by John Dart
Formerly religion religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, John Dart is news editor of the Christian Century magazine.
This article appeared in the Christian Century June 22-29, 1977, p. 585. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Under the cover of comedy, Allen repeatedly makes the point that people do not pay enough attention to the fact of their mortality. This troubled agnostic religiophilosopher frequently uses priests and ministers, rabbis and nuns as comic ploys. His Love and Death was practically a complete theological statement on the screen — despite distracting gags and funny lines.
Kant was right. The mind imposes order. It also tells you how much to tip.
I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.
God is silent. Now if we can only get man to shut up.
Quickly now, who penned those mortal lines? Nineteenth century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard writing on a stale Danish to amuse his friends?. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in an earlier career as itinerant ghostwriter for Aimee Semple McPherson? Billy Graham in his diary for April (entries presumably followed by, “Only foolin’, Lord, only foolin’ ”)?
None of the above. The thoughts are those of the troubled agnostic religiophilosopher Woody Allen -- the same Brooklyn-born thinker who long ago changed his name from Allen S. Konigsberg to avoid being mistaken for just another German theologian. Allen devotees are familiar with the God talk and death obsession in two books of his collected works -- Getting Even (Random House, 1971) and Without Feathers (Random House, 1975). In his movies, Woody frequently uses priests and ministers, rabbis and nuns as comic ploys. His Love and Death was practically a complete theological statement on the screen -- despite distracting gags and funny lines.
His latest movie is Annie Hall, with Woody in his customary role as writer (in this case, with Marshall Brickman), director and actor [see the review by William Siska, p. 593 -- Ed.]. It is not as saturated with obvious religious references as was Love and Death. (Among scenes struck from the final version was a devil-escorted elevator descent into hell.)
The preferred title until the last moment was Anhedonia, which means the inability to experience pleasure -- a word not listed in your usual Funk & Wagnalls. The semiantobiographical comedy indicates Allen’s real concern with the awful inevitability of death. Woody, as comedian Alvy Singer, presents his new girlfriend, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), with two books on death as his first gifts to her. “Death is an important issue,” he explains.
Any credit for “discovering” the metaphysical mettle of Woody Allen probably belongs to that Mad magazine of evangelical Protestantism, the Wittenburg Door, published in San Diego. The editors named him “theologian of the year” for 1974 and reprinted one of his articles, “The Scrolls.” (The Allen article suggested, among other things, that Abraham was persuaded into thinking God wanted his son sacrificed because the Lord’s orders came in a “resonant, well-modulated voice.”)
The magazine’s tongue-in-cheek honor was bestowed on Allen after a “survey” of seminary students showed him to be the overwhelming popular choice over runners-up Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann and Pat Boone. Eminent church scene observer Martin Marty commented that if young seminarians could be as interesting about life as Allen is about death, “maybe we’ll have a new generation of theological winners again.” Marty quoted such Allen aphorisms as “Death is one of the few things that can be done as easily lying down” and “I do not believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.”
For the most part, Allen has avoided direct contact with the world of organized religion. But he did invite Billy Graham to appear on his television special in 1969. Allen came out a poor second in some polite verbal jousting -- most likely a case of an amateur agnostic pitted against a professional religionist.
I would define my position somewhere between atheism and agnosticism. I vacillate between the two positions frequently.l
His creative ambivalence on religious subjects showed up a bit in the movie Sleeper but was woven throughout in the sixth film he directed, Love and Death (1975). Allen admitted that the movie is highly critical of God. “It implies He doesn’t exist, or, if He does, He really can’t be trusted,” Allen wrote in Esquire. “Since coming to this conclusion,” he added, “I have twice been struck by lightning and once forced to engage in a long conversation with a theatrical agent.”
