“We just put no value at all on perceiving reality. On the contrary, the incredible emphasis we place now on our so-called careers automatically makes perceiving reality a very low priority, because if your life is organized around trying to be successful in a career, then it just doesn’t matter what you perceive or what you experience. And so you really can sort of shut your mind off for years ahead in a way. You can sort of turn on the automatic pilot.”-Wally
Readers of books on productivity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and even general self-improvement will tell you that habit and routine are the keys to success. To increase your productivity and reach your goals, you must set up positive routines in your life. Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is a classic and oft-cited example of this line of thinking. Lauded authors and bloggers like Tim Ferriss (whom I greatly admire), author of “The 4-Hour Workweek“, advocate such tactics as automating the first hour of your day through the imposition of a routine and eating the same things over and over again to avoid decision fatigue, the enemy of creative and productive thinking. Such attitudes toward life seem to be increasing in popularity, especially among the young tech-minded generation.
But increasing productivity by following routines and creating habits may have some hidden costs.
“If you’re just operating by habit then you’re not really living”
“My Dinner with Andre“ is a film I have returned to several times over the years to help me think about certain problems that are difficult or uncomfortable to think about. It is a simple film in some ways, consisting of a single conversation between old friends over dinner. That’s pretty much it. And yet the conversation is so rich and ranges over such important subjects that you hardly miss the lack of action. Wally and Andre are both deeply philosophical and speak probingly about the condition of human beings in the modern world. The topics of conversation range from the negative impact scientific and technological advancement has had on our environment and psychology, to what effect art (especially theater) can truly have on audiences today, to what is really required to lead a meaningful life.
One subject they return to throughout the nearly two hour conversation is the issue of people today being almost entirely “asleep”. Their observations about the sleeping world we live in are at best uncomfortably familiar and at worst depressingly accurate.
The world they describe is full of people operating on auto-pilot, of people “just sort of floating through this fog of symbols and unconscious feelings [where] no one says what they are really thinking about.” It is a world where people are afraid of connecting, afraid of dropping their roles, where people are constantly performing.
“We’re concentrating on playing our own roles and giving a good performance, so we can’t perceive what’s going on around us.”
It is a world where we hide the reality of what we are going through.
“They all act as if they know how to conduct themselves at every single moment, and they all seem totally self-confident, but of course privately people are all very mixed up about themselves. They don’t know what they should be doing with their lives.”
In an attempt to figure out what we should be doing with our lives and the best and most effective way to do it, we (I definitely include myself here) often turn to self-improvement books and nowadays blogs (like those mentioned by Tim Ferriss and Steven Covey) looking for advice and guidance—facts that are, as Wally observes, “so touching because they show how desperately curious we all are to know how all the others of us are really getting on in life, even though by performing these roles all the time we’re just hiding the reality of ourselves from everybody else. I mean, we live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other.”
We seem to move through our lives like ignorant, fearful robots, wondering how everyone around us is managing, wanting to reach out and connect without really knowing how or being too afraid to really see and be seen by others. We wander through this fog of confusion and isolation, walking or driving down the street without even really seeing our surroundings, going into stores and houses and offices without being able to perceive what is really there. We spend the majority of our day caught inside ourselves, ruminating over our own goals, plans, fears, memories, without seeing what is going on around us. How many times have you come into a room or a building you have been in a thousand times or walked down a street you have walked down a thousand times and suddenly seen something you had never seen before and thought to yourself, has that always been there? How much of the world around us do we fail to perceive because we are stuck in this dream world inside our own minds?
“I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, it would blow your brains out.”
We let the world pass us by as we spend every spare moment glued to some sort of screen, our little portable windows into a kind of fantasy where an email is more important than a tree or a sunset—where a message from a person who is not physically with you or perhaps you’ve never even met matters more than the conversation you are having with the person across the table.
We are all, as Andre says, “Living in an insane dream world.”
“Instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars we’re living in a fantasy world.”
The film, while probing and insightful, is also frustratingly inconclusive (in a good way). Wally and Andre agree that we are all asleep, but cannot agree on what to do about our somnambulistic lifestyle. They provide no satisfying resolution to the central question of the film: what is really required to wake us from the slumber of our daily productive grind?
Andre feels that we are all so deeply asleep that the only way for us to wake up is to be involved in or exposed to some dramatic or radical experience far beyond the scope of our daily comfortable and familiar experiences. Examples of such radical experiences can be found in the first half of the film when Andre tells Wally about the past few years of his life. Philosophical questions aside, the film is worth watching just for Andre’s description of his activities, which are often so extremely bizarre they cannot but leave you feeling either confused or envious or intrigued (or maybe a bit of all three). Likely they will make you feel like your life is rather dull in comparison.
For example, Andre describes leading a beehive with the well-known Polish director Grotwosky: “At 8 o’clock 100 people come into a room and whatever happens is a beehive.”
