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”.
From the PD James novel, A Certain Justice:
Glancing back as they turned together into the studio, Dalgliesh felt the weight of a fleeting melancholy tinged with pity. That tranquil studio, the pots so unthreatening in design and execution, the small attempt at self-sufficiency represented by the garden and the henhouse: didn’t they symbolize an escape, a peace as illusory as the dignified order of the eighteenth-century courts of the Temple, as illusory as all human seeking after the good, the harmonious life?
It’s that last line – “as illusory as all human seeking after the good, the harmonious life” – that got me. In context, James seems to be critiquing a kind of safe, middle-upper class withdrawal that seeks comfort and safety at the expense of other responsibilities.
But that line about the illusory nature of human seeking after a good, harmonious life – it seems to me poignant and precise. Not, ultimately, because good and harmony are illusory, but as a description of a result of materialism. Without a theological account, I can’t imagine how you could see goodness and harmony as anything but a fragile, ultimately passing mirage.
I began to weep…weeping seems to accompany repentance most times. No wonder. Could you reach deep in yourself to locate that organ containing delusions about your general size in the world – could you lay hold of this and dredge it from your chest and look it over in daylight – well, it’s no wonder people would rather not. Tears seem a small enough thing.
[Absolution] “is neither a response to a suitably worthy confession, nor the acceptance of a reasonable apology. Absolvere in Latin means not only to loosen, to free, to acquit; it also means to dispose of, to complete, to finish. When God pardons, therefore, he does not say he understands our weakness or makes allowances for our errors; rather he disposes of, he finishes with, the whole of our dead life and raises us up with a new one. He does not so much deal with our derelictions as he does drop them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. He forgets our sins in the darkness of the tomb. He remembers our iniquities no more in the oblivion of Jesus’ expiration. He finds us, in short, in the desert of death, not in the garden of improvement; and in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, he puts us on his shoulders rejoicing and brings us home.”
“Jesus came to save a lost and losing world by his own lostness and defeat; but in this wide world of losers, everyone except Jesus remains firmly, if hopelessly, committed to salvation by winning. It hardly matters to us that the victories we fake for ourselves are two-bit victories, or that the losses (and losers) we avoid like the plague are the only vessels in which saving grace comes; we will do anything rather than face either the bankruptcy of our wealth or the richness of our poverty.
And what then is it that we do when we thus disregard our true wealth? We delude ourselves into thinking that our own salvation can be achieved by keeping books on others…’I know I’m no prize, but at least I’m better than that lecher, Harry’ – as if putting ourselves at the head of a whole column marching in the wrong direction somehow made us less lost than the rest of the troops. It would be funny if it were not fatal; but fatal it is, because grace works only in those who accept their lostness. Jesus came to call sinners, not the pseudo-righteous; he came to raise the dead, not to buy drinks for the marginally alive.”
If I, even for a moment, accept my culture’s definition of me, I am rendered harmless.”
Eugene Peterson on the identity of a pastor