We all owe our lives to Woody Allen.
If Woody Allen had never been born, I’m sure I would be doomed to a life of celibacy. Remember the aforementioned woman who loved Cusack and Coldplay? There is absolutely no way I could have dated this person if Woody Allen didn’t exist. In tangible terms, she was light-years out of my league, along with most of the other women I’ve slept with.
But Woody Allen changed everything.
Woody Allen made it acceptable for beautiful women to sleep with nerdy, bespectacled goofballs; all we need to do is fabricate the illusion of intellectual humor, and we somehow have a chance.
The irony is that many of the women most susceptible to this scam haven’t even seen any of Woody’s movies, nor would they want to touch the actual Woody Allen if they ever had the chance (especially since he’s proven to be an uber-pervy clarinet freak). If asked, most of these foxy ladies wouldn’t classify Woody Allen as sexy, or handsome, or even likable.
But this is how media devolution works: It creates an archetype that eventually dwarfs its origin. By now, the ‘Woody Allen Personality Type’ has far greater cultural importance than the man himself. At least on the surface movies and television actively promote dating the nonbeautiful: If we have learned anything from the mass media, it’s that the only people who can make us happy are those who don’t strike us as being particularly desirable.
It causes sexual misdirection: It prompts us to need something deeper than what we want. This is why Woody Allen had made nebbish guys cool; he makes people assume there is something profound about having a relationship based on witty conversation and intellectual discourse. There isn’t. It’s just another gimmick, and it’s no different than wanting to be with someone because they’re thin or rich or the former lead singer of Whiskeytown. And it actually might be worse, because an intellectual relationship isn’t real at all. My witty banter and cerebral discourse is always completely contrived.
Right now, I have three and a half dates worth of material, all of which I pretend to deliver spontaneously. This is my strategy: If I can just coerce women into the last half of that fourth date, it’s anyone’s ball game. I’ve beaten the system, I’ve broken the code; I’ve slain the Minotaur. If we part ways on that fourth evening without some kind of conversational disaster, she probably digs me. Or at least she thinks she digs me, because who she digs is not really me.
Sadly, our relationship will not last ninety-three minutes (like Annie Hall) or ninety-six minutes (like Manhattan). It will go on for days or weeks or months or years, and I’ve already used everything in my vault. Very soon, I will have nothing more to say, and we will be sitting across from each other at breakfast, completely devoid of banter; she will feel betrayed and foolish, and I will suddenly find myself actively trying to avoid spending time with a woman I didn’t deserve to be with in the first place.
Perhaps this sounds depressing. That is not my intention. This is all normal. There’s not a lot to say during breakfast. I mean, you just woke up, you know? Nothing has happened. If neither person had an especially weird dream and nobody burned the toast, breakfast is just the time for chewing Cocoa Puffs and/or wishing you were still asleep. But we’ve been convinced not to think like that. Silence is only supposed to happen as a manifestation of supreme actualization, where both parties are so at peace with their emotional connection that it cannot be expressed through the rudimentary tools of the lexicon; otherwise, silence is proof that the magic is gone and the relationship is over (hence the phrase “We just don’t talk anymore”). For those of us who grew up in the media age, the only good silence is the kind described by the hair metal band Extreme. “More than words is all I ever needed you to show,” explained Gary Cherone on the Pornograffiti album. “Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me, cause I’d already know.” This is the difference between art and life: In art, not talking is never an extension of having nothing to say; not talking always means something. And now that art and life have become completely interchangeable, we’re forced to live inside the acoustic power chords of Nuno Bettencourt, even if most of us don’t necessarily know who the fuck Nuno Bettencourt is.
In postwar New York, existentialism was sexy, debonair, chic, and anti-academic. It was either a philosophy or something resembling one, a bundle of linked ideas and assumptions, largely imported from Europe, that attracted the herd of independent minds feeding the cultural discourse on this side of the Atlantic. Advocates quoted Jean-Paul Sartre (“existence precedes essence”) and called it an action philosophy, a survivor’s answer to nihilistic despair. Whatever it was, it went well with berets and saxophones, abstract expressionists in cold-water lofts, and heroes of novels searching for authenticity in a universe of chance, a North African desert, the pages of the Partisan Review, or a movie theater outside New Orleans.
For a certain extraordinary period of time, everyone wanted to be existential. Not everyone knew what this meant, exactly, but everyone wanted the distinction. Misused and overused, the very word existential began to function as a sort of highbrow condiment of choice, the squirt of moutarde de Dijon that spiced up the hot dog of a banal conversation. It was irresistible. To Norman Mailer, existential signified the cool of John F. Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960—or maybe it meant a mutual climax achieved by anal intercourse. If you wore sunglasses in the subway and listened to Miles Davis, you were probably existential.
Was there a difference between existential and cool? Yes. Though it was possible to be both, as the example of Miles Davis attests, there were a lot of cool cats without an existential bone in their body. Think of Johnny Carson or James Bond or Mickey Mantle. At the same time some bona-fide existentialists would bore you stiff if you had to spend an hour in their company at La Coupole or Les Deux Magots. I feel certain, for example, that an hour with Heidegger, whose existential credentials are impeccable, would be harder to endure than an hour with Wittgenstein or Bertrand Russell.