I felt [Love and Death] ran the risk of people saying, “It’s funny, but a little heavy going.” I know I can make a picture that people will laugh at, and that’s the primary thing to do. To make a comedy that has a message but isn’t funny enough, that’s a big mistake. Better if it’s very funny and doesn’t say anything. The ideal thing is to be funny and also say something significant.2
Predictably, not everyone appreciates his ideas. Love and Death got a bad review in the National Courier, a tabloid Christian newspaper published in New Jersey. “Woody Allen’s comedy is an expected product of post-Christian society,” wrote Courier reviewer Bob Cleath. “Funny on the surface to many people, it minors the tragedy overtaking our culture. Those who set themselves against God might well remember: ‘He who sits in the heavens laughs. The Lord scoffs at them. Then he will speak to them in his anger and terrify them in his fury’ (Ps. 2:4-5).” The reviewer might have picked a hellfire verse more to the point: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7).
Actually, while Allen does include standard religious solutions as his targets for comedy, he is far from regarding thoughtful religious inquiry as inane.
I don’t approve of any of the major religions because I feel organized religions are social, political and economic organizations in general. But religious beliefs and religious faith -- that does interest me and I have full appreciation for the search for genuine religious faith that people go through.1
A character in Allen’s “Notes from the Overfed,” an essay in Getting Even, observes that some people teach that God is in all creation. The Allenian character draws a calorific conclusion from that teaching. “If God is everywhere, I had concluded, then He is in food,” he said. “Therefore, the more I ate the godlier I would become. Impelled by this new religious fervor, I glutted myself like a fanatic. In six months, I was the holiest of holies, with a heart entirely devoted to my prayers and a stomach that crossed the state line by itself.” To reduce would have been folly -- “even a sin!”
As might be guessed, the Konigsberg kid was submerged in religious imagery in his Brooklyn childhood, which included eight years of Hebrew school. Woody once wrote that he was “raised in the Jewish tradition, taught never to marry a Gentile woman, shave on Saturday, and most especially, never to shave a Gentile woman on Saturday.”
I was raised fairly religiously. . and never took to it very much. It was more or less a forced religious background.1
While he was still a 17-year-old at Midwood High School, he began selling gags to newspaper columnists. He was soon writing for the Peter Lind Hayes radio show, then for the likes of television comedians Sid Caesar and Herb Shriner.
Allen lacks a college degree, and he freely admits that he was ejected from both New York University and New York City College. However, in a classic joke he claims that while a student he was attracted to such abstract philosophy courses as “Introduction to God,” “Death 101” and “Intermediate Truth.” His downfall came when he cheated on his metaphysics final. “I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me,” he explains.
Because he is a voracious reader who goes in for heavy reading about ultimate concerns, his humor can be appreciated especially by those familiar with the pretentiousness of some religious and philosophical literature. In a parody on Hassidic tales, Allen concludes one commentary by saying, “Why pork was proscribed by Hebraic law is still unclear, and some scholars believe that the Torah merely suggested not eating pork at certain restaurants.”
Allen finds another foil in numerology. “The Five Books of Moses subtracted from the Ten Commandments leaves five. Minus the brothers Jacob and Esau leaves three. It was reasoning like this that led Rabbi Yitzhok Ben Levi, the great Jewish mystic, to hit the double at Aqueduct 52 days running and still wind up on relief.”
Woody finds laughs in all of life; sex is another fertile field for jokes. But there is no escaping the conclusion that religious-philosophical concerns are the most important. For example, “God” and “Death” are two short plays in his Without Feathers.
I found over the years the things that interested me most were philosophical or religious issues as opposed to social issues or topical things. When I step back, I would agree that there is a preponderance of religious and philosophical themes because, I guess, they are genuine interests or obsessions.1
Just what those concerns are can be traced from an analysis of Allen’s humor. Woody poses basic religious or philosophical questions often ignored by the secularly oriented as “too deep” and skipped over by religionists engrossed in particular issues.
Some Allen gags just prey on the gap between ordinary affairs and immense issues. “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends,” he once wrote. And: “The universe is merely a fleeting idea in God’s mind -- a pretty uncomfortable thought, particularly if you’ve just made a down payment on a house.”
The structure of the joke is a psychological reflection of the concern: The juxtaposition of the trivial and the mundane . . . against the background of cosmic, major concerns. We have to reconcile the paradox of it all. The joke mirrors that paradox.’
