Illusion and Reality in Uncertain Times

Farewell, 2015. For the most part, the world won’t be sad to see you go, though the future doesn’t necessarily look much clearer. It was a dark year in Europe, whose future hasn’t been this murky since the fall of the Berlin Wall, if not earlier. The West’s adventures in Middle Eastern Whack-a-Mole go on, with ISIS taking center stage. The American political slog, deathly long and devoid of substance, lurched along from one lurid development to the next. Extremist self-righteousness found a home on both sides of the spectrum, and those who hold the middle seem increasingly feeble and unfit for the challenges of these times. Grandstanding and rhetoric take precedence over hard work. The radicals often have good reasons to complain as they do, given how the chips seem to be falling. But no one is really in control, and giving power to fringe figures will only make make the narrative even more incoherent. As Ross Douthat said in his end-of-year column, never in my lifetime has it been more necessary to hedge one’s bets on the stability of liberal democracy and our current world order.

This isn’t news to anyone who reads this blog. Still, even though I’ve been hedging my bets for a good five years now, it’s an ongoing struggle to understand how that looks in practice. Whether this all comes to a head in a crisis or (more likely) just carries on in a banal, decadent muddle, it’s hard to feel terribly excited on a societal level, no matter one’s political orientation or personal beliefs. There are no easy answers, and we’re all in the same boat. Hell, even my favorite hockey team isn’t coming by wins as easily as it used to, though maybe Duluth East’s magical run through the 2015 playoffs is a lesson in how to respond to declinist hysteria: with knowledge of the past, supreme confidence in one’s own efforts, some flashes of artistry, and an overarching grand strategy that pushes the limits of conventional wisdom.

A lot of people will respond poorly to the seeming failures of our times. So, let’s apply our formula, using the wisdom gleaned from the end the Edina dynasty and the 2-3 forecheck.

First, we must learn from the past. There are plenty of examples of how to manage such times (or not manage them), from Athens to Rome to Chinese dynasties to Britain in the twentieth century. These help show us which battles are worth fighting, and when we might be delusional in our dreams. There is no shortage of exasperating aspects of the early twentieth century, and one must fight through all the clutter in search of the more fundamental things that truly matter. Considerations of history let us sort through it all and find the narratives that are most relevant to our current problems.

And make no mistake, the problems are myriad. Anyone who wants to do something about them must ensure that resistance avoids a bunker mentality, or a retreat motivated by fear. It’s not that I oppose the creation of private spaces where people can escape the worst predations of a world beyond a managed liberal consensus; on the contrary, they’re essential. But the manner in which we frame this push, and the language we use to describe it, make all the difference. This can’t come across as a retreat, or settling for what we have, or making do with risk reduction. To do so denies half of human nature, and will never catch on. Even in our cynicism and recognition of the frailty of so many human things, that hunger must still shine through.

Thankfully, there are outlets, and survival in a different sort of world requires creativity. It requires the arts, which can sometimes be far ahead of traditional thinking in how the future might unfold. Whether it’s Brave New World or Michel Houellebecq’s provocative 2015 novel Submission, stories old and new prove instructive. They aren’t gospel, but they give us glimpses of possibilities, and force us to reckon with deeper questions and update old tropes for new eras. Out of this artistry will come the grand strategy, which remains a work in progress.

The way in which we confront this uncertain future will be what decides whether we succeed. This means taking ownership of efforts, appreciating what is good and beautiful, and being willing to take moral stands. This means seeing life as more than the pursuit of mere happiness, but giving it a greater trajectory. The goal isn’t one of contentment, but of leaving behind something that we can take pride in when the curtain comes down. This doesn’t mean neglecting the mundane goals in life; they, too, are essential for making it all hold together.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have some idea of the method. For a quote that gets at the gist of it, I’ll turn to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which should have won a best picture Oscar this year: “Maybe his world had vanished before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” With one caveat, that is: the line between illusion and reality can blur, and if one sustains something long enough. I tried to do that this year, pushing myself to new limits in taking on several billion tasks, and as the year comes to a close, I’m pleased with my work on nearly every front. There’s still plenty to do; some progress is tenuous, and there are still parts of life where I’m far from satisfied with my own efforts. But the anxiety bred by those failings is entirely healthy, and keeps me going. As it must.

