Friday, June 12, 2015

Seinfeld and the Stranger



I just finished the show Seinfeld a few days ago. Clearly one of the best sitcoms there ever was.  I prefer Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I think Malcolm in the Middle has far-more intelligent things to say – essentially being to my knowledge the most under-rated sitcom in American history.  Seinfeld is a show that clearly depicts the “non-committed” man in a Post God-is-Dead Era.  That is, having neither religion nor social convictions (e.g. Socialism, Utilitarianism, Anarchism etc) Jerry and the gang (JatG) and particularly George & Kramer are well-constructed embodiments of different forms of Existentialism and living a futile life without purpose or stability – asides from having each other, but I’ll get to that.
Throughout the entire series none of them asides from George (unless you count Elaine’s constant on-again-off-again fling/relationship with Putty) has a love-interest for more-than two episodes each, and none asides from Elaine can hold a steady job.  I’m not the first to see the similarities between the show and Existentialism.  William Irwin in Seinfeld and Philosophy wrote a rather well-written piece using Kramer to highlight one of the main parts of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. However, they all express differing elements of Existentialism and George in particular seems to be in a near-constant state of melancholy that at-times takes on Existential qualities. In one episode of Seinfeld, Jerry’s emotions are “released” and it is exposed that Jerry has never had a serious emotional attachment to anything.  This is clearly Existential in sub-consciously viewing reality as a dangerous, uncertain and ambiguous thing, something that one can risk no commitment or strong reaction one-way-or-another towards.  Elaine’s inability to commit to anyone (asides from arguably Putty and it seems to be because he’s so stupid she’ll never risk being strongly attached – unless they are attached and her inability to be in a consistent relationship with him shows her inability  to commit to someone she wants romantically) and yet her decision to marry Jerry at the spur of the moment once he proposes shows her anxiety towards what it seems she secretly desires – much like Kierkegaard’s refusal to marry Rachel because he believed (so he claimed) that to marry her would be to refuse God’s desires of being a great writer, which required him to be single and unattached. 
Within the Existentialist Neurotic (depicted in Woody Allen’s films, particularly Annie Hall) there is a certain fear of or psychological refusal to commit to that which will make him or her happiest.  This is seen in Alvy not wanting Annie to move in with him though he loves her.  He in a crazed fashion “fights for her” when she leaves but keeps her at a distance when she’s there.  Jerry is the Existentialist who feels a repressed dread in daily life (feeling secure in keeping in his apartment clean, one of the few things he can control) Elaine towards commitment and relationships, Kramer towards consistency and responsibility and George towards himself (e.g. height, weight, hair or lack-thereof, sexuality etc) his relations with others (no matter how fleeting), particularly what they think of him and the slightest possibility that something wrong might happen, has happened or the smallest thing has created a divide between himself and someone else (“I was in the pool!”). So, in-essence, George is the general neurotic while the other three portray various forms of Existential anxiety depicting the sentiment that the only stability they can have in a Post GiD but Pre-Utilitarian/Communitarian Era is with each other – others who feel the same inability to attach themselves to anything.
To further this comparison of the series and Existentialism, it seems only fitting to draw what I thought was an obvious and striking comparison ‘tween Seinfeld and Camus’ The Stranger.  Both take place (at-least towards their latter halves) in a court room.  Both involve the main characters being tried for an unintentional crime (Mersault actually killed someone, while JatG merely watched a man get mugged but did so deliberately.  However, if Mersault is telling the truth, and he was suffering from a type of delirium when he killed, there are arguments that punishing any of the five is absurd, in-part because either none of them are likely to do the same thing again, the punishment does not correct or deter them from acting the same way again, or because what they did was not originally a “rightful crime” to begin with) and both involve the prosecutor mentioning entirely irrelevant things to morally condemn the defendant(s) and by doing so secure prosecution.
This is a clear representation of how most people view right-and-wrong.  Not in-terms of utility (making the world a better place) but in-terms of conforming to the moral norms arbitrarily created by society even though it has nothing to do with creating a better world or keeping this one a half-way decent one.  This is seen in asking why Mersault didn’t cry when his mother died, and shaming Elaine for buying a case full of sex sponges.  The latter it could be argued is a result of Christianity and general religious Puritanism that demonizes the sexual component of the human animal, however the former can only be very loosely blamed on religion, and I feel there is actually a far deeper culprit at-hand; one that in-part is the psychological backing of religion.  Part of it is psychologically the need to feel like one can rely on others even if the only thing you’re with any reliability relying on them for is to be the same type of person who follow the same social mores and present the same social pleasantries for various reasons.  This is similar to something Nietzsche talks about in his essay On Truth and Lie.  Lying was not originally deemed immoral because of any notion of sin, breaking a rule, or not following one’s duty; it was manifested from the need to have a universal language that was followed otherwise nothing could be accepted and agreed upon. Notions of sin and duty followed.  But with people who take the cart before the horse, that is, believe it is immoral to not follow the ethics of the social contract (even if it’s things that really have no social import, such as saying a card reads Moops, and therefore refusing the Bubble Boy points) and condemn them for “sinning” or “not following their duty” even though these impulses came from and are now poorly used derivatives of the need for utility. 
