How well does life work if you are narrowly and brainlessly self-serving?  The Coen brothers asked that question in Burn after Reading last fall.  The answer: not so well.  This fall’s follow-up question seems to be, “Does it work any better to strive after righteousness, to seek God, to try to be A Serious Man?”  Their answer seems to be that, no, that doesn’t work out very well either. 

A Serious Man is said to be the movie in the Coen’s canon that most explores their Midwestern Jewish origins.  The movie was released in early October, but only made it to Fayetteville a few weeks ago.  I saw it this Wednesday.  The movie begins with a brief prologue: a Jewish couple in a 19th Century Eastern European shtetl have an encounter with an old acquaintance who may or may not be a dybbuk, the soul of a dead person, and in consequence they may or may not be subject to a curse.  The uncertainty about what happened is certainly intentional.  Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor at a Midwestern college in 1967 (and who may be a descendent of the couple and thus saddled with their curse) is first seen lecturing about Schrodinger’s cat.  Is the cat alive or dead?  Who knows?  In a later dream sequence, Larry proves Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to the class, concluding that we can’t ever know what’s really going on, “So it shouldn’t bother you.  Although you’ll be responsible for this on the midterm.” 

Despite dispensing such advice, Larry has trouble accepting the uncertainties of his own imploding life.  His wife Judith tells him she has grown close to Sy Ableman, an unctuous widower, and wants a divorce so she and Sy can marry.  His overweight, inept brother Albert is camped out on his couch.  His son Danny, preparing for his bar mitzvah between puffs of marijuana, badgers Larry about their poor TV reception.   His daughter steals from his wallet.  The neighbor on one side of his suburban ranch encroaches on his property line; the neighbor on the other side is a Bathsheba-like temptress who sunbathes in the nude.  A student tries to bribe him for a passing grade.  The student’s father threatens a lawsuit.  Someone writes letters to the tenure committee accusing Larry of moral turpitude.  And a record club is dunning him to pay for records he never ordered.   What diminishes Larry even more than the initial blows are the indignities that follow.  Larry may want to be a serious man, but no one takes him seriously.  Having your wife taken is bad enough; you shouldn’t have to endure her lover bringing you bottle of wine to compensate and hugging you in feigned sympathy.  And why should you be  exiled first from your bedroom and then from the house so that the marital tension won’t be awkward for the children?  How do you handle it when your unfaithful wife hires a rapacious law firm to demand the lion’s share of your meager assets? (In discussing his case with his lawyer, Larry says that he’s sure that Sy and Judith aren’t sexually involved, so their relationship can’t be used in the legal proceedings.  As in many Coen films, the boundary between innocence and stupidity is not well marked.)    

Larry wants to discover why “Heshem” (God) is treating him so harshly.  Rabbi Scott, the junior rabbi at the synagogue, admits that it’s difficult to understand divine intentions, but insists “with the right perspective you can see Heshem.”  He illustrates by showing Larry the parking lot, which, he says, is extraordinary or ordinary, depending on your perspective.  Or something like that.  Not surprisingly, Larry isn’t consoled by the sight of parked cars.

Rabbi Nachter responds to Larry’s questions by telling a rambling story about a Jewish dentist who found “Help me” written in Hebrew on the inner surfaces of a goy’s teeth.  Puzzled, the dentist consulted the rabbi, who had few answers: “The teeth, don’t know. A sign from Hashem, don’t know.  Helping others: couldn’t hurt.”  The dentist eventually goes on with life, and that’s what the rabbi advises Larry to do:  “These questions that are bothering you, Larry — maybe they’re like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then they go away.”  

Exasperated, Larry tries to see Marshak, the reputably wise senior rabbi.  Marshak’s secretary refuses to let Larry in, saying, “He’s busy.”  Larry, having caught a glimpse of Marshak sitting quietly at his desk, complains, “He doesn’t look busy.”  The imperious response is, “He’s thinking.”

