By Carlin, David R., Jr.
Commonweal , Vol. 120, No. 12
I hereby announce that Mia Farrow has won the first annual Richard Nixon Moral Philosopher of the Year Award. (It is named for Nixon because of his immortal words, "But that would be wrong.") Let me explain.
Though I have seen my share of Woody Allen movies over the years, I have never been a cult follower. The early movies seemed to me the kind that would have been made by a talented sophomore, and since I have always had something of a prejudice against sophomores, I stayed away from his films for years. By the time I broke down and returned, in the era of Annie Hall, I discovered to my delight that Woody had become a sort of American Chekhov. Unfortunately, this was the moment he was overdosing on Diane Keaton, a little bit of whom goes a long way. I found I could not take Diane playing Diane for the umpteenth time, so again I discontinued visits to Woody Allen movies.
I say this not by way of criticism but in order to confess my own inadequate knowledge of his oeuvre. Plainly I am no authority on Woody Allen the artist.
Nor am I an authority on Woody Allen the family man. At first I tried to ignore his legal dispute with Mia Farrow, but to no avail. I discovered it is not possible to live in America and remain successfully ignorant of the domestic troubles of Woody and Mia.
Nowadays when I think of Woody Allen, I am reminded of Pascal and his Provincial Letters. More precisely, I am reminded of Pascal's lampoon on Jesuit casuists of the seventeenth century. One of my favorite items in this work is Pascal's satirical account of the Jesuit who found a way to justify dueling, which was proscribed by the church but prescribed by the aristocratic code of honor. The good father explained that a Christian gentleman may not accept a challenge to a duel; but he may pretend to accept, at the same time making the appropriate mental reservation. Further, he may keep up this pretense until he finds himself on the field of honor facing an enemy who is armed with sword or pistol. But that alters the whole moral nature of the situation; in such circumstances one is morally entitled to defend oneself. For this is no longer a duel, which the church says is morally wrong; it is now a case of self-defense, which of course the church says is morally permissible.
A common-sense interpretation of Woody's affair with Mia's adopted daughter would say that the relationship is incestuous. After all, Allen's relationship with Mia Farrow was a virtual husband-wife connection, even though they were not officially married. Hence he was related to the daughter as a virtual stepfather. And when stepfathers have sexual relations with stepdaughters, that's incest. What could be more clear?
Enter Woody the casuist, resembling one of those tragicomic Chekhovian characters from his movies. No, it is not incest, he explains, his jesuitical logic running something like this: A virtual stepfather is not the same as a real stepfather. Had he and Mia officially married, then his relationship with the daughter would have been nothing less than a horrendous crime. …