“Therapy”: A Kierkegaardian Sitcom

Tubby is into therapy. On any given day, he might drop by his aroma therapist and get a concoction of essential oils rubdown while inhaling infusions of lavender and such to improve, for example, his virility. Or Tubby will go in for a bit of acupuncture. One of his problems is with a knee.[1] Or Tubby will pay a visit to his behavioral therapist. Or he’ll meet his friend Amy for another installment of pretend paramour therapy. Amy is into psychotherapy, so she sees only one therapist, but goes every day.

Tubby’s behavioral therapist has suggested he keep a journal, writing therapy, and he does, and the result is David Lodge’s therapy, a novel titled “Therapy.”[2] Reading is another kind of therapy.

Tubby discovers Kierkegaard, and is struck, somewhat fancifully, by what he sees to be the resemblance of Soren’s issues to his own. Judging from his symptoms, Tubby appears to suffer from depression.

This is the sort of thing that catches his eye in Kierkegaard, from “Either/Or”:

“What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music.”

What does Tubby relate to here? He’s not a poet. He’s a television sitcom writer, a very successful one. He has a lovely wife, Sally, and two grown children successfully out on their own. He lives in a nice country house with nearby club, and also has a flat in the city, and owns a custom car his daughter has nicknamed “The Richmobile.”

Tubby is free to come and go as he pleases – etcetera. But he has no rest.

It’s not even that he’s not happy. He’s able to enjoy the fine things his money can buy, but enjoyment seems something different from happiness. He contributes to charities. He’s a nice guy. He sticks up to the cops for a street urchin camped out on the stoop of his urban flat.

Tubby appears to be depressed, though depression’s close friend, anxiety, does not come along for the ride. Tubby finds in Kierkegaard someone who understands his problem, a soulmate. Again from “Either/Or”:

“In addition to my numerous other acquaintances I have still one more intimate friend — my melancholy. In the midst of pleasure, in the midst of work, he beckons to me, calls me aside, even though I remain present bodily. My melancholy is the most faithful sweetheart I have had — no wonder that I return the love!”

Tubby loves Sally, but he’s no longer able to listen to her, and when she tells him she’s leaving, he doesn’t hear that either.

The themes of “Therapy” are Kierkegaardian: angst and dread, though both wear a smile in the novel; the seducer, hapless but caring; repetition, particularly the attempt to recover first experiences and to reclaim; commitment, the idea of the aesthetic interest, competitive interest (which may include ethics), and religious interest illustrating three layers of involvement, an analysis that might be applied to just about any pursuit; the absurd (and what better way to illustrate the absurd in contemporary life than the sitcom?), and the pilgrimage.

Lodge has adapted Kierkegaard to the situation comedy, blending references to Soren and his writings into Tubby’s story in unobtrusive ways, but both implicitly and explicitly. “Therapy,” Lodge’s novel, is a situation comedy. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get or don’t appreciate Kierkegaard; the casual reader may still find Lodge’s book an engaging and entertaining reading experience, in spite of its existential crossings. There is within it a playful sense of form and voice. Plus you learn about the making of sitcoms, from an insider’s view.

But about that engagement analysis. The book ends, wildly enough, with a pilgrimage, and Tubby uses a Kierkegaardian commitment analysis to explain the various types of pilgrims he encounters. He glosses “the three stages in personal development according to Kierkegaard – the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious,” applying them to the pilgrims making their way toward Santiago via the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James).

The first pilgrim, “the aesthetic type,” is on the road for enjoyment, to appreciate the views, the air, the exercise. The second pilgrim, the “ethical type,” is concerned with propriety, the rules of the way, procedures, and may be critical of those pilgrims who don’t see the way his way. The third pilgrim, “the true pilgrim,” like Kierkegaard’s true Christian, embraces the absurdity of the non-rational – indeed, that is what calls her to it; passion supersedes commandment. There is no reason to do this, and that becomes the reason for doing it.

“The aesthetic pilgrim didn’t pretend to be a true pilgrim. The ethical pilgrim was always worrying whether he was a true pilgrim. The true pilgrim just did it” (“Therapy” 304-305).

Taking philosophical propositions and turning them into templates is probably a philistine idea, but one that might possibly result in effective therapeutical analysis. To use the three stages as a template, substitute any aim, belief, or disposition you’d like for the word pilgrim in the quote above: hipster, poet, professor, or politician, for example. Or try your own selfie identifying word in place of pilgrim.

 

[1] I’ve never been to an acupuncturist, enculturated as I am to believe health care is synonymous with medicine; but this week, walking in town, we happened to pass a sidewalk sign advertising group acupuncture. How does that work, I asked Susan – they skewer you like on a kebab?

[2] “Therapy,” by David Lodge. Penguin Books, 1996. I had picked up Lodge’s “The Art of Fiction” for a project I was working on. I liked his appeal to the casual reader, and looking at his other books, decided to try “Therapy.” Ethical type Kierkgegaardians may find it merely quaint, but true Kierkgegaardians might enjoy the humor. As for me, I’m not a Kierkegaardian at all, but thanks to “Therapy,” I do know now how to pronounce his name. Maybe that makes me an aesthetic Kierkgegaardian?

Sitcom