"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Road Rage–A Metaphor For Frustration, Futility, And Resentment

People do things behind the wheel that they would never consider otherwise.  Tailgating, cutting in line, and aggressive lane-changing are threatening and antisocial.  Any similar behavior off road would be considered inappropriate and unacceptable where tolerance, politeness, humble apology, and deference are expected.

There is a limit to such self-control, however, especially if we feel hectored and badgered, cowed, and corralled by too many people, too many preachers and moralists, and given too many commandments.

Once we step into our cars, however, we are kings of our domain.  We are armored, free, and independent. Others may march to a common drummer, but not us.  

As drivers, we can take matters into our own hands, send our critics to the gallows, be as abusive, racist, and homophobic as we want; spew every  drop of resentment, anger, and hatred with no consequence.   

It feels good, this intemperance.  Man was not made with such an aggressive, self-protective, hostile nature without a purpose.  We may be social animals, but by default.  Our contract with others has nothing to do with harmony or good will but with survival. We concede our individualism only for improved outcomes; but it cannot be completely subsumed within community without consequences.
A boy like that who'd kill your brother,
Forget that boy and find another,
One of your own kind,
Stick to your own kind!
A boy like that will give you sorrow,
You'll meet another boy tomorrow,
One of your own kind,
Stick to your own kind! (West Side Story)
Image result for images west side story

Road rage is not a simple phenomenon, caused by improper breeding, a lackluster moral education, or indifferent parents.  Nor is it a function of high traffic volumes, increasing demands on time and responsibility.  These are only marginal factors in what is a loss of personal credibility and space.
Nietzsche said that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world is the expression of pure will.  His Supermen, a rare, defiant, and amoral breed who rose above herd, dismissed it as irrelevant and clumsy, and acted beyond good and evil were the only certified human beings. 

To Nietzsche the irony of angry drivers howling and slathering like hungry wolves ready for the kill, but quickly turned into complaisant, obedient dogs when they step out of their cars would not be lost.

Image result for images nietzsche

How have we come to this? How did we manage to create such a society? Who rounded us up on the range, corralled us, tamed us, broke us, and watched us become plug horses in the ring? No one but ourselves, of course.  We are all complicit in our own gelding.

Civil society has become the end not the means.  It is no longer the simple institution of the past providing the basic legal, contractual, and ethical framework within which individuals prospered; but a moral good in and of itself.  Society was meant to facilitate not control; and it is we who have allowed and encouraged its transformation into a final arbiter, judicial bench, and hangman’s scaffold.

The election of Donald Trump has been misread in many ways.  Radical populism is an expression of mid-America’s frustration with Washington and the Eastern Establishment say political pundits. Trumpists are cast as loud, defiant, and angry versions of Adlai Stevenson’s ‘little man’.

Image result for images donald trump

This, however, is only a part of the story.  These observers have overlooked the more fundamental nature of conservative resistance to liberalism and failed to realize that Americans have finally reached a point of no return.  It is not a matter of politics, income inequality, race-gender-ethnicity, or Wall Street; but one of social and emotional dislocation.

The literary critic Jacques Berthoud, reviewing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, observed:
One of the major assumptions on which [the novella] rests is that if we want to find out the ‘real’ truth about man – what his ‘essential’ nature is – we must inquire into his origins. This basically evolutionary view holds that civilization is something merely imposed on man’s essential nature – that culture does not eradicate, but merely keeps in check, his primitive instincts.
In this sense, Marlow’s journey to the Inner Station – to the heart of the African darkness – is a voyage into his ancestral past; and what Kurtz in the end discovers for himself is what Marlow has already grasped: that the ideals of European life form no part of a man’s essential self – that the heart of the European citizen, for all the endeavors of his education, remains an abode of darkness.
Image result for images joseph conrad

In Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford expresses Conrad’s vision in another way.  Kurtz does not finally realize ‘The horror…the horror” of man’s capability for evil, he becomes mad:
Well, you see, Willard [says the military commandant about to send the Captain upriver to kill Kurtz], in this war, things get confused out there: power, ideals, the old morality, practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be god, because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil, and good does not always triumph.
Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have one. Walter Kurtz has reached his, and very obviously, he has gone insane.
Coppola’s Kurtz has become imprisoned by the jungle.  At first it was simply a base of military operations, a theatre of war against the Viet Cong; but the more he cut himself loose from the moral traces that had once bound him as a man of West Point, a husband, a father, and an American, the less he could reconcile the raw, brutal and amoral human nature that he saw upriver with the society had had left behind.

Conrad writes of men who have had the courage to confront their human nature and not look away from the horror they see. As much as they all have tried to escape this vision and the society that has projected it, they cannot.

America seems now to be an edgy, nasty, and bitter place.  Again, pundits have tried to explain the country’s factionalism by turning to simple sociology – the haves and the have-nots, the suppressed demands for equality and equal justice, the marginalized and the elites, and the necessarily violent responses to oppression.

Again they have overlooked the philosophical anxieties underlying this national irritability and breaking-point anger. 


Unlike Kurtz and Marlowe, we are unable to look anything squarely in the face, let alone the frightening reality of human nature.  We are as primitive as we ever were, the blandishments and idealism of many notwithstanding.  Without an understanding of our permanently violent and anti-social nature; and an unvarnished acceptance of it and the unmanning nature of society itself, we can only be frustrated, trapped in an angry futility; trapped by road rage.

No comments:

Post a Comment