Death & Virtue: Billy & Woody

We here at KtB had an interesting weekend, quite by accident spending some time with a couple of unexpectedly complementary classics: After Virtue and Love and Death. The former, Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of contemporary ethical theory, we had not read before and even now would have preferred to avoid. The latter, Woody Allen’s great take-off on Dostoyevsky and other glum Russians, we had seen many times, but not in ten years or more.

Yet it turns out they make great companions. The primary concern of After Virtue is the history of Western philosophy’s attempt to justify morality in a post-theological world — i.e. how do we all agree on what is good or right when we don’t agree on the source for what is good or right? The primary concern of Love and Death is making jokes about borscht and village idiots while wearing religious obsession as lightly as Woody wears his flouncy peasant blouse.

Boris: Oh, if only God would give me some sign. If He would just speak to me once. Anything. One sentence. Two words. If He would just cough.
Sonja: Of course there’s a God! We’re made in His image!
Boris: You think I was made in God’s image? Take a look at me. You think He wears glasses?
Sonja: Not with those frames.

Woody Allen movies of course are frequently concerned with God, morality, mortality, etc., but as often as not, his nasal existentialism seems like so much shtick — much of Love and Death included. So it was a nice surprise, when searching for a clip of the film, to find this gem instead: Woody Allen interviewing Billy Graham, 28 years ago this month, September 1969.

The clip has two parts, both worth a look. What’s striking about the interview is how warm and mutually respectfully both men manage to be, even while disagreeing about matters of ultimate concern, even as each manages to get off some good lines at the other’s expense.

Woody: If you promise me some wonderful afterlife with a white robe and wings, I might go for it.
Billy: I can’t promise you a white robe and wings, but I can promise you a very interesting, thrilling life.
Woody: One wing maybe?

For Woody Allen fans, it’s fun to see this kind of exchange happen six years before Love and Death (and twenty years before his most morally concerned film, Crimes and Misdemeanors). For everyone else, it’s neat just to see two iconic figures of American culture sitting side by side, seeming as natural a pair as they are unlikely.

Sad thing is, it’s impossible to imagine this sort of conversation happening today. If it did, chances are it would be much louder and totally humorless. (There might be some humor in seeing an abrasive blowhard like Christopher Hitchens fillet an abrasive blowhard like Bill Donohue, but that would be humor of a very different sort.)

One of the themes of After Virtue is that the breakdown of shared ethical systems, for better or worse, is the primary cause of the shrill, combative nature of most public debate. So maybe the ability of Woody and Billy to sit down honestly, genuinely, yet with no shortage of wit, can be seen as instructive. Maybe a step toward more civil disagreement, in the religious and ethical realms and everywhere else, can be found in Homer Simpson’s immortal words to his television: Be more funny!