Michael Scott and C.S. Lewis

February 4, 2009 | 23 comments
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While I don’t really have a television, there are a couple of shows that I regularlly watch through Netflix or hulu.com.  Among them is The Office.  I actually think that some of C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on the nature of love help to make sense of Michael Scott.  One of the running gags in The Office — somewhat muted of late — is the odd, almost-but-not-quite sexual attraction of Michael Scott to the Ryan the Temp. Part of the reason that this joke works, I think, is because it is so very strange. Michael is clearly not gay. One might be tempted to see the strange relationship with Ryan as a reference to some latent bi-sexuality with Michael, but I don’t think that this is quite right either. One can’t really picture Michael Scott with a male lover. The result is that the relationship with Ryan is simply really, really wierd and extremely uncomfortable, precisely because it doesn’t fit into the categories of sexual identity — straight, gay, bi — in which contemporary culture sorts people. Ryan can’t respond to Michael as making awkward homosexual advances, precisely because they aren’t homosexual advances. This what keeps them in that position of exquisite discomfort that drives the humor of Michael Scott and The Office.

I recently listend to a recording of C.S. Lewis’s lecture on the four loves: storge, philia, eros, and agape. I wonder if the older taxonomy that Lewis discusses might make better sense of Michael Scott’s relationship to Ryan. Lewis takes as his starting point that Greek has four different words that can be translated as love. Storge corresponds to something like affection. According to Lewis it is the feeling that one has for a small child, a pet, or a puppy. Philia means something like friendship. Eros is sexual attraction, although its meaning is much deeper than that. Finally, Lewis identifies agape as charity or the universal love of God. While I don’t think that we can understand Michael Scott as having a confused sexual identity in the modern sense — he is clearly straight — I do think that it makes sense to think of him as confusing different kinds of love in C.S. Lewis’s sense.

Michael Scott clearly wishes above all else to have philia with his employees. In this, however, he is wholly unsuccessful. At best what he achieves is storge, which as Lewis observes can be a selfish and even smothering affection more focused on the emotional satisfaction of the person with storge than on the object of the storge. Think, for example, of the way that Michael can express deep and genuine feelings about his employees while being utterly indifferent to their concerns. This is the classic way in which storge runs amok, says Lewis. Scott’s storge however is further confused — at least in the case of Ryan the Temp — by its infusion with eros. It is not that Michael Scott is a latent homosexual who is subconsciously attracted to Ryan. Rather, it is that he does not properly understand how to love in any of its four sense. The joke is that his attempts at philia are nothing more than a mistaken amalgemation of storge and eros.

Which, of course, still leaves Ryan the Temp in an exceedingly awkward position, but one that makes more sense of Michael Scott’s dysfunction than the contempmorary tools of Freud and sexual identity.

[Cross-posted at Akrasia]

23 Responses to Michael Scott and C.S. Lewis

  1. Adam Greenwood on February 4, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Pretty good. What’s missing is an explanation of how a desire for philia or storge manifests itself as eros.

    I blame the culture.

  2. Geoff B on February 4, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I think you are onto something here. Some people will try to categorize Michael Scott as a latent homosexual unwilling to acknowledge his “true feelings,” and they will site his weird and unsatisfying relationship with his former boss (forget her name) as an example. But then how do you explain his obvious love for Holly?

    It is clear that Michael Scott doesn’t know how to have normal relationships. His personality is sometimes sociopathic and at other times incredibly affectionate towards his employees, whom he wants to see as his friends (even though they reject him).

    It seems to me that there really aren’t people who are like Michael Scott in ALL of his personality traits. He is a mixture of perhaps five different types of personality traits. That is the genius of the show because people can say to themselves, “oh yeah, my boss is JUST LIKE THAT,” but in reality their boss is really just like Michael Scott in one of his many personality traits.

    So it makes sense to look at the CS Lewis categories of love and how they apply to Michael Scott but also recognize that he doesn’t fit into any specific category because his personality is not completely real (just as he is not a real person but a fictional character). :)

  3. Jane on February 4, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Have you seen the Superbowl spot “Butt Slap”?

    http://www.nbc.com/super-bowl/exclusives/jumbotron/?video=976741

    And Sunday’s episode “Stress Relief” that has Michael instigating a roast of himself?

    http://www.nbc.com/The_Office/video/episodes/?vid=982421#vid=982421

    Could not support your theory any better.

  4. Susan M on February 4, 2009 at 11:54 am

    What makes Michael Scott charming—or at least, bearable—is that he wants to be loved so badly.

    But with Ryan it’s different. He wants Ryan to love him, sure, but more than that—he wants to *be* Ryan.

  5. Wm Morris on February 4, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    I love this post. It’s awesome.

    But can I please register a complaint about having double items in one’s feed reader and, even worse, having two places to track conversations. At least with Keepa all comments are directed to Ardis’ personal blog.

  6. Wm Morris on February 4, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Oh, and while I’m at it — there’s no reason why every single Bloggernacle blog shouldn’t include the full text in their RSS feed. I’m much more likely to click through and join the conversation if I can actually see what people responding to.

  7. Steve Evans on February 4, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Dissecting jokes is the surest way to kill them, Nate.

