Faith, Delusions & Woody Allen

'Magic in the Moonlight' movie still

‘Magic in the Moonlight’ by Woody Allen, movie still

In the time of emotional turbulences in my life, I tend to become a bit of a film addict. I often turn to my favourite directors and re-watch old movies. Recently, it was Woody Allen, who I have been a fan of ever since I was old enough to watch “adult” films.

The two films I chose to re-watch, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and Magic in the Moonlight (2014), explore a very similar topic: faith vs. rationality. This was a purely accidental choice, though it strangely coincided with some events in my personal life. A close friend of mine had recently been prescribed anti-depressants. That friend is a devoted believer and a very spiritual person, who has always seen significance in everything that a non-religious person would consider random. Her recent breakdown, which I found very upsetting, made me think a lot about the common notion of religious people being sheltered from depression.

In Magic in the Moonlight, which takes place in the 1920s—time of exquisite fashion, jazz and an interest in séances—we have Stanley aka Wei Ling Soo, a celebrity illusionist who is on a mission to expose the trickstery behind the work of Sophie, a young woman who claims to be a medium. His long-held atheistic and rational views of the world and unmoderated condescension towards anyone who thinks otherwise are challenged when it becomes clear that Sophie does indeed have magic powers to predict the future. The discovery that “there is something more to our life than we see” turns bitter and cold Stanley into a much happier person. But as he is on the verge of starting to believe in God and prayer, his rational mind begins to rebel and Sophie does in fact turn out to be charlatan.

In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, we have a group of characters, who, typically for Allen, get their lives complicated in various, both dramatic and comical, ways, and mostly end up unhappy. This includes Roy, a one-book writer who ends up destroying his marriage and career. He lives off the financial support of Helena, his mother-in-law, whose spirituality he viciously mocks. Yet the recently divorced Helena, who takes advice from a fortune-teller, and her new friend Jonathan, a widower, who runs an occultist shop and tried to contact his departed wife, are the only characters who are genuinely happy.

By making the rational Stanley grim and unhappy, and the rational Roy a self-destroying loser, Woody Allen makes a very strong point about atheists being unable to find true happiness. At the press conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, asked to share his views on the subject of Helena and Jonathan, Woody Allen said:

“This is my perspective, and has always been my perspective on life. I have a very grim, pessimistic view of it, I always have since I was a little boy, it hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies, and deceive yourself. And I’m not the first person to say this or the most articulate person, it was said by Nietzsche, it was said by Freud, it was said by Eugene O’Neill: one must have one’s delusions to live, if you look at life too honestly and clearly, life does become unbearable because it’s a pretty grim enterprise. So I feel that those people are the only two people that are happy, they are capable of deluding themselves. If I saw them at a party in real life I would think that they were foolish people and dumb, and silly, and I would laugh at them, but they would be happier than me.”

'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' movie still

‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’ by Woody Allen, movie still

If we disregard Allen’s dry and sarcastic sense of humour, his perception of faith as the happiness-bringing factor was until recently a common belief among psychiatrists. It was believed that religion and spirituality can provide shelter from depression. But a recent study, analysed by Dr Raj Persaud in an article for the Huffington Post, has demonstrated that “there is an opposite relationship between religious belief and depression. Religion, and even more, spirituality not tied to formal religion, appears to be unhelpful in terms of protecting you from low mood, and could even be linked with more depression.”

When reality does not meet our expectations, we are likely to feel bitter, sad and hopeless. The problem with religion is that it creates unrealistic expectations: unanswered prayers are likely to deepen our frustration. If we then add a sense of guilt on top of that (prayers haven’t been unanswered because we don’t deserve kindness etc.), the result can be crushing. Accepting the randomness of life takes away a big chunk of the frustration that comes from futile attempts at examining the reasons behind everything that happen to us. To quote Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics, “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.” (Androcles and the Lion, Preface, 1916)

Of course, what religion can bring to one’s life is a very strong sense of purpose and meaning. According to Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl, who conducted his research in concentration camps as well as at a private clinic after the war, these two things—purpose and meaning—are crucial for individuals to survive and thrive in life. Frankl, mentioned by Gleb Tsipursky in his article for The Richard Dawkins Foundation, called them a “will-to-meaning.” Tsipursky mentions also Michael F. Steger, a psychologist and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, whose research “demonstrates that people who have a sense of life meaning and purpose feel in general more happy as well as more satisfied on a daily level, and also feel less depressed, anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.”

