Woody Allen and Philosophy

God, Suicide, and the Meaning of Life

The Filmed Philosophy of Woody Allen

Is comedy just a distraction? Mark Conard explores the director’s beliefs as seen in his characters in this excerpt from the forthcoming book, Woody Allen and Philosophy. A Metaphilm exclusive. 

Mark T. Conard

“I think what it boils down to, really, is that I hate reality. And, you know, unfortunately, it’s the only place where we can get a good steak dinner.”

—Woody Allen[1]

Other than sex and art, the one thing that the characters in Woody Allen’s movies talk about most is the meaning of life, in one form or another. So, throughout Allen’s body of films and writing, is there a consistent position on the meaning and value of life that’s expressed by his characters?[2] Despite all the jokes and gags in his work, the focus on romantic love, the desire and struggle of his characters for self-expression through art, I think the answer is yes, there is a position on the issue, and it’s that life is inherently and utterly meaningless.

What’s more, in the end Allen seems to tell us that, instead of discovering or creating real meaning and value (through relationships and artistic creativity, for example), all we can ever really hope to do is distract ourselves from, or deceive ourselves about, the meaninglessness of our lives, the terrifying nature of the universe, and the horrible anticipation of our own personal annihilation in death.

Meaning and Permanence

One usual path of reasoning is to claim that, because I am mortal, because I will die, my own personal destruction renders all that I do, my whole life, meaningless. This view is expressed by various characters in Woody Allen’s films, perhaps most notably by Mickey Sachs (Woody Allen) in Hannah and Her Sisters. When Mickey receives the news that his tests for cancer are negative, he initially celebrates, but then begins to reflect on his own mortality. Back at the office, he tells Gail (Julie Kavner) about his results, and then asks her:

Mickey: Do you realize what a thread we’re hanging by?

Gail: Mickey, you’re off the hook. You should be celebrating.

Mickey: Can you understand how meaningless everything is? Everything, I’m talking about—our lives, the show, the whole world—meaningless.[3]

Mickey concludes that because he’s going to die, because he’s only hanging onto life by a “thread,” everything, his life, the universe, is without meaning.[4] This recognition of his own mortality then leads him to questions about God’s existence, and he soon begins to equate the issue of meaning in life with the existence or nonexistence of God, more than with his own mortality. I’ll discuss this in a moment.

Mickey’s reasoning about human mortality and the meaning of life is one approach to the problem. However, the more common, and perhaps more sophisticated, approach to the issue in Allen’s films is to say that our lives are inherently meaningless because there is no absolute or objective value or meaning built into the universe as a whole. Further, the latter is due to the nature of the universe; it is because everything is impermanent and fleeting that there is no ultimate value or meaning. For example, in an early (and hilarious) scene in Annie Hall, a young Alvy Singer’s mother (Joan Neuman) brings him to a doctor (Chris Gampel). She tells the doctor that the boy has stopped doing his homework because of something he read. When asked to explain what it is that has made him depressed, Alvy (Jonathan Munk), in monotone voice, tells us: “Well, the universe is expanding, and if it’s expanding, then someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.”[5] Consequently, he concludes, it’s futile to do anything, including his homework. The point here is clear: since the universe is impermanent, since everything will someday be destroyed, and nothing will eternally endure, life is pointless.

This view, that the universe is fleeting, and that life is thus meaningless, appears in a number of Allen films. In September, for example, Lloyd (Jack Warden), a physicist, explains to Peter (Sam Waterston) what he does for a living. He didn’t work on the atomic bomb, he tells Peter, but rather on “Something much more terrifying than blowing up the planet.” Peter asks, “Is there anything more terrifying than the destruction of the world?” Lloyd replies:

Yeah—the knowledge that it doesn’t matter one way or the other, that it’s all random, radiating aimlessly out of nothing, and eventually vanishing forever. I’m not talking about the world. I’m talking about the universe. All space, all time, just a temporary convulsion. And I get paid to prove it.[6]

Likewise, in Stardust Memories, Sandy Bates (Woody Allen), a filmmaker, is struggling with the meaning of his life and his work. In a telling scene, he asks the people around him, his “handlers”:

Hey, did . . . did anybody read on the front page of the Times that matter is decaying? Am I the only one that saw that? The universe is gradually breaking down. There’s not going to be anything left. I’m not talking about my stupid little films here—eventually, there’s not going to be any . . . any Beethoven or Shakespeare . . . [7]

Sandy Bates is frightened by the impermanence of his life and the universe at large. The fact that “matter is decaying,” that nothing lasts, as we’ll see, threatens to render his life meaningless.

