Saturday, November 7, 2009

Schrödinger's Man

Early in the Coen brothers' astonishing new film, A Serious Man, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a small college in Minnesota, sits down with one of his students, a South Korean immigrant named Clive Park (David Kang). Gopnik has just finished a class in which he has tried, while furiously scribbling equations on a giant blackboard, to explain to his students the concept of Schrödinger's Cat. Now, he is meeting with Park because the student is upset that he got an F on the midterm, believes the grade was unfair, and insists that he understands the material. The only thing he doesn't get is the math.
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But, Gopnik asserts, the math is the entire point. Park may well understand the basic theories, but if he doesn't understand the math, he doesn't understand physics. The stories that Gopnik tells his class -- the things that Park says he understands -- are merely illustrations of the math, to make it easier to digest. The stories don't really matter. "I'm not even sure I get the cat," Gopnik says.
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Like everything else in Larry Gopnik's life, his meeting with Park will turn out badly. Gopnik will also find out that his shot at tenure is in doubt, that his wife is leaving him for Sy Abelman ("Sy Abelman!?") played by Fred Melamed, that his brilliant but troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is involved in things he probably shouldn't be, and, in short, everything in Larry's life is collapsing, quite suddenly. This relentless collapse makes up the vast majority of A Serious Man, that and Larry's tortured and blackly hilarious quest for meaning through what amount to essentially absurd conversations with a series of rabbis. But I believe that early scene with Gopnik and Park is the key to this whole film.
.After watching the amazing last five minutes of A Serious Man, it's easy to walk out and think of it, as so many people seem to have done, as a big, cruel joke, a mockery of faith and the idea of meaning in the universe. Certainly it plays like that on the surface, and certainly it even works that way -- the film's ending felt to me like a kick in the teeth. However, let's look at what Gopnik says to Park again. First, he says the math is what counts. In other words, the universal order that can be traced through mathematics, or the lack of chaos that math represents. Second, the stories that illustrate the math don't ultimately mean much -- we tell ourselves these stories as a way of deceiving ourselves that we understand, but the truth is that if we don't understand the math -- which, when you look upon Gopnik's blackboard, seems to be an impossible task -- we don't know squat. We don't know what we don't know.
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One of the rabbis (George Wyner) Larry consults about his growing existential and real-world crises tells Larry a story, which I won't get into here, that involves, among other things, the fact that in the Hebrew alphabet, each letter has a corresponding number. In the story, knowledge of this fact leads a man on a quest for meaning that appears to Larry to have been fruitless, but I think he misses the point entirely, and in fact I think the rabbi does, too. This meeting is incredibly frustrating to Larry, because the rabbi does not wrap up his story in a way that satisfies Larry's understanding of its resolution or its point, but he doesn't notice (and why should he, really?) the optimistic swing the story takes at the end. The protagonist of the rabbi's story -- a real man who lives in the same Minnesota Jewish community as the rabbi and Larry -- followed numbers, followed math, towards a happier life, or rather back to a happy life. How did he get there? He doesn't know, but he got there.
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Math is order. For many of us, beyond a certain point, it doesn't make a lick of sense, but it is the map of the entire universe. We know and accept that, as we also know and accept that even those who can understand the math hit a point where the math simply charts things we don't understand. Certain elements of quantum physics we know to be true -- the math says so -- but why it is the way it is still bewilders even the most brilliant among us.
.So. If, in Judaism, math is not only order, but language, then math is also God, or evidence of God. We tell stories about God, such as the Old and New Testaments, as we tell stories about math, such as Schrödinger's Cat. These stories provide us with the opportunity to grasp concepts, but these concepts remain entirely abstract in our day-to-day reality. Gopnik deals with both the vastly complex math, but also the stories, on a daily basis, but when his own sense of order begins to disintegrate he is unable to apply his own knowledge of, say, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, a theory about which he dreams, but is unable to take to heart. Who can blame him, and yet...
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In his
review and analysis of A Serious Man in Tablet, an on-line Jewish magazine, Liel Leibovitz talks about Gopnik's quest for an answer, and explanation of life and the universe. Gopnik thinks he's going to find this in just a few days, and that the answer will be easily understandable -- the fact that he never does find it strikes him as enormously unfair. But Leibovitz says:
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Simplicity is the enemy of modernity. So is doubt. Modernity—in its American strand, at least—requires of its practitioners a growing specialization, an increased sophistication, a neverending striving towards certainty. It is, in other words, the very opposite of the Talmudic undertaking, in which the argument itself is the central pursuit and a finite truth, should it ever materialize, is of little concern. When Jews rid themselves of the Talmud, the ars gratia artis, the scholarly license to see the world for all of its competing and contrasting strands, and when they immerse themselves instead in the target-oriented, painfully concrete, and intolerably specific modern world, then, the Coens tell us, they’re in deep spiritual trouble.
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Gopnik, the poor bastard, doesn't get it, but who does, these days? It's my belief that the reason A Serious Man is being regarded by so many as a mean-spirited mockery of the very idea of spiritual faith is because a lot of people don't understand how much of faith and religious thought revolves around the ideas of doubt and questioning. Many atheists think that those with religious faith do not, or pretend to not, ever experience doubt, or accept doubt as a part of their belief (present company very possibly excluded, but this has been the bulk of my experience in recent years). They think that doubt -- or, maybe more precisely in this context, uncertainty -- is the same thing as atheism, and therefore anything that expresses doubt or incredulity towards a religious quest is ipso facto a victory for their side. Well, it's not, and never has been, and the Coens, I think, know this.
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Because, ultimately, what is it that Gopnik doesn't understand? His life. He doesn't get why his life story is suddenly playing out like this. And, of course, "story" is the operative word (forced in there by me, but still valid, I think). Unlike Clive Park, Larry Gopnik understands the math, but not the story. And what's the story in this case? A Serious Man. So A Serious Man is the cat.
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24 comments:

