coen brothers, douglas adams, dybbuk, eric karpeles, improbability, jewish culture, joel and ethan coen, michael stuhlbarg, mike sell, new york times, probability, the mentaculus, the ultimate hitchhiker's guide, venice magazine
I’m still thinking about the Coen Brothers’ movie A Serious Man. Darn thing has crawled under my skin.
In the movie, Arthur, Prof. Lawrence Gopnik’s brother, has taken up residence on Lawrence’s couch. Arthur is working on a book called The Mentaculus, which is supposed to be a probability map of the universe. The viewer is given a brief look at a couple of the pages in The Mentaculus and let me tell you, it’s wicked cool.
With a title like The Mentaculus, it sounds like the book is part of some larger myth of society or perhaps of Jewish culture, just like the dybbuk introduced in the movie’s opening scene. I had to do some research on The Mentaculus to be sure.
Of course, I didn’t watch the movie with a pen and paper in hand, so the name – The Mentaculus – didn’t precisely stick with me. I looked up “menticula,” which shows up in a Middle English dictionary. I searched for “manticula,” which, depending on the source, is either a fossil or “a small wallet, purse, pouch.” I also tried “menticulus,” and came up with “. . . the menticulus of the Moabites, which Ensebius called the watch tower of the country, and which St. Jerome has translated a high place,” according to TRAVELS THROUGH TH BALEARIC AND P1TH1USIAN ISLANDS, PERFORMED BETWEEN THE YEARS 1801 AND 1806. (Sorry for the all-caps, there. I did a copy-paste of the title and that’s how it came out.)
Hubby came to my rescue on the name and my search uncovered an interview of Michael Stuhlbarg, the actor who played Lawrence Gopnik, in Venice Magazine. He had asked the Coen Brothers about The Mentaculus and here’s what he had to say ….
“The Mentaculus is actually taken from a friend of theirs who wrote this thing called the Mentaculus. It was the same thing— someone who was trying to create a probability map of the universe, and probably went a little mad in the process. So they just stole from the truth that was their lives, and threw it in the movie.”
He further said that two artists created the book seen in the movie; Mike Sell and Eric Karpeles. (Having trouble locating a link for Mike Sell, but both men are mentioned in this piece from the New York Times. Wait, think I found something. Could this be the proper Mike Sell? Forgive me if it’s not.)
So there you have it, and I have it: The Mentaculus, which sounds like some larger-than-life myth, isn’t. Although we could probably run with the idea and make it a larger-than-life myth.
Curiously, I am currently reading The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide by Douglas Adams. The book features a spaceship called Heart of Gold that has an Infinite Improbability Drive. Probability map in The Mentaculus, improbability drive in the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Sounds like two sides to the same coin.