Pop Culture’s Progress Toward Tragedy

Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (AMC)
Our best entertainment says something meaningful about the American Dream.

Paul Cantor is America’s foremost Shakespearian. His books, especially on Shakespeare’s Roman plays, are the best scholarly accounts we have because they bring to bear not only literary studies, but political philosophy. That is, when characters speak in a play, Cantor thinks about their political situation and their character. He treats writers and artists of all kinds as political thinkers, no doubt following Aristotle’s remark that we are by nature political animals.

Cantor thinks Americans are no different. In the last two decades, he has turned his attention to popular culture, applying what he learned from the classics to contemporary entertainment. He has now published the third in a series of books on our entertainment, insisting that it’s as good an education about what’s going on in America as anything we are likely to find. Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies is his best work on this matter, not least because he talks about the things he loves most among the works he admires.

In five chapters, Cantor takes you on a tour of post–Civil War American history, starting with Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, on to W. C. Fields’s career as a comedian on Broadway and in Hollywood between the World Wars, then Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo’s Godfather, after the Vietnam War, and then post-9/11 TV shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. America’s wars have led to a tragic sensibility in some of its most successful writers of fiction—and a temporary willingness on the part of the audience to entertain the notion that life is tragic.

This notion is central to Cantor’s book, which makes the case to the American people that they are right to admire tragic heroes and that they should not be afraid of that expression. Here, you can see why Cantor’s work on Shakespeare comes in handy. But Cantor, who is the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia, is not merely an academic approving of popular taste in the hopes of educating it—he is also a man of the people reproving academics for being snobs. Cantor points out that Greek tragedy, like Shakespeare’s tragedies, were popular culture in their time. They were neither the creation nor the exclusive possession of the prestigious classes.

As with Athens or London, so with America. Some of the shocking stories that are remarkably popular in our times grapple with surprisingly serious issues. They are reflections on what goes on in America, done without the self-righteousness of our public debates. They deserve intelligent, attentive analysis. Nobody making films or TV now is as good as Shakespeare, Cantor admits, but they’re not nothing either—and our most talented writers are far closer to Shakespeare than our journalists or academics. Cantor may belong in the latter category, but he relishes the American pastime of betraying his class in the interests of a greater good which corresponds with what the people love.

Cantor sees tragedy and popularity combine in the American dream. Work hard, be honest, apply yourself to your work and you will, sooner rather than later, get what you want, which is a private middle class life: marriage, kids, and a couple of cars in the garage, plus the knowledge that you’re part of the greatest nation in the world, indeed, in world history. Being middle class means above all being respectably productive and honestly loving the country. It certainly means being law-abiding. That is not a bad bargain at all, which is why many people, including Cantor himself, want it and get it.

When it doesn’t work out, it’s not always a matter of some people being too weak for it—others might be too strong and, instead of simply missing out on the American dream, turn out to be villains. Americans find it easy and not unpleasant to look at stories about the downtrodden, the oppressed, the unlucky, and the victims of catastrophes. Suffering is a very attractive spectacle, as we know from TV, but it’s also an opportunity for us to act as moral creatures of a loving God. These are the undeservedly poor or wretched; we are the most charitable nation on the planet because we don’t want to share their fate.

But life is not all morality and piety. Normal people like you and me not infrequently become angry or contemptuous. Indeed, if the Internet is any evidence, there is a lot of hatred inside of us. Internet behavior signals a certain dissatisfaction with our American dream, a suspicion that it’s not as true as we want it to be. Maybe we need to work harder to get it right, which is why we have religious awakenings, political reforms, civil-rights struggles, and even a Civil War. We are capable of being less ordinary—even of becoming violent.

We are tempted now and then to look beyond our condition of social equality and think about what is possible for human beings other than the middle-class lifestyle. This is why, Cantor avers, we all loved Westerns once and now, deprived of them, are obsessed with medieval Romances that turn violent or with the doings of the English aristocracy. Here, we see people above our stations and below our morality. They are not decently productive people—but their passions have a shocking splendor to them, since in love and in cruelty they are far less restrained than we are.

We see this in our own celebrities, our proxies for tragic heroes—they live sometimes with the decadence of Roman emperors, themselves great admirers of tragic heroes—and they die not infrequently in shocking ways. As we said, suffering makes for a great spectacle. Cantor turns to the villains in our stories because there alone we are willing to countenance tragedy—the attempt on behalf of people to rise above the human condition and become gods, which not infrequently leads to them acting like beasts. As Cantor points out, it’s typical in our modern times for the villains to be the protagonists.

We are ready, therefore, to reenact tragedy, whether Greek or Shakespearian. Cantor leads us discreetly through our progress toward tragedy. As life has become infinitely more civilized and America more powerful than it was in Mark Twain’s time, we have increasingly wanted to see the apocalypse, personal or national or global, on screen with striking regularity—think of the success of The Walking Dead, a return of the Western, as Cantor says. But it is no longer America’s foundational story, but a story at the end of America. We cannot help being ourselves, you see, even when we try our hardest to overcome ourselves.

The dark side of the American dream leads to heroes, but not charity—these are no longer Christian heroes but tragic ones, far more interested in overcoming their enemies, in proving themselves by strife, than in saving their souls or those of others. These new, dark heroes are the necessary conclusion of the world of fantasy that we’ve lived in for a long time, which Marshall McLuhan called the “televisual.” McLuhan pointed out that we are so sold on fantasies that we ourselves become fantasies, which we call social media, where you and I and everyone else can try to become celebrities, that is to say, to sell ourselves to others.

But celebrity is necessarily anti-democratic. If we all are statues on pedestals, who’s looking at us? This contradiction has led to the current mood that tears down celebrities, whether by “cancel culture” or #metoo or #timesup or any of these fashionable means of revenge against fantasies that have proved to be false. This was prophesied by tragedy, but also by the dark side of the American dream. If you think you can control chance through the production of fantasies that lead to a future in which everybody models themselves on their idols, you’re only creating the chaos in which people turn on their idols. The world of franchises, universes, and multi-platform “content” is a last-ditch attempt by entertainment to control change, that is, to control chance. To predict what we will love and hate next year or next generation. We, however, are rebelling.

There is much to learn about this new situation from Cantor’s book, which lends an urgency we don’t usually ascribe to film reviews or academic studies. Here, the intellectual and moral strengths of a liberal education make themselves felt. It’s not that we want new heroes, who are dark rather than bright. Instead, the dark heroes are a pattern our writers have discovered, however unknowingly, for our likely future actions. These characters meet tragic ends, so by definition they cannot guide us in our rebellion against the celebrity-idols and the institutions that endlessly encourage us to dream big and work to make dreams come true. What our writers and their best critics, like Cantor, want us to do is to stop dreaming.

Tragedy claims to be more realistic than typical Hollywood endings. It is more realistic about the human condition, about our morality, our limits, and our suffering. When crisis hits America, this claim becomes plausible again. We see tragedy everywhere in our midst and our reactions are not copacetic—it’s outrage everywhere we express our feelings. We could learn a lot about parts of the national character we usually avoid mentioning and about how to deal with crisis if we learned not from the brilliant images on our screens, but from the thoughtful people behind them. Cantor is a rare guide in this rather different political and intellectual adventure.

Titus Techera hosts the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast. He is a Claremont Institute Fellow and a contributor to Law & Liberty.
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