Wednesday, April 28, 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. 


  1. A comment, Francis, as I climb back on the horse after being thrown....

    Two things have always astounded me about the generations of young rebels who have angrily shoved themselves off in what they imagined was the diametrically opposite direction from their bourgeois upbringing: the degree to which their comfortable origins have shaped them and their convictions; and how blind they have have always been to this fact.

    What has seldom been touched upon, at least in print, has been the existence of other modes and directions of nonconformity, and the interesting lives and achievements of those who have followed them. What of the people who have quietly, steadily created and followed their own paths toward life's prizes, while remaining on good (if not always loving) terms with their families and Society? Who would not wish to know of these silent rebels, whose determination to chart their own courses bespeaks an uncommon degree of graceful heroism in the face of undefined life and uncertain future?

    How much easier it is to hurl a grenade into the teeth of one's hated natal values, to pull down the institutions that nurtured one (even if to a suffocating extent)! One loudly proclaims oneself the rebel, strutting proudly, vowing to be just the opposite of all that one hates: in other words, a mirror image of the despised parent.

    Flaubert once offered the advice that an artist should be as bourgeois and conformist as possible in his exterior life, in order to be as unconventional and nonconformist as possible in his work. His advice and example warm the hearts of those of us who subversively work upon the foundations and pillars of the conventional world, reshaping it subtly and slowly into the shape of our dreams, collective and individual.

    Rebels may rock the world, but it is those who work with it, and secretly behind and beneath it, who cause it to revolve -- and every once in a while to do a true volte-face.

  2. First of all let me welcome you back Mr. Almoni. I was wondering where the hell you were and I missed your sage observations. I might fence with you on the Flaubert first of all. I don't believe his advise was to be as bourgeois as possible in one's life. I think he simply said that one should be conservative in life and radical in art. To be as bourgeois as possible, to have olympian bourgeois aspirations is a formidable task that takes years of training in and of itself. For instance, I attended the 2004 Bourgeois Olympics in Soul and there were performances of self satisfaction--particularly at the country club buffet competition--which would have made Daumier proud. Cries of "that makes sense," and "how appropriate" rang through the air with each new challenge to bourgeois values that the US team had to face. You can see the video of the event at SP


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