Death of a Salesman  written by Arthur Miller can also be paraphrased as “Death of the American Dream.” The celebrated play is considered to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.
The play examines the life of Willy Loman, a businessman who is losing his grip on reality. Willy’s dissolution lies in his belief that a “personally attractive” man in business deserves material success.
This fixation with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability are highlighted by his childishly dislike of the success of others won by hard work. Willy cannot accept the disparity between dream and reality and this leads to his rapid psychological decline.
His sons Biff and Happy are yet to make anything of their lives while Willy’s neighbours and older brother are successful. The family dynamic between Happy and Biff with their father Willy is one of disappointment and delusions. The son lie to their father about their plans for success while Willy reconstructs reality through flashback reminiscences of better days.
Willy is rude and unkind to his wife and neighbour, those most kind and caring to him. We learn that Biff’s lack of desire to pursue the American dream of business success, was birthed by learning his father was deceitful and philandering. Biff prefers to be an ordinary man with an ordinary life working on the land with his hands.
Willy refuses to accept the reality of what his sons tell him, preferring to slip into imagined flashbacks of what really happened in his past.
Set in post war America, Death of Salesman was written into the twin sentiments of modernist melancholy and post-war optimism. While the United States experienced economic boom and rising middle class prosperity, socially and spiritually her people were struggling with existential crises.
The narrative shares timeless truths in relation to individual and national identity, capitalism, ideals of success and notions of integrity, morality and hard work.
Michael Ende is best known for his novel “The Never Ending Story”  however, the German author was a prolific writer of fantasy and children’s fiction, selling more than 35 million copies of his works in his lifetime and having them adapted into films, plays, operas and audio-books .
His fantasy novel Momo , also known as The Grey Gentleman explores themes of modernism and materialism and the power of a young girl to simply give people a most valuable asset, her attention and time.
Set on the outskirts of an unknown Mediterranean city, perhaps in Italy, the story centres around a neighbourhood of simple folk and an orphan, Momo.
Living in the ruins of an amphitheatre, Momo does not know how to read or write, nor does she know her own age. She however has a unique gift for truly listening to people. Momo is considered to be somewhat of an advisor to all the people of the neighbourhood for helping them solve their petty problems by simply listening.
Momo does not say much but her gentle ability to listen to people helps them untangle their problems themselves. Momo’s closest friends are Beppo, the street sweeper and Guido, a tour guide.
Into the tranquil world of this community come the Men in Grey, bald men with greyish skin and grey suits who represent the Time Savings Bank. These men indoctrinate the people of this town to the value of ‘saving time’ which requires depositing time in accounts in order to gain interest on it.
Gradually, activities perceived to be time wasting such as socialising, art creation, imaginative playing or even sleeping begin to be replaced by hectic work and stress.
Momo remains immune to the powers of the Men in Grey. As her friends no longer come to her for counsel, she perceives the irony that the more time people save, the less time they have.
Momo is assisted by curious creature called Cassiopeia, a tortoise who communicates with words illuminated on her shell and who has the gift of future-sightedness. Cassiopeia introduces her to the Administrator of Time, Professor Secundus Minutus Hora, who grants her one “hour lily”, freezing time for one hour, long enough for Momo to infiltrate the lair of the Men in Grey.
Momo discovers the the Men in Grey are not real humans but are in fact parasites living off the time deposited in their bank by people. The cigars they smoke are made from dried “hour lilies” deposited in the bank for saving and without these cigars, the Men in Grey perish.
It is Momo’s challenge to deprive the Men in Grey of their cigars while simultaneously releasing the trapped “hour lilies” kept in the bank for safe keeping, and return them to the people who have lost them.
Written at the end of modernsim and at the cusp of post-modernism and the flowering of neo-spiritualism, Ende like the Romantics before him, lamented the gradual erasure of the mystical, spiritual or esoteric from human life in favour of utilitarianism, materialism and economic rationalism.
To Michael Ende, children such as Momo are unique symbols of resistance to adult preoccupations such as materialism, work, stress and time saving.
