Everyone knows someone with whom they feel a kind of intellectual resonance. For me one such person is Woody Allen. Allen is a very successful contemporary filmmaker who's among the seemingly small group of individuals who sees clearly the existential predicament of modern secular man. His films, like those of his hero Ingmar Bergman, consistently drive home the message that, as he has a character say in Hannah and Her Sisters, "The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless. I don't want to go on living in a Godless universe." Allen is himself an atheist and, unlike most atheists, Allen sees clearly that his atheism offers him no comfort or peace in life. Nor does he try to paper over the awful implications of his worldview.
Newsweek's Jennie Yabroff interviewed Allen recently. Here are some excerpts:
Allen has devoted his career to making films that consistently assert the randomness of life. That they do so in a variety of genres - comedy, drama, suspense, satire, even, once, a musical - only partially obscures the fact that, in Allen's eyes, they're all tragedies, since, as he says, "to live is to suffer." If there were a persistence-of-vision award for life philosophy, Allen would be a shoo-in.
At 72, he says he still lies awake at night, terrified of the void. He cannot reconcile his strident atheism with his superstition[s] ..., but he knows why he makes movies: not because he has any grand statement to offer, but simply to take his mind off the existential horror of being alive. Movies are a great diversion, he says, "because it's much more pleasant to be obsessed over how the hero gets out of his predicament than it is over how I get out of mine."
So why go on? "I can't really come up with a good argument to choose life over death," he says. "Except that I'm too scared." Making films offers no reward beyond distracting him from his plight. He claims the payoff is in the process - "I need to be focused on something so I don't see the big picture"
When it is suggested that others may get a great deal out of his films - that there are fans for whom an afternoon watching "Love and Death" or "Manhattan" provides solace in the way a Marx Brothers film soothes a depressed character in "Hannah and Her Sisters" - he resists the compliment. "This can happen, and this is a nice thing, but when you leave the theater, you're still going back out into a very cruel world."
"Your perception of time changes as you get older, because you see how brief everything is," he says. "You see how meaningless ... I don't want to depress you, but it's a meaningless little flicker."
"You have a meal, or you listen to a piece of music, and it's a pleasurable thing," he says. "But it doesn't accrue to anything."
I said above that I find Allen's view of the world oddly sympathetic. The reason is that I believe that his pessimism is precisely right given his assumption that there is no God. Were I not a Christian, I would feel exactly as he does. Indeed, I feel exactly as he does anyway about a lot of what he says, even though I think he's wrong about life having no meaning. It does have meaning, of course, but only because death is not the end.
It's very sad that Allen seems to have foreclosed the only escape from his despair that's available to him, or anyone -the existence of a God who created us to be happy and fulfilled forever.RLC