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]