Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Outsider’s Choice

Part 19 of Prisoners of the Real

According to the theory of organizational equilibrium, most employees have two basic decisions to make on the job: to participate and to produce. Of course, they can also opt to leave – that is, decide not to participate – or decline to produce at the expected rate. But rational management turns either choice into a potentially existential crisis. Too often people must either conform to the so-called "serious world" or reject it. It's a choice between bad faith and compulsory engagement.

Consciousness is the essence of freedom. But refusal to reflect on motives, or to lie about them, is consciousness in bad faith, uncritical acceptance of the "serious world." Terrified by the thought of justifying their lives without the clear boundaries established by "objective" reality, many people choose to join the "rhinoceros herd", accepting a standard that appears to guarantee certain absolute rights and wrongs. However, a few do choose to reject it. They opt to leave or refuse to produce. We tend to call such people "outsiders."

In John Osborne's classic drama, Look Back in Anger, the central character is an outsider named Jimmy Porter, a British university drop-out living in an attic apartment. Porter is Hamlet as an "angry young man," mocking the phoniness of his world. He recognizes his antagonist, the rational man who mouths platitudes and yet, despite the facade, knows that "he and his pals have been plundering and fooling everybody for generations." For Porter the choice is clear, but the price of being an outsider is loneliness and anger. "I learned at an early age what it was to be angry," he shouts, "angry and helpless. And I can never forget it."

Before the curtain falls, he turns to his long-suffering wife and poses his existential question:

"Was I really wrong to believe that there's a – a kind of – burning virility of mind and spirit that looks for something as powerful as itself? The heaviest, strongest creatures in this world seem to be the loneliest. Like the old bear, following his own breath in the dark forest. There's no warm pack, no herd to comfort him. That voice that cries out doesn't have to be a weakling's, does it?"

Here is the outsider's problem, the same burden of choice explored by Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky. In The Outsider, Colin Wilson's groundbreaking study of modern alienation, he made the dilemma crystal clear. The outsider, Wilson explained, is someone "who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. 'He sees too deep and too much,' and what he sees in essentially chaos."

For the outsider, the world isn't rational and orderly. He has awakened in himself a chaos which he is forced to face. Wilson also described the outsider's case against society:

"All men and women have these dangerous, unnamable impulses, yet they keep up a pretense, to themselves, to others; their respectability, their philosophy, their religion, are all attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational something that is savage, unorganized, irrational. He is an Outsider because he stands for Truth."

Like his rational opposite, the outsider accepts the idea that human beings are brutes. But rather than suppressing instinct, he chooses to let it loose.

Outsiders are part of every generation, the few members of society who reject the organization, who leave on a search for some "separate peace." For as long as there have been organized societies, there also have been those who make this choice. In the US, some of our most famous outsiders emerged as part of the "lost generation" of the 1920s.

After World War I, the nation entered a period of post-war disillusionment. The American Dream had been shattered and the foundations of the country's optimism finally cracked. Another era of disillusionment and pessimism commenced at the end of the 1960s, when assassination destroyed hope and moral corruption bruised already strained ideals. The dream of a "Great Society" became a nightmare, and many Americans turned from altruism to cynicism.

The disillusionment of the 1920s soon gave way to another phase of "lostness." An expatriate clique made a pilgrimage to Montparnasse, a sub-culture of playboys, artists, intellectuals and might-have-beens. This avant garde group set out to revolutionize morals, calling for the elimination of obsolete values and ultimately reaping a harvest of emotional emptiness.

The term "lost generation" was actually a misnomer, a book-jacket acclamation by Gertrude Stein that was used out of context. Similarly, the label for the drop outs of the 60s, the "now generation," was a simplistic attempt by the media and critics of the sub-culture to categorize a group they couldn't understand. Like the earlier expatriates, the "now generation" claimed the mantle of freedom and alienation. Following the lead of Ernest Hemingway's alter-ego, Nick Adams, they were certainly "not patriots." So said Abbie Hoffman, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, and other leaders of The Movement. Their "underground" revolt was a radical break with the "straight" world, which had proven itself neither joyous, principled, nor cultured enough to deserve their loyalty or respect.

In the 20s many artists and ascetics practiced a self-imposed emotional and physical isolation. Seeking to satisfy passions aroused by the face of death, they searched for life despite the regimentation of society, hoping to discover a new faith to replace the one that had failed them. Not only artists and mystics made this quest in the 60s; millions of middle-class men and women ventured into a world of hidden meanings and the occult. As in the 20s, they awoke from the shock of war and found themselves disoriented, adrift in the world of surrealism, dadaism, drugs, and sex.

Next: Life, Death and Lost Generations

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey