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Baron Wormser: The Good Life

   A friend of mine once remarked that the 2013 Woody Allen movie Blue Jasmine was not so much a movie as an advertisement for a credit card company. The movie, the tale of a woman, Jasmine, who falls, due to her husband’s fraudulent financial dealings, from a very high perch of The Good Life, features several scenes that epitomize and mythologize All A Person Might Want. (I capitalize because this is the realm of consumer demigods and totemic states of being.) Viewers are treated to flashbacks of Jasmine’s history—opulent summer house, opulent apartment, opulent appurtenances, opulent cars. After her disgrace (she is reduced to selling shoes and working as a receptionist), she meets a man, a diplomat, who has bought a very nice house in Marin County and who falls for Jasmine who, as a desperate liar, has told him not that she is a medicated wreck whose husband committed suicide in jail but rather that she is an interior decorator whose surgeon husband died of a heart attack. We are treated to a scene of the two of them at a large empty house with a marvelous view that the diplomat has purchased recently and even a scene of them doing some antique browsing in the very nice countryside. Unfortunately, things don’t work out for Jasmine. Her addiction to The Good Life, along with pills and alcohol (different appurtenances) blinds her to just about everything, beginning with herself as a human being. 

   The movie is a moral tale of a sort but a qualified one since Allen, who set a number of his later pictures in glamorous locales—Barcelona, Paris, Rome, San Francisco—has a more than sneaky fondness for the appurtenances, as in “Here is The Good Life. Who can argue with it? Isn’t this what we all want?” Of course there are various “real” characters present who don’t want that life at all but who are very much in the role of “real,” working class folks (including Jasmine’s sister) and function as sociological decor. Jasmine begins the movie talking to herself and ends the movie talking to herself. The Good Life can blow a person away. Yes, but isn’t it lovely? Who wouldn’t want to stand on the deck of the Marin house overlooking the bay and gaze out? Who wouldn’t want to swan around in lovely clothes and drink lovely wine and have lovely friends? The planet exists as nothing so much as a stage set in which we can live The Good Life, a Tale of Much and More, of Happiness Unbound.  Money can buy quite a lot. 

   Picking on Woody Allen is hardly fair, since all the moral chatter about liberty, equality, and justice along with the political shenanigans (and worse) of the moment, as exemplified by such serious organs as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, can feel on any relentlessly advertised day like so much wallpaper spread over the Great Engine of Material Desire that is pushing everyone to a Higher Lifestyle. You can call the chatter well-meaning; you can call the chatter hypocrisy. It doesn’t matter since the bottom line is The Good Life and the endless advice about how to get there. As John Fowles put it in his essay “Islands” the talk is all about: “where to go, what to enjoy, how to enjoy, when to enjoy to such a clogging, blurring extent that our modern duty to enjoy is nowadays almost as peremptory—and destructive—as the old Puritan’s need to renounce pleasure.” Jasmine is a parody of the materialist pleasure-glutton but most of us are walking around with those credit cards in our wallets and purses. We have plastic in our souls, assuming we recognize something like “soul,” at this far-fetched point in time. Staring at the appurtenances that graced Jasmine’s swanky yet ultra-tasteful domiciles, the viewer may wonder where did all this stuff come from? Perhaps that is the final, sad genius of the era—A Great Deal of Stuff. Jasmine prefers the high-class versions, but the sheer force of acquisitiveness, as Allen’s locales attest, comprises a planetary fact, if not a fate.

   No one dragoons Jasmine into the ranks of The Good Life. She drifts into it through marriage and likes it. Why not? Every day the society in which she finds herself is telling her she wants to want. The species of torture found in Greek mythology and Dante’s Inferno—something near yet further than the damned can reach—is precisely the opposite in modern times where, one way or another, you can get whatever is being dangled in front of you. Desire, however outrageous, is good for you. The torment, which is Jasmine’s fate, is when you lose The Good Life and are presented with mere life on its own—not glamorous but “homey,” to use the word Jasmine applies with a grimace in her voice to her sister’s modest digs. What could be more odious than contentment?

   If Jasmine encountered the Greek twins—Socrates and Plato—during her college days, they didn’t make a big impression on her. She is glad to lead the unexamined life and glad to renounce the notion of ideals—or never bother with them in the first place. The appurtenances are not only actual but delightful, flattering, comfortable, exciting, and a raft of other pleasant adjectives. Jasmine can shop her well-coiffed head off; her dependency on things is no problem as long as she has them. The Good Life shines with the vibrancy of 24/7 neon—no shadows need apply, though she suspects—rightly—that her husband is playing around. Most mortals would look at Cate Blanchett, the actress portraying Jasmine, and wonder what’s with her husband. This woman isn’t good enough? But The Good Life is like that—never enough because display and pursuit are bound to predominate, two striving, socioeconomic dogs chasing their status-driven tails. It’s a hellish vision, a frighteningly human vision.

   Socrates and Plato were interested in thinking about how we might live here on earth. “Thinking” is, admittedly, a messy word, but they were keen on trying to find out what might be lurking amid the mass of prejudices, opinions, beliefs, fears, convictions, and superstitions that human beings carry around like so much mental lint. What, for instance, might The Good Life constitute? We know Jasmine’s take; her sister Ginger is also urban, though déclassé, which means life on earth as an earthy experience—plants, animals, birds, trees, weather—doesn’t enter Allen’s very anthropocentric view. Ginger doesn’t have a dog or cat to remind Jasmine there’s more to existence than her unhappiness. Hip locales, in any case, transcend the earth: we’re here for the view.

