Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What Makes Life Worth Living?

Here's Woody Allen. It's a shot from Manhattan, near the end of the film. He's speaking into a tape recorder and pondering the question of what makes life worth living. He's on the couch, of course--a reference to psychoanalysis. It's worth watching the clip of these moments, as he discovers his answer. The acting is so natural, and his list is such a celebration of specificity. Also, it's such an antidote to discomfort, the recurrent theme of this blog.
     Although discomfort is a recurrent theme in Woody's films and in all art and literature, sometimes we need a break. Lately, I've been seeking comforts, and in this idea--that it's the tiny moments and gifts that make life worth living--I have somewhat found it. 
     This is not a make-your-own-list-a-la-Woody challenge. Trying to do so after watching his performance on the couch in some senses feels like a pale imitation. But yesterday, as I walked around my town, I did try to notice the details that give me pleasure: a beautifully constructed stone retaining wall in someone's garden, living in a town with large trees and a variety of interesting houses, the tiny perfect blue flowers on the "false forget-me-nots" in my yard (nothing about them seems false to me, but this is their name; and they are just a memory at the moment, as they bloom in the spring and early summer and I never take enough time to look at them), the taste of a juicy peach (made especially compelling this morning when I read the NY Times article about Roger Ebert, who can no longer eat anything but remembers flavors and smells), the anniversary gift my husband gave me to celebrate our 27th year together--a subscription to The Paris Review, which he got interested in after reading an article in the Financial Times about the new editor. Oh, baby, I have tears in my eyes. If that man doesn't know me, who does? If that isn't a gift that goes to some of my deepest values and longings, what would be? Maybe I can't do it as well as Woody Allen, but I'm trying.
     On a related note, What Makes Life Worth Living is the theme at the University of Michigan this fall. And it is in this context that they (the University of Michigan Honors College) chose my book as the one for incoming freshman to read over the summer (which I believe is about to end). I have been pondering the connection between my book and this theme. Certainly, having it chosen in this context is something that makes life worth living. But in the book itself? How does it fit? Was the selection panel thinking about the characters and what they do in the book? That is, trying to connect with others? Taking risks? Feeling connected to a place enough that losing it would matter? By the time I go to visit the campus in November, I'd like to have arrived at an answer. Maybe a session on the couch with a tape recorder would help?

10 comments:

rasirds@cox.net said...

I think some objectivity is necessary here. I've read all the books I can find about Detroit - and there are many. None have attempted to explain the reasons a once fine city fell by describing its people, their feelings and the way they chose or were forced to cope with the horrors that befell all of us who loved, worked and enjoyed Detroit. GRAND RIVER AND JOY addresses these issues compassionately and factually.

Your book is especially dear to those of us who lived during the good times and the bad, but the theme of what happened is one that is affecting many cities in the United States. Detroit was the first Katrina, but our government didn't notice. Now I believe GRAND RIVER AND JOY now serves a much larger national and international audience.

I believe your book was chosen to draw attention to what is happening politically and culturally in our country to incoming students at the University of Michigan.

This honor is well deserved!

vintner said...

Love. . .feeling loved. . .feeling known...to extend Woody's list and to reiterate items from Susan's.

Finally the word psychoanalysis appears in this blog, not on Woody's list, however. Woody had an article in Esquire, I think it was, last year where he doesn't acknowledge any particular benefit having resulted from his, apparent years as a patient in psychoanalysis---but actually there is some question as to whether that WAS the treatment he engaged in or was rather some pale imitation that became a target of his mockery. Psychoanalysis the treatment and psychoanalysis the literature of psychoanalysis. Did anyone out there ever read Freud's paper on Gradiva. That paper reads like a Mann short story, analyzed. Jung sent the novel, it was a German novel, to Freud for his consideration, and what a fine love story it is! I recommend Freud's paper on it as the novel itself is probably unobtainable but Freud tells the story in its entirety. The paper is called Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva, and can be found in the Standard Edition of The Complete psychological Works of Sigmund Freud which can be found in most university libraries. But, psychoanalysis as a treatment is a fine vintage, powerfully evocative and healing.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks, rasirds and vintner. I was thinking that the items on Woody's list are mostly sensory (sounds [all the music he lists], sights [Tracy's face, a painting], tastes [those crabs]). There are also the Swedish films. This last item is more along the line of Gradvia--a work of art that speaks to the reader/viewer/listener on every level. It's an honor to feel that someone might see/experience my novel that way.

Jim Poznak said...

I was most interested in Woody's hesitation, and how he pondered the question and the answer. Perhaps its because there are so many things that make life worth living, and not just the few of our favorite things.

Susan Messer said...

Interesting observation, Mr. P. We (or at least I) need to take more time to notice.

Jody said...

Human connection. Grand River and Joy is so much about this.

Jody said...

Human connection makes life worth living, even in awful circumstances. Grand River and Joy speaks of this to me.

Susan Messer said...

Aww. Thanks so much for stopping by, and for saying that, Jody.

Margaret P. said...

I'm proud to announce that last night I finished reading GRAND RIVER AND JOY--and I loved it. I realize that finishing a novel for the first time in two years (maybe more?) is probably not something to be particularly proud of, but we all choose different things to Make Life Worth Living, right?

I chose to spend part of my beach vacation reading GRAND RIVER AND JOY because one of the things that makes life worth living to me is sharing things that make me joyful with people I sense will--at the very least--appreciate what it is about that thing that makes me joyful. That's a round-about way of saying being appreciated or at least understood.

And because Susan is a person whose appreciation and understanding I value very, very highly, there was no way I was not going to read Susan's novel, even if novels are not my thing. I just had to find a stretch of time.

So, to the blog topic, it did not strike me that the novel was about What Makes Life Worth Living. But upon reflection, it would seem that Harry had three events in his life that epitomized what made life worth living. They were when he broke away from his family without telling anyone where he was going (or when he "lied" about who he was, e.g., heavy suitcase)--and the experiences he had as a result. In these moments he set himself free from his struggles.

Which is not to say that the other "events" portrayed in the novel were not meaningful or important to Harry, but he struggles through it all--the bicycle giveaway (wonderful, wonderful scene), discovering Alvin's basement salon and his engrossing relationship with Alvin, trying to relate to Curtis as an equal, standing up to his business community, neighbors, and in-laws....What Harry takes away from these experiences is not clear so we don't know if they made life worth living for him.

There is much more to say about the novel, but the beach is calling me!

Susan Messer said...

Thank you, dear. Enjoy the beach. I'm just imagining what it would be like for me to be walking on a beach and see someone reading my book.