Towards the end of the film, Sandy imagines being shot and killed by a deranged fan. During this sequence, his analyst (Leonardo Cimino) claims:

I treated him. He was a complicated patient. He saw reality too clearly—faulty denial mechanism, failed to block out the terrible truths of existence. In the end, his inability to push away the awful facts of “being-in-the-world” rendered his life meaningless, or as one great Hollywood producer said: “Too much reality is not what the people want.”

Sandy Bates suffered a depression common to many artists in middle age. In my latest paper for the Psychoanalytic Journal, I have named it, “Ozymandias Melancholia.”[8]

“Melancholia” may refer to Freud’s use of the term; he employed it to designate many (of what we now describe as) states of depression.[9] “Ozymandias” refers to the Shelley poem of that name, in which a “traveler from an antique land” reports having seen a crumbling statue in the middle of the desert, on which is inscribed: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The traveler then says: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”[10] Besides being perhaps a clue into Sandy’s self-importance, the point of this is clear: Sandy’s despair (his “melancholia”) is derived from the knowledge that nothing lasts, not even great works and kingdoms. This “terrible truth of existence,” this awful fact of “being-in-the-world,” “rendered his life meaningless.”

Last, in Deconstructing Harry, Cookie (Hazelle Goodman), a black prostitute, asks Harry Block (Woody Allen), whom she has just finished servicing, why he is so sad and why he takes so many pills, etc. Harry replies that he is “spiritually bankrupt,” and “empty.” He then clarifies:

Harry: You know that . . . that the universe is coming apart? Do you know about that? Do you know what a black hole is?

Cookie: Yeah, that’s how I make my living.

Harry: You know, I gotta tell you, Cookie, a great writer named Sophocles said that it was probably best not to be born at all.[11]

Like Sandy Bates and his concern that matter is decaying, like young Alvy Singer and his dread of the universe breaking apart, and like Lloyd’s terror that the universe is just a “temporary convulsion,” Harry likewise is worried about the universe “coming apart,” and seems to conclude with Sophocles that, because of that fact, it’s “probably best not to be born at all,” i.e., that because of the lack of anything enduring, permanent, eternal, life is meaningless, pointless and therefore not worth suffering through.

This argument is a broader and more sophisticated approach to the question of meaning than the one concerning mortality voiced by Mickey Sachs. It says: because the universe at large is impermanent, it is without meaning and value, since (and here’s the unstated premise) real value would have to be permanent, enduring, eternal; consequently, since I’m a part of that universe, my own life is likewise impermanent and therefore without meaning and value. This may be an example of what logicians call the fallacy of division, when one unjustifiably attributes the qualities of the whole of something to the parts of that thing, but it is a more subtle and interesting claim than to say merely that I’m going to die, ergo my life is without meaning.

Further, Allen tells us, we are at times able to grasp the larger point about the universe, and it may in fact be the limit of human understanding. Hannah and Her Sisters includes “sections titles,” phrases in white lettering on a black screen that divide up the film. One of these titles is a quote by Tolstoy: “The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless.”[12]

Depression and Suicide

Woody Allen
Do you realize what a
thread we’re hanging by?

When we do have this insight and attain the understanding that life is meaningless, the knowledge of it is often crushing and debilitating. When asked why he won’t do his homework any longer, young Alvy responds simply: “What’s the point?” As an adult, Alvy (Woody Allen) tells Annie (Diane Keaton) that he has a “very pessimistic view of life,” and that he believes that “The world is divided into the horrible and the miserable.” The horrible are terminal cases and crippled and blind people, Alvy says. The miserable are the rest of us, struggling through our awful, meaningless lives. “So when you go through life,” he tells her, “be thankful that you’re miserable.”[13]

Perhaps naturally, some are driven by this knowledge and understanding to suicide. For example, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the philosophy professor Louis Levy (Martin Bergmann) admits that “The universe is a pretty cold place,” i.e., that it is inherently valueless and meaningless. It is because of this, then, that we sometimes come to realize or believe that “the thing isn’t worth it,”[14] that life isn’t worth living. Levy, coming to this realization himself, subsequently commits suicide.

In Play it Again, Sam, Allan Felix (Woody Allen) attempts to pick up a woman (Diana Davila) at an art museum. She’s examining a painting, and he approaches her:

Allan: It’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?

