Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Revolutionary Road (and still trying to figure out the 1950s)

In some circles, the 1950s are hailed as a peak of American civilization. Of course, this ignores the manner in which African-Americans were treated during that time. When brought up, the point is quickly granted before the wistful look re-emerges-- with that one exception. 

Still, one wonders the extent to which it's true-- or to be more exact, the extent to which it's complete. The parents of the 1950s gave us the children of the 1960s-- and for purveyors of the 1950s-near-utopia, this is problematic, given their view of the 1960s. 

It's a more visceral and subjective concern, but when times and people are "too nice", it worries me a lot. A similar mistake rears its head in imagining Jesus Christ to be largely a nice guy who jumped on the cross and then conquered death and encouraged us to be nicer to each other. 

Attendance at churches and self-identification as a "Christian" peaks during this time as well. But to what extent was this a bastardization of Christianity as "civil religion"-- a syncretistic merger of benign morality, belief in "God" and America, opposition to the godless USSR and its communist leaders, a desire to return (or at least go) to something pleasant (after the Depression and WWII), and so on? 

In our time, it is said that Christianity is fading, but the more likely description is that nominal and cultural Christianity are fading-- while discipleship and biblical Christianity will remain constant, or likely, grow (as it is, generally, around the world). 

I was interested to read this essay by Janie Cheaney in World, including the introduction it gave me to the Richard Yates' novel, Revolutionary Road. She underlines an aspect of the novel-- and presumably one part of the 1950s experience: that the niceness of the 1950s was, for some people, oppressive to them. They wanted to experience more than "the suburbs" and consumer amenities; they wanted purpose and meaning. In a time of relative peace and abundance, the struggle moved from survival to larger issues that were not being met by the culture and "the World". 

I'm happy to report that the book was well-written, but its themes are depressing and the approaches of its characters are fruitless and pathetic in the full sense of the word. DiCaprio and Winslet starred in the 2008 film adaptation of the book, but I don't recall hearing anything about it. Has anyone seen the film? 

This interview in CT with David Brooks adds some flavor on the same era and similar ideas: 

Q: You note that since roughly World War II, we’ve lived in a different “moral country.” What’s changed?
A: Most people believe the big cultural shift happened in the 1960s. But when I investigated the books and culture of the late 1940s, I found that the transformation happened then. There were tons of best-selling books, and some movies, arguing that the notion of human sinfulness was outdated, and that we should embrace the idea that we’re really wonderful....
Q: How did losing sight of human weakness pave the way for what you call today’s “Big Me” culture?

A: We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high-school seniors, “Are you a very important person?” Back then, 12 percent said yes. Gallup asked the same question in 2005, and 80 percent said yes.


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