I was a fan of the show Mad Men when it was on TV. I watched a couple seasons, but got warn out of watching Don Draper have affairs and I lost my attention for the tediousness of the drama. Maybe that reflects more on me than the quality of the show. But I was given a refreshing, though depressing, dose of what made this show piercing by seeing the play Bus Stop the other night.
The play is a chronicle in a bar in Nowhere, Kansas where a strange cast have a series of complex relations, all while waiting for a winter storm to pass by. The question raised is what love is. It reminded me a lot of the mood of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which dealt with purpose and identity. None of the characters walk away satisfied, except in superficial ways. The closest thing to "love" is the marriage of a belligerent cowboy to a fearful, and searching show-girl. Their relationship could take up the rest of my post if I wanted. It's so full of biting irony and tongue-in-cheek insults that its substance is about as real as Hollywood.
Anyway, without getting into the details of the play, it, like Mad Men, reveals the utterly bankrupt way of life America the Beautiful is left with. The thing about this play is that it has no transcendental reference, it is a flat immanence. It is a world filled with luxury, peace, quiet. The only real goal it seems is to find someone to want and to be wanted by someone. I guess it's just me, I've never been able to allow this to drive my life, to stave off the empty gnawing that there is still something more.
The 50's is the era where this nihilism really set in. It's a world that is fully Christian, but it is a heretical and immanentized Christianity. What that means is that God is really nothing more than the sum-total of social movements. He is just a part of the motions one goes through. It is the eclipse of the bourgeoisie frame of mind, where nothing has any deep meaning. We isolate and yet are utterly lonely. In the play, the frankness of sex and promiscuity is not to scandalize. It's not even titillating. It's boring. It's, as one character put it, finding a man every once and awhile so she isn't so grouchy.
This isn't so far from the mores of the 50's. Though it's all kept in a traditional framework. The hypocrisy of the Golden Years caused the revolution of the 60's. The children of this generation were tired of the double dealing. They wanted to break out and find answers. Of course the Hippy movement collapsed under its own weight and gave birth to the Nihilism of the 80's, a synthesis between the status quo and the libertine attitudes. It was the era where faux praise to humility, chastity, fidelity etc. was trashed.
The Nihilism of all these works of art were best done when they were done in sincerity. The abolition of the transcendent, the functional 'Death-of-God' theology that the modern world had accepted, was not necessarily looked at as bad. And I say Death of God not in reference to Altizer who formalized such a movement. I mean the liberal merchants in Nietzsche's parable, the ones who murdered God and yet were not even aware of what they had done. A collective amnesia set in after they stashed the body.
It is a disturbing Nihilism because it is not the Nihilism of a mass-killer or an adventurous, sad soul. It's not someone who spray paints on bathroom stalls. It's a happy Nihilism. It is a calculated Nihilism. It's a completely flat world and a certain acceptance of it. The mood is very eery to me, and gives me shivers. It's the man who grows up, goes to school, gets married, has children, sends them to school, presides over his family, retires, and dies. It's the man who accepts the abyss as the foundation of his life. He is unreflective. He is exceptionally civilized and polite, and yet is more animal than human.
The 50's are praised in Conservative circles as the time when America was great. God have mercy on us.