In the song “Placebo Headwound,” from the Flaming Lips 1995 album Clouds Taste Metallic, Wayne Coyne sings, “If God hears all my questions / how come there’s never an answer?” This question seemed so subversive that I felt compelled to hide the record from my parents. Yet perhaps my fears were unwarranted, because by the time they were teenagers in the early ‘60s, the modernist grip on culture had all but disintegrated; theirs was already a culture of postmodern skepticism. And so it is both a disconcerting question and a question that is iconic of our current culture. It is even a question that dates back to one of the oldest sacred texts, The Book of Job. And directors Joel and Ethan Coen have taken it on themselves to connect these cultural-historical dots in their new film, an understated pastiche called A Serious Man.
Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a physics professor who lives in suburban Minneapolis in 1967. Larry is a good Jew. We meet him just as his life seems to be falling apart. His children are a couple of kvetches who complain about such mundane problems as the poor reception during F-Troop. His daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing from him, and his son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is a pothead who listens to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” rather than pay attention at Hebrew school. While Larry considers himself a mensch, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) thinks of him more like a schlemiel, and that is why she is leaving him for Sy Ableman (a pitch-perfect Fred Melamed), a vexatious family-friend who unlike Larry is a “serious man.” The tenure committee at the college Larry teaches at is receiving anonymous letters disparaging his abilities. He is being bribed by a failing student and his father with an envelope full of cash. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) splits his time between sleeping on Larry’s couch, devising illegal gambling methods, and draining a sebaceous cyst in the bathroom. And on top of it all, Larry is being harassed daily by the Columbia Record Club. What little solace Larry has, he finds on his roof fixing the television reception. There he can see his neighbor, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), sunbathing nude. But as much as he fiddles on the roof with the antenna, the signals are still a bit fuzzy.
As Larry faces being left with bupkis, he begins to ask questions of God. Whereas Job talks to three friends, Larry attempts to talk with three rabbis. One rabbi tells him to change his perspective while another, Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), answers his query with a story of a dentist who finds a message from Hashem (the Name) engraved in a goy’s teeth. The message? “Save me.” The story ends without the dentist having figured out what Hashem means by the engravings and spending the rest of his career checking teeth for similar messages. “But what happened to the goy?” Larry asks. “The goy?” replies the Rabbi, “Who cares?” Larry takes it all in with a quiet, suppressed twitch of the eye.
Job is described in the Bible as an upstanding man with a case of bad cosmic fortune, but Larry is actually a schmuck. He spends his days teaching Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle yet grapples with understanding the random things happening to him. He takes verbal abuse from his wife, moves out of the house when she wants Sy Ableman to move in, and he lets his children push him around. And yet he defends Hashem to his brother while they are in exile to the Jolly Roger, a local motel. On the other hand, Job, when faced with problems with his mariage, health, finances, and idiotic friends, blames God. And he calls him out. In Job 9:21, Job says, “I loathe my life. It is all one; therefore I say, [God] destroys both the blameless and the wicked.” Although Job never goes so far as to curse God, or to quit talking to Him, or to deny his existence, he spends the bulk of his story questioning God’s presence and motives. What God has done to him makes him sick. Why shouldn’t it? God allows bad things to happen to good people. Good people get sick, go broke, and die. And the relationships that glue together our fragile realities fall apart.
Breaking up is, in fact, hard to do. Being in a successful relationship is a feeling that makes our lives copacetic, like a rug that really ties the room together. Being in love can be intoxicating, like the oxygen that a passengers on a falling plane suck down.
I, myself, am a recovering addict. When my girlfriend and I were together it was downright euphoric, a constant high. Even when we were arguing, which was often. When we were staring at each other, chemicals in our bodies went crazy. When it wasn’t crazy, it was like a warm wave of peace blanketed us. And I felt this way for nearly five years.
This is the problem with those chemicals. When the chemicals are being released in both people, it’s magic. When we experience those magic chemicals, we believe the euphoria is meant to happen forever. So we get married, have kids, buy a house in the suburbs, and do what culture has dictated we must do to maintain peaceful, cohesive lives. It becomes fate. Fate becomes God. The relationship becomes something that God must have made to last.