We do need a socially agreed upon moral code, yes, and Seinfeld and Mersault are non-virtuous people, yes, but society en-large does not fare better.  What we see is the hypocrisy and self-righteous moralizing of Christianity, and other social-code’s effects to demonize certain modes of being rather than condemning those who create actual problems, such as the Capitalist class and other people in various hierarchies of control, influence and authority.  This in particular is the history of Christianity.  Damn the heathen who fails to nod his head blankly and disagrees with the empty moral sentiment preached, while allowing scot-free or even supporting (as history shows clearly with the Christian religions support and active involvement in hundreds of examples of treachery and evil) the actions of the true “sinners” or actors against General Utility on the planet – namely those in control who act against universal prosperity, intelligence and well-being.
Christianity’s influence on the world is thankfully waning, but the impulse of sentimentality over reason and general calculable and real utility still remains across the American culture.  This is seen in the refusal to abandon the value-metrics of Bourgeois-Individualism, namely the Existentialist proposition that any path is as valid as the other, and as long as one is “honest to themselves” than one can spend a life time in meaningless selfishness as JatG, Mersault and most Americans and human beings in general do.  I do not condemn acts of joy, hobbies, or having passion in one’s career; but, if one pursues something only because they enjoy doing it and they take no course of action to deliberately improve the moment-to-moment and final fate of mankind (or even simply a small portion of its population for a time) then they are someone whose life is forgettable, trivial and is the only life that lacks a purpose that the Existentialists complain about in their psychological illness that is needing cosmic or transcendental meaning.  Such things do not exist.  However, there is purpose to be found in helping a fellow human being or creature capable of suffering or reaching a higher phenomenogical plane-of-being. There is purpose in and only in utility.  However, both the Christians and the Existentialist wish to escape this fact.  Seen in JatG and Mersault being in-part immoral people who are wrongly condemned by a jury who damns them for not sharing their moral sentiment – or simply for having certain character traits exposed that many of the jurors share to some degree, such as lust or a emotionally distant relation with a conventionally perceived “loved one.”
Most unfortunately are more concerned with preserving the image that they are good people then with actually doing good things or leaving the world better-off than when they left it.  Images of morality in bourgeois society is by design passive, sedentary and even prides obedience (to God or to human masters such as the Capitalists or Government) over actively righting-a-wrong in society.  The morals and conventions of bourgeois society (this includes the Existentialists despite all their huff-and-bluster of coping with the absurd) are based around paradoxically both pleasantness or amicability at the cost of improvement and suffering the reign of those who make the world a very unpleasant place for many.  The Existentialists are complicit in this due both in their nature to focus on petty psychological problems and relativize all values, and in their general lack of revolutionary potential. Even Camus, with his talk of “making one’s existence an act of rebellion” failed, at-least in-part, in this account.  For though he was in favor of “rebellion” in some almost spiritual way, he was against Socialist Revolution. 
It is true that he was an Anarcho-Syndicalist, and shouldn’t be grouped with those who spend their lives doing nothing, but ultimately he was concerned with how we feel about something rather than the direct consequences of what something does.  This is the very nature in many ways of art, and this is why the Existentialists make brilliant artists.  Art is in depicting emotion and reaction in the psychological sense, while science is concerned only with learning, and Utilitarianism with applying the results and methods in-which something is made good or bad according to how it affects human beings or other creatures.  The Socialist and Materialist are those who want to improve the world, not talk about how it is makes us sad or how in a Utopia everyone would be happy.  Art has its place in utility, self expression and entertainment, but in today’s world entertainment overwhelms the former two in demand, and the latter two overwhelm the former in realization.  Political propagandizing is not only not necessary but not productive; what I speak of is art that is intentionally but cleverly depicting the human soul, the virtuous and unvirtuous man, and truths of existence (1984 and Grapes of Wrath are the examples I consistently come back to again and again) that go beyond both The Avengers and independent movies like Clerks (which is itself an Existentialist movie about Dante’s inability to change his life while revealing nothing he would want to change it to – expressing essentially nothing but pure dissatisfaction with no intellectualization or even meager conception of an alternative, asides from going to College and training to be Batman) and speak of that fundamental truth beyond all collective activity (though it is not acted on accurately and is betrayed in our Capitalist society) namely the Reality of Utility.
Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are not awful people, simply ineffectual ones.  They have neither major faults nor noble features, leaving only a long string of meaningless actions across a series of seasons, actions which have the sole purpose of entertaining us, but not enlightening us of their nature and their downfall.  They go to jail for being “bad,” but this doesn’t show us the consequences of their nature.  That would involve a Seinfeld without the distraction of comedy, where we see the same people repeat the same routine, constantly in vain attempt to escape routine, so in actuality doing nothing – but in this case actually showing something.

2 comments:

  1. I wonder how much the writers knew they were making this commentary, maybe it was just an under current

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  2. More-so the undercurrent, but also in-part people interpreting what they see to make their argument and make a connection between the mundane and the intellectual. However I'd assume Larry David is somewhat knowledgeable of existentialism.

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