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In Search of True Scenius: 5. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

Over the weekend I had the delightful experience of seeing Woody Allen’s latest: Midnight in Paris. Now, Woody Allen and I go way back—to the early stuff, like Bananas (1971), or even Take the Money and Run (1969). But when Allen moved on from Love and Death toward Crimes and Misdemeanors, I moved on from Woody Allen. It’s only been recently, spurred on by my editor-in-chief Andrew Cohen’s enthusiastic endorsement, that I’ve begun to watch him again. Midnight in Paris is charming and funny—Allen at his lightest, enthralled by the luminosity and history of Paris. And of course, the painfully hilarious dialogue that reveals the viscera of his characters in a few deft lines. But it’s not just a charming movie. Allen is ruminating on the relationship between the past and present—why is it, he is asking, that we so often romanticize the past, believing that there was a time when human life was so much better than now? Why do we create these ideas of a Golden Age where everything was more and better than the present?

It’s an interesting question. Allen, to a great extent, implicates the present in his query about our fondness for temps perdu. (WARNING: This post is going to be something of a spoiler—so you might want to watch the movie first.) The present, says his protagonist Gil Pender (played by the adorable Owen Wilson), is where the mundane happens. His character’s nostalgia for a better, more creative and romantic life, sets his heart on the past. But Allen’s character, of course, isn’t the first to be mesmerized by a fantastic past. The idea that the past is better than the present is a notion that harkens back to the Greeks. They imagined a Golden Age followed by periods of increasing decline—from Silver to Bronze, Iron, and the unnamed but grim present. The Hindus also spoke of a similar decline, landing us in the horrible Kali Yuga, where we are now. (And the Brahma Kumaris, a contemporary spiritual group building on Hindu ideas, also has a similar belief system.) Moreover, the entire myth of Eden is about a perfect world that we lost in our fall from grace. This notion of a past Golden Age has been a striking feature of most cultural worldviews that understand life as an immense cycle beginning in heavenly perfection and passing through increasing periods of decline.

Freud wondered if our sense that there was a time of perfect happiness that we’d lost came from the experience of exiting the womb. In some dim but definite imprint, the transition from floating in bliss in utero to the abrupt assault of the birth canal and ultimate abandonment left us in mourning for the loss of something that we couldn’t ever quite name. Golden age ideals may also serve another function: they may be a way that humanity has made sense of evil. The belief is that once we were good, pure, and lived in peace and harmony…and that gradually we have lost touch with that perfection. From a spiritual standpoint, this is not untrue. The development of self-identity creates the illusion of separation from All, the primordial unity of all things, the ground of Being.

We create Golden Ages out of our deepest longings, our idealistic hopes for what life should be based in what we feel we are missing in the present. In the context of a world of endless conflict, violence, brutality, and strife—which has been the case for most of human existence—the ideal of a paradise of peace makes sense. Or, to use another example, no wonder, then, that feminists have painted pretty pictures of equality onto prehistoric cultures that have left behind little more than lumpen female figurines. Desiring equality in the present, we find it in the past.

But Gil Pender, a wealthy hack writer who wants to write a great novel, doesn’t want to go back to some blissful Golden Age. He wants to go to where the action was/is: Paris in the 1920s. He’s looking to be part of a scene, a happening where geniuses clash like the mythical Titans of yore. He wants his own creative work, his manuscript, to be read and considered by the brightest minds of the modern literary world. He wants to be part of sceniusa term coined by Brian Eno to describe the collective form of genius. The combination of scene and genius, scenius is a cultural niche that gives rise to the kind of creativity that often marks a new era. In fact, one of the ironies in the film is how Pender longs for Paris in the 20s, the beautiful woman from the 20s longs for the Belle Époque, and the artists of the Belle Époque long for the Renaissance…each scenius longs for the one before.

But I wonder: when you are part of scenius, do you really long for anything else or feel that you’ve missed out? Did the cultural rebels of the 60s think, “Damn, wish I was part of the ____ [fill in the blank] because nothing’s happening now?” Did the Beatles wish they had been born in Mozart’s time? Or did Janis Joplin wish she was Hildegard of Bingen? I don’t think so. Growing up right after the tidal wave of change that was the 60s, I felt that I had missed something—but my older peers did not. They knew when it happened: This was it. This was the moment.