Woman: Yes, it is.

Allan: What does it say to you?

Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless, bleak straightjacket in a black, absurd cosmos.

Allan: What are you doing Saturday night?

Woman: Committing suicide.

In Another Woman, Marion (Gena Rowlands) recalls an argument she had with her first husband, Sam (Philip Bosco), about having children. She asks him: “Oh, do you want to bring a child into this world really? You’re the one who hates it so much. You’re forever lecturing me on the pointlessness of existence.”[15] Her husband later kills himself.

In the same film, Marion overhears the therapy session of a woman named Hope (Mia Farrow). During the session, Hope tells her doctor (Michael Kirby):

I began having troubling thoughts about my life, like there was something about it not real, full of deceptions, that these . . . these deceptions had become so many and so much a part of me now, that I . . . I couldn’t even tell who I really was.

And suddenly I began to perspire. I sat up in bed with my . . . my heart just pounding, and I looked at my husband next to me, and it was as if he was a stranger. And I turned on the light and woke him up, and I asked him to hold me. And only after a long time did I finally get my bearings.

But for one moment earlier it was as if a curtain had parted and I could see myself clearly. And I was afraid of what I saw and what I had to look forward to, and I wondered . . . I wondered about ending everything.[16]

Once Hope looked through the deceptions and saw herself clearly, she was afraid of what she saw and what her future held, and so she contemplated suicide. She doesn’t make explicit what it was exactly that she saw or what was in her future that terrified her so, but it’s quite conceivable that it’s the perceived meaninglessness of her existence, which her self-deceptions had previously hidden, and which drove her to contemplate suicide.[17] I’ll talk more about these self-deceptions in a moment.

God and Meaning

At times, Allen makes the (perhaps natural) connection between the existence of God and the meaning of life. This connection is quite ingeniously expressed in The Purple Rose of Cairo. In this film the fictional movie character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) has stepped off the screen and entered the real life of Cecilia (Mia Farrow). She is showing him around town, when they stop for a moment inside a church. The setting naturally leads to a discussion about God:

Tom: It’s beautiful. I’m not sure exactly what it is.

Cecilia: This is a church. You do believe in God, don’t you?

Tom: Meaning?

Cecilia: That there’s a reason for everything, for our world, for the universe.

Tom: Oh, I think I know what you mean: the two men who wrote The Purple Rose of Cairo, Irving Sachs and R. H. Levine. They’re writers who collaborate on films.

Cecilia: No, no, I’m talking about something much bigger than that. No, think for a minute. A reason for everything. Otherwise, it would be like a movie with no point, and no happy ending.[18]

In this brilliant exchange, Cecilia expresses the position well: God is the “reason for everything,” and if there were no God, then life would have no point at all and no happy ending, similar, I suppose, to a film that was accidentally made, with no intention or purpose behind it, just a random and chaotic sequence of scenes that don’t mean anything and don’t go anywhere. We should note, of course, that (while not being chaotic or purposeless) Allen’s Purple Rose is without a happy ending. Allen himself refers to it as “tragic.”[19]

God and the meaning of life, then, are at times quite naturally linked to the question of whether or not life is worth living. In Love and Death, for example, Boris (Woody Allen) expresses to Sonja (Diane Keaton) his skepticism about God:

Boris: Sonja, what if there is no God?

Sonja: Boris Dimitrovich! Are you joking?

Boris: What if we’re just a bunch of absurd people, who are running around with no rhyme or reason?

Sonja: But if there is no God, then life has no meaning. Why go on living, why not just kill yourself?

Boris: 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 [pointing upwards].[20]

Sonja unflinchingly makes the inference that if God doesn’t exist, then life has no meaning and one might as well commit suicide. Boris claims that if God doesn’t exist, then humans are “absurd,” (i.e., without meaning), and he seems to accept Sonja’s inference, insofar as he implies that if God does exist, then one shouldn’t commit suicide[21]—he’d hate to pull the trigger and then learn that God really does exist.

Similarly, in Hannah and Her Sisters, subsequent to his search for answers about the meaning of his life, Mickey contemplates suicide when he can’t seem to find any definitive proof of the existence of God. He clearly believes that life is only worth living if God does in fact exist. In attempting to find some reason to believe in God, he considers becoming Catholic:

Priest: Now, why do you think that you would like to convert to Catholicism?

