A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers and Incommensurability of the Religious with the Absurd

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  The Coen Brothers choose to open this movie, which is downbeat even by their standards, with words written by Elie Wiesel.  A friend once suggested that this was the moral thread running through the Coen Brothers’ long catalogue of Absurdist fables, and A Serious Man seems as idiomatic of their work as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men–even if it isn’t a caper.

The scene that immediately follows the opening words is like something out of a horror movie: A Jewish peasant living somewhere in the Russian Empire in the 1800s walks home in wintertime, marveling at…something.  Either the beauty of the night, or a random encounter on the road with a helpful old man his wife knows, has the man in a reflective trance.  The man returns home–long-after he was expected, and breathlessly gives his wife the news: Traitle Groshkover, an accomplished scholar of Jewish ethics, helped him out when his cart broke down in the snow.  His wife is in shock.  She tells her husband Traitle Groshkover has been dead 3 years, that a friend of hers has long-since sat shiva for him, concluding the mourning period.  What helped her husband on the road, she insists, was a dybbuk, a demon of possession.

Then, there’s a knock on the door.

Who have you invited over?

Having promptly laughed-off his wife’s insistence that Groshkover was 3 years dead, he now haltingly informs his wife that he invited the old man over for dinner as repayment for his mitzvah.  Then they both stare dully at the door.  Everything looks a little different when you must subject what you believe to an empirical test–and what a test!  As he haltingly opens the door, he sees a man; she sees a dybbuk.

The rest of the scene, whatever you may believe, is horrifying.  At this point my roommate (Oh, right: I saw A Serious Man for the 1st time with my roommate.) suggested that, much as I’d said that the opening scene of Black Swan contained within it the essence of the story that was to unfold, so this opening scene, disjointed as it is from the rest of the film in time and space, must serve the same purpose in this film.  In any case, it does pose exactly the same challenge.  A rational man and his superstitious wife confront a situation that is terrifying for both, and in neither case does it strike at the heart of what they believe.

Each development of this scene makes judgment of what you're looking at more-difficult, and more urgent.

As is typical of the Coen Brothers’ work, A Serious Man isn’t a film for the faint-of-heart: We see a sequence of events that seem to have little narrative order to them aside from their accomplishment of the psychological demolition of an imperfect but undeserving human being.  Larry Gopnik is a physics professor, but he is also a devout Jew: His son David is enrolled in Hebrew school and will read from the Torah at his Bar-Mitzvah.  When the World weighs on him too heavily, he seeks-out 3 rabbis in succession to see what they can tell him about God’s mysterious purposes.  Their interpretations take him (or don’t take him) through progressively-complex levels of anxiety about the rationality and basic beneficence of the World; none of this can prevent the moment at which he tires of bearing the burden of his integrity.  He has been looking for a satisfactory explanation from learned men, some whom he knows personally, who can explain why God would cause a succession of bleak, alienating and just plain creepy things to happen around him: His wife wants to leave him, his children are selfish, his tenure review case at the university looks shaky, he and an acquaintance meet with great misfortune at the very same moment.  His next-door neighbor disregards the zoning code–and he is afraid to press the matter because his neighbor is well-armed and uncomplicated.

Professor Gopnik calmly explains to Mr. Park that he doesn't interpret his son's failed attempt to bribe him for a better grade as a "culture clash."

If this account of a man who meets with a long succession of unfortunate events sounds familiar, you are right: The Coen Brothers have adapted the Book of Job, and for the purpose they’ve set out for themselves, they have done so brilliantly.  In the Book of Job, God permits Satan to subject “my servant Job” to a cruel test of the limits of his faith, in successive events killing most of his immediate family and destroying most of his property, leaving him poor.  Through this Job is able to maintain his reverence for God.  Finally, God permits Satan to make Job himself sick, and at this point, in the presence of 3 supportive friends, he curses God and declares the World an absurd place rather than the stage for moral drama, suggesting he has been betrayed by God for the lack of a simple explanation for any of this.  In response to all this, Job’s 3 friends offer progressive responses designed to assuage his anger at God and lead him to accept his fate.  Bildad reasons that Job’s children must have sinned for God to allow Satan to kill them, for God is just; Job must repent his own sins, and his life will be made right.  Zophar insists that Job must have sinned himself to have suffered so, and that even if Job were absolutely upright he still couldn’t hope to understand the beneficence of God’s design of the Universe.  Eliphaz scolds Job for thinking his own perspective wide-enough and his own wisdom exhaustive-enough that he can demand of God an explanation for his suffering; he also rather eloquently tells him that he can hear only sin talking in Job’s bitter recriminations, warning him that “All his days the wicked man suffers torment…” (Job 15:20)  (His wife’s suggestion, tellingly, is simply “Curse God and die!”)  His friends’ dogged combination of commiseration, reassurance, rebuke and confrontation fails to shake Job from his anger at God’s silence–until God appears before Job in the form of a tornado.  God is angry, and explains nothing more about himself than that his vastness, of which the vastness of his creations is but an expression, means simply that God will provide or not provide for his servants at his pleasure.  The only rational course is to abide.

