Noah Solloway seems to have it all. The perfect marriage, the New Yorker life, the loving family, and the romantic job of having to teach and enlighten the generations of the future. Yet, behind this portraiture of perfection, there is a man angry with the world. His father-in-law has the life that Noah always wanted. He is the famous writer, while Noah’s unavailing efforts have only produced an inconsequential novel. Noah’s life is like a stage, where the invisible threads of a playscript bestow on everyone a place on it. Noah’s place is simple: to be the loving companion of the spoiled princess he married. He is not to have dreams of his own. He is not to live a life of his own. He is to play his part, until one day he meets Alison. Alison represents everything Noah needs her to represent. So that far from seeing her as the broken mother that has lost a child, Noah finds in Alison something he has not found in anyone else in a long time: desire.
The latter is how Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, the creators of Showtime’s hit TV show The Affair, decided to introduce Noah Solloway to us: as the faithful servant of a symbolic order that holds everything and everyone loosely together. Noah is indeed an actor on a stage playing a role. A role circumstantially created for him, but which he is tired of playing. But, why would Noah want to drop out from such a successful play? Why would he want to rebel against the symbolic order? The answer comes from our good old friends the psychoanalysts. Once upon a time in a book called The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud basically explains Noah’s case. Freud argues that the social fabric in which we live, bestows on us roles to play and rules to abide by. The rules of social life knit for us scenarios where we will be able to bring to life the characters we have been assigned. Yet, it is only natural for the restless thinking person to feel the power of the symbolic order as a constraining force that kills our own natural selves. So that eventually the rebel emerges; the brave superhero that thinks that he or she will be able to be free from the constraints of the play -the symbolic order- and will finally be everything this person was repressing. As Noah meets and falls in love -or in lust better said- with Alison, he decides precisely to free himself from the stage where he is acting, to follow what he believes he truly wants. Alison is an out, the immediate possibility to escape from the suffocating play where Noah is living. But as Noah takes those irreversible steps, one cannot help to ask, is he truly rebelling, or is he simply following a turn of events already intended for his character?
As Noah decides to surrender himself to the strong instincts that move him, he materializes, nonetheless, Freud’s prediction. In The Future of an Illusion Freud argues as well that as the rebel fights the symbolic, his revolution only ends up showing him that the symbolic protects him from even darker realities. Hence, as the proverbial Freudian rebel, Noah, then, sees his life crumble, because of his decision to have an affair with Alison. Not only is Alison deeply damaged, but more importantly, Noah destroys his marriage, sees his eldest daughter make terrible decisions out of spite against her dad, loses the connection he had with his sons, becomes the father of Alison’s new born that is not actually his, and becomes embroiled in the death of Alison’s former brother-in-law, which eventually gets him in jail. It is here that we finally see how Noah was not actually rebelling, but simply playing an unusual facet of his character, because the thrust that Noah felt to fight against the symbolic order was only the natural twist that most plays contain. I am talking about the twist when the leading actor feels the urge to peek at what lies behind the script he is following, only to come back to the play, because of how terrified he feels of what he sees out there. Like that, Noah peeked at the infinity that lies behind the symbolic order, and saw nothing else but a miserable life. So that as Slavoj Žižek argues in his On Belief, the rebel ends up coming back to the play and tries to piece it back together: tries to revive the illusion!
In season 3 of The Affair, however, something strange happens. Noah has followed the bizarre wishes of the symbolic, even to the point of his own character destroying himself. He is now ready to come back to the play. Yet, the play does not seem to want him anymore. As he is finally released from jail, he finds out that the very symbolic order that pushed him to rebel so that he came back running and asking for forgiveness, is now rejecting him. His character seems to be gone, there is no room for him. He struggles throughout the season, and aiming to make sense of it, he delves into his darker traumas, trying to fix them, as if the symbolic order was demanding him to clean up to be worthy of his character again. He falls in love (or lust) again, but now with a French colleague professor, only to find out in a turbulent trip to France, that he does not fit there either. Finally, in the season finale we see Noah bringing back home his troubled eldest daughter, saving her from a destructing partner. Noah delivers his daughter to his ex-wife, so that they can enjoy Christmas together. As he leaves, he takes a cab, and meets the quintessential human question: Che Vuoi?
For psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Che Vuoi is the necessary question that asks to the symbolic order: what do you want from me? In his masterful The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek provides a subtler explanation of Che Vuoi, where this is not only the natural question asking what does the symbolic order want from me, but what does it really want from me: “'You're telling me that, but what do you want with it, what are you aiming at?'” (1989, p. 123). Noah encapsulates precisely the Žižekian definition of Che Vuoi, as he has faithfully played his role, even when the role made no sense demanding him to destroy it all. Yet, now like the Phoenix, Noah has re-emerged and comes back ready to play his part as scripted, only to find out that there seems to be no place for him anymore. It is from this that his true latent feelings loom: ‘what do you really want from me? I have done everything, but nothing makes sense anymore, what are you aiming at?’ Noah, like the archetypal hysteric, does not understand what this play is all about anymore or who his character is. But, who has not felt the same, right? As we go through life most of us play our roles, only to reach a point, when we must wonder what was the point of it all, where is this all pointing to? Call it the hard-working student that strives to achieve a degree only to end up unemployed, or the devoted wife that ends up being cheated, or the faithful praying disciple that is abandoned by his God in a tragedy; the point is that we have all -at some point or another- angrily asked: ‘Che vuoi? What do you really want from me? What are you aiming at?’ Like this, Noah gets on his cab. The cab driver asks him where is he going, and despite his best efforts, Noah cannot answer the question. He does not know anymore what the symbolic order wants from him. Like a servant without his master he is adrift: are not we all?
Freud, S. (2004). The Future of an Illussion. London: Penguin Books.
Zizek, S. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.
Zizek, S. (2001). On Belief. New York: Routledge.