Uncertain Thoughts about A Serious Man

“What’s going on?” – Larry Gopnik, quintessentially

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A Serious Man is one of my all time favorite films. I have yet to discover a more philosophical and entertaining film of similar style, one that can be interpreted as comedy or tragedy, or both, or neither. It uniquely and impressively explores the branches of metaphysics and ethics in the context of contemporary life via propitious Jewish spirituality and ritual in mundane American suburbia.

Throughout the film, the Coen brothers utilize Larry’s repeated pedestrian inquiries – “What’s going on?” , “What does it mean?”, “It doesn’t make sense” – as rhetorical instruments for establishing its primary theme: uncertainty. These questions casually posed by Larry are deliberately representative of what the viewers should be asking themselves about the film and their own lives.

The theme of uncertainty is overt in dialogue and is also embedded in the structure of the film. The prologue and the ending were intentionally unclear. Not only were they frustratingly ambiguous relative to the narrative, but they also didn’t clearly imply any pertinence to the plot, nor did they allow the viewer to derive any definite meaning from the experiences. But so it often goes with the events of our lives.

The Coen brothers’ goal, I believe, was to institute the concept of uncertainty, paradoxically, as an inescapable certainty. We must accept this inescapable uncertainty as truth and live virtuously despite it. But I think their intention behind the theme goes beyond establishing the need of just accepting uncertainty: I think their point is that uncertainty can be a driver of values, particularly of humility and love.

Since we can’t be certain about why we’re here, about what we’re ultimately supposed to be doing in life, or about ‘what it all means’, this not only enables us but demands of us to cooperate and do our best to establish objective truths, be humble, be open to experience, and pursue bonds of love.

Hence the lyrics within the chorus of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”, which apparently contains immense value as Marshak, in all his wisdom, implies the choral message to be the most important developmental and existential advice for Danny, and for all of us:

“When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies…
Don’t you want somebody to love?
Don’t you need somebody to love?
Wouldn’t you love somebody to love?
You better find somebody to love.
Love.

And of course Marshak’s implied propagation of love is accompanied by a direct order to live virtuously: “Be a good boy.

Here I must mention and give thanks to the intriguing and inspirational essay How Job Begat Larry, by K.L. Evans. If you were at all thought-provoked by the film, I highly recommend reading it. It’s more exquisite and thematically enlightening than what you’ll find here. One of my favorite passages:

Though profoundly skeptical about the merits of instruction, A Serious Man does offer a kind of final lesson, a line of reasoning Larry the physics professor describes as the uncertainty principle, “It proves that we can’t ever really know what’s going on,” as Larry tells his students, “but even though you can’t figure anything out you will be responsible for it on the midterm.” This is A Serious Man’s punchline, the source of its comic/anguished mood. True wisdom is hidden from humans. Man cannot discern any justice in his rewards and punishments, nor does he attain any wisdom on the topic from his friends and neighbors.”

Before continuing I need to point out that despite all this serious discussion, the film was hilarious. Its good-natured hilarity was the best part about it, perhaps as it is with life.

From here on I don’t intend to directly explore themes in depth. Nor will I be discussing the plot in depth. Instead I’ll focus on illuminating characters and scenes, because therein lies the real wisdom and fun. But before moving on I’ll briefly examine one other theme that’s relevant to my ensuing analyses:  simplicity.

In addition to teaching us to accept-uncertainty-yet-still-seek-truth, I think the other primary lesson of the movie is that life is indeed very simple, or that it can be and should be, or at least that “living simply” is the ideal end to the complicated means of cultivating virtue and happiness.

This theme is conveniently apparent as it’s established in the introductory quote, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” I think this quote is a device to garner attention and prime us for thought-provocation: at first it seems too obvious to be a deeply formidable line of guidance, although it is. I don’t think the use of the quote is to be interpreted ironically, I think it’s ultimately straightforward. Or maybe it’s intended to be banal at first, and should be considered ironic at some point or in some regard, but in the end it should be considered unequivocally direct and sincere.

Unfortunately, it seems, in order to authentically achieve a deserved state of simplicity in life, we must first go through ‘the existential ringer’ and experience the mandatory dreads of character refinement.

In order to justifiably reside in the realm of simplicity and be truly secure in our being, we’re first required to traverse the spectrum of life’s complexities.

Sy Ableman: Sy is a fraudulent version of Larry, the way Larry would be if he opted for superficial wisdom – if he tried to speak virtuously rather than be virtuous. Moreover, Sy’s speech and actions are representative of Larry’s misguided conscience. If Larry had chosen to forgo any pursuit of meaning in life, perhaps he would have been more like Sy, someone who seemingly leads a pleasant life of little trouble. Larry would be Sy if he believed in the ‘ignorance is bliss’ version of simplicity.

