Presumption and folly

Revolutionary Road Front Cover, Vintage Books

No discipline will turn one man into another, even in the least particle, and such discipline I call presumption and folly

William Blake

The quote above from Blake, is from the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk. For some reason it reminded me of the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, a novel I have such vivid memories of. Memories as though I had actually been there, watching the couple Frank and April. Strange how a page of words can project self constructed images that embed themselves as memory; memories that are often more vivid than what we do in our daily lives. Extraordinary really. Just words on a page. Meaningless as individual squiggles of ink on paper, carrying such weight as a whole. 

I read Revolutionary Road on my honeymoon, much to the concern of my wife. I knew the ending to the story, as did my wife, hence her concern. I read it as a cautionary tale of what I perceived at the time to be the lesson in the story; the dangers of complacency, conformity and fear. There was something in the two characters that spoke to me, especially the male character Frank. Frank was an idealist, a romantic I suppose, who having come back from the Second World War, found himself in a post-war America that felt alienating and shallow. 

Frank wakes up at the age of thirty and realises that, despite his and Aprils’ youthful intentions, they have become trapped in the vortex of the 1950’s version of the American Dream. Married with two children, in a large house, in a respectable suburb, both Frank and April feel asphyxiated by their coddled circumstances and the deadening effect this has on their spirit. Frank holds onto the notion, seeded from his time in Paris during the war, that life is happening elsewhere, and the people in these places are ‘truly alive, not like here’. It is April, who suggests they act on a long dormant fantasy of moving to Paris. 

Both Frank and April, surrounded by what they perceive as borish neighbours, always had a view of themselves as exceptional, as somehow special, separate from those who through time and habit they increasingly resembled. This idea of Paris, was a way of manifesting this specialness, a dramatic, grand gesture that would prove their exceptionalism, transforming them into those special people they imagined themselves to be. 

The grand gesture, whilst dramatic and often perceived as bold, is often the low road to transformation, a bypass of the difficult lived experience that is essential for the new sequence of habits that we call a new life. For years after reading Revolutionary Road I had always interpreted it as a tale warning against the moral cowardice exhibited by Frank. Whilst I think that cowardice plays a large part in the couples downfall, the real lesson here is the danger of self-deception. The couple believe, despite any supporting evidence, that they are somehow special, different, separate from those around them. 

The couples belief in their own exceptionalism is a fantasy they hold, whilst simultaneously tying themselves in knots through the daily commitments of their real, conventional life. They pull away and isolate themselves from those around them, bored by the pettiness of their friends. It is this idealism that leads to separation, which in turn creates a deeper emptiness, that is filled, momentarily, by their desire to go to Paris. It is this delusional, idealised view of themselves, and the resulting cowardice to live up to it that creates such dissonance within and between them. 

The problem is that this ideal of ‘specialness’ that they wish to live up to is amorphous and ill-defined, but nevertheless hangs over them as a torment. The torment is exacerbated by the fact that they are unable to take the action necessary to get what they want, as it is so ill-defined. Part of the difficulty in their definition of their ideal is that it is often done in opposition to others around them. Part of an individual’s definition of self stems from their opposition to that which they are not. However, a ‘not’ is an empty space that doesn’t allow for any further guidance on what ‘is’, what one should move toward. Frank and April’s resentment is driven by this opposition to the other people in their lives who reflect their own conventionality and ordinariness. This reflection creates a distance, an inauthenticity, between what they do and what they wish to be. Frank and April’s unhappiness stems in part from this inauthenticity, a misalignment between their values, and actions. 

The fear of Frank becomes evident as their dream of Paris, mostly driven and manifested by April, become a reality. Frank pictures himself, six months into their move, sitting on a bed in a dirty bathrobe, picking his nose, paralysed by inertia. The truth is that Frank’s cowardice isn’t just in response to the move to Paris, but has been with him all along, leading him to be trapped in this life he resents. With Paris drawing closer, Frank consciously and unconsciously sabotages their plans. He does better at work, accepting a promotion, believing that the new title and small raise means something. He also manages to get April pregnant a third time.

Frank’s life is one governed by mediocrity, and this mediocrity is magnified by his self-deception of being someone special, better than what he is. The idea of American Exceptionalism, of the great man, has been internalised by Frank and now eats away at him like a devil gnawing at his soul. The difficulty of American Exceptionalism then and today is that people are modelling themselves on edge cases of successful individuals who sit at the one percent or 0.01% of a population of three-hundred-million-plus people. A perfect combination of personality, temperament, luck, drive and talent needs to converge to become the feted ‘success’. The openness to life that Frank saw in Europe, is in complete opposition to this blinkered, ambition for individual glory that is vaunted so much in America. The American idea of success, the myth of the ‘self-made’, the doctrine of positive thinking, is the proverbial carrot tied in front of the Donkey. Unreachable for most, and certainly unreachable for him.

Frank’s cowardice is justified in a way. His dissociation between ideal and actions is the result of a confusion between what he wants, which is a greater openness to life. His belief in his own specialness and exceptionalism is actually something that works against this openness, creating the fear that sees him pull away from what he needs, to live in a way that is authentic. April, who appears far more brave than Frank, believes that their Paris trip will help them define and realise what Frank is searching for, believing that through changed actions, will come changed thoughts. Ultimately though, Frank is unwilling to let go of their comforts, and cowed by a fear of uncertainty his actions lead to a spiral of dishonesty and resentment that leads to a tragic conclusion. 

The tragedy of this story lies deeper than just Frank’s cowardice, it rests in the mental folly of self-deception and the inner conflict that results. It also speaks to the limits of self-improvement and how the message of the great man or woman can be toxic, a recipe for dissatisfaction in the face of impossible standards. The final, underpinning element is Frank’s lack of self-awareness and acceptance of himself. His cowardice springs from the two opposing depths of uncertainty relating to himself and to his unarticulated ideal of the future. Deep down, Frank knew that he would never be an artist, or musician or writer, he was too conventional for that, too much like his father. Ultimately Frank is a conventional man who saw exceptional things during the war in Europe. His fall of innocence that resulted from this experience, separated him from his prior conception of who he was, and he was never able to bridge that gap again. 

The ‘aliveness’ he perceives in Europe stems from a ‘freedom in their bondage’ attitude, driven by a self-aware acceptance of suffering and the rejection of an individualistic, blinkered approach to success. The spiritual deadness he observes in America stems from this myopia, this chasing of either comfort or glory. The removal of these blinkers, allows the whimsy of life to rush in. What Frank wants is an openness to life, but his bravery to pursue this didn’t need to extend to moving away to Europe. Bravery could have meant pushing away the comfort of conformity where he was and living in a way that was authentic to him. A tiny, shining example of a quiet life, lived on its own terms with full awareness.