As 2016 starts, let’s not have any illusions. I’m a year older, a year more jaded, and another year out from the glory days. And yet I’m more active than ever, better-connected than before, and as inspired to get things done as I’ve been in years. (My ego seems to be nice and healthy, too.) For inspiration, we’ll turn to Tennyson, who captures the sentiment of the oldest tale of navigating human nature between the worlds of beasts and gods, The Odyssey:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Wes Anderson’s Nostalgia

“His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” 

–Zero Moustafa on M. Gustave, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Last week I wrote about the nostalgia underlying the work of Gabriel García Márquez, which gives me a nice segue to talk a bit about Wes Anderson, who is the platonic ideal of a nostalgic artist. Whether they nod back to childhood (as in Rushmore or Moonrise Kingdom) or noticeably heavier affairs (Darjeeling Limited, The Grand Budapest Hotel), the basic theme is not hard to miss. Anderson carts his viewers into a past world; an absurd one, and sometimes a very depraved one, but always a funny one that develops a curious warmth to it.

That’s how nostalgia works. The time we look back on with such fondness wasn’t all love and roses. Childhood is often tumultuous and awkward, but in retrospect its struggles seem like novelties, so we forget those and remember only the supposed freedom and innocence. (For somewhat different reasons, I’m a pretty big high school nostalgic—I love high school sports and coming-of-age stories and am fiercely loyal to my alma mater for what it did for me—but a trip back into my high school journals is still pretty terrifying.) Historical nostalgia is often even worse; yes, grand old hotels and British country estates look pretty, but that prettiness is often only possible due to an absurd concentration of wealth, and forgets that most of humanity is toiling in the muck while a handful of lucky ones live in luxury.

Anderson knows all of this. His nostalgia certainly isn’t a shiny, happy one, and one gathers from his childhood-themed films—which do have autobiographical elements—that he had a rather bizarre childhood. The films wrestle with that, and with any number of struggles great and small. His coping mechanism, clearly, is humor: he takes reality and embellishes it with nutty flourishes and over-the-top satire. Indeed, his films’ greatest weakness may be their tendency to lapse into a theater of the absurd and lose everyone in the goofiness. It’s a way of laughing off past injury, and it’s wonderfully postmodern in its rejection of anything too earnest, but beyond that façade, one really has to look for anything concrete.

It is there, though. The escape from postmodern emptiness comes in a return to the past. In a return to roots, and to acceptance of reality not as it’s been idealized in theories, but as it has become through history. That means heading back to roots and acknowledging them, even if there is a fair bit of mockery involved, too. Rushmore Academy in Rushmore may be a strange and in many ways unappealing place, but it’s still a source of dignity and pride.

Likewise with the world created in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s easy to take civilization and refinement and decorum for granted, and forget how tenuous they often are. Yes, they may seem more than a little silly when you look at their core, but ritual need not make complete logical sense to be sincere. When framed against the invading fascists and bloodthirsty heirs, the Grand Budapest looks wholesome and innocent, and M. Gustave’s exploits are a sort of child’s play; the triumphant tinkering of a man who’s gamed the system and won. He may seem an absurd character, but he’s so alluring because he has something figured out about life; something that ropes in everyone around him and makes them believe in him.

This brings us back to the quote at the top of the piece, and it’s one that applies to Anderson as well as his protagonist. He’s not exactly trying to bring back the past, nor is he even trying to create a fantasy past that never really was. He knows it wasn’t. Instead, he creates an homage to the past through his work, and gives it a timeless life of its own. Wes Anderson characters become masters of their own little realms, and run them with honor and dignity. I don’t really buy the claim that these traits are rarer than they used to be, but they certainly don’t come around every day, and that is probably why they endure. Sure, it can often be a façade; all of Anderson’s heroes have their foibles, and one could certainly claim that this is enough to condemn them. But there is also a sense that class and presentation matter, and that this is the way to build a legacy.

Does that alone go far enough? No; not in my mind, which is why Anderson will likely remain a hipster curiosity, and not an enduring icon of cinema. But it is a start, and a thoroughly enjoyable one for those of us whose minds are prone to search history for guides to the present.