In Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, we follow theatre director Caden Cotard as he struggles his way through an existential crisis. As his relationships fail and his health begins to deteriorate, Caden becomes increasingly anxious about capturing the “brutal truth” of existence before his time is up. Death – or rather, the way the personal significance we attach to our own deaths, affects how we experience life – is therefore a central theme of the film, and it is this I want to explore. I want to consider two questions: Can philosophical analysis provide us with a meaningful interpretation of death? And is there, perhaps, a way of understanding death which can help us better relate to the basic nature of our mortality – to accept that to be is ultimately to die?
Such questions are prevalent throughout the whole of Western philosophy. Epicurus, for example, argued that to fear death is ultimately irrational, because whilst we are alive we cannot be dead, and then when we do die, we won’t exist to be bothered about it (1). After all, we are not bothered about the fact that we did not exist prior to our conception. Yet although this argument is undeniably persuasive in its logic, I think that Epicurus’s conclusion that death “is nothing to us” is somewhat hasty. His position is important in emphasising that for us to experience and understand our own deaths in the same way that we experience and understand any other sort of event is impossible. But even if we do not experience death as such, it is a fundamental and unavoidable fact of our mortal existence. It is hard to imagine Caden Cotard, for instance, finding consolation or satisfaction in these Epicurean insights. Perhaps it is the case that the significance of death can only be interpreted if subjected to a different form of analysis.
Unlike Epicurus, Martin Heidegger argues that an appropriate understanding and attitude towards death is fundamental to our own self-understanding, and essential if we are to work out the meaning of Being itself. Heidegger’s project in Being and Time is to work out the meaning of Being through a study of that sort of being for whom Being is an issue for it; in other words, he presents us with a concrete phenomenological analysis of our form of existence, which Heidegger terms Dasein (literally meaning ‘being-there’). To sum this up somewhat crudely, we could call this an attempt to analyse what the ‘being’ in being human consists of. Essential to this analysis is the awareness that the possibilities of existence for Dasein are delineated by temporal boundaries: our Being begins in a state of “thrown-ness” at birth, and from then on we exist not only as a (thrown) Being-in-the-world, but also as a Being-towards-the-end. Crucially for Heidegger, death is constantly constitutive of our Being – it permeates our everyday existence as the possibility – the “not-yet” – which any Dasein will one day have to be, whether we acknowledge it or not.
If we are to live “authentically”, according to Heidegger, we must continually project our existence towards the horizon of our death. We need to acknowledge that we are essentially finite; that our death, as the complete loss of Being-in-the-world, is something we must face totally alone because it can never grasped by a Being-still-there. Even when we experience the deaths of others, we are brought no closer to an understanding of what death means for us. To be authentically we must recognise that death is our own unavoidable potentiality (2). We must confront the fact that we are always thrown towards possibilities which are ultimately our own because only we can be responsible for facing up to death and making sense of our existence as a Being-towards-death. Heidegger argues that this entails cultivating a mood of “anxiety” – a mode of living founded upon an anticipation of death which fully recognises one’s finitude and individuality, and refuses to conform to the common attitudes – the idle talk of “the they” or the consolations of religion – which tranquilize us about these facts.
Whilst some aspects of Heidegger’s position may not be entirely convincing – his rejection of the significance the death of others may have for our own self-understanding, for example – the idea that an acknowledgement of our finitude can profoundly affect our self-interpretation strongly resonates. In Synecdoche, New York, the character of Caden is painfully aware of his own mortality. His body seems to be turning against him and talk of or references to death abound in his world. This raises an important point – although the Epicurean imploration not to fear death is most probably sound advice, to cast death from our minds as “nothing to us” seems an even more difficult feat for the ill person who is acutely aware that the end may come sooner than hoped. Caden quite readily acknowledges that he is a Being-towards-death. However, this does not mean that he is leading what Heidegger would call an authentic existence. It seems that rather than cultivating a mood of “anxiety” and anticipating death in a way that leads him to an appreciation of life as transient, towards recognition of the temporality of Being, he desperately clings to the ‘reality’ of the everyday by representing and recreating it again and again as a piece of theatre. Caden even hires an actor, Sammy, to play himself in his life-drama, deferring the responsibility of honestly confronting death onto another person.
