To Be Or Not to Be Isn’t the Only Question: The Nature of Being in ‘Synecdoche, New York’


“Adults are, like, this mess of sadness and phobias.”

— Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The films written by Charlie Kaufman have been said to “pay considerable attention to the nature of human persons”, and Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche New York, does not deviate from this existentialist theme. An exploration of the human condition, specifically the intimacy between life and death, and how the finitude of life influences man to strive to leave something important behind, the film lends itself to both philosophic and psychoanalytic readings. As such, we shall seek an understanding of Synecdoche New York through the lens of Martin Heidegger’s conception of authentic versus inauthentic modes of Being.

In order to begin to unpack any meaning in Synecdoche New York, it is first necessary to recount a skeletal version of the film’s storyline as well as offer a brief explanation of the Heideggerian theory we shall use to interpret the film. Synecdoche New York has been called, by Sigh and Sound’s Edward Lawrenson, “far bleaker and more uncompromising” than any of Kaufman’s previous efforts, and for good reason. To put it simply, the film details 40 years in the death of Caden Cotard, a regional theatre director with great aspirations. Diagnosed with a mysterious illness, the inevitability of his death haunts Caden and, along with a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (commonly known as a “genius” grant), spurs him to do something “uncompromising, honest”. This takes the form of a massive theatrical production more than four decades in the making that re-creates Caden’s life in a sprawling New York City warehouse. As the production evolves, it becomes more and more complex until not even Caden can decipher where the production ends and his reality begins. The production is never shown to the public and Caden dies alone, the mystery illness diagnosed 40-some-odd years earlier finally taking his life. Even this briefest of summaries illuminates some of the existential themes of the film.

In his seminal work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger is concerned with the meaning of Being. For him, in order to fully understand what it means to be Dasein (a human being), one must consider the totality of existence from the “thrownness” of birth to the inevitability to death, for it is only in death that Dasein becomes a complete entity. As such, Dasein has “the end…built into the beginning,” as it is described in Kaufman’s sceenplay, and is categorized by Heidegger as a “Being-towards-death”.

In the face of inevitable death, all human subjects are broadly categorized as living either authentically or inauthentically based on the relationship each has to their mortality. Most humans are “inauthentic Being[s]-towards-death”, as little or no thought is generally given to what the experience of our own death will be like; although we can experience the death of loved ones and be anxious or fearful of our own eventual death, these strategies merely mask the reality that we cannot know death until we experience it, at which point we are no longer Dasein. According to Heidegger, “death is understood as an indefinite something which, above all, must duly arrive …but which is proximally not yet present-at-hand for oneself, and is therefore no threat… what gets reached…by death, is the ‘they’.” The process of Othering death has the effect of removing Dasein from itself as a “Being-towards-death”, which leads Dasein into the ‘they-self’ of inauthenticity.

If the hallmark of inauthenticity is living without awareness and understanding of the unpredictability and inescapability of one’s death, living authentically is to recognize that death could take us at any time. This is not to suggest that those living authentically are preoccupied with thoughts of death, for “in such brooding we weaken it by calculating how we are to have it at our disposal,” and death cannot be controlled by anyone. Rather, when we truly accept the possibility of death’s arrival at any moment and live in accordance with the inevitability of our death, we are able to live in an authentic manner.

Accepting our inevitable death is not the entirety of living authentically but rather the necessary condition for living an authentic existence. “Death is Dasein’s ownmost possibility,” according to Heidegger, and in accepting death as our ultimate possibility, human subjects are “liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities” that life has to offer. This awareness in regards to death, then, can be said to have the effect of freeing the human subject from the ‘they-self’ of inauthenticity that has always “tacitly relieved Dasein of the burden of choosing.” In other words, once we have understood that our death can and will come at any time, we become more acutely aware of the fragility of life and therefore more likely to take control of the time we have and make active, rather than passive, choices about the direction of our lives.

With a brief introduction to the Heideggerian theory that will inform our reading of Synecdoche New York behind us, we can turn to an analysis in earnest. In beginning with an exploration of the film’s preoccupation with death, we are offered a useful entry point into the world of protagonist Caden Cotard, for he is constantly reminded of the finitude of human life. The opening minutes of the film, in a manner that is anything but subtle, immerse the viewer in images of death, decay and mortality. Before the screen even fades from black, we hear a soundtrack of a young girl (whom we assume to be Caden’s daughter Olive) singing about life and death in the small town of Schenectady, where the first third of the film takes place. This segues into Caden’s morning radio program announcing the first day of fall, and holding a discussion about the connection between fall and death in poetry and literature. Upon arising from bed, Caden is inundated with signs of mortality: expired milk, newspaper obituaries of notable figures, including famed playwright Harold Pinter; a recurring cartoon that seems to be meditating on the multiplicity of ways to die and the fact that “when you’re dead, there’s no time”. When he receives a head injury while shaving that results in the initial diagnosis of his mysterious four-decade-long illness, Caden begins to feel as though “it’s the start of something awful”. These first few minutes of Synecdoche New York set the tone for the entire film, announcing inevitable death as one of the primary concerns of the narrative.

