By Sally Franson
(Editor's Note: Sally Franson, writer and writing teacher, was last seen 'round these parts writing about Season 2 of Girls and therapy in narrative. Now she returns with this kickass piece about Woody Allen.)
In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell writes: “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as is turns out were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” These words scuttled across my forehead when I saw Woody Allen’s byline on the Times’ opinion page, as he finally deigned to wade into the muck of the Dylan Farrow scandal – muck, regardless of his protestations, he was integral in creating.
I have no interest in joining the frothing chorus - which on the internet has devolved into something like an audience at a Jerry Springer taping – scrambling to pin down what actually happened in that farmhouse attic 21 years ago, and thereby lay claim to an absolute yet amorphous judgment of guilt, not-guilt, or innocence. Rather, what I am interested in, as a writer and a teacher of writing, is the narrative that Allen has constructed about the events in question, and what this narrative might teach us about the intersections of language and power, syntax and deceit, and truth and meaning – or their absence.
Powerful people use language differently than the unpowerful. We all understand this intuitively. It’s why we weren’t surprised that Woody Allen didn’t come out and say, “I never fucked my daughter” in the Times, though presumably that’s what he meant when he wrote: “when I first heard Mia Farrow had accused me of child molestation, I found the idea so ludicrous I didn’t give it a second thought.” And why he also didn’t come out and say “Dylan Farrow is delusional,” though presumably that’s what he meant when he described her as “vulnerable,” (twice) and “stressed-out.” And why he can get away with calling Mia Farrow “raging” (twice) and “self-serving” and full of “malevolence” and “vindictiveness,” when I think all he meant was that his ex-girlfriend is a bitch.
And it’s also why Allen uses “we” when addressing the reader instead of “you,” as Dylan Farrow did, because part of what powerful people do to maintain power is to not accuse, but rather gather allies, curry favor. If my students were parsing this essay in Aristotelian terms, they would file it under a logos appeal: relying on logic, on a performance of rational thought. “Of course, I hadn’t molested Dylan,” Allen writes, using the idiomatic phrase “of course” three times throughout the essay to imply impartiality and cozy up to the reader. It’s a kind of dark narcissism – an implication, combined with Allen’s pretentious diction, that he’s the smartest guy in the room. You and me buddy, he is saying to the reader – we’re the only sane ones in sight.
Of course by sane he means rational, and by rational he means male. We live in a quantitative, productivity-obsessed culture where emotional expressiveness of the Mia/Dylan Farrow variety is anti-intellectual, déclassé, embarrassing. The performance of clear-sightedness is what Allen relies upon most in his letter to win over the reader, constantly employing words like illogic, impartial, rational and common sense, even if what he is saying is neither empirically rational nor commonsensical. After all, dude’s got too much skin in the game for it to be anything but biased judgment.
It’s a clever move, conscious or un-, because – and here we careen back to Orwell – language and thought are inextricably linked. Political language, or the language of those wishing to maintain power, is meant to muddle our thoughts, to, as Orwell says, “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Woody Allen is just another gasbag on this planet Jupiter of noxious confusion – an important gasbag, but a gasbag nonetheless. Yet he pretends to hold solider ground through a posture of wide-legged authority. Often this works. Hear a narrative often enough from a powerful voice, and you’re bound to internalize it. Which is precisely the argument Allen and his defenders use to dismantle Dylan’s claims of abuse.
The clearest example in Allen’s letter of this heavily politicized language is near the end: “Common sense must ask: Would a mother who thought her 7-year-old daughter was sexually abused by a molester (a pretty horrific crime), give consent for a film clip of her to be used to honor the molester at the Golden Globes?” There are a number of problems with constructing meaning from this sentence. Firstly, common sense, a cloudy, abstract concept, does not have the agency to ask anything, so syntactically we’re already in trouble. Through syntax Allen also yokes two disparate events – a sexual assault and an awards ceremony – and asks them to carry equal dramatic (traumatic?) weight. In doing so he minimizes the crime in question and maximizes a dumb ceremony in which Dylan herself took no part. He makes a mistake in logic by assuming that Farrow’s agreeing to the Globes clip is in response to him alone, and omits the fact that it also represents her work. Such is the troubled dynamic between director and actor, male artist and muse.
But what’s most alarming about this passage is that it begins a linguistic crescendo that ends with: “One must bear in mind that sometimes there are people who are falsely accused and that is also a terribly destructive thing.” Which, again, stripping away the convoluted syntax and passive verbiage, is Woody Allen saying “I’ve been falsely accused, and this sucks.” Which in turn is Woody Allen saying that in fact it is he who is the real victim of this narrative. I’m sure he believes this fully, but this belief has nothing to do with his guilt or not-guilt or innocence, or with whatever shreds of truth are left on this carcass. It reveals just two things: one, we live in a culture of victimization; and two, Woody Allen has swallowed Woody Allen’s own orthodoxy – his self-protective language blocks critical cognition.
In the end, Allen’s letter in the Times is meant to defend, to preserve himself – to put a stop to all future exchanges on the subject of his daughter’s allegations. What does this breed of language represent? Nothing good. In her 1993 Nobel lecture, Toni Morrison said: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” No wonder the Internet becomes so frenzied when stories like this break. Violence begets violence; finger-pointing, more finger-pointing. Whatever happened on that long-ago afternoon has ceased to exist in coherent narrative. Which is tragic, because even if Dylan Farrow’s body wasn’t molested, the story of her life was. “Not that I doubt Dylan hasn’t come to believe she’s been molested,” her father writes. Which if you look closer is a double negative – or just one devastating negation.
 The latter two terms should remain distinct, don’t you think? Since one is upheld in a court of law and the other is upheld – I dunno – in the mirror?
 Moses Farrow, in a quote chosen by Allen, uses the phrase as well.
 I’m holding this truth to be self-evident.
 Not saying this expressiveness is good or bad – it’s just there.
 If I follow that thread to the end of its long, overly histrionic road, I guess I’m arguing that Woody Allen is brainwashing his readers into thinking that Dylan Farrow’s brainwashedness (I made up that word) is the only rational way to approach her accusations.
 So much good stuff has been written on this subject, i.e. Charles Baxter’s essay “Narrative Dysfunction,” that I’ll leave this clunky word standing without further elaboration.