Last night, my wife and I watched the movie “Pleasantville.” I’d heard of it for a long time but never seen it. I was prompted to watch it by the fact that I recently proofread an essay a friend of mine wrote for her philosophy class on “Pleasantville” and the nature of happiness. For those of you who haven’t seen it, “Pleasantville” is about a teenage boy who loves to watch reruns of an old Mayberryesque TV sitcom called “Pleasantville” to escape the unhappy complexities of his real life until, one night, he and his sister are magically swept into their TV and into the Pleasantville universe. And that is exactly what it is--an entire universe where if you go far enough down Main Street, you end up where you started. In this universe, life is like an old back-and-white TV sitcom. Husbands and wives sleep in separate beds; firemen do nothing more than rescue cats from trees; father comes home from work and says, “Honey, I’m home” and the wife cheerfully greets him with refreshments; teenage boys and girls unfailingly mind their parents, respect authority, and do nothing more together than hold hands after they’ve “gone steady” for a long time; the basketball team never misses a shot; and there aren’t even any toilets in the bathrooms. There are no ups and downs, joys and sorrows, excitement and creativity. There is only a kind of bland contentment from living perfectly predictable lives where nothing serious ever goes wrong and everyone gets pretty much everything he wants (or thinks he wants) without even having to try hard for it.
My friend wrote in her paper:
People in Pleasantville have never experienced art, rain, color, or anything other than a simpleminded parody of perfection and have no awareness of a world or life outside of Pleasantville. They are not strengthened by confrontation with life's hardships because there are none, and they cannot enjoy the real satisfaction of surmounting these hardships and growing in mind and spirit. This “perfect” world does not allow people to experience true happiness. Happiness, as Aristotle suggests, is an enduring condition of living “in accord with perfect virtue”…
But my friend also confessed to me that she didn’t believe what she wrote. She believed that the people of Pleasantville were happy until David and his sister came along from another universe to corrupt the very fabric of their universe and their utopian lives. Is she right? Or, perhaps more to the point, were they better off before things changed?
I confess that I’m not sure. If I’m honest with myself and with you, I have to admit that I’m so concerned with the presence of widespread and terrible human suffering that I may, in my heart of hearts, desire a kind of Pleasantville society that makes life as painless and effortless as possible for everyone. And I think I may secretly long for an emotional and spiritual condition not so far removed from that of the people of Pleasantville in its bland but unwavering peace and contentment. My intellect tells me that this would not be such a good thing. It agrees with my friend who wrote:
He knows deep down that he cannot be happy in a totally comfortable world of instant gratification of all of his desires except the most important desire of all—the desire to fulfill his teleological “virtue” or ultimate nature as a human being.
We all look to find true happiness in our journey through life, but we will not find it until we realize, as David finally did, that we must embrace and celebrate rather than recoil from the complexities and challenges that motivate us to learn, adapt, and grow in the strength and wisdom of our Aristotelian virtue or potential. This is the message I see compellingly conveyed by Pleasantville.
But my heart longs for a serenity and security it seldom experiences in the world as it is or is ever likely to be, and I wonder what kind of world I should strive to engender within and without.
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