Our lives are full of these kinds of reality distortions that we piece together in order to make sense out of chaos. We distort reality in order to feel secure and to escape anxiety. We generalize people of a certain race or sexual orientation because we feel anxious to consider the randomness of their diversity within their orientation. We treat our partners like our parents because those are the earliest symbiotic relations we know and it makes us feel secure to pattern our current relationships like the past. Psychoanalysts call these reactions “parataxic reactions,” “transference,” or “patterning.” We hate a fragmented reality because we want comfort, and a cohesive reality provides us with a false sense of this comfort. This is why being in love, a mutual intoxication, makes us feel that everything good was predestined, that an all-loving God guided us into the arms of someone perfect and that the future is laid out ahead for us. In A Serious Man, Larry Gopnik has done everything that he is supposed to do to create a cohesive reality and a future that is predictable, but his equation isn’t adding up. And those visions of Sy Ableman make it all seem so cruel.
Breaking up, like the death of a loved one, is a rift in our cohesive reality. The other day, a friend of mine ran into my ex-girlfriend and told me about it. I mentioned to him that she had been asking a lot of my friends about me lately. His reply was “Sorry to be blunt, but she is totally over you.” I acted cool, but my heart sunk and I couldn’t figure out why. We had been apart over a year. I had seemingly moved on too. Why did I care?
Part of me was sad because it hurt my ego. I had hoped that she would be less over me than I was over her. More importantly, we had broken up before, and each time, she had been fixated on me, unable to live without me, which always led to a reunion. I reacted with anxiety toward a reality that wasn’t working in the way it had before. Hearing that an ex who had shared that chemical intoxication with me for so long had no desire to get high with me again was a brand new feeling, even at the age of twenty-seven when I thought I had felt everything there was to feel. Cue the questioning of God.
Which would we rather accept, a reality that is fragmented and random with a God who either doesn’t intervene or doesn’t exist, or a reality in which a draconian God ordains or even predestines our chemical highs to come down, our hearts to be broken, and chaos to rip our worlds apart? This is the aporia of Larry Gopnik, but the Coens know the score—the answer is in the middle. A maniacal God is out there, and he just so happens to be as diverse as the many fragments of our experience.
So if God hears all our questions, how come there’s never an answer? Perhaps he does answer them, just not that clearly. Or more accurately, we don’t know how to interpret his answers because we’re trying too hard. What if the message “save me” in the goy’s teeth meant just what it said, for the dentist to help people? It couldn’t hurt, says Rabbi Nachtner. A Serious Man opens with a quote by the eleventh-century rabbi Rashi, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” This is God’s message to Larry. When the father of the student who is blackmailing Larry threatens to sue him for defamation, even after admitting that there is, in fact, an envelope of cash, Larry questions how that is even possible. How can you sue someone for defamation if you admit that the accusations are true? The father answers, “Accept the mystery.”
The mystery is that the truth is knowable and unknowable at the same time. While Larry teaches his class that uncertainty is the rule, he also remembers to inform them that while they can’t be certain of anything, they will need to be certain of this principle for the exam. His brother, unlike Heisenberg, has developed a “Mentaculus,” a gambling equation that can predict the future. The truth, or God, is present and absent at the same time. For Job, the same whirlwind that kills his offspring later brings Hashem to speak to Job, bringing comfort and blessing. As Job says in 9:21, “It is all one.”
In a way, the Coens have provided us with a perfect postmodern fable for a mystic negative theology. The moral is that you cannot understand God without first understanding what God is not. You cannot comprehend God’s presence without first encountering God’s absence. Joy may or may not come in the morning for Larry Gopnik, but not without first being frozen in his own Golgothaic moment, forsaken by God.
So what are we to do with this tension? This is the same question that Grace Slick asks in the Jefferson Airplane song that reoccurs throughout the film. Larry seems to follow her advice as he looks for “somebody to love” in his neighbor Mrs. Samsky. However, Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) receives these questions with simplicity and gives Danny Gopnik a different take as he quotes the song. He tells him “When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies…Be a good boy.”
This morning I received an email from my ex-girlfriend, the first communication in over a year. She wanted me to know that our dog is dying and that she hoped I was doing well. In her absence, I can now finally receive her messages with simplicity instead of trying too hard to figure out what she means. It isn’t that she’s fixated on me or that she’s over me. She is just a kind person. In our silence, I am able to know her in a way that may have been impossible before.
At first glance, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man employs the same shtick as their last two films, Burn After Reading and No Country For Old Men—it is a statement about how messed up our world is. However, A Serious Man speaks mainly in the imperative, much like a Jewish fable. Receive with simplicity. Save me. Find somebody to love. Accept the mystery. Be a good boy. While divine intervention, or the lack thereof, have been central themes in the Coens’ films from Barton Fink to O Brother Where Art Thou? it seems that the Coens have now decided to stop wondering if God cares and to accept with simplicity the Tennysonian moral that their duty is not to reason why, their duty is to do and die. To the rest of us, their lesson is a great mitzvah.