I think it’s clear that Larry intends to be a genuinely serious man, and we should grant him that label (as with tenure): he tries to maintain a real coherence between his beliefs and actions, he is loyal and kind, he seeks deeper meaning, and he stays consistent in his daily contributions. Yet even with the appropriate grant of a serious man, his seriousness proved inexplicably futile. Sy on the other hand merely acted as if he was a serious man, and wound up convincing himself and many others that he was in fact serious (as described at his funeral, and as evidenced in winning over Judith). So at least for awhile Hashem seemed to grant the undeserving Sy the fruits of a serious life, which leaves us wondering:

What is the true nature of a serious man? What is the point of seriousness if it produces random outcomes? Is the point of ‘living seriously’ to experience the nature of it or to generate favorable outcomes? Or is it both, or neither? We should wonder.

Sy wasn’t a serious man. His purported wisdom was obviously disingenuous and implicitly self-aggrandizing. And it’s possible that his fraudulence led him to eminent karmic trouble – death. (This is admittedly a forlorn conclusion, as I believe the operations of karma to be, as Clive would say, “very uncertain“, but I suppose it’s as possible an explanation as any in the context of this film.)

In Larry’s dream Sy said, “It’s so simple: see Marshak.” While Marshak is almost certainly a very wise man – perhaps among the most serious of men – we still conclude that Sy’s basic instruction for Larry was baseless and fruitless. Larry of course did go see Marshak, and Marshak denied him. But presumably, even if Larry got to speak to Marshak, Marshak’s advice likely wouldn’t have been very technical: his advice probably would have been very simple, as was his Airplanian advice for Danny, but ultimately would have been too simple to be effective given Larry’s current condition.

Based on Sy’s recommendation in Larry’s dream, let’s imagine Sy has spoken with Marshak in the past, perhaps well before his wife died, and Marshak advised him in such a simple manner that maybe it led Sy to believe ‘life is really very simple’. This event may have been what established Sy’s false sense of security. Maybe Marshak even explicitly said, “It’s all very simple, Sy. Go live simply.” But to Marshak’s credit, I would assume that in his wisdom he was able to easily determine that Sy was no serious man – Sy Ableman is not capable of attaining genuine simplicity by way of virtuous experience. So Marshak settled on enabling Sy’s faulty thinking and fraudulent tendencies just to appease his sense of humanity.

Marshak ultimately determined it was best to temporarily comfort Sy, play into his superficiality, and sustain his arrogance, self-righteousness, and complacency so that maybe he’ll learn the hard way, effectively sentencing him to his own ignorance. And if he never learns, then so be it.

Marshak did a small favor for Sy in lieu of doing him a huge favor because he knew Sy’s character was practically unchangeable. Maybe Marshak determined Sy was hopelessly unserious, so he decided to help, minimally, by just playing into Sy’s delusions since Sy was mostly harmless and since he was already doomed.

Whereas with Larry, in light of his denial, perhaps Marshak knew of him and maybe somehow sensed the nature of Larry’s troubles, and ultimately determined Larry was in fact a serious man, so instead of offering simple advice to temporarily comfort him, Marshak decided Larry must live through these troubles to gain genuine wisdom so that he could eventually attain merited simplicity.

Marshak attempted to do Larry a huge favor by not advising him in lieu of doing him a small favor by superficially alleviating his current troubles. Marshak determined Larry was a good-natured, hopeful person so he opted for what he determined to be the best form of help which was not creating any delusions to temporarily ease Larry’s pain.

But ultimately, even in his assumed great wisdom, Marshak is either flawed or unproductive: he doesn’t really know what’s best for people, OR maybe he does know what’s best for people in general, but he can’t predict what will come from peoples’ experiences – there’s just no way to legitimately give anyone even a guarantee with advice. Even when Marshak makes his best, genuine attempt to help people in their individual capacities, he still can never ensure anyone that a newfound peace of mind will remain imperturbable, nor can he ensure anyone of deep lasting change, because life is too damn uncertain.

Now’s a good time to share some insights from the post “What Does this Movie Mean?” from the blog This Ruthless WorldAlthough I’m clearly writing from a different perspective, and of different style, and although I don’t entirely agree with the post’s rather bitter conclusions, I really appreciate the author’s substance and I tend to agree with a central premise:

Religion is bullshit. … [Nachtner] tells Larry a long, mystery-laden story, the point of which is that there is no point; his ultimate advice is that Larry should stop trying to understand things. This is a perfectly reasonable position for Nachter to take: what better way to rationalize his own incompetence and lack of understanding? … The third, and oldest, rabbi, Marshak, has barricaded himself off from the world … The only words we ever hear Rabbi Marshak utter are lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song … This is the distillation of the wisdom he had collected and analyzed over a lifetime: be a good person; find somebody to love. Nothing else matters, and Marshak, unlike his younger colleagues, is tired of pretending. He is no longer interested in theology. The “truth” has turned out to be lies, and his happiness has ebbed away. His congregants, however, interpret his detachment as a sign of religious enlightenment.”