This is the story the Coen Brothers wanted to remake in their own way.

"The Uncertainty Principle: It proves we can't ever really know what's going on." (bell rings) "...But even though you can't figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm!"

I’ll not discuss Gopnik’s encounters with the Rabbis, which for his purposes are even more-obtuse.  When confronted with those moments of life that seem to undermine us, the proof is in the fable: If you are looking for a positive explanation wherein all of your misfortune has a genesis that is either rational or providential, you will get lost.  The tragedy surrounding Gopnik is very Greek, because his own words suggest he should understand this already.  Consider the exchange he holds with a Korean student he suspects of offering him a bribe for a raised grade:

GOPNIK: (holding an envelope in his hand) “This is not nothing.  This is something.”

CLIVE: “It is something.” (a blank stare)  “…What is it?”

GOPNIK: “You know what it is, I believe.  And you know I can’t keep it, Clive.”

CLIVE: “Yessir.”

GOPNIK: “I’ll have to pass it on to Professor Finkel, along with my suspicions about where it came from.  Actions have consequences.”

CLIVE: “Yessir, often.”

GOPNIK: “No, always!  Actions always have consequences!  In this office, actions have consequences.”

CLIVE: “Yessir.”

GOPNIK: “Not just physics–morally.”

CLIVE: “Yes.”

GOPNIK: “And we both know about your actions.”

CLIVE: “No, sir, I know about my actions.”

GOPNIK: “I can interpret, Clive.  I know what you meant me to understand!”

…And so it goes.  A few things are worth pointing out here.  1st, the test the student, Clive, has failed wasn’t just on any physics but included a mathematical proof of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  The Uncertainty Principle addresses a narrow but very-important range of subatomic phenomena where underlying processes can never be known for certain because the very act of observing such a small object irrevocably acts upon it, violently interrupting its old stasis.  2nd, in their previous meeting the student insisted–as the Liberal Ironist no-doubt would have in his situation (though without subsequent resort to bribery) that he understands the principle well-enough to understand the metaphors and stories told to demonstrate it, and thus he doesn’t need to have all that math down.  Professor Gopnik, our protagonist, insisted that the story is just like a “fable” that exists for illustrative purposes only, that the mathematical proof is the description of how it all really works.  Physics is the math behind it, Gopnik says.  3rd, as I’ve said already, Professor Gopnik is a devout Jew.  He has now said “In this office, actions have consequences” and “I can interpret…I know what you meant me to understand!”  If you are a believer, this may be the most-important exchange in the film.

"In this office, actions have consequences...Not just physics--morally."

What I gather from my roommate’s suggestion to interpret A Serious Man in light of its Janus-faced but invariably disturbing opening scene is that the Coen Brothers invite the viewer to interpret Gopnik’s misfortunes in either religious terms (as God’s way of testing one man’s faith) or in atheistic terms, as an Absurdist statement asking if we can live meaningful lives in a World that is dead to our ideals.  For the Coen Brothers to have made a film that could be seen through the prism of a believer or an atheist isn’t wishy-washy; rather, their admonition to “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you” is their 1 uncompromising demand.  In this sense the Coen Brothers’ morality is as severe as any the Liberal Ironist has encountered; this tension as to why its merits are reflected in Larry Gopnik’s story can only be resolved by the viewer.  It’s interesting to reflect on this in particular: As humiliating as the patronizing conversations are, as unutterably painful as the estrangement from his children must be, as psychologically demolishing as the surplus pressures of the pushy people in his life can be, there is meaning in Larry Gopnik’s story.  He can’t see it while it unfolds, but the viewer can just see a warning coming into view: A picture of your life will emerge on its own if you focus on what is within your control rather than on what you believe is at stake.  The atheist’s perspective on the picture highlights a message that anyone should consider: The only thing Larry Gopnik can truly control–and the only power that is his to relinquish–is that he is an honest man.  Does that make him sound too pathetic?  Not at all; actually he has something precious at stake in this drama.  The only thing we have to surrender is our integrity.

The Coens can deliver that message as many times as they want.

I am what I am.

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