Perhaps one of the more clever ways of defining “soul” is to imagine what a human might look like without one. Years ago, while working for a state university, I had a co-worker who was reflecting on the caustic, and at times, heartless decision-making of a major state university administrator.
“Do you think it is possible,” my friend pondered, “for a person not to have a soul?”
Given the way this rather heartless administrator treated those around him, it seemed possible to my friend. My companion grew up in an Irish Catholic background, had a Jesuit for an uncle, and received in his childhood more than his share of conversations about right and wrong, and the ultimate rewards or punishments awaiting the righteous and unrighteous.
Could we exist without a soul? This is exactly the premise of a quirky film, Cold Souls, a comedy-drama starring the exceptional Yale-educated actor, Paul Giamatti. The actor plays himself … sort of … rehearsing for a theater production of Uncle Vanya, a famous play by Antonin Chekhov. The play, if you are familiar with it, is awash in the seeming futility of life, the wrong choices we make in our youth that doom us to ennui for the rest of our lives, and the “no exit” unrequited love of our passions for those out of our reach.
Giamatti, feeling the burden on his soul of this heavy material, learns of a company in Manhattan that can temporarily remove your soul, with all of its conflicts and distracting negative feelings, and keep it in cold storage while you take a holiday from the weight of human existence. His soul is removed, for the two-week run of the play, and placed in a clear canister, and although he is disappointed that it looks like a chickpea, he immediately feels the burden of life’s imperfection lifted.
Returning to the Uncle Vanya rehearsals, Giamatti makes a hilarious attempt to play a “soulless” love scene, and realizes that while his depression and angst is gone, so is everything else that gave him the passion of his acting craft and his life. So, he borrows a Russian poet’s soul, does a fabulous job on Uncle Vanya, and then goes back to the company to get his soul back. To his horror, he finds his soul is missing – smuggled to St. Petersburg, Russia, by a “mule,” a woman who had Giamatti’s soul placed inside her (so it could handle the cabin pressure of a jet’s high altitude), and sold on the black market to an untalented Russian soap opera actress in search of inspiration. The rest of the movie is Giamatti working with the soul mule to get his soul back. This is one of those kinds of movies that is so out of the mainstream it really leaves you thinking.
So, the rather profound question posed by Cold Souls is this: What would a human look like without a soul?
My Irish Catholic friend wondered if he had the answer to this question personified in the self-absorbed decision-making of a university administrator.