Kevin J. Olson said...

Gopnik, the poor bastard, doesn't get it, but who does, these days? It's my belief that the reason A Serious Man is being regarded by so many as a mean-spirited mockery of the very idea of spiritual faith is because a lot of people don't understand how much of faith and religious thought revolves around the ideas of doubt and questioning. Many atheists think that those with religious faith do not, or pretend to not, ever experience doubt, or accept doubt as a part of their belief (present company very possibly excluded, but this has been the bulk of my experience in recent years). They think that doubt -- or, maybe more precisely in this context, uncertainty -- is the same thing as atheism, and therefore anything that expresses doubt or incredulity towards a religious quest is ipso facto a victory for their side. Well, it's not, and never has been, and the Coens, I think, know this.

That's a bingo! (sorry I just watched Inglourious Basterds again last night, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity.)

You're absolutely right, Bill. I grew up in a religious home, still think of myself as a religious man, and still struggle to this day with the whole idea of religion. Questioning does not make one an atheist, it makes them human...and dare I say intelligent. It is those who believe without doubt (no matter which side of the religious fence you sit on) that usually have it wrong.

I haven't seen the film yet (doing so nect week) so I can't comment on the film; however, your analysis I think is spot on from everything else I've read about the film. The polarities of math/religon, order/chaos, noramalcy/absurdity interests me, and like you, I think that Coen's are good enough to make a funny, sick joke out of the whole ordeal; but they're also more than capable of making a much deeper statement about religion amid chaos.

I look forward to watching this and chiming in with some thoughts. Great stuff here, Bill.

bill r. said...

Thanks a lot, Kevin. I wasn't sure if this was going to make any sense, but I had a lot of stuff rolling around in my head on the way home from the theater last night, and I had to figure out a way to say it. I thought about putting it off, but when I came across Leiberstein's review, and saw that it was in sympathy with my own views (while also, obviously, being a lot smarter on the subject) I was encouraged to give it a go. So I'm really gratified that you liked what I wrote. Now go see the movie, damn you!

jim emerson said...