   No one in the movie is going to press a copy of the counter-culture classic Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing, published in 1954 and still very much in print, into Jasmine’s world-weary yet grasping hands. The subtitle of the book says it all: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. Allen is interested in how one knot becomes another knot. Undoing the knot is not his concern, which is his artistic prerogative. Clearly the movie would be taking a different turn if Jasmine showed up at an organic farm in California and was sent out in the morning to tend to the chickens. However delusional she has become, Jasmine has become aware of the “troubled world.” She’s part of it. It’s the adverbs the Nearings use that are the kicker. No glamour in those words, no cachet, no envy, no mania. We’re talking about a drink of water, a bowl of popcorn, and an apple. No dinner parties of smart people telling one another where they just flew to and where they are flying next. No Hollywood either and the various media constructs that now run the planet and construct “reality.” 

   Jasmine would be appalled at the Nearings’ take on life but Jasmine’s take has some pretty big holes in it, as Allen makes plain. Ginger is much closer to the ground but the ground is about class not compost. The genius of the Nearings lay in their trying to take control of their lives. To be sure, money is going to have its hooks in all of us but the degree is what is crucial. It’s not hard to imagine Socrates querying some plutocrat as to what the point is of all this wealth. Is this the purpose of life? Do you have more mouths so you can eat more? Or do you still have to take one bite after another? Can you be in two mansions at the same time? Which do you prefer—possessions or living creatures?

   The Nearings were subversives in the true sense: they didn’t buy the get-ahead story and set out to construct another. One of the many ironies is that the nation that prides itself on its unassailable virtue and innocence is the site on any given day of mass shootings, drug overdoses, suicides, frauds, scams, rapes, and molestations, to say nothing of secret yet official doings such as assassinations, coups, and torture. Perhaps there’s something to be said for growing carrots, though the Nearings realized very well that their stance was a critique of the world devoted to profit and patriotism. They realized that simplicity and sanity were not salable commodities, such commodities—contra Jasmine—not being what life was essentially about. What life was about was having time to enjoy one’s being here on earth. The best way to do that was to keep it simple, which meant having the imagination to create your life in the sense of doing basic, rewarding activities—practicing an instrument, growing food, meditating, caring for creatures, raising children, reading, having sex with someone who wants to have sex with you, singing, cooking, cleaning, going for a hike, mending a worn sweater, brewing a cup of tea, tending to the infirm, playing basketball and on and on. There’s no shortage of endeavors nor should they be dismissed as romantic and impractical. Indeed, the Nearings’ approach is steeped in practicality, as in learn to take care of yourself in all the ways that you can. The gross fallacy of modern times that the Nearings challenged is that machines tell us how to live and that we are somehow smarter because of that. Given how “troubled” our world remains, that outlook seems very wrongheaded. No one much questions societal expediencies, be they the latest machine in your hand or the war-machine nation-states, but the Nearings did. “Simple” and “sane” are beautiful words.

   Jasmine is too far-gone for such words. She’s hardly the only one, but it’s plain that the world as we know it is literally choking on its machine- and money-driven complexity. The Nearings sought and found some earth beneath their feet. The Good Life need not be an advertisement for More nor an advertisement for some impossible sense of virtue nor an ideological fantasy. People are going to be selfish (one of the founding political principles of the United States) but why make life more daunting? Why ravish the earth when you could live with it according to your needs? Perhaps the human race will never get beyond the worship of wealth and the belief that material progress is a veritable divinity, but the surfeit that Jasmine gorged on will not be around forever. Given our toxic predilections, we’ll be doing well to have water, popcorn, and apples. 

Copyright 2023 Baron Wormser.

Baron Wormser’s many books include The Road Washes Out in Spring, which has recently been reprinted by Brandeis University Press with a new introduction by the author. Wormser lives in Vermont.

Image: Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013).

11 comments on “Baron Wormser: The Good Life

  1. Alan Davis
    March 21, 2023

    “I have enough.” It’s always a good thing when a friend with good sense says that without expressing the need for more. Nicely done, Baron. Always very pleased to come across anything you’ve written and good to know about the Nearings.


  2. Dinah Kudatsky
    March 20, 2023

    This is a wonderful piece! And while I hardly think of myself as being driven by the lovebird cooings of status and ambition, I appreciate the necessary reminder that that the constant pursuit of the shiny thing may be a form of hell. I’m reminded with some amusement that Madonna’s song, “Material Girl” had a lovely funny line: “Experience has made me rich”. This is one time we might listen to her!


  3. Rose Mary Boehm
    March 19, 2023

    Another excellent essay by Baron Wormser. “Every day the society in which she finds herself is telling her she wants to want.”


  4. johnlawsonpoet
    March 19, 2023

    Glad to know about the Nearings’ work.


  5. ssteph2013
    March 19, 2023

    Indeed, how many mansions can one be in at the same time…haha! I have been asking myself lately what happened to the idea that “small is beautiful”….did it just go out of style? What a hideous story our culture is…a runaway train with no one at the breaks comes to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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