So Larry is left without answers.  The movie lurches towards darkness and despair, but we are offered two bits of advice that may or may not be intended as lifelines.  First, an aphorism is shown before the opening scene: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  Second, near the end of the movie, a character (I won’t give away who) quotes the Jefferson Airplane: “When the truth is found to be lies and all hope within you dies….”    Anyone who lived through the sixties knows what follows: “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.”  The Coen’s message seems to be that, when faced with tragedy and absurdity, the best you can do is to accept and love.  Maybe that’s what makes one a serious man.  Larry hasn’t found acceptance.  As for love, when Arthur, immersed in problems of his own making, tearfully proclaims that Larry’s life is better than his then runs out the door, Larry, clad in his underwear, chases his distraught brother through the grounds of the run-down motel where they are staying and embraces him, giving words of comfort, while they sit together on the steps of the empty swimming pool.   Love is found in strange places, but it seems to be all that either of them have.


I recently read  Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Wake Forest University English professor Eric G. Wilson.  Why would anyone be against happiness?  Because, says Wilson, happy people—here he means a peculiarly American breed of happy people, those inhabiting our malls and gated communities, spending their days chatting on cell phones or wandering the Internet—are smug and superficial.  They seek total control over the uncertainties of life, and, in so doing, “don’t live their own lives at all.  They follow some prefabricated script, some ten-step plan for bliss or some stairway to heaven.  Doing so, they separate themselves from the present moment, immediate and unrepeatable and pressing.” (p. 28 ) 

Wilson spends much less time cataloging the faults of the happy masses than he does singing the praises of the melancholy few.  He believes that melancholy forces one to look within:

“At this moment, when I am stripped of the familiar, I get in touch with what is most intimate: I am this person and no one else.  I must find my unique potentialities, my own horizons.  I must live my own life and die my own death. . . .  Embracing my own death, I am shocked into living.  Feeling my finitude, I envision infinite horizons for being.”   (p. 43-44)

The melancholy soul embraces the particular rather than getting lost in abstractions and generalities.  He or she doesn’t oversimplify reality by choosing one side or the other of life’s complexities, but instead explores opposites and brings together antimonies.   Regarding the latter point, Wilson points out a similarity between the happy multitudes and those who are unrelentingly miserable:

“We realize that those committed to happiness at any cost and those bent on sadness no matter what are not very different from each other.  Both are afraid of the wispy middle, that fertile and often febrile ambiguity between the poles of the cosmos.”  (p. 82)

Too, melancholia is midwife to creativity.  Wilson lists dozens of writers and artists whose sadness inspired their creative works, describing a half-dozen in some depth, among them  William Blake, Beethoven, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats.  He also describes Jesus Christ as a melancholy figure, though to do so he emphasizes Christ’s humanity over his divinity, and even within that limitation gives a truncated portrayal.  Among the melancholy lot that Wilson describes, Keats is a particularly sympathetic figure.  Deathly ill with tuberculosis in his twenties, he made melancholy, death, and beauty central themes of his poetry.  For him, beauty is tied to death. 

Melancholy also heightenes our awareness of the world around us and of ourselves.  All that our senses encounter is transient, and this ephemeral nature of the world around us—the clouds and rainbows and roses—heightens our appreciation of its beauty.   As Wilson points out, we all yearn for what is lost and fear our own end, but, whereas the melancholic doesn’t avoid such inevitabilities, “happy types” paper them over with “”some clichéd affirmation about how they’re good people and deserve to be happy.” (p. 121)

There is much more to Wilson’s brief for melancholia than I’ve described: sections on the concepts of dynamic innocence and Romantic irony are particularly effective.  To him, the only “true path to ecstatic joy” is by way of melancholia, for one needs to have wandered through the dark night in order to appreciate the brilliant dawn.  Even those who grant the benefits of melancholia, though, can protest that Wilson gives insufficient attention to the harm that extreme sadness can wreck.  He tries to distinguish between melancholia and depression, stating that the latter produces apathy and paralysis, while the former generates deep feeling and “a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.” (p. 8 )  He agrees that those suffering severe depression should receive treatment, but asks, “what of those millions of people who possess mild to moderate depression?  Should these potential visionaries also be asked to eradicate their melancholia with the help of a pill?” (p. 149)   Many of these “potential visionaries” are involuntary recruits into the ranks of the troubled, and would be more than happy to desert the cause by taking medication or receiving therapy.    Even if something valuable can be learned from most bouts of depression, the experience clouds the mind, weighs down the body, and saps the soul.  Wilson recognizes some of the costs— he mentions suicide and substance abuse, for example—but in the end seems to accept these as a price to be paid for genius.   Isn’t the price paid by sufferers and their families too high, though?  We may be enriched by the suffering of the suicidal, but that’s a form of wealth we can do without.