In today’s New York Times Judith Warner has a column taking off from some thoughts about Revolutionary Road, and by coincidence she discusses some of the same points I’ve been thinking about.
In my earlier post, I guessed that the only reason anyone would want to watch the film version of Yates’s novel was “voyeurism”: a desire to observe the suffering of others with whom one has no personal or emotional connection, and to take pleasure in such observation. Warner comes up with another possible reason: we might want to view the novel (or the film) through the lenses of the social sciences. To an anthropologist or a sociologist, Revolutionary Road has something to say about the values and the social practices of a specific time in history. To a psychologist, Revolutionary Road exemplifies how -- in certain situations -- people generally think; in particular, it illustrates a kind of pathology that occurs under adverse conditions typical of the Eastern suburbs of the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. And to a historian (my own preferred lens most of the time, if I had to pick from among this one group), it is, simply, evidence: one source among others, though an important source.
Of course there is an important distinction, a moral one, between the scientific worldview and that of the voyeur. It has to do with their motives. The scientist wants to learn about the world, both to increase humanity’s intellectual understanding and in order to make the world a better place: he has a place in society and a defined role.
The artist also studies people and writes about them: in this he is much like the scientist. And like the scientist, he as a defined role in society. However, the artist can’t claim to be benefiting the world in anything like the way the scientist does. Social science is the objective observation of other people, supporting the generation and elimination of theories about how people generally think or behave. The social scientist cannot have an emotional involvement with the people whom he studies (or his observations would fail to be objective), and the social scientist most definitely cannot be studying himself. When we enjoy art, however, we do get emotionally involved. And when we enjoy art most deeply, what we are “studying” is in a very real sense actually ourselves.
The late philosopher Richard Rorty, in his excellent book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, suggested dividing novels into two categories: those that provide readers pleasure of an aesthetic sort, and those that make readers aware of injustices in their own society. Drawing on the writings of the best novelists, critics, and philosophers of art, Rorty concluded that a novel can belong to one of those categories, or it can belong to the other category, but it never can belong to both.
Now, Warner suggests that the novel Revolutionary Road has value for us readers because it is the second kind of book. She may be right. However, the best critics and novelists in recent decades have praised it for the opposite reason: they say not only that Yates’s novel belongs in the first category, but that the book is especially notable because of the level of aesthetic craftsmanship its author displays by his having written it. I think it is probable that they are right. I think, if we cannot see why they have the opinions that they do, we are most likely missing some piece of information that they were using in order to come to the conclusions that they did.
But that’s the novel and I was discussing the film. There’s no doubt that the film promised us by the trailer (which again is all I have seen of it) looks very pretty. But that’s not all there is to a film. Certainly, most people, including me, do not go to the movies just to admire the cinematography -- any more than we go to the movies as anthropologists, considering Hollywood and its fans as providing us with case studies. We want a story and we want a kind of emotional involvement.
But we don’t want that kind of involvement. At least I don’t.