IS our culture stuck in childhood or adolescence? Are we disregarding the depths or pleasures of maturity? CultureCrash’s guest columnist weighs in.
By Lawrence Christon
The late, great acting coach Stella Adler was holding a master class on Jean Anouilh’s “Waltz of the Toreadors,” a play in which a mousy general is completely tyrannized by his bellowing wife, who is no less a titanic force for being bedridden. Adler didn’t even look at the actress playing the wife, but instead peered out into the auditorium and said, “What is it with you women and your little teenage voices? You’ve all had sex. You’ve had abortions, children. Why is it you pinch your voices into this teenybopper chirpiness. You’re women, for Christ’s sake! Open up!”
I thought of that moment while reading my colleague Scott Timberg’s July 3 interview with philosopher Susan Neiman in Salon. The subject was the cult of youth and the American obsession with emulating it, particularly among those who no longer have it.
Neiman was illuminating in her comments on not only how grueling it is to get through one’s twenties, and how adulthood is so easily misconceived—and dismissed—but she also discussed how Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant turned the eyes of western philosophy on the subject of youth. What struck me was her contention that political leadership likes its constituency young, meaning, or implying, dumb. It strengthens their hold on power. Voila! The kids are not only all right, they’re always right.
I think this is way more than a political strategy, despite the bread-and-circuses template device used by Roman emperors to hide imperial rot, and I suspect Neiman does too and would say so if she had another shot at the question. For modern American culture has always been youth obsessed, at least as far back as the 1920s when, despite WWI, the estimated count of up to 850,000 Civil War dead—the effective loss of a generation—saw its numbers not just restored but partying hearty in what F. Scott Fitzgerald called, “the greatest, gaudiest spree in American history.”
The Great Depression and another world war (or the first one re-staged) brought the party to an end. The ‘50s introduced suburbia and the inward turn toward the self, aided by this newly popularized psychoanalysis thing and the theories not just of Freud, Adler (the other Adler, not Stella) and Jung, but Fromm, Erikson, Horney, Menninger, and a host of others to tell us who we are and how we got that way. Youth, in particular adolescence, also entered the close psychiatric—and sociological—gaze, though Jean Piaget had begun bringing it into relief in the ‘20s. Advertisers, the first Mad Men generation, began to take notice. Hence the perennially pampered, self-infatuated 18-49 demographic.
The Boomer ‘60s brought us the nuclear cloud of generational explosion, but instead of radioactive fallout we saw fragments of tie-dye shirts and birth control packets, droplets of patchouli oil, slogan remnants like “Turn on, tune in, drop out” and poster bits of psychedelic derangement marking a Dionysian, countercultural revolt that was essentially romantic in its sweep and wonderful in its pantheistic embrace of the moment—but blind to its destructive naivety and unaware of the crooks and hustlers in its ranks.
Now in mid-to-late middle age, the Boomers still hold the economic clout and the romantic myth that makes Fitzgerald’s age a mere Tupperware party. We’re in bad shape, Mr. and Mrs. America, but the forces trying to hide the fact are in the culture, not just the body politic (which 75% of the American voting public has turned its back on), as we’re promised leaner bodies, better sex, smoother skin, fuller hair, and enough Botox and replicant transplant surgery to keep us bouncing indefinitely through time like bright, indefatigable racquetballs. In short, we’re being sold the illusion of eternal youth.
This is nothing new, of course. Ever since Tithonos discovered, to his horror, that Zeus’ dispensation of eternal life didn’t include youth in the benefits package, the purity of youth, the ardor of youth, the transports and abandon, the hunger for life (and sex) and the tirelessness of satiation, have always tended to take top billing in the highlight film of memory, however long it grows. And I never know what to make of people who meet through every decade of their high school reunions, whether it’s courage to face or folly to ignore time’s cruel ravages of the flesh.
But we’re old a lot longer than we’re young, and Neiman reminds us that adulthood has its own satisfactions and discoveries that are just as full, if subtler, than first love, or that first touchdown drive. Even Fitzgerald, the eternal party animal, looked at Christ and Lincoln and saw in their model that honor and glory (and in our media-crazed era, fame) aren’t the reward, which is reserved for consciousness of the struggle.
I’m not shilling for AARP perks. But the youth mania, particularly in the arts and entertainment, where the numbers-fuelled radar dish is always turning toward The Next New Thing, leaves a lot of talent and even genius behind in the consumer detritus of the used and prematurely discarded. The culture suffers the loss without knowing it.
Writer Stanley Crouch said it best when he observed of traditional societies, “The goal of a boy is to be a man, and the goal of a man is to be a wise man.” The parallel same with women. To break up the equation, as pop and media culture have done, puts us in disequilibrium. We’re in free fall; we feel it everywhere outside of Wall Street, Madison Avenue, K Street and Silicon Valley. But to try and go back to the way we were is to find nobody there to catch us.