So here is what Punxsatawney Phil actually said today. [1]

“It’s mighty cold weather, you’ve been braving. Is it more winter or is it spring that you’re craving? Since you’ve been up all night and starting to tottle, I, Punxsutawney Phil, shall not dawdle,” the proclamation read. “My faithful followers, I could clearly see a beautiful, perfect shadow of me. Six more weeks of winter, it shall be!”

So now we know. What we don’t know is whether life means anything if it isn’t “going anywhere.” It’s a question worth asking, so I think we ought to begin with a Japanese existentialist novel. What better place?

dunes-1Kobo Abe’s 1964 novel The Woman in the Dunes is the first treatment of this theme I know about. The protagonist , Niki Junpei, is an entomologist who is trapped in a sand pit because the locals won’t let him leave. All day every day he must shovel back the ever-advancing sand dunes. A young woman lives in the cave as well and they both work at this task. Eventually, working at this endless task along with the young woman comes to seem an appropriate way to spend his life.

The movie of the same name by director Masaki Kobayashi is also well known. Reviewer Michelle “Izzy” Organa characterizes the entomologist’s original reaction to his plight as “his arrogance and desire to leave.” So someone—either director Kobayashi or reviewer Organa—feels that the entomologist’s desire to go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do is “arrogant.” [2]

Grappling with the trials of Niki Junpei is much heavier work than grappling with the trials of Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day is the same story as Woman in the Dunes in every thematic sense, but no one has ever said Woman in the Dunes is a comedy. Groundhog Day is certainly a comedy.

In each, however, there comes a point when the protagonist either “chooses” (Junpei) or “accepts” (Connors) his fate. Here is Wikipedia’s summary of the plot.

Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant Pittsburgh TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, finds himself caught in a time loop, repeating the same day again and again. After indulging in hedonism and committing suicide numerous times, he begins to re-examine his life and priorities.

Note that “arrogant” shows up again. We could make Groundhog Day a much more serious movie than director Harold Ramis wants it to be by asking just what rights the “arrogant” Connors has “arrogated to himself,” but that is not the way the movie goes.

And when Connors says, “I’m happy now,” it means a lot more than it would mean if I said it. If I said “now,” I would be contrasting it with some “then” or other. Maybe “back then” or some “will I still be happy then” in the future. But for a man who knows that “now” is all he will ever have, to be happy “now” is a very big deal.

Connors has become happy “now” by taking his recurring day—just the one day: every daydune-5 begins with the same weather forecast and the same music and the same pointless jokes on the radio—and turning it into a ritual of good deeds. He changes the flat tire on a car, peforms the Heimlich maneuver on a man choking to death in a local restaurant, catches a kid falling out of a tree, rescues a homeless man from starving and freezing to death. And…he honestly courts a woman he loves, knowing that she will continue to reject him and that he will continue to deserve rejection.

Of course “she,” Andie McDowell, does in fact fall in love with him and either that or something else breaks the spell and magically “tomorrow” arrives with its resolution of absolutely everything.

Still…I like to find and cherish the serious questions embedded in comedies. Perhaps I don’t feel so threatened by them if they are in comedies. But the question is, What would you do with your life if nothing “mattered” in the sense of leading to anything. Your actions, good or bad, have no consequences at all for “tomorrow.” In that context, would you choose to do good to your fellows?

Would you really? Why?

[1]  For the benefit of western or non-North American readers, Punxsatawney Phil is a groundhog is western Pennsylvania who is supposed to come out of his hole on the second day of February and look around to see if he can see his shadow.  If he can, that means there will be six more weeks of cold weather.  It may sound like the sheerest nonsense, but it is dear to the merchants of Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania.

[2]  There is the question, of course, of what is arrogant about wanting to get on with your plans for your life.  Etymologically, you are arrogant if you arrogate to yourself some good, to “claim or seize with out right,” says my Webster’s phone app.  That makes the relationship between arrogate and arrogant clear.  But both come from the Latin verb rogare, which means “to ask.”  That connection does not seem clear to me.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Groundhog

  1. Bonnie Klein says:

    I have not read The Woman in the Dunes, but it appears that the “work” in that novel was with sand, despite the growing relationship with the woman; in Groundhog Day it was with people. (Actually, wasn’t that the original choice Phil Connors made? He could have secluded himself. For an excellent, complex short story on the question of whether “To live anyhow is better than not at all,” see Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet,” a ten minute read. Some of the stages the lawyer goes through are exactly the same as Phil’s, though differently ordered.)

    If the case is that life, even the life of a day that repeats itself over and over, is to be about people, then I can let the homeless person and my brother (the choking victim was played by Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill’s brother) die, let the elderly ladies deal with their flat on their own, and allow the young boy to fall from the tree to grave injury, or I can do something for them…AND, I might add, receive from them the warmth, love, and accolades Phil received for his service (except from the kid: “You NEVER thanked me!”).

    Also, without getting too technical–it’s a movie!–it was the events and the lives of the people around him that repeated; Phil’s life did go on. He learned. He tried new things. He changed his life from one of seemingly constant dissatisfaction and turmoil to one of appreciation. So in answer to your question, while the effects of my actions would not “go on” for weeks or years, my day would go on for 24 hours. For that time, my life would have potential and I would have the agency to realize it. 🙂

    • hessd says:

      I love your analysis here, Bonnie! It had not occurred to me that it is everyone else’s life that repeats. Their events are the same and their responses are the same. Phil’s events are the same, at least some of them, but he is able to vary his responses to them That is how he was able to pose as a high school friend of Nancy Johnson (bad Phil) but also how he was able to learn to play the piano (good Phil).

      There is a woman in the dunes, of course, along with the entomologist, so I think that in the Japanese narrative, the choice is between these people and those people as well as between these tasks and those tasks. I think that if I were to try to write out this movie, I would have had “the people that belong to the good Phil” tasks and “the people that belong to the bad Phil” tasks–joining the people and the actions, but putting the actions first. I think it is ideas like that that mean no one will ever trust me with a movie script.

      Thanks so much for your provocative ideas, Bonnie.

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