Much Adieu About Nothing
Donald DeMarco on Television (Part I)
May 14, 1998 at 8:00 pm EST. That is the time my San Francisco caller had selected to do a book interview with me. “Don’t you realize,” I said to him, “that this is the exact time that an estimated 80 million Americans will be glued to their seats watching the long-awaited and much ballyhooed final episode of Seinfeld?” He exclaimed, without making any attempt to conceal his pride, that he had never watched even a single episode of America’s favorite TV sit-com, a revelation that moved me to envy his mind that had remained virginal and unprofaned by a show whose empty-headedness was exceeded only by its bad taste.
“I’d be happy to do the interview at another time,” I told him. I said this not because I felt any commitment to be on hand for the final episode, but because at that hour, ironically, I would be at a small college in New England presenting a lecture on virtue. Given the immense popularity of Seinfeld, in which vice is routinely given preferred status, the simple act of extolling virtue is enough to make one a cultural subversive. We agreed to play this role for his radio network at a later date.
Alan Dershowitz, the celebrated Harvard lawyer who recently admitted that he acts “as if there probably is no God,” has a different take on Seinfeld. It is his favorite show. A liberal among liberals, Dershowitz recalled a recent conversation he had with Al Gore in Israel: “The vice president asked me when I would be back in the United States and I told him and he said, ‘That’s great, you’ll be back in time for the last episode [of Seinfeld].’” Celebrities sustain their celebrity status by associating with other celebrities. Celebrity can decay very rapidly into anonymity if one gets unplugged from the media circuit that keeps his name alive and electrified.
How important was the last episode to American televiewers? A 30-second commercial spot cost $1.5 million. A 35-foot-high screen was erected in Times Square to carry the event, while negotiations were taking place to televise the show on a giant screen to 500,000 viewers in Central Park. The Smithsonian Institution made inquiries about obtaining the entire set of Seinfeld. It was the climax of a show that people said “defines our generation,” and is the “quintessential identification of the ’90s.” It was an eschatology built on nine years of hype (hope’s replacement in a world of synthetic images). It was, as some said, “a national holiday.”
Yet, in a more realistic sense, the final episode was nothing more than a pseudo-event, though it eclipsed, by far, another pseudo-event that occurred on that very same evening, namely, the sale at Sotheby’s in New York City of Andy Warhol’s Orange Marilyn for $17.3 million.
The pseudo-event, as historian Daniel Boorstin originally described it in 1961, is a synthetic novelty that creates the illusion among the masses of being more real than reality. The pseudo-event generates the celebrity. A hero is distinguished by his achievements, a celebrity by the media. A hero is a big man; a celebrity is a big name. Seinfeld, who laments that playing his role caused him to miss the nineties, is regarded by the media as its most accurate representative. Reality and fantasy are not exactly on speaking terms.
Our culture is given over to the pseudo-event, its own reflected image of the pseudo-life. The Seinfeld characters, indeed, are the personifications of the pseudo-person.
The pseudo-life begins when people decide that life should be lived not with virtue, but with vice. According to the moral metaphysics of the mass media, vice is fascinating, arousing, delightful, and memorable. Virtue, on the other hand, is seen as boring, sleep-inducing, insipid, and forgettable. This is why the spectacle of the sinking of the Titanic is infinitely more popular than the sailing of the Good Ship Lollipop (not to mention the bark of Peter, which has managed to remain afloat for 2,000 years).
When Seinfeld first became a cultural icon, deconstructionists were joyfully proclaiming that it was made in their own image. It was about nothing. There certainly were no heroes, no one who would want to venture into something as turbulent and unpredictable as marriage. But more than this, no one could lay reasonable claim to possessing character. The seven major characters over the 169 episodes lived according to the shibboleth that “vice is nice, but virtue can hurt you.” It was security they sought, not life. No one character, however, is burdened by too many vices. The writers are most democratic in their distribution of the Seven Deadly Sins—one to each. Thus, Kramer is Pride, while George is Envy, and his father and mother, Wrath and Avarice, respectively. Elaine is Lust and Newman is Gluttony. Jerry, whose ruling vice is the least recognizable, is Sloth. Together, they are exquisitely poised to get on each other’s nerves. They represent the comic side of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, in which hell is other people. Their vices prevent them from forming a community. Instead, they form a catatonic collective.
“I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure,” someone once said, charting an imaginary progress that is the moral equivalent to the T. S. Eliot character who “measures out his life with coffee spoons” (at Monk’s Restaurant, for the Seinfeld gang).
Paul Tillich once defined a neurosis as a “way of avoiding nonbeing by avoiding being.” This could be a suitable epitaph for the Seinfeld cast. For each of them, any achievement in the order of being is prevented by their indissoluble fear of what could go wrong along the way. The road to marriage and children, for example, is terrifying because it could lead to no end of calamities: rejection, embarrassment, ridicule, insolvency, unemployment, impotence, and a thousand other experiences of nonbeing. Such exaggerated fears logically induce catatonia (along with an excessive preoccupation with the trivial and the petty).
How is George, for example, going to make the journey to husbandhood and fatherhood when he becomes catatonic in the presence of a smile: “When women smile at me I don’t know what it means. Sometimes I interpret it like they’re psychotic or something. And I don’t know if I’m supposed to smile back. I don’t know what to do.” His stance reflects the heart of the show and offers a cogent reason why it is said to be about nothing. Though its characters are hopelessly lost in a world with no rules to guide them, it is not quite about nothing. It is a show where nothing matters, nothing, that is, except what happens to each character. Yet what happens to them never truly amounts to anything because their vices cause them to focus too strongly on what could go wrong. Achievement is not something that even enters their consciousness. It is contracepted, so to speak, by their neurotic anxieties.
The key to the show’s nothingness is Jerry himself and the Sloth he personifies. Sloth is not laziness as much as it is a profound and persistent refusal to take delight in anything spiritual. Sloth may be widely misinterpreted as tolerance or broadmindedness, but it may be more deeply allied with nothingness than any of the other Deadly Sins. As Dorothy Sayers has told us, “In the world it [Sloth] is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair. It is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”
Nothingness is appealing to those whose fear of nonbeing is greater than their love for being, those whose anxiety about failure is stronger than their enthusiasm for life, those who prize vice above virtue. Unfortunately, too many find comfort in nothingness. This is why the “culture of death” seems to be outpacing the “culture of life.”
But the final episode was less about nothing than any of its previous 168. It was, to the disappointment of some and to the delight of others, about justice.
Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer found themselves stranded in the mythical small town of Latham, Massachusetts, where a Good Samaritan Law had just been enacted. The New York Four, as they came to be known, were prosecuted for violating this law when they not only failed to come to the aid of a distressed citizen, but also joked about his predicament and ridiculed his personhood. The trial became a media circus, as the prosecution called on nine years’ worth of bad-character witnesses. The defense was as paltry as the Four’s behavior: “You don’t have to help anybody. That’s what this country is all about,” said lawyer Jackie Chiles, playing his role as a Johnny Cochran wannabe.
In the end, the Four were convicted of selfishness, self-absorption, and greed. They were judged guilty of having bad character and sentenced to a year in jail where they were advised to meditate on their callous disregard for the needs of their fellow human beings.
The Four, of course, are incorrigible. They begin their jail term by complaining about trivialities. Elaine can’t wear orange and Jerry has trouble getting used to a new milk level in his cereal bowl. As the final episode concludes, the Four are babbling about banalities while remaining serenely unmindful of why they have been incarcerated.
The viewer can easily imagine them nattering about inanities into eternity. Seinfeld, who is the master of looking over what most people overlook, finds himself overlooking who he is, who his friends are, and why they have been branded criminals. The joke is on the Seinfeld gang and, one hopes, not on the 80-some million televiewers. Virtue triumphed in the end. But did it really matter to anyone who was watching? Can a pseudo-event ever be a moral inspiration? In any event, we can rejoice that the Sermon on the Mount was not on television.
Donald DeMarco is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
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“Much Adieu About Nothing” first appeared in the November/December 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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