Woody Allen & The Way of the Samurai, or Living Amidst the Horror of Life

Every day, everywhere, at every moment, the sublimity of life lurks. There's the proverbial bus that flattens you, of course, and the sundry horrors of the body that strike without warning — heart attacks, aneurisms, strokes, tumors that colonize with utter stealth.  Even without these particularities that you can try to parry — exercise; good genes; looking both ways before crossing the street — there is the still the ultimate horror awaiting us all. No one here gets out alive.

How are we to carry on? How do you lead your life — writing idiotic PowerPoint presentations, masturbating for hours, donning your Naked & Famous jeans, tending to your untruly nose hairs — when the horrors of life and death loom with vigor and vengeance?  If the universe is indeed expanding, why do your homework?

This is of course an obsession of Woody Allen's: Why, and how, carry on in a godless, meaningless universe in which we all die? I'm so frightened, I can't move, speak, breathe, says Woody Allen's character in Hannah and her Sisters. And once he's given good news — no brain tumor —, he leaves in joy, doing a jig on the street. And then it occurs to him: just because he's not dying right now doesn't mean he's not dying. The human condition is as much death as it is life.

Life, then, is necessarily a negotiation of death — or, at least, the horror of death. Needless to say, many of you are reading this and saying, Death is not horror; it's part of life, man. To which I say, yes, of course. But that does help me practically with living every day. I'm with Woody here: why do my homework — brush my teeth, get out of bed, do my dishes — if the universe is expanding? The banalities of life become their own kind of terrible horror.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen overcomes his fear and dysfunction by accident. He wanders into a movie theater and there, on the screen, are the Marx Brothers. What if the worst is true? he says, don't you want to be part of the experience? It's not all a drag....just enjoy it while it lasts.  

This has always been my strategy, more or less. I do my dishes, usually; I do my laundry, brush my teeth, do my proverbial homework. But I do them by focusing on the practicalities of the here and now, on my pleasure, my enjoyment. Dirty dishes stink and I have to do them eventually and, well, I don't have the courage to kill myself so I gotta do them eventually.... And the fact is I enjoy much of life. I am indulgent, a decadent: I like my booze, my meds and herbs; I like writing and thinking; I like ladies and sex and love; I love my kid and the ocean and the sky.

But, recently, I have come face to face with the indifference, cruelty, and violence of the universe and I'm not sure just enjoying aspects of life suffices. The horrors are interfering with my pleasures, with my enjoyment. The Marx Brothers are great but they look silly and inane when the sublimity of the infinite abyss lurks. And then I remembered the Hagakure.

For years, I was fixated on this book, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. What transfixed me was that it never gelled into anything resembling coherence. I was reading Kant, Hegel, Deleuze and Nietzsche all of whom have a coherent world view. Nietzsche and Deleuze might disdain philosophical systems but both of them have a lucid, explicable world view. But the Hagakure does not. To wit, at one moment it says:  

I have found that the Way of the samurai is death. This means that when you are compelled to choose between life and death, you must quickly choose death.  

Ok. And then, elsewhere, it says:

It is good to carry some powdered rouge in one's sleeve. It may happen that when one is sobering up or waking from sleep, his complexion may be poor. At such a time it is good to take out and apply some powdered rouge. 

A samurai, even when he has not eaten, uses his toothpick.

It gets a lot stranger than this, I assure you. But it wasn't until recent events in my life that I finally glimpsed what the Hagakure is all about. I think. We perform the banalities of life — we do the dishes, apply the rouge, use a toothpick — all in preparation for death. After all, you don't want to leave behind dirty dishes or an ugly corpse. Every day, in every way, we must live for our death.

The Hagakure is a practice, not a philosophy. It is a practice of living for death. Death is not something to avoid. It is to be embraced. We live in order to die — and to die well. This is not say we long for death.

No one longs for death. We can speculate on whatever we like. But if we live without having attaining that aim, we are cowards. This is an important point and the correct path of the Samurai. When we calmly think of death morning and evening and are in despair, We are able to gain freedom in the way of the Samurai. Only then can we fulfill our duty without making mistakes in life.

This is not the nihilism of Judeo-Christian asceticism that fears and loathes life. On the contrary, it is a practice that affirms the ever-presence of death.

This is, of course, hard. It's hard because it's hard. And it's hard because we live in a culture that abhors death, that puts the fact of being alive ahead of living well. We quote our life expectancy as a sign of progress and success. When the reality is, often, we live longer, more miserable lives. And we die poorly — medicated, tubed, antiseptic.

Now, I'll admit without hesitation that I am terrified of death. I don't wanna die. And the idea that there are people dedicated to keeping me alive at all costs makes me feel a little better. But I am coming to learn that this is my weakness. I wish we had a culture that reckoned death rather than avoided it as best it can. The Hagakure is so foreign to me because, amongst other reasons, death is its Way — and death, despite its ubiquity, does not figure into our discourse of self becoming. 

I cannot say I understand the Hagakure. It is odd and beautiful and much of it demands more of me than I am intellectually, existentially, and practically capable. And I cannot say I know how to live with the sublimity of life's horrors, at once actual and inevitable. But I can say that avoiding it is not right. Pushing it aside in favor of my pleasures now is not right — not because it's philosophically unsound but because it's not working for me. Not anymore. This is the passage from the Hagakure that has haunted me and continues to haunt me:

We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one's aim is a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.

Jim Jarmusch has long been interested in death and the Way of the Samurai — Ghost Dog was about the Hagakure but Dead Man is really, to me, his truly great film. Johnny Depp as William Blake (not that William Blake and that William Blake) is already a dead man. As we all are. It's just a matter of how we die. 


roca de carioca said...

I haven't seen the full film of DEAD MAN. For me that clip echoed Hagakure's confounding perspective on death, not necessarily what Hagakure's perspective is, but how it is to encounter a different perspective.

It felt like William Blake's fadeaway to the river was him seeing his life die. The scenes the camera showed after the canoe pushed off were unexepcted. I didn't expect the first shot to be fired, nor did I expect to see the two men on the beach shoot each other. That's not especially relevant but what was most unusual about the shootings was that they were shot from the vantage point from Blake's canoe; it didn't seem like a vantage point I expected to be privy to, especially because of Blake's continued animation and in this way it ungrounded my viewing.

On an inevitably related note, varied sequences of your essay called to mind different ideas of how to live and how to die, and how it's possible to learn to live and learn to die and learn to live dead and learn to die living. How one ends up being these scenarios is contingent upon the nature of the "aim" and how the arrow flies, and how the bow flexes, for that matter. I think the edge has something to do with how the bow flexes. I'll let Hagakure marinate some more.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Dead Man is a great film — funny and beautiful and resonant. That last scene is incredible as you get the dignified death of Depp and the capricious, silly death of the other two. Such is the way of death.

Your call on the perspectives is great. We see the silly deaths from the perspective of the dying, drifting off, the scene moving away from us as we move away from life. Which speaks to your last point about learning about death and life from life and death and all relevant vice versas.

But, in case my post didn't make this obvious, I am quite confused - lost even — when it comes to reckoning death. The Hagakure continues to haunt and taunt me.

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