Monday, May 28, 2012

Woody Allen’s Curious Intellectualism

Woody Allen films are famous for their existential comedy. On the one hand, these films tend to feature the Woody Allen character, a hyper-rational, neurotic atheist and existentialist who fears death and regards life as absurdly unfair. On the other hand, this character is highly sexual and instead of ascetically retreating from life, he finds humour in tragic situations, expressing that humour in wry one-liners. Most of his films mine this paradox, but Whatever Works, starring Larry David as the Woody Allen character, called Boris, neatly summarizes what seems Allen’s personal philosophy. No familiarity with this particular movie’s plot is needed to understand Boris’ concluding speech, since this speech could have been inserted into nearly any of his movies.

Boris says, “I totally lucked out. It just shows what meaningless blind chance the universe is. Everybody schemes and dreams to meet the right person, and I jump out a window and land on her [his soul mate]. And a psychic yet! I mean, come on, talk about the irrational heart [Boris is a hyper-rationalist physicist who loves her in spite of himself]...I happen to hate New year's celebrations. Everybody desperate to have fun. Trying to celebrate in some pathetic little way. Celebrate what? A step closer to the grave? That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works. And don't kid yourself, it's by no means all up to your own human ingenuity. A bigger part of your existence is luck than you'd like to admit. Christ, you know the odds of your father's one sperm from the billions, finding the single egg that made you? Don't think about it, you'll have a panic attack.” (Whatever Works script)

This speech refers both to dark existentialism (the inevitability of death) and to the need for happiness and sexuality, to life’s unfairness (success’ dependence on luck) and to the possibility of grace. Evidently, the film’s title, “Whatever Works,” is meant to call to mind a pragmatic amoralist’s libertinism, the license to exploit nature’s inhumanity, not for evil but for good--which Allen assumes to be mainly the pursuit of personal pleasure with a life partner. As evidenced by his cerebral, philosophical humour and his scandalous love life, Woody Allen’s movies seem vehicles for preaching his personal wisdom, if not autobiographies.

Woody Allen’s Philosophy

A philosophical evaluation of Woody Allen’s viewpoint should be distinguished from a comedic one. The paradox set up by his films works comedically, I think, because a sexually preoccupied hyper-rationalist is bound to stumble into one absurd situation after another. Moreover, this character is only a caricature of Everyman, of the typical person, since everyone is pulled in opposite directions by the evolved modules of our brains, such as by our capacities for dispassionate logic and for blind subservience to the genes’ prerogative to preserve themselves by our sexual reproduction.

For example, as a hyper-rationalist, the Allen character is neurotically fearful of germs, diseases, and of the body in general as triggers of existential horror: the body decays and nature allows this to happen because each person means nothing; natural forces bless mindless genetic code with immortality, not sentient creatures, which means we’re all alienated strangers whose high comfort level is predicated on fantasy and delusion. The hyper-rationalist is cursed with the inability to be fully enchanted by reassuring, egocentric myths and so incurs a measure of insanity from staring too long into the abyss. Thus the Allen character’s multiple neuroses. However, this character is also highly sexually active, longing for love. This inner conflict leads to hypocrisy and to all manner of schemes to balance his reason with his instinct, what Plato calls our higher and lower natures. Thus, the spectacle of the effeminate intellectual, who is all brains and no brawn, nevertheless gearing up to serve his genes in the battle for sex; to perform his bestial duties while recognizing the absurdity of the whole human enterprise; to succumb to the banal glorification of romantic love while ridiculing all other social conventions, including religious and moral ones--all of this can be quite amusing.   

