Tag Archives: Willy Loman

Gaining the Whole World and Losing Your Own Soul

Yesterday’s post addressed the subject of alienation, being trapped in an inauthentic existence while the heart pines for the taste of genuine human experience.  This “imprisonment” is the situation in which one’s persona grips an individual so tightly that the heart has been stifled to the point that he has no awareness of any dimension of life other than the “suit of clothes” that he wears.  It is relevant to a poetic quip of W. H. Auden, “We drive through life in the closed cab of occupation,” seeing the world only through the skewed prism of our “occupation” or basic, unquestioned assumptions about life.

Auden had another observation about this existential predicament, noting in one poem, “In the desert of my heart, let the healing fountain start.  In the prison of my days, teach this free man how to praise.”  Auden recognized that this existential “entrapment” in the world of appearances often grates against the soul to the point that one wants an escape which, in his estimation, merits a simple prayer of gratitude for the gift of life.  We are “here” and this “here-ness” is the simplest but most profound thing that we have, the simple gift of “be-ing” alive in this brief parenthesis of time.

Social critics, writers, and artists have been crying out since the mid-19th century about this loss of soul which is the by-product of modern industrialized, technologized human life.  One of my favorite examples is Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman” which was a smash-hit in 1949 and is estimated by many to be the greatest American play of the 20th century.  The lead character in the play, Willy Loman, is at the end of his successful career as a salesman and he is gradually feeling that his employer is “putting him out to pasture.”  In fact, this process culminates in the play when, after protestations to his boss about the matter, Willy is fired.

Miller uses Willy Loman and his family to poignantly illustrate the mid-20th century expression of what happens when a man comes to the end of his career and finds that he has nothing but emptiness remaining, his persona having become obsolete, or “used up” and cast aside by the corporate world.  Anger, resentment, and frustration overcome Loman as he realizes that his life is, “over,” over in that he no longer had an identity without the successes he delighted in with his job.  Without his persona, there was nothing left.

A social structure functions because of the human ability to take on a role, a “persona,” and fulfill the obligations of that role.  The problem arises only when that social structure becomes such a behemoth that individuals are devoured by it, their very lives having become only that of a “thing” which has as its primary purpose only in keeping the behemoth afloat.  The illusions of the culture become so powerful and stifling that there is no room left in an individual’s heart for authenticity.  In our modern consumer society this is often described as human identity having devolved to the point in which it’s only a “consumer,” a “consuming unit” designed to buy more “stuff,” and thus keep the “stuff-producing” apparatus going.  In this, “Brave New World,” of Aldous Huxley, human value can be