Spoilers. And, more broadly, the assumption you’ve seen it.
In ‘Kafka and his Precursors’, Borges lists texts and writers which, as the title suggests, he sees as foreshadowing Kafka. It is strange that he omits Dickens, whom Kafka admired, and whose Circumlocution Office – in Little Dorrit – is surely a direct influence. The Coen Brothers could do justice to the Circumlocution Office, as indeed they could do justice to the absurd bureaucracy which tyrannizes Joseph K in The Trial, the bizarre events and grotesque characters encountered by young Karl Roßmann in Amerika, and the rural Zeno’s Paradox experienced by K. in The Castle (Zeno’s Paradox is one of the precursors Borges adumbrates). Indeed, in A Serious Man (2009), the Coens seem to take some affectual and stylistic cues from Kafka.
Borges also remarks:
If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word “precursor” is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.
In the same way, the existence of many texts, including but far from limited to A Serious Man, has created Kafka as one of their precursors.
Most especially, perhaps, there is the scene between the protagonist of the movie, Larry Gopnik, and the father of one of his college students. Larry has failed Clive Park because he thought all he had to do to pass Larry’s Physics paper was recite the story about the cat. (You know the cat I mean.) Larry pointed out that he needed to understand the math too. He needed to understand the meaning of the story, rather than just the story. Because the story is an illustration of a paradox Schrodinger is identifying in quantum physics. The top layer of the story – about the box and the potential feline tragedy – is not the point, at least not in a test. It is the ability to grasp the maths that is being evaluated, not the ability to remember the illustrative metaphor. Clive’s father visits Larry after Larry rejects a bribe that Clive offered him and then steadfastly refused having offered. Clive’s father denies that a bribe was offered and threatens to sue Larry for defamation. He then claims Larry accepted the bribe and threatens to expose him. Larry points out that this means he is acknowledging that a bribe was offered, which Clive’s father denies and again calls defamation. This is exactly the sort of blank, hilarious, shameless, circular absurdity – which is simultaneously a spoof of alienated law and authority, an example of how all symbolistic systems can turn in on themselves, and also a kink in human rationality itself – to which Kafka was fond of subjecting his characters. Kafka rarely refers directly to Judaism, but there can hardly be any doubt that his view of the world grows from the peculiar experience of being an assimilated Jew in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the late 19th/early 20th century.
Of course, A Serious Man, is a deeply Jewish tale. For a start, it concerns itself almost exclusively with members of the Jewish community in Minnesota in the late 1960s… making it a very personal story for the Coens, a story they make luminous with what my friend Simon Kinnear, in his review of the film, called the “atmosphere of a semi-faded Kodak moment”. The story is very much about a Jewish-American parallel universe (not unlike one of the parallel universes Larry might teach about in his classes) in the midst of the rest of America, and of a 99% assimilated people… not unlike the 99% assimilated, legally secure, but needfully watchful Jewish people of fin de siecle Czechoslovakia. Secure in his right to be a Jew in America, Larry nonetheless worries about his gun-toting, crew-cutted, ultra-goy neighbour, who seems to be stealthily appropriating bits of his lawn… in search of lebensraum perhaps? (Hilariously, the evidently anti-semitic man comes to Larry’s defence when he thinks Larry is being bothered by a Korean!) Meanwhile, Larry’s wife wants to avail herself of “the new freedoms” (for her, it’s implied to be about getting a sexual partner she prefers) while also sticking to traditional Jewish morality (for reasons of rectitude, she wants a ‘get’ – a Jewish ritual divorce – as well as a legal divorce). Larry’s kids say “Jesus Christ!” when they’re angry (as does the rabbi trying to hold up the heavy Torah during the Bar Mitzvah), and listen to Jefferson Airplane during Hebrew lessons. And so on.
But there’s more than that. Like the work of Kafka, A Serious Man stands firmly in the long tradition of Jewish storytelling. The venerable Jewish storytelling tradition is an artifact of a dispersed people trying to keep a feeling of unity, communicate their history and rituals generation to generation, elucidate ethical points, and elevate the moral rules – and the morally elevated persons – of the Jewish faith. Jesus’ Parables are, ironically, a manifestation of this form of didactic moral storytelling. (As with Schrodinger’s Cat, you have to grasp the underlying meaning of the story. The metaphor exists to elucidate a supposedly universal truth.) The tradition was resurrected and revalorised by Rabbi Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, in 18th century Poland. In the stories of the Talmud and the Midrash – which are exegeses of Torah texts… the Torah being the Pentateuch, the five books which also open the Christian ‘Old Testament’ – God is deeply present in the world, which is also a world of injustice and caprice, but of ultimate meaning and reconciliation. Kafka was deeply interested in Hasidism. But he was also influenced by Yiddish Theatre, another very old form of Jewish storytelling which could, in semi-contrast to the more pious tradition, be scurrilous, satirical, topical, absurd, zany… You can see its influence in the Marx Brothers, let alone Kafka. From Hasidism, Kafka takes a universe which is often capricious and hard, ruled by an unseen power which nevertheless interferes – sometimes incomprehensibly – in human affairs. From the Yiddish Theatre he takes a certain materialism (in the philosophical sense), an unruliness and ruefulness, a fairytale aspect. Both share a rugged – even sublime – awareness of the painful cruelty and capriciousness of life, which Kafka – more distinctly than many writers, but far from uniquely – synthesizes with modernism into a scary, melancholy, funny absurdism.
