I heard another story this week of a kind that we all know: child of a middle-class family refuses to knuckle under to the demands of education, job, and marriage, ends up at 25 a wreck of drugs and desperation, possibly on the way to prison.
It made me think about these poles of existence that seem to define our age: a disciplined life of getting up and going to work every day, minding your manners, cleaning up as you go, vs. a break for freedom that ends with a slide into the abyss.
Serious American literature, the kind written by men who win prizes, is at least half about this dilemma: Philip Roth, John Updike, Richard Russo, Jonathan Franzen, all have obsessed over the demands of middle class existence and the longing to break free. I remember trying to read one Updike novel that made the suburban life of a middling office worker seem so bleak and horrible that one wondered how it could possibly endure, and why revolution did not break out tomorrow. One of Philip Roth's prizewinning books, Sabbath's Theatre, is about a man who poses as an artist and a revolutionary in order to avoid work and be taken in by sympathetic, left-wing families, the better to seduce the bored women behind their staid husbands' backs.
Most people who feel this conflict have ways of managing it. Some of the men I play basketball with used to head off every winter for away football games that turned into three-day benders. People go to the beach, read sexy romance novels, watch superhero movies, climb mountains, ride motorcycles, write blogs, have affairs, fantasize about retirement. Something, anything, to make us think we are not just rule-bound creatures of the hive, to make us feel wild and free.
I have a sense that responses to all of this undergird a lot of our politics: liberals are people who worry more about the oppressions of the system, conservatives those who worry more about the slide into chaos. Think about people in the 60s and 70s who admired young hippies and defended the violent excesses of radicals: surely part of the underlying motivation was dislike of our hyper-ordered, tightly constrained world and admiration for those who burst its boundaries. Or people who defend the police no matter what and think school children should say "yes ma'am" and "yes sir" to their teachers: this is necessary, they think, because the alternative is drug-addled, slum-shack purgatory and an early grave. And the tolerance of those same conservatives for the "gentleman's clubs" outside every southern city: here is one of the safety valves that helps people keep their lives under control the rest of the time.
One thing that seems to unite millions of Americans is a desire to escape from the regimentation of the system: to make your own rules instead of following somebody else's; to follow your own agenda, or your own dreams; to do what is good or fun rather than what is required. We idolize rock stars, gangsters, off-the-grid survivalists, anyone who is able to break free of the bounds that hold us to the suburban earth. Even those of us who like what we do for a living fantasize about saying to hell with the rules and the bureaucracy and the paperwork and just doing it.
Yet here we are, getting ready to go back work again tomorrow, because for most of us the alternative is ruination.
You may think I'm being overly dramatic, and ok, maybe so, but this is exactly the tone of the person who told that story I started from: follow the rules, go to school, go to work, pay your bills, keep on the straight and narrow, or end up in drug rehab hoping the judge is in a merciful mood.