A life well lived?

The film Synecdoche, New York has been released on DVD recently and I highly recommend it. I managed to catch the film while it was still on at cinemas and I was very impressed. Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it is characteristically innovative and unusual. The film has polarised audiences and this doesn’t surprise me. Synecdoche, New York has a difficult theme and no clear resolution. Running throughout the tale of one man’s attempt to create his lifetime masterpiece is the context of death and the threat of obsolescence. It is a very powerful tale of human struggle and mortal frailty with the underlying questions: What has he done with his life? Was it a life worth living?

For the humanist, meaning is something that individuals create for themselves in their own life. The protagonist of Synecdoche, New York, Caden Cotard, is trying to create his own meaning and realisation through his work as a theatre director, as well as through the relationships with people in his personal life, but he is struggling with his own limits and his indecision and uncertainty. The narrative of the timeline and story is unconventional but very successful at what it attempts to convey. The film shows us the world as Caden Cotard sees it, what he perceives and what has significance for him. It illustrates very well how selective people are in their intake of the world. The things we notice or focus on, the things that have meaning for us and the things we don’t see because we’re not looking. Years fly by in an instant and circumstances change without any real understanding of how it all happened. People move in and out of his life and one gets the sense that our protagonist feels that he has remained the same while the lives of his friends and acquaintances have progressed and moved on. He feels left behind and confused.

How do we define a life well lived? Is it through success and ambition? Our protagonist is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, a huge accolade which will enable him to realise his true artistic vision as a theatre director, yet he remains uncertain and dissatisfied. Surely, success cannot be the only measure of a life or a person’s worth? What about relationships? Cotard has various friends and lovers and children but still he struggles to connect with people. Is it our interactions with other people that make our lives meaningful? But, surely, we cannot place all our hopes and dreams on the idea of one relationship that will make our lives complete or the impossible idea of living in complete harmony with others? Relationships are complex and we cannot know the minds of others. While we must do the best we can to navigate our way through the world with respect and courtesy, we risk overlooking what we have if we are constantly seeking perfection. If it is not what we achieve, is it then whether we have achieved happiness or enlightenment? Is it more realistic to make our goals those of spreading joy and reaching a greater understanding of ourselves and our world? These may be more accessible goals than the previous ones but do we not also place a huge burden on ourselves if we demand of ourselves perfect contentment or a progression towards infinite wisdom?

Maybe we ask too much of ourselves if we develop the expectation that when our lives end we can do some calculation and hope that the total sum comes out positive. Was the life of Synedoche’s Caden Cotard a success or a failure? Was it worthwhile or did he waste too many opportunities, make too many mistakes or spend too much time worrying about it all? What about his achievements, his relationships and his personal development? I don’t think we can ever reduce someone’s life down to a single value judgment and then re-evaluate every moment of that life in accordance with that value. Lives are a profusion of moments and interwoven threads, and I’m not sure we can ever fully understand them or their meaning. Maybe all we can do is live them.

3 Responses to “A life well lived?”

  1. 1 metatim November 17, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    I’ve come back to read this post again. It left my head spinning the first time, too much for me to be able to formulate a comment at that time. Rereading it now it has much the same effect.

    With regard to the film, I think you make excellent points. The film uses the invisibly simple device of cutting scenes together without directly telling the viewer how much time has elapsed to bring out the feeling of life passing by and others advancing beyond one’s own perceived stagnation. I saw the film and felt I had at least grasped most of it on a first viewing, but this was an aspect I was not conscious of until you pointed it out.

    As regards meaning… crikey. After moving through several phases of my life with different views on the “meaning” of life, I had somehow settled on the comforting yet ultimately shallow idea of “meaning is just something you create in your own life,” much as you paint the humanist position. But after reading through your sequence of matrushka-like questions I feel shaken from this untenable perch.

    I think I’m going to use this post as a touchstone for my philosophy as I go through life. Perhaps one day I will be able to answer all of those questions – but if that day never comes, I don’t think I’ll judge myself too harshly.

  2. 2 Ken September 17, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    There is no great meaning to life. Pondering the meaning of life detracts from life. This meaningless exercise leads to the formulation of vast bodies of mythology. Life is for living not for preparing to live. Life, in all forms, and especially sentience is very rare and therefore special from a universal perspective. To be alive is in and of itself sufficient to have meaning. Live with dignity, do everything, be all that your abilities permit, and live life to the fullest. Experience life because you only get one chance to do it all.

  3. 3 MRVL September 26, 2011 at 6:57 am

    Life is flowing & allowing myself to be carried to the twist & turns of daily life. No expectations, just acceptance now, understanding comes later or never at all.

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