I enjoy this take. But I should probably note that I don’t think religion is total bullshit. Religion is bullshit in the sense of claiming certainty in truth claims: it’s bullshit in the sense that it doesn’t actually know why things are, or what things mean, and thus it can’t offer valid solutions for our existential problems. Religion is much more limited in its sagacity than it purports. Perhaps “religion is often frustratingly myopic” would be a bit more of an accurate and merciful declaration here, at least for me.

I don’t agree with the idea here that “[Marshak’s] happiness has ebbed away”. This is an unsubstantiated conclusion – it’s merely a bleak interpretation. Marshak could just as well be very happy in his simplicity, or at least at peace, relieved of dogmatic demands, and grateful for discovering that religion is not based in objective truth. Nevertheless, I really commend this insight and definitely recommend reading This Ruthless World‘s post. (And I apologize if I over-chopped the text. Hopefully I sustained proper context. Admittedly, there’s much more to the post than what I’ve included here.)

Clive’s father:  the scene with Clive’s father was perfectly characteristic of Larry’s buoyant earnestness. As usual Larry is patient and polite yet uncomfortable and confused. Upon Larry’s plea, “It doesn’t make sense“, Clive’s father asserts what may be the most annoying words for Larry to hear at this juncture: “Please, accept the mystery.”

If unexpected, unwarranted stress was somehow personified, it would be Clive’s father. He’s an interpersonal enigma who represents the irritating consequences we all deal with that are unforeseen, baseless, and seemingly unjust.

Danny (in relation to Larry):  Danny and Larry’s relationship is endearing. And Danny’s pot-smoking I’m sure was a nostalgic inclusion for the Coens, and probably also meaningful for the film. The oft stoned Danny doesn’t even acknowledge Larry’s functional and existential crises, and not only is that perfectly fine with Larry but he also seems to unconsciously embrace it: Danny centers Larry. Danny is Larry before any real seriousness in life takes priority. The two barely have a conversation in the film yet we can tell that beyond the bickering their relationship is deeply gratifying.

Even in the midst of Larry’s frustrations with Danny, it’s almost as if Danny’s ultimate lack of awareness and care brings Larry back to simplicity. When Larry follows Danny into his room intending to scold him, Larry instead finds solace in Danny’s utter disregard of seriousness in the situation. Larry clearly appreciates this as he abandons his pursuit of punishment, ceding to the simple intrigue of Danny watching F Troop. And later as Larry reprimands Danny on the phone about the relatively laughable Columbia Records problem, Larry quickly pacifies and shifts to a lighthearted tone upon hearing Danny’s urgency and responds with genuine concern, “Is it F Troop?”

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Arthur: poor Arthur. Arthur’s character satirically represents so many people of sharp mind and little recourse due to a lack of “social skills”, as Larry puts it. There must be countless people out there similar to Arthur: extremely intelligent people, underachieved and dejected, who wind up couchbound with nothing to show for except a subaceous cyst.

Here’s a man who has been crafting The Mentaculus, “a probability map of the universe”. In it he’s produced a brilliant array of intricate formulas and equations and diagrams in a profoundly calculated effort to essentially solve life. But even as the Mentaculus proves to be grounbreakingly accurate in its application, it has also proven to be fruitless – actually a producer of rotten fruit. Arthur’s only “successful” endeavor spawned by the Mentaculus has come from illegal gambling, a stint that ultimately led him somewhere worse than nowhere.

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Rabbi Scott: Judging by his teeny cluttered office, we can establish a pretty clear picture of his young mind. His naive but determined counseling affords him only the cheap proposal, “You have to see these things as expressions of God’s will. You don’t have to like it of course.” And Larry, appeasing the goodhearted rabbi with a bit of levity, kindly replies, “The boss isn’t always right but he’s always the boss.” It’s now readily clear to Larry, as he suspected, that Rabbi Scott can’t really tell him anything he doesn’t already know. Rabbi Scott finally (and hilariously) circles back to his wholesome prop, “Just look at that parking lot Larry.” With obvious self-doubt in his tone, the rabbi just now realizes his lame metaphor isn’t relevant or helpful, to Larry or to himself, or to us.

