One of the more important insights of the Christian spiritual tradition — echoed from Gregory of Nyssa to Thomas Merton — is that life is not so much about accumulating as letting go, not so much a matter of working to acquire as learning to give away. It is, to be sure, a time-honored piece of wisdom, yet one that has little truck with contemporary society. After all, we live in a time where “growth” and “progress” are the watchwords of human enterprise, whether in business, politics, or even religion. If you’re not growing, if you’re not adding, if you’re not better today than yesterday (understood in a variety of terms, from money to prestige), then you’re doing something wrong.
Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, takes aim at this notion. It stars Cate Blanchett as Jeanette (“Jasmine”) Francis — a former Manhattan socialite who lost everything when her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was arrested and convicted for fraudulent business practices. Panicky, overmedicated, and showing signs of psychosis, Jasmine relocates to San Francisco, where her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), lives. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that their relationship has never been particularly harmonious: the sylphlike Jasmine, who, it is remarked, has the “good genes,” condescends to the more homely Ginger, who cannot extricate herself from working-class trappings. Even after Jasmine’s downfall, an imbalance remains. Jasmine disdains Ginger’s mechanic boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and she laments having to take shelter in Ginger’s overcrowded flat. What’s the point of living, she implies, if you simply accept mediocrity?
Nevertheless, Blanchett is able to transform Jasmine into a pitiable character: it’s not that she is a bad person but that she has failed to think through the purpose of life. Ginger’s problem, meanwhile, is that she cannot convince herself that Jasmine is wrong. Thus she suddenly finds Chili less than enticing, and, despite having everything that Jasmine doesn’t (a stable job, loving children, etc.), she cowers in her sister’s proverbial shadow. This, Allen suggests, is the real trouble with the “American Dream”: it keeps us from being content with what we do have; it sets up the terms of life in such a way that no one is ever actually happy.
In a sense, then, Jasmine is a victim. The question is: will Ginger, too, succumb to this counsel of despair? Will she come to save her life by learning to let it go? Allen only hints at the answer to the latter question. Indeed, given his “militant Freudian atheism,” it may be that he himself is unsure of the answer or of whether or not an answer even matters. Still, the triumph of Blue Jasmine is that it diagnoses the problem in pointed fashion, and, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, the secret of Christianity is to become sick with some purpose.