IN The wizard, the fictional biography of Colm Tóibín by Thomas Mann, the handsome Irish writer, shows the great German writer in a continental hotel when World War II broke out. “In the evening, the orchestra played light waltzes,” as usual, and sexier after dinner, which was served on time.
The ominous detachment from the events does not end there. British border agents are asking Mann to explain a seating plan full of German names in his notebook. It turns out that he is planning a novel in which Goethe had dinner with friends a century earlier. The man who has been identified as a spy is a dream artist. They wave for him to pass.
Ominous, I said, and dreamy. But the “natural” and the “perceptive” are closer to the goal. Neither the hotelier nor the Nobel laureate can do much for the war. Without a thumb on the scales of history, where is the harm of getting lost in personal enthusiasm and nightly consolations? What seems frivolous is actually an ingenious part of what we might now call self-care. Think of children who react to trauma by disappearing into their own worlds. You will have to convince me that it is better to have a frontal commitment to the facts.
There are many reasons to reject Adam McKay’s Don’t look up. The symbolism of the film is frank: an Earth-related comet fulfills a duty to change climate. A good allegory should leave you unsure that it is an allegory.
However, his real crime is the lack of curiosity about his main topic. It depicts a world stunned by political sports, cell phones, and foam television (the irony of guns, that), as it faces death from above. This denial, this refusal to look up, is shown here as pure nonsense. Undoubtedly, given the stakes, it is. But why this human trait exists, what evolutionary purpose it may have served to a species that has come so far, are questions to which the film is majestically indifferent.
George Orwell once said that what he had at his peak was not talent, but “the power to face unpleasant facts.” Less well known is the rest of the quote, where this power contrasts with “my failure in everyday life.” The bottom line here is that constant engagement with the grim reality is exhausting. And so, like exposure to asbestos or radiation, it has to be. That there are such unmistakable personalities as Orwell is a valuable thing. But if more than a few of us were like him, society would not be able to function.
Nor is it clear that dealing with facts is a technically more difficult skill than looking at them from time to time before continuing. Consider mental self-separation here. You know something is wrong, but you are learning to ignore it for the sake of instant relief or (resulting from it) long-term survival. People end up living successful lives this way. I am increasingly aware that I did it as a child.
This is a difficult but tricky trick. The world is giving us more and more reasons to rule it. The threat of a land war in Europe has joined the still-living pandemic and humiliation of Britain by the dirtiest post-war government as torture of the day. Some of us, because of work, have to be engaged (he said, from Southern California). But if others choose not to be, it is not an act of neglect. It is not irrational. This is a fine and humane choice that allows you to continue so many practical lives. This includes the noise of a night out. It also includes the creation of an art that will withstand when the blows of relevance and political commitment date back to Logan’s escape.
Denial is stupid. Denial is life-giving. This is what Tóibín aims at in his wartime Europe vignette. This is what Don’t look up misses completely. The film is less insightful about the way people navigate stressful and even existential times than Prince’s 1999 song. Like so much activism, he shows concern for people, but only the slightest understanding of them. What a great disappointment we are.
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