But religion is not the only path to gain a sense of life meaning and purpose. Having discovered that Sophie doesn’t possess any magic powers and that most likely there is nothing more to our life than we see, Stanley from Magic in the Moonlight doesn’t go back to bitterness and grimness. He falls in love with Sophie and this new love gives his life a whole new meaning.

Naturally, love is not guaranteed to happen to everyone, so it’s best to look for purpose in things that are within our reach and ability. Self-development, working on emotional intelligence, getting better at interacting with people and forming relationships, making a contribution towards the society, making use of our skills and the time we have, learning and sharing our knowledge, being a great partner/parent, becoming a sportsman, a musician, a politician, a scientist —there is an infinite number of things, big and small, one can choose as their purpose. On a website dedicated to lifting the prejudice many feel towards nonbelievers, we can read how various atheists define their purpose and meaning in life:  “What makes me happy is the ability, freedom, and courage to follow my dream.”, “I find my happiness in watching my children and grandchildren grow and mature.”, “Whether I’m in the lab investigating cellular respiration, or on stage making your feet move, my happiness is passionate and personal. I live on a big, beautiful planet with the health and freedom to explore it any way I choose. Add to that a world full of diverse altruistic humans who make every day unique and valuable.”, says Mark D. Hatcher, CFI–Washington, DC.

These ultra-positive testimonials clash with Woody Allen’s grim views on life. Given his speech at the conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, I would imagine him laugh at the “beautiful planet” sentiment. Still, however cynical he might be, he has his own purpose: telling stories. His relentlessness to make films with the regularity that doesn’t cease to amaze critics and audience makes it obvious that to him, film-making is the “delusion” he considers crucial to make life more bearable. Films, theatre, literature, any sort of storytelling can provide a great deal of healthy escapism—both for the creators and the audience—that is healthy precisely because we don’t question its fictitiousness.

The Atheist Bus Campaign, image by LeoLondon (CC)

The Atheist Bus Campaign, image by LeoLondon (CC)

The approach atheists take towards the nonexistence of God, varies greatly. Allen’s is a cynical yet charming mockery with the acknowledgment that religion does have some merits: “To me … there’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful”, he said in an interview for The New York Times. Darwinist Richard Dawkins, one of the most vocal and active anti-religion warriors, and the author of The God Delusion bestseller, certainly wouldn’t share Allen’s lenient attitude. Dawkins considers religion as a whole “a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality”, and compares it to a kind of mental illness. Likewise, Steve Pavlina, famous American self-help author and entrepreneur, bluntly rejects all aspects of religion, and is not afraid to ridicule them in his blog post titled 10 Reasons You Should Never Have a Religion. Pavlina says:

“For reasonably intelligent people who aren’t suffering from major issues with low self-esteem, religion is ridiculously consciousness-lowering. While some religious beliefs can be empowering, on the whole the decision to formally participate in a religion will merely burden your mind with a hefty load of false notions. (…) Religion is spiritual immaturity. It’s entirely possible to enjoy your life without spending so much of it bent over in submission. Pull your head out of your rear, and look around with your own two eyes. If you need something to worship, then feel grateful for your own conscious mind.”

But writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has recently protested against dismissing religion as a whole, and came up with what he calls Atheism 2.0, which can take inspiration and positive elements from religions without the belief in God, deities or supernatural spirits. In a very popular TED talk, de Botton says that “there is something to learn from the example of religion—even if you don’t believe any of it. If you’re involved in anything that’s communal, that involves lots of people getting together, there are things for you in religion. If you’re involved, say, in a travel industry in any way, look at pilgrimage. (…) If you’re in the art world, look at the example of what religions are doing with art. And if you’re an educator in any way, again, look at how religions are spreading ideas. You may not agree with the ideas, but my goodness, they’re highly effective mechanisms for doing so.” Asked about what Atheism 2.0 can offer in place for spiritual experience, de Botton says that one can find the “so-called spiritual moments” in science and observation, without believing in the spirit. “I, like many of you, meet people who say things like, “But isn’t there something bigger than us, something else?” And I say, “Of course.” And they say, “So aren’t you sort of religious?” And I go, “No.” Why does that sense of mystery, that sense of the dizzying scale of the universe, need to be accompanied by a mystical feeling? Science and just observation gives us that feeling without it, so I don’t feel the need. The universe is large and we are tiny, without the need for further religious superstructure.”

