Maybe it is that I have been thinking about it for a while, but….
I don’t think there is anything deeper in us, human beings that we are, than our wrestling with the responsibility of knowledge. What will I do with what I know? Seems like I see it everywhere. In myself and in my family, in my city and in my country, and in cities and countries the world over. Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are, this is our question.
Meg and I saw “Blue Jasmine” last night, for example, the new film by Woody Allen. As the credits rolled, and the theater emptied, Meg turned to me and asked, “What did you think?”
On the one hand, Allen has been asking questions about what we know, and what we do with what we know, for most of his life, sometimes more skillfully than others. It is what makes his best stories interesting, because it is what makes any story interesting. As Walker Percy never tires of reminding us, “Bad books lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” Good books, and good films, on the other hand, allow us to see ourselves more honestly because they tell the truth about who we are.
When Shakespeare poses this question in “Romeo and Juliet,” as heartbreaking as the story is, we are drawn in. The same with “Hamlet” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” When Charles Dickens writes a novel with this question at its heart, as he does with “A Christmas Carol,” we are willing to hear it again and again and again. When Dorothy Sayers creates a character, Lord Peter Wimsey, whose life is spent uncovering the motives of human hearts, each one a man or woman who “knows” but has “done” something horrific and awful, we are willing to hear her tell the tale time and again. When Hitchcock mysteriously imagines “The Man Who Knew Too Much” or “Rope,” with the responsibility of knowledge making the story a story, we find him compelling.
Why? Because we know ourselves, and we see ourselves in his art. Just like we do with Shakespeare and Dickens. And just like we do with Woody Allen. What was “Crimes and Misdemeanors” if not a retelling of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment? And both are meditations on the most perennial of all questions, “What will I do with what I know?”
In “Blue Jasmine” we fly across America with Cate Blanchett, a recently widowed woman whose husband, Alec Baldwin, was “a master of the universe,” to remember Tom Wolfe’s skewering of a certain kind of Wall Street businessman. In the end, the millions he made were made off of the backs of millions of others; he was indicted, and committed suicide in prison, which is sort of sordid, but there it is. She flies to San Francisco to begin all over again, moving in with her sister whom she has disregarded for most of life. But sisters are sisters, after all.
I won’t ruin the story here, but the thread that runs through is the same one that makes all good stories ones we are willing to hear, and hear again, viz. now that I know, what will I do? In the complexity of the human heart, we are prone to suppress and distort what we know in ways that are profoundly unhealthy. It is not that we don’t know, but we repress what we know is true, pushing it down below the level of daily consciousness; in a sense pretending that things are “just fine” even though they are not, at all. They cannot be, and they will not be.
We call this self-deception, and the wisest guides to the moral life over the centuries have always seen this as our greatest temptation. My guess is that seeing ourselves portrayed so truthfully on screen is what makes us stay, willing to watch until the credits roll and the theater empties.
That’s the story of “Blue Jasmine,” and that is the story of almost every story.