The absurdities of life stimulate both philosophers and comics. Is it any surprise then that they evoke such interesting commentary from a comic-philosopher? Absurdities -- funny absurdities -- abound in his play God. Near the final curtain a deus ex machina ending is attempted in order to extricate a difficult plot, but this “God” strangles on the machine that was to lower him onto the stage.
God is just really a burlesque in a light vein and a theatrical experience. It’s having some fun with what’s real, who the playwright is . . and how absurd existence is in general.1
Nevertheless, an exchange in that play reveals Allen’s thinking that just possibly there may be an answer obtainable somewhere, sometime.
ACTOR: If there’s no God, who created the universe?
WRITER: I’m not sure yet.
ACTOR: What do you mean, you’re not sure yet!?
For all his agnosticism bordering on atheism, in Love and Death also Allen tips off this feeling that answers may yet be forthcoming. Boris Grushenko (Woody) asks Sonya (Diane Keaton), “What if there is no God? What if we’re just a bunch of absurd people who are running around with no rhyme or reason?”
Sonya replies: “But if there is no God, then life has no meaning. Why go on living? Why not just commit suicide?”
Boris, somewhat flustered, says: “Well, let’s not get hysterical. I could be wrong. I’d hate to blow my brains out and then read in the papers they found something.” Later in the movie, Boris, deceased yet delivering an epilogue, observes: “If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think he is evil. I think that the worst thing you can say about him is that he is an underachiever.”
Woody Allen, it would seem, also puts into joke form an often unarticulated question: if God really exists, why doesn’t he demonstrate his existence? “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”
Boris Grushenko yearns throughout Love and Death for a signal from God that he is. If he would speak just once -- If he would just cough!” Another time Boris tells Sonya: “If I could just see a miracle. Just one miracle. If I could see a burning bush or the seas part or my Uncle Sasha pick up a check.”
A point Allen makes repeatedly, under the cover of comedy, is that people do not pay enough attention to the fact of their mortality. Death themes and jokes are more prevalent in his wit than are God jokes. His interest in the existence or nonexistence of God stems from his death obsession. Death is an “issue,” to use contemporary parlance, which should not be so passively accepted, he says.
It’s very important to realize that we’re up against an evil, insidious, hostile universe, a hostile force. It’ll make you ill and age you and kill you. And there’s somebody -- or something -- out there who for some irrational, unexplainable reason is killing us. I’m only interested in dealing with the top man. I’m not interested in dealing with the other stuff because that’s not important -- although that is hard to say because there is hardly an iota of evidence of this.3
In Allen’s play Death, a central character is cajoled into joining a search party for a killer on the loose but never sees any organized method employed and is never sure of his role in the search. The irrational murderer is God.
No one knows what one’s part is; you don’t know what your function is -- you keep thinking that some people more highly placed than you do know, and they don’t. . . . I think it’s the only important question and until more light is shed -- if possible -- all the other questions people are obsessed with can never be fully answered.1
It would be off the mark to characterize Allen’s death humor as a string of ‘sick jokes,” a genre prevalent in the 1960s. One of Woody’s most finely tuned and honed pieces of humor appeared last summer in the New Republic. It begins: “It has been four weeks, and it is still hard for me to believe Sandor Needleman is dead. I was present at the cremation, and at his son’s request, brought the marshmallows, but few of us could think of anything but our pain. Needleman was constantly obsessing over his funeral plans and once told me, ‘I much prefer cremation to burial in the earth, and both to a weekend with Mrs. Needleman.’ ”
[Death is] absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless. As Camus wrote, it’s not only that he dies or that man dies, but that you struggle to do a work of art that will last and then realize that the universe itself is not going to exist after a period of time. Until those issues are resolved within each person -- religiously or psychologically or existentially -- the social and political issues will never be resolved, except in a slapdash way.4
When Woody looks for possible resolutions of the “issues” of existence, death and afterlife, he looks mostly to philosophy. But he does not leave philosophy untouched by parody. In an essay called “My Philosophy,” Woody tells of his introduction to the discipline.