It’s that sense of being part of something moving, changing, bringing forth the new that Gil Pender longs for. Created by someone as remarkably prolific as Woody Allen, Gil’s desire to have his work considered by the greats seems more than a romantic infatuation with the past. Perhaps it’s a recognition that we are lacking scenius in the present.

In our contemporary world, where creativity is so prized, those of us who are engaged in innovation and evolution long for a Golden Age that is scenius. Perhaps that’s why there is so much romanticizing of the 60s. That was the last explosion of human creativity that rocked our world so profoundly that it brought about a new era in culture. The importance of scenius is not its track record in the past but its potential for creating the future. Scenius is the Golden Age of the evolutionary who wants to take responsibility for and create that which has not yet happened. In my rendering of Midnight in Paris’s happy ending, Gil not only flowers as a novelist but, with his new muse, starts a new scene in Paris of 2020 that gives rise to groundbreaking genius.

Read In Search of True Scenius, #1. “What is it?

Read In Search of True Scenius, #2. “Genius & the Network.”

Read In Search of True Scenius, #3. “Bob Dylan.”

Read In Search of True Scenius, #4. “The MIT Media Lab.”

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Filed Under: Cultural EvolutionEnlightenNext Editors’ BlogFreedomIdealismPhilosophyPop CultureSceniusprocess

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About the Author

Elizabeth Debold is a Senior Editor for EnlightenNext magazine. Follow her on Twitter @EvolveWomen.

Comments (19)

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  1. Frank Luke says:

    Of course the dust has settled on the past and cleared up enough to see what happened. The present is still being hashed up and the dust is still too thick to see clearly how things will pan out.

    In that way the past, being comprehensible (sort of), is usually going to be looked at with a fondness. Don’t we mostly remember the good times and tend to dismiss or skim over the less savory aspects?

    Unless you were caught up in the firestorms of cities, genocide, and all those other horrors of the past, swept under the rug by most.

    Woody’s a great chronlicler of NYC and now Paris, I love his way of filming those great places.

  2. Joanna says:

    Who doesn’t want a scenius for our times, a golden age now, reaching into a fantastic future of creativity, genius, renewal and positive change. Don’t hark back, hark forward, I think we are standing on trembling ground, and it is inevitable :-).

    • Frank Luke says:

      At the same time I’m for looking forward, living life, I also wonder if too many are unheedful of the past and what greatness was manifested that we shouldn’t be unappreciative of.

      Not to be so awed by history as to be stuck in the past as so many conservatives tend to be, but to recognize greatness and worthiness in all manifestations and give it due appreciation, past, present, and future.

  3. John R says:

    I am a human first and foremost and then a man and then whatever…I feel we truly need to stop the labeling of humans other then to be humans and get on with our lives. We need to use our names for what they are, human names not a color status or a country status or even a part of a city where I live status…we are all Humans of the planet Earth and nothing else…with that said, What will happen in our future when we come to an alien planet and ind that it is inhabited with other creatures then our self…are we going to to the same to them as we did to our on in the past or are we going to treat them as what the are (Neptunians or Venusians or Plutonians…or what ever….do see where I’m going with this…it is time for the planet of humans to come together and be as one to make this world a better place to be stop killing ourselves and each other…love one for our humanness and not for the color of our skin our our religious point of view you humans a too small minded ….Grow up and count your self luck and blessed to be here

  4. Steve says:

    The idea of a place and/or a time where/when people were better, the noble savage, the bon Ethiope, the Na’vi is very old, going back at least to the Greeks in the West. I think it is our Golden Shadow, our rejected divinity projected out onto a mythical landscape.

    • I would interpret this in a developmental context, too. Up until very recently, human beings weren’t able to “cognize”–which is not merely an intellectual activity–the divine as self. And then, of course, as you say, there is the projection of that absolute purity away from self…

  5. neena Nambiar says:

    WOW!!!! Delightful expression of Creating a Golden age in context to Scenius!Thanks Elizabeth for sharing this .

  6. Allen Howell says:

    Not only should we let go of this “Golden Age” fallacy regarding some long-lost or idealistic paradisaical past – but we also ought to let go of our anxieties about the future. And I an not just referring to the various Armageddon scenarios out there. Evolution will happen regardless of how we humans (a particularly ego-driven species) would like to mold and channel it to our personal liking. Even if we ruin the environment and manage wipe ourselves out, the Earth will restore itself in our absence and go on. Life will rise up in new and wondrous forms. The evolutionary process of the Cosmos will go on with or without us meddling in its course.

