My thoughts about culture and our present conditions. As Dianne Moore says in Learning to Love a Wounded World, "This requires a willingness to feel everything…. the horror and the beauty of what is here…. the fear and the Love.”

Revolutionary Road

I watched Revolutionary Road last night. It’s a Sam Mendes film, Mendes also did American Beauty.

Revolutionary Road Trailer

A
couple buys a house on Revolutionary Road. That’s where it gets the
title, but the title also acts as a much larger metaphor for the
underlying tension, and the underlying social commentary of the times,
which was post WWII fifties.

It’s a movie about a very human
urge — a deep seated wanting to break out, and a family conflict that
evolves from this urge. But it’s also about the larger social conflict,
one described in many different ways, The Trap
being just one I’ve seen lately, and perhaps a conflict that we still
find weaving through the matrix all around us as we are challenged to
face what our lives are about — like for so many, a daily routine of
going to from suburbs to a cubicle in an institutional setting of some
kind.

In this story the couple thinks of themselves as special,
but special is not something they’ve set out and defined in clear
terms, so their life ends up settling into the suburban routine that
has become such a signature of middle class life, especially for those
couple of decades following the trauma of WWII, while the Cold War
defined American domestic paranoia and a US foreign policy that’s led
to what some now see as something of a contradiction in terms — a
managed democracy trying at the same time to be the world’s grand
hegemony.

An artistic wife who aspires to be an actress, but
apparently doesn’t have the talent to get out of the small time plays
that aren’t really that good to be a star, still doesn’t want to settle
for the life in the suburbs, she wants something more out of life, but
the more isn’t clear and definable in terms that a striving for an
orderly society can understand. The husband doesn’t like his job,
"knows" he’s better than a guy sitting in a cubicle every day, but
doesn’t have clear dreams with goals either, not dreams that have
anything to do with this sense of being better than average. It’s that
kind of every-person dilemma movie.

Instead of continuing
their constant dissatisfaction-driven bickering the wife proposes they
drop everything and move to Paris. This is the central focus for the
drama that unfolds. Lots of subtleties and pressures are involved,
opinions of neighbors, friends, a "crazy" man who sees the sanity of
what they want to do (an important interstitial metaphor of rebellion
subtly woven in), all sorts of pressures.

The movie leaves me
with a sense of melancholy and an uneasy chilled feeling about
humanity. We have such difficulty being clear about what to do it
seems, and this movie underscores that in so many ways, and it does it
naturally and artfully, showing how the institutions themselves can
become our guides, rather than our hearts and souls.

The novel was a finalist for some awards the same year as Catch 22. Catch 22,
or what I think of as the book about double binds, was also revealingly
troubling of the times and of our American culture. It has always been
an important metaphor for me. So the novel, Revolutionary Road, was acclaimed in a similar vein — it was considered not just beautifully crafted and remarkable, but deeply troubling.

The author, Richard Yates, had this to say about his story in an interview (Henry, DeWitt and Clark, Geoffrey. "An Interview with Richard Yates," Ploughshares, Winter, 1972):

I
think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s.
Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all
over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind,
desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified
politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy
witchhunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all
that — felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest
revolutionary spirit — and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the
character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the
revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead
end in the Fifties.

We have these
artistic epiphanies, and they do move with us through our troubling
times, maybe even while we don’t know times are troubling, as perhaps
many didn’t in the booming period of economic growth of the fifties.
They too are part of our consciousness and speak to us in important
ways, maybe better and deeper than the intellectuals that only a few of
us bother to read.

The Great Flushing… Or the End of History?

Francis Fukiyama wrote about the end of history
in the late ’80s and again in the early ’90s. But for me, the end of
history as I think of it, which is in different terms than Fukiyama
does, is in those themes of this ’50s and ’60s literature. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit preceded Yate’s Revolutionary Road
by a few years. And of course Cheever’s work was contempory and
significant, but the themes of that era are not directed by singular
great men, they are sensed by the body of artists who are sensitive to
their times, and Sloan Wilson was "one of us" so to speak, as were the
others.

In my end of history I envision that we are swirling
like a toilet flushing, but endlessly, slowly, around a paradox we
cannot solve. If the damage we as a species are doing to our own
biosphere is truly as potentially catastrophic as some believe, a great
flushing may eventually occur, and history perhaps will take a new
step. Perhaps without the humans.

I’m about done with my third reading of War and Peace.
I did not fully grasp Tolstoy’s vision of history as a child the first
time I read it, nor as a young adult the second time. His is not the
"great man" theory of history. Not by any means. It’s quite a challenge
to the idea of the importance of the individual, so deeply endemic in
our own mythological sense of American Exceptionalism.

The great
paradox I see for us as a species lies between this problem of the
concept of our individuality and the human constructed environment we
live in. This is a seemingly unresolvable paradox that has evolved with
our human created environments. It’s important to recognize that we
create our environments through institutions that are more invisible in
their abstract forms than we care to recognize, and we see the material
results in buildings as factual existence, but the abstractions behind
it that we don’t automatically see are extremely important and
ultimately perplexing in their collective creation.

These
environments we live in are in their essence designed to produce
something both systemic and organizational, the very nature of which it
seems we continue to struggle to understand, pitting ourselves
ourtrageously, courageously, and sometimes in hopeless acceptance of
defeat, as individuals. The paradox is between our individual existence
that we construct for ourselves in our own minds — which we experience
with the process of
constructing, thereby experiencing within our individual selves each
moment the meaning of our existence — and that which we act out within
certain necessary predictable forms — forms that we can identify and
label as a whole — "society." In working out this paradox on a daily
basis, we may or may not struggle with the nature of those
institutional forms we move through, forms that have their basis and
connectedness with a sense of something we call society which is well
beyond the effects of our individual actions. Add to that if you can, a
sense of the biosphere as a whole, and the universe if you want to
complicate your mind as I do. I don’t recommend it.

What we call
individual "freedom" takes place within these human constructed
institutional forms. The debate seems to be about which of the variety
of forms is the best for individual freedom. Or, as I have been
muddling over through the years, which trap is the best one to reside
in?

Speaking of traps, I enjoyed a rendition of that era in the first segment of Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary, The Trap. Episode 1 – F**k You Buddy by Adam Curtis
http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=404227395387111085&hl=en&fs=true

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