Woody Allen, here, talks about his movie “Midnight in Paris“, about art, meaning, life and New York in the 40’s. I saw the movie and liked it. It seemed more hopeful than much of his recent work, less concerned with the bleak nihilism that he frankly owns as a natural outcome of his atheism. Allen’s nihilism, however, remains and he has a way of articulating this nihilism that many who subscribe to a very similar view of the world wouldn’t as clearly:
“If you become obsessed with films or baseball or your children — or if, in my case, you’re worried about how the third act is going to turn out — you become focused on that and you don’t think about the terrors of life. You become focused on something that’s apparently meaningful, but it’s no more meaningful than the outcome of the Yankees game. I’ll say, ‘Gee, the Yankees lost today,’ and the non baseball fan will say, ‘So what?’ It’s as meaningful as his life or my life. They’re specks of light in an eternal void having no meaning whatsoever in a universe that’s eventually going to not exist. In the end, like in Stardust Memories, we all get flushed. The beautiful ones, the accomplished ones, the Einsteins, the Shakespeares, the homeless guys in the street with the wine bottles, all end up in the same grave. So, I have a very dim view of things, but I think about them, and I do feel that I’ve come to the conclusion that the artist can not justify life or come up with a cogent reason as to why life is meaningful, but the artist can provide you with a cold glass of water on a hot day.”
In Allen’s view, borne out in the rest of the article, the artist offers merely a distraction from the tragic reality of the human predicament. Art gets our eyes off death for a minute. Even the most beautiful things, then, are merely flecks of light, passing beautiful distractions. But they are not of any real consequence, and they point to nothing higher. In the face of a merciless reality where all succumb to death and meaninglessness, the artist points away from reality in order to distract. This distraction is the cup of cold water.
But what if beauty and meaning cohere? What if they are intricately interwoven? What if beauty doesn’t point away from ultimate reality, but toward it?
Thomas Howard, in his book Chance or the Dance, (73) writes:
“This is part of the business of poetry, from the nursery rhyme to the Divine Comedy. It addresses our imagination and, with everything that is at its service, it tries to beguile us into the intense awareness of experience…it does not call us away from the ‘real’ world of function into a garden of fancy that never existed anywhere. Rather, its high office is to ransom us from thrall to the deadly myth that life is cluttered and obstructed by necessity, and to return us to life with the awareness that it is packed with glory”.