Kierkegaard, Woody Allen, and the Secret to Lasting Joy
By Father Robert Barron
The great 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke of three stages that one passes through on the way to spiritual maturity: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. During the aesthetic stage, a person is preoccupied with sensual pleasure, with the satisfaction of bodily desire. Food, drink, sex, comfort, and artistic beauty are the dominating concerns of this stage of life. The ordinary fellow drinking beer at the baseball game and the effete aristocrat sipping wine in this box at the opera are both fundamentally enjoying the aesthetic life in Kierkegaard’s sense. The pleasures of this stage are pure and intense, and this is why it is often difficult to move to the next level, the ethical.
At this second stage, one transcends the preoccupation with satisfying one’s own sensual desire and accepts the moral obligation which ties one in love to another person or institution. The young man, who finally abandons his bachelor’s life and enters into marriage with all of its practical and moral responsibilities, is passing from stage one to stage two, as is the soldier who lets go of superficial self-interest and dedicates himself to the service of his country.
But finally, says Kierkegaard, there is a dimension of spiritual attainment which lies beyond even the ethical. This is the religious. At this stage of life, a person falls in love with God, and this means that she falls unconditionally in love, since she has found the infinite object which alone corresponds to the infinite longing of her heart.
For the religious person, even the objects of deepest ethical commitment—family, country, business, etc.—fall into a secondary position. When Thomas More said on the scaffold, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first,” he gave evidence that he had passed from the ethical to the religious stage of life. This famous account of the stages on life’s way came to my mind as I was watching Woody Allen’s most recent film “Vicky, Christina, Barcelona.” Like most of Allen’s movies, this one concentrates on the mores and behaviors of the cultural elite: wealthy business executives, artists, poets, and writers. Vicky and Christina are two young New Yorkers who have resolved to spend a couple of summer months in Barcelona. While enjoying a late meal at an elegant restaurant, they are propositioned by Juan Antonio, an infinitely charming painter, who invites the women to join him for a romantic weekend. Despite Vicky’s initial hesitation, they accept. Juan Antonio is a consummate bon vivant, and he introduces Vicky and Christina to the pleasures of the Spanish good life: the best restaurants, vistas, art galleries, music, etc. And then, of course, he seduces both of them. In order not to spoil the movie for you (and to keep a PG rating for this column), suffice it to say that they become involved in a love triangle—and eventually quadrangle. None of the lovers is capable of a stable commitment, and all make appeal continually to the shortness of life, the importance of enjoying the moment, and the restrictions of conventional morality.
What they all do—to varying degrees—is to reduce sexual relationship to the level of good food and music and art, something that satisfies at the aesthetic level. And what makes this reduction possible is precisely the disappearance of religion. All of the players in this film move in the world of the sophisticated European high culture, an arena from which God has been rather summarily ejected. Kierkegaard thought that the three stages are ordered to one another in such a way that the highest gives stability and purpose to the other two. When a person has fallen in love with God, both his ethical commitments and aesthetical pleasures become focused and satisfying. But when the religious is lost, ethics devolves into, first, a fussy legalism, and then is swallowed up completely by the lust for personal satisfaction.
This film is a vivid presentation of precisely this declension. And the end result of this collapse is deep unhappiness. What struck me throughout Woody Allen’s film was just this: how unhappy, restless, and bored every single character is. So it goes when souls that are ordered to God are bereft of God. There is, however, a sign of hope. As in so many of Allen’s movies—“Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” come to mind—religion, especially Catholicism, haunts the scene.
At the very commencement of their weekend together, Juan Antonio showed the two young women the sculpture that, in his own words, “inspired him the most.” It was a medieval depiction of the crucified Jesus. It’s as though even this postmodern bohemian, this thoroughly secularized sophisticate, realizes in his bones that his life will not hold together unless and until he can fall in love unconditionally. The joy that none of them finds can be had only when they order their aesthetic and ethical lives to the divine love made manifest in that cross of Jesus.
Published in Catholic New World