“Scorning chronological order,” he writes, “I began with Kierkegaard and Sartre, then moved quickly to Spinoza, Hume, Kafka and Camus. I was not bored. . . . I remember my reaction to a typically luminous observation of Kierkegaard’s: ‘Such a relation which relates itself to its own self (that is to say, a self) must either have constituted itself or have been constituted by another.” The concept brought tears to my eyes. My word, I thought, to be that clever! . . . True, the passage was totally incomprehensible to me, but what of it as long as Kierkegaard was having fun?”
Philosophical thought of men like, say, Russell and Dewey or even Hegel may be dazzling but it’s sober and uncharismatic. Dostoevski, Camus, Kierkegaard, Berdyaev -- the minds I like -- I consider romantic. I guess I equate dread’ with romance.
My depression is why I’m drawn to philosophy, so acutely interested in Kafka, Dostoevski and [Ingmar] Bergman. I think I have all the symptoms and problems that those people are occupied with: An obsession with death, an obsession with God or the lack of God, the question of why we are here. Answers are what I want . . .3
Woody rejects standard religious solutions: “There’s no religious feeling that can make any thinking person happy.” Or more exactly, it’s not a matter of adopting a belief in something like reincarnation: “I certainly don’t believe in anything. [Reincarnation] is conceivable, but I don’t believe in it.”5 Nor is the answer possible through creating “immortal” works of art: “Art is the artist’s false Catholicism, the fake promise of an afterlife and just as fake as heaven and hell.”4
Psychoanalysis? In Annie Hall Woody tells his new girlfriend matter-of-factly that he’s been going to an analyst for 15 years. “I’m going to give him one more year and then I’m going to Lourdes,” he vows. Actually, that’s about how long Woody has been in analysis.
It has been of some genuine help to me. I’ve been of the belief that the more my personality becomes integrated the more my work would deepen and I could apply myself to topics of deeper interest to human beings. [Without that integration] you may be brilliant, but you become very shrill.1
In the normal things that trouble everybody -- meeting new people, crowds, shyness, human relationships -- I haven’t made much progress at all.6
Life is divided between the horrible and miserable, says Woody’s hero in Annie Hall. But ex-wife Louise Lasser says the worst thing in the world could happen to Woody and he still could go into the next room and write. Says Woody: “I never get so depressed that it interferes with my work. I’m disciplined.”4
The discipline extends to nondrinking, nonsmoking habits, and the pleasures to Dixieland clarinet playing, Bergman movies, New York Knicks basketball and incognito wandering in New York city, even drifting in and out of revival houses. Woody confesses that he doesn’t know what the meaning of life is, but he feels sure its purpose is not merely hedonistic: “We are not put here to have a good time and that’s what throws most of us, that sense that we all have an inalienable right to a good time.”5
In future films, Woody says, he wants to deal with faith and spiritual values as Ingmar Bergman does -- maybe through a drama but also again through the (more difficult, he feels) serious-comical film. “The line between the kind of solemnity I want and comedy is very, very thin.”4
Literary analysts have noted the blurred line between comedy and tragedy. Annie Hall is obviously a comedy, but its melancholy comments and suggestions are subject to interpretation.
One technique introduced in his latest film seems to confirm his serious-comical tendency. The joke takes the place of a maxim, a Bible text, if you will, or moral of the story.” A theme-setting joke in the beginning is attributed to Groucho Marx: “I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member.” At the end is the familiar story in which someone complains to a psychiatrist about a man who thinks he is a chicken. ‘Why don’t you bring him in for treatment?” the psychiatrist asks. “I would, but we need the eggs.”
1. Devious Approach to Theology,’ by John Dart, Los Angeles Times October 4, 1975.
2. Hiding Out With Woody Allen,’ by Edwin Miller, Seventeen, November 1975.
3. On Being Funny, by Eric Lax (Charterhonse, 1975).
4. “Woody Allen Wipes the Smile Off His Face” by Frank Rich, Esquire, May 1977.
5. “A Conversation With the Real Woody Allen (Or Someone Just Like Him)” by Ken Kelley, Rolling Stone, July 1, 1976.
6. “If Life’s a Joke, Then the Punch Line Is Woody Allen,” by Jim Jerome, People, October 4, 1976.