“Now is the winter of our discontent,” begins Shakespeare’s play Richard the Third, and indeed no better season could have been chosen to represent discontent and melancholy in general than winter, at least for those of us who live in the temperate zone. When it’s cold and gloomy, the weather dominates our mood even if we are determined to remain cheerful, and when it’s warm and balmy, we may equally well feel sad and doomed because we know it is the result of disastrous global warming. So it’s the perfect season in which to review a certain remark made by that genius of discontent, Woody Allen.
Allen once said, “More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Of course, the humor comes from the fact that this is a parody of morally uplifting sentiments which would oppose negative choices to more positive ones, which choices require that one imagine oneself at a crossroads without helpful markers to point the correct direction, but simply a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, requiring a guess. And as well, in this case, the choices are both negative, to make the imagined situation even more extreme.
Taking Allen’s redaction of such old saws seriously for the moment, however, “total extinction” is the end of life, finito! all things over and done with, whereas despair and utter hopelessness, though perhaps the emotional equivalent, are not quite as bad. Or is it the other way around? Would it, Allen perforce asks us to imagine, be better to pass entirely out of existence rather than to live in despair and utter hopelessness? A fine point, and one only someone who is at least pretending to a very somber world view would come up with.
The trick to this whole problematic choice is of course to choose despair and utter hopelessness, because it is as impossible to maintain these constantly as it is to maintain constantly the opposite, total cheerfulness. Woody Allen’s maxim is the proof in itself that there is some residuum of this choice, and it is humor, even if a particularly wry and wan gallows humor.
After all, sooner or later, we will all face extinction to some degree anyway. I say “to some degree” to allow for human philosophical quibbles about the afterlife, whether by that one means heaven or the after-the-fact gratification of persistent personal fame. The poet William Butler Yeats even indicated that he believed that each person had the afterlife he or she had believed in before death: if heaven, then a choir of angels for company, if nothing, then nothing. So in this situation, why go the “extinction route” any sooner than necessary? We’ll see that scenery soon enough. No, for me it’s the route of “depair and utter hopelessness,” because I know that such conditions don’t persist constantly, and I will surely have my good days as well, even if I sound like Woody Allen in a “down” mood (and that is quite funny enough to be going on with!).