But We Havenâ€™t Done Anything: The Modern Dilemma in A Serious Man
by clarissa olivarez
I recently sat down to watch A Serious Man with my husband and I was surprised at how successfully it addresses the very familiar topic of our modern existential dilemma. This is not new ground to cover in film â€“ or, for that matter, in literature. Before the onset of realism and naturalism in the late 19th century (movements headed by writers like Ã‰mile Zola, Stephen Crane and Frank Norris) Victorian writers like Charlotte Bronte believed that good people were rewarded for their good deeds and those who were â€œevilâ€ were eventually punished in this world. In early cinema and television you need only to look at early Westerns and crime dramas to see that this very Victorian ideal has not entirely faded from our consciousness â€“ the â€œgood guysâ€ triumphed, while the â€œbad guysâ€ were killed or locked up. However modernism showed us that it is not oneâ€™s actions that determine oneâ€™s lot in life, but rather our fortune or misfortune is entirely arbitrary â€“ a crapshoot. Why is it then, that in the early twenty-first century, we are still surprised when bad things happen to us? What would now seem like a washed-out topic is revived in this film as the Coen Brothers attempt to answer the age-old question: â€œWhy does â€˜Godâ€™ allow bad things to happen to good [or serious, or rational, or otherwise â€˜normalâ€™] people?â€
In the beginning of the movie, the audience comes upon a 19th century scene in which a Jewish couple is visited by the supposed ghost of Traitle (Reb) Groshkover. Although we are given no context or explanation of this scene it is important to note that it is during this visit that the wife, Dora, mentions that â€œGod has cursedâ€ them. The mention of this curse is meant to point out to the viewer that some unfortunate events happen to us for no other reason than mere accident â€“ they have nothing to do with our character. We recall the epigraph before the start of the movie which quotes Rashi: â€œReceive with simplicity everything that happens to you,â€ which implies that we have little or no control over the situations we encounter in life. Velvel, the man who was helped by Groshkover, is said to be a â€œrational manâ€ who doesnâ€™t believe in ghosts or possessions (just as later, Sy Ableman will be described as a â€œserious manâ€). But Velvelâ€™s wife soon stabs Reb Groshkover and sends him out where we can infer that his body will soon be discovered â€“ Velvel is doomed. Along the same lines, once he is stabbed, Reb Groshkover asks, â€œOne does a mitzfah and this is the thanks he gets?â€ So if rational and serious men have tragedies befall them (along with Good Samaritans like Reb) then what kind of person must we be in order to have â€œgoodâ€ things happen to us?
Fast forward about a century later when we are thrown into a world that looks like it came straight out of The Wonder Years. We are introduced to the character of Lawrence Gopnik, a physics professor who is up for tenure in his department. It becomes clear that Larryâ€™s mathematical mind has entirely formed his perspective of the world as a very rigid structure with clear actions and reactions. To him, it is our actions that become the precise factors that will determine the outcome of our situations. As Larry says to his failing Korean student, Clive, â€œEverything has consequences.â€ But what if we cannot identify the transgression from which our punishment stems?
It soon becomes clear that not only is Larryâ€™s life framed around an old-world and rather obsolete ideal, but that his search for answers is misguided. In a Biblical sense, everything has consequences, yes, but how often do we see God strike someone down for his or her behavior nowadays? The Coen Brothersâ€™ decision to arrange each of the three sections of the film into parts associated with rabbis – The First Rabbi, The Second Rabbi and Marshak â€“ reflects Larryâ€™s need for some sort of orderly direction and progression.
We begin with the Rabbi Scott, a soft-spoken, unimposing and inexperienced junior rabbi who tells Larry that he no longer knows how to see Hashem, or God, in the world. Larry leaves confused and dissatisfied and due to the urgings of those around him seeks the second rabbi â€“ Senior Rabbi Nachtner. Throughout his first and second search for answers Larryâ€™s formulaic mind is examined.
When Larry visits the second rabbi, Rabbi Nachtner, his existential crisis (which stems from his emerging uncertainty in the world) is unveiled. Unlike the dentist, Sussman, who is content to go â€œback to his lifeâ€ after seeing the words â€œHelp meâ€ engraved into a patientâ€™s incisors, Larry wants answers. He asks, â€œWhy does [Hashem] make us feel the questions if heâ€™s not going to give us any answers?â€ So who does have access to these answers and will our scientific inquiry reward us with some solution to our questions?
It seems, at least in the beginning, that Uncle Arthur is the only one who has figured out all the answers to life in his Mentaculus (a â€œprobability map of the universe,â€ as Danny states). He lives with Larryâ€™s family for free and claims his â€œgamblingâ€ doesnâ€™t hurt anyone. It is not until Arthur is arrested for solicitation and sodomy that he claims he â€œdidnâ€™t do anything.â€ However before Arthurâ€™s legal troubles, his contentment comes to a halt in the Jolly Roger when he runs out of his motel room crying in his underwear. When we find Arthur by the pool, he screams to Larry that â€œItâ€™s all shit.â€ This decline into nihilism is abrupt, as Arthurâ€™s quiet demeanor is suddenly transformed into one who has no happiness or control. In one insightful moment, Larry tells Arthur, â€œSometimes you have to help yourself.â€ The implication is that Hashem is either absent or not interested in helping us. We are alone and some of us are just plain cursed.
