The other evening I was given another chance to understand why I don’t like Woody Allen. His 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors follows two men–a successful ophthalmologist (Martin Landau), whose need to free himself from an obsessive mistress (the m-word is used in the film) leads him to have her whacked, and the inevitable, unbearable Allen character, a feckless documentary film maker who wants to leave his wife (who’s refused to sleep with him for several months) for another woman (Mia Farrow), but who learns at the end, to his humiliation, that his beloved has become the fiancee of his bête noire, an egregiously successful producer played by Alan Alda.
In the final scene, the two protagonists meet at a wedding, and Landau, who has been racked by remorse over the murder, asks Allen if his story–which he tells in the third person–wouldn’t make a good film plot. Allen says yes, but only if the guilty lover makes the story tragic by confessing to the murder. Whereupon Landau, repeating the words of his gangster-connected brother who arranged the hit, tells Allen that he has seen too many Hollywood movies, that in the real world, people just get over their guilt and go on with their lives. Suddenly cured of the remorse that has been dogging him, he walks off arm in arm with his wife to plan their own daughter’s wedding, leaving the despairing Allen behind.
This film gives us all the expected insights into Allen’s character, including his curious habit, prophetic in the light of later revelations, of confiding his amorous dreams to a teen-aged girl. But I’ll let someone else psychoanalyze the guy. What struck me in this film is its treatment of religion.Before the murder, Landau is paralyzed with fear that his wife and family will find out about his mistress, whose hysterical threats to confront them are essential to the plot. His brother, not he, suggests the final solution, and only after further provocation does he agree to let it be carried out. Afterward, he sees childhood visions of his father studying the Torah, telling him of God’s omniscience. This sets up the key religious scene in the film. At a Passover Seder, a middle-aged woman rebukes another participant for reading the traditional Hebrew Haggadah, which tells the story of the Exodus. The Holocaust, she says, has shown that God doesn’t exist, that religion is arbitrary nonsense. When Landau, who is standing apart from the group at the table, inquires about the divine consequences of murder, he is told that there’s no such thing as divine punishment, that it’s up to the murderer whether he wants to feel guilty or not.
Allen deserves credit for avoiding the sacrificial cop-out of a junk film like Fatal Attraction that fully demonizes the character who must be eliminated. Here she is monster enough to make her murder seem necessary, but not enough to make it either legal or emotionally satisfying. The moral seems to be that all this God stuff is just a way of avoiding responsibility. As Landau’s brother tells him, people who live in the real world don’t have the luxury of believing in God. We return to a familiar shtick: the Jews conjured up God, the imaginary embodiment of the superego, in order to justify their notorious need to feel guilty. The film doesn’t exactly recommend murder, but if you do have to do it, there’s no point in tormenting yourself by evoking that phallogocentric paternal God who sees all and never forgets.
The Jews should get over their guilt trip: thus is the post-Holocaust never again that Israeli soldiers carry into battle transformed into a way of avoiding guilt for murder. The infantile understanding of religion reflected in this film is that of a Voltairean intelligentsia who inhabit a world devoid of what in last week’s column I called spirituality. For these people, religion is a set of comic-book tales about a super-hero called God. Their rational, analytic minds feel not the slightest indebtedness to religion–au contraire. That we share language and culture, that we intuit and communicate meanings, rationally or irrationally–what can this have to do with the figure who flame-engraved those tablets for Charlton Heston?
The heritage I share with Woody Allen offers richer spiritual opportunities. The Jewish denial of incarnation that makes God unfigurable allows us a privileged insight–one that Derrida, for one, has profited from–into the fundamental connection between religion and language at the umbilical point of the human. As for God’s presumed disapproval of murder, the point isn’t that the bogey-man in the sky will get you, but that killing is a crime against the human-in-general only because it is in the first place a crime against the transcendental ground of the human-in-general–in a word, a sin. I’m not going to argue that the breakdown of religious community that turns God into Nobodaddy and guilt into a psychological hang-up makes us more likely to hire a hit man than in more pious times; the truth may be just the opposite. But this reduction of religion to infantile stereotypes, however tricked out in the pseudo-wisdom of the New York intellectual set, is a troubling sign of disequilibrium between mental and spiritual development.
One solution is to return to an obscurantist orthodoxy, or–the California approach–to invent an even more obscurantist orthodoxy. But there will presumably always exist those, believers as well as unbelievers, who want to understand. To these I would suggest that the road to understanding must take us back to the origin before it can lead us anywhere else. Believers and unbelievers don’t have to toss hoary cliches back and forth. Without pretending to the certitude of revealed truth, originary thinking constructs hypotheses to explain the attributes of God.
Am I decrying the decline of our culture into the religious infantility of Woody Allen? I have studied paradoxes too long to get caught up in what I will call the Cassandra paradox, a well-worn variation on that of Epimenides the Cretan. The latter, you may recall, used to say that all Cretans are liars; Cassandra cries incessantly that all Trojans are deluded. No, my point is just the opposite. Even the intelligentsia is growing up. Allen’s religious childishness makes his film seem dated only seven years after it was made. GA may still be ahead of its time, but the world is gradually moving in our direction.