Tuesday, August 6, 2019

James Thurber's Stoic Vision

James Thurber’s Walter Mitty imagines himself as a great hero. The humor of the story which is really an extended fantasy lies in diminution. The Thurber story in which the character appeared, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” ushered in an age of anti-heroes led by Roth’s Alexander Portnoy and hearkening back to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa who wakes up to find himself transformed into an insect. At the center of all these tales is a hapless creature who's alternately saved and doomed by his intellect. The catharsis lies in the fact that many people find respite from the juggernaut of pitiless reality through immersion in a constant stream of fantasies that can become dangerously real at times. How many times have you seen the cheering throngs on a Rolling Stones You Tube video and for a moment begun to feel that you were on the stage singing “Beast of Burden?” Of course, there are people whose lives are the stuff of fantasy and who make stop-offs between Cannes and Hollywood the way the average person changes for the shuttle at 42ndStreet. But the average human being lives a rather humdrum life, a victim of routines that start with going to school as a child, joining the work force and a 9-5 job with two week paid vacations and then facing a whole new set of pleasures that eventually create their own prisons in the brief period of retirement that precedes death. The dreamer is like a statue poised on a pedestal. It’s no coincidence that surrealist painters and filmmakers have brought such figures to life and found some degree of humor in them. In the creation of Walter Mitty Thurber caught the disparity between the dynamics of the mind and the stasis that derives from the gravitational pull of human existence.

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