Rabbi Nachtner: Nachtner is a grownup version of Rabbi Scott and a premature version of Marshak. He doesn’t insinuate or claim that all our troubles are a matter of perspective, nor does he virtuously promote genuine simplicity: Nachtner pretentiously promotes a sort of non-complicatedness, but he does so in an inadvertently nihilistic manner. He’s not really a nihilist, he’s more of a hedonist, if only as result of reveling in his local authority. Nachtner says, “These questions that are bothering you Larry – maybe they’re like a toothache. We feel them for awhile, then they go away.” Well that sure is sweet. But actually, these questions regarding deep existential meaning do not just go away, they tend to plague us throughout our conscious lives. Of course a dentist could never rationally claim, ‘These toothaches, they’re like existential problems. They go away.’ Questions of Larry’s nature, like “Why does [God] make us feel the questions if he’s not gonna give us any answers?”, do not come about like a toothache, nor will they subside like a toothache. And they’re a lot more unsettling, and there’s no dentist to go see, only a rabbi, apparently, whose attempt at relief is merely suggesting that our primordial curiosities are like toothaches.

Nachtner presupposes that it’s not even worth trying to understand our existential problems. He speaks as if we shouldn’t wonder what things mean at all, as if we obviously can’t know Hashem’s intentions so it’s crazy to even inquire. This is of course a misguided approach to Larry’s needs, and to ours. I think Nachtner is well-intentioned but ultimately a nugatory spiritual chieftain.

I should note that while I do think all the rabbis’ lessons are generally lacking in substance, I don’t think the rabbis are insincere or worthless. Connection by conversation greatly serves in itself.

Basic Conclusion: It seems the best attempt at solutions to Larryesque problems – according to the Coens, and which I happen to personally agree with – are to 1) Accept existential uncertainty and allow it to help motivate us to create and sustain loving bonds, yet still seek out truth and meaning in humble effort to alleviate the functional effects of uncertainty, and 2) Seek genuine simplicity by way of rational contemplation, stoic resilience, human connection, and virtuous action.

Random notes:

– I could be off base about a lot of this. But hey, we can never really know what’s going on.

– I imagine the Coens significantly identify with the three rabbis: how the rabbis are, in their distinct modes of confabulation, is how the Coens have found themselves acting as arbiters of life. Furthermore I imagine the Coens’ existential views have actually manifested at various points in time, both psychologically and socially, as a blend of the three rabbis’ methodologies…

I imagine the Coens often find themselves unconsciously resorting to Rabbi Scott’s rudimentary, simplistic wisdom by way of cheery metaphorical reframing of neutral events as positively meaningful. I imagine they often find themselves thinking and speaking with the insouciance and unintended arrogance of Rabbi Nachtner. And I imagine they feel like they’re edging closer and closer to reaching the disposition of Marshak, genuinely channeling him more and more, having gained enough wisdom from experience to let down their intellectual guard…that is, until they catch themselves telling someone to just look at that parking lot.

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– I found the scene where Larry is talking to Mrs. Samsky about Rabbi Scott’s advice to be particularly amusing and enlightening. Under the influence, Larry questions his own skepticism about Rabbi Scott’s assertion that problems are essentially relative to our perceptions. And just as Mrs. Samsky responds, warning of paranoia, police sirens sound and Arthur appears under arrest. This was a perfectly well-timed, non-coincidental event to reinforce Larry (and us) that problems are indeed not always a matter of perception, or at least that problems potentially have very real consequences.

– While I can appreciate it the more I think about it, I remain ambivalent about the prologue. I enjoyed contemplating the popular idea that the wife was Larry’s grandmother who set in motion generational karmic consequences, thus dooming Larry to experience a barrage of Jobian misfortunes at some point. But the prologue’s relevance is ultimately too unclear to even begin to piece together any tangible interpretation. I can grant that it was mildly entertaining, but not enough to make it necessary for the film. I’m not certain if it was intended to be deep or amusing or both, but I found it to be not quite either. Perhaps that was the point. But even if that was the Coens’ intention – for people to wonder really hard about it and remain delightedly uncertain – I think they could have done it in a more effective manner for this film.

– One of my favorite images in the film is of Larry when he’s approaching the front door of his home after receiving the urgent call from Danny. He maintains a perfect look of anxious horror in anticipation of Judith being “real upset”. This was hilarious. His expression here exemplifies just how uncertain he has become, which is hard not to interpret in jest from the outside looking in (or, in this case, from the inside looking out). I also thought his expression facetiously encapsulated how a lot of people must feel on occasion when they know some kind of real trouble awaits them at home.

– The movie’s score is brilliant.

That is all. Go watch A Serious Man on HBO Go or wherever else. Also, here’s a link to the screenplay: A Serious Man