Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Aesthetic as a Route to Meaningfulness

Toby, at A Piece of Coffee, wrote an interesting post on Woody Allen and the meaning of life.  In particular, he discusses Manhattan to talk about Allen's need for art and music to give his life meaning rather than Hannah and Her Sisters or Midnight in Paris which I recently gushed over.  But, as he says, this is a common theme with many of Allen's films:  the purpose of life is to enjoy the richness of it, the beauty of art, music, architecture, and people, "to be part of the experience" (HaHS).

Toby says of art, "We distract ourselves constantly, we refuse to think about the meaning of our existence, we skirt around the inevitable." I think art can be a huge distraction, both in the viewing and in the creating. But it can also be a means towards reflecting on and delving into the depths of the ultimate meaninglessness of our lives, particularly if we include writing as an art form. We can be both pragmatically distracted from death and immersed in it as we ponder the very subject enough to make the words that fit together to communicate our ideas. Eh?

But what's the difference between what we call distraction as an artist is hyper-focused on a canvas (or computer screen or whatever), and mindfulness? Being distracted from the truth sounds like we're trying to avoid it. But what Buddhists suggest is that we rise above the world by being aware of the present moment and letting the past and future just melt away. We don't have to worry about the briefness of our existence if we can keep ourselves in the here and now, and, as Allen intimates, really enjoy this moment. His films provoke me to make the best of my time here by surrounding myself with what brings me joy and keeps me engaged in the world. Midnight in Paris especially suggests this as Wilson's character refuses the magical illusions of the past for the real world, but not the mundane surroundings he had lived in. He packed up and moved to surroundings that he found inspirational. Montaigne says we should spend time walking among trees to really notice nature. I don't think that's the point. It's not nature or art or anything specific that we should immerse ourselves into. It's just whatever draws us personally. And it's up to us to figure out what that is.  That's the existential journey.

Toby says of Allen, "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," aka ignorance is bliss. I agree that people who are totally in the cave arguing over the shadows on the wall, like which is the best brand of shoes, are typically more content than those who have been blinded by the sun. It's a harder path to follow to seek to know, but it's a more authentic path.

But I also believe that if we can begin to accept death, accept the very brief transient nature of our lives, then we can really enjoy life free from delusions. The difficult place where depression and anxiety set in, is in knowing about death and letting the fear of death sit at the back of our head and creep up on us from time to time. Our world is very sanitized. We're generally not to speak of such topics as death and dying. It's not for polite company. But that just bites us in the butt later when we try to cope with that overwhelming sense of dread in isolation. We can't just know about death, we have to really accept it will happen. Freud gets at this in Future of an Illusion.  Tyler Durden gets at it in Fight Club.

I'm not at that acceptance point yet, of course. So I cram lots of activity into my day to get lots of superfluous things done so that maybe there will be something left behind of me, some little piece that will stay behind and give me a tiny bit of immortality. Maybe this very blog post will be read again in a thousand years (carved into stone because there won't be computers or paper). I'm working to get to a place where I can accept no-trace living. I think if I can be content to leave nothing behind, then perhaps I've begun to accept my own mortality.

Do we have to have a meaning or purpose to our lives in the first place? Animals are content without one. I wonder if it's just human arrogance that we think we're so special that there's actually a point to each of the almost seven billion of us swarming the planet.

Toby claims, "one cannot live one’s life in a full awareness of its futility..." Futility sounds so negative, doesn't it. Life is futile. But art created without a practical purpose is futile too in a sense. It is there to delight and entertain and provoke, but it's not necessary. Isn't that enough for us? Perhaps we're just here to delight and entertain and provoke one another and nothing more. It's not nothing, but it's not lofty nor a purpose beyond our own timespan either. Maybe it's not that art gives "purpose and value to human life," but that we are, in fact, works of art.

"...Tracy's face."


Anonymous said...

I was intrigued by your various means to keep anxiety about death at bay. I was very taken with the idea that a lot of us are obsessed with leaving a legacy ("a tiny bit of immortality") My question, thought is I wonder does this have anything to do with our propesity, historically to let tyrrants rise to the top of any highly organized social group? Better if we didn't have this need to fight death and be remembered. See OZYMANDIAS.

Marie Snyder said...

I think it likely part of the problem is that we let tyrants lead, and that we glorify stuff. It's always been profits over people (including the self) for the dominant class. But there's also always been an undercurrent of others who try to steer clear of that dogma. Ozymandias fits well with this idea, both poem and the character who eventually realizes the problem with legacy.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Marie! I came over here via Toby's blog in order to read your thoughts in re his post. This whole subject and the ensuing discussion is fascinating to me, and it is difficult for me to narrow my wide range of thoughts down to come up with a concise and cogent comment. Unfortunately, as far as the way my own mind works, there "ain't no such animal" as concise thought! :lol:

So, I will speak to only one point in your post at this time: "(Art)is there to delight and entertain and provoke, but it's not necessary. Isn't that enough for us?"

Interesting comment, because is light of your argument, is ANYTHING necessary? If we strip life down to mere existence - i.e., food, clothing, shelter - then art is not, but then again, one has to define art - because there is indeed artistry in food, clothing, and shelter - whether intentional or not. Because, in my belief, we were DESIGNED, and therefore cannot help but reflect that design by ourselves designing. Being created in the image of God (again, this is my firm belief), carries with it the implication that we then are also designers, whether by intention or not, because living in itself is design, it is art.

At the present (where we are all supposed to be living and thinking! LOL), I am not exactly sure what my comments have to do with the whole existential "argument."(Argument in this case meaning different perspectives, and not contention.)

I thank you for your additional take on this topic. It always fascinates me - and even though I know that as each of us is unique - that I continue to find it astounding that we each have unique views!

I wish you enough. . .

(Check by my blog - I am currently on hiatus, but there is an archive of one and one-half years of eclectic (very) writing and ideas. I expect to be back to full-time posting within the next couple of months. In the meantime, I will be putting things up on occasion, as the mood strikes and as time allows, as I am in the process of working on my first book, and also a poetry anthology. BTW, I will be back to visit your blog on a regular basis!)

Anonymous said...

Only that I disagree (mildly) with the thought that "we" were designed in any way. "Shaped" was the word I would've used - as everything is similarly shaped by the forces that josltle us and eveything else on this planet. You could call those forces "god" if it suits you but it seems too random to be design.

Prof N.K.Singh said...

We live that is consciousness and when we realize our collective unconscious(Jung) we reach a state where we get dissolved. Hinduism and Buddha spoke of this while transiting in the stream of consiousness