No Reality, Just Perception

Woody Allen is at the peak of his powers. His movie Blue Jasmine is well told, brilliantly acted and tightly edited, but I hated watching it. It didn’t just make me squirm. I felt he was trying to douse my every hope.

Every generation has its myths, and the one that’s dragging us into the future right now is the notion that we can live without myth. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and the other main characters, wealthy and poor alike, dance like puppets on the strings of a faceless god. Flashes of clumsy mirth bring momentary respite from their otherwise sordid existence. Their lives are unenviable.

This is Dr. Phil territory. Even Buddhists would concede his Life Law #6: “There is no reality, only perception.” Allen portrays this insight skillfully, but where Dr. Phil and the Buddhists think we can do better, Allen’s subtext is that we’re a sorry lot with no chance of redemption. The only light shines in a dark workshop where Jasmine’s stepson Danny, a minor character, obstinately nurses his integrity. Allen used to cloak his pessimism in neurotic comedy, but there are few laughs here, and they are cruel.

I abhor gratuitous happiness and false positive thinking

A life without effort or direction is empty. On that I’m with Allen, but I’ve always been ambivalent about his work. Although he flaunts the conventional rules of success and still succeeds — something I admire — the underlying premise is bleak.

Not that I’m some sort of Disney freak. I abhor gratuitous happiness and false positive thinking. I have serious doubts about progress, though with perseverance and luck it can happen. I know we can change the perceptions that form our reality. However, the conventional majority hardly imagine it while the new-age minority reframe those perceptions as if they’re just semantics; as in, “It’s all good.”

Our attempt to escape our own perceptions by obscuring them with denial and lies is both understandable and unforgivable. Jasmine is a caricature of this essential human malaise. Allen’s depiction of that is brilliant.

However, this film holds no glimmer of hope. Whether you call it redemption, enlightenment or self-improvement, Allen has either given up on it or has pointedly omitted it. He has uncanny insight into human nature, but seems depressed by it.

It’s rare that we improve our plight, but not impossible. I learned that as a Buddhist monk (see my memoir), but experienced it only years later. In that no-man’s land between hope and discovery I couldn’t shake off the perception of being an island unto myself. That’s where Jasmine is stuck. Like her, I brooked no compromise. I felt viscerally that to seek support was a weakness; so much so that I abandoned even the fragile consolations of belief. It wasn’t irrational, but it was painful. I lost myself once again to the isolation that had chased me into monastic community in the first place. Only when I finally met someone of like mind did I understand the meaning and purpose of moral support: that it could take me out of myself. By reconnecting to the chaotic imperfections of society, I perceived myself as something else, less exalted and more likable.

Who among us has never balked at the terrors of intelligence?

Jasmine flaps around like a marooned fish, hanging on grimly to the made-up certainty of who she is. She pays the ultimate price — not her life but her sanity. She can’t bring herself to reach out humbly to another human being, even when she has the perfect opportunity. That alone would open her to the possibility of change, but she won’t let go her pride; she just can’t. It’s her only, desperate, paper-thin identity. Her perception — her reality — is that to abandon her self image is to break the prime rule of survival. It’s inconceivable.

Jasmine is a model of willful ignorance, and who among us has never balked at the terrors of intelligence? Because tragedy is so human, Woody Allen is lauded for his depiction of reality. For his communicative and technical skills he deserves it.

But this is a heartless, dismal and cynically one-sided perception. Yes, life is often like that. No, it’s not inevitable.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

18 thoughts on “No Reality, Just Perception”

  1. I think he’s trying to shake us awake. It’s impossible to not see something familiar and then watch yourself rationalize it. Very clever.

  2. I am a student of A Course In Miracles. Just today I was reading what ACIM has to say about perception. (Textbook 3, paragraph V). It is difficult to express my thoughts about this because English is not my mother’s tongue.
    ACIM states that there IS a reality, and that is that ‘God, or ‘all’, is Love’. But that we don’t see and experience it that way because we believe that we are separated from God / Love.
    So that is again a very different point of view. I think you (buddhists, dr Phil) are saying that if we have to have perception, we might as well perceive that positive change is possible?
    As far as I understand ACIM it says that everyting IS positive, but we get in the way, thinking and believing differently. So we may perceive things, but we perceive them incorrectly. Perceiving things and KNOWING the truth are two different things, says ACIM. The truth, according again to ACIM being that we are not and never were separated from Love / God. But we can believe we are.
    When I read your ‘ice tub’ comment I was thinking of something Osho said, about how existentialists believe that all is negative and pointless, where what Osho calls religion (I would say ‘spirituality’ I think) goes just one step beyond, and that is what makes the difference.
    (I think I’ll give up my attempt to discusse these matters now! Grin).

