Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Modernity Boot Camp, Or, When One Lives Among Madmen, One Should Train As A Maniac


Over the weekend I went to see a classic Bollywood movie:  Kal Aaj Aur Kal (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) from 1971.  It tells the tale of a family, a grandfather, father, and son  -- played by a real life grandfather, father, and son from the famous Kapoor family -- in which the son and the grandfather clash generationally, and the father is caught unhappily in the middle. 

Among other things, it's a movie about modernity.  The son and grandfather fight over food, clothing, music, parties, religion, the caste system, individuality, tradition, sex, love, and marriage.  Are these or are these not the flashpoints of modernity the world over?

In the central battle of wills, the grandfather insists that the son marry the pious daughter of his friend from the village.  The son wants to marry the elegant and super-modern Monica, whom he met, of course, on an airplane.  Here's the young couple getting to know each other:


Cute, huh?  The sixties were so much the sixties the world over.

Anyway, although she's modern, Monica is a good girl.  She comes from a respected family; she gets yelled at by her mom for not being ready for dinner on time; she's shocked when a mutual friend turns up pregnant by her fiance.  The grandfather's only substantive complaint seems to be that she doesn't know how to cook.  So this isn't so much a movie about marrying outside your cultural circle as a movie about marrying a woman you chose yourself.

For most of the movie, I assumed this conflict would resolve itself through mutual recognition of Monica's essential status as a good girl.  There's a touching scene where Monica serves the grandfather some food, and I thought "Oh, surely he'll see now that even though she's not his choice, she's a good girl, and he'll relent and let the grandson marry her."

And that, I figured, would be the lesson about modernity:  that underneath it all, the things we value aren't all that different. 

But no.  I'm not going to spoil the ending for you, but instead of commonsense and compromise, there is drama, self-sacrifice, and secret plotting.  If there's a lesson about modernity in this movie, it's not underneath it all we're much the same but rather modernity:  it's a fight to the death.

And the more I thought about that the more it grew on me.  Individuality and choosing for yourself -- they're just not the kind of thing about which there are compromises.  Either you choose for yourself or you don't.  And we've gotten into a habit of -- of kind of sugarcoating the difference.  Of treating modernity like a kind of increase in common sense rather than a radical experiment in human life. 

Because promising and lovable as it is -- and let's be clear, no one loves modernity more than I -- modernity creates conditions that are destabilizing, dangerous, and wildly unpredictable. 

The idea that we should make decisions for ourselves, in the absence of bowing to tradition, it's an extreme idea for beings like us -- beings that are impulsive, emotional, and fragile.  Think about how dependent we are.  We're easily carried away.  We crave happiness and warmth.  We're so physically delicate we need food and water every few hours.

And now you plonk us down, rudderless, in the middle of consumer culture and expect us to thrive?  We're supposed to figure out how to fight temptation and laziness all day every day?  To walk calmly past a million displays of baked goods, candy, cigarettes, and just say no?  To delete the spam that offers better bods, better sex, instant cash?  To decide how to save for retirement, to select a mortgage, to pick insurance packages?  To decide to go to the gym, day after day, after eight hours at work?

Not easy. 

Given how hard it is, you'd think that there would be some training program for modernity.  Like a modernity boot camp.  They'd teach you how to have massive self-directedness, endless self-control, and an imperviousness to small sufferings.  Maybe you remember this post on ego depletion?  Well modernity boot camp would give you huge muscles of willpower alongside your huge pecs and six-pack abs. 

When I was young I had a daydream of modernity boot camp, and I thought I might satisfy it by joining the actual real life military.  You know, toughness, discipline, getting it together.  That didn't work out for me because of the whole having-to-kill-people aspect, which was a deal-breaker.

Weirdly, not only don't we have modernity boot camp, it's almost like we have anti-training for modernity.  Young people are more left to their own devices than ever; the crime of being "late to dinner" has been erased in a world of sports practice and music lessons; and it's become elitist to go around saying you don't watch Mad Men or whatever because you were busy reading a book.

I don't know what form modernity boot camp should take, exactly, but perhaps we can take as a starting point for reflection the real life story of the actress who played Monica in the movie -- Babita Kapoor.  She and the actor who played the son really did get married in real life.  And what do you think happened next?  Her new family told her she had to quit acting, because women in their family weren't supposed to act. 

I don't know how exactly how Babita Kapoor responded to this, but whatever she did was effective, because her two daughters have become highly successful actresses and stars of Bollywood.  So as far as I'm concerned, Ms. Kapoor can be first headmistress of our new training school.

And for a school motto, we can't do better than to follow the Count of Monte Cristo, who said,

when one lives among madmen, one should train as a maniac.  

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