Warmed by Living

Fence and Chapel, 1994, Tom Dodd

The city grew and humanity warmed it with living, loving and desiring.

Charlie Chaplin, The Gold Rush

I’ve been watching Chaplin films with Seth recently, who is also reading Chaplin’s autobiography, and this line jumped out at me – a wonderfully optimistic view of human habitation that was reinforced a few days later watching Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris. It’s a fantastic film, affectionately bursting the bubble of golden age thinking – life 50 years or 100 years ago always been the best time to have lived in many people’s view – and celebrating Paris in a way that many of his earlier films celebrate New York. At one point the protagonist, Gil Spender, played by Owen Wilson, says:

I sometimes think how is anyone going to come up with a book or a painting or a symphony that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe, Paris exists, these lights – I mean, come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafes, people drinking and singing, for all we know Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.

I love that optimism in the midst of a universe that otherwise might not care a jot. I’m drawn over and over again to the dignity that narrative gives to all kinds of lives – to pioneers in a hostile American wilderness during the gold rush beginning to form communities that were far from ideal, but were nonetheless places where love and life might bloom; to city-dwellers singing and drinking and lighting up the universe; to the miners and their families at Cwmorthin, now memories, who shaped a landscape, a way of life, song, folklore and culture, who once met in the now derelict chapel photographed by Tom Dodd when it was still whole.

There is, of course, a downside to warming the earth with our living – literally heating up the globe is not good news for future narrativisers and isn’t to be made little of, but nonetheless this insistent thrust of life finding a way, often in obscure corners and marginal places, really is something worth telling stories about.

There are schools of thought that eschew narrativising, that think that we must choose between narrativising and simply getting on with life, but de Beauvoir provides another way – to live to narrate – telling true stories (in the sense of truthful rather than literal) seizing life in all its contingent detail. I’m with de Beauvoir – to live to narrate anticipates what Ricoeur wrote about narrative identity – life calls out for narrative in film, in song, in fiction, in biography, in poetry… a witness that the world has been warmed in so many spots by living, loving and desiring.

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