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There is a long interview in last week’s Observer with Woody Allen by Carole Cadwalladr. The reviews of his latest film are so bad that I don’t think I’ll bother seeing it (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). [Warning: Minor plot spoilers follow]


One of the themes that comes up in the interview, yet again, is Allen’s atheism. I’ve always admired his honesty, and the way he won’t sidestep the starkness implicit in a Godless universe, he won’t offer any facile consolations. Here are his latest reflections, framed by Cadwalladr’s comments:

They are all here [in the film], the familiar subjects of Allen-esque despair. The feeling, as Alvy Singer explains at the beginning of Annie Hall, that life is nasty, brutish and cruel. But also too short. That death dominates life. And that nothing works out, ever. It’s not a film a young man could have made. “No. I wouldn’t have thought of it when I was young. It requires years of disillusionment, this is true,” he says. The only happy characters in the film are the deluded ones, and the more powerfully deluded they are, the happier they seem. Helena, who takes up with a fortune teller and dabbles with the occult, is grinning like a loon by the end of the film.

“But then I’ve always felt that if the delusion works, it’s great. I always think that people who have religious faith are always happier than people who do not. The problem is that it’s not something you can adopt. It has to come naturally.”

There’s a brilliant sequence, which afterwards I think is the possibly the least romantic moment in any film ever, in which Sally, played by Naomi Watts, young, beautiful and trapped in an unhappy marriage, has a moment with her sexy, Spanish boss, Antonio Banderas. He obviously has feelings for her, as she does for him, and if she were a character in any other film, they’d eventually be together. Or maybe apart, but in a doomed, romantic way. Not here, though. It just doesn’t happen, and they end up not together in the most banal of ways: the timing’s off. She hesitates, and he falls in love with her friend instead. She takes consolation in her career but then that’s thwarted too. It’s a level of realism, the everyday realism of everyday life, that rarely reaches the screen.

In Woody Allen’s universe there is no reason why some things happen and others not. His atheism allows no delusions of that kind, but what about age, I ask him? Do you, like Alfie, resist hearing that you’re old?

“I do, I resist. I feel the only way you can get through life is distraction. And you can distract yourself in a million different ways, from turning on the television set and seeing who wins the meaningless soccer game, to going to the movies or listening to music. They’re tricks that I’ve done and that many people do. You create problems in your life and it seems to the outside observer that you are self-destructive and it’s foolish. But you’re creating them because they’re not mortal problems. They are problems that can be solved, or they can’t be solved, and they’re a little painful, perhaps, but they are not going to take your life away.”

“Life is so much luck. And people are so frightened to admit that. They want to think that they control their life. They think ‘I make my luck’. And you want to keep telling yourself that you’re in control, but you’re not in control. Ninety-nine per cent of it is luck, the luck of the genes, the luck of the draw, what happens during the day, the bomb that goes off on the other guy’s bus.”

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What is the meaning of happiness? The English word comes from the Old Norse ‘happ’, which meant good luck or good fortune. It’s connected with the words ‘haphazard’ (random, chance), and ‘hapless’ (unlucky). And my favourite dictionary, Chambers, says that ‘hap’ is still a noun in circulation, meaning chance, fortune, or accident – although I can’t remember ever having heard this used in ordinary conversation.

‘Happiness’ in Chinese – copied from the previous post

I mention all this because John P. Keenan posted this illuminating etymological comment on the Chinese character (above) that I used in my previous post:

The character is pronounced fu and is found in the dictionaries as 福. The form here is a “grass” character, an artistic rendering that flows like the grasses.

Its original meaning, as I was taught by Dr. Derk Bodde at the University of Pennsylvania, was “salary,” for that provided the ancient Chinese with a firm sense of prosperity. Today it simply means “good fortune” or “happiness,” and is found often in Chinese restaurants. . .

Even then, it was “all about the economy”!?

It’s easy to sniff or chuckle at this crude link between salary/prosperity and happiness in Chinese culture. But as you can see from the etymology of our own English word, the link between profound existential notions of happiness and material good fortune is pretty universal.

I happened (there is that word again) to write something similar about the connection between happiness and fortune in Greek thought. Here is an excerpt:

Let me look at two Greek words. One of them is a word used in ancient Greek philosophy: eudaimonia. The simplest way of translating this is ‘happiness’. But it’s something much richer, and there are always fights amongst the scholars about how to translate this word. Perhaps the best extended definition is ‘all-round human fulfilment’. It’s about living well, living a life that is all that it could be. A rich life; a fulfilled life. In fact one of the best equivalents, which sounds a bit old-fashioned today, is the phrase ‘flourishing’. I’ve got a friend, and whenever I used to say to her ‘how are you’, she would reply ‘flourishing!’ It sounds a bit quaint now, but it has a beautiful meaning. It means everything we have been describing: A good life, a rich life, a fulfilled life, a life that has grown into what it could be. This is eudaimonia in Greek philosophy.

Another Greek word is well known from the Scriptures, from the Beatitudes of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn…’ That word ‘blessed’ is makarios in Greek. This is another word that has caused great arguments amongst scholars and translators. If you read the Jerusalem Bible, or the New Jerusalem Bible, you will hear the word ‘happy’. And this is the version Catholics hear in the readings at Mass on Sundays. ‘Happy are the poor in spirit’. If you go back to other Greek texts of the same period, the literal meaning of makarios is ‘fortunate’. It’s not a particularly religious word; it’s an ordinary secular word. Perhaps the best common translation today would be the word ‘lucky’. You are ‘lucky, fortunate’ if you are poor in spirit.

So you can see the tensions when you have to make a choice about a translation. You can use the word ‘blessed’, which is very rich; but it’s a bit too religious. Because ‘blessed’ is a religious word in contemporary English, which is not actually the original Greek meaning. But if you say ‘happy’ — in the modern idiom this sounds a bit too superficial. And really, in both a religious and secular sense, we are trying to point to a life that is all that it could be — happy, fortunate, rich, blessed, fulfilled, flourishing. I’m going to use the word ‘happiness’ to mean all these things. Happiness in a large sense.

The idea of happiness gives us a good starting point when we are trying to discuss human life, and human actions, and then morality. Because even if we are confused by the idea of rules, of right and wrong, or doubtful, it’s still true that most of us, even those with no faith, would be able to agree that as human beings we are seeking something in life, seeking some kind of happiness and fulfilment. Even if we disagree with each other and with friends and neighbours about exactly how to find it, we at least have a starting point: Here we are as human beings, seeking something, seeking some kind of fulfilment and meaning.

The article is called “Christian Morality and the Search for Happiness”. It’s one chapter in the book Faith Matters: Fundamentals of Faith recently published by St Pauls, London; with chapters by different authors about prayer, the bible, authority and conscience, and Catholic social teaching. Well worth buying! (I can’t find it on Amazon – but there is a link here to the St Paul’s Bookshop page about the book, where you can order it online.)

Faith Matters: Fundamentals of Faith

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