Electric Blanket People
My Dinner with André and the Lost Art of Conversation
One of my favorite movies does not have a single elf lord, starship, or wise-cracking superhero. No, it's just about two long-lost friends having a two-hour dinner conversation at a restaurant. I kid you not, it is better than it sounds! If that clue didn't give it away, the film is 1981's My Dinner with André starring Wallace Shawn and directed by Louis Malle. The two old friends, Wally and André, meet at the Café des Artistes in Manhattan after years apart. What follows is an honest, poignant dialogue, and entirely without the tired tropes that make up so much of our cinema these days.
Wally is a down-to-earth pragmatist who has spent his entire life in New York City. He enjoys life's simple pleasures, like hanging out with his girlfriend and going to see plays. Wally looks a bit like a hobbit and his lifestyle preferences reflect that. He's just a good, decent fellow who tries to treat everyone well.
On the other hand, André's a mystic, a grand seeker of higher truths, and an avant-garde artist continually trying to push the boundaries of experience. He's traveled worldwide on this quixotic quest: the Sahara, India, Tibet, Scotland, Poland, and many other places, searching for enlightenment from the soul-killing drudgery of daily life. André has spent years trying to use art to help him transcend the banal. So far, as he admits, that search has been a self-indulgent failure.
The film's genius is that over the course of the dinner, we get to see both men open themselves up and become vulnerable, sometimes in ways that are not flattering. André's mysticism at times seems to verge on new-age crackpottery. Wally's nice-guy persona can make him seem like a doormat, retrospectively taking offense at perceived social slights but never doing or saying anything about them. Both men have a love of art and theatre in common and are very likable, sympathetic characters in the film. There are no villains here, only human beings wrestling with life's problems.
André's Critique of Wally's Electric Blanket
The film covers a lot of ground philosophically, so I'll only highlight here one interesting exchange that captures the difference between the two and how they see the world. About an hour into the dinner, Wally describes how he got a new electric blanket for Christmas. He's blown away by what a quality of life improvement this has been. He sleeps and dreams differently now; he's not as aware of the cold outside as he was before. It's changed him. Yet, as wonderful as that electric blanket is, he wonders if it's shifted the way he perceives reality. And if so, is that shift good for him?
André says it most certainly has changed him, and not necessarily for the better. He makes an interesting argument that goes something like this.
An electric blanket creates comfort at the expense of Wally's direct experience with his environment. If Wally didn't have that electric blanket, he would know and feel the cold. Mere knowledge of cold makes it an abstraction or data point and nothing more. André then demonstrates what it means to know and feel the cold rather than only knowing it.
Andre: "But I think the main thing, Wally, is that I think that kind of comfort just separates you from reality in a very direct way. I mean, if you don't have that electric blanket, and your apartment is cold, and you need to put on another blanket, or go into the closet and pile up coats on top of the blankets you have. Well, then you know it's cold. And that sets up a link of things. You have compassion for...well...is the person next to you cold? Are there other people in the world that are cold? What a cold night! I like the cold! My god! I never realized...I don't want a blanket. It's fun being cold. I can snuggle up against you even more because it's cold. All sorts of things occur to you. Turn on that electric blanket, and it's like taking a tranquilizer. It's like being lobotomized by watching television. I think you enter the dream world again."
For André, experiencing the cold opens up branches of possibilities for even more experience. He adds that an electric blanket is just one more comfort alienating us from the natural world. The seasons' variations, the heat of summer, and the cold of winter are no longer directly experienced by most of us. Instead, we have layers upon layers of technologies like central air and heating that insulate us from these natural rhythms. The electric blanket is just one concrete example.
And as André says, "Comfort can lull us into a dangerous tranquility."
He may be onto something.
Today, so many of our interactions with nature are mediated by technological "electric blankets." This means that something as existentially dangerous as climate change becomes something we can only know, i.e., more abstractions and data points. We know climate change is real and scary, but we don't feel it, not really, and not in the ways it needs to be experienced. And without feeling the heat, so to speak, we're not incentivized to act.
After all, we can remain safe and snug from Mother Nature in our temperature-controlled cubes and entertained by our little magic rectangles. What need is there to actually feel climate change? That might be uncomfortable. That might incentivize us to change. And let's be honest, that's not going to happen, is it? The world may burn, but in here, it's always 22 C.
As André would put it, we've thus once again entered the dream world, lobotomized to realities that we prefer not to face. Yet, the real world does exist independently of our wishes, whether we drift along anesthetized in a high-tech dream world or not.
Wally's Rebuttal to André
However, Wally's reply to André's argument is not all that bad and will appeal to the more practically minded. His exasperated response is that his life is already filled with enough reality, thank you very much. An electric blanket is just one small respite from the harshness of daily life in a cold, heartless city. If it provides some comfort and helps him recharge his batteries after a long day at work, that is a good thing.
Wally: "I would never give up my electric blanket because, Andre, New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold. It's a difficult environment. I mean, our lives are tough enough as it is. I'm not looking for ways to get rid of the few things that provide relief and comfort. I mean, on the contrary, I'm looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I'm trying to protect myself because really there are these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look."
You see, Wally is quite happy to have little pleasures like electric blankets to get him through New York's winters. He's not looking for every damn experience in his life to be some gateway to higher meaning like André does. Whereas André sees the cold as the possibility for a deeper experience, Wally just sees it as something to avoid. That's not an absurd response, and Wally is most people in this regard. This is a simple point that needs no further explanation.
At the end of the film, Wally springs for a cab and waxes philosophical on the ride home about the city where he's spent his entire life. His perspective has shifted because of his dinner with André. While he disagreed with André's worldview, his own comfortable assumptions about life were radically challenged. He had been forced to articulate why he believed what he believed. This provoked a round of much-needed introspection. Wally was better for it.
Now, riding in that cab through the city, he sees every street corner, store, and neighborhood with some special memory attached to it. He now understands for the first time that there is meaning in the commonplace if we choose to look for it. Maybe there's a lesson here as well for André, who has spent his entire adult life running from the commonplace in search of deeper meanings.
That said, André's electric blanket argument from way back in 1981 resonates with me today. He seems prophetically right about the dangers of excessive comfort to human well-being. We need to struggle and feel discomfort to fully grasp what it means to be human. We're also at risk of having any ability to generate emotions (that are not reactions to stimuli on screens) smothered under a pile of steaming hot electric blankets. Something is lost when the only goals are the aimless ones of having fun and feeling good.
Maybe André was right. Too much comfort kills the soul.