Monday, February 09, 2009

CRUMBLING UTOPIA

On Counterpunch, Kim Niccolini discusses the recently-released film “Revolutionary Road”.

Her point is that the film was passed over for any Oscar consideration because we are in a Depression-type time, and Hollywood – as it did once before – is looking to stories of “the indomitability of human will” and ‘stories’ that will end well; sort of an uplift, feel-good type of thing.

Hollywood did this before during the Great Depression – think of Fred and Ginger and the confections of Busby Berkeley. Of course, Warner Brothers, which did the Berkeley films, also did a bunch of gritty, pre-noir films about hoboes on the rails and scrappy kids orphaned or kicked to the curb and forced to live on the streets and the rails. And then there’s Louis B. Mayer, whose MGM, with the Andy Hardy series, cast a golden (though black&white) patina over the awful times that were in ’39 just recently passed.

Niccolini is on to something with her insight about the Oscar preferences. It’s time to put a happy-face on things. Although a ‘stiff upper lip’ might be more useful, but the ‘lip’ went out when the feel-good ‘happy face’ of the 1970s burst upon Us (along with pet-rocks) to show the world how ‘sensitive’ the new, Second Wave, barely post-Flower Child America had become. Sigh. Wheeeeee!

But her analysis, I would say, fails. And it fails precisely because she is bound by the conventions of Politically Correct Doctrine (which it appears the Second Wave’s aging bosses and bossettes are going to hang onto longer than the Pentagon Whiz Kids hung onto the ‘domino theory’ in Southeast Asia).

The film, faithful to the novel, limns expertly, achingly, and mercilessly the souring of a marriage between two ‘bright young things’ of the immediate postwar era, the late ‘40s and the ‘50s. The claustrophobia, the stifling of emotions – intrapersonal and interpersonal, the abandonment of possibility and ‘potential’, all the while keeping up appearances for the kids and the neighbors in the freshly built, new ‘suburbia’. There is conveyed a palpable loneliness, “but it is loneliness that verges on the potential for violence”.

The Soviet-reader’s eye is drawn to the excessive “verges on the potential for violence”. Why not ‘verges on violence’? The extra implicit qualifier “verges on” overloads the circuit covered by “the potential”. But it does serve to add a little more distance and deniability, while hitting home with the ‘correct’ note of ominousness: marriage, family, ‘home’ … are all pathways to “violence”.

But then, of all the things connected to human living, just what doesn’t ‘verge on the potential for violence’ of one sort or another? There is no such thing as a fireproof building. Or a safe warship: when you’re bouncing around on the vast ocean in a steel container chock full of flammable fuel and explosives, on an ocean that can turn into waved taller than a small office-building, then your whole life ‘verges on the potential for violence’ even on a sunny day in the South Pacific in peacetime. We are dynamic and complicated beings ‘to the max’. It’s the way we roll. (Let me say straightaway: the key is to master the ‘potential’ and contain it and Shape it constructively; ‘violence’ is indeed ‘natural’, but it is not ‘ideal’ for humans, not at the higher end of our range).

This, Niccolini then asserts, is the heart of the darkness: “the man who kills his dreams to bring home the bacon and the woman who forfeits her freedom to take care of home and family”. That’s what it’s all about.

This, of course, was precisely what Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ was all about in ’65. That it was the institution of marriage and the demands of sustaining a ‘home’ for the children that had revealed ‘marriage’, ‘family’, and ‘home’ to be a concentration camp. For women, anyway; Niccolini herself is equally sympathetic to the male, husband character – which is some consolation, but it was Friedan’s vision that was vigorously pumped into the minds of pols and media in ’65 and subsequently. The ‘men’ were the Nazis and the ‘women’ were the Jews. Ach. Oy.

Niccolini, then, reflects the ‘progress’ made (in some quarters anyway) in the past 40-odd years: the institutions of ‘marriage’ and ‘family’ are toxic to both men and women. The institutions are the problem. Ecrasez les infames! Which has been pretty much the program, lo these past 40 long years. We are informed by Our self-anointed ‘betters’ and ‘elites’ that the vines will be much better off without any Trellis at all, thank you; they are quite capable of fending fruitfully for themselves.

Yah. We can soooo see that all around Us, forty years on.

Just what did go wrong in the immediate postwar era? Is the Friedanian (wheeeee!) analysis accurate? Sufficient? To Shape human lives and sustain a society and a culture?

The youngest cohort would have been about 20; born in the mid-1920s and many but not all of them too young for service in the war. But veteran or not, they had been children in the Depression, which lasted right up until America became the great arsenal of Democracy; they knew poverty and hunger and the gnawing anxiety that affected all but the very rich in the early ‘30s. The vets would have had the added complex experience of war’s terror, the boredom of quotidian military life, and perhaps the excitement of getting ‘leave’ or a weekend-pass in foreign venues.

The women – those who did not have military experience – would have lived in the rigorous and somewhat Spartan ‘homefront’ world of America At War (real War, I might add).

