Sunday, June 04, 2006

Pleasantville

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.

2 comments:

Finding Fair Hope said...

Fairhope, Alabama, was founded as a Utopian community in 1894, but not in the Pleasantville sense. It was the brainchild of the followers of Henry George's theory known as Single Tax, a belief that man would be better off without the ability to profit from the sale of land, the one commodity he does not produce and can take no credit for. It was designed for an almost-Socialist system called Cooperative Individualism, that recognized both the need to help one another and the nature of individual man. It has been so corrupted over the years that even though the Single Tax Corporation still exists, it is now run mostly by real estate executives and other proponents of capitalism and the profit motive. The town is still viewed as a ideal, but now it attracts a more practical pioneer -- the retired millionaire and his wife who seek a placid, serene life where no one challenges his right to live in relative oblivion and do exactly what he enjoys. The idealists who founded the town are in the local cemetery, which needs constant care for the graves which contain revolving souls.

There is nothing wrong with longing for an ideal life; the problem comes when we ignore that there can be no such thing where regard for the needs of our fellow man is ignored. Art is an attempt to rectify wrongs as clearly as political theory is.

Nagarjuna said...

FFH, I agree with you that there can be no "ideal life...where regard for the needs of our fellow man are ignored." This is what people on the right fail to understand in their misguided efforts to fashion a capitalist pseudo-utopia where everyone selfishly pursues his or her own ruggedly individualistic interests with an absolute minimum of taxation and government involvement.

It seems to me that we need to institute a progressive political philosophy that increasingly balances capitalism with socialism in such a manner that no one need worry about going homeless, hungry or without adequate medical care no matter what while, at the same time, we are all encouraged to work at meaningful jobs and to live meaningful lives that creatively fulfill our individual potentials.

It sounds as though Fairhope was an interesting experiment aiming in its own way at this ideal, and it seems to me that certain Scandinavian nations may be ahead of the U.S. in developing toward an economic, social, and cultural ideal.

Namaste,
Steve