Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 9

Sy Abelman, Larry’s romantic rival, is dead.  Rabbi Nachtner, he of the goy’s teeth, delivers the eulogy.  Larry sits by himself, a few rows back from his estranged wife Judith.  The kids are not in evidence.  I can’t imagine they were keen to attend.  Larry, on the other hand, is paying for the service, so he might as well be there.

Nachtner’s eulogy centers upon: where is Sy now?  He is, in Nachtner’s words, "a serious man."  Thereby implying that, perhaps, Larry is not.  "A serious man," Nachtner’s eulogy suggests, would not expect to be delivered to some kind of fairy-tale heaven.  No, Hashem does not promise "heaven" to dead Jews.  Rather, they are to be delivered to "the bosom of Abraham."  That is, they go back home — to their patriarch.  They are returned to the father.  Larry, in the congregation, doesn’t look particularly inspired by this bit of news.  He is, in his mind, a much more "serious man" than that oily, pompous nitwit Sy Abelman ever was, and it’s a good bet that he believes neither in Heaven nor the bosom of Abraham.  He’s a scientist, damn it, how could he take something as silly as "Heaven" seriously?  Not to mention the fact that, depending on who you are, "the bosom of Abraham" isn’t necessarily the safest place to be.  (As the Coens will remind us before the movie is done.)

As the family sits shiva, two FBI agents, the Minnesota equivalents of the hardcases who showed up to poke at Barton Fink, come to warn Larry’s brother Arthur that he has to stop gambling.  Arthur’s Mentaculus, apparently, "really works," whatever that means, and, it seems, Arthur has been financing Danny’s pot purchases.  Not just rock-n-roll, but gambling leads to smoking pot!  Sin upon sin!  Although, if Hashem has given Arthur the ability to divine probability, why should Arthur not use that ability?  And   Which also presents a little mystery: if Danny got his $20 from Arthur, why did he need to steal it from Sarah (who stole it from Larry?)  Obviously he doesn’t still have the $20 he stole from Sarah, otherwise he would have paid off Fagel by now.  Arthur’s financing of Danny’s pot habit must have ended some time ago.  (Or maybe, in the way that Larry’s car crash "caused" Sy’s death, Arthur’s gambling has caused the money to disappear from Larry’s wallet.)

In any case, F-Troop comes in fine now for Danny (although "channel 7" is bad now).  Larry stands, apoplectic, as Danny lies on the floor, entranced by the comic goings-on at Fort Courage.  Larry’s mind swirls with mystery and rage, full of recent revelations of his brother’s gambling, his son’s mysterious doings and his daughter’s desire for a nose job ("What’s going on?" he pleads, again, in the midst of another domestic squall) but his son is pacified, ignorant of his father’s suffering, and his mother’s, for that matter.  Is that the ultimate outrage of the 60s generation, not the sex, not the drugs, not the rock-n-roll, but the utter apathy toward their parents?  Larry is trying so hard to find "meaning" in everything, but Danny is content to lie back and let messages bombard him, unable and disinterested to separate the wheat from the chaff until very late in the movie.

Larry goes to see his lawyer, who gives him bad news: Judith has hired some real ball-busters for her side of the divorce case (which is apparently still on, even though Sy Abelman is dead) and, what’s more, she’s drained Larry’s bank account.  Which upsets the lawyer, considering he’s not going to get paid now.  The pressure of his monstrous wife gets to Larry and he breaks down.  The lawyer, out of his depth, is unable to comfort Larry (not that his spiritual advisers were able to do any better).  "Did he [Nachtner] tell you about the goy’s teeth?" he cracks.  The lawyer, apparently, has also sought out wisdom from Nachtner at some point in the past, and was, like Larry, unimpressed with the wisdom he received.  "You should really talk to Marshak" says the lawyer, inferring both that he’s still got some spiritual bone in his body, that Nachtner, although the senior rabbi, isn’t up to cracking the nut that is Larry’s severe problem.

Larry tries to get ahold of Marshak on the phone and is rebuffed.  Interestingly, in this scene, and the scene previous, Larry is shown with his glasses on his forehead instead of his nose — is he, unwittingly, taking Rabbi Scott’s advice, trying to see the world through "new eyes?"

Larry then has a dream: he’s teaching his class, filling a huge blackboard with a gigantic equation (not unlike some of the fabulous equations that fill The Mentaculus), which, he tells us, illustrates "the uncertainty principle."  The Uncertainty Principle reared its head in the earlier Man Who Wasn’t There, interpreted by Ed Crane’s lawyer, as it often is, to mean that one changes the nature of a thing by looking at it.  The implications of the Uncertainty Principle on A Serious Man are staggering: it hints that it’s not just a question of whether or not the cat in the box is dead, it’s that one might change the state of the cat by looking into the box.  In this regard, one can hardly blame Larry for being frozen in inaction.  If he examines his life, he might change it, not through action but by mere examination.  If he looks at his life he might change it, if he doesn’t look at his life he will ruin it.  Larry feels completely disconnected from his life, as though "him" and "his life" were two different entities, as though "his life" were Schrodinger’s cat, sealed off in its box, in a state of flux, mysterious and unknowable until Larry looks into it.  "Even if you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm," he calls to his dream-students, playing Hashem for a moment, transferring his own anxiety to the next generation.