    [cross-posted at Akrasia]

  8. Nate Oman on February 4, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Adam: It’s an interesting qustion. Contemporary culture deals with eros through the notion of sexual identity, but in the older taxonomy it needn’t be linked to the tri-cotomy of sexual appetite into hetero-, bi-, and homosexual. Indeed, eros needn’t even be sexual at all. It might be that Michael Scott ought to be seen as a heroic subverter of the culture who is trying to reclaim eros from the politics of sexual identity. Alternatively, we might say that the culture makes the erotic into the highest kind of love, and in his desire to love greatly Michael succombs to this lie with tragi-comic results.

    Jane: I saw “Stress Relief” and blogged my ideas here.

  9. Nate Oman on February 4, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Steve: You are, of course, wrong. Dissecting jokes is a way of getting use out of them after the laughter has died, much like using a friend’s cadaver for medical research once they pass on…

  10. Tim J on February 4, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I recently saw the “Prison Mike” epsidode where Michael explains what would happen to Ryan in prison.

    “Oh and you, you my friend would be the bell of the ball! Don’t drop the soap, don’t drop the soap.”

    “Michael, please.”

    (kissing sounds)

    Awkward.

  11. Mark Brown on February 4, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    You are, of course, wrong.

    That’s what she said.

  12. Adam Greenwood on February 4, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Aagh, I’m surrounded by geeks! On T&S, of all places.

  13. Marc on February 4, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Stellar post Nate.

  14. Rob Perkins on February 4, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    DANGIT. Wm Morris beat me to the “I love this post” joke!

  15. Hunter on February 4, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Nate, while I appreciate your point that Lewis’ four kinds of love can be, say, intermingled, I hardly think The Office is the best way to prove your point. I mean, for all of its subtlety, The Office is still just a sit-com. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I hardly doubt that the writers of The Office sit around trying to figure out how to make Michael Scott’s character uniquely multidimensional in this regard. Rather, I think they come up with a plot line, and mold his reaction for the purpose of creating most laughs.

    Having said that, I think Steve Carell is a terrific actor.

  16. Nate Oman on February 4, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Hunter: Why should I care what the authors are thinking? I don’t see that the meaning of what they create is limited by their intentions. Indeed, I think that Socrates was right; generally speaking when the poets say something profound or beautiful they don’t know why they do so and aren’t even particularlly good at articluating how they do what they do.

  17. Nate Oman on February 4, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Incidentally, my main point is that there are more ways of thinking about love in heaven and hell than are dreamt of in the philosophy of Freud and sexual identity.

  18. Hunter on February 4, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    Good enough, Nate Oman. I suppose I was probably responding more to comment no. 2 than your original post, and should have directed my comment to Geoff B. And I repeat my appreciation of the main point you make in the post. This is good stuff.

    But, if, by your reference to Socrates, you are agreeing with Geoff B’s comment about the “genius” mixture of Michael Scott’s personality traits, I suppose all I can say is that I think it takes some major creativity to get there. No, you don’t have to care what the script writers think, but to ascribe some overall purpose and seasons-long development of Michael Scott’s character in this regard is, to me, a bit too charitable.

    Either that, or maybe I just need to watch more episodes of The Office to really get it.

    Anyhow, back to your main point. I apologize to the extent my comments were an unneccessary threadjack.

  19. Catania on February 4, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    Maybe all of this can be rectified if C.S. Lewis had included a fifth type of love:
    “Man Crush.”

  20. Margaret Young on February 4, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    I read this to my husband, who teaches a course in CS Lewis and who is a great fan of “The Office.” He liked it. Kudos.

  21. Carborendum on February 4, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    I believe you’re missing a very real phenomenon that isn’t easily categorizeable (is that even a word?)

    When Heath Ledger was reading for (I believe) “Knight’s Tale” or possibly “10 Things . . .” the director told the casting directors,”Ladies, I’ve never wanted to sleep with a man. But if I did, that would be the man. Please hire him.”

    Now, clearly this was not a homosexual tendency or advance or desire. But some people just exude a sexuality that isn’t about our libido. It is about an exitement that manifests itself in a variety of emotions — including eros. The problem is that I just can’t see that with Ryan. But maybe that is what they’re trying to portray.

    Or maybe we’re over-analyzing a non-sensical joke that doesn’t have to mean anything to be funny.

    Gee, could such a thing come from “The Office”? Naaahhh.

  22. Lupita on February 5, 2009 at 12:58 am

    Loved this post.

  23. Wm Morris on February 5, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Regarding what Hunter says in #18:

    One of the things that I have found interesting about watching the American version of the Office is how much All That Has Gone on Before impacts how I view an individual episode. Some of the funny and more especially the pathos (and this was especially true in the Michael Scott arc with Holly) comes from prior episodes and seasons. I’m not talking about direct references to events of the past (although those do happen from time to time) but rather the set of behaviors and reactions we expect from the characters as well as an anticipation over such in relation to their knowledge of the past and the re-shifting of statuses that occur.

    This is a very different experience from watching Seinfeld (no change of characters or situations, really) or Friends (major changes in relationships and statuses but none that really made the current funny all that more funny or interesting).

    Perhaps I’m seeing things that aren’t actually there. But the characters in the Office and their relationships do shift subtly over time and those shifts do impact future writing and current viewing. One excellent example: The Phyllis of season one wouldn’t have the guts to take over Angela’s party planner position. The Phyllis of season four/five is able to because of a newfound sense of security (related to her marriage to Bob Vance) and because of her knowing about and being willing to exploit the cracks in Angela’s facade.

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