Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Woody Allen and the Meaning of Life

Woody Allen has made some good movies. I guess my favorite is Crimes and Misdemeanors, but for this post I want to talk about another one of the greats, Annie Hall.

The movie opens with the main character, played by Woody Allen, delivering a monologue to the camera where he tells two jokes, which kind of serve as the two main themes of the movie.

The character connects the first joke to life and the second to love, but I think that both quotes apply to both. Here are the quotes as transcribed by IMDB:

"There's an old joke - um... two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know; and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.

The... the other important joke, for me, is one that's usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud's "Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious," and it goes like this - I'm paraphrasing - um, "I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member." That's the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women."

This monologue is so genius!

So the first quote, to me, is a great summary of life as well as love. One's life and lovelife features no shortage of suffering and unsatisfied desires, yet there is still something in our nature that says we are going to keep trying, keep striving to find true love, or to find happiness, or to improve the world. Even though we face suffering and disappointment and often do not fully achieve our goals, there is something that pleases us about the process of believing and trying. I love the inspiration and the optimism in the thought that even though it seems like those are impossible goals, we, in general, for some reason, choose to affirm life.

The second quote is a bit more complicated, hence the mention of Freud (I don't know if it's true or a joke, by the way). To me, not wanting to be a member of any club that would have someone like yourself as a member is an expression of the equal and universal originality of every human and the rejection of various "labels" such as nationality, socioeconomic class, age, religion and ethnicity. Various philosophers -- perhaps most notably Hegel and more contemporarily Roberto Unger -- have written about the human's natural desire to be "recognized" by other humans. This recognition can take the form of, for example, respect, agreement or understanding, friendship, or love, in all situations being a mutual relationship. Because we desire to be recognized for our originality, we strive for recognition outside of the confines of these "labels," thus being unsatisfied with being accepted by groups that would accept someone like us, and seeking recognition and acceptance among those who, according to society's labels, are different from us, thus invalidating these labels and affirming our originality.

To connect the two ideas, then, perhaps the meaning of life lies in us realizing that it might be impossible but nonetheless is worthwhile and fulfilling to strive for a society in which any person can be a member of any club, not just the ones that they are born into because of social status or nationality or ethnicity, etc (the clubs that would have someone like them as a member), but ones that accept people not for their social labels but rather as an original human being.

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