The title of the article is “An Uneasy Sense of Emptiness and Anonymity.” It is the first installment in a four-part series titled “Challenge for Free Men in a Mass Society” which ran in LIFE Magazine in the spring of 1967. That date is important, for reasons I will get to in a bit.
The article is split between a photo essay featuring haunting images of post-industrial isolation and depersonalization, and a text essay –from LIFE’s human affairs editor Bayard Hooper — titled “The Problems of Having Too Much to Choose From.”
The tonal difference between the two components is staggering. The photos are captioned with such weary existentialist barbs as “You are the last survivor of the day before, the only one around to see the neon fraud exposed” and unrelenting in depicting contemporary American society as erosive to self-identity and self-worth. Hooper’s essay, on the other hand, is a extended whistle past the graveyard, a desperate philosophical name-dropping attempt to reconcile the growing cultural anomie with a vision of America as a materialist utopia. The conclusion it tries to frantically to justify is “we complain because we have the luxury of complaining.”
Hooper’s befuddlement with the contemporary literary wave of disaffected grousers neglected consider the visibility of the messengers in question. The questions they raised were nothing new…outside the bubble of white post-war literati, that is. The signs and symptoms had long been self-evident. The only difference is that they were now coming from (white, male) voices with direct access to the NYT’s book reviewers and other culture vultures.
The author also ambivalently approaches the issues surrounding the restive youth culture, push-back against the “welfare state,” and nostalgic glorification of “simpler” (read: “just as awful, if not more so”) times, but can’t quite bring himself to identify the real source of the malaise — the nagging realization that the “American Dream” is an inherently flawed construct.
That most obviously true in its downward-facing incarnation as victim-blaming social Calvinism, but it also applies to those fortunate souls who do manage to climb a few rungs up the social ladder. A life-time of clean living and bootstraps and grindstones, all for the privilege of being able to eventually trade in the Pontiac for a Buick and then what? The upwards crawl becomes an end (or unending) unto itself, asserted through conspicuous consumption.
The old “unhappy rich man” trope brushes up against this fact, or would if it ever aspired to be more than a palliative fable for the have-nots. “I shall forsake this Temple of Mammon for the joys of simple living” says the convert to connectedness, neglecting to how his bankroll will insulate him from the terrors of such a life. A rich oilman playing weekend farmer isn’t hazarding his livelihood against a freak September frost.
Yet the myth works because that emptiness cuts across all classes. “Why am I doing this?” “Why am I still doing this?” “What is the ultimate purpose?” Those engaged in a constant existential hustle tend to ignore the most pointed ruminations in favor of day-to-day survival (which, indeed, helps dissipate resistance to the system barring some colossal upheaval).
Spirituality is offered up as an alternative, but all too often takes the form of “thank you, Jesus, for the Cadillac and steak dinners I have (or will some day assuredly have).” As the Dream itself has the characteristics of a religion, incorporating its core tenets into another creed is a simple matter.
I stated earlier that the article’s date was significant. That’s because 1967 was probably the last year that it could sincerely sustain the delusion. Which delusion? That the Vietnam could be “won.” That the “Negro problem” was close to a solution. That LBJ’s vision of the “Great Society” could still come to pass. That an eternally rising tide would lift all boats. Take your pick from those and a host of others.
What had been viewed as fault lines to mend became battle lines to defend. The “luxury of alienation” gave way to a massive expansion of the existential hustle, a zero sum war of all against all playing off pre-existing and nurtured fears aimed at keeping the concentrations of wealth flowing ever upwards.
Yet, still, at the center of this conflict looms the Dream — a leaner, meaner incarnation of it which doubled down on the Calvinism while further diminishing its lip service towards inclusiveness.
Recommended listening: Blood & Roses – Enough Is Never Enough (from Enough Is Never Enough, 1985)
If you ramble on about the “new darkwave/Carpenter/minimal synth sound” yet have never listened to Blood & Roses, I don’t give a shit about your opinions.