Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What Makes a Man Interesting

By Santiago Ramos

I had been spending too much time on YouTube, watching the newest Dos Equis beer ads featuring its famous “Most Interesting Man in the World.” (On “wingmen”: “It doesn’t take more than one person to talk to a woman.” On drink umbrellas: “Unless your drink is expecting rain, you should probably reconsider.”) Scrolling through the sidebar of related videos, I came across an interview with Jonathan Goldsmith, the actor who plays the world’s most interesting man, from the 2009 World Music Awards.

“If I watch this,” I told myself, “the Most Interesting Man in the World will become completely demystified. There is no way Jonathan Goldsmith is as interesting as his advertisement persona. I will no longer take as much pleasure in watching (and re-watching, and then watching again) these ads.”

The ads, in case you’ve missed them, feature a sophisticated, adventurous, bearded man, either sitting at a bar, surrounded by pretty girls, airing witty advice (as cited above), or performing adventurous exploits around the world (presenting gifts to queens, feeding endangered birds on dangerous mountain cliffs, playing cards with Mayans). At the end of every ad, the Most Interesting Man in the World says two things: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis,” and, more importantly, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

I decided to watch the interview. I was in a mood to slay idols, to do away with distractions. These ads held a seductive grip from temple to temple, across my forehead and over my eyes. I was spending too much time on them. So I watched the interview. But I got more than I bargained for.

Consider this exchange:

Goldsmith: I was sitting in a restaurant the other day and a fellow came over, he said, “You’re the guy.” “Yeah,” I said. He said: “I asked my seven year-old son yesterday, What do you want to do when you grow up? He said, I want to be the most interesting man in the world.” Made me feel good.

Fawning Lady Interviewer: How many kids say that?

Goldsmith: Well, a lot of people say that, not so many children. But he was seven. And the other day, an elderly man said, “Ohh, if I could do it all over again…” So it runs the gamut. It’s nice.

Fawning Lady Interviewer: Very nice.

He was demystified, yes. But I was horrified. I couldn’t get to sleep: I spent half the night staring at the ceiling, wondering about the poor old man who confided his regrets to Jonathan Goldsmith. How did Goldsmith respond? Most likely, whatever he said wasn’t very interesting. Yet the old man’s question is a gift for the rest of us who are smarter than Goldsmith: Assume the old man’s perspective, and wonder what life is about, even when most of it has already passed and it hasn’t been too interesting.

From the point of view of its intended audience—the young—the World’s Most Interesting Man is easily attractive. The world opens up to him as a direct function of his wonder and his courage. His only sacrifice seems to be a steady career, and he never seems to lack the affection of women (though we never find out if he has any children). His sophistication and savoir-faire (highlighted in the shorter “advice” commercials) is a different feature of his character altogether, which some people might find even more interesting. For the young who look forward, the Most Interesting Man in the World is a role model but also, more importantly, a prophet of possibility.

But for our old man, the case is different. Possibility doesn’t point backwards in time. The old man resigns himself to a wistful looking-back, and either he felt this sadness deeply or kept it at arm’s length. Perhaps he’s like the aging Ulysses in the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, who at the end of his long odyssey, wants to set sail once again: “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” In any case, talking to a not-so-interesting actor was of no help. The only help would be a new horizon of possibilities in life (which probably don’t include playing cards with Mayans or climbing jagged rocks), and a different understanding of experience as such.

I wonder if Jonathan Goldsmith himself realizes that his hair is getting white, too. The accumulated experiences of the World’s Most Interesting Man will one day end—and then what? He won’t want to do it “over again,” but he might want to “still do it.”

The most interesting thing in these ads, then, is not the adventures but the adventurer. The adventurer has an impulse for the world that is bigger than the world itself, and that crashes against the limits of the world. The old man, in this sense, is as interesting as the Most Interesting. But once we understand this, and we look out ourselves with awe (as Allan Bloom puts it), we need assurances that reality will respond—that there is a way to “stay thirsty” and “still do it.”

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.