    Despite this I hear from “spiritual leaders” far too often how “this is the critical moment” or that “We MUST change now or fail.” We can’t NOT change. We change every moment whether we like it or not. All this ferver about “change NOW or die” (for which even from Andrew Cohen has occasionally been guilty of from time to time) that we MUST change and we must change in a SPECIFIC way … well, that is somewhat redundant. I dare anyone to try to NOT change, even for a mere moment. It just can’t be done.

    I suggest we all take a collective time-out and realize that the Cosmos if unfolding exactly as it is unfolding, and that all our “needs” to manage it are based on the fears of our egos not being able to micromanage it all. It doesn’t have to unfold the way we Humans WANT it to unfold, because then we are interfering. This isn’t to suggest we give up on environmental causes (because it will harken our demise) but I am suggesting we all lighten up with this “almost” Armageddon orientation we are subtly carrying along under our arms without even noticing it.

    Just let it unfold and enjoy the show.

    • Frank Luke says:

      Yes Al, it seems all these new scientific findings and the rapid evolution tech and other influences are wreaking is freaking humanity and we’re not crazy about it, most folks totally denying or freaked.

      As humans are wont, we try to control the onslaught of peril by resorting to measures that may solve the issues or often causing unintentional consequences, as in the search for new energy sources bringing on a lot of inintended grievances.

      Change and transitions aren’t easy, usually. As we advance and adopt more and more tech to solve increasingly complex probs, we wind up with more to contend with, faster and faster.

      What’s there to do? Anybody got good answers?

  7. Jean Macdonald says:

    Thanks for a great review, Elizabeth. Some friends and I saw this film last evening and we loved it. Perhaps it’s Woody’s best since Annie Hall, even though he’s now too old to play such parts. (I, too, go back a long way with Woody.) Having been to Paris, I was happy to let myself fall in to the lovely rendering of that special city.

    Mostly, I was impressed with realizing how enthralled we can be with the past. Having parents pushing 100, I have come to the belief that the shorter our future is, the more enthralled we can become with the past. Of course, we can also get wrapped up in hopes for something better in the future (even heaven, nirvana….) when we have the opportunity now to take responsibility and play a vital part in consciously creating the future, the next scenius

  8. Phil Baum says:

    Yeah,from time to time I receive e-mails extolling the virtues of the Fabulous Fifties, how wonderful it all was, how idyllic,warm and chummy.

    No McCarthy, no Korean War, no proliferation of nuclear weapons, just beaming rosy cheeked children at play; well-groomed white mothers in spotless aprons carrying steaming, homemade pies, and a new shiny Chevy in every driveway.

    So one doesn’t have to go into the distant past to selectively create a fictional world of harmony, romance, innocence, and mindless bliss.

    I have read about historical periods lasting hundreds of years where cultures flourished, where war was at least temporarily banished; where music,the arts, education,and the well being of citizens improved significantly. So the possibility is there.

    On the flip side, one would have to be the Queen of Denial to miss the telltale signs of our times, the actual events: the impact of climate change,the ruin of eco and economic systems by insatiable greed-driven, me first, fascistic capitalists: our dying ocean systems, the potential catastrophic implications of solar flares which could reap havoc with our intricate power and communication networks; our dependence on horrifically unsafe, deadly nuclear power plants, our reliance for security on nuclear weapons which, if employed in an all out war,could destroy our species. There would be no place to hide. That’s real, not fictional. That’s here in the now.

    Still,I don’t dwell on the gloom and doom scenarios.

    I appreciate the gift of the moment, the smile of a child, a good laugh and beautiful women and I don’t necessarily subscribe to Biblical or Mayan prophecies, but the world we’re creating and are in the process of screwing up is, as the Native Americans have put it, “out of balance”.

    • And frankly, there is only one direction we really can go: to the future. :-)

      • Frank Luke says:

        Being progressive and focused on the future rather than the past is all to the good but our memories are what make us human and give us our warmth whereas to be only futuristic is not as warm, IMO.

        Am I accurate in understanding that being neurotic is responding inappropriately to the present with past behavior, not really being present in the now?

