Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sweet bird of resignation

It's about three forty five in the AM and I'm being an old man, sitting here with a cup of chamomile tea and waiting for an order of sand to be thrown into my eyes by the sandman himself but he ain't showing up on time, for whatever reason. Might as well blacken some pages.

I've been thinking and writing quite a bit as of late on the theme of resignation. This particular word gets used a lot in the existentialist tradition, which is a genre of philosophy centered on the lived experience of the human person, as opposed to the kind of philosophy that is centered on some bullshit, abstract theory that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything remotely resembling human life (read = most philosophy). Resignation is also important in a lot of the grand spiritual traditions. Our Buddha friends call it detachment, the Stoics called it apatheia, and The Dude called it Not Giving a Fuck. Whatever you call it, it's an important principle. A real gasser, as Louie Armstrong used to say.

But what do we mean by resignation? Albert Camus, one of the coolest existentialist cats of all times (guy looked like Bogart, wore an amazing trench coat and worked for the French resistance in WWII) wrote in his book The Myth of Sisyphus that human life is fundamentally absurd, and that a lot of our unhappiness comes from our inability to accept or resign ourselves to this basic truth. What Camus means by "absurd" here is a bit complicated but I think anyone who has done even a little bit of living can agree that there is something fundamentally fucked up about the human condition. We usually don't have a clue what's going on, either with ourselves or the world around us, but we pretend that we do. We put on these masks or projections of what we would like to be, as opposed to who we are. We are all shy, insecure, riddled with anxiety, worried about death and loneliness and love and how much we weigh and whether or not we're going to get laid and instead of being honest about this stuff we pretend it isn't there and in the process fuck ourselves up even more.

Resignation is about letting go of the masks, of accepting the fucked-uppedness of our condition and even embracing it. The weird thing is that the more honest we are about our own insecurities the better we feel about them. That loveable cokehead-genius Freud understood this very well and it thus became the central facet of modern psychoanalysis. Yet, as Camus and company point out, any endeavor to face the absurd can become an attempt to escape it, which is ultimately impossible. Going to a shrink (or going to AA, or finding Jesus or whatever) can be very good and healthy as long as you never think that you have found The Answer, as long as you don't think that you've got it all figured out (a lot of psychologists/psychiatrists suffer from this unfortunate condition, also known as having your head up your ass). Because thinking you have it all figured out is the cause of the problem, the center of your pain.

Resignation not only helps us to feel better but it also makes us better human beings. Leonard Cohen captured this beautifully in his song "Anthem" where he writes: "There is a crack in everything/That's how the Light gets in." It is only by embracing our frailty that we can become compassionate, sensitive people. If we're so busy being cool and together all the time, which is bullshit anyway, we won't have the openness and vulnerability that is needed to love people, which is what life is all about.

I've been trying to think of films that capture this theme well. There have been certain flicks that have helped me to cope with my own neuroses and depression and general state of being messed up and almost all of these portray the theme of resignation in one way or another. Definitely Office Space, that brilliant Marxist critique of modern capitalism that also gives us such a joyous portrait of letting go. I show that film every year in a philosophy class I teach as we go through the works of Camus and Kierkegaard. Kurosawa's Ikiru. Five Easy Pieces touches on this theme in a really interesting way, showing how incredibly hard it is to let go, how we're constantly dragged back into the pit of ourselves. Also Easy Rider, trying to find freedom in a world that is set on crushing you. In fact, a lot of the darkness that makes the late 60's, early to mid seventies era of Hollywood so fucking great is the willingness to examine the failure of resignation, of wanting to be free of whatever it is that enslaves us, whether it be external forces or the shackles of our own psyches, and ultimately failing to do so. Not a surprising thematic current, given the fact that America had almost undergone a revolution which was soon to be replaced with an apocalyptic onslaught of consumerism and cultural superficiality. There's an element of hopefulness in spite of the darkness in those films, though, the sense that it's better to die trying than to live a life of bad faith and conformity. American Beauty is obviously a more current meditation on resignation, though I've found the film doesn't age too well, at least not to my sensibilities. There's something too Buddhist-preachy about Allan Ball's screenplay, though the direction and performances are still great. (Total aside here: There's an interview with Thora Birch in the Guardian, basically asking what the fuck happened to her. Worth a read). Cameron Crowe's filmography seems centered on this theme, especially Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown and the fantastic Almost Famous. High Fidelity is a meditation on this issue that hits especially close to home for the Gen X/Y crowd. A beautiful film.

Any other suggestions? Which films come to mind that deal with letting go, of the healing that comes with taking a break from trying to be perfect?

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