His story is an essay to the magic of friendship, the importance of time, the power of stories, the significance of compassion and the value of the small but pleasant things that make life more worth living.
Our unlikely hero is Momo, whose invincibility lies in the fact that her childish imagination can see through the Men in Grey, and her love for her friends leads her to courageously challenge the establishment which would rob them of their most precious asset -time.
Unfortunately some ill health has hindered regular blog posts and so instead share this great video by TED-Ed titled “What makes something “Kafkaesque“.
The term Kafkaesque tends to describe unnecessarily complicated and frustrating experiences, especially with bureaucracy. Such frustration was used by Franz Kafka [1883-1924] to articulate his sense of existential anxiety and alienation and to capture the feeling of striving in the face of bleakness, hope in the face of hopelessness.
Franz Kafka was one of the most significant Modernist writers of the 20th century along side with Jean Louis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht, T. S. Eliot, and more.
Upon reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles, one feels distinctly manipulated. The text is so melancholy, the characters so pitiable, society so repressive and unjust. One wonders “what essay is Thomas Hardy writing through his novel about his world”? Why does he wish to make his readers so miserable?
The story is set in the 1870s in county Wessex. Tess Durbeyfield is a saintly rural maiden, misunderstood by her poor parents. Her uneducated father believes they have connections to aristocracy through the name “D’Urberville”. She is sent to “claim kin” and finds work to help support her family and watched over by the rather abrasive landowners son Alec Stoke.
Alec, on pretense of helping her one day, leads her into the woods where he rapes her. She returns home and cannot talk of the crime or of the sickly child she bears and buries in an unmarked grave. Several years pass and she finds herself working as a milkmaid for a local farmer, and is courted by the parsons son, Angel Clare. Fearful to tell Angel the truth, she conceals it until the day of their marriage. On the night of their wedding, he confesses to her a previous relationship with an older woman and so she in turn she tells him of the misdemeanour. He promptly disowns her and sails for Brazil, but not without propositioning Tess’ milkmaid friend to accompany him as his mistress. She declines.
Hard on her luck, Tess is forced to become the mistress to wealthy Alec. In Brazil, Angel suffers failures with his farming ventures and repents of his angry impulses. Sickly with yellow fever, he returns to England and confesses his love for Tess, She cannot have him and turns him away. As he leaves however, Tess murders Alec and pursues Angel. The novel closes with the couple at Stonehenge, where Tess rests upon an ancient altar. As the police descend to take Tess to prison and certain and death, she states she is glad, for Angel loves her and she him.
Hardy was an educated Victorian man concerned with the injustices of his day. Tess is almost an image of Hardy’s beautiful pastoral England, raped by the landed gentry, abused and managed by those using the name of the church. When she lies upon the pagan altar, she is at her happiest. The narrator concludes the novel with the statement:
“‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in the Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess,”
Justice, however, is not really just at all. What passes for “Justice” is in fact one of the pagan gods enjoying a bit of “sport,” or a frivolous game. The fates are frivolous. This is the ache of the modern view – there is no dream. Just reality, bare and stark.
Not only is society in transition between an ancient pastoral land, to industrial urbanisation, but also from the enlightenment certainty to modern melancholy. Unlike classic tragedy, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the tale does not allude to a “norm” against which the tragedy occurs. Romeo and Juliet’s families acknowledge that their warring houses could have prevented the deaths. The court of Macbeth acknowledge that powerlust and hubris brought about the decline of the kingdom and so forth.
One feels with Hardy, that with the decline of enlightenment certainty, comes a decline in confidence in redemption of any kind. The modernist ache is to contemplate society and its evils without affirming an alternative ending. Other than to aspire to compassionate humanism, we cannot ultimately hope but to avoid the sport of the gods.
A favourite genre of mine, wierdly, is Modernist literature. Characteristic of writing between the turn of the century until the 1960s, it is characterised by a heavy cynicism about society, morality.and break with tradition. Influenced by artistic movements of impressionism, cubism, surrealism and scientific turns from Newtonian physics to Quantum theory, interspersed with two world wars and other social upheavals, the period turned literature into introspective, doubtful and even absurdist narrations of human existence.
