Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Peas and Guacamole or: Why You Will Die Alone



"There's no getting away from it ... If a man were to rummage in his past, he'd find material in it for a whole different set of lives. One day, either by mistake, or because he felt inclined to, he chose just one of them and went on with it to the end; but the worst of it is, that those other lives, the ones he might have lived, are not entirely dead." —Karel Čapek, The Stamp Collector  


I.

In the Seinfeld episode "The Engagement," Jerry and George, thinking they've done nothing noteworthy with their lives, vow to change by becoming more serious and responsible. Being typical Americans, this does not mean, say, quitting their respective jobs and building a monument to William Blake's mythical hero Los, but rather traveling the remaining nine yards down the field of modern life. In short: marriage, family, and taxes always in before the 15th. After some contemplation on a pier where he observes the happiness of couples strolling nearby, George runs home to ask his girlfriend, Susan, to marry him. She accepts. Excited, he returns to Jerry's apartment to share the news with him and to gauge his reaction (George isn't fully convinced that his proposal was a good idea and wants some outside validation). After congratulations are exchanged and excitement is shared, George asks Jerry how things are going with his current girlfriend. Jerry answers nonchalantly, telling George that he just broke up with her. "Why!?" George asks, feeling betrayed by what he perceived to be their pact to change their lives. "Because," Jerry responds, "she ate her peas one at a time!"

While Seinfeld clearly exaggerates (I hope) the reasons and circumstances under which relationships corrode, it's rooted in the very real difficulty of getting to know and accept another person. Though the core characters seem to be looking for love and long term relationships, none of them are actually capable of the demanding work that meaningful relationships require. Nor are they willing to dive headlong into the various forms of pain that inevitably accompany even the most successful human bonds. They're too selfish, petty, insecure, scared, and generally intolerant to ever hope to find happiness with another human being. It's not so much that they are incapable of having a relationship with any particular person; they are incapable of having a relationship with anyone at all, period. (Finding some kind of "deal-breaker" trait in others is of course a defense mechanism that allows them to mask this deficiency and hide it from themselves.) I would argue that the four characters on Seinfeld aren't even friends in any meaningful sense. Aside from using one another to assuage boredom and loneliness, the main function of the group is to act as a self-reinforcing buffer against outside ways of viewing people and the world.

"Breaking up with someone for eating their peas one at a time" is for me the defining thrust of the Seinfeld universe, emblematic of the mentality it mines for humor. I was thinking about this mentality while watching Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said (2013), a film that functions as a grand rebuttal of relationships as depicted in Seinfeld. In fact, it seems to be consciously engaged in commenting on this.



I wonder if 
Holofcener, with an eye towards irony and critique, cast Julia Louis-Dreyfus with this in mind? Her character in Enough Said can be seen as an alternate—or quasi—Elaine Benes, someone who grew up in different circumstances and around a different set of people but who can still feel the pull and influence from that sitcom universe.


II.

In Karel Čapek's short story, The Secrets of Handwriting, a specialist in interpreting handwriting named Jensen comes to town to perform a show where he will demonstrate his prowess to the press. A skeptical newspaper editor sends a reporter named Rubner to cover the event, telling him to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. If possible, the editor tells him, "check the results yourself."

At the show, Jensen gives some details behind his "scientific" methods and asks for a manuscript from the crowd. Rubner, who had been waiting for this moment, happily supplies Jensen with a letter, which he then proceeds to analyze. Immediately Jensen recognizes it as coming from a woman's hand but, before continuing, asks Rubner if the letter was written by someone he knows. Rubner informs him that it was written by a stranger, and Jensen happily continues in full candor.

A pitiful human being wrote this letter, he informs the crowd. She lies habitually, he says, and she's not very smart. She's also untidy, superficial, has commonplace interests, is slothful, overly fond of her comfort, cares for nobody but herself, is a complete fraud, and talks so much that she "reduce[s] any man to a flabby-minded state." Also: the way her commas slant suggest treachery. "To put the matter figuratively," Jensen explains, "I would say that she is capable of stabbing anyone in the back." But she never will, of course—she's too lazy!


Upon returning home, Rubner's wife asks him if he's hungry. He snaps back at her. "The only thing you care about is food. All your interests are commonplace. It's so degrading, this everlasting chatter... That's how men get reduced to a flabby minded state." It turns out that the analyzed letter, as any decent reader of the tale will have guessed, was written by Rubner's wife. Nothing she does from that moment on goes uncriticized.

After he's finished berating his wife, who weeps ("The tyranny of tears!" Jensen explained earlier), Rubner meets with the editor who he informs of the astonishing results of Jensen's reading. So as to not look and feel like a fool, Rubner frames everything as though it happened to someone else.

"[E]very word of [Jensen's analysis] was true," Rubner informs Mr. Plecka, the editor. "The funny part of it was that [the husband had] lived happily with her for twenty years and had never noticed a thing. After twenty years of married life with a woman he hadn't discovered a tenth part of what Jensen spotted at the first glance."