Mickey: Well, because, you know, I’ve got to have something to believe in. Otherwise, life is just meaningless.[22]

Mickey goes on to tell the priest: “I need to have some evidence. I’ve got to have some proof. You know, if . . . if I can’t believe in God, then I don’t think life is worth living.” Ultimately, he doesn’t find the answers he is looking for, and because of this comes close to attempting suicide. Subsequently, as he relates the story to Holly (Dianne Wiest), we see that Mickey’s attitude about the issue is the same as that of Boris, at least initially:

And I remember thinking at the time, I’m going to kill myself. Then I thought, What if I’m wrong? What if there is a God? I mean, after all, nobody knows that.[23]

Like Boris, Mickey wouldn’t want to live if there is no God, but, at the same time, he doesn’t want to kill himself, for fear that God might in fact exist. However, in the end, he interestingly divorces the two issues, and decides that, since life isn’t “all a drag,” it may be worth living on its own terms, even without God, because of the zaniness of it all (as manifested, for example, in Marx Brothers films). Thus, the suggestion in Hannah, at least from the point of view of Mickey, seems to be that the question of God is simply an unanswerable one, out of the reach of human understanding, and thus that we ought not waste our time worrying about it.

I believe that Mickey’s response is not only incorrect, but that it is at odds with the overall view presented in Allen’s films. (This may well be part of the “cop out” of the film, one of the reasons Allen is disappointed in it.) The absence or nonexistence of God is the precondition of the meaninglessness of life and the universe. Again, the reason that everything is meaningless and valueless is that nothing is permanent. But that certainly wouldn’t be the case if God really existed. In that case, and probably only in that case, would there be anything absolute and eternal in the universe which could provide absolute and objective meaning to the world and our lives. Since the view in the films is that nothing is permanent and, because of that fact, life is inherently meaningless, that must mean that the question of God’s existence has already been answered negatively.[24]

Woody Allen
the weight of knowledge

In some films, Allen also expresses this view when he hints that belief in God is a naïveté or a self-deception. For example, in Manhattan, Mary (Diane Keaton) off-handedly remarks, “Hey listen, hey listen, I don’t even wanna have this conversation. I mean, really, I mean, I’m just from Philadelphia, you know, I mean, we believe in God. So, okay?”[25] This seems at first like a non sequitur, and Isaac (Woody Allen) certainly takes it to be so. However, the remark is actually quite revealing. It means that the belief in God is a mark of naiveté and innocence, Philadelphia being the more provincial, backward place, as opposed to the sophisticated New York. In New York, in other words, people have sophisticated conversations about orgasms, etc., but in Philadelphia, people are still naïve and backward enough not to do so. Belief in God, therefore, is likewise an indication of the backwardness of Philadelphians.[26]

Further, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah’s father, Sol (David S. Howard), a very religious man, claims that if forced to choose between God and the truth, he will always choose God. That juxtaposition is quite telling: God is opposed to truth; and thus God is tantamount to falsity. Consequently, belief in God is a self-deception. Referring to the literal and figurative blindness of Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston) in Crimes, Allen says:

Ben is the only one that gets through it, even if he doesn’t really understand the reality of life. One can argue that he understands it more deeply than the others. I don’t think he does myself. I think he understands it less, and that’s why I wanted to make him blind. I feel that his faith is blind. It will work, but it requires closing your eyes to reality.[27]

Ben’s faith in God enables him to get through the hardships of life, including his progressive literal blindness. However, according to Allen, blind faith is truly blind: it’s a matter of not understanding reality, of closing one’s eyes to reality, of self-deception. It’s important to note too that in the documentary, Woody Allen: A Life in Film, Allen reports that one of the central messages of Crimes is that: “there’s no God, and that we’re alone in the universe, and that there is nobody out there to punish you . . .”[28]

Last, in Deconstructing Harry, Harry argues with his sister, Doris (Caroline Aaron), about the orthodox views she has adopted from her husband:

Harry:  . . . and then you go away to Fort Lauderdale and you meet this fanatic, this zealot, and you . . . you . . . he fills your head full of superstition.

Doris: It’s tradition.