In Andre’s case, the beehive turned out to be mostly ritualistic dancing, some teddy bear tossing, some weeping into strangers’ arms, some “exploding” (energetically not physically) of people like a Jackson Pollock painting, all bookended by the singing of a Franciscan song “in which you thank god for your eyes”.
He recounts being christened and given a new name in a ceremony a para-theatrical group that he led in Poland held for him at the end of their workshop. Andre describes the ceremony taking place in an abandoned castle filled with flowers and candles with a mix of solemnity and reverie I long for but seldom find in daily life:
“Well, there was an example of people creating something that really had all the elements of theater. It was worked on carefully, it was thought about carefully, it was done with exquisite taste and magic, and they in fact created something—which in this case was in a way just for an audience of one, just for me—they in fact created something that had ritual, love, surprise, denouement, beginning, middle, and end, it was an incredibly beautiful piece of theater. And the impact it had on its audience, on me, was somehow a totally positive one. It didn’t deaden me, it brought me to life.”
Andre wandered through the desert in Africa with a Japanese monk named Kozan. He ran through the forests of Findhorn, weeping in a mixed state of overwhelming grief and exuberance. He was buried alive in a grave during a ceremony he and a group of friends participated in on Richard Avedon’s property on Halloween.
Extraordinary as they may sound, Andre’s activities were all part of a familiar search, a quest for meaning arising out of a fundamental human longing for a deeper connection with life and with people—a kind of quest to find out whether we are really just alone in our little world.
Yet Wally objects to Andre’s idea that people must somehow be “taken to Everest” (a metaphor in the film for the kind of radical and extraordinary experiences Andre tells stories about) in order to be woken up and experience reality:
“Isn’t it a little upsetting to come to the conclusion that there’s no way to wake people up anymore except to involve them in some kind of christening in Poland or some kind of strange experience on top of Mount Everest? […] I mean, there must have been periods when in order to give people a strong or meaningful experience you wouldn’t actually have to take them to Everest.[…]I mean, there was a time when you could have just, for instance, written—I don’t know—Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, and I’m sure that the people who read it had a pretty strong experience. I’m sure they did. All right, now you’re saying that people today wouldn’t get it. And maybe that’s true. But I mean, isn’t there any kind of writing or any kind of play that—I mean, isn’t it legitimate for writers still to try to portray reality so that people can see it?”
The film leaves ultimately unresolved the question of whether or not some kind of radical experience is necessary to wake people up or if art (specifically the theater) is capable of doing the job. And while Andre’s account of his activities is intriguing and impressive, listening to him speak about his experiences can also be off-putting. He sometimes comes across as self-centered and condescending. His lifestyle can seem self-indulgent and impractical. Andre himself finds the whole story repulsive, calling it that of a spoiled princess and comparing himself to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer. He even expresses the feeling that he ought to be caught and tried the way Speer was:
“Well, he was a very cultivated man, an architect, an artist, so he thought the ordinary rules of life didn’t apply to him. I mean, I would really like to be stripped and unmasked. I feel I deserve it. Because I really feel that everything I’ve done is horrific. Just horrific.”
Echoing Pascal’s observation that “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room,” Wally touches on part of what is perhaps most disturbing about Andre’s activities when he says:
“What really disturbs me about the work that you’ve described […] is that the whole point, really, I think, was to enable the people in the workshops, including yourself, to somehow sort of strip away every scrap of purposefulness from certain selected moments. And the point of it was so that you would then be able to experience somehow just pure being. […] And I think I just simply object to that. I mean, I just don’t think I accept the idea that there should be moments in which you’re not trying to do anything. I think it’s our nature to do things. I think we should do things. I think purposefulness is part of our ineradicable basic human structure.”
Perhaps we find routine and productivity so comforting because they distract us from the terrifying emptiness of pure being. Perhaps we all prefer to sleep through our lives because the uncertainty and mystery of the world is just too overwhelming and in order to function at all, we must try our best to ignore this mystery and uncertainty. Or is it that we feel uncomfortable doing nothing because it is simply part of human nature to create, and by doing nothing, by facing the nothingness, we are essentially going against our nature? I suspect it is a little of both. I believe Wally is right to say that it is in our nature to produce things, and yet I can’t help feeling like there is value in cultivating moments of pure being where the only goal is to simply exist.
Watching the film, I find myself longing for more extreme, bizarre or unusual experiences like the ones Andre had. I struggle to see what in the end is so horrific about them—surely whatever it is can’t be more horrifying than letting life pass you by as you go through the motions of your daily routine and remain totally disconnected and asleep? I don’t want to be asleep. I want the world to overwhelm me. I want experiences like this:
“It was like being in a William Blake world suddenly. Things were exploding.”
“My Dinner with Andre” is not the type of movie that will simply entertain and distract you. It is not an easy movie to watch. It forces you to pay attention, to think about uncomfortable issues, to have patience as it develops. It may even force you to question the very core of the way you have been living.
If you do watch the film and you too find yourself longing for your world to explode around you, let me know. Maybe we can arrange to meet on top of Mount Everest, or at least in a forest somewhere in Poland.
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