The Jews’ Oscar Nominee
Looking back at ‘A Serious Man’
As Oscar week continues, let’s take a look at maybe the most profoundly Jewish mainstream American movie in quite some time: the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. It tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a middle-aged Jewish physics professor in late-1960s Minnesota who watches, powerless and blameless, as just about everything that could go wrong with his life does. In doing so, it embodies the indelibly Jewish cosmic shrug, ironic and steadfast, better than any film I know.
To begin with, I strongly urge you to read Liel Leibovitz’s careful consideration.
For Juliet Lapidos, giving the film a welcome second look in Slate, Gopnik’s defining quality is his essential meekness:
A physics professor, Gopnik knows that ‘actions have consequences,’ as he puts it to Clive, the student who’s trying to bribe him. He adds, ‘Not just physics. Morally.’ It seems more difficult for Gopnik to grasp that inaction may have consequences, too. But, intellectually at least, he knows that’s the case. When his brother, Arthur, complains that ‘Hashem hasn’t given me shit,’ Gopnik replies, ‘It’s not fair to blame Hashem. Arthur, please. Please calm down. Sometimes you have to help yourself.’ It’s his truest line.
It’s tempting to say that Gopnik is a latter-day Job. But Lapidos knows better. Job is not meek: Job is angry. More importantly, Job’s uncertainty is quite different from Gopnik’s. Job wants to know why God allows such bad things to happen to a good man. Gopnik wants to know if there even is a God to allow such bad things to happen to him. If the novel is the epic of a world abandoned by God, then this is a movie for that age as well.
Which is why, for me, a key part of the movie is its invocation of Schrödinger’s cat, a widely misunderstood physics thought experiment, which Gopnik tries, in vain, to explain to a failing student. Allow me to attempt a better job.
Schrödinger’s cat is in an opaque box, along with a Geiger counter and hammer poised to fall upon a vial of cyanide. The Geiger counter contains atomic matter with a half-life of one hour. Should the matter decay, the counter releases the hammer, which smashes the vial of cyanide, which kills the cat. After one hour, therefore, it is exactly as likely that the cat is alive as it is dead. But because of the way physics works at the quantum level, where we are totally unsure what that matter will do, there is a sense in which, for us, outside of the box, the cat is both alive and dead. And that’s where most people’s understanding of the paradox ends: The cat is, almost mystically, in a state of simultaneous life and death.
But, of course, the cat isn’t both alive and dead. Use your common sense! It’s either alive, or it’s dead; and if we were to open the box at any given moment, we would see the cat either alive or dead. The point of Schrödinger’s cat is to illustrate that existence at the quantum level is fundamentally different from the existence we know. In the observable world—think Isaac Newton’s laws—all actions have somewhat predictable or at least quantifiable consequences, and cats are either alive or dead. But at the level of subatomic particles, those rules are actually thrown out the window. It’s a post-Newtonian existence.
… Yet it’s also a pre-Newtonian one, isn’t it? For God, if He (or She, or It, etc.) exists, is also capable of throwing all the observable rules out the window, and of producing consequences without actions. Larry Gopnik knows that things are different at the quantum level. And so the movie is about Gopnik trying to figure out if things are different at the cosmic level, too: whether all of his misfortunes—his wife leaving him; his kids ignoring him; his bosses forsaking him; his health failing him—possess cosmic meaning or are simply a random chain of events in the Newtonian world. This is why, as Lapidos notes, Gopnik’s heroic moments are those few instances where he acknowledges that he needs to help himself: not because God hates him, or won’t help him, or doesn’t exist, but because in the absence of that certainty, that is how we have to play the game.
For us, standing outside the box, God must appear in a state of both existing and not existing. But use your common sense! He either exists, or He doesn’t exist. We can never be sure, but that’s not the same thing as there not being an answer.
Which is all a very long way of saying: I strongly hope A Serious Man wins Best Picture. And I am very ready to be disappointed. Shrug.