The stupor of modern life

20 07 2010

AG and I love to watch and discuss the show, Mad Men. So I was pleased to find the following essay by Heather Havrilesky concerning the upcoming fourth season of the show (found through the Conservative Blog for Peace). Cutting through the excessively florid prose that almost borders on pretentiousness, I found that the following passages capture why this show appeals to a certain educated sector of the American public:

Americans are constantly in search of an upgrade. It’s a sickness that’s infused into our blood, a dissatisfaction with the ordinary that’s instilled in us from childhood. Instead of staying connected to the divine beauty and grace of everyday existence — the glimmer of sunshine on the grass, the blessing of a cool breeze on a summer day — we’re instructed to hope for much more. Having been told repeated stories about the fairest in the land, the most powerful, the richest, the most heroic (Snow White, Pokémon, Ronald McDonald, Lady Gaga), eventually we buy into these creation myths and concede their overwhelming importance in the universe. Slowly we come to view our own lives as inconsequential, grubby, even intolerable.

Meanwhile, the American dream itself — a house, a job, a car, a family, a little lawn for the kids to frolic on — has expanded into something far broader and less attainable than ever. Crafty insta-celebrities and self-branding geniuses and social media gurus assert that submitting to the daily grind to pay the mortgage constitutes a meager existence. Books like “The 4-Hour Work Week” tell us that working the same job for years is for suckers. We should be paid handsomely for our creative talents, we should have the freedom to travel and live wherever we like, our children should be exposed to the wonders of the globe at an early age…

While “Mad Men’s” detractors often decry the empty sheen of it all, claiming that it has no soul, clearly that’s the point. The American dream itself is a carefully packaged, soulless affair. This is the automobile a man of your means should drive. This is the liquor a happy homemaker like yourself should serve to your husband’s business guests. As absurd as it seems to cobble together a dream around a handful of consumer goods, that’s precisely what the advertising industry did so effectively in the ’50s and ’60s, until we couldn’t distinguish our own desires from the desires ascribed to us by professional manipulators, suggesting antidotes for every real or imagined malady, supplying escapist fantasies to circumvent the supposedly unbearable tedium of ordinary life.

People have gone after me in some places for putting too much emphasis on tradition, folk Catholicism, cosmic rhythms of life, etc. What about the Gospel, the personal spirituality of the believer, solus cum solo, cor ad cor loquitur, and all that jazz? I have even been accused of being an elitist since I look down on the shiny new, modern consumeristic pop Catholicism, either in its Paulist Press or EWTN flavors.

The reason for my disdain has nothing to do with snobbishness. It has to do more with survival, or rather survival of the heart in the midst of modernity. For some time, I have concluded that the present order of things is not normal. The bubbly optimism of Vatican II, the faith in the all-loving and all-forgiving God, the rituals that are more celebrations of ourselves than communications with the Other world on which we rely… All of these things are not normal: in the past such optimism was the luxury of the educated few. Real Catholicism, real religion, and real life are what my mother brought with her from Mexico, and what my father’s mother believed in with her altar of folk saints and the picture of the blond Jesus. That religion was built from hardship, and built to cope with hardship. The religion preached in most Catholic churches today, pardon my French, doesn’t do shit. It is the mirror reflection of the decadent society that birthed it, and once that society disappears, it will either disappear, or it will become something unrecognizable.

In many ways, even the prosperity gospel is better suited to crisis than pop Catholicism. At least there, such a faith can retreat back to classical Puritanism in which being prosperous and clean was next to godliness. Catholicism, always a much more fatalistic religion precisely because it is ancient, cannot adopt such an attitude without doing existential violence to itself.

But enough ranting. I think the author of this essay is totally right, and I think she is echoing Ficino’s counsel to “rejoice in the present”. (Indeed, in this he was only echoing the Platonic teaching.) I can concede that when your children are starving this is not an easy axiom to live by, but it is not like we have a choice in the matter. Our ancestors lived in a close proximity with disease, suffering, and death, without the expectation that it would somehow get better in any real sense. I read some time ago that somewhere in the Summa Aquinas actually wrote that the desire for what we would come to call “upward mobility” is a sin. I don’t necessarily take it that far, but it is well worth some reflection.

Our entire society is based on covetousness, and perhaps that is our superstition. Whereas we seem to think that we are less deceived by our environment than our ancestors, I believe that we are even more shaped by a mythology that has nothing to do with our actual situation. Perhaps we should stop looking to the future for happiness, to things that others tell us we need to be happy, and start looking only to the present, to what is immediately in front of us.



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