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The Drama of Populist-Humanism

In the mid-20th century, writers and filmmakers who had experienced the Depression first-hand were keenly sensitive to the individual’s paramount concern for independence and dignity.  In 1942, inspired by the New Deal speeches of then progressive-populist Vice-President Henry A. Wallace, composer Aaron Copland wrote his famous “Fanfare for the Common Man”—a musical piece entirely reflective of the renewed populism of the time.

Think of fictional characters such as the Joad family, whose relentless struggle against overwhelming economic forces was unforgettably depicted by Steinbeck in his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath.  Such characters—with their stubborn sense of independence, quiet endurance, and colorful, idiomatic speech—came alive as idiosyncratic, rough-hewn individuals entirely “ill-adapted” to the corporate-style feudalism into which they were being driven.  I’m thinking also of Elia Kazan’s quietly reflective film Wild River, which realistically depicts a fiercely independent old woman (Jo van Fleet), fighting to stay on her beloved island homestead against the encroachments of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

While populist drama often focused on beleaguered small farmers, Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” depicts the struggle of a fading, worn-out salesman, Willy Loman.  However unexceptional, Loman is an individual who has worked all his life, attained a secure, steady income as a salesman, and provided for his family—only to find that all his efforts were never reciprocated by any long-term guarantees from his company.  Willy Loman had optimistically believed in the “Dream”—in the value ostensibly placed on hard work, and the rewards of economic security it would bring.  Yet his tragic fate, so powerfully dramatized by Miller, spotlighted the new, post-WW2 era of nation-spanning corporations and accelerating economic dislocations.

In a forgotten essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” (New York Times, February 27, 1949), Miller wrote of the everyday individual’s “unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity.”  In his Sisyphean struggles, such an otherwise ordinary person may nonetheless attain a tragic, if unheralded, grandeur.  Tragedy in itself, Miller argued, attains artistic pathos in modern drama because of the timeless, compelling theme of the fiercely resolute human being who—like a modern-day Job—challenges overwhelming, capricious forces (in our modern time, the corporate juggernaut which seeks to crush those intractable, resistant persons who refuse to step aside).

Such an individual may find himself, like Willy Loman, in a life-and-death contest to preserve his autonomy, values, self-worth.  And although such an anonymous person may not prevail in terms of economic “viability,” he nonetheless retains his integrity to the end.  By actively resisting his degradation into a disposable “thing”–by challenging and questioning a status quo in which the individual is just raw material to be used up and then discarded–he attains a kind of tragic, moral grandeur.

Some sixty years later, in our over-organized, mega-corporate 21st century, such moral-humanist rhetoric may sound quite strange, if not absurd.  The fate of a single, ordinary person matters?  Why, from month-to-month, tens of thousands of Willy Lomans are discarded as outmoded and obsolescent (because of automation, mergers, consolidations, downsizing, offshoring, etc.)!  Any given mega-corporation—and there are thousands—lumbers about like a Colossus, crushing ant-like humans and gulping down other companies—only to be swallowed itself by an even-larger conglomerate.

Given such forces, what place is left for the beleaguered 21st century “little man”–    hemmed-in, diminished, confined, under siege from employers, creditors, banks, insurance companies, medical bills, and ever-intrusive marketers?  Moreover, today’s “winners”–a new breed of grotesquely ruthless, self-congratulating narcissists—do not hesitate to blithely sweep him away as just so much flotsam.

Yet the individual, even in our de-humanizing, regimented times, remains a unique human being striving for dignified work and social position.  When thwarted and “defeated” in such aspirations, he will suffer disappointment, resignation, even despair.  When dramatized in plays and films, such futile struggles may evoke the pathos of tragedy, whereby an audience sympathetically identifies with the universally human, yet unrealized, aspirations of the beaten-down yet authentic individual.

But what if the art of filmmaking, in our contemporary Zeitgeist, has abandoned this humanistic legacy derived from literature and drama?  What if it has become dominated by independent directors, technically matchless in visual technique, but coldly indifferent to such themes?  What if such directors—growing up comfortably middle-class and insulated from hunger and poverty—are indifferent or contemptuous of such human values and instead use their talents to ridicule humanity as a whole and to mock human suffering in particular?

Unlike film writers and directors of an earlier generation, today’s filmmakers—who often majored in “film studies” and emphatically did not attend the “school of hard knocks”—are generally untutored in classic drama and its perennial themes of moral dilemma, conflicting values, and the individual’s struggle to preserve his dignity and integrity.

They may claim to be “artists”–thereby despising bourgeois, philistine attitudes and celebrating fringe-deviant, nihilistic violence and flamboyant “death styles” (i.e., “slumming”).  I’m thinking of certain self-satisfied directors, seemingly narcissistically indifferent to genuine human suffering (or even coldly contemptuous of it).  Their disdain for “ordinary” people is such that they inevitably lapse into parody and demeaning caricature.  They are inordinately eager to show how cleverly they can mock such “types,” whose problems are presented as absurd and stupid.

Such ridicule and ironic mockery is far removed from the humane, 19th century sensibility of, say, Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo or Fyodor Dostoevsky.  But such directors are popular—among trendy, “well-educated,” young film-goers.  Why?  Because they sanction a cold, self-congratulating narcissism—thereby mirroring and re-affirming the present-day “politics of cruelty” which rewards various elites and rejects the remainder of humanity as “losers.”

William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).

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William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).

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