According to Albert Camus, Algerian-born hero of the French Resistance, practicing existentialism was like fishing in a bathtub. A well-meaning neighbor, thinking to humor the fisherman in the bathtub, says, “Catch anything?” “No, you fool,” the fisherman replies. “Can’t you see this is a bathtub?” Delmore Schwartz sticks with the bathtub image. “Existentialism,” he wrote, “means that no one else can take a bath for you.”
Some of the greatest moments in the history of existentialism are:
• Nietzsche’s announcement in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science, 1882) that God is dead.
• Time magazine’s confirmation that God is dead in its cover story of April 8, 1966.
• The moment Jean-Paul Sartre realized that in hell he would have to room with Albert Camus.
• The moment when, in a BBC-TV production of a Sartre novel, a man who has impregnated a young woman and now, in a fit of conscience and remorse, lifts a cleaver to lop off his offending organ, has second thoughts. “I cannot do it,” he says, putting down the cleaver. “I am condemned to be free.”
• The moment when David Hemmings as the no-name photographer in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) retrieves the nonexistent tennis ball that the mime troupe pretends to have lost.
• The moment in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) when the spy, played by Richard Burton in his seedy trench coat, decides to die with the librarian, played by Claire Bloom, rather than abandon her on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and escape to his freedom in the West.
• The first time Herman Melville’s Bartleby, an existentialist avant la lettre, says, “I would prefer not to,” declining to perform a task assigned him by his boss.
• The evening in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960) when the hero, a young family man, drives off and decides not to return home. The hero’s last name, Angstrom, includes the German word for anxiety or dread, Angst, which was second only to alienation as the term of choice in the bars below 14th Street during those heady postwar days when existentialism ruled the discursive roost.
Existentialism died with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Relief pitchers began to sport flamboyant mustaches, feminists insisted that the personal was political, Andy Warhol made silkscreen prints of Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, the phrase Deep Throat referred first to a porn flick about a blowjob queen and then to a clandestine news source spilling the beans on Watergate, and Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday” eclipsed Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” as the most recorded love song of the 20th century. All this plus Vietnam and deconstruction spelled the demise of existentialism.
Such perhaps is the fate of certain avant-garde movements in art or thought. They arrive with the intent to move heaven and earth, and after they’ve gone, what they leave is their faded glamour, and it’s the same old hard earth, and heaven’s as remote as ever.
We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot.
That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.
Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot.
How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.
In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.
It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.
To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Excerpted from a commencement address delivered by Carl Sagan on May 11, 1996.
Image from Voyager 1, 1990.
born like this
as the chalk faces smile
as Mrs. Death laughs
as the elevators break
as political landscapes dissolve
as the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree
as the oily fish spit out their oily prey
as the sun is masked
born like this
into these carefully mad wars
into the sight of broken factory windows of emptiness
into bars where people no longer speak to each other
into fist fights that end as shootings and knifings
born into this
into hospitals which are so expensive that it’s cheaper to die
into lawyers who charge so much it’s cheaper to plead guilty
into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes
born into this
walking and living through this
dying because of this
muted because of this
because of this
fooled by this
used by this
pissed on by this
made crazy and sick by this
A brilliant Absurdist play by Eugène Ionesco.
The whole play revolves around an Old Man and an Old Woman, trapped within the confines of routine.
Every day they share the same talks, engage in the same petty movements, and reiterate the same expressions.
The only escape from their stifling loneliness is the conversations they share, particularly the “message” the Old Man wishes for the world to hear.
As he is preparing for his guests, (all of mankind), to come and hear his revelation, he begins rearranging chairs in a circular manner.
Slowly the guests start appearing, and quickly the audience realize that they are invisible.
Ionesco’s attempt to breathe existence into the ephemeral is a brilliant portrayal of escapism.
To the Old man and Old woman who have no aspirations for the future, no attachment to the past, and no confidence in the present; this “message” is the only way to convince themselves that their lives are not devoid of meaning.
As the Old Man prepares for his revelation, he whispers a part of his message to himself. “At the end, of the end, there was, there was, what what?”
As his memory starts to fail him, he becomes dissatisfied with his ability to communicate his message to the world and decides to rely on an orator.
After a period of uncomfortable silence the orator finally arrives, dressed in elitist 19th century clothing that perfectly matches his pompous entrance.
The Old Man and Woman are taken by his presence believing that he is worthy and capable of spreading their prophecy.
Feeling they have exceeded all limits of happiness (and desire), they decide they have nothing else to do but end their lives together.
As the audience anxiously turns to the orator for the message, he addresses the invisible audience with incomprehensible speech.
We quickly realize that he is deaf and mute and that the Old Man and Woman, like their message died in vain.
The play ends with a collision of murmuring, coughing, and laughing from the invisible audience that slowly subsides as the orator exits the stage.
This Ionesco claims is the “last decisive moment of the play that should be an expression of…absence”.