  9. Alastair Beattie says:

    Democratic internet programs were not a product of totalitarina systems or of chauvinistic, racist, power groups.

    Archetypal ideas come and go. Many of these ideas should be eliminated as useful to global harmony.

    The Golden Age, the Messiah as the Whole Man, the Heavenly Sage, are all useful archetypes.

    The use of internet programs to further the chauvinism of racist power groups is an abomination.

    • Frank Luke says:

      Hi Alastair,

      I respect your view and consider it wise to be cautious in waiting to see how the reform movements devolve, whether they will indeed result in progress toward democratic governments or not.

      I wouldn’t be as negative as you seem to be and hope that some if not many of them will indeed be an evolving of more progressive and less repressive governments sorely needed in that part of the world.

  10. Catherine says:

    Elisabeth,

    I love your blog and saw the movie, which is indeed delightful, and all the French actually were indebted to Woody Allen to redeem a little bit our image in this turmoil period or us… the French were the fist to fall in love with Woody Allen and recognize him and he gave it back so much ! I remember an interview of him in the “journal de 20 heures” where it was a full declaration of Absolute passion to the French which were all in awe with his movies. Perfect love with and American… yeah!

    Elizabeth you know me, I want to be gently provocative, just to create a slight friction here, and I will cite one the greatest woman form the Paris Philosophical Scenius of the 60ies. Let’s follow Simone Weil who tells us that “The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes…” I know, I am being very provocative here especially talking mainly to Americans and I don’t want to be arrogant or anything.
    It is just that I find it true. I find that Great Traditions are our greatest gift and that it nourishes our momentum for the future.

    In the Woody Allen movie what strikes me is that *only* people who worship the Golden Age are on the brink of Greatness themselves. The wonderful American character to whom all the French women will fall in love with, the beautiful lady of the 20ies who has been the égérie of all the great painters, Degas and Toulouse Lautrec, al those people are fantastic. All are deeply in the Scenius of their own time, ad dreaming of the Sceniuses of the past. By comparison wht the wonderful main character, who brings the freshness and the wind of american culture into Old Paris, what do we have, we have the horrible girlfriend and their knwo it all pals, who are a vision of horror for our times.

  11. Catherine says:

    Sorry, I have put Simone Weil in the Scenius of the 60 ies but she died in 1943. She was indeed of the generation of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir [ the Myth among French students, says that Simone Weil was received first at the entrance exam to the Ecole Normale Supérieure while the same year Simone de Beauvoir was received ... second] but she died so young that all her writings are contemporary of Bergson and Maritain, the mystic philosophers of the beginning of the century. And she was a mystic herself…

    Where did she belong this meteor, with her short mystical life and fascinating soul ?

    Her genius brother [ a math prodigy and one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century] said that he understood her only when she died. I always imagined this family, the Veil parents with their two genius kids, the prodigy mathematician and the mystical philosopher. Apparently sometimes it was quite hectic at home. A small Scenius of their own, maybe ? of two prodigious kids in the Paris of the 30ies ?

    And yes you got it.. the 60 ies are also my Golden Age Scenius as well as yours, Elizabeth.

  12. Catherine says:

    I found the corresponding citation by Simone Weil about the future :
    “The future is made of the same stuff as the present”

    In her latest book called “Need for Roots” she enunciates the Needs of the Human Soul ( very fantastic piece of philosophy : I advice it to anyone who has not read it)
    and one need she talks about is the Need for Roots. She says this need has been forgotten and is very real.

    Maybe both what Simone and Woody Allen want to tell us with this movie is that a True love for the Greatness of the past will nurture a True Love for the Greatness of the Present. And since there is no real Scenius without recognition, then it is very important to love the Greatness of our past. Recognition is to me the main ingredient of a Scenius. I found it in one of your blogs, actually, Elizabeth. Great people come together, and they love greatness so much that they become really open, not small minded. They worship Greatness for Greatness in any field and any person they meet who is impressing them and thus everyone grows quickly. The key, to me, is recognition by the peers. New ideas are welcome and examined on pure Intuitive recognition of greatness.

    Now to be able to worship Greatness in all its forms, whether it comes from Science or Philosophy or Spirituality or Painting, I feel it is crucial to be able to relate to it when we are sure it had happened : in the Past.

    Is it still a paradox ?