Thursday, June 13, 2013

Two Stories: The Graduate and Family

I spend most of my blog space writing about Western culture, but here and there, I manage to post something about Japan or China, as I'm just as fascinated with the East. I'm going to do a simple comparison of two stories the Western and Eastern cultures have produced at times of upheaval.

Both stories highlight the perceived failures of the past order and the uncertainty and newness of the breakout generation in terms of personal struggle. The American book is The Graduate, by Charles Webb, which was turned into an extremely beloved movie starring Dustin Hoffman. The Chinese book will be Family, by Pa Chin, which I had the good fortune of being introduced to in a class on contemporary east Asian history, otherwise I may never have heard of it.

The Graduate

The plot and purpose of The Graduate revolves around the main character, Ben Braddock, and his struggles to build his life in the face of his traditionalist family's expectations. It's a celebrated work of the American counterculture movement in the 1960's. The movie launched Hoffman's career and the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack turned the name Mrs. Robinson into something... weird.

The plot serves the interest of describing a state of mind that's reacting to the old ways. Ben, for those of you who haven't read the book, is a recent college graduate who goes home to discover that he has little in common with his family and hometown friends, and doesn't want the life he's being offered by them. He is pulled into an affair with the vaunted Mrs. Robinson, who is extremely unsatisfied with her marriage and really her entire life. Ben doesn't like sleeping with her, and decides he wants her daughter, Elaine, which creates some heavy drama. All these characters are, in some sense, looking for authentic, existential meaning. Ben is essentially being offered the blue-blooded dream, to include social connections and a place among the kind of people who were then still America's elite. He has opportunity, by the conventions of the time, but he doesn't like those conventions and wants something different for himself.

A couple of points to make from a more recent perspective. First, a recent college graduate might look at Ben with envy just for having any comfortable opportunities; graduates today, particularly undergraduates, don't always get jobs of any kind, let alone jobs they are passionate about. So that perspective gets an update, although there's still plenty of entitlement in today's kids. Also, for those who haven't read the book and have only seen the movie, Hoffman does miracles with Ben's character, because the guy is a flat-out douchebag in the book. He's too much of a prick to even bother trying to justify his disinterest in meeting the family friends in the book's opening scene, where they've thrown him a party; he just wants to be alone with his emptiness, and he feels no sense of obligation to go down and thank all these people for coming and wishing him well. Hoffman makes Ben polite and concerned to a much greater degree, and it helps that he is an approachable, Jewish-looking kid in the film. Ben was actually written as a tall Aryan; this would not have worked in the film, as movie-going audiences don't really like entitled, blue-blooded Aryan assholes. Hoffman softened this considerably and made the character empathetic and likable.

The movie is, quite simply, better than the book as a matter of consumer entertainment. David Fincher used it as inspiration for the movie version of Fight Club, which is my favorite film and makes for an interesting contrast. Existential authenticity is basically its own genre now: the great period for films of this nature in my memory was 1999, the year of three highly anti-establishment films that entered the pop culture lexicon with distinct force. The first was, of course, Fight Club. The other two were American Beauty and The Matrix, the first a deconstruction of the new establishment lifestyle in the suburbs in search of meaning, and the second a pure escapist fantasy which presented the mundane as a trap, built by machines, sucking the energy from the populace as awakened freedom fighters kicked ass in the most stylish possible way.

These movies came less than forty years after The Graduate, and turned the seeker mentality up to eleven. American establishments don't last long. The anti-establishment ethos of the baby boomers never did vanish or get comfortable with order. It's worth mentioning that 1999 was the peak of dotcom hubris and of the net generation's power in earnings and culture.

David Brooks pointed out how much of the boomer attitude can be found in The Graduate when he wrote Bobos in Paradise: whatever that generation wanted, it wasn't what was being offered. There was a deep loathing of family obligation and ancestor worship, ordered patriarchy, the soft prejudices of the time, and various forms of stoic restraint heaped onto America's hierarchical masters. This was a generation seeking a more existential satisfaction from work, relationships, and life generally. The movie's ending scene, with Mrs. Robinson telling her daughter, "It's too late!" and Elaine responding with "Not for me!" tells much of the thematic story: the kids saw the old world as oppressive death, and would walk away from their elders to save themselves from it.


The plot and purpose of Family revolves very loosely around the main character, Kao Chueh-hui, and his struggles to build his life in the face of his traditionalist family's expectations. It's a celebrated work of the May 4th Movement in China, although it's unknown to the vast majority of Americans. There is a long list of characters, including Chueh-hui's two brothers, a couple of cousins, servants, mom and patriarchal dad, etcetera. Pa Chin was a radical who was influenced by Western ideas quite strongly, a great speaker for a society squirming upon the introduction of different perspectives.

The similarities outweigh the differences, but the differences are instructive. The characters in Family also held a deep loathing of family obligation and ancestor worship, ordered patriarchy, the hard prejudices of the time, and various forms of stoic restraint heaped onto both China's patriarchs and those subject to them. Family is a classic and a more complete book, and the attitude is different, but still recognizable.

It's incredibly emotional writing; you'll eventually lose track of all the characters that break down and cry, and there are several deaths, including by passion-maddened suicide. But much of the plotting is about issues we know very well; young love abounds and the oppression of the old on the young, the "traps of conservatism", are shown in the lives of essentially every character. Chueh-hui, the most rebellious and aggressive proponent of the new ideas, saves himself while other family members typically fall into the traps or die trying to escape them.

