In A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen give us a movie that refuses to be chewed, never mind digested. This is intended to be a compliment. A Serious Man has the substance of gristle. After gnashing on it for a while we try to remove it for inspection, hoping that nobody notices that we’ve bitten off something we can’t masticate.
Perhaps this impenetrability is the point. What could be more true to life than a work of art that defies explanation. Do the Coen brothers understand A Serious Man? I don’t know. Do they have theories? Perhaps. Are these theories exhaustive? Who knows.
The protagonist in A Serious Man, a middle-aged, married college professor up for tenure, starts looking for an answer, a solution, as the life he thinks he has begins to crumble. His pathetic fate, as far as we can tell, is both at once entirely his own fault and entirely unavoidable. In the Coen brothers’ universe being good, being serious provides no defense against catastrophe. And so it is in the real universe.
Thus are we thrust us headfirst into a contemplation of the philosophy of purpose as if into an oven.
We elected Barack Obama because he is a serious man, a man with a purpose. His purpose is to make things better for America and for the world we live in. (Many people would dispute this, I’m sure. But I’m not writing for those people, so that doesn’t matter. If you agree with me, you know what I mean.) We were sick of being presided over by a bunch of people with other purposes at heart, purposes less altruistic and noble.
As the Coen brothers wryly point out, having a purpose is no protection against the universe. As we have seen over the past year Obama’s purpose in all its forms has been undermined, denigrated, thwarted, and diminished at every turn.
But does this mean that there is no substance to purpose? Does the universal irony of inevitable failure, disintegration, and death mean that having a purpose has no purpose?
To answer that question I turn to another interesting movie I saw recently - Cold Souls. In Cold Souls those burdened by a heavy, angst-ridden soul can have it removed. Life without a soul, it turns out, becomes much lighter and more fun for some. What use is a soul if we only suffer it? The movie asks. But as Paul Giamatti discovers, he misses his soul, he misses the ballast of that inner weight.
And there is the answer, lying like a penny on the sidewalk, waiting to see whether it will be picked up. If we have a purpose, if we perceive a meaning, then this perception has substance. Refuting or ignoring that purpose and meaning denies the substance.
By analogy, physicists have shown that the apparently solid matter that fills the universe is not as solid as it seems. Not only is all material substance made up of tiny particles that are mostly empty space, but the tiniest components of matter present themselves as waves of electromechanical energy when we try to pin them down in space.
And yet to deny that the material world has practical substance would be to deny all of the information of our senses.
Matter is an illusion, but it is a meaningful, reliable illusion, one which shapes and defines our physical experience of our lives.
Having a purpose is the existential equivalent. Demonstrably irrelevant and illusory until we accept that it shapes and defines our spiritual or psychological purpose. This goes beyond cognitive dissonance. Denying purpose is as real as perceiving a mathematical absolute only to try to disprove it.