On Woody Allen’s modern philosophy

The other day I read an interview with Woody Allen. The interviewer’s penultimate question struck me as especially apt. (In the excerpt below, bold = interviewer’s question and regular text = Allen’s reply.)

Machado de Assis is credited with inspiring magical realist writers. Judging from the previews, the protagonist of your latest film experiences some magic in Paris, as did characters in Purple Rose of CairoAlice, and Scoop. Why do you so frequently bend the rules of reality in your films?

As I said before, I do think we live in a nightmare and I feel the same way that Blanche Dubois feels: I want magic; I don’t want reality. I want the paper lanterns hung over the bare light bulbs, like she did. And if there is any way to escape reality, I’m all for it.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any real way. You can distract yourself. You can go to baseball games and concerts and plays and have sex and get involved in all kinds of endeavours that obsess you, and you can even create problems for yourself, where they don’t exist, to avoid thinking about the bad problems. But, in the end, you’re caught. And reality inevitably disappoints you.

[End of interview]

And now what strikes me as especially apt is Allen’s set of philosophical assumptions.

  1. His Metaphysical First Principle: Life is suffering.
  2. His Principle of Human Nature: We desires objects that will bring either frustration or boredom.

Take a look at the trailers for two of his films, Manhattan (1979) and Husbands and Wives (1992).

And what are Allen’s solutions? We’ve heard him allude briefly to Blanche Dubois.

  1. Cosmic Blindness: We clutter our lives with routines that blind us to these metaphysical realities.
  2. Clear-eyed Pessimism: We gaze at tragedy head-on and have the courage to acknowledge these metaphysical realities.
  3. Literary Escapism: We either become Blanche Dubois, transforming reality into fantasy, or Allen himself, lightening reality through humor.

It’s worth considering Allen’s literary escapism further. For Dubois, taking the real and sublimating it into the ideal beautifies reality, thereby justifying its existence. In fantasy, we breathe in perfume. Comedy works a little differently. It changes reality into an object separate from our laughing existence. Smart laughter is self-reflexive inasmuch as it puts us beyond our experiencing selves: the humorist achieves a certain lightness and a sense of community by laughing at his experiencing self.

Allen’s solutions, even his third one, are nothing more than consolation prizes for a rainy-day existence. First, I’m willing to grant that life is transience, but I don’t think that life is (just) suffering. Second, Allen’s theory of human nature, which sounds a lot like Schopenhauer, won’t permit desires that can be satisfied, love that can be fulfilling, or godliness that can a form of peacefulness. If we don’t take on board Allen’s metaphysics, then we don’t have to follow the paths of Cosmic Blindness, Clear-eyed Pessimism, and Literary Escapism. That is, if we don’t see life in Allen’s terms, don’t see reality in terms of these problems, then we won’t go in search of these kinds of solutions. The result is a much kinder philosophy of consolation.

Allen sounds like the precocious child whose parents got divorced and then didn’t make a fuss: insecure, witty, imaginative, jaded, lost. In order for us to live well, we’ll have to overcome Allen’s modern philosophy. Dear reader, let’s age more wisely than Allen.

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