The Weekend Read
The Woody Allen Affair and the Nihilism of Thinking

The Woody Allen affair teaches us that one of the great challenges of our time is the need to judge absent the solace of absolute knowledge or the illusions of certitude.

Published on: February 8, 2014
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  • Ooga Booga

    Am I the only one who thinks Hannah Arendt was insufferably overrated?

    • Sam Pratt

      Yes, OB. You are pretty much the only one.


      I see Allen’s comments and some of his darker films more in the context of Dostoevsky than Nietzsche. (See, for example, Match Point, which both explicitly and thematically references FMD.)

      Perplexingly, Dostoevsky was a wildly orthodox and Orthodox believer in various certainties, yet prone to explore nihilist and relativist thinking with real subtlety. Often he dramatizes the nearly schizophrenic divide between his characters’ logical understanding of their situation, and their self-undermining actions driven by emotional or instinctual responses.

      For example, a father in desperate straits, unable to care for his beloved son, violently and self-defeatingly rejects a Karamazov brother’s sincere charity. The father knows full well how badly need the assistance, but is unable to suppress his prideful desire to be a provider. His desire to reassert his personality or will overcomes good sense.

      So in response to Roger’s questions—“Is it simply that [Woody Allen] writes for the relief of unbearable urges? Couldn’t he then write about pretty much anything?”—one can conceive of him both as a nihilist who believes in the pointlessness of writing, and as someone who will keep on writing nevertheless. Unless a person is genuinely suicidal, deeply-held beliefs may not arrest the need to keep going about daily life, putting one foot in front of the other, seeking comfort and approval.

      • gwvanderleun

        No, Sam, there are more. Your certainty on the issue only certifies that you have a colonized mind. Good luck with that cripplement.

        • Sam Pratt

          I’m sorry that your reading comprehension cannot parse the construction “pretty much.” And I’m presumably you’ll enjoy the company of a guy whose screen name is “Ooga Booga.” P.S. Thanks for contributing such a substantive, thoughtful reply to this article and my comment… Really enlightening, you two.

        • Enemy Leopard

          He has a “colonized mind”? I understand what you’re suggesting, but I have to ask… Are you for real? Is this satire? If not, the fact that you use this sort of language, without irony, betrays your glibly superficial thinking.

  • Anthony

    The quotes below are salient considerations from essay’s theme I find humanly relevant and brings to mind how often we disconnect from reality and then perhaps imagine whatever we may want:

    “The drive for certainty leads quickly to ideological simplifications that deny inconvenient facts in the name of current narratives. Over and over the facts are long made to fit the theory; such ideological certainty at the expense of reality is the root of fascism and all totalitarian impulses.”

    “All we can do is to push deeper and deeper into better approximations of an ever evasive reality.”

    “We always have knowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.”

    “Because thinking sets up obstacles to truths and opposes settled certainties, it is dangerous….”

    • Andrew Allison

      Oh, no! You mean there’s no such thing as “settled science”? :<0}

      • Rodrigo Castalan

        The likelihood that the science of anything is “settled” is basically the same for every moment in time. Believing that the approximations we make right now are anywhere close to factual comprehension of even one aspect of our universe, has about the same probability of being “correct” as it did yesterday, five years ago, and a hundred years ago. Science has never been settled, and it certainly isn’t right now. People who think otherwise are just trying to fill their empty dogma-holes: science is just as easy to make into a cult as anything else.

  • Kavanna

    It’s not true that certain knowledge is impossible. But it arises from careful reasoning from facts under controlled conditions. What it does *not* arise from is ideology, that is, preconceived ideas and opinions.

  • free_agent

    It seems to me that the trouble is with “those seeking a clear path to certainty and moral outrage”. Yes, if you seek a firm grounding that lets you vent moral outrage, the realities of the world will frustrate you. But if you decide that moral outrage isn’t the purpose of life, you can get on with doing things that are useful and important.

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