Dear One Standard Deviation,
Over the past couple of months, you have become one of the few “must-read” blogs that I check out on a daily basis. While we have our disagreements (you are too skeptical for my tastes when it comes to modern medicine and I’m more of a foreign policy hawk than you), when it comes to most of the deep questions of life, I find that you increasingly write from the perspective of a traditional “borders, language, and culture” conservative which I find very agreeable. Today’s post is a perfect example and it prompted me to share these thoughts:
1) while I agree that our current culture celebrates deviancy and denigrates stable bourgeois lifestyles, perhaps part of the problem is the nature of art itself; particularly narrative art – conflict drives narrative, or to quote my friend Tolstoy: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So there might be a built in bias to write stories that highlight screwed-up people. However, the difference between now and Tolstoy’s time (well, one difference among many) is that art used to impart real moral lessons through its characters actions – so for example, Anna Karenina suffers as a result of her bad moral choices and while we might empathize with her character at times, we know she is ultimately to blame for her bad choices and Tolstoy presents us better characters to identify with as heroes of the story. In contrast, in a movie like Pleasantville, the morals are topsy-turvy – as you say in today’s post the explicit message of the movie is that “one can only escape such emptiness [the emotional emptiness of 1950s America] by having casual sex.”
2) the best art will remind us of what is true, beautiful and good without being didactic about its message. I suppose it might be hard sometimes for art to remind us of certain truths, particularly when the truth is:
“Stable suburban families provide “real”, loving environments with plenty of emotional satisfaction.”
I remember one of my favorite books as a young man before I got married was W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Without recapping the entire book, Maugham’s protagonist, after many trials and tribulations, eventually settles down and becomes a happy family man. Later after finishing the book I read a review of the novel that criticized the scenes of the happy home life as being too mawkish and/or having a surreal quality to them – which reinforces my point earlier that I think it is easier for an artist to portray conflict than it is to portray “emotional satisfaction”.
3) of course, the suburbs have long been American artists’ and intellectuals’ “whipping boy” as Lee Siegel details nicely in this older piece for the WSJ.
4) not everyone from The Real World were total screw-ups!
P.S. Yes, I know the title of my post comes from a Ben Folds song that ironically mocks the suburbs, but what can I say, it’s catchy and William Shatner is a funny guy.