In his dream, Sy Abelman is auditing the class.  He’s unimpressed with Larry’s science.  He’s a serious man, he’s not going to be swayed by a mere expression of technical knowledge.  "Mathematics," Sy sneers, "is the art of the possible."  Larry is sure Sy is talking through his golf cap, using his high tone and condescension to intimidate.  (He’s correct: politics, not math, is "the art of the possible.")  Sy replies, as though to a child, "So simple.  See Marshak."  Then proceeds to pound Larry’s head against the blackboard, against all that math, saying "I seriously fucked your wife, that’s what’s going on."

Now then: did Sy fuck Judith?  Judith says no, and this is only a dream.  And yet, the dream tells Larry what we, the audience, have suspected from the beginning — there is less mystery in Larry’s life than he thinks.  Judith had sex with Sy, of course she did, that’s why she’s being so aggressive in destroying Larry, because she knows she’s guilty.  If Larry could prove her infidelity (if he could look inside that box, so to speak) he’d be able to win his divorce case.  It’s as plain, and as large, and as blunt, as the blackboard he’s getting his head pounded against.  Larry is getting screwed, not by Hashem but by people, and Sy’s beating suggests that what he really needs to do is simply fight back.

Which he will then attempt to do, in his own way, by going to see — not Marshak, since Marshak is unavailable, but Mrs. Samsky.

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7 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 9”
  1. voiceofisaac says:

    By the by, I’m using my own LJ to try and point people over here. More readers, more discussion, everyone wins!

    This section of the movie we’re talking about, unfortunately, dragged for me, just a touch. But to be fair, it comes right after the brilliance of The Goy’s Teeth, so maybe it just feels sluggish in comparison.

  2. Anonymous says:


    I think the Uncertainly Principle and the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment can be combined not only for Larry’s life but for God as well.

    Perhaps the Coen Brothers are attempting to suggest that the reason one can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God is because if we “opened” the box an observed Him it would change the very nature of God.

    It should certainly change the nature of faith, religion, morality, existence, and our relationship to God.

    – Rob

    • mimitabu says:

      there’s many reasons why it might be impossible to prove or disprove God. the strongest reason (and, incidentally, the reason i don’t believe in God) is that it’s not at all clear what God is supposed to be. you can neither test nor argue for (or against) something if you don’t know what it is. nor can you believe in it in any meaningful sense, which is an odd tension for religious people, in my opinion.

      also, for many somewhat obvious reasons, whatever God is supposed to be, it would be very difficult to use the scientific method to test for it. God isn’t really supposed to be an event, nor an aspect of one’s surroundings. math would be hard too, since it seems you’d use God to understand math, not the other way around; by analogy, godel showed us that many sentences we know to be true cannot be proven in formal systems (like arithmetic) of sufficient strength (like arithmetic). chances are, precise talk of God (if even possible) would probably require very higher order logic/systems; it’s unlikely that the creator of everything (or if you think God is the consciousness of the universe itself or something similar, still) can have everything about it expressed by simple systems within the universe.

      anyway, i do think the uncertainty principle is interesting when applied to God, but moreso because measuring God changes us, not God. it’s the whole point of woody allen’s crimes and misdemeanors i think. (paraphrasing a quote from that movie) “when faced with the choice between God and truth, i will always choose God.” that’s not fundamentalist commitment, that’s the wisdom that “my ethics and morality are more important than knowing truth”. you’re not supposed to believe in God so you can “be right” about the universe in the first place. it is supposed to transform your life.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Sittin’ shiva


    Have been greatly enjoying your treatise on A Serious Man, may I suggest you take a second look at the possible connections between the opening scene in the shtetl and the Larry sitting shiva for Sy?

    Shiva is seven in Hebrew. Seven is the channel the Gopniks don’t get, even though Larry keeps adjusting the antenna (subtle touch, that). They do get channel four. Four, in in several Asian cultures including Korean, is synonymous (is the word homonymous?) with death. Clive, a Korean graduate student. All this shortly after the scene with Rabbi Nachtner making direct mention of Hebrew letters having numeric equivalents.

    Dora, the wife in the beginning scene, states that the corpse of Groshkover/Dybbuk? was “left unattended for many minutes when Pesel’s father broke shiva and left the room – it must have been then that the Evil One took you!” I’ve seen the film only once, in general release, but it struck me that there’s quite a bit of hubbub while the Gopniks are meant to be mourning (is Sy’s corpse in state at the house?). The scene ends with Larry leaving the room to scold his son, who has once again fled to F-Troop. Larry yells “Danny! We’re sitting Shiva!” which, of course, they now aren’t, or so I’d argue. Dybbuk?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and observations.



    • Todd says:

      Re: Sittin’ shiva

      Not being a Hebrew scholar, or a Jewish arcana scholar, I’m afraid I can only address the movie on a dramatic level. Dramatically however, yes, it is interesting that Groskover either did or did not become a dybbuk while his family was sitting shiva (of course, if he never died, there would have been no shiva for them to sit, which means that perhaps his shiva never happened).

  4. blagh says:

    I think my favourite part of this movie is when the camera jumps out and Larry says, “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” Both for the little joke (Larry doesn’t know what’s going on the blackboard any more than his students), and because it echoes the necessity to simply “accept the mystery,” like the story of the goy’s teeth.

    • blagh says:

      The uncertainty principle also states there are pairs of attributes that can’t both be known at the same time. Say, while you can measure the position of an particle to great precision, that very measurement prevents you from knowing its velocity to any great extent (and vice versa).

      Larry is focused on measuring the changes in his life, and then asks, why do these terrible things keep happening? The process of quantifying these effects prevents him from knowing the answer, the causes.