Harry: Tradition is the illusion of permanence.[29]

Harry here affirms, or reaffirms, the lack of permanence in the universe. Religion and belief in God are superstitions which give us the illusion of something permanent, and therefore of meaning and value, in the world and our lives.[30]


As I mentioned above, Sandy Bates’ psychiatrist claims that the root of Bates’ great melancholy was his inability to distract himself from the “terrible truths of existence” and the “awful facts of ‘being-in-the-world’” which “rendered his life meaningless.”[31] That one needs to distract oneself, or that one is in fact continually distracting oneself, likewise becomes apparent to Mickey Sachs after his brush with death. In his discussion with Gail about the meaninglessness of life in the face of his own mortality, he tells her that this awful truth is something that he usually manages not to think about. She reminds him that he’s not dying, and he says:

Mickey: No, I’m not dying now, but, you know, when I ran out of the hospital I was thrilled because they told me I’m going to be all right. I’m running down the street and it hit me: All right, so I’m not going to go today, but eventually I’m going to be in that position.

Gail: You’re just realizing this now?

Mickey: No, I don’t realize it now. I know it all the time, but I manage to stick it in the back of my mind because it’s a very horrible thing to think about.[32]

Again, we find ways to push this horrible truth to the backs of our minds, we find ways to deceive and distract ourselves, for if we don’t, we—like Sandy Bates and others—will be crushed by the weight of the knowledge, driven to despair and perhaps suicide.[33]

In September, prior to the opening of the story, Lane (Mia Farrow) once attempted suicide because of a deep depression. In the course of the film, we see her again depressed and again contemplating suicide. Her friend, Stephanie (Dianne Wiest), tries to help her:

Stephanie: Now give me those pills. Tomorrow will come and you’ll find some distractions. You’ll get rid of this place, you’ll move back to the city, you’ll work, you’ll fall in love, and maybe it’ll work out, and maybe it won’t, but you’ll find a million petty things to keep you going, and distractions to keep you from focusing on—

Lane: On the truth.[34]

Again, the point is clear: we need distractions, we need illusions and self-deception, in order to help us avoid the terrible truths of our lives. In Shadows and Fog, Kleinman (Woody Allen) is caught up in a Kafkaesque plan to catch a brutal murderer who strikes randomly and without mercy. This can be read as an allegory for our lives: that they’re random, impenetrable to understanding, with evil and death awaiting us at every turn. At the end of the film, Kleinman has decided to accompany a traveling magician/illusionist on the road, to be his assistant. He imagines it a wonderful job. Someone says, “It’s true—everybody loves his illusions.” And Omstead the magician (Kenneth Mars) exclaims, “Loves them? They need them, like they need the air!”[35] We need our illusions, our self-deceptions, in order to survive. Without them, the crushing weight of the truth would perhaps be fatal.[36]

Okay, so we need to distract ourselves from thinking about awful things. However, most of us still live our lives—and most of Allen’s characters live their fictional lives—as if, despite the chaos, emptiness and coldness of the universe at large, we could invest those individual lives with meaning and value through our various pursuits and relationships. So the message in Allen’s films is not only that we need to distract ourselves from the awfulness of the truth, but, further (and pessimistically) that these individual projects and activities, relationships, etc., which we pursue in order to give ourselves meaning and value (in the microcosms of our lives), are ultimately doomed to failure. This is, again, precisely because of the lack of permanence and value and meaning in the universe as a whole (and, therefore, also in our individual lives). Because of that impermanence, these projects and relationships are ultimately no more than the mere distractions and self-deceptions which help us to avoid facing the terrible truths of existence.

The Failure of Our Attempts at Meaning

One of the ways in which we attempt to provide meaning for our lives is through our relationships to other people, and particularly (at least in Allen’s films) through our romantic relationships. The claim that these relationships, like everything else, turn out to be mere distractions is rather dramatically made in September, in the exchange between Peter and Lloyd, part of which I cited above. After Lloyd explains that he is paid to prove that the universe is meaningless, that it doesn’t matter one way or the other whether or not we destroy the world in an atomic holocaust, the scene (remarkably) concludes thus:

Peter: You feel so sure of that when you look out on a clear night like tonight and see all those millions of stars? That none of it matters?

Lloyd: I think it’s just as beautiful as you do, and vaguely evocative of some deep truth that always just keeps slipping away, but then my professional perspective overcomes me, a less wishful, more penetrating view of it, and I understand it for what it truly is: haphazard, morally neutral and unimaginably violent.

