In Businessweek late last year, Jason Zinoman noted the Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino as Levine. The play, says Zinoman, “speaks as directly to the economic anxieties of today as when it opened on Broadway in 1984, at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Then, the play was widely seen by critics as a left-wing attack on a free-market system run amok.”
But as he also notes,
Glengarry Glen Ross is often compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but the fundamental difference is that Mamet shows us in concrete detail the value of work. He lets the audience see salesmen doing their job, and then distinguishes between those who do it well and those who don’t. In fact, as corrupt as the office may be, there is a meritocratic ethos at its core—the most impressive salesman, Roma, is also the most successful. Levene, by contrast, repeats himself, caves in negotiation, lies poorly. It’s easy to have sympathy for him, but hard to conclude that he doesn’t deserve to get paid less than Roma. Look closely enough at this play and you’ll find a belief in the market as well as a critique of it. Like most great dramas or novels, its ideas are far too complicated to fit into a slogan.
As another great work of fiction that likewise doesn’t fit neatly into a simple binary pattern, in between Death of a Salesman (1949) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), I’d like to also highlight a short novel I recently read, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956). Seize the Day follows the travails of hapless Tommy Wilhelm as he tries to scrape out a living in New York, or at least as he tries to appear to try to do so. There’s some serious engagement with the realities of internalized expectations, competition, envy, hucksterism, and the phenomena of commodity speculation.
There is a fascinating article from City Journal‘s Myron Magnet titled, “Mr. Sammler’s City,” which gives some insight and background to Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. This is one of Bellow’s novels I read for my research on Henderson the Rain King, and Magnet’s piece serves as an excellent primer.
Here’s a sample:
Sammler, for his part, can’t help recalling that almost all modern revolutions, from the Jacobins to the Nazis and the Communists, have ended with the streets running with blood, because murder has been at their heart, rather than an incidental means to an end. For revolutionary leaders like Stalin, “the really great prize of power was unobstructed enjoyment of murder,” while the revolutionary masses in turn “loved the man strong enough to take blood guilt on himself. For them an elite must prove itself in this ability to murder.”
Each modern revolution (the American one alone excepted) overturned civilization’s ultimate restraint and became “a conspiracy against the sacredness of life.”
One of my favorite novels is Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. Eugene Henderson is a loud, boorish, rich American who goes on a soul-searching journey into the heart of a mythically depicted Africa.
One of Henderson’s first stops is a village inhabited by folks called the Arnewi. He comes into the village brandishing his modern implements, lighting a bush on fire (one of many biblical allusions) and offering to shoot any man-eating lions with his gun loaded with .375 H and H Magnum.
Henderson is determined to help the people of the village any way he can. When it becomes clear that the people (and their livestock) are suffering from water shortages, Henderson leaps into action.
It turns out that the source of the problem is that the village’s cistern is populated by frogs, which the villagers understand to be a curse. The water is not itself harmed by the frog’s presence, but it cannot be used while the frogs are there. Moreover, the Arnewi are prevented from doing anything about the infection, and must wait for divine intervention to lift the curse.
Henderson, of course, is restrained by no such ceremonial inhibitions. He says to the prince, “You’re not allowed to molest these animals, but what if a stranger came along–me for instance–and took them on for you?” Henderson is dedicated to helping the people, “I realized I would never rest until I had dealt with these creatures and lifted the plague.” (more…)