Both life and literature are usually understood in terms of drama. People make choices which alter them and their circumstances and it is problematic what will come next. That is especially true of courtship, where people know that life with this person will be different and somehow unexpected, and so our romances, which means potential marriages, makes each of us a hero or heroine within our own lives, and that is even true of arranged marriages, where at least the woman is going to live with a new family and put up with a man whom she may barely know. It is also true of the years one spends in college, transforming oneself into a different person, each person the hero of his or her own bildungsroman. So everyone is either young Werther, or the young artist portrayed by James Joyce. Prince Hal became a different person when he became Henry V and Hamlet became a different person we find out only when he returned from college to a home he found passing strange. This dramatic texture of life continues throughout the life cycle, though often, in its later stages, because of changes not of one’s choosing: the death of a spouse leading a person to alter their sense of their place in the world as well as possibly their living arrangements. Even retirement can lead to life alterations if for no other reason than that a person has to find out what they want to do with their time, which is a matter of choices not previously thought possible. Are their hobbies to be expanded into new vocations? Is it time for something different: a bucket list rather than an intensification of an already established side of one’s personality?
But then there is the rest of life, the part of it that is carried on between these periods of great and sometimes sudden change, when one is pursuing a career or carrying on family life or has developed a routine whereby to get through one’s retirement. Here, life is steady and secure, or as secure as circumstances will allow. One goes to work and comes home to dinner and some family time before retiring to get up the next morning to again face the work day. Such life is carried out on a weekly basis. There is a break from routine on weekends, where child sports or church or picnics dominate, a sort of mini-vacation which is supplemented by the two weeks or four weeks of controlled adventure that is now meant by vacation: going to the beach or the mountains or someplace farther away than that to taste new foods, scuba dive, see old churches. Nothing too dangerous. The rides at the amusement parks are guaranteed to be safe.
Work is also a matter of controlled adventure. Your judgment may be required if you are a surgeon or a lawyer, but not so much if you are a carpenter or a grocer. You try to make sure risk is at a minimum and so you remember for the rest of your life if you have botched a diagnosis or a surgery. You remember if your store went bankrupt or if, for years, you worried about whether you could make your monthly bills. The point of work is to reduce its stresses so that when you get home you can report to your spouse that nothing much happened today, even if there was an interesting case or customer. Yes, there are promotions and crises at work, and you may obsess about them, but they pass while the rest of your life goes on, sustaining you through the ups and downs of work because you have to get to a child’s performance at school or else manage an aged relative’s illness. People in their working years are busy with so many things to manage that they forget or find solace in the fact that so much of their lives are indeed manageable and managed. If we are decisive or outspoken in the management of family or work life it is not so much that we mean to be heroic as we are doing what seems necessary to get back. Heroism is thrust upon us.
A structural feature of the steady life is that culture is a circumscribed and limited contribution to it, available as a diversion or a tension reduction mechanism or as a moment of vicarious adventure pleasing precisely because it is only vicariously that you want to be Errol Flynn. Culture can be a hobby or a pastime or even an accomplishment, as playing the piano was for young women during Jane Austen’s time. But culture cannot be a pre-occupation because that is to make a person into something of a hero, something special, noteworthy, roiled by the art of it all or else by the intellectual penetration required to mastering texts or doing science for its own sake. This is the path of disaster Cervantes traces: someone taken with fantasies can no longer tell where fantasy ends and reality begins. That is why supporters of the steady life are so opposed to youth culture, whether that was girls swooning over Frank Sinatra or shaking their bodies over rock and roll. Youth culture claims that personal liberation, whatever that may be, trumps regularized life. The steady life is the enemy of culture, even if culture can intrude, disastrously, into steady life when a war is declared and so one is ripped from one’s family to fight in places like Guadalcanal that had not even been depicted in newsreels, and so may provide the occasion to become a hero, God forbid. It is bad when the news is something other than to rant about.
A feature of the steady life other than that it is a situation of controlled adventure and an enemy of culture is that it can end any time with a catastrophe from which one does not recover: the death of a child, a debilitating illness, a career reversal. That always looms over us, those unmanageable events, and we are grateful that one or another of them has not befallen us on any given day. That is not to say that life is not pleasant in the steady life, only that we wish it could go on and on and on, however many may be is frictions: personalities that rub against one another, a lack of appreciation for one’s work efforts, never having quite enough money to sustain the style of life that the family has chosen. All things considered, it is better than the alternative, and so we cling to it and work to sustain it. That is what most of life is about.
This view that people work to sustain their status quo, is at odds with what major theorists think life is about. Freud wanted to recast life as a place where one was always in a heroic battle between urges, the unconscious the battlefield. The struggle has truces and some resolutions but by and large the battle between the id and the superego never ends. Being a lifelong hero has its compensations. Everyone, not just kings and people in movies, become noteworthy, but the cost is terrible. Who needs this heroism which in the case of Freud means traveling down into the darkness of all that is yucky? Marx also wanted to rescue people from the dreadfulness of their steady lives because those lives were debilitating even if they put food on the table because the work people did kept them from achieving true satisfaction by turning their labor into the production of artistic objects rather than duplicates of everything else that was produced. A socialist world would make everyone into a king, free to do what he wants and so be who he was.
The alternative view, that the steady life is the one worth living, is predominant in sociological theory, and maybe that is why literary intellectuals find it so hard to grasp, its basic tropes so foreign to them. Talcott Parsons imagined society as a well integrated mechanism for the perpetuation of the steady life. You went on with family life not only because nothing else could be as satisfying but because the laws of society as well as its culture supported the maintenance of those patterns. Life was an exercise in conformity rather than of liberation through heroism. You knew how you were expected to behave and to think and that was reason enough to do and think that way. The external life was calibrated to support an also carefully calibrated inner life. You were heroic only in your surrender to the imperatives of that life, as Gregory Peck, playing “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”, understood that he had to follow the directions of Fredric March, the overly emotionally invested advertising agency head so as to make good for his family’s sake and that he and his wife were called on to support the child he had sired during the war in Italy because it was the right thing to do. Morality is clear even if not everyone can summon the will to obey it. No wonder the Sixties wanted to be rid of all that.
Proponents of the steady life want people to mind their manners, not ask too many questions, and accept their lot in life. These restraints make civilized living possible; they allow us to avoid excesses of passion and power. That goes contrary to the liberal view that every person can be a hero, someone extraordinary, if they are just allowed to answer to their talents or their souls. And so there is a deep, deep cultural war between the two points of view, between those on the side of liberation and those on the side of conformity. But that can’t be right, can it? Because the forces of rectitude sided with Trump, who is destructive of the steady life which he by no means models even as he claims to represent the regular people who have no use for the excesses of Coast dwellers. I have not heard of Trump supporters who turn against him because he allows himself to be a creature of his fantasies, they thinking him obedient only to the laws of finance, and even a disrupter of those.