Just as history is seldom made by nice people, the sacred is rarely found in comfortable places. That is its cruelty, the cruelty of our own desire.
The masters of culture, which today means popular culture, are aware of the paradoxical tensions implicit in the displacement of the sacred. One of the most astute of these is Jerry Seinfeld, for the past several years the baby-boomers’ favorite comedian. The vagaries of sacrality on his show reflect the historically unprecedented intensity of our obsession with celebrity. But the term obsession is pretentious in its implication that we are suffering from a mental disorder that my discourse would cure. Those who promote the return to traditional forms of sacrality find in such obsessions the mark of decadence. But our society as a whole cannot remain indifferent to the expanded interactions facilitated by the dynamic of the market system. We must seek the sacred, not idolatrously within this system, but by working through its operations of transcendence, the movement beyond material exchange that is the negative essence of the human, and which our systems of representation reveal to us.
A recent Seinfeld episode involved George Costanza, the most morally deficient of the series’ characters, in a bizarrely improbable relationship with a popular young film actress whom I shall call X to avoid contaminating my own discourse with the sacrality of a name repeated in a quasi-incantatory manner throughout this episode. George, who is already engaged to a young woman far more desirable than he appears capable of attracting, is informed by an acquaintance that X is both lonely and predisposed to bald, funny little men of George’s description. Overwhelmed by the news, he can think of nothing else; he will do anything to make X’s acquaintance, including haranguing her friend immobilized in a hospital bed. And the actress herself indeed appears twice in the episode. At first she plays the materialization of George’s fantasy as he watches for the nth time a video of one of her films. But the second time, she meets him in the flesh on a bench in Central Park, where she seems enchanted with his idiotic playing on the word “manure”–a no doubt unconscious reminder of the Agricultural Fair scene in Madame Bovary.
Thus the barrier between the sacred world of media celebrity and the profane world of anonymity is breached. Seinfeld continually plays on the paradoxical interplay between the eponymous hero’s own contacts with the celebrity world and his participation in the anonymous community of the show. (Kramer too breaches this barrier on occasion without being affected by it, as when he appears in an episode of Murphy Brown.) In another episode, Joe DiMaggio is sighted dunking doughnuts at a nearby table. But the great man does not actually appear; he dwells in a higher circle of sacrality that cannot interact with the profane world.
The actress slaps George and walks off in disgust when she learns he is engaged, just as, several episodes later, she hangs up on him when he calls to ask her out on the day after (!) his late fiancee’s funeral. Nonetheless, she participates sufficiently in his life to give him a taste of the sacred denied the vast majority of the show’s spectators. This differs from earlier-generation situation comedies, where celebrities were treated with unabashed hero-worship and maintained, as DiMaggio is here, strictly as external mediators of the show’s characters. This formula extended even to such shows as I Love Lucy that dealt, like Seinfeld, with the world of show business. Desi, and Lucy on occasion, had a show, but that did not diminish the distance between them and their star guests. The X episode illustrates the passage from external to internal mediation, where the worship of celebrity has become contingent on imaginary participation in its aura.
My first reaction was to deplore the internalization of mediation as tending to increase the resentment of those whose desire for real contact with celebrity cannot so easily be satisfied. But Seinfeld‘s treatment of this issue, as of so many others, cuts both ways. No doubt to make X a possible date for George Costanza, as though the celebrity of Jason Alexander were that of the character he plays, cuts off the world of Seinfeld from that of the spectator. But by the same token, it banalizes celebrity as a sacred category. X behaves as any other woman would when confronted with George’s moral abyss; her purported predilection for his “type” merely sets up her condemnation of his character. In traditional cultural forms, sacred figures, representatives of our originary model of moral reciprocity, enter as dei ex machina to preserve the social order. X‘s slap too affirms this order, but this is an affirmation any other woman could have made in her place.
Thus X only confirms our judgment that George is the exemplary Seinfeld character, a failed solipsist for whom others are not objects of love but unavowed mediators and ever-threatening rivals. Yet the four principal characters form a community. It is supremely reassuring that they return each week, having learned and forgotten nothing of their mutual inhumanity in the previous episode. Their threats to abandon the group, like their fleeting contacts with celebrity, express aspirations toward real life that we know they can never fulfill; like dysfunctional Peter Pans, they draw us into a world where we know that our crimes against each other will always be forgiven. Their constant association is in itself a sign of the mutual love that is the ultimate cement of any community. Thus in its deadpan cynicism, Seinfeld, like all significant cultural phenomena, promotes love over resentment.