But such a day tomorrow as today,
And to be a boy eternal.
–Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale
Actor and playwright Wallace Shawn observed that TV can be used as a distraction for our existential suffering. “Too much soothing entertainment is not good for a person. If you admit that a play or a TV show or a movie can wake somebody up, you have to at least admit that possibly some plays or TV shows or movies might put people to sleep and help them in their quest for total oblivion.”
A reaction could be described as an expression of fight or flight. It is also an avoidance of responsibility, a failure to “grow up” (to be a “boy eternal”), or when profoundly understood, the failure to “wake up.” In the U.S. today we can see the American male in full flight from adulthood trying desperately to escape his existential suffering by remaining a childish Peter Pan. Fear, patriarchy and unconsciousness have combined to “freeze” and stunt the normal growth of males which influences the society as a whole to adopt this identity. This is because Western societies have always looked up to the Alpha male as our protector since the days when the saber tooth tiger threatened our security. History tells us it hasn’t worked and if we want to survive we will have to look elsewhere for relief from our imploding identities.
First, let’s make our case that indeed, the American male’s intellectual and emotional growth has been stunted (and don’t forget guys, that unfortunately, in the global village today, everyone else follows your lead). In constructing our indictment we will get an assist from The New York Times film reviewer and culture critic A. O. Scott.
If the American male is in full flight, where is he fleeing to? One place he seeks refuge is the screen on his various devices, for example, television. “TV characters are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations.” We utilize all of our technology to one degree or another as a diversion (a kind of self-medication) or to keep us as T. S. Eliot said, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Hence, we have, as Eliot realized, more than one level of unconsciousness.
The macho heroes on TV of late are flawed symbols and foreshadow a more universal problem than the death of an individual in a story. “Sometime this spring , during the first half of the final season of ‘Mad Men,’ the popular pastime of watching the show—recapping episodes, tripping over spoilers, trading notes on the flawless production design, quibbling about historical details and debating big themes—segued into a parlor game of reading signs of its hero’s almost universally anticipated demise.” Yes, we are all “going down.”
Media critics, however, don’t “see” the collapse of the global village community in western films, books, and television, but the ominous rumblings are there if we don’t look the other way. Behaviors of the distracted male emanate from the sensation center of the false self and, of course, take the form of reactions which may “seem” to relieve our anxiety. Weren’t those hairy-chested protagonists of the “Sopranos” (Tony), “Breaking Bad” (Walter) and “Mad Men” (Don) awful people? “But weren’t they also kind of cool? We are invited to have our outrage and eat our nostalgia too, to applaud the show’s right-thinking critique of what we love it for glamorizing.” The “sensations” of nostalgia, outrage and “hip” heroes are effective distractions—for a limited time—but then eventually, the spectre of reality growls in the corner.
That we are avoiding the reality of our existential suffering helps explain our obsession with our technology. That the creators of the content on our screens are oblivious as to why this obsession is growing is revealed by Charlie Booker. He is the creator of “Black Mirror” a series of self-contained stories (like the old “Twilight Zone” episodes written by Rod Serling) written as he says, “to deliberately unnerve the viewers.”
“We’re like people who are playing a driving video game for the first time, and we’re smashing into the walls left and right. As we get better as a species, we’ll master it. But at the moment we’re colliding with things all the time.” Adolescents can afford the time to master games but adults must master something far more challenging—their conditioned reactions—their unconscious pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power.
If indeed the alpha-dog is losing his bark, we will still suffer his misogyny and sexual abuse but it will be at the hands of a juvenile abuser. Let’s turn to what adults are reading these days as an indication of an erosion of maturity among both American males and females. Ruth Graham in an essay in Slate criticized readers ages 30 to 44 because they made up a third of those purchasing young adult fiction. “Graham insisted that such grown-ups ‘should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.’”
Scott has observed something similar in films. “In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y. A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.”
The New York Times book reviewer John Williams, reviewing Mehan Daum’s book of essays entitled The Unspeakable, comments on how her “Generation X” seems to be prolonging adolescence. “Our parents are getting older and dying, the snooze buttons on our biological clocks have given out, and still we grapple with growing up.”
Our intellectuals, whether cultural critics or psychologists when looking at the evolution of our society may project their own prejudices on human behavior, but hidden in their insights is a deeper truth, that even they are usually unaware of. Details may vary over time and place but what we are seeing in the U.S. today is the false self running from the opportunity to wake up and become self-reliant. It has always been thus.
Leslie A. Fiedler analyzed American fiction in his Love and Death in the American Novel and found the American male in full flight. “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest [Daniel Boone] and out to sea [Ishmael-Moby Dick], down the river [Huck Finn] or into combat [Henry Fleming-Red Badge of Courage]—anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’”
Looking at the history of American literature and television we see female sentimentality in the melodramatic soap opera plots, sophomoric escapism in the male adventure stories to the extent that we can’t avoid the impression that popular movies, paperbacks, TV and now video games are for young adults who don’t intend to become adults.
As we said, women will follow the lead of the men, not so much because they look up to them anymore but because their behaviors are also driven by their own false selves. “Just as the men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive at a stage of infantile refusal, so, too have the women progressed by means of regression. After all, traditional adulthood was always the rawest deal for them.” It would be more accurate to say that women were not following the men so much as being driven into full flight by the men.
The casualty of cultural analysis by the false self in the context of P-B is reality itself. Few of us are aware of the deeper meaning of our false-self behaviors. What may seem to be happening is not at all what is happening. In his final analysis, Scott himself reverts to childhood and celebrates the delusion. “It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (‘wait until you’re older’), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.”
Are Americans the only ones in full flight from reality and responsibility? Of course not. Russians under Vladimir Putin get most of their information from state-controlled television. “As one personality on state-run television puts it, ‘We all know there will be no real politics. But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. Politics has got to feel like a movie!’”
Russian media treats Russians as children and they have experienced little else but this pandering in their long history under one form of totalitarian rule or another. Putin has learned to use television, not to communicate reality but to create it.
Freedom, honesty and happiness will have to continue to be something we experience vicariously in our books and on our screens. The story we tell ourselves in our minds and our “dishonest” media precludes any authentic power, genuine freedom or lasting happiness. As we continue our escapist behavior, whether our identity is that of a pseudo-adult or a child, we become more deeply unconscious and vulnerable to the catastrophic fantasy of P-B.
What will we do when our screens go dark?
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.