Peter: Look, we shouldn’t have this conversation. I have to sleep alone tonight.[37]

The exchange is remarkable not only because of Lloyd’s description of the universe as “haphazard, morally neutral and unimaginably violent,” which is quite striking on its own; it’s utterly remarkable because of Peter’s seemingly incongruous response to that claim, that they shouldn’t be having the conversation because he has to sleep alone. This is a wonderfully interesting and telling statement. It means, really quite cynically (or realistically, as the case may be), that relationships are important distractions, or buffers against the harsh nature of reality. In the film, Peter’s romantic advances have been rejected by Stephanie, and thus that night he has nothing to distract him from the ugly truths about the universe which Lloyd is laying before him. The scene thus not only presents us with the view of the universe that I discussed above, that it’s devoid of meaning and value, but it also exposes the truth about our individual pursuits, in this case our romantic relationships: that they’re ultimately mere distractions, ways of deceiving ourselves about the awful truths of the universe and our lives. This view is also expressed quite nicely in Allen’s “God (A Play),” from Without Feathers:

Doris: “But without God, the universe is meaningless. Life is meaningless. We’re meaningless. (Deadly pause) I have a sudden and overpowering urge to get laid.”[38]

Like Peter, Doris needs sex, needs a romantic relationship, to distract her from the knowledge that the universe and life are meaningless. Granted, these passages don’t indicate that this is the only possible function of a relationship, that a relationship couldn’tpossibly provide meaning and value in one’s life. However, again, this is necessarily the case, given the nature of meaning and value according to Allen: Since value and meaning could only be provided by, or exist as, some eternal and permanent feature of the universe, and since our individual projects and lives can by no means produce something eternal and permanent, these projects can never produce meaning and value. Consequently, as I’ve said, these pursuits are—at best—mere distractions.

Besides relationships, one other very common means of pursuing meaning for Allen’s characters is through art and creativity.[39] In Interiors, for example, the three sisters are artists of one variety or another. One central part of the story, then, is Renata’s (Diane Keaton) realization that her art won’t ultimately provide meaning to her life. She tells her therapist:

Increasing thoughts about death just seemed to come over me . . . a preoccupation with my own mortality, these feelings of futility in relation to my work. I mean, just what am I striving to create anyway? I mean, to what end? For what purpose? What goal? I mean, do I really care if a handful of my poems are read after I’m gone forever? Is that supposed to be some sort of compensation? I used to think it was, but now, for some reason, I . . . I can’t . . . I can’t seem to . . . I can’t seem to shake this . . . the real implication of dying—it’s terrifying. The intimacy of it embarrasses me.[40]

Renata realizes that the idea that she will achieve immortality—the elusive permanence, which might give our lives true meaning and value—through her art is a self-deception. In an interview, Allen tells us that this is one of the messages in the film:

I wanted to show three sisters, first off, one who was genuinely gifted, that is, Diane Keaton, who is a writer, and who based everything in her life on art, who put all her faith in art, and had come to the realization that art was not going to save her. And the notion of posterity, of achieving immortality through posterity is the artist’s Catholicism; it’s the artist’s sense of an afterlife, which I don’t believe in at all, and I . . . Catholics do believe in an afterlife. I don’t. And artists do believe in an afterlife, which I believe is equally as fallacious.[41]

Again, any hope that, through art, one might achieve the permanence, the immortality required to create real meaning and value is “fallacious,” it’s a self-deception on the part of the artist, comparable to the theist’s belief in the survival after death of the soul: Both are ways of deceiving and thus comforting ourselves about the harshness of reality, the ultimate meaninglessness of our lives, and our own personal destruction in death. :::

This essay is an excerpt from Woody Allen and Philosophy, edited by Mark T. Conard and Aeon J. Skoble (Open Court, 2004), copyright © 2004 Open Court Publishing Company. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. It is part of the publisher’s series on Popular Culture and Philosophy, which also includes the best-selling The Simpsons and Philosophy, also edited by Conard and Skoble, and William Irwin.


[1] From Stig Björkman, Woody Allen on Woody Allen (Faber and Faber, 1994. p. 50).

[2] I’m not claiming that this is necessarily Woody Allen’s own position. Clearly, it’s a rather thorny issue whether an idea or set of ideas expressed in the thoughts and speech of various fictional characters scattered throughout various works of art can be attributed to the artist. However, it’s probably not a bad inference to claim that if there is a consistent position that it’s one that the artist holds, especially—in this case—since in interviews Allen at times confirms that he does in fact accept at least some of the views which I’ll be discussing here.

[3] Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

[4] Likewise, in Interiors (1978), for example, Renata (Diane Keaton) claims, “. . . it’s hard to argue that in the face of death life loses real meaning.”