Yes! Great piece. The stories are open to interpretation (which is what Talmudic study is all about). "The goy? Who cares?" -- the big punch-line joke in the movie, but also the heart of it. The young rabbi has only one story (the parking lot) and it only means one thing to him. The eldest rabbi is still learning, discovering anew: "When the truth is found to be lies..." There's so much going on in this film -- and the ending knocked the wind out of me (literally). Just when this "story" of Larry's life seems to be wrapping itself up, it continues in new directions... That's what life is -- as John Lennon said, what happens to you while you're making other plans...

bill r. said...

Thanks very much, Jim. This is one hell of a movie, isn't it? Not at all what I was expecting, beyond the "Job" connections which everybody is making (and not without very good reason, obviously).

The ending is...just amazing. That last shot is extraordinary, and the film -- which up to that point I'd enjoyed, but been somewhat baffled by -- was instantly elevated, and got my brain turning. The Coens are really on fire again, and thank God for that.

And yes, the eldest rabbi is genuinely wise. You're set up to think he's just another fool, but he's not. And the audience goes from his warmth and simple advice into a new, awful cycle...

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

If, as you say, Larry followed the math, where would it lead him?

bill r. said...

That's an excellent question. And my answer is "I don't know." But many people who find themselves where Larry does at the end of the film are able find a degree of...calmness, I suppose. I'm not sure I would/will, but there's that quote from Rashi that opens the film:

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."

Easier said than done, without question, but isn't that part of the point?

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

I forgot about that opening quote. In fact, it explains everything to me. Because Larry does not receive it simply at all, does he?

Also, I keep wondering: What if Larry heads over to the doc's and gets hit by the tornado first?

Andy Ihnatko said...

Terrific piece!

I loved this movie. The most productive reaction I can have to a film is to think "Wow, that was disappointing" as I leave the theater but then think "No, I'm in idiot" by the time I reach the car. I've been pondering the movie ever since. Compare and contrast this with the flicks that are gone from your head ten minutes later. You can't say it doesn't offer value for money.

You shouldn't mistake the story for the thing the story is trying to explain. That's the message.

I think Larry spends the movie and his life asking "But when you open the box to check on the cat, you'll get killed by the poison. Also, how could you seal the box so completely that you could be sure that the apparatus inside the box is the only source of radiation that could activate the mechanism? Why a cat, come to think of it? Wouldn't a..."

He's trying to make the story make sense, missing the actual lesson that the story of life conveys.

Tony Dayoub said...

Very astute analysis, Bill. I'm jealous that you were able to latch onto the math aspect of the story, while I simply caught the same Job metaphor most others did.

Great movie, huh? I think it's probably the Coen's best since The Big Lebowski.

bill r. said...

Andy -

The most productive reaction I can have to a film is to think "Wow, that was disappointing" as I leave the theater but then think "No, I'm in idiot" by the time I reach the car...

That was pretty much my reaction,too. I wasn't disappointed, exactly, but before the last five minutes, while I'd been enjoying the film, I wasn't really sure what to make of it. But on the way to the car, and on the way home, my head was buzzing.

Thanks for the kind words, and I think your take on Larry's overthinking of Schrodinger's Cat is spot-on.

Tony - Thanks! The Job thing is important, though, and since I don't know much beyond the basics of Job's story, my reading on it since seeing this movie has shown me that that connection is far from rudimentary. There's a lot of subtle references to that Bible story, beyond Larry's endless suffering.

Greg said...

This is an excellent piece Bill. Sorry I didn't comment until now but I just saw it yesterday and wanted to finish my own piece on it this morning. Right now, strange as this is to say, I don't know what else to say about it. I have plenty more I'd like to write (but probably won't) but right now just thinking about the movie is something I need to do more of before I can think of much else to say, you know?

With that in mind I'll discuss the technical. The performances were all around terrific don't you think? And the look of the characters for who they were just seemed dead on. And Roger Deakins photography was, as always, superb. It feels like 2007 again only this time instead of No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood it's Inglorious Basterds and A Serious Man.

bill r. said...

