Nobody's Business

GORDON LIVINGSTON

September 17, 1992|By GORDON LIVINGSTON

COLUMBIA — Columbia. -- It was instructive to watch the ''family values'' folks get exercised about the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow imbroglio. Some of the outrage, like that of Newt Gingrich, is expectedly political. Other commentary conjures the moral bankruptcy of a whole social era out of one man's self-indulgence, overlooking the fact that the ''Me Generation'' is most closely identified with the administration of Ronald Reagan.

Let's be fair. As a nation we have shown remarkable tolerance for, and interest in, the peccadillos of those whose work it is to entertain us. One might almost conclude that their private lives are an extension of their jobs in this regard. Few have seriously suggested that people who are associated with motion pictures have either an obligation or inclination to serve as role models for the rest of us.

It is especially silly to criticize the private life of Woody Allen, who created a career out of his neuroses, ineptitudes, and existential angst. He has made us laugh and he has made us think; he never pretended to know how to live.

The abuse allegations against him will presumably be resolved legally. What is most embarrassing, though, is the way Mr. Allen has been called publicly to account for his involvement with Mia Farrow's daughter -- and the way, he has cooperated in this shredding of his privacy.

To what constituency does he feel required to answer? His name appears on no ballot this fall; he has not urged his example upon us. He has become a central actor in a drama from which he cannot profit and to which admission is free. Our approval or opprobrium are equally irrelevant and the expressed indignation, usual, discloses more about the source than the target.

How could he then, with a straight face, allow himself to respond to some of these questions? Did he imagine there was a persuasive answer to the Newsweek interviewer who asked, ''What about those nude photos?'' Woody -- please! Let's show a little dignity here. It's nobody's business but yours, hers and Maureen O'Sullivan's -- who, in an effort, no doubt, to be helpful to her granddaughter, told everyone else.

People, especially those who would instruct the rest of us on how to live, are understandably fascinated with this story. It's selling a lot of newspapers and magazines. But is it a metaphor for our times? Can we learn something from it that we didn't already know? About middle-aged men and young women, about movie stars and their confusion of life with art (''I'm dating a girl who does homework!'' -- Manhattan, 1979)? If Mr. Allen should be embarrassed, how about his psychoanalyst who must live in fear that his name might be disclosed.

The winners of the ''Have-you-no-shame?'' award have been the ''experts'' who have commented publicly (and without knowing any of the parties) about this situation. One local psychologist was quoted as saying that there was a ''zero-percent chance'' that the relationship between Mr. Allen and Soon-Yi would work out. This statement suggests a belief in the baseball umpire's credo: I may be wrong, but I'm never unsure.

So let's have done with the outrage and stone-casting and ask ourselves why, beyond its entertainment value, this little morality play preoccupies us. Surely there are more pertinent issues to think about -- like how we can avoid hurting others, how to live our own lives constructively, and which of our behaviors might be a little hard to explain to Newsweek.

Gordon Livingston practices psychiatry in Columbia.

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