What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls to tears.
Seneca, To Marcia On Consolation
The veracity of Seneca’s words can be debated upon, but they seem to fit to describe the Coen brothers character Larry’s fortune in the film. Yet, A Serious Man is a comedy. We laugh as Larry goes from a bad situation to a worse one. Coen brothers stated: “The fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry.” It seems that the directors were on a ‘sadistic streak’ involving their character, but to what purpose, one may ask. Aside from their iconic black humor, Coen brothers’ films are an inquiry into human condition, either in the specific historical situation, as in Hail Caesar! or the eternal questions of human existence, like in No Country for Old Men. A Serious Man falls in the latter category; it is a film which deals with the mundane and the man’s relationship to divinity and fate (or fortune, one may say). In this film, Judaism is more present than in any other Coen brothers’ piece of work.
The film opens with a folk story in which a man comes to the house where a man and a wife live, and the wife claims that the man died a few years ago and he is a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit. She stabs him in the chest with a knife, and shortly after, he starts bleeding. Whether he is a dybbuk or not, we do not know. The Coen brothers stated that this scene does not mean much, that it just sets the tone for the film. The scene sets the tone in terms of atmosphere, but also thematically. The man who lives in the house says that he is a “rational person” and does not believe that man is a dybbuk, while his wife behavior may be termed as superstitious, although her vocabulary has religious overtones. The relationship between rationality and the irrational forces in life seems to be an important element in the film. The other imporant motif is that the folk story’s ending opens up two possibilites and we cannot be certain which one is true.
This kind of reasoning is crucial for the understanding of the film, since there is an uncertainty which permeates the film’s main character Larry. He comes home from work to his family, (he works as a physics professor at the university) and we can hear peaceful music, he watches his neighbour mowing the lawn and the setting of a typical American family is portrayed. The illusion of a perfect life is instantly crushed since his wife condescendigly tells him that she has someone else and wants a divorce. She tells him that she wants a ritual divorce, so she can marry another man and that he should “act like an adult” about it. His wife’s lover Sy patronizingly hugs him and tells him everything will be all right; Larry is forced to move to the cheap motel nearby. Forced may be a strong adjective to use, it would be more accurate to say that he complies with it.
He comes to see three Rabbis and engages with three lawyers; the rabbis represent the spiritual sphere and the lawyers the civic one. The first Rabbi is young and seems like a rather ignorant example of an ecstatic mystic. He tells him that he should change his perception and see God in things, in the parking lot for example. The second Rabbi tells him a rather long story about a dentist who found inscriptions in Yiddish on a patient’s teeth and asked for an explanation for it, the way to understand it as a sign from God. The conclusion of the second Rabbi is that one should be a good man and says that God “doesn’t owe us an answer. He doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” Larry’s confusion about the “first principles” that should guide his life’s path is equivalent to his lack of trust in everything that surrounds him.
His son gets involved in a Columbia record scam, and his real-estate lawyer dies of heart attack when he needs to give legal advice about Larry’s home. The first lawyer Larry goes to becomes a sort of analyst who listens to his problems. The third lawyer sends him a bill for 3000$. Sy dies and Larry “has” to pay for his funeral. In short, Larry’s life gets worse and worse as “Uncle Arthur” gets involved with the police over gambling. His nightmares mirror his state of mind as he sees himself having sex with his married neighbour and Sy harassing him, practically putting a coffin on him. He dreams of himself writing formulas on the huge board and says: “The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out.”
In the multiplicity of life’s misfortunes, he loses his sense of self and the way to encounter life with Lebowskian Taoist simplicity. This is simply not an option for him. The only moment when he relaxes is when he smokes marijuana with his neighbour but God (or Coen brothers in this case – it is sometimes hard to discern the two when this film is in question) does not leave the act unpunished. In the end, after he realizes that he can keep his job, although Sy was sending letters stating Larry is immoral to the university, the doctor calls him and implies that he has lung cancer.
The title card at the beginning of the film says: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” – Rashi. This may be an advice from Coens to their character: to stop searching for answers in the moments of misery, to reduce the complexity of chaotic life circumstences to an attitude of simplicity and renounce the need to establish divine order of things in a world, which is in itself chaotic. One should receive their misfortunes with a simplicity, like the character from a Wong Kar-wai film who compares the end of romantic relationship to the changing color of one’s hair. Or, it can be a rather cruel joke from Coens, since tortured Larry doesn’t seem to find the answer in a simple change of perception, in line with the advice from the first, young Rabbi.
I haven’t done anything…
Doing nothing is not bad. Ipso facto.
Professor at the University
The conversation in the context of Larry’s tenure on the university seems to be a key to understanding Larry’s character and his actions. In one way, he can be compared to the Old Testament figure of Job, who is tested by God by being afflicted various misfortunes, which makes Job lose his faith. On the other hand, he is not like Job, whose family is killed, who is assailed by deseases and ends up in the belly of a whale. Job simply cannot answer this misfortunes with actions, they are of such gravity that only passive acceptance is the way of dealing with them. Larry, on other hand, could rise up to his misfortunes and stand up for himself. He does not. His character in some ways echoes the nihilists in The Big Lebowski, who lie in the pool dressed in black and do nothing for days. In other words, in A Serious Man a Coen brothers’ vindication of passive nihilism is vivid.
The scale of Larry’s compliance to the actions of others which bring him misfortunes is admirable. He does next to nothing when confronted with the agents of his misfortunes. The philosophical or religious doctrines that preach detachment from the world, passive stance, renunciation of passions and desire, as Emil Cioran’s thought or Buddhism do, may be admirable worldviews. Yet, even Buddha had to distance himself from the position of a prince to start teaching and practicing his ideas. If one is entangled in numerous social obligations, the stance of passivity may very well be one’s downfall. Larry may had been born under an unlucky star, as the Ancients would understand it, but the degree of his suffering could have been different if he took a different stance. Nevertheless, as we learn that Larry has cancer, his fate seems to be more similar to that of Job. The engineers of his doom are, on the other hand, Coens themselves.
Seneca, Moral Essays Vol. 2, Harvard University Press, London, 1990