fact. Such a life would be crippling torment. Indeed, it is this very torment that Tolstoy found himself in after having realised that there was “nothing ahead other than deception of life and of happiness, and the reality of suffering and death: of complete annihilation.” After realising, in other words, the sheer absurdness of human existence, the meaninglessness of life without God. In his Confession he writes:

My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink and sleep and I could not help breathing, eating, drinking and sleeping; but there was no life in me because I had no desires whose gratification I would have deemed it reasonable to fulfil. If I wanted something I knew in advance that whether or not I satisfied my desire nothing would come of it.

One cannot live like this, says Woody Allen. One must provide oneself with necessary delusions in order to carry oneself through life. He remarks that it is in fact only those people whom he calls “self-deluded” that seem to find any kind of real satisfaction in living, any peace or enjoyment. These people can say, “Well, my priest, or my rabbi tells me everthing’s going to be all right,” and they find their answers in what he calls “magical solutions.” This recourse to the “magical” he dismisses as nonsense.

It is worth comparing Woody Allen’s pessimistic agnosticism with the utopian atheism of someone like Richard Dawkins. Evidently, the former worldview is entirely consistent with non-belief in God, whereas the latter is not. In fact, it is unfounded, false. Dawkins removes God from the picture entirely, yet clings persistently to a belief in life’s meaning, grounding this meaning, it appears, in natural selection. There is a contradiction in Dawkins’ thought: on the one hand, he claims that science “can tell us why we are here, tell us the purpose of human existence,” yet, on the other, he insists on characterising natural selection itself as a blind mechanism, containing “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”

Whilst I do not share Woody Allen’s agnostic belief, I can respect his consistency, his willingness to acknowledge an existence without God for what it really is: “a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience.” His worldview follows naturally from what Heidegger termed the state of human “abandonment,” the absence of God in all human affairs. Dawkins’ worldview, on the other hand, does not . . . It is an embarrassing mishmash of strict empricist and naturalistic belief with what really amounts to a kind of foggy mysticism, a belief system according to which human beings can create for themselves an objective purpose. What he fails to realise is that this purpose is nothing more than a delusion, a mere appearance of purpose. It might get us up in the morning, but, once again, it is no more real than the manufactured neurotic problems of Isaac’s characters.

~ ~ ~

“It is impossible to experience one’s death objectively and still carry a tune.”

~ ~ ~

Let us return to Woody Allen’s seemingly affirmative opinion of art, as exemplified in the final scene of Manhattan. Given his lifelong insistence on the belief that human existence is “a big, meaningless thing,” how are we to make sense of Isaac’s list? Is it really possible to reconcile Woody Allen’s adament nihilism with his invocation of the power of art, its ability to stand firm in the face of such a terrible truth? The point to be made, I believe, is a very subtle one. In that same interview at Cannes, Woody Allen talks about the role of the artist as he sees it. The artist, essentially, must respond to the question that Isaac poses, “Why is life worth living?” Faced with the emptiness of life, she must try to “figure out – knowing that it’s true . . . knowing the worst – why it’s still worthwhile.” Allen is not, I believe, claiming that art can provide objective meaning to life. Such an assertion would conflict with his unswerving pessimism. Instead, he is saying that the essence of art, what animates it, what inspires it to flourish, is a courageous struggle against this “terrible truth.” The artist, he says, must confront the futility of life, look at it in the face, embrace it in all of its hopelessness and despair, and provide humanity with an honest reply. The question, then, is not, ‘Can Woody Allen justify his belief in an objective meaning as embodied in art?’ I do not think that he believes in an objective meaning, a necessary purpose for human existence. Rather, the question becomes, ‘Is it possible for the artist to look squarely at the human predicament and supply humanity with a worthwhile answer?’

This, I want to say, is still not possible. As we have seen with the example of Tolstoy, one cannot live one’s life in a full awareness of its futility, of the imminence of death, of the falsity of one’s happiness, and yet carry on as normal. One would end up utterly debilitated. And if this is indeed how artists have been living for centuries, confronting the inevitable, facing the dismal truth, then art itself becomes an inexplicable phenomenon.

~ ~ ~

“On the plus side, death is one of the few things that can be done just as easily lying down.”

~ ~ ~

The answer is not to appeal to art as something that can provide human existence with objective meaning. Such a ‘faith in art’ would merely beg the question, ‘But why is art so special?’ How can art, if viewed as just another custom, an event within the world, give purpose and value to human life? It remains to be explained how that which is within the world can provide meaning for that which is within the world. Meaning, I believe, can only come from without, from that which transcends the world, and yet instills human existence with significance and worth. It is the purpose of art to direct us to this very transcendence, the ground of being itself. The same higher power, in fact, that Woody Allen – perhaps rightly! – dismisses as “nonsense” in its rigid, institutional form.

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