Another text which found its way into the Old Testament is the Book of Job, which both Kafka and A Serious Man have made into one of their ‘precursors’. In ‘Job’, God allows a good man to be horribly persecuted by life as a test, for no reason apparent to the man, and truculently refuses him any explanation. The man must simply endure. (Larry would not be the first to ruefully see in this a picture of the Jewish God’s entire relationship with his chosen people.) In the story, God’s motive is to prove to ‘Satan’ (which simply means ‘accuser’) that Job’s love of God is not motivated by self-interest. (Don’t get me started.) The film even ends with the appearance of a storm, mirroring God’s appearance in a storm in ‘Job’.
Throughout the film, Larry is systematically stripped of almost everything he holds dear, for no apparent reason. Despite his science, he is also a man of faith, and he finds it inexplicable that he is being punished for doing nothing. He asks various rabbis what Hashem (i.e. God… the literal meaning is ‘the name’) is up to, and repeatedly exclaims “I didn’t do anything!”, perhaps revealing submerged feelings of guilt about his intense passivity. It is perhaps this same passivity which has created a near-complete disregard for him in his children and wife. I said above, he is stripped of much that he holds dear… and yet there is a sense, a distinctly modern sense missing from ‘Job’ but not from Kafka, that perhaps what he thought he held dear wasn’t really so dear to him, or that it wasn’t worth holding dear in the first place. Kafka doesn’t do characterization in quite the same way as… well, anybody really… but even so, that’s not an unKafkan manoeuvre.
Also Kafkan (and Biblical) is the film’s concentration on the attempt to understand why something is happening to you, to grasp the rules, the law, despite the law’s apparently determination to evade clear explication or comprehensibility.
At work, Larry deals in impossibly long chains of mathematical calculations, formed through harnessed symbolism, from letters and numbers that have been turned into an arcane representation of the basis of reality, following the hermetic logic of quantum theory. He is thus another of the men in this story who claim to be the guardians of the wisdom which explains how the world works.
He’s like the rabbis he visits, the gatekeepers of the sacred texts and the rituals which must be taught and learned and recited. He’s like the teacher in Danny’s school who forces his bored pupils to learn the Hebrew all over the blackboard. He’s like the lawyers he visits, who work within rooms lined with books of case law and precedent, and who deal with the arcana of the law that is beyond the rest of us, and who expire over bundles of minutiae that have the power to change people’s lives.
Larry might be expert in his own books, which tell of the laws of particles and forces and numbers, but he’s ignorant of the other books of law. The books of law that dictate his future after the divorce, or which say how much lawn (land, home) is his, and how much is his neighbour’s. Or the books of law that supposedly grant so much wisdom to the rabbis. He’s even ignorant of the tricksy intricacies of ‘his’ contract with the Columbia record company, whereby his inaction is taken as consent to being sent more records.
Larry is hardly the only person up to this in the film. The second rabbi Larry asks for help tells him a tall tale about Sussman, a dentist who encounters a goy patient with a message from Hashem written in Hebrew letters on the inside of his teeth. “Help me; Save me.” Sussman consults the Kabbalah, works out the numerical value of the letters, and tries phoning it… only to reach a general store. He goes there and finds nothing significant. In the end, in the absence of any more developments of clues, he accepts the whole earthshatteringly significant event as ‘just one of those things’ and settles back into life. It becomes a parable about the meaninglessness of parables. Even the rabbi seems to find the story insignificant. It seems he tells everyone. His anecdote is, effectively, his rueful shrug of ‘whaddayagonnado?’ When Larry asks him all the obvious questions, he tells Larry that Hashem doesn’t explain himself. He doesn’t even explain why he doesn’t explain himself. He doesn’t even explain why he makes people ask the questions he refuses to answer. It’s for us to explain ourselves to him.
This is actually fascinating in relation to the Zohar (’radiance’ or ‘splendour’), which is the book of the Kabbalah (’the receiving’), the sacred numerology of Hebrew, which is inferred from the way God speaks the world into existence. The Zohar is actually a novel (sort-of), the story and meaning of which require decryption, thus collapsing the distinction between the hermeneutics of sacred texts and literary criticism. Anyway, apparently the Zohar implies that Adam expelled God from the garden rather than the other way round, and that our seperation from God is self-imposed, and that the purpose of life is to reconnect with God. Human actions thus effect God, his power and influence, and his disposition. Human evil empowers cosmic evil. As above, so below. In light of this, couldn’t we say that Sussman’s attempts to ‘receive’ God through numbers were abandoned too soon? Similarly, Larry clambers atop his bungalow to adjust his TV aerial and becomes dazzled by the splendour and radiance of the sun. His attempt to ‘receive’ more clearly is defeated when, distracted by the woman next door sunbathing naked, he becomes overwhelmed and falls off the roof. It also puts his repeated protestation “I didn’t do anything!” in a new light. Not doing anything doesn’t help nurture the cosmic good. Not doing anything… well, does nothing. It doesn’t invite punishment, but it doesn’t protect from punishment either. It does nothing to change the cosmic climate of forces. It doesn’t earn any justice. Justice, in this version of Jewish mysticism, is something we earn by our actions. Inactions don’t cut it.