Alain de Botton at TED

Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0 at TED

Alain de Botton has been widely criticised in the atheist community, but I am much more sympathetic to his ideas than the hard-headed atheists. As an ex-believer brought up in an ultra-Catholic country, I am very aware of the dangers of an organized religion, and the way it hampers the development of conscience. At the same time, I can see the benefits of some of its elements: the community, the rituals, the routine (I’ve written about the merits of routine in the past). I agree with Alain de Botton when he says that “The people in (…) the secular world, who are interested in matters of the spirit, in matters of the mind, in higher soul-like concerns, tend to be isolated individuals. They’re poets, they’re philosophers, they’re photographers, they’re filmmakers. And they tend to be on their own.” As much as I love science and data, I would happily share with fellow atheists and agnostics not just facts and figures, but the experience of, for lack of better word, soul-searching, mindfulness, meditation—and the dizziness I feel when I look at NASA’s photo of Andromeda galaxy.

I do believe that turning into one’s own mind for answers and recognizing that the ability to be happy lies in our own hands, not someone else’s, is incredibly powerful and positive. As charming and funny as I find Helena’s character in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, my sympathy goes to her daughter Sally who deals with things as they are and decides to follow her dream of opening an art gallery. But at the end of the day, religion is a choice, and everyone is free to identify their own sources of happiness and comfort—even if they are a complete delusion.

To quote Woody Allen: Whatever Works.

Solitude, routine & art

On the last day of December 2013, I wrote a post called The Art of Tidying Up, in which I briefly touched on the subject of regularity and order in an artist’s life. Since then, I have been giving a lot of thought to ways of improving not just the efficiency of work but also one’s emotional well-being. I often come across this romantic idea of artists working “whenever the inspiration strikes,” while the rest of the time they socialize with their arty friends in arty places, attend extravagant parties etc. But I also know how difficult it is to sustain a career and one’s sanity with no boss and rigorous boundaries, and how many artists suffer from various mental conditions. I recently read artist Oliver Michael Robertson’s moving and honest account of living with a bi-polar syndrome, which is not uncommon among creative types. Not to mention hundreds of websites dedicated to famous artists and writers who committed suicide as a result of depression. I am not going to speculate on the probability of the theory that links creativity with mental disorders, but I have a strong belief that the lifestyle people lead very much affects the work they do and their emotional health.

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

I have always immensely enjoyed reading about the daily life of creative people, and I often found it more fascinating than the work itself. Therefore I was particularly happy to stumble on the Daily Routines blog, written by Mason Currey, which after two years became the Daily Rituals book, published by Knopf. It presents the routines and working habits of 161 creative minds, i.e. novelists, poets, playwrights, composers, painters, philosophers, and scientists. What is interesting is that apart from the occasional odd habits such as measuring the exact number of coffee beans (Beethoven), applying a variety of stimulants and sedatives at particular times of the day (W. H. Auden), or taking precisely timed naps (Bergman), there are obvious patterns in the daily lives of successful people.

MChabocka Ingmar Bergman drawing

Ingmar Bergman said that movie-making is “Eight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film,”  while Gertrude Stein stressed the importance of being systematic: “If you write a half-hour a day, it makes a lot of writing year by year.”  Of course, some people are able to instantly get into their work and do a big chunk of it in a relatively short space of time, while others need to actually chain themselves to a chair for the day to make sure they get something out if it, hence the Bergman and Stein examples. But the main thing is to work systematically. And, actually, most people are like Bergman in that they need a long span of focused work to create worthy things. In the last chapter of Tim Harford’s book Adapt, which is about embracing the idea of failure, there is a great passage describing the daily regime of Twyla Tharp, a cerebral choreographer: “She rises at 5.30am to work out, improvising alone or (…) with a young dancer; ‘scratching’, looking for ideas. She films three hours of improvisation and is pleased enough if she can find thirty seconds that she can use.

A daily routine is something that I have been shaping up for a while now, though it has never been set in stone since the different projects that I work on (painting, writing, animation etc.) have different demands, and require alterations to an existing routine. Having been working for myself for several years now (if one doesn’t count odd part-time jobs and residencies), I have experimented with enough different work cycles, patterns and approaches to give me an idea of what works best for me. There was for example a time when I would work in a trance until 2-3am, after which I would spend an extra half an hour cleaning the oven or mopping the floor just to get my thoughts off the project and wind down enough to get sleepy. The mornings were awful though, and I would then struggle until the afternoon, half-asleep, headachy and grumpy. Another time I would get up at 6am and go straight to my desk but found myself exhausted later on. Still, I enjoyed the idea of getting up early and it was a matter of finding out just how early is optimal for me.

