02 August 2007

The American Dream, Defined: Part I

If I search for the term ‘The American Dream’ on the Wikipedia, the resulting page tells me that “The American Dream is the idea held by many in the United States that through hard work, courage and determination one could achieve prosperity [sic]. These values were held by many early European settlers, and have been passed on to subsequent generations. What the American Dream has become is a question under constant discussion.

This same Wikipedia entry page also tells me that “There are many books, plays and other forms of literature which have defined, explored or denounced the American Dream [sic].” An (hopefully) abbreviated list then follows, which includes the novels of Horatio Alger, the quintessentially American The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and several others. The films Easy Rider, Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983), and American Beauty are also cited as examples of works of art that explore this idea of the American Dream.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary informs us that the American Dream is “an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also : the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal.

The American Dream seems to be defined in a similar fashion by both Merriam-Webster and the Wikipedia, so an amalgam of the two seems to be the best way to create a working definition of exactly what ‘The American Dream’ is.

What is particularly fascinating about the Wikipedia entry, however, is its list of examples of the American Dream in works of art. With perhaps the exception of On The Road, each example ends tragically. Gatsby, as everyone should recall from high school English, meanders to his inexorable demise precisely because of his attainment of the very definition of the American Dream (in terms of the definitions provided for us thus far). The same is also true of Tony Montana in Scarface, although he reached his American Dream through a perhaps more sinister path than Gatsby (though how Gatsby attained his wealth is ambiguous at best). In Cold Blood recounts, in beautiful prose, the murder of the Clutter family in a small Kansas town by two men who live on the very margins of American society. Thus, In Cold Blood is not so much an exploration of the attainment of the American Dream and the subsequent consequences, but rather a detailed and factual account of how fragile that American Dream can be, and how easily it can be snuffed out.

So, we have a definition of the American Dream that seems to imply that it is something ‘good’ (for lack of a better word). Indeed, I guarantee that if you were to ask anyone that you know (or do not know, for that matter) what their perception of the American Dream is, they will most certainly tell you that it involves some combination of wealth and comfort, the ability to provide for loved ones, and perhaps the absence of any undue psychological or physical stress. Or, to give you a visual image of the American Dream, a four bedroom, two and half bathroom house in a nice suburban neighborhood with a white picket fence, a doting spouse, and two point whatever children. In short, the American Dream is something ‘good.’

Yet, we all know what happens to Lester Burnham at the end of American Beauty, and he, presumably, had achieved some variation of that American Dream.

Perhaps we should take a closer look at Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey).

By all outward appearances, he was ‘Just Livin’ The Dream.’ House, wife, kid, job, and so on. Yet, his life is a wreck. At one point he ends up quitting his job, presumably the one that allowed him to attain the American Dream. Suddenly, the ideas of hard work, comfort, wealth, security are no longer part of the American Dream if Lester despises the very thing that allowed him to grasp that brass ring.

American Beauty is by no means representative of the centuries long exploration of the American Dream in American works of art, but it certainly gives us a good idea of how artists (in all genres and mediums) have tried to work through this idea. Ultimately, it seems, the American Dream is just that—a dream. Though we can attain the American Dream (Donald Trump, perhaps; any professional athlete in this country, maybe), art tells us that the consequences of reaching that goal are so grave that they render the American Dream null and void. Thus, the American Dream becomes a blank check that we can never cash. According to art, at least. You would have to ask The Donald if he is truly Just Livin’ The Dream, but I am sure that he would never admit to having any psychological disturbances, or ego versus id battles.

Consequently, the Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster definitions of the American Dream are incomplete. These definitions should be amended to read something like this: ‘The idea that through hard work, perseverance, and sheer stick-to-it-iveness, an American can achieve wealth, comfort, security, happiness. Yet, once attained, the American Dream leads the individual down a path the ultimately ends in tragedy or destruction.’ Thus, while the American Dream is something ‘good,’ it leads the individual to something ‘bad.’

Hunter S. Thompson, in his (in)famous Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas seems to posit that the American Dream can only be reached through a drug and alcohol induced bender through the American desert. The result is a realization that “…now, less than five years later, with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” That is, at some point in the past, we (either individually, as a society, as a couple, whatever) fucked up so royally when we finally had a real chance at attaining the American Dream, that any hope of living the American Dream is now gone. The Dream has become an illusion at best. And, at worst, it now exists only as the American Nightmare. Our drug and alcohol binge will only allow us to see that exact moment of weakness, wrong-doing, uncertainty, indecision, or any other negative adjective that would describe something that did prevent us from reaching the traditional American Dream. For The Good Doctor, our new American Dream is a slim hope that we can receive that realization, some day.

I think.

Thompson, in this passage, was writing of the counterculture and protest movements of the 1960s that, just as they were on the verge of affecting real and lasting change in this country, splintered and lost all momentum. Though he provides no reason for what happened to that great movement of ‘All Power to the People’ of the 1960s, my parents, when asked, tell me that it was because everyone got tired, got jobs, had kids, and the troops finally coming home from Vietnam was just enough to placate. So I guess my generation is to blame for Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Bush.

But I digress.

With the problems and promises of the traditional American Dream in mind, perhaps it is necessary for a reworking of the definition of the idea. For that matter, it is probably more useful to discover if the American Dream can (or even did) actually ever exist. Even more importantly, is the American Dream necessarily American?

Mahalo, Brothers and Sisters. And Peace Be The Journey.

30 July 2007

Let's Try This Again...

So that first blog did not work out so well.

Because of my increasing (and self-diagnosed) paranoia, dementia, and delusions (both of grandeur and of insignificance), everything I think is now going to be written down as some kind of record.

As I promised the first time around (and, of course, did not deliver on, which should have been obvious from the outset--just read the title of this little blog), I am going to try to cover as many topics as possible, ranging from movies and music, to high literature, to traffic and popular culture, and maybe even a word or two that I find to be particularly interesting on any given day. This time around, however, you are going to be getting more than just two (exceedingly long) posts about my show experiences. Comments and critiques are always welcome, and I promise to make every attempt to respond to each one. Hopefully we can have some fun, uncover a few kernels of truth, and perhaps take a journey to the savage heart of the American Dream.

I have made a lot of promises in these last few paragraphs. But, as always, Satisfaction is Not (and never will be) Guaranteed.

Mahalo, Brothers and Sisters.

Perhaps you will get some words later this evening, when I have a free moment or an interesting thought.