Two serious men

By The Columbia Chronicle

by: Louise Love, vice president of Academic Affairs

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Hamlet tells his trusted friend, Horatio, that philosophy is not sufficient to explain the world around them. There are more things in heaven and earth than reason can comprehend. The unfortunate Hamlet has seen a ghost—seemingly the ghost of his father—and the grieving Hamlet must come to terms with this vision because the ghost has given him an order—an order to avenge his father’s murder. But before springing into action, Hamlet must consider the possibility that the vision may be a fiend posing as his murdered father’s ghost—an evil spirit tempting him to commit a mortal sin in the name of revenge.  Hamlet must figure out how, as a reasonable man—a serious man—he should deal with this command from beyond the grave.

Now consider the opening scene of the Coen Brothers’ film “A Serious Man.” It too is a ghost story that sets the stage for the human predicament in the rest of the film.  Back in the old country, a shtetl husband comes home from a snowy journey to market and tells his wife that he has had the good fortune to be helped on the road by an elderly man, Traitle Groshkover.  The shtetl wife is wide-eyed with fear and tells her husband that Reb Groshkover died three years earlier.  The wife is convinced that the apparition was not a man, but a dybbuk, an evil spirit. When Reb Groshkover shows up at their hovel, the superstitious wife stabs him with an ice pick. At first, the old man seems suspiciously unharmed . . .  but soon, blood begins to stain his shirt, and the old man staggers out of the house, complaining bitterly. The husband, who has described himself as a “reasonable man,” believes the law will be on them in the morning; his wife, on the other hand, believes there will never be a body.  And we, the audience, never find out which of them is right.

The film fast-forwards to the Midwestern United States in 1967 and the world of Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, a reasonable and ethical man who placidly tells one of his students, “In my office, all actions have consequences.”  And then, bit by bit, we see Gopnik’s well-ordered world unravel.  Like Hamlet, Gopnik discovers that hypocrisy, deceit  and betrayal are all around him and that, as Hamlet learned, “a man may smile and smile and be a villain.”

Gopnik, like Hamlet, craves firm conviction in a world of uncertainty and mystery.  Amidst signs, omens and strange coincidences, Gopnik tries to fathom the ways of HaShem and seeks counsel from the wise men of his community. To add to his perplexity, he finds that their wisdom is indistinguishable from foolishness, and the wisest of the wise men simply refuses to speak with him. Ultimately, the film depicts the human condition as one of helpless dismay in the face of moral chaos and futility in the quest for righteous action.

Hamlet ultimately resolves to carry out the revenge to which he was summoned, concluding that “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” His resolution, unfortunately, ends with a stage strewn with corpses, including his own.  Gopnik, too, has a moment of resolution, a moment in which he accepts a bribe that had been pressed on him by a failing student and changes the student’s grade from F to C. Instantly, there are signs that there will be mortal consequences for himself and others, and the movie ends.

These two serious men, Hamlet and Gopnik, are vexed in their desire to live righteously and inhabit a rational world of moral order. They discover the human condition is something quite different from what they once believed. They live in a world of hints and teasing contradictions, a world without clear moral authority; yet, a world in which they must make decisions and act—never truly understanding the context or consequences of their actions.

When Gopnik teaches Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to a lecture room full of students, a principle that suggests that uncertainty may be a fundamental aspect of the universe, he tells them, without any apparent irony, “We just cannot know but it will be on the quiz.”