Yeah, it's funny how neither of us really even mention the acting, but it's great. I thought Richard Kind was superb, for instance, and I don't always like that guy. I also loved George Wyner and the guy who kept coming into Larry's office to talk about tenure. Those two, in particular, gave quintessential and particularly great Coen brothers performances.

You know who else I loved? The Columbia House guy. It's all voice, but goddamn, he was perfect! Note perfect. And, of course, Stuhlbarg. I wonder how they found him, and what he thought about being pulled from (probably) nowhere to headline a Coen brothers film. Great stuff.

It feels like 2007 again only this time instead of No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood it's Inglorious Basterds and A Serious Man...

Absolutely. The only difference is that I'm not aware of a good half dozen or more excellent films floating around, making this one of the best film years in memory, which was the case in 2007. But that's nitpicking.

Rick Olson said...

Math is order. ...

No, math is not order, order is a function of the arrangement of objects (molecules, trucks, stars) in space/time and their interactions. Math describes that order, and those interaction, with greater or lesser precision, depending on the complexities of the the system. Your map analogy is apt: math is a representation of the order in the system in the same way a map is a representation of a countryside or a city.

A religion, such as Judaism, is no more math than is a concept such as order. I say this because many people -- perhaps the hero of this movie, which I still haven't seen -- confuse mathematics with what it describes, which is, of course, the physical universe (I know, that's a slippery concept as well).

Mathematics is a tool to describe and predict "reality," whatever that is. Will it ever perfectly do that? As a one-time practitioner of applied math (as it applies to biology), I would like to think so, but as a current practitioner of that ultimate emergent behavior, I don't think so. But, you never know.

Fascinating piece, Bill. As I just said over on Greg's blog, I really need to see this film.

bill r. said...

Math as a representation of order is really what I meant, and I'm not saying that religion is math. But is it so far off to say that math, and the order it represents (or the chaos it refutes), can be seen as evidence (for lack of a better word) of God? Isn't that why numbers are so important to Judaism? Or is it Jewish mysticism?

On the way home from the movie, I said to my wife that I sure wished I knew a whole lot more about Judaism, though really that knowledge would only have come in handy when writing this review (if that's what this is). It doesn't get in the way of my appreciation of this film at all.

Rick Olson said...

Sometimes I wonder how much the Coens actually know about the subjects of their films. Oh, they get the details right, and everything, but they are known to be tricksters; just for yucks, they play with reality. I remember in "Barton Fink," Barton opens the Bible to a verse that said 2 Kings 14:33 (or something like that, the exact verse doesn't matter), so I looked it up, and not only was there no 2 Kings 14:33, but the verse that was at that place in their perfectly mocked-up prop bible was from a whole different place in the book. Now, what possible reason would there be for them to do that other than to just fuck with us? Perhaps they were trying to show Barton's increasing separation from reality, but it is such an arcane thing, that only a handful of folks would have the will and spare time to look up ...

As far as math not being reality, sorry 'bout that, but it just grates on my nerves when folks aren't precise about those particular things. Not everything, as you can tell by reading my blog, but those particular things.

But as far as mathematics being evidence of God, I don't see it. It seems like the old argument of Natural Theology, which says you can see God in the intricate wonder of the universe. How, so the theory goes, can such exquisite order be the product of anything other than an organized mind?

Problem is, as scientific inquiry gets more and more sophisticated, and the knowledge it produces gets increasingly deep, it becomes apparent that there are indeed other ways to produce that order than an organized mind. Natural selection, for one, and inorganic processes like crystalization and calcification.

bill r. said...

Problem is, as scientific inquiry gets more and more sophisticated, and the knowledge it produces gets increasingly deep, it becomes apparent that there are indeed other ways to produce that order than an organized mind. Natural selection, for one, and inorganic processes like crystalization and calcification...

Which comes from what? You go far enough back, and the order still comes from somewhere. I'm not saying you have to think it's God, but if that's where your belief takes you, it's a fair conclusion -- certainly in regards to this kind of conversation, and this film.

Rick Olson said...