But what of the philosophical merit of Woody Allen’s convictions? Should existentialists, cosmicists, and skeptics prefer a life of hedonism or at least of romantic love, to one of honour-bound renunciation of the more blatant natural processes? If we reduce Boris’ speech to its implicit argument, we find something like this: “(1) Nature is far from heaven and is in fact absurdly unfair to us due to its mindlessness. (2) Assuming we want to be happy and to do good, therefore, we need to take that piece of dark wisdom into account, go with the flow and be pragmatic in our quest for love, which is the greatest cause of happiness.” This argument raises the question, though, of whether the first assumption in (2) ought to be granted, that is, of whether the antecedent clause of the hypothetical imperative, “If you still want to be happy under our dire circumstances, you ought to be desperate and pragmatic in finding love,” is justified. Should a hyper-skeptic’s ultimate goal be happiness? I’ve argued in Happiness that the answer is No, and in Curse of Reason I argue that the objective, decentralized perspective afforded by the use of reason tends to produce feelings of alienation rather than of contentment.

In any case, I want to point out that affirming the fact that most people do desire romantic love and happiness in general is different from positively evaluating those desires in light of an ethical or aesthetic ideal. Moreover, while someone who has those desires may find the implicit instrumental imperative in Woody Allen movies useful, this leaves unanswered the deeper question of whether those desires ought to be prioritized. Certainly, there’s the naturalistic fallacy in inferring that just because we feel strongly about something, as a matter of fact, therefore those feelings are right or otherwise normatively justified. Now, a hyper-rationalist like the Allen character should be expected to criticize any ethical or aesthetic standard, including one that’s brought up against the pursuit of happiness. For example, were a Gnostic hermit to argue that sex is bad because it entangles the participants in nature which itself is a bad place, Woody Allen would mock that religious perspective with a classic one-liner. However, the Allen character is no postmodern nihilist. Far from rejecting all normative principles, he affirms the values of romantic love and of happiness in general. So the question I’m raising is whether Woody Allen’s normative principle is superior, say, to a more ascetic one that favours a less traditional lifestyle.

Indeed, the question can be reframed in comedic terms, since comedy is at least partly an aesthetic matter. Aesthetically and comedically, then, the question is which lifestyle is the ugliest/most ridiculous, that of the Allen character (the hyper-rational neurotic who struggles to find love and contentment) or that of, say, a detached Buddhist, omega man, or ascetic cosmicist? And on just this point, Woody Allen’s body of work counts against the philosophical validity of his thesis, since in film after film he exhibits the incoherence/ridiculousness of his protagonist’s values. Even as the Allen character trashes a host of opposing viewpoints, that character is himself shown to be foolish over and over again. The very nerdish physical appearance of Woody Allen, juxtaposed with his struggles to be manly, provokes laughter. The question, then, is whether, say, an ascetic’s renunciation of natural urges is as ridiculous as the Woody Allen character. To be sure, the prospect of an existentialist rebelling against a mindless cosmos that must fail to be impressed or ashamed of generating tortured souls, has comedic potential. But suppose the existentialist rebels in good faith, in accordance only with his own aesthetic sensibility and not with any hope of striking a blow against what he believes is a nonexistent deity. In that case, is the artificial rejection of the most natural course as laughable as the thought of the Allen character having sex?

This raises a side question, since the attempt to retain sanity and social functionality, by placing faith in politically correct myths, may itself be construed as an artificial reaction to the natural impulse to sexually reproduce. That is, a blatant natural impulse is the one shared by all mammals to have sex and to raise offspring. Humans have that biological impulse but also reason, and the discrepancy between them produces culture, which is a rarer, artificial world emerging from more common processes. Most of culture is dominated by social conventions, including religious and moral ones, which conventions tend to be delusions requiring irrational leaps of faith. The antisocial skeptic or existential outsider, who rejects mainstream goals in favour of some less popular ideal, can be compared, then, not just with the Allen character but with the hero of mainstream society who maintains her social function by antiphilosophical means. Which strategy for coping with the horror of our biological function is aesthetically most pleasing or ethically most laudatory, the reliance on delusions to fulfill that function more efficiently, given its indignity from a hyper-rational perspective, or the refusal to perform that function and a withdrawal from faith-based social enterprises? (See, for example, Sheldon Cooper.)

