The Decline and Fall of Woody Allen

Everything that follows is not meant to be terribly serious; there’s only so much one can read into an article, and I’m reading an awful lot into this one. I should say that I saw Scoop recently and thought it awful. Curse of the Jade Scorpion wasn’t bad, but the whole time during Scoop I wondered why Woody Allen was making movies as quickly as he was.

Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask…

1. Even though I love The Dark Knight and The Departed, and assert that they deal with grand themes well in the tradition of political philosophy, I’ll be the first to say that tragedy is easier than comedy. What makes Stardust Memories and Manhattan so difficult to pull off is that they are comic: the truth is bittersweet, not fatal, and love can be had once certain things are realized. I hold that Stardust Memories is the finest film I’ve ever seen – it is a whimsical and dark meditation on whether a creator can love or be loved.

So one has to wonder what happened to the Woody Allen who could see deeply into the nature of things, pull out serious questions, and develop them well. I think I have an an answer: New York, more specifically, The New Yorker.

2. What destroyed Woody Allen is the intellectual culture of Manhattan, which sees only the glamour in making deep references and reading an occasional magazine about a philosopher. The trick is to sound smart so you can get people to sleep with you, give you money, or respect you for being clever. Worse, all of this depends upon as well as shapes contemporary academia. There are many literature professors who can go through a poem carefully and bring out important questions, but they don’t care to – there’s no money in starting a serious discussion about the themes which have shaped human existence through the ages. Philosophy is obsessed with atheism moreso than evangelicals, whom you would think have to be obsessed in order to combat what they perceive as the greatest evil, because with God out of the way more “serious” questions like whether robots can have feelings (I’m not kidding, see Colin McGinn’s “The Mysterious Flame”) can be addressed.

3. It’s all trendy crap, but Allen has been a step above it in some ways. After all, Manhattan identifies all that shallowness and eviscerates it:

In the interviews with Lax, Konigsberg states that his reading of philosophy and literature is mainly an attempt to help him answer the ultimate question about life: its purpose and values in its relation to death. “I think the most important issues to me are what one’s values in life should be—the existence of God, death—that’s real interesting to me. Whether it’s capitalist society or socialism—that’s superficial.”The task Konigsberg takes on is no small one for a comedian, let alone a philosopher! Konigsberg puts the problem into the voice of his character Allen when he says, “My view of reality is that it has always been a grim place to be . . . but it’s the only place you can get Chinese food.” Variations on this theme appear throughout his writings: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.” Or, “Eternal nothingness is O.K. if you’re dressed for it.”

That Woody Allen goes for the larger question isn’t a small thing: most readings of other thinkers reduce those thinkers to only what we can conceive. If you’re aiming higher, you’ll see what others have to contribute that is higher, usually.

Unfortunately, while there is a sense in which philosophers are atheistic –  proper contemplation of something earthly means that referring everything back to Design must be suspended, at least for a moment – one can’t be a dogmatic atheist and be a philosopher. The reason has less to do with the atheism and more to do with a moralistic fundamentalism that assumes it knows everything already. Here’s Woody Allen arguing a distinct point of view:

To me it’s a damn shame that the universe doesn’t have any God or meaning, and yet only when you can accept that can you then go on to lead what these people call a Christian life—that is, a decent, moral life. You can only lead it if you acknowledge what you’re up against to begin with and shuck off all the fairy tales that lead you to make choices in life that you’re making not really for moral reasons but for taking down a big score in the afterlife.

The problem with this rant isn’t that Allen is wrong: he could be right. In fact, this is almost philosophic. This comes close to saying that real Christianity, real belief, starts with dread, moves to morality, and then and only then moves to the mythos purely. But he puts it so bluntly and so stupidly that he fails to provoke contemplation of a more serious problem. Really? the universe doesn’t have any meaning? See how long you last with that argument against Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger with that. They’ll only sort of agree, at best: what makes their work great is that they can see ways in which the universe does have meaning, and reject many, maybe even all of them eventually. But they can articulate why the “fairy tales” matter, and they don’t need an irreligious fundamentalism to declare religion evil. They don’t just have a character articulate “there is meaning,” and have every major event in the film contradict him.

4. So where did this dogmatism come from? The article moves ahead and says that for the atheist, “chance” replaces “design,” but that’s utter nonsense. Socrates isn’t exactly a theist in any conventional sense and yet he argues from design. You need design in some way in order to argue that there is such a thing as intelligence. The article then moves ahead and cites Woody Allen as saying he likes being a writer best, and pushes the idea that a writer has a sense of control.

But we began in this piece with a distinction between Woody Allen, a public persona that makes and stars in movies, and Allan Konigsberg, the actual person who reads lots of philosophy and has favorite films and all that. I think that was the writer’s way of saying “Woody Allen can stare nihilism in the face and present to us and make human life look pathetic as it really is, but Konigsberg is the guy who can see and contemplate more.”

Well, guess what: when you’re a dogmatist, you’re only as good as your persona. And I think it’s time to rip into the idiotic, unenlightening, shallow notion of philosophy that has crippled what could have been America’s greatest director.

5. The first major problem is this:

Konigsberg’s philosophical interests range from Plato to the German philosophers, but to him Bertrand Russell “makes much more sense, resonates much more deeply with me.”

Paul saw Russell’s History of Western Philosophy lying at Borders for $10 or something and I told him to stay far away from it. The trouble with Russell is how shallowly he conceives of philosophy: take a look at “The Problems of Philosophy” and you’ll see that it isn’t bad, but it assumes that progress can be had in philosophy. That’s a really problematic assumption – philosophic questions aren’t scientific questions nowadays, the ends are different. The question of science now is more or less explicit control; the question of philosophy is how to be happy with the least, if possible.

So if you start with an explicitly technical approach to the greater inquiry, one which you think challenges all religious myth, a problem arises. You’re going to be telling a story that looks like a real story, with fleshed out characters who reveal themselves through their choices, but is really something wholly different. You’re going to be talking past the myth and implicitly creating your own myth.

The irony is how close Allen comes to getting it right. His motivation for wanting to know more really is right out of Plato’s Symposium, as the article claims:

Konigsberg makes it clear that he started reading to help him with the girls he was going out with, girls who tended to regard him as an uneducated lout. “It was the very end of high school when I started going out with women who found me illiterate,” he reminisces. “I thought those girls were so beautiful. . . . One would say ‘Did you read this Faulkner novel?’ And I’d say, ‘I read comic books. I’ve never read a book in my life.’ I don’t know anything like that. And so in order to keep pace, I had to read. Hemingway and Faulkner.

Philosophy as eros is a great starting point – even if mistaken, it allows you to grapple with both the philosophic tradition and one’s immediate problems, the ones that lead you to think naturally about the bigger questions. From that starting point, it is easy to put technical considerations in their proper place, as Allen does in his “Critique of Pure Dread:”

In formulating any philosophy, the first consideration must always be: What can we know? That is, what can we be sure we know, or sure that we know we knew it, if indeed it is at all knowable. Or have we simply forgotten it and are too embarrassed to say anything? Descartes hinted at the problem when he wrote, “My mind can never know my body, although it has become quite friendly with my legs.”

It’s not that technical considerations don’t matter – a lot of good insight depends on word games and overexamination. It takes a lot to articulate the problem correctly and find the right methods for addressing it. Losing sight of what is aiming for, though, is what separates the second-rate philosophers from the best ones. Notice how mind/body became a myth in a sense and distracted from the problems it was meant to elaborate on.

The deep problem with Allen’s education is the lack of it, just like he says:

I think that had I been better educated, I could write poetry, because a writer of comedy has some of that equipment to begin with. You’re dealing with nuance and ear and meter, and one syllable off in something I write in a gag ruins the laugh. . . . In actual one-liners, there’s something succinct, you do something that you do in poetry. In a very compressed way you express a thought or feeling and it’s dependent on the balancing of words.

It should not shock us that any philosopher worth his salt engages literature seriously, whether it is Plato on Homer or Kant on Genesis. What happens to the philosophy books a philosopher writes once he is gone is that they become literature in a sense, too. The lack of knowledge of the tradition, the lack of respect for it, is what makes Russell and Allen lack the ability for sustained, thoughtful inquiry. In the end, they’re not finding new questions or rediscovering the power of old ones. They’re just presenting the same ones as have struck them over and over, complete with their answer. It’s a tired act, and a sad one – it’ll get girls for a time, but not much more; eros is fleeting in an age when philosophy has fled.

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