Mr. Plecka is less surprised by Jensen's talents than he is by the daft husband who "never noticed anything all those twenty years." Rubner offers an explanation:

"Well, you see ... the woman was so smart at pretending to be what she wasn't and then the man was quite happy with her. When a man's happy like that he doesn't notice things. And besides, you see, he didn't know about these scientific and exact methods. It's like this: a thing that seems white, when you look at it with the naked eye, is all the colours of the rainbow when science has a go at it. Experience means nothing at all. Nowadays exact methods are the only thing a man can depend on. [...] An analysis like that is the only thing that will show what's inside [someone]."

As with much of Čapek's work, the real target here is uncritical deference to science, technology, and fads (Jensen's work is called "psychometric graphology") to the point of disregarding your own observations and experience. But aside from this wry critique, the story demonstrates how one's 
perception of others—even of "reality" itself—is very much an imaginative act. Out of a multitude of ways to view and interpret his wife's words and actions, Rubner filters everything through the toxic cloud of traits attributed to her by Jensen. Even the world he sees when he looks around has been altered and recast. After noticing some fabric sitting on the table, he scolds his wife: "What are these rags doing here?" To which she informs him, with a gasp, "I'm mending your shirts." But this explanation only causes him to rip into her for being ostentatious in her display of housework, confirming Jensen's analysis that she "rules the roost" with much fussiness and false importance. There is no turning back. "She" has been permanently transformed by Jensen.


III.


In Enough Said (medium strength spoilers follow), Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini) hit it off on a date and begin seeing each other regularly. As this takes place, Eva befriends a woman, Marianne (Catherine Keener), who constantly complains about her ex-husband whenever they hang out. Understandably, Eva builds up a very unfavorable view of the man being described, a wholly unpleasant and loathsome slob. He's been on various diets, Marianne informs her, but has failed every time—something that's indicative of his general character: a loser who will never change. Eventually Eva finds out that the "horrible slob" Marianne has been complaining about is in fact—yes—Albert, her current boyfriend. And after this realization she begins to see him—who she had up until then liked very much—through the eyes of his ex-wife.




Gee, he's kind of a slob after all, isn't he? Eva thinks to herself. Will he ever stop eating? How many failed diets has he been on, exactly, and what's the deal with him not being able to lose weight? Also, if you don't like the onions, Albert, then don't eat the fucking guacamole, moron
sheesh! Etc. With all of this on her mind, Eva berates Albert all night, passive-aggressively commenting on his weight, making fun of the fact that he doesn't have a night table (which Marianne found absurd), and many other petty things. Albert has been fully transformed from the man she was falling in love with into a figment of Marianne's imagination. And If Albert wasn't good enough for Marianne, some part of Eva most certainly thinks, then why would he be good enough for me?

Later, while offering an explanation as to why she allowed Marianne to poison her relationship with Albert by continuing to listen to her even after realizing that Albert was Marianne's ex, Eva suggests that it was perhaps a defense mechanism. As an ex-wife herself, Eva wanted to make sure not to marry "the wrong man" twice, and to aid her in this she decided—for lack of better reasoning—to allow Marianne to vet Albert for her vicariously. In this sense, Marianne functions as a link to, and reminder of, Eva's past life as an unhappy (ex)wife.

In another sense, Marianne functions as a catalyst,
turning Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Eva into Seinfeld's Elaine Benes. Just as the main characters on Seinfeld reinforce one another's tendency to cut everyone down whenever they fail to harmonize with the group's definition of what's normal and acceptable (thereby keeping them in stasis), Marianne has planted a refrain in Eva's head that tells her that the way someone eats guacamole belongs in the category of "things that matter." Do I allow the way he eats peas guacamole to spiral out of control and doom our relationship? (Catherine Kenner also—for a more literal link to Elaine Benes and Seinfeld—played Jerry's girlfriend in an episode from 1992 called "The Letter." A happy coincidence that one can't read too much into; Keener appears in all of Holofcener's feature films.)

Eventually, after realizing that her behavior and mindset exclude any real chance she'll ever have at happiness, Eva decides to become more conscious of—and therefore more active in—forming her view of the world. She does not "decide" this through any leap of reason or logic; t
he essential component in this shift is Albert. Had he not had the confidence and self respect to respond as he did to Eva's behavior, Eva would still be doomed and in stasis. Perhaps they would even be doomed together in an unhappy marriage, a plausible idea that demonstrates how two people can have many possible futures together. Everything depends on which world they choose to live in.


It's not just that the Jensens and the Mariannes, the Jerrys, Georges and Elaines of the world encourage one another to filter reality through various kinds of toxic smoke. Rather, they are the toxic smoke. Thus Eva, in order to move forward, must sever her ties with the bitter Marianne—so that
Albert is then free to be Albert
—and from the superficial Elaine—so that the way one eats guacamole is free to signify nothing of real importance. And since, as Čapek's story highlights, "reality" is largely an act of collective imaginationafter doing so the world Eva inhabits begins to look a bit more like the images she decides to place in her head. Indeed, it even begins to conform to those images. 

Above image is for those who have already seen Enough Said—meaningless otherwise. (Ironically, I found the
  capture on a blog that refers to this guy as a "douchebag," thereby missing the entire point of the character in
    the film, if not the film itself.)

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