I decided it would be 7am. And so, inspired by Steve Pavlina’s blog post on becoming an early riser (which I can’t recommend enough especially if you’re addicted to snoozing and keep getting up an hour or two hours later after your desirable time), this January I trained myself to get up at 7am every day. I work until 8.30am (though I normally choose light-weight tasks) after which I exercise, have breakfast, get dressed etc. and from 10am I’m back at my desk, table or easel. I work until 7pm with an hour lunch break, and occasionally I do some more work after supper but I try not to.

W. H. Auden, who lived by a very strict timetable throughout his life, said that “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.” In a beautiful introduction to his book Daily Rituals, Mason Currey says that “in the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage for a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all), as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.” It is a popular misconception that regularity kills creativity for it is actually the opposite. Very few people can cope with the state of perpetual chaos and, if they’re serious about their work, not get irritated with their own sloppiness and procrastination. Even Francis Bacon, notoriously associated with chaos and wild life because of his cluttered studio and fondness of drinking and gambling, was in Michael Peppiatt’s words, “a creature of habit.” In an article on the Guardian website, which quotes from Currey’s book, we can read that William James, one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century, argued that by making several  aspects of our daily life automatic and habitual we can

“free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.” Subsequent findings about “cognitive bandwidth” and the limitations of willpower have largely substantiated James’s hunch: if you waste resources trying to decide when or where to work, you’ll impede your capacity to do the work. Don’t consider afresh each morning whether to work on your novel for 45 minutes before the day begins; once you’ve resolved that that’s just what you do, it’ll be far more likely to happen.

MChabocka C. S. Lewis drawing

Another aspect is solitude, something that becomes increasingly difficult for people to embrace today. Currey quotes C. S. Lewis who in his autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy (1955) wrote: “It is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock.” Today, nearly seventy years later, the same could be applied to emails, posts, messages and tweets – the everyday distraction number one for creative people. I know very few people who don’t have a Facebook account, and most of those who have one, are completely obsessed with liking, commenting, and sharing all day long.

The truth is that despite the benefits (staying in touch with people, especially those who live abroad, or getting updates on events etc.), Facebook is a massive time and energy-waster. But for a lot of people, lack of contact with others and various types of stimuli is unbearable. In a very interesting blog post on solitude writer Joe Fassler quotes from Dorthe Nors’ book Karate Chop:

Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you (…) you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.

MChabocka Dorthe Nors drawing

Nors stresses the importance of  being able to sit alone and push through the loneliness, the boredom, the anger etc. “That’s the hard part,” she says, “pushing through the bad.” Facebook and email are an easy way out of the painful zone, but one that is destructive to the work. However, despite knowing this, like most people I am not very good at controlling the time I spend on Facebook. And because I value my time more than meaningless online interactions and the buzz one gets from “sharing” stuff, I recently decided that I need radical solutions. Inspired by Pavlina’s another great article, I therefore took a 30 day break from my personal account on Facebook (I kept my fan-page) to evaluate the benefits. Well, it was fantastic. I got all the work done that I wanted with very little distraction and felt like there was no unnecessary stuff occupying my head. Though I admit it, it did feel lonely at times. But I pushed through the loneliness and felt rewarded in the end. I also found out that while there are things I am able to work on with moderate distractions, if, like this year, I’m working on a surreal and dark graphic novel, I absolutely have to submerge myself in it without poking my head out every 30mins or so. Last week, I very reluctantly returned to Facebook only because of the upcoming exhibition (it is amazing how many people prefer to RSVP to Facebook invites rather than emails), but I plan to deactivate the account again in May.

Finally, I will repeat after Dorthe Nors (we’re both fans of Bergman’s autobiographical book Laterna Magica) that it’s not pain, illegal substances, love affairs etc. that make a great writer but discipline and time spent alone. Even if, like Twyla Tharp, I only get a few good lines done in a day, the fact that I spent the time experimenting, thinking, making mistakes and correcting them as opposed to clicking on cat photos, is already satisfying.

MChabocka Twyla Tharp drawing