Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Bourgeois Mind

Nicholas Berdyaev wrote a book called The Bourgeois Mind, a title that is intriguing because it encompasses so much of modernity, from Bovary, to Babbitt, to Thorston Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption. But any lab examination of a bourgeois mind preserved in formaldehyde would surely demonstrate that the oppressed populace Frantz Fanon describes in The Wretched of the Earth has no monopoly on dissatisfaction. H. Rap Brown once said that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” So is rebellion. The flappers of the Jazz age gave way to the nice girls who fell for rebels and criminals. The Jean Seberg character in Godard’s Breathless is the prototypical American innocent who falls for the criminal. What was a nice Jewish girl like Hettie Cohen doing with the proto black nationalist who was to change his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka? Read her memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones. Today white suburban kids constitute the biggest audience for the violent lyrics of rappers like Snoop Doggy Dog.
In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the British novelist Alan Sillitoe distilled England’s class hatred for dissatisfied sixties baby boomers who enjoyed all the advantages of an emerging prosperity. Sillitoe, who died this past Sunday, April 25, created a crucible of class consciousness that fueled the revolutionary aspirations of a whole generation of youthful Americans, whose art house excursions (both Loneliness and Saturday Night were made into classic movies with such cinema greats as Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, and Rachel Rogers) to theatres like the Paris and the Thalia in Manhattan provided the launching pad for rioting against what they deemed to be the empty values and aspirations of their parents. John Osborne is one of the few “angry young men” whose message seems to survive its periodicity. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger is still occasionally performed, and Jimmy Porter has achieved iconic status in the pantheon of rebels whose cause was basically life. Yet the gritty world out of which Sillitoe came, and from which his writing provided an escape, left an indelible imprint on the sons and daughters of an age of prosperity who were contriving their own escape—in this case from the hard won comforts of the merchant and professional class.

[This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.]

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