[5] Annie Hall (1977).

[6] September (1987).

[7] Stardust Memories (1980).

[8] Ibid.

[9] In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud compares the healthy process of mourning, the “reaction to the loss of a loved person,” to the neurotic/depressive condition, melancholia. The latter is characterized by “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.” Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” The Complete Psychological Words of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey, (The Hogarth Press, 1957) p. 246.

[10] “Ozymandias,” Percy B. Shelley. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Fifth Ed. (Norton, 1986) p. 691.

[11] Deconstructing Harry (1997).

[12] In Björkman (p.156), Allen claims that this is the real message of the film, despite its happy ending, which he sees as a cop out: “It [the Tolstoy quote] was not a point of departure for Hannah, but it’s certainly what my story was about, what my thread was about. I think, if I’d had a little more nerve on that film, it would have been confirmed it somewhat more. But I copped out a little on the film, I backed out a little at the end.”

[13] Annie Hall. About Alvy’s view, Allen says: “That’s a reflection on my own feelings. Be happy that you’re just miserable.” (Björkman, p. 85)

[14] Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).

[15] Another Woman (1988).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Eve in Interiors also commits suicide, and Lane in September once attempted suicide and contemplates it again.

[18] The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

[19] Woody Allen: A Life in Film (Turner Classic Movies, 2002. Directed by Richard Schickel).

[20] Love and Death (1975).

[21] Strictly speaking, this is invalid. That is, from the claim that if God doesn’t exist, one ought to commit suicide it doesn’t (logically) follow that if God does exist, one ought not commit suicide.

[22] Hannah.

[23] Ibid.

[24] This is also what makes the question of individual mortality less important than the question of permanence. That is to say, if God really exists, and Mickey, for example, leaves open that possibility, then my death doesn’t render my life meaningless, because, in effect, I never really die—my soul will live on after me.

[25] Manhattan (1979).

[26] Let me also note that Mary tends to get things completely backwards. She is, for example, wrongheaded in her appreciation of art—everything that Isaac and Tracy like in the museum, she hates; everything they hate, she loves. Further, and interestingly, she claims that we glorify our neuroses by attaching them to grandiose philosophical problems; but the truth, as Isaac reveals it in the end, is quite the other way around: we invent our neuroses in order to avoid the grander philosophical problems. This might suggest that Mary is wrong or has got it backwards on the God issue, as well.

[27] Björkman, p. 224-5.

[28] Woody Allen: A Life in Film.

[29] Deconstructing Harry.

[30] Further, a number of the Woody Allen characters are explicitly identified as atheists: Miles Monroe (Sleeper) identifies himself as an atheist; Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories) is identified as an atheist; the eponymous Danny Rose claims not to believe in God; Harry Block (Deconstructing Harry) is identified as an atheist.

[31] Stardust.

[32] Hannah.

[33] Allen says: “That’s really what we’re all talking about is the tragedy of perishing. Ageing and perishing. It’s such a horrible, horrible thing for humans to contemplate, that they don’t contemplate it. They start religions, they do all kinds of things not to contemplate it. They try to block it out in every way. But sometimes you can’t block it out.” (Björkman, p. 105)

[34] September.

[35] Shadows and Fog (1992).

[36] In Manhattan, while making some notes for a writing project, Isaac (Woody Allen) reports that this is the source of many of the neurotic personalities he encounters: “An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves ‘cause it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.” One way in which we distract ourselves from the “terrifying problems” of life and the universe is by creating “unnecessary” and mundane problems.

[37] September.

[38] “God, (A Play),” Without Feathers (Ballantine, 1975, p. 150).

[39] In Annie Hall, Alvy uses art in the form of a play to try and correct what he doesn’t like about reality. In Interiors, most of the characters are artists or writers. In Manhattan, Mary and Isaac are both writers. In Stardust, Sandy Bates is a filmmaker. In September, Lane is a photographer, and Peter is a writer. In Hannah, Frederick is a painter, Mickey is a writer for TV, and Holly becomes a playwright. In Crimes, Cliff is a filmmaker. Bullets Over Broadway is essentially about artists and morality.

[40] Interiors.

[41] Woody Allen: A Life in Film. Allen gives a very similar account in Björkman’s book, p. 103.

Mark T. Conard is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also the author of the novel, Dark as Night (UglyTown, 2004).
posted by editor ::: July 20, 2004 ::: pheatures ::: (3) Comments