Heidegger suggests in Being and Time that an awareness of death in general is not sufficient for living an authentic life; one must be aware that one’s own death is inevitable in order to escape the lostness associated with the they-self of inauthenticity. Following the opening scenes of Synecdoche New York, Caden begins to internalize the narrative’s preoccupation with death, but even though it is his own inevitable death that occupies him, he does not gain what Heidegger calls “an impassioned freedom towards death”, but rather an impassioned obsession with death. Each new symptom, from bloody feces and arthritis to pustules, seizures, and the inability to salivate, increases Caden’s superficial awareness of his own mortality, but at the same time, provides a distraction to the real, unavoidable consequence of these symptoms: death. Far from allowing Caden to move forward in his life based upon choices he has actively made away from the they-self of inauthenticity, his obsession with death serves to cement him in reflection, passivity, and inaction.

Faced with the myriad of physical symptoms listed above as well as a near-constant stream of existentialist questions such as “What is your real self?” and “What are you leaving behind?” from both within and outside himself, Caden is positioned as on a precipice, longing for success and self-knowledge, unsure how to go about gaining either. This echoes in Kaufman’s earlier work, including Adaptation, where it has been noted “[t]he anxieties that consume… the film’s central character… are rooted in his basic sense of mission: his desire to be true to himself and his subject, to ‘get it right”. Caden tells his therapist “I’m not doing anything real. I’m afraid I’m going to die… I want to do something important while I’m still here.” This quote demonstrates just how interchangeable success and self-knowledge are to Caden. When he receives a MacArthur Fellowship, Caden decides to search for answers to the big questions in his work. This moment marks a turning point in the film, for it is then that he dedicates himself to re-creating and exploring his past on a massive scale. The theatrical project that unfolds throughout the rest of the film amounts to Caden committing himself to living his life inauthentically.

In choosing to create what he calls “something big and true and tough” with his work, Caden is desperately trying to measure up to both external and self-imposed notions of what an artist should be. Shortly before his wife leaves him, she intimates Caden is not living up to the artists’ ideal, accusing his production of Death of a Salesman of having “nothing personal in it…it’s not you. It’s not real.” This is something of a trend in the work of Charlie Kaufman, whose protagonists often long, as critic Colm O’Shea pointed out, to “be somebody”. Gregory E. Ganssle, in his essay on human nature in the films of Charlie Kaufman, suggests that “[t]he efficacy of art as a strategy for transcendence and for identifying the self is, in the long run, minimal”. Caden’s misguided attempt to live authentically, to know himself, and, in the process, become something more than himself, is doomed to fail, for the self that he longs to know is nothing but an inauthentic and imagined representation of himself.

Using his MacArthur Fellowship to (theatrically) reflect on his past, Caden grounds himself in inauthenticity, for he in effect denies his nature as a “Being-towards”. As little more than a “memory director” (O’Shea, again) of his massive theatre piece, Caden allows himself to be “lost in the they.” This relieves him of the burden of choosing, and results in a negation of the possibility of possibilities in his future, including “the certain possibility of death”. Although he speaks to his actors in Heideggerian terms on the first day of rehearsal, saying, “we are all hurtling towards death. Yet here we are, for the moment, alive, each of us knowing we’re going to die; each of us secretly believing we won’t”, in using his work simply to rehash his disappointments and failures, Caden is denying the future, and thus, his mortality, which amounts to living in an inauthentic manner.

As has been noted, a central element of living inauthentically is giving over to the they-self one’s active choosing from the possibilities presented in life. It is not only Caden’s unwillingness to look to the future with all its possibilities that represents his immersion in the they-self; throughout the film, he repeatedly expresses the desire to relinquish control of his actions into the hands of others. Initially, this manifests as his constant need for reassurance from the women in his life. When he asks Adele for her thoughts on his production of Death of a Salesman, she replies, “It doesn’t matter what I think. It’s all about your artistic satisfaction.” After Adele leaves him, his therapist tells him, “You’ll have to discover your real self.” Even Hazel, the mild-mannered woman with whom Caden is emotionally involved throughout the film, can’t offer him any direction; when he asks her what he should do, she rebuffs him, evoking Heidegger when she says, “Everyone has to figure out their own life.”

