The Coen Brothers' 2001 masterpiece, The Man Who Wasn't There, is a critique of the emptiness of modern life. It follows a barber (Billy Bob Thornton) who is barely connected to the events and people in his life; he doubts the basic assumptions of the 1950s society that surrounds him and finds them strange. And, while it is obvious that he, as the title character, is 'the man who wasn't there,' I would like to posit an alternative suspect – Jesus is the man who wasn't there.
Whereas others around him "just talk" the barber seeks answers to life's deepest questions – in hair. He wonders where it comes from, "it just keeps growing," he observes laconically. When he may be dying in a car accident, his possible last thoughts are about "the hair" (as he objectively calls it). After death, he wonders, "What keeps it growing?" Herein, we have a deep thought about the afterlife, the soul. He is blindly striving towards religion.
Being a noir film, the barber blackmails someone, kills him when the blackmailee attacks him, and is sent to death row. From there he tells us death takes you out of the maze, you see life whole, there is peace. As death approaches, he takes a higher perspective, looks up and sees that quintessential symbol of the 1950s, a UFO, in the sky, right where God should be; this marvel of the scientific age takes his confession. This is one of the obvious moments that hints that, in this film, the man who isn't there is Christ.
The Coens' black-and-white noir portrays the emptiness of "modern man" (as the barber gets called during his defense trial). Thus, the film implies that modern man should have a larger meaning and moral compass. Please follow me as I diagnose, and propose a cure for, the emptiness in modern Western society; it is a matter of life and death!
As the barber might intuit, Christendom, Western Civilization, has rung hollow since its name change. 'Christendom' implies a transcendent experience of the universe, as it ties us to our heritage; 'Western Civilization' conveys a longitudinal taxonomy, one in which there must be 'Eastern Civilization' and, likely, others, making it one of several. West is a direction, it is a hollow attribute! In basing itself on a cartographical taxonomy, the phrase 'the West' reveals its source, and thus the source of our malaise: the Enlightenment.
Gertrude Himmelfarb's important book, The Roads to Modernity, (stay with me here, this is a matter of life and death), shows that, though we only think of the French when we think of the Enlightenment, there were also British and American Enlightenments. As we only recognize the French one, it alone gets tied to modernity. If we recognize the British and American Enlightenments as 'roads to modernity,' we will have a much better world.
The French Enlightenment sought to recreate society using universal concepts based on reverence for reason that informed an obsessive hatred of Christianity. The 18th century British Enlightenment figures, by contrast, thought of society as formed by compassion, which gave us moral virtues that were compatible with religion. America's Founding Fathers led the American Enlightenment, and created a thriving republic that relied on religion to instill the virtues necessary to sustain it.
The British Enlightenment led to an explosion of charitable organizations; the American, a just republic. The French Enlightenment, by contrast, smashed the Church, which ended France's only social programs. And, when man did not conform to rational designs, the French Enlightenment led to the guillotine terror. And, though Himmelfarb does not discuss it, the God-abstracting German Enlightenment led to the Holocaust.
Rather than "naked reason," Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the British Enlightenment figure and major culturist icon (who denounced the French Revolution), saw liberty in America and Britain being based on "English ideas and on English principles." Instead of exploding parochial prejudices – such as Christianity – with "reason," he suggested we affectionately embrace them, recognizing the time-tested "wisdom and virtue" in them. (1)
Rather than Burke's tradition-embracing English Enlightenment ideal, the Coen's barber employs a French Enlightenment-style critique which subjects all to reason. Reason might tell us that our ways are irrational; Voltaire(1694 – 1778) mocked the Pope as a man with a funny hat in Italy. (2) But 1950s haircuts, our Christian religion, our particular national heroes, our traditions – as Burke and America's founders knew – sustain our liberties by guiding us; we must appreciate them and hold them as dear as our lives.
The barber and his wife (Frances McDormand) do go to church in the film – to play bingo. As she plays, he laconically narrates; "I doubt if she believed in life everlasting. She'd most likely tell you that our reward is on this earth. And bingo is probably the extent of it." Perfectly, the wife then wins, stands, and shouts "Jesus, Bingo, Bingo!" Thus the Coen Brothers brilliantly highlight the random, God-ignoring characteristics of the French-based modernist ideals we have accepted.
We must realize that Christianity, embracing our heritage, and modernism are not incompatible. While not suggesting that we all become evangelicals (not that that would be a bad thing), we might start referring to 'the West' as 'Christendom' again; it will remind us of the man who isn't here in 'the West,' connect us culturally (mitigating the barber's alienation), and ground us in historical virtues (helping him make better decisions), while supporting our liberties (keeping the State from having to fry us, like the barber, in its electric chair).
1. Himmelfarb, Gertrude, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), p. 87.
2. Voltaire, L'Ingenu, 1767.