You are very right about that ... and you're in great company. Aristotle talked about that: if you take the chain of causation back far enough you have to posit a so-called "prime-mover;" theologians, quite naturally, call this God. (theologian Paul Tillich called it "the ground of all being").

Greg said...

But the question that others bring up including Sagan mentioned on my piece is where did the God come from and the most important question of all: Why is it acceptable to pronounce God was not created by anything but it is not acceptable to pronounce the very same thing about the universe? The universe can't just create itself is the answer one gets but when asked about God the answer is, 'Well, He wasn't created by anyone.'

The point being why attach an extra step before the previous step is properly determined? This does not rule out God or any spiritual entity it merely says that one should not ascribe that which is not understood to a supernatural being for the sake of convenience. Don't say, "Because I don't know where the original order came from it must be God." It could be an infinite number of things.

The response to this is often, "Well what else could it be?" I don't know and just because we don't know doesn't mean we should choose one absolute and go with it. 3,000 years ago two bronze age men could have looked at the moon and one could have asked the other, "Don't you think that's a god?" The second could say, "No I don't." "Well," says the first, "What else could it be?" They don't have the technology to know what it is yet but the first is taking that lack of knowledge as evidence of the supernatural and he is plainly wrong.

Oh, and for the record, I'm not implying you Bill were saying that at all, I'm just trying to clarify a point.

bill r. said...

But logically, and rationally, doesn't their finally have to be an ultimate cause? A beginning? I understand all your points, Greg (and further I know you're not coming after me, so don't worry about that), and they're excellent. But something wasn't created by anything, right? I mean, right?? Somehow, something kicked this all into gear. I won't say "I call that something God", because that's bullshit, but I think it's also bullshit to say, "No, it wasn't God, it was something else. Something science-y."

Nobody knows anything, when all is said and done, when our questions go far enough back. We know so little about our origins that I see nothing irrational about believing in an ultimate intelligence, or God, as the force behind it. I also don't think it's irrational to not believe that, but the idea that anyone can say "I don't know what it is, but I know it's not that" is deeply frustrating to me.

I offer the same disclaimers to you that you did to me, and I mean them honestly.

bill r. said...

That sounds like "And I mean them honestly, unlike you!"

That's not what I meant. I was just looking for a reason to stop typing, so I condensed your sentiment, Greg.

Word verification: cateep!

Rick Olson said...

Greg, you're quite correct that it doesn't have to be a god ... it may be something entirely undiscovered, some pre-Big Bang thing totally unheard of. In fact, when Aristotle talked about the "prime mover," he didn't necessarily mean a "being," just something that had to exist a priori, that had to exist before everything else to start the causal chain.

Of course, the question about the creation of "God" is who or what did that. That's the crux of this argument for God (called in philosophical circles the "cosmological argument"): that however far you move back, the question is always "who or what caused that?"

The point being why attach an extra step before the previous step is properly determined?

Taking one step further than what's known -- i.e., trying to take things to their logical conclusions -- is the province of philosophy and, of course, theology, which only since Kant have been separated.

Rick Olson said...

And about the insistence of many theists that God be uncreated, it can be traced to the "perfectly natural" (note the quotes) human insistence that what they revere just has to be the greatest. And if something is created, it's creator must necessarily be greater, because the creator is greater than the creation, no? (in fact, that's the basis for another philosophical argument for God, the "ontological argument")

Greg said...

Bill, Rick, good conversation. Reminds me of Theology class back at Catholic University where we studied all the theories. Rick, I hope you see it soon because I'd be interested to read your thoughts on it. I wish I'd seen it sooner so I could have been in on some of the earlier conversations on it.

Pat said...

Ok it's official - I've got to back and see this again, as soon as possible.

Bill, you and Greg together have added so much to my (already very great) appreciation of "A Serious Man." I've never had a physics class, never heard of Schrodinger's Cat (before seeing this movie anyway)so a lot of the significance of those scenes was lost on me. But I am a person of faith who doubts and questions, and as such I found "A Serious Man" to be an amazing film.

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