On All Saints Day in 1755 the earth quaked beneath the city of Lisbon. Crowds rushed to open spaces near the sea only to be engulfed by a tsunami. The philosopher Voltaire lamented the tragedy in his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster. In his view, the scale of human suffering overwhelmed any defense of God.
The force of Voltaire’s critique arose directly from the mechanistic understanding of the physical world that he shared with many 18th century philosophers. After Isaac Newton, earthquakes could be deterministically linked to a distant divinity. As Voltaire quipped, “God holds the chain”. Such metaphors stand in stark contrast to the long tradition of justifications of God in the face of suffering and evil. It goes back at least to the Hebrew Bible’s Job where divine mystery is expressed through the incomprehensibility of a whirlwind.
Today, poets critical of theodicy – philosophical vindication of an omnipotent force oblivious to earthquakes and ill-fortune – are as likely to write for the cinema as for literature.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2009 film A Serious Man deconstructs the life of a mid-20th-century Jewish-American physics professor named Larry Gopnik. Throughout, an un-named God reverently referred to as Hashem, haunts a series of ethical conundrums. While the problem of evil is very old, Larry’s physics are new.
In one of the early scenes, Larry giddily finishes off a mathematical proof for the counterintuitive implications of quantum mechanics. “And that’s Schrödinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead?”
Later on, Larry finishes off another chalkboard full of equations to demonstrate Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. “It proves we can’t ever really know … what’s going on. But even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the mid-term.”
Herein lies the dark irony of the entire film, which narrates an ethical fable in quantum mechanics’ aftermath.
As it happens, the film is not particularly interested in mathematics and does not dispute its objective claims. The math is “the real thing”, Larry says at one point. “The stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture.” Hence, just as with Voltaire, the Coens’ poetic critique of theodicy emerges directly from their narration of physics.
Since Alan Sokal published an intentionally obfuscated and illogical account of quantum mechanics in the journal Social Text, cultural theorists have remained wary of the subject. However, that hasn’t dissuaded philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek from affirming its mathematical certainty, precisely in order to appropriate its resulting account of probability. Such probability informs his critique of ideology and understanding of cultural change.
In his 2003 book The Puppet and the Dwarf, Zizek argues that the Hebrew Bible’s Job can be read as a critique of the dominant theodicy of its time: God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. In this view Job is a protestor, who is vindicated by the end of the story when God finally appears.
At this, Zizek remains astonished and offers an alternative interpretation. Why would Job be satisfied with the empty gestures of a whirlwind? As Zizek summarises:
So what we get is neither the good God letting Job know that his suffering was just an ordeal destined to test his faith, nor a dark God beyond Law, the God of pure caprice, but, rather, a God who acts like someone caught in a moment of impotence.
Pushing Job’s unwritten interior dialogue to these conclusions, Zizek arrives at an even more profound critique of theodicy, one echoed in A Serious Man.
Throughout the film everyone has told Larry to see Rabbi Marshak. However, it seems the elder sage has more or less retired to a life of contemplative study. The only exception is bar mitzvah initiates. Hence, Larry’s 13-year-old son Danny is the one to eventually garner an appointment. As he passes through Marshak’s door, the camera pans to Caravaggio’s 1618 “Sacrifice of Isaac”, hanging on the wall. Danny’s resemblance to the sacrificial victim is striking.
After a long pause, the frail Rabbi begins to recite not the Torah nor Talmud, but the film’s Jefferson Airplane soundtrack: “When the truth is found. To be lies… And all the hope. Within you dies… then what?”
The answer to Marshak’s question is not given. It merely reiterates numerous paradoxes in the film: the opening parable about a rabbi/dybbuk who may or may not be dead; a student’s bribe/gift which may or may not have been given; the final tornado that could twist toward destruction or delivery; Schroedinger’s cat. Even the film’s epigram from the French Rabbi Rashi, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”, could be taken either as a dark joke or in all seriousness.
In an interview, the Coens denied any reference to the biblical Job. The entire film seems intent on leaving the audience to its own conclusions. Nonetheless, I suspect that it is not the mysterious Hashem that is the target of the film’s dark humour and critique, so much as the deterministic deity of Voltaire. As Larry struggles with the ethical ambiguity around him, it is hard not to identify with one character’s suggestion: “Please. Accept mystery.”
A Serious Man concludes with the Jefferson Airplane refrain, “you better find somebody to love”.
Maybe this is the summation of the Torah Rabbi Marshak meant to provide. It has the beneficial economy of Occam’s razor. However, precisely by refusing a simple explanation, the film seems to say something more. Today we need not live on the site of earthquakes and tsunamis. The news relentlessly flickers across our screens. Moreover, each tragedy is often accompanied by a pundit’s repetition of the theodicies of old.
And yet, as Emanuel Levinas suggested in an essay on “Useless Suffering,” after Auschwitz the possibility remains for “a faith more difficult than ever… a faith without theodicy”.
This article is part of a series on public morality in 21st-century Australia.