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Gisteren, en dat nog wel op 9/11 verscheen in de New York Times een opmerkelijk artikel. Omdat er hier ten huize en in de nabije omtrek ook al eens werd gesuggereerd dat hedendaagse literatuur erg veel op ‘jeugdliteratuur van weleer’ lijkt, -we hadden het toen over The Cirkel van Eggers, ja zelfs over Het Puttertje van Donna Tartt en enkele boeken van Herman Koch (vooral Het Zomerhuis met zwembad)- waardoor de titel: ‘The dead of adulthood in American culture’ ons wel aansprak.

Ik heb het artikel ingekort, en wie het helemaal wil lezen kan makkelijk naar de NY Times van gisteren of zelfs rechtstreeks via de titel.

Vandaag waren er al zo’n 500 commentaren verschenen, en wellicht vinden we het over enkele dagen of weken wel eens terug in onze kranten.

Als signaleerder wil ik het mijn onbekende lezer(es) niet onthouden.

 

The Death of Adulthood in American Culture
A.O. Scott 11 sept 2014 NY times

 Who or what killed adulthood? Was the death slow or sudden? Natural or violent? The work of one culprit or many? Justifiable homicide or coldblooded murder?

We Americans have never been all that comfortable with patriarchy in the strict sense of the word. The men who established our political independence — guys who, for the most part, would be considered late adolescents by today’s standards (including Benjamin Franklin, in some ways the most boyish of the bunch) — did so partly in revolt against the authority of King George III, a corrupt, unreasonable and abusive father figure. It was not until more than a century later that those rebellious sons became paternal symbols in their own right. They weren’t widely referred to as Founding Fathers until Warren Harding, then a senator, used the phrase around the time of World War I.

From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood. Surveying the canon of American literature in his magisterial “Love and Death in the American Novel,” Leslie A. Fiedler suggested, more than half a century before Ruth Graham, that “the great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library.” Musing on the legacy of Rip Van Winkle and Huckleberry Finn, he broadened this observation into a sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality:

“The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’ ”

Fiedler saw American literature as sophomoric. He lamented the absence of books that tackled marriage and courtship — for him the great grown-up themes of the novel in its mature, canonical form. Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction.

. As before, the rebellious animus of the disaffected man-child was directed not just against male authority but also against women. In Sandler’s early, funny movies, and in many others released under Apatow’s imprimatur, women are confined to narrowly archetypal roles. Nice mommies and patient wives are idealized; it’s a relief to get away from them and a comfort to know that they’ll take care of you when you return. Mean mommies and controlling wives are ridiculed and humiliated. Sexually assertive women are in need of being shamed and tamed. True contentment is only found with your friends, who are into porn and “Star Wars” and weed and video games and all the stuff that girls and parents just don’t understand.

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The bro comedy has been, at its worst, a cesspool of nervous homophobia and lazy racial stereotyping. Its postures of revolt tend to exemplify the reactionary habit of pretending that those with the most social power are really beleaguered and oppressed. But their refusal of maturity also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean. In the old, classic comedies of the studio era — the screwbally roller coasters of marriage and remarriage, with their dizzying verbiage and sly innuendo — adulthood was a fact. It was inconvertible and burdensome but also full of opportunity. You could drink, smoke, flirt and spend money. The trick was to balance the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.

Maybe nobody grows up anymore, but everyone gets older. What happens to the boy rebels when the dream of perpetual childhood fades and the traditional prerogatives of manhood are unavailable? There are two options: They become irrelevant or they turn into Louis C. K. Every white American male under the age of 50 is some version of the character he plays on “Louie,” a show almost entirely devoted to the absurdity of being a pale, doughy heterosexual man with children in a post-patriarchal age. Or, if you prefer, a loser.

Similar conversations are taking place in the other arts: in literature, in stand-up comedy and even in film, which lags far behind the others in making room for the creativity of women. But television, the monument valley of the dying patriarchs, may be where the new cultural feminism is making its most decisive stand. There is now more and better television than there ever was before, so much so that “television,” with its connotations of living-room furniture and fixed viewing schedules, is hardly an adequate word for it anymore. When you look beyond the gloomy-man, angry-man, antihero dramas that too many critics reflexively identify as quality television — “House of Cards,” “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Newsroom” — you find genre-twisting shows about women and girls in all kinds of places and circumstances, from Brooklyn to prison to the White House. The creative forces behind these programs are often women who have built up the muscle and the résumés to do what they want.

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And also to be as rebellious, as obnoxious and as childish. Why should boys be the only ones with the right to revolt? Not that the new girls are exactly Thelma and Louise. Just as the men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive at a stage of infantile refusal, so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression. After all, traditional adulthood was always the rawest deal for them.
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Looking at those figures and their descendants in more recent times — and at the vulnerable patriarchs lumbering across the screens to die — we can see that to be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story. And that’s no way to live. It is a kind of moral death in a culture that claims youthful self-invention as the greatest value. We can now avoid this fate. The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment.

Y.A. fiction is the least of it. It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.

 

A.O. Scott is chief film critic for the Times, editor: Jake Silverstein

 

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