English SAC: Context:
Topic: That illusions are always ultimately detrimental, even potentially destructive.
The Age – Opinion Article: Spending – A Brief Reflection
Few people would disagree that today’s world is driven by money, and that everything is measured by its dollar worth. Everything from a country’s living standards, to the value of an entire industry or group of people has been quantified. Fifty years ago, a debate raged around the world about whether this system of values based around hard economics was a good idea. People questioned the value that the white picket fence actually had. In today’s world, they don’t, and we’re all much the worse for it.
The great tradition of absurdist theatre is to look at the world around itself, and the illusions that world perpetuates, and tear them apart. Great absurdist playwrights like Arthur Miller and Edward Albee took this notion a step further, and gave the reality a human face, generally a controversial one which shocked audiences in the 50’s. They gave people a wake-up call, and they weren’t afraid of the often ignored elephant in the room. In the modern world, people are often told about abstract ideas like unemployment rates, and economic growth by governmental leaders. But what do those things really mean?
Perhaps, in the same way as Miller and Albee have done, we should put a human face onto the cost of growth.
Fifty years ago, the average family consisted of a successful father, an unemployed housewife, two-point-two children, a dog and a nice house in the suburbs. That family was often financially secure, and yet, people bemoaned the nature of that financial security. In today’s world, that family would be almost impossible. Today, the average mother and father share two or even three jobs, just to pay for their bills, and their mortgage, and their children’s education. Even then, they need assistance. What’s gone wrong between then and now?
Willy Loman, the tragic lead of Miller’s timeless classic Death of a Salesman, is exactly like the modern family today. Willy has been left behind by society, despite his hard work, and is driven to borrowing money from his neighbour and lying to his family about his job. Perhaps, as his wife Linda explains, attention must be paid to this man, and others like him, who have been abandoned by society. For all that this is repeated, however, how often is it followed? The rich-poor divide is increasing, and life is getting ever harder for the battler. The illusion of today’s quantified world would have everyone believe that the solution is money, that the solution is always money.
This is not so. Miller’s great friend, Edward Albee, in his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, portrays four characters, all affluent, and all wronged by society’s unquenchable desire for success in everything. George, one of the play’s four characters, is an intelligent man, an intellectual historian at a university, who has been rendered an insecure failure by society’s, and his wife’s, desire for him to succeed even more than he already has. So both the affluent man, and the poor man have been grossly wronged by the society that uses money to objectify value.
The only option left for us to consider is that, just maybe, the social measure which we use is flawed; that money is not the answer to all our problems, and the infinite generation of money in ever-increasing quantities in the future won’t solve all our problems.
In an early 21st century revival of Death of a Salesman, the director of the play sent the script to several different modern day psychiatrists. Almost without fail, the psychiatrists advised the director that Willy Loman was a man suffering from some form of depression, and that this illness is what is causing Willy’s suicidal tendencies. When asked about this by The New York Times, Arthur Miller seriously objected. He explained that Willy wasn’t a depressive, but rather, a man weighed downby society, and various societal issues. Willy is seized by the mechanics of business early on, and not knowing any better, he leaps at the chance to make money, making this a necessity in his life. In his later years, as Miller depicts in the play, Willy is a shell of his former self, exhibiting a totally disheartened nature. He is character that has been taken up by life, sold the illusion that money is only ultimate goal in life, and when he is old and worthless to the “business”, he is thrown out, without any kind of help from anybody, but his neighbour. Granted, in the modern world, things like pensions are far more prevalent, but in the majority of society, pensions are worthless. The giant cog of business turns and turns, and sucks people in, people like Willy Loman, uses them, and throws them out as spiritually destroyed husks.
This social flaw is perhaps best exemplified in Albee’s Virginia Woolf. The characters are far more affluent than the Loman family, and far more successful. However, even the typical university family displayed by Albee has deep scars. The play’s two male characters are polar opposites. Nick is a young, up and coming, star, who specialises in biology, and represents the advent of the scientific age. He is like the psychiatrists diagnosed Willy Loman as a depressive, enamoured with the belief that science, and money, and other artificial sources are best locations to look for a solution to social issues.
Countenancing Nick is George, an older, unsuccessful, washed up man who represents the dying social ideas, debates and values of the past. George is the man who responds like Miller, arguing that the only way to solve social issues is through social systems, not drugs like Prozac, or the billions of dollars it took to develop it. Today’s world, today’s reality even, objectifies human lives and concerns so much so that everything from education to a lack of socio-economic fluidity can be solved with money and money alone.
Society is suffering the same delusion that destroyed Willy Loman’s life, and would likely have destroyed Nick’s life, were Albee to show it to us.
Perhaps the solution society should embrace is to abandon this illusion, and return to the truth, that social change is the only way to improve society, not money, before our society ends up like Willy Loman and George: spiritually destroyed, deeply disheartened husks living constantly miserable lives, bar a few redeeming moments.