Asking friends and loved ones for life advice is common, but Caden takes this familiar occurrence to the extreme three times in the film, once when he is reconciled with his estranged daughter Olive, and twice more when he casts actors to play him in his production; in all three cases, the others come to direct Caden’s life, providing him yet more relief from the burden of having to take an active role in his life. In the case of his reunion with Olive, Caden is given a script to follow in asking for his daughter’s forgiveness. The script, though outrageously false, allows Caden to express his very real sense of guilt towards Olive and, more broadly, offers a channel for his emotions to flow through. It is interesting to note that it is only through words that are not his own that Caden can produce tears, an ability his mysterious illness has taken from him. This highlights the degree to which Caden finds comfort in being relieved of the role of active director (or chooser) in his own life.

Unlike Olive, Millicent, the second actor cast in the role of Caden, initially operates as a director only within the confines of the theatre piece. She takes the reins of a funeral scene within the production, and inserts a pointed monologue that essentially sums up the Heideggerian approach to life; in this scene, the minister warns that “you can destroy your life every time you choose…you only get one chance to play it out.” Watching both the scene and Millicent’s direction, Caden seems to wake to the realization of just how much of a passive figure he is, and is stopped cold by his failings. Rather than amounting to him being “shown to [himself] in [his] possible authenticity”, Caden takes the experience as his cue to become completely inactive in both his life and his work. It is at this point that Millicent assumes control over both the production as well as Caden’s life, offering Caden an earpiece to wear as a means of taking direction.

In surrendering himself to constant direction from Millicent, Caden has completely withdrawn into passivity, and as such, the project that was to be his path to authenticity has come to a sudden halt. Nearly immediately, this has an effect on both the film and Caden’s surroundings; Millicent takes on the role of filmic narrator, and the warehouse that has become the world is crumbling. In the descriptive passages of the script, Kaufman notes the world has become “[d]eadly quiet, abandoned. Fires smolder in buildings. The streets are flooded with sewer water. Buildings are draped with massive tarps. Behind a fence are piles of bodies.” There are no more actors populating his sets and Caden is alone, save for Millicent’s occasional instructions coming through the earpiece. “Dasein’s inherently worldly being is essentially social,” Stephen Mulhall notes in his essay “The Human World: Society, Selfhood, and Self-Interpretation”, and yet in surrendering completely to the passivity of the they-self, Caden has removed himself from nearly all human contact.

Attending Sammy’s funeral, Caden had begun to understand that the mysterious condition he has been suffering from for more than forty years is merely the human condition, and thus everyone in the world is suffering from it too. We are all Dasein, lost in the they-self. “There are nearly thirteen million people in the world,” he tells Hazel, “None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories.” This awareness is then magnified and reinforced by the running commentary supplied by Millicent through the earpiece. By this point, the boundary between Caden and Millicent has completely eroded; though they inhabit separate bodies, they are existentially the same person. The penultimate scenes are voiced-over by Millicent (as Ellen) as narration and direction in Caden’s earpiece, but her words blend her life with that of Caden, further emphasizing the interconnectedness of humanity. Finally, she directs him to “walk,” and he does, through warehouse set after warehouse set, deeper and deeper into what remains of his life’s work, until he comes across a woman who appears to be the only other human left. She is other to him, and yet he knows her. She tells him she is proud of him, he tells her that he loves her. Significantly, this is the first time someone has expressed pride in Caden, and the first time he has uttered the phrase “I love you.” He is finally able to rest peacefully.

Kelly James Clark has noted that “it is through the end that past and present moments find their significance. Through the end, humans find their ultimate meaning.” At his end, Caden finally comes to understand what it is that he has spent nearly his entire adult life looking for: someone to look at him and see the most special person in the world. He has been chasing impossible external validation, and by chasing this, he has wasted his life lost in inauthenticity, and lost the opportunity for a life with Hazel, the one person who sees and accepts him just as he is. With the acknowledgement of pride from the mysterious woman, Caden is at least partially satisfied in his quest. Maddeningly, though he realizes the ultimate futility of his life, with his last breath his posits trying again, believing that he “know[s] how to do the play now.” Kaufman thus leaves his audience with the suggestion that the struggle against futility is one necessary to human nature; even if one logically knows complete reconciliation between one’s self and the idealized image of one’s self to be impossible, it is somehow better to live actively and authentically, trying to attain this communion, than living a life of resignation.