Melancholia and the Noble Lie

Instead of trying to settle these questions here, I just want to clarify the problem by contrasting the Woody Allen movie with a more cosmicist one, called Melancholia, written and directed by Lars von Trier. It’s worth summarizing this movie’s plot, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to stop reading at this point. The movie’s about two ways of coping with the world’s apocalyptic end due to a planet’s colliding with Earth, those of a normal, happy person and of a melancholic depressive. The two main characters are sisters, one of whom tries to be normal in the movie’s first half, by getting married but who fails and ruins her wedding by her carelessness, while the other tries to be normal in the second half in spite of the imminent apocalypse but whose poise is lost as she gains more respect for her sister’s cosmic perspective. According to that perspective, natural life is altogether wrong and so the social conventions she can’t follow due to her mental illness are guilty by association. Indeed, this perspective is shown to be a mystical insight. The depressed sister, Justine, somehow knows the number of beans in a glass at her wedding, a point she reveals to lend credence to her condemnation of terrestrial life. Moreover, Justine has a psychic connection with the incoming planet, which is actually named Melancholia. She knows it will strike the Earth, whereas the scientific community is in optimistic denial. The two planets symbolize the two sisters, who in turn symbolize abnormality and normality, or soul-destroying cosmic insight and delusional bliss. Earth is filled with normal, relatively happy people who are rudely awakened by the surprise arrival of the planet Melancholia, which does destroy them.

The upshot, I take it, is that the melancholy misfit is actually more in touch with cosmic reality, but that this loftier affinity isn’t apparent when the rules of normal human interactions are in force, creating a fantasy world for human happiness in the face of the abyss of existential truth. Only when natural forces stir themselves, mocking our vain illusions and pitiful defense mechanisms, mindlessly dooming us, is the mystic’s misanthropy fully vindicated. But the point isn’t that the mystic would be entitled to say “I told you so,” during the apocalypse; that is, the deeper point isn’t about having an arcane theory of nature which allows the doomsayer to predict horrible events. Instead, the movie poses the question of how we should live, given the plausibility of a natural apocalypse. Even when most people are relatively comfortable and functional, when our planet isn’t actually threatened with destruction, the movie posits that nothing but chance prevents natural forces from aligning themselves to our detriment. Acknowledging that cosmicism, the question is the one I raised earlier, about which lifestyle is more appropriate to our existential situation. Whose character and life choices are more appealing in light of the fact that a natural apocalypse is much more likely than divine salvation, those of a miserable, socially dysfunctional mystic or of a happy, “well-adjusted” and “upstanding citizen”?

So whereas Woody Allen exploits rationalism, naturalism, and existential cosmicism to undermine all follies except his treasured one of romantic love, von Trier follows those philosophical assumptions to their logical conclusions. Both filmmakers affirm science-centered, atheistic philosophical naturalism, a position that calls for a Lovecraftian dread of our cosmic insignificance and for something like a Nietzschean shift from morality polluted by theism to a more viable, aesthetic basis of values. But Allen stops short, and the fact that a consistent upholding of existential cosmicism wouldn’t lend itself to the creation of mainstream comedy only raises the question of why Woody Allen is interested in that genre in the first place. His earliest films are farces that are actually more consistent with the philosophy that’s implicit in all of his movies. And some of his more serious movies, such as Crimes and Misdemeanors, are likewise free of sentimental attachment to Jewish or to other rationalizations of our biological role. Generally, though, Allen regards quirky romantic love as our saving grace.