Then ‘We won’ and were on top of the world. Money flowed, the status and prestige of being ‘American’ – the people that was ‘right and very clever’ and very, very powerful. The world beckoned, the future beckoned, free of Depression and War. Cinemascope and Technicolor and Panavision brought marvelous vistas and presented possible ‘scenarios’ for a ‘fulfilled’ and ‘successful’ life, even before TV really got going, and long before TV got color. ‘Adulthood’ was modeled by the still-impressive film stars of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the newer generations of postwar stars, Lancaster and Peck and Douglas (Sr.) and Widmark, but also Clift and Brando and Dean.

And there was ‘suburbia’, made possible by the calculated ‘privileging’ of the auto as literally a vehicle of liberation pure and simple, and of owning one’s own home, and getting away from the increasingly gritty reality of the now-declining postwar cities. And parents who suddenly seemed so fuddy-duddy, whose ‘old fashioned’ discipline and doggedness, unrelieved by excitement, seemed a colorless relic of a bygone era.

So the sky was the limit.

But of course, marriage imposed its own demands; commitment always does shape one’s range of options. And ‘children’ most certainly so.

Never before had a generation of new married couples had to face such a divergence, such a bifurcation, of their possible future: ‘the sky was the limit’ as individuals, and maybe everybody could live like they do in the movies, and didn’t ‘we’ deserve it after ‘all we’ve been through’? Yet to sustain a solid base for the nurturing of children imposed certain operational limits.

It’s the difference between operating as a hunter-killer destroyer, free to range over the open sea on your own looking for ‘subs’, and being a convoy escort, constrained by the responsibility for shepherding slow merchantmen and troopships.

I suppose an immature naval officer, finding himself with his first command and ‘stuck’ on convoy duty, might – with a bit of imagination – see himself as bethumpt as truly as a ‘concentration camp inmate at Dachau’. But that would be a bit of self-pitying self-indulgence, bordering on the histrionic if he let himself go very far along those lines.

Of course, the naval officer is part of a much large common – and organized – effort, part of a ‘team’. The postwar new-adult cohorts may well have had their fill of the ‘Spartan’ life of deprivation and ‘teamwork’ and hoped for a chance to live in Technicolor and Panavision and Cinemascope, ‘on their own’.

When the kids and the whole marriage ‘thing’ got in their way, as was rather predictable if anyone had taken a moment to consider beforehand, they stuck to their posts but it took its toll. Until Friedan put it in a Technicolor nutshell and called the whole marriage-and-family thing ‘a concentration camp’, “Dachau”.

I think it was more of a massive disappointment with the impossibility of a ‘total’ fulfillment of a pre-adult ‘dream’, and the utter unavailability of any guidance as to how to navigate the divergent complexities, that so baffled those cohorts in the ‘50s, and created the deep and toxic pool of frustration which the Second Wave was able to spin for its own purposes once Friedan had set up the paradigm of the ‘concentration camp’ and all its pomps and all its works.

Easier to blame ‘institutions’ as was so popular in sociology at the time. Easier to blame ‘men’, as the Second Wave quickly started to do, in their vigorous bid for a ‘constituency’ (“women”, by which I do not gratuitously include all females in the country) which they could then deliver to the vote-desperate Democrats of the late Sixties, in exchange – of course – for whatever it was that the Wave ‘demanded’.

The problem, though, was not in the institutions. It was in the inability of postwar American society to provide any help to young adults in mastering the command-challenges of choosing and sustaining among competing possibilities: personal freedom and the achievement of interpersonal commitment and the nurturing of the next generation. And as them Kathliks kept saying, there is a certain fulfillment, very genuine and very powerful, that comes from achieving and sustaining interpersonal commitment.

But the ‘solution’ of the Second Wave was to demand a society and a culture and a civilization without Marriage or Family – a feat never achieved in recorded history on a large scale. And also without any ‘Beyond’ or any ‘abstractions’ (virtues, ethical and moral constraints, ‘religious’ or spiritual constraints) that would interfere with the agenda, with ‘the dream’ as Teddy Kennedy would piously bray.

And, in addition, a society and a culture and a civilization that did not recognize any difference between the male and the female of the species – except when the Advocacy demanded such recognition, at which time such recognition had to be immediately rendered. “Equality” of possibility meant having ‘totally’ identical options as ‘men’. And ‘men’ being so footloose and fancy-free, then clearly interpersonal entanglements were not what ‘liberated’ women or anybody else need burden themselves with.

O brave new world! O frak! This is not ‘adventure’; this is not ‘creative vision’. This is a society-wide, self-destructive binge more baseless than any beanbag adolescent male on a motorized skateboard trying to jump obstacles.

And to dwell within such a ‘vision’, and to console oneself that it is cutting-edge and creative, is to live within a double Bubble.

And a Bubble world it is that We have created. And a Bubble We as a nation and a people have become.

I say: Let the utopias of the '50s crumble, and the Second Wave unisex utopia as well. And then We can get around to trying to make a better reality, with what's left to Us now.

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