Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

The Mentaculus

Like one of Uncle Jeff’s speeches, this post draws from a Coen Brothers’ movie. The movie in question begins with a line from Rashi:

Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.

After a brief interlude in a Polish town, Jefferson Airplane sings a question: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, don’t you want somebody to love?” We then enter the world of Larry Gopnik, and by all accounts, his life appears to be falling apart. His tenure case looks tenuous. His wife is filing for divorce so that she may marry Sy Ableman. He is forced to take care of his brother Arthur, an unemployed eccentric who is constantly in the bathroom draining a spacious cyst in the back of his neck. Larry is kicked out of his house and forced to live at the Jolly Roger hotel. His debts are piling up.

Larry is no fool. He is a physics professor, with a seeming grasp of the mathematics behind those equations that govern the physical world. He wants to bring the same understanding he has of the universe to his life, which leads him through several fruitless meetings with the rabbis in his synagogue. Larry’s attempts to understand the complex patterns controlling his life and his resistance to simply accepting them only exacerbate the stresses in his life.

Then there is an amazing scene that shifts the viewer’s perspective. Arthur breaks down in front of an empty swimming pool at the Jolly Roger. Arthur, who was just arrested for gambling and sodomy. Arthur, who may have stumbled upon the seed to the random number generator that controls the universe. Arthur, who recorded it in “The Mentaculus”, a gibberish-filled notebook that apparently derives this “probability map of the universe.” Arthur, who used it to win money at cards, which only led to his eventual arrest. When forced to look at Larry’s world through Arthur’s pathetic eyes, wasting any effort on Larry’s so-called crises feels absurd. As Arthur tells Larry:

You’ve got a family. You’ve got a jobHashem hasn’t given me bupkes.

Despite Arthur’s key to the universe and Larry’s quest for answers, neither the key nor the quest provides either of them with superior abilities in improving the quality of their lives. In fact, Rabbi Nachtner suggests that the quest may itself be a cause of pain:

These questions that are bothering you, Larry — maybe they’re like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then they go away.

After major events in our lives, some of us may go searching for The Mentaculus. Perhaps it will give meaning to those actions and random events that led us to where we are, and we may better understand and control what will happen to us in the future. However, even if we understand the complexity of The Mentaculous, would we really be any better off? Perhaps we would be more at peace by heeding Rashi’s advice. Clearly, this post does not.


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