In Melancholia, by contrast, there’s no such salvation for the tragic hero who’s condemned to anxiety and alienation due to her attunement to cosmic reality rather than to the politically correct dream world. In his defense, I suppose Allen would point to what Boris above calls “the irrational heart.” Allen’s rationalism leads him only to affirm the natural fact that we have a divided nature, that we’re logical and pragmatic free agents but also beastly captives of biological processes. Rationalism leads Allen to dispense with many delusions, but he arbitrarily sides with the irrational heart when he defends conventional happiness. The reason this is arbitrary is that the Allen character is a hyper-rationalist, which accounts for his neuroses. A hyper-rationalist analyzes obsessively and so attains terrifying esoteric knowledge which isolates him from society. (See also Scientific and Philosophical Atheism.) Thus, the Allen character seems to recoil from the prospect of complete estrangement from those with mere exoteric understanding of their natural situation.

Perhaps this character merely feigns wholehearted commitment to what little normality he can muster, like the sociopathic serial killer, Dexter, in the series of novels and the HBO show. Perhaps, that is, Allen indulges in romantic games to appear less threatening to those who depend on myths that burst like balloons upon rational scrutiny. As the political philosopher Leo Strauss points out, philosophers and theologians have historically hidden their antisocial conclusions, reserving them for the brave, enlightened minority who need the majority to accept noble lies for the sake of social stability which benefits both groups. Of course, the Allen character’s deference to the irrational heart is meant to excuse the film-maker’s scandalous affair effectively with his stepdaughter, Soon-Yi. But perhaps Allen’s peculiar love life indicates that he’s ambivalent about the conventional ideal, that he’s not just ill-equipped--as a hyper-rational nerd--to succeed in that field, but that his heart’s not in maintaining that front for existential angst, after all. In that case, the Woody Allen stereotype of the neurotic intellectual who nevertheless commits himself to certain conventional ideals would be a noble lie, a way of humanizing the transhuman cosmicist or the subhuman neurotic, of reassuring the masses that these products of postmodernism aren’t monsters in their midst, monsters that, as Melancholia shows, more nearly mirror the alien face of Mother Nature.


  1. If Melancholia was touting a Cosmicist sentiment, why do you think the main character said "The Earth is evil. No one will miss it," if, in a cosmic sense, the earth (and and everything else, for that matter) is neither good nor evil?

    1. You're quite right, Kepy. From a strictly cosmicist outlook, it makes no sense to apply our parochial morality to nature. For that very reason, that line in the movie stood out for me as misplaced and sloppy. Apparently, the filmmaker von Trier is an atheist, but his movie The Antichrist calls nature the church of the devil (I'm paraphrasing). Does this mean von Trier believes in the devil? Not really, since he can be using religious imagery to make atypical points.

      Technically, calling the world evil rather than morally neutral is anthropocentric, but in the film's context that character's hostility is surely meant to deflate the other character's optimism. And in a sense, from our perspective, the cosmicist world *is* evil: the world's moral indifference is unlikely to serve us well, which is why the doings of Lovecraft's aliens, who symbolize nature's strange inhumanity, tend to destroy our psyche.

      There's a question of probability here. What are the odds that an indifferent world will be to our liking in the long run? We have our preferences which won't match up with natural processes, so we'll be set straight and that will deflate us, shatter our dreams, etc. Thus, a neutral world and an evil character have something in common: our eventual unhappiness or destruction.

  2. Well, since our indifferent world created us, I find myself giving it some credit. I'm not sure you can say that a neutral world will lead to our eventual unhappiness or destruction, though. Even a pro-human world could lead to unhappiness and destruction, simply because of the fact that we are mortal, and people get upset about that ("Nothing I do in my life matters because I will die, and everyone they know will die, and everyone they know will die, so yeah! Angst!"). In my view, a cushy world that provides humanity with everything they need to survive and procreate eternally and makes life easy for everyone could still end up sucking. Or maybe the perfect world in your mind was one where we are immortal? Either way, I'm just trying to say that if we make the right moves, I don't think a neutral world will necessarily lead to our unhappiness/destruction.

  3. Was routed here from reddit, and was impressed. Great post!

    1. Thanks! You might want to check out a similar one, called "Sheldon Cooper: The Nerd's Paradox":