Chueh-hui is something of a little bastard, smart-mouthed, having all the answers at a very young age. The character is not exactly stock, but fits well enough into a mold that he makes a good contrast against his eldest brother, Chueh-hsin, who took on the duties of filial piety and hates them, but lives with his head bowed. Chueh-hsin's fate is sealed, but other characters occasionally fight back, or try to find various ways to scheme the lives they want into existence.

The book exemplifies the period when the first elements of Western-style individualism come into vogue over the established, familistic Confucianism, and there's a huge gulf to bridge. Restrictions and obligations are far more severe here: arranged marriage tragically befalls several characters, the girls want to go to school but cannot, and class holds an importance we simply would not understand in our society. The young characters all hold strong ideals, and the conflicts between them and their elders is fundamentally cultural but intimately personal. The imagery is superb when it needs to be: hearing of her own impending marriage from her mother, a female character, Chin, produces a startlingly powerful vision of her society's treatment of her sex and the cost in happiness women pay for tradition:
Before her eyes there suddenly appeared a lengthy highway stretching to infinity, upon which were lain spreading corpses of young women. It became clear to her that this road was built thousands of years ago; the earth on the road was saturated with the blood and tears of those women.
Chin seriously considers allowing herself to end up on this road, with her mother, just to keep her company, and while there's no shortage of strident disgust with the status quo in this book, there's also no shortage of love for the elders who push the cultural rules that are so hated. It's both strident and complex. The excesses of Confucianism, especially in regards to women, are not exaggerated. Foot-binding is contemporary to this period, as is practical slavery for many people, albeit not quite the cruel and base slavery practiced in the ugliest Western periods. My continued respect for Confucian values can't make an emotional argument in the face of this, only a coldly rational one; such views will never be popular in a world of mass media.

Final Summation

Both stories center on wealthy households, true to the life experiences of the authors and symbolic of the richness of the old culture they fight. Both stories happen at a time of significant cultural change. Both stories have characters caught in generational struggles and celebrate the ideals of youth. They're both good stories, in a significant but limited sense.

Compared to the story of Family, the struggles of the characters in The Graduate are more abstract and less convincing. "Spoiled" doesn't quite cover it; there's a real degree of thanklessness and the worst case examples of relativity in quality of life operating in the West. If you think of social progress as being incremental stages towards equality and ease, then it's easy to think of the state of Western culture as superior to that of China; the time difference, 1920's versus 1960's, doesn't account for it all. If you think of social progress as being more about ultimate meaning, then the crisis is deeper in the West, precisely for the pitfalls of ease which are being overcome on the road towards satisfaction. The Americans have so much, and the price paid is rather miniscule; fighting it can only be done as a matter of pure intuition.

The Chinese characters are bound by a unified love of new ideas that create some shared identity among them; they are rebels with a cause. In the West, the characters are isolated; they are facing, and participating in, something much uglier, a more total collapse of outward-focused duties and obligations of inherited civil society.

About the authors: it's worth mentioning that both men held strong convictions and seemed to have stuck by them where they could. Charles Webb, clearly seeking his own brand of authenticity, has lived a hell of a life, to say the least, not at all the charmed success story you would expect from the author of a book that became a film with serious box-office revenue. But nevertheless, he's owned his life, denying responsibility for nothing. His existence has been an almost goofy mess, but it's been his mess.

Pa Chin was an anarchist, and his personal story is intense. His real name was Li Yaotang, and he lived to be 100, with a generous portion of those years spent being harassed by the Communist Chinese government. His wife was denied medical care and died as a result. Yaotang was forced to renounce his anarchism, then changed his mind when China opened up just enough for this to be safe. He was eventually given some dues as an elder statesman of the written word by his people. The man saw some shit, most of it after the book was published.

As a personal matter, I admire both works and the men who created them. And I understand: I've lived with my own stultifying expectations. Of course I understand. I've been young before. I've wanted to break out. I've been certain that there was more, much more, than a life lived within the confines of my culture; that's an important justifying element of rebellion. But I've also considered that I could be wrong about all of it, that this urge to throw off the shackles comes from nothing more than my own deep-seated desire for empowerment, and there's nothing more noble to it than egoism. The attitudes of the sympathetic characters in both of these books comes down to a myopic emotionalism masquerading as enlightenment.

Digging deep and being realistic leaves you with the sour reality that this is not a complete social ethos and cannot be. The hippies were wrong; existentialism can only be a reaction, not a status quo. The characters in both books were optimists, as kids often are; such an attitude makes a character engaging, relatable, and promises endearing conflict, great for fiction and real-world activism alike. But likable and enlightened are two different things.

It's hard to tell, with both books, if the underlying ideal is the choice of love or the love of choice. The choice of love is taken for granted by modern generations who know they should pursue their desires in matters of relationships and career, and the joblessness and divorce of modern America has to give a sensible person some pause as the ideas spread to the rest of the world. The love of choice is so core to what we consider morally and personally right that it's impossible for most people to imagine a world without it, let alone a good life.

But the struggle defines the individual, and these stories are not of high quality because they have happy endings; that's a disgustingly bourgeois idea. These stories are tragedies, and they can only belong in that category. 

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