Ok, so we can understand how Arthurâ€™s actions led to his arrest, but what about Larry? Why do unfortunate events continue to fall upon someone like Larry Gopnik? After all, even he realizes that he is â€œnot an evil man.â€ Yet, almost immediately after making this very claim at his office desk, he tells his colleague, â€œI havenâ€™t done anything.â€ We expect, from his previous rationality, that he means that he has done nothing wrong. But it becomes clear that Larry is learning about the universe he teaches through equations when he states, â€œI havenâ€™t published.â€ Larry is not wondering why bad things are happening to someone who is not evil and has done nothing wrong; rather, he is wondering how he could get tenure when he has done nothing productive within his own field. His world view is now shifting to one of modernity. Larryâ€™s life is not only falling apart, but he is now likely to fade into the background just as easily as his reflection in the front door window when he comes face-to-face with Sy earlier in the film. What was once clear about Larryâ€™s life is now uncertain and problematic.
In a dream Larry has about teaching Heisenbergâ€™s uncertainty principle Sy, his wifeâ€™s new lover, appears in his audience and says he alone knows whatâ€™s going on (presumably because he is â€œa serious manâ€) and that math is only the â€œart of the possible.â€ Sy then comes down to the floor level of the classroom and repeatedly bangs Larryâ€™s head against the massive chalkboard saying, â€œI fucked your wife. See Marshak.â€ Everything inside Larry is pushing him to seek out more answers from those who are assumed to contain them. Sy doesnâ€™t have all the answers â€“ heâ€™s dead as a result of an unfortunate auto accident; but, Larryâ€™s unconscious mind suggests to him that Sy must know something he doesnâ€™t.
In the third section of the movie, entitled â€œMarshakâ€ the audience finally comes face-to-face with the moment we have been waiting for â€“ after his bar mitzfah Danny is sent to see Rabbi Marshak. Based on the failure of the previous two rabbis, and the hype built around the elusive Marshak, we expect an answer from this â€œwiseâ€ rabbi. Yet it is not Larry who visits Marshak, but his son. Larry is turned down when he explains his situation to the secretary and the necessity of him seeing Marshak immediately. She tells him that the rabbi is â€œbusy. Heâ€™s thinking.â€ Upon seeing him, my husband turned to me and stated, â€œHe looks like a rabbi.â€ Iâ€™m assuming he meant that he had the appearance of someone whose age has brought wisdom, perspective and perhaps even enlightenment. He, alone, may very well be the only â€œserious and rational manâ€ in this movie; however, what we get is a very un-serious and irrational moment. We begin to wonder if this man who has gained so much respect is even a â€œgoodâ€ man. After quoting the beginning lines of Jefferson Airplaneâ€™s â€œSomebody to Loveâ€ he asks Danny, â€œThen what?â€ What do we do when everything falls apart? Not even Marshak seems to know. The only advice he can give to young Danny is to â€œBe a good boy.â€ But, if we are to reflect on the tenets of modernism again, will this even matter? Even if Danny is a â€œgoodâ€ boy, it seems we have learned to finally accept that this is not a deciding factor in predicting happiness â€“ but has Larry learned this?
Following the clue that Larry has been granted tenure, we see the destruction of Larryâ€™s life reach fatal proportions. Almost immediately after Larry changes his failing student Cliveâ€™s grade from an â€œFâ€ to a â€œC-â€œ he gets a call from Dr. Shapiroâ€™s office to review his recent x-ray results â€œnow.â€ After receiving this ominous news, the last shot of the movie shows Larryâ€™s son, Danny, looking head-on into the path of an oncoming tornado. All will be thrown into disorder once again and the cycle of chaos will be repeated. Yet the fact remains, Larry never â€œdidâ€ anything wrong. The equation does not make sense. Yet just like the couple in the beginning, his family is now cursed. And as for the answers â€“ well, it seems those continue to elude us as well.
So what are we left with? Hopefully, we have â€œsomebody to loveâ€ nearby since our world is revealed to be a hostile and indiscriminate place. We must all realize that â€œbad thingsâ€ could happen to any one of us. Science and faith offer us nothing, so we must now invent a new way to search for the answers to the universe.
Clarissa Olivarez is a writer and photographer. She teaches literature at American University and Northern Virginia Community College. She is currently living in Washington, D.C. Her photography has appeared in Inscape and Juked.
But We Havenâ€™t Done Anything: The Modern Dilemma in A Serious Man