Mamet & Human Nature

2nd Update:  (If anyone’s reading this far down).  Tom Stoppard on ’68. 

 The idea of the autonomy of the individual is echoed, I realise, all over the place in my writing. In The Coast of Utopia I was using 19th-century Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen’s own words about the English in the 19th century: “They don’t give asylum out of respect for the asylum seekers, but out of respect for themselves. They invented personal liberty without having any theories about it. They value liberty because it’s liberty.”

Update: Henniger on Mamet’s essay (WSJ video). 

Original post:  David Mamet

began reading not only the economics of Thomas Sowell (our greatest contemporary philosopher) but Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, and Shelby Steele, and a host of conservative writers, and found that I agreed with them: a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.

He describes his conversion in the Village Voice. His picture of Bush still has elements of BDS, but he has begun to examine his experience and finds the best keys to understanding it seem to lie on the right. As some (some critical) commentors note, his work indicated he might be moving that way. (Certainly a television series about the professional & home life of a special forces unit might indicate that.) And certainly a playwright worth his salt might be interested in how character actually acts – an inadequacy that some of the more ideological playwrights of our time demonstrate rather nicely. But it was life that had forced him to look again at his beliefs.

These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life. How do I know? My wife informed me. We were riding along and listening to NPR. I felt my facial muscles tightening, and the words beginning to form in my mind: Shut the fuck up. “?” she prompted. And her terse, elegant summation, as always, awakened me to a deeper truth: I had been listening to NPR and reading various organs of national opinion for years, wonder and rage contending for pride of place. Further: I found I had been—rather charmingly, I thought—referring to myself for years as “a brain-dead liberal,” and to NPR as “National Palestinian Radio.”

I understand – for years the background sound at my business was NPR. And I contributed by advertising on the local station; when they screwed up (charging me for a year’s contract without sending out any bills), I sent an irritated letter, saying it wasn’t the politics but the inefficiency that irritated me. But of course, now, I’ve come to realize I was protesting far too much. The politics did irritate me; they often seemed dissing people like me.

Mamet looks over his experience and concludes that his old worldview could be summarized as “everything is always wrong.” Of course, this is not true, nor true “in the community in which I live, or in my country. Further, it was not always wrong in previous communities in which I lived, and among the various and mobile classes of which I was at various times a part.” Of course, the left has many dissonances, one of which is that all is wrong and people are basically good at heart. He says

I do not think that purchasepropecia people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.
I’d observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.
For the Constitution, rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes that, to the contrary, people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.

The founders believed in human nature; they studied it, they thought about it. They recognized man’s ability to be more than the forms of government of their time let him be; they recognized man’s flaws. They wanted a government that let us alone as much as possible but restrained us from our worst faults (considering which perhaps the laws regarding D.A.’s conduct might need relooking). When I returned to studying literature (in which the nature of character is almost always a central theme) I found myself remembering that its success lies in the author’s ability to appreciate and understand human nature. I found myself ill at ease with the political beliefs I’d idly assumed with NPR in the background and melded with dinner chat at faculty parties – one of my few recreations. Shakespeare is not political but he is psychological (as well as a genius at words, of course). He understands human nature and so when we read him centuries later, we understand he has touched the universal. The founders were not artists but they began with the same subject matter as the writer – what is a man? what motivates him? how can we keep him from his worst self and encourage his best? The Constitution is not perfect, but is it no wonder that a playwright goes to it and finds those who wrote it are more his peers and colleagues than the demagogues of his own time.

(print version; thanks to 2 Blowhards).

By the way, my daughter has been getting her friends to listen to the Sowell interviews Jonathan linked; this has led them to join the Sowell fan club on Facebook. How lucky and how chaotic and how diverse is our time. Their teenage enthusiasms will probably fade, but she has learned. She started a Milos Forman club, linked to a festival that we, out in the provinces, would not see but that some of her readers could and had not heard about. Face Books poses many not so attractive temptations, for we are, as Mamet points out, fallen creatures. But I think she – and I for her – feels lucky in her ability to connect and share ideas with others.

4 thoughts on “Mamet & Human Nature”

  1. How difficult it is to change one’s mind about things. Even the best and brightest struggle to break away from the herd.

    Maybe Mamet has been enclosed in academia all these long years. If so, it makes an argument for writers to, optimally, apprentice in many lines of work as, indeed, many classic American writes have.

  2. Well, that’s what he’s saying: I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama. I think his point is that the noble savage paradigm didn’t match his experience. In fact, what is most noticeable about art that comes from the left is not that it sees people as good but rather that it sees them as victims – proletariat art has much (aesthetically and philosophically) in common with naturalism. Man at the mercy of “the man.” And what it lacks most is a sense of that an individual can transcend. But to believe that we can be heroic, we need to begin with the assumption that we have an ability to be craven as well – that we have a choice.

    I don’t want to – well, I can’t – argue much for Mamet’s art. I haven’t seen much of it and didn’t know I was watching it when I was. When we first got Netflix we started ordering Mamet, but the ones we got were not very effective and seemed merely filmed plays. Also, the people didn’t, it is true, seem all that attractive. Perhaps it is because we ordered ones he’d directed & written; both Oleanna and The Winslow Boy were wooden, though the former had two quite unattractive characters demonstrating the worst of academic posturing and politically correct threats, so it hardly seemed “liberal”. Anyway, I don’t know enough to agree or argue with you about his skills, though the list, including works like Wag the Dog, certainly seems cynical. I did like this column, though, and perhaps should see more.

  3. Leftist art is without depth, like leftist politics. Empty stilted shuffling around carefully posed mannequin settings.

    Lifelong leftists are those who have learned not a thing since they adopted the dimensionless expostulations of their dead-ender college professors.

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