“We’re all hurtling towards death,” Caden says, “yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.” It seems that although Caden is able to accept that death is the horizon towards which we all are thrown, he fails to appreciate that all our living moments are unique, irreversible and leading us closer to the end. In the film, months and years seem to pass Caden by without him noticing that life has moved on. In his attempt to capture a moment of absolute truth in art before it is too late, he neglects to project himself into a future which cannot be held back. The result is that as he nears his death, he is radically alienated from his mode of existence. He realises that in life, unlike in theatre, there are no rehearsals, there are no second chances, and there is no director or audience there to validate your performance.
Synecdoche, New Yorkhas quite a reputation for being divisive in the responses it provokes. Some find it depressingly bleak. One film professor, Daniel Shaw (3) argues that as a film it is ‘profoundly deadening’. For Shaw, the character of Caden – desperate for meaning yet embittered by the world – represents the passive nihilism which Nietzsche so derided. Professor of philosophy and religion David Smith disagrees (4). He sees Kaufman’s mix of tragic insight and comic farce as a platform to inspire reflection upon strategies for a sort of ‘naturalistic transcendence’ in our ways of relating to the basic limits of human existence; namely, death and the impossibility of adequately representing our world linguistically. Personally, I would say that to experience the film as ‘profoundly deadening’ suggests that one has missed out on its invitation for us to think about our lives differently. Although Caden may fail to form what Heidegger would term an authentic existence, this need not be the fate of everyone. If we follow Heidegger on this point, death is something we must confront. But the way we interpret our existence as Being-towards-death is ultimately down to us.
(1). Epicurus: ‘Death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. Therefore, it is relevant neither to the living nor the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist.’ (Quoted in Havi Carel, Illness, p.90)
(2). Heidegger: ‘Death is a possibility-of-Being which Dasein itself has to take over in every case. With death, Dasein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. This is a possibility in which the issue is nothing less than Dasein’s Being-in-the-world. Its death is the possibility of no-longer-being-able-to-be-there. If Dasein stands before itself as this possibility, it has been fully assigned to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. When it stands before itself in this way, all its relations to any other Dasein have been undone. This ownmost non-relational possibility is at the same time the uttermost one.’ (Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, p. 294)
(3). Daniel Shaw: ‘The impact of this film is like what Nietzsche condemns in artistic expressions of romantic pessimism: rather than invigorating us to act in the face of the deplorable superficiality of the world, Synecdoche, New York is profoundly deadening. Characters such as Cotard embody the deer-caught-in-headlights powerlessness that is symptomatic of what Nietzsche calls passive nihilism […].’ (‘Nietzschean Themes in the Films of Charlie Kaufman’ in The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. Mark Conrad, p. 265)
(4). David L. Smith: ‘The film is a study in self-defeat; it envisions no way out of this bind [i.e. the sense of falling short created by our reliance on language as expression] short of death, and death is hardly a solution […] There is no other world from which help can be expected, and ever “elsewhere” we build for ourselves out of words turns out to be fatally flawed – a fool’s paradise. Nevertheless, there is a way of seeing our current circumstances that may deserve the name transcendence, if only because this view allows us to live on terms surprisingly adequate to our desire […] Synecdoche, New York evokes transcendence by oblique means and inspires reflection on strategies by which transcendence is pursued.’ (‘Synecdoche, in Part’ in The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. Mark Conrad, p. 244-245)
‘The ordinary confusion of life itself becomes a scene of transcendence, as when fate is transformed through amor fati. Nothing changes, and yet everything changes its aspect, as when tragedy modulates into farce. Some significant mystery is revealed, and one is left with the sense, if not that all manner of things shall be well, then at least that life deserves our grudging but genuine fondness.’ (Ibid., p. 249)
And some quotes from the film…
‘Try to keep in mind that a young person playing Willie Loman thinks he’s only pretending to be at the end of a life full of despair. But the tragedy is that we know that you, the young actor will end up in this very place of desolation.’
‘I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.’
‘I won’t settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal. Each day I’ll hand you a paper, it’ll tell you what happened to you that day. You felt a lump in your breast. You looked at your wife and saw a stranger, et cetera. […] I’m not excusing myself from this either. I will have someone play me, to delve into the murky, cowardly depths of my lonely, fucked-up being. And he’ll get notes too, and those notes will correspond to the notes I truly receive every day from my god!
‘I’ve watched you forever, Caden, but you’ve never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break. Watch me jump. Watch me learn that after death there’s nothing. There’s no more watching. There’s no more following. No love. Say goodbye to Hazel for me. And say it to yourself, too. None of us has much time.’
‘Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is I feel so angry, and the truth is I feel so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.’
‘What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this. As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving – not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, at 7:43. Now you are here, at 7:44. Now you are…Gone.’