    1. Thanks Christina: Deciding how we should perceive or feel about things is easy, but perceptions and feelings have a momentum of their own. Changing them takes strategy. There’s an art to letting go and perceiving sensibly at the same time.

      1. What I tried to express is that it is not so much about changing perception as well as doing away with perception.

          1. I’d love to go into it, Stephen. But I don’t think my English is good enough. Read A Course in Miracles! LOL It is only 2000 pages or so…!

  3. I think Caroline’s posts are onto something here. Stephen as you examine your thoughts and feelings about the film, what are you not seeing? What are you not questioning (about your own views that may be projected onto the film)? What are you not able to see with a dose of humour?

    What is hope anyways? One definition (not the definition) is that hope=desire + expectation.
    I try to imagine how my life would be if i lived without hope but rather with a full acceptance of what is as it is while (somehow) holding the wisdom to do what needs to be done to not fall into complacency.

    1. Hi Stephen: Yes, Caroline’s usually onto something.

      What am I not seeing? Perhaps I’m forgetting that people sometimes need to be shocked out of their complacency, that seeing their own neuroses in a larger-than-life movie character helps dissolve their own defenses. On the other hand, that works best when the character is sympathetic. It’s not easy to identify with Jasmine. I did so only after considerable effort. As for “a dose of humour,” I can only presume you haven’t seen the film yet; it’s no comedy.

      What is hope? Desire + expectation works for everyday uses, but there’s also the existential hope that gets us out of bed in the morning. That’s especially important for those who regularly ponder the emptiness of life. How do we keep our balance? The only answer that really sticks is love which, like hope, has two sides: conventionally it too consists of desire + expectation; more vitally though, it’s something to do, rather than something to get. I’d like to see Allen’s film expressing that sort of hope.

      The characters in the film are entirely reactive. Perhaps I’m hiding from what that says about us. Perhaps my hope is contrived and baseless, but if it is — what next?

      1. Allow me to misquote what Freud never said: “Sometimes a film is just a film.”
        Another misquote (Thoreau I think): “Does the film misrepresent reality or paint a sad view thereof? Perhaps. But I am larger than this film. I(t) contain(s) multitudes.”

        My response to “The only answer that really sticks is love,” is:
        and, yes!


        1. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”   —Walt Whitman

          …don’t know about the rest.

  4. Well, it’s been a while since we connected – but had to respond in the context of my non- journey to monk hood!

    I haven’t seen this film but it seems to me what he does best is light hearted yarns with superficial characters enabling him to juxtapose their superficial perceptions and thoughts into a framework that suggests an appearance of something deep and meaningful, though in truth, often not (Midnight in Paris for example). Go a little deeper and …….

    Probably a good thing I didn’t go down that monkish route – you write: “Even Buddhists would concede his Life Law #6: “There is no reality, only perception.” – to which my only response is go find the nearest table and bang your head on it as hard as you can – keep doing it until you get the message.
    Even a claim that this is meant only with regards one’s mental formations leaves one open to the charge that such cerebral thinking is divorced from “reality” (really, go do it!).
    Is the glass half empty or half full? Obviously both – perception is perception how you ‘judge’ that information a chioice, reality remains.
    Yep – a good thing I didn’t go down that route!

    Anyway – Best to you both

    1. Hi Scott. I wouldn’t call the characters superficial; rather, they’re caricatures. Allen makes them deliberately two-dimensional; each one draws our attention to a particular neurosis or failing. It’s a clever device; reminds me of ancient Greek drama.

      Dr. Phil’s point (and I agree) is that it doesn’t matter how things are objectively or rationally. What determines our behaviour and its consequences is the way we perceive them. In other words, we’re motivated not by reality but by our perceptions of it.

      I’m not sure that banging your own head will do the trick. It has to be life that smashes us against our own hopes. Even then, there’s no guarantee we’ll learn from the experience.

  5. How dare Woody be a daddy with such a nihilistic view-why even bring children into the world? He should forsake his neurotic Judaic cloak & go join the Medieval Cathars. I still like his movies, though. Our saving graces are humor & humility-& awe.

  6. I’m not sure how closely “there is no reality, only perception” relates to the film. And to analyze the film and analyze the thinking suggested may be two different matters. Cate’s performance is masterful but that does not mean Allen is a masterful director or has insights into human nature. A film is a film but Allen’s insights compared to those of Bergman (in PERSONA for example) or Antonioni (in LA NOTTE for example) seem, to me, at least, trivial.

    To return to the beginning, “there is no reality, only perception” but what determines perception? Does a trained ornithologist in a forest perceive the same things as Woody Allen? If we mean some other kind of perception, it might to be helpful to specify what kind. I suggest that if there is no reality, then there is nothing to perceive. When the Buddha came down from the mountain, he gladly accepted the very real milk a maid offered. One might argue that this very real milk changed the Buddha’s perception.

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