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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Mediocrity–In Praise Of The Defiantly Outrageous, The Willful, And The Dangerous

America has always been defined by the middle class – socially conservative, religious, aspirational and optimistic, stable, modestly productive, and reasonably content. 

Sinclair Lewis both admired and criticized Middle America.  In Babbitt he satirized ‘boosterism’, pompous self-satisfaction, intellectual ignorance, and a weak, fearful ethos of sameness.

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In Main Street he is far less critical, and although he first depicts the small Midwestern town of his birth in an unfavorable and predictable light, he later expresses admiration for its energy, optimism, faith in progress, and solid values.  Any society, he observes, has inwardness – a self-protective instinct to keep disruptive ideas out – but there is a distinct value to a culture which has an undeniably moral and ethical core.

When Carol Milford arrives in Gopher Prairie she feels lost and depressed.  The town is small, simple, and unattractive.  There are no arts, no beauty, and no poetry.  It exists only because of the rich prairie land around it, the money to be made, and the services to support it.  It is a miserable place without culture.

Although she tries to reform the town, her attempts at introducing the arts and literature are rejected.  The town, it seems, has no interests other than its own livelihood and routines.

Carol becomes increasingly frustrated with her husband, a simple country doctor who supports his wife’s intentions but considers them irrelevant and unnecessary. 

Her life becomes more and more circumscribed and hopeless because of her attempts to reform the town.  It was the town’s summary dismissal of her ideas, its self-righteousness, and mean tenacity that isolated her.

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She eventually leaves Gopher Prairie and her husband and settles in a city, but finally realizes that she has misjudged both her husband and the town.  He is really a good man, she concludes, selfless and modest; and while the town lacks any sophistication or culture, it is very American, solid, and essential.

In Dodsworth, Lewis expands on this theme.  Sam Dodsworth is a successful Midwestern businessman with all the enthusiasm, entrepreneurial spirit, and community values as Babbitt but without his ignorance and self-importance.  He, like Carol’s husband, is a good man in love with his wife.

She, however, is dissatisfied with the simple Midwestern life and encourages her husband to leave the management of his factory to others and to live in Europe where she hopes to find the culture so lacking in Minnesota.  She meets, has an affair with, and goes off with a minor European aristocrat, leaving Sam to go back home alone. 

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She, like Carol, is hopeless dissatisfied with what she sees as the hopeless mediocrity of middle America; but unlike Carol she finds neither satisfaction or even reconciliation with her past.

The story of Carol and Fran is not new.  Flaubert’s Madam Bovary is all about personal ambition and the rejection of traditional norms and morality.  Emma Bovary, however, is a selfish, arrogant, and dishonest woman who, however much one might admire her feminism, deserves her bad end.

Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the story of Stephen Daedalus, a boy growing up in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century, who gradually decides to cast off all his social, familial, and religious constraints to live a life devoted to the art of writing.  Nora, Ibsen’s main character in A Doll’s House, after years of compromise and reason, finally rejects her patriarchal bourgeois husband to lead her own independent life.

For most artists mediocrity is a curse, and the settled, bourgeois attitudes of the middle class nothing less than imprisoning; but this struggle between contentment and cultural independence is very common.  Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is a novel about a young couple who move to the suburbs for a more stable, better life, but who quickly find it confining and dispiriting.  April Wheeler make plans to move to France to find culture, excitement, and challenge but her husband is diffident. Despite his grousing, he likes his steady job, opportunities for advancement, and the settled life.  Like Fran Dodsworth, her story ends badly.

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Most Americans are like Yates’ Wheelers, comfortable although mediocre, tempted by thoughts of adventure, culture, and change, but never really convinced that life can possibly be better anywhere else.

Such social and personal conservatism leads inevitably to mediocrity.  There can be no cultural innovation, no radical social change without actual commitment to it; and few people are willing to take the chances.  Not only are we conservative at heart but fearful of the consequences of change.  Soon routine becomes not only normal and acceptable, but something to be defended.

While America is stereotyped as a can-do, entrepreneurial, adventuresome society; one constantly demanding change and impatient with routine, the truth is far more nuanced.

