Magic in the Moonlight: Nietzsche & Woody

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Sophie (Emma Stone) senses a presence from afterlife.

Sophie (Emma Stone) senses a presence from afterlife.

Another Woody Allen film means more allusions to philosophy.“Magic inthe Moonlight” takes itsNietzsche seriously, even if critics dismiss Allen’slines aboutthe German thinker as little more than namedropping.

Colin Firth plays Stanley, an English magician with thestage name WeiLing Soo. Beckoned to the French Riviera by anold friend – a less famousand deviously enviousmagician – Stanley cancels plans to visit theGalapagos Islands.His errand is to expose Sophie, a spiritualist fromKalamazoo played by Emma Stone, who is defrauding a Pittsburghcoalheiress.

As his initial Darwin-minded destination hints, Stanley isa rationalist quiteintolerant of quacks and mystics.That includes Christians. “I think Mr.Nietzsche has disposed ofthe God matter rather convincingly!” harrumphsStanley, who givesHobbes a shout-out too.

When a Washington Post interviewer told Allen his newfilm “evokes atleast two of life’s most rewarding subjectsto contemplate: the South ofFrance and God,” theNew York director quipped: “Right. At least theSouth of Franceexists!”

Sophie is an intuitive Nietzschean, channeling hisview that illusions arenecessary aids for living. Althoughthat is not necessarily bad, for her lineof work. As Stone puts itin the film’s press notes: “We want stories, wewant fairytales, we want myths.”

Allen made that same point in an interview two yearsago: “the only waythat you can be happy is if you tellyourself some lies and deceiveyourself. … It was said by Nietzsche,it was said by Freud, it was said byEugene O’Neill. Onemust have one’s delusions to live.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) is the philosophercited most often inAmerican films. Plato, Aristotle, Hegel andKant get mentions, but not theirideas. That which does notkill you only makes you stronger is oneNietzcheismthat screenwriters like, if not footnote, as in “The FifthElement” and “Conan the Barbarian.”

Or, as Eddie Murphy’s character cracks in “Comingto America”: :The guysthat work here don’t quote Nietzsche.”Characters in “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and HerSisters” do cite Nietzsche by name. He also appears inAllen’scomic writing on “Friedrich Nietzsche’s Diet Book” andin “MySpeech to the Graduates.”

In the pre-Code film “Baby Face” (1933) a heavilyaccented cobbler fromthe old country opens a book titled“Will To Power” and tutors BarbaraStanwyck’s characterin Erie, Pa:

“A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anythingshe wants in theworld. Because you have power over men. But youmust use men, not letthem use you. You must be a master, not a slave.Look here – Nietzschesays, `All life, no matter how we idealize it,is nothing more nor less thanexploitation.’ That’s what I’m tellingyou. Exploit yourself. Go to some bigcity where you will findopportunities! Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Usemen to get the thingsyou want!”

“Allen is a profoundly philosophical comedian,”writes Vittorio Hosle, aphilosopher at the University of NotreDame.

“Philosophers love WoodyAllen, in part, because hewrites us into his movies,” adds Tom Morris in“Woody Allenand Philosophy: You Mean My Whole Fallacy Is Wrong?”

Nietzsche is not good for us, in the classroom or atthe cinema, objects thelate University of Chicagoprof Allan Bloom

“Woody Allen helps to makeusfeel comfortable with nihilism, to Americanize it,” he writesin his 1987bestseller “The Closing of the AmericanMind.” In “How NietzscheConquered America” helaments our angst lacks depth: “Americannihilism is a mood,a mood of moodiness. … It is nihilism without the abyss.”

Nonetheless, scholars use Nietzsche to interpret popculture. A chapter inthe new book “The Cultural Impact ofKanye West” is titled “When Apolloand Dionysus clash:A Nietzschean perspective on the work of KanyeWest.”The author dissects “No Church in the Wild,” a music videobyKanye West and Jay Z.

In the 1930s, American newspapers notedthe “Nietzscheanization” ofGerman politics. The ChicagoTribune covered a 1935 lecture on the trendat the Stevens Hotel. “Nazis’Prophet in War on Christ” read a headlineidentifying thephilosopher infamous for proclaiming “God is dead.” “Anewreligion is evolving in the world today to compete withChristianity, andFriedrich Nietzsche … was its chief prophet.” The Presbyterianlecturerwarned: “If Christianity fails, science willfall; democracy will fall.”

Nietzche’s prose was repurposed for the nuptials ofNational Socialists.“Pagan Customs Revived for NaziWeddings: Blood Purity Is Stressed”headlined a Berlindispatch the Chicago Tribune ran in 1938.

In World War I German soldiers took a special edition ofthe philosopher’swork into battle, as did their comrades in WorldWar II. “How do you knowNietzsche’s my hero?”asks a young Adolph Hitler (Noah Taylor) in the film“Max.”

“Once more Nietzsche’s name, as in 1914, is in thenews,” wrote a Harvard historian in 1940. In 1943 the New YorkTimes reported thatHitler’s 60th birthday gift to Mussolini was“a bound edition of the completeworks of Nietzsche.”

Other editions were at riskin Roland Emmerich’s “The Day AfterTomorrow,” anear-future disaster film about global freezing. Refugees intheNew York Public Library stay alive by burning books. Unlike the Nazis,heat, not hate, is their reason. “Friedrich Nietzsche! We cannotburnFriedrich Nietzsche; he was the most important thinker of 19thCentury!”exclaims one frigid admirer.

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