Then there’s his brother Arthur’s ‘Mentaculus’, seemingly some great intellectual project upon which he is working. When Larry looks in Arthur’s notebook, he finds something that looks like deranged ravings… and yet the surreal beauty of the crazed doodles is undeniable… as is their formal resemblance to high-level physics, or the Kabbalah. The Mentaculus is supposed to be a “probability map of the universe”. To the uninitiated, Larry’s blackboard calculations, and the pages of the Torah, probably look as random and meaningless as the Mentaculus… and they also claim to represent the underlying truths of the universe, encoded in systems of symbols. Then the Mentaculus has the brazen impudence to actually work. Arthur uses it to win a lot of money gambling.
Meanwhile, Larry is teaching his students about the uncertainty principle.
This story is about trying desperately to grasp the underlying logic of the incomprehensible symbols and equations of life, and perhaps finding that there is no underlying logic – just unfair randomness and perverse pseudo-connections, such as when Larry’s fender-bender obscurely seems to ‘cause’ the motor accident death of his wife’s lover miles away. The first rabbi Larry went to see tried (rather desperately) to find proof of the existence of Hashem from looking at his parking lot. The Coens even cheekily invite the audience to get up to the same thing, when they suggest an underlying logic for the film that is so corny it has to be a prank at our expense: the curse of the dybbuk, or a curse from God for killing a holy man, passed on to the third or fourth generation.
What A Serious Man adds to the Kafkan attempt to wrestle with events and find meaning in their randomness by nailing-down and comprehending the rules of the game (and always failing) is, as suggested above, a concentration on hermeneutics (i.e. the interpretation of texts… or rather, the philosophy of the interpretation of texts).
In his piece about Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games, a book clearly influenced by Borges, Phil notes how Banks doesn’t need to actually invent or describe the actual mechanics of the game of Azad, complete with a full delineation of the rules. Instead, he finds a way of writing about the game, and about gameplay, that fully suggests that the game has a full existence, complete with a long and detailed rulebook, and a history of players and their games, not to mention layers of moods and modes and styles.
This is a good metaphor for how all fiction works. The author finds ways, through their descriptions, to make the reader accept the existence of things that they have never in fact described. The author makes the reader ready to accept the implied backstory. The author makes the reader accept the authority of someone, somewhere – whether author, or implied author, or perfect author, or author function, or expert, or scholar, or scientist, or king, or magistrate, or god – knows what they’re talking about. Robert Holmes uses throwaway phrases to make us believe that someone somewhere understands where ‘Zigma energy’ and ‘Artron energy’ fit together in a coherent cosmology, just as Asimov does with Psychohistory, and Lovecraft does with the various entities existing in deep time, and Kafka does with even his most absurd worlds, and all authors do with all the inventions or suppositions they rely upon tacitly. The author’s task is to convince the person by the window in the evening, dreaming to themselves, that there is a message on the way from the Emperor, and that this message makes sense, and that it is comprehensible in terms of the rest of the unseen empire outside the window. The reader actually also becomes the messenger in the same story, carrying the message for the Emperor, carrying it to him or herself. And the author/Emperor must rely upon the messenger’s conviction that the imperial capital exists outside the outermost walls of the court, walls that they will never reach and breach, and that there is thus somewhere for them to take the message. Or rather, this is the game that fictions invite us to play, which is why they are not fatally undermined by their reliance upon acceptance of authority, even as they do rely upon it. This is why Kafka ends ‘An Imperial Message’ with the invocation of dreams. The authority of the Emperor, and thus of the message, and of the claim that there is such an imperial palace, and court after court after court, and a messenger trying to traverse them, is accepted as is the logic of the dream.
This sort of textual trust game (we either allow ourselves to fall, or accept that we’re going to fall whether we like it or not, and trust to certain texts to catch us) goes on with texts which, unlike the fictional volumes concerning the fictional planet Tlön, or the rulebooks of Azad, actually exist. And the bigger, longer, more abstruse and complex these texts are, the more unread and unreadable they are, the better, the fitter for purpose. Maybe we’ve ploughed our way through some of the books, but there are always more and only a limited amount of time. Larry has thoroughly familiarised himself with the intricacies of quantum physics, but looks elsewhere for answers when it all starts coming down.
Of course he does, because the answer is always somewhere else. Always in some other code, some other book. The Law is always being guarded behind some other door.