Seinfeld, abstinence, and global pandemics
In your travels, you will encounter those who insist to you, smugly and with up-turned nose, that Seinfeld offers no valuable cultural insights or instructions for our modern crises. These people are abject fools to be avoided, as it were, “like the plague.” For those who dismiss the old sitcom’s pedagogical worth fail to recall, among other highlights, a particularly fine moment for George Costanza in the season eight episode, “The Abstinence.”
George finds himself in a celibate relationship with a woman named Louise. At Jerry’s apartment, George is seen fiddling with a Rubix cube, tossing desultory Jeopardy answers at the TV while Jerry remains distracted by a phone call and Kramer’s search for matches and an ashtray. After four or so correct guesses, a bewildered Jerry asks if George is watching a rerun. He then quickly deduces, with a head of lettuce as his visual aid, that George’s abstinence has freed the portion of his brain previously devoted solely to sex obsession to explore other long-neglected intellectual pursuits. The results are magnificent: the scene ends with George solving the cube and rushing out to retrieve his lost childhood retainer whose location he’d suddenly remembered.
Though a dalliance with a Portuguese waitress eventually robs the world of the might of George Costanza’s intellect, there’s a deeper significance to this episode nonetheless. I discovered it quite unexpectedly during a lecture on World War One memorials last fall. My professor had just begun to discuss Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of Great Britain’s eminent architects at the time and the man responsible for a slew of notable World War One memorials. She then mentioned in passing that Lutyens’ wife had described sex with him as “unbearable”, so much so that she restricted the shy man’s conjugal privileges to the routine of procreation. In other words, if I may phrase it this way, from the time he married Lutyens could count his lays by the number of children in his home. Driving home the parallel, my professor suggested that perhaps Lutyens had sublimated his unspent libido into masterful artistic output.
Ah — and here lies the concealed wisdom of the “show about nothing,” as promised. Whether or not Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld knew anything about Sir Edwin Lutyens and his marital troubles is a mystery to me. What matters is that audiences have been sneakily led — seduced, if you will — to an obscure bit of history with much present-day relevance.
Lutyens dealt with the issue of societal memory in the midst of dual crises: the first world war and the Spanish influenza. His designs — among them The Cenotaph, where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier originally stood before it moved to Westminster Abbey, and the Memorial at Thiepval, which commemorates the Somme’s missing soldiers — helped revolutionize the practice of war memorialization by honoring the anonymous common soldier instead of just the generals. In the wake of The Great War’s unprecedented devastation, Lutyens helped people document and process the colossal trauma they’d just endured. (Interestingly, his “All-India War Memorial,” designed to remind Indians of their loyalty to the British crown during a period of fervent anti-colonialism, has been shunned in its original form; it’s now known as the “India Gate” and functions as a leisure site with no visible relation to the war.)
The same commemorative treatment did not extend to the Spanish influenza, though it killed far more people than the already singularly murderous war. Why, today’s experienced pandemic endurers might ask, was this so?
Historians give several plausible answers. One suggests that the misery of the pandemic led to its repression in society’s collective memory. This makes sense until one considers the intense memorialization of World War One, a catastrophe no less jarring to the psyche than the pandemic. Another theory holds that patriotism and soldierly honor kept the memory of the war alive. Where a death from the flu usually served no noble cause, instead reflecting human weakness, death in combat evoked notions of honor and valiant struggle — or so popular thinking may have gone. Nietzsche pointed out humanity’s ability to withstand great suffering provided it wasn’t meaningless; maybe World War One features more prominently in historical memory than the Spanish flu because its horrors could be shrouded in higher meaning.
All this talk of sex and repressed memories beckons Freud into the picture. It was he, after all, who wrote of the foundational role of repressed sexual instincts in creating an ultimately dysfunctional civilization. It was Freud, moreover, who pioneered psychoanalysis and “the talking cure” as a means of dealing with the neurosis such repression engendered — the same methods he used to treat shell shock patients after the war.
While it’s highly unlikely that the COVID-19 pandemic will go un-commemorated, its memorialization still deserves serious attention. Art, especially that which honors the common individual, seems as fitting a means as any for recording the massive loss and overwhelming suffering of the past two years. Many could probably benefit from talk therapy of some kind to deal with the weird, deeply embedded psychological effects of pandemic life. Most of all, remember that shows supposedly about nothing contain the seeds of helpful remedies more often than you’d think.