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: Continue reading…