In The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s fictionalised biography of Thomas Mann, the fine Irish writer shows the great German one in a continental hotel as the second world war breaks out. “In the evening the orchestra played some light waltzes,” as normal, and sexier fare after dinner, which was served on time.
The eerie detachment from events doesn’t end there. British border agents ask Mann to explain a seating plan full of German names that is found in his notebook. It turns out he is planning a novel in which Goethe dines with some friends a century earlier. The man they have pegged as a spy is a dreamy artist. They wave him through.
“Eerie”, I said, and “dreamy”. But “natural” and “shrewd” are nearer the mark. Neither the hotelier nor the Nobel laureate can do much about the war. Without a thumb on the scales of history, where is the harm in losing themselves in private enthusiasms and the consolations of the night? What seems like frivolity is in truth a resourceful piece of what we might now call “self-care”. Think of children who react to trauma by vanishing into their own worlds. You’d have to persuade me they are better off with a frontal engagement with the facts.
There are lots of reasons to swerve Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. The film’s symbolism is blunt: an Earth-bound comet does duty for climate change. A good allegory should leave you uncertain that it is an allegory.
Its real crime, though, is a lack of curiosity about its core subject. It depicts a world that numbs itself with political sport, mobile phones and frothy TV (weapons-grade irony, that) as it faces death from above. This denialism, this refusal to “look up”, is shown here as purest folly. No doubt, given the stakes, it is. But why this human trait exists, what evolutionary purpose it might have served a species that has come this far, are questions about which the film is majestically indifferent.
George Orwell once said that what he had in spades was not talent but the “power of facing unpleasant facts”. Less famous is the rest of the quote, where that power is contrasted with “my failure in everyday life”. The implication here is that constant engagement with bleak reality is debilitating. And so, like exposure to asbestos or radiation, it must be. That individuals as undeluded as Orwell exist is a precious thing. But if more than a few of us were like him, society couldn’t function.
Nor is it even clear that facing facts is a technically harder skill than glancing at them once in a while before trucking on. Think of the mental self-bifurcation here. You know something bad is at work but you teach yourself to ignore it for the sake of momentary relief or (which flows from that) long-term survival. People end up living successful lives in this way. I am increasingly aware that I did it as a child.
It is a difficult but learnable trick. The world is giving us ever more reasons to master it. The threat of a land war in Europe has joined a still-live pandemic and the debasement of Britain by its trashiest postwar government as torments of the day. Some of us, by dint of work, have to be engagé (he said, from southern California). But if others choose not to be, that isn’t an act of dereliction. It isn’t irrational. It is a subtle and humane choice that allows so much of practical life to go on. That includes the fizz of a night out. It also includes the creation of art that will endure when stabs at topicality and political commitment have dated like Logan’s Run.
Denial is foolish. Denial is life-giving. This is what Tóibín is getting at in his vignette of wartime Europe. It is what Don’t Look Up misses entirely. The film is less insightful about the way people navigate stressful and even existential times than the Prince song “1999”. Like so much activism, it shows concern for human beings but only the loosest comprehension of them. What a tremendous disappointment we are to it.
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