Although we may be insistent and vocal about the need for reform, such reform is little more than a reconfiguration of the middle class.  All women want is to be taken seriously; but once they are they quickly adopt the very compromising routines that confined them in the first place.  They may become executives, top lawyers, and financiers; but they have simply endorsed the very middle class values of money, wealth, status, and social acceptance sought by their parents.

Blacks demand their rights, their place at the American banquet, and the same universal respect accorded whites.  When they have achieved this – becoming, like women, successful businessmen, attorneys, and Wall Street investors – they too adopt truly American values.

Gays now marry, settle down, and have children.  Nothing could be more telling of the universal American desire to conform and belong than the transition from a notoriously promiscuous sub-culture to the most traditional one.

The American culture of success is a very simple and uncomplicated one.  It is all about money and professional advancement.  There is nothing special or unique about Wall Street bankers, industrialists, or agribusiness owners; nor small town pharmacists, clothiers, or doctors.
Antoine Fuqua’s film Welcome to New York is a thinly-disguised fictional account of a well-known international banker and politician and the favored candidate for the presidency of France.

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Ferrara’s story, however, is not a fictionalized account of the long legal process nor a biopic of Strauss-Kahn.  It is the tale of an unashamed philanderer who refuses to be put in the cage of conventional morality.  He is neither proud of nor guilty about his infidelities or sexual appetites.  It is who I am, he says, a self-described libertine whose supposed immorality is other people’s problem, not his.

The  penultimate scene – that of the main character, Devereaux, propositioning the maid – is the moral closure of the film.  He is virile, irrepressible, contemptuous of the bourgeoisie and its myopic values, and subversive of them.  He is reminiscent of Fyodor Karamazov, the father of the brothers of Dostoevsky’s novel, who is as sexually driven, condescending, and irreverent.  Both men are attractive in their will, defiance of the meek, timid, and sexually repressed.

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The film is especially important because it is an indictment of today’s increasingly Puritanical American culture.   Sex in the name of civil protections and women’s rights has been legalized, sanitized, and nearly considered off-limits unless it is between two consenting, married adults.   Sex for Devereaux was necessary and absolute. 

As in the case of most older men, sex with younger women is their only hope of retaining the potency and vitality of their youth.  Although sexual conquest is enough for most men, Devereaux could not stop there.   It was the sex act in all its twisted diversity that mattered.  And what was wrong with that?

Successful businessmen and women are not unique.  They are fulfilling the American middle class dream.  They may be creative, innovative, and risk-taking, but they still fall absolutely and classically into the bourgeois mold.

Only the ‘Devereaux’ and the Donald Trumps fall outside mediocrity.  They, for however much they may be criticized, are outrageously dismissive of both mediocrity and middle class values.  They may get their comeuppance, but they are shamelessly willful, absolute in their needs, and supremely confident in their power.  

Men and women who not only simply defy tradition, but who shamelessly reject it, flaunt their moral independence, and care little for the consequences.

Shakespeare’s Tamora (Titus Andronicus) was outrageous.  She not only hated the king and sought to bring him down, she encouraged her sons to rape and dismember the king’s daughter in an act of defiance, revenge, and hatred.  Goneril, Regan, and Iago were evil, manipulated characters, but they acted within the bounds of traditional politics.  Tamora went far outside them.

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In Albee’s The American Dream Grandma explains to Mrs. Barker that Mommy and Daddy adopted a son from her (Barker) many years previously. As the parents objected to the child's actions, they mutilated it as punishment, eventually killing it.

Albee explores not only the falsity of the American Dream but also the status quo of the American family. As he states in the preface to the play, "It is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation, and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen."

These characters – and those in real life on whom they have been modeled – are outrageous and heroic.  There is a need for them in all societies to not only challenge the status quo but to show it for the petty, complacent nonsense that it is.

We do our best – as complacent, settled, bourgeois Americans – to identify, find, and crucify these moral renegades.  It is in our nature.  Yet they will always reappear, dangerous, threatening, and fearful.  Although we may not admit it, we cannot do without them.

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