Woody Allen & Why Nihilists Make Bad Babysitters
Damon Linker has a reflection this morning on what we both believe is Woody Allen’s greatest film: 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Linker says that while no one who is not Woody Allen or Dylan Farrow knows for sure whether or not Allen molested her, we can know from this film, and Allen’s discussions about it, that in the director’s mind, there is no moral barrier to child molestation.
It’s not that the movie endorses child molestation. It’s rather that the movie is an extremely effective exploration of the implications of nihilism. The drama centers around Judah, a successful eye doctor tempted to commit murder to save his marriage and reputation. The moral lesson of the film is that if God doesn’t exist, there is no such thing as ultimate justice. If you can avoid getting caught, and you don’t feel guilty, then there is no reason not to commit murder, if it is to your advantage. Judah is an eye doctor, an exponent of the scientific study of sight. He exists as a philosophical counterpoint to Ben, a believing rabbi who is going blind. The first time I saw the film, I thought this was Woody Allen’s ironic commentary on moral vision. The vision expert is morally blind, while the rabbi who loses his vision sees moral truth clearly.
But I was wrong. Allen believes Judah sees more truly. Linker:
We know that this was Allen’s intent because he’s said so. Ben, according to Allen, “doesn’t really understand the reality of life…and that’s why I wanted to make him blind. I feel that his faith is blind. It will work, but it requires closing your eyes to reality.” And what is reality? That “at best the universe is indifferent” to our lives and our various ways of construing right and wrong. This indifference is so awful that many of us feel driven to “create a fake world for ourselves, and we exist within that fake world.”
On a lesser level you see it in sports. They create a world of football, for example. You get lost in that world and you care about meaningless things… People by the thousands watch it, thinking it’s very important who wins. But, in fact, if you step back for a second, it’s utterly unimportant who wins. It means nothing. In the same way we create for ourselves a world that, in fact, means nothing at all, when you step back. It’s meaningless.
Here’s Allen from a 2010 interview with Commonweal:
You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, or you can watch the Marx Brothers, and this will give you a pleasant escape for a while. And that is about the best that you can do…. I feel that one can come up with all these rationalizations and seemingly astute observations, but I think I said it well at the end of Deconstructing Harry: we all know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it, and that’s it. Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.
Well, that’s cheerful. Linker makes the important point that Crimes and Misdemeanors in no way proves that Woody Allen molested a child. But it does show that there is nothing in Woody Allen’s view of the universe that would stay his hand if he had that impulse, aside from fear of getting caught.
What is useful about Allen’s nihilism is that he really does see the implications of that worldview more clearly than many, many others who profess a softer form of nihilism. That is, many people would believe that there’s no ultimate truth, that whatever you think is true is true for you. That the universe is meaningless; whatever meaning exists is meaning we give it. If that’s your view, says Woody Allen, then you must agree that the murderer has understood the reality of things better than the moralist. Of course most people would recoil from that conclusion, but I don’t see how any other conclusion is sensible, given the nihilist’s basic premise (that moral truth does not exist).
Allen tells Commonweal, “There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope.” It’s not that Judah, the ophthalmologist, lives as a monster, any more than the nihilistic Woody Allen does. In fact, Judah is a conventional bourgeois figure. The esteem of his community and his family mean a great deal to him. Initially, the idea of committing the murder strikes him as horrifying, but the more he examines his own beliefs about morality, the more he grasps that his upper middle class manners are not the same thing as morality — and that he really doesn’t have a moral core, because he doesn’t believe in anything beyond his own desires. Here’s Woody Allen from a Time magazine interview in 2001, discussing his scandalous relationship with Soon-Yi Previn:
The heart wants what it wants. There’s no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that’s that.
You really must watch Crimes and Misdemeanors.