Lee Siegel, a New York columnist, recently criticized the Coen Brothers’ film “True Grit” for expressing the post-modern view that life is meaningless. He compares it to the original John Wayne version in which “vital characters apply their will to the world” and have meaningful connections with other human beings. By implication, Siegel ratifies the belief that actions have consequences and that justice will ultimately prevail.
The appealing thing about Siegel, a self-proclaimed liberal, is that he is capable of questioning his own orthodoxy and considering other points of view. He’s at his best when he attacks left-wing pieties and prejudices just as a writer like George Will is at his best when he attacks his own conservative base. Siegel’s criticism of the new “True Grit,” in fact, sounds almost like a conservative polemic against “moral relativism” and a pitch for traditional values.
Siegel implies that the “life is meaningless” conceit is of recent vintage, but of course it’s been around for a long time. Shakespeare memorably called life “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” You can’t get more pessimistic than that. It is true that contemporary arts have made a fetish of incoherence and senselessness, justified because life is meaningless. Gratuitous violence, anti-heroes and evil geniuses who aspire to rule the world for no particular reason have become clichés in movies these days.
Actually, life really does appear to be meaningless — as well as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The existentialists elevated this insight into a concept: “The Absurd.” The horrors of 20th Century wars encouraged suspicions of an indifferent, amoral universe. To write poetry after the Holocaust was barbaric, someone said. Dostoevsky was obsessed with the prospects for morality in a world without religious faith.
The miracle is that the chaos and madness reported on the daily news hasn’t turned humanity into a species of criminals and libertines or driven us into mass despair. People continue to pursue some kind of meaning and behave according to values, even if they don’t pay off. The inevitability of death makes even heroic lives seem fruitless. But Sisyphus still strives to roll his boulder up the hill and poets still write poetry. The firemen who raced up the stairs of the Twin Towers in an attempt to save the lives of others must have known that they were running to their own deaths. But we revere them as heroes because they didn’t yield to the absurd.
Lee Siegel calls his column “The Last Critic,” and he may be entitled to that distinction. But I think he got it wrong about “True Grit.” The Coens’ version remains true to the original vision of purpose and justice. Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Rooster Cogburn isn’t that different from John Wayne’s. Both suggest a scoundrel with a bedrock of compassion, morality and responsibility — a jaded, prodigal hero.
By the way, when Siegel embarked on a riff about the hardships we live with today I must say I laughed out loud. Contemporary Americans are “mired in joblessness, banged around by soaring health care premiums and deductibles, slaves to the distractions and importunings of our proliferating gadgets, swamped by inarticulable unease.” O, the sufferings we must endure: Standing in line, filling out forms, our entertainments interrupted by commercials and our cell phone connections dropped. You gotta be tough. Don’t lecture us about “True Grit.”
— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.