I love Hemmingways experience of life through the senses – almost a verbal impressionism; I love Samuel Beckett’s tirade against reason in Waiting for Godot. I love Joseph Conrad’s journey through Imperial Africa to the heart of darkness. I love J. D Salinger’s depiction of a young man dissolving into madness and Sylia Plath’s depiction of her heroine’s dissolution in the Bell Jar. Perhaps at the core of my love of Modernist literature is a turn to classical Greek and Roman literature to find meaning beneath life in archetypes and dreams, a kind of Jungian journey into the soul.
A novel that moved me greatly was Joseph Hellier’s “Catch 22”. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughter House Five”, It artfully depicted the absurdities of war. Intelligent generals wishing to send young men to their death. Sane young men, not wishing to die but facing the catch. The only way to evade duty was to declare madness, but only the truly mad would go happily go to their death. Thus the sane cannot evade death, though they desire to, and the mad will not evade death, since they will not declare insanity. And so the circle goes – the Catch 22.
When I heard at school that the Book of Job, was not only one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world and also one of the most celebrated greats, I was facinated to read it. Unlike any other book in the bible it reads like a play, with behind the scenes notes, and lengthy dialogues between protagonist and antagonists. Loving Shakespeare and Homer, the Book of Job struck me an epic Jewish classic, fit with mythical beasts and the voice of God from a storm. What delighted me the most was the cutting, at points sarcastic way Job addresses the platitudes of his friends and the way the narrative holds up their views as absurd. It intrigued me. It was almost an anti-text the way much of Modern literature cut against the optimism of society at the turn of the 20th century.
Why did I resonate with this text so much ? Well as an Aussie I love a good deal of cynicsm and sarcasm. It feels realer to me than boundless optimism and it’s candyfloss texture. It increasingly occurred to me that The Book of Job was not unlike “Waiting for Godot” and Job’s complaint not unlike the Catch-22.
So could Job be satire?
I examined the text and found something interesting. Even though elements of the text may have originated early in Israel’s history, many charactertics of the text resembe Menippean Satire, a form of Greek classical poetry and prose between the 2nd and 3rd century BC. The lofty scenes of heaven set against the gritty reality of earth, the behind the scenes view privy to knowledge not shared by the protagonist, the strange denoument and restoration of Job’s fortunes ten fold. Most interesting was the establishement of the satiric norm – the ideal against which antagonists are placed to point out the absurdity of their views. Scholars believed that the Book of Job was thus compiled late in Jewish tradition, in a period when faith in old platitudes of the wisdom literature, placed into the mouths of the unfeeling friends, rang hollow to the suffering remnant.
How fascinating?! If Catch 22 and the like were written to a society experiencing bitter disappointment in the wake of the optimism of the 19th century, then Job was written to a Jewish audience experiencing the humiliation of the Roman occupation and the smashing of naive notions of a mechanistic blessing-cursing relationship to the law. Job faces the very real catch 22 of this law – he is as good an upright as any man can be. But man born is born to mischief as the sparks fly up [Job 5:7]. So are we born to condemnation?! No, he will not accept this resolution. Nor will he accept the resolution of the friends that he need simply repent to regain blessing. He pushes through this transactional approach to God and demands a hearing. When the God he calls upon appears, he is cowed – understandably overwhelmed by the awsome display of splendour from the clouds. However, this awesome divinity approves of Job’s faith – for Job sees through to the heart of the matter. Law can only condemn, but faith in the redemptive nature of the divine is commended. Job cannot save himself through pennitance, but by grasping to God, not cursing nor turning from God, he clings to the knowledge that God alone can provide a solution to the Catch 22.
Unlike Modernist novels, The Book of Job ends “happily ever after”. Another characteristic of Mennipean satire. But here the book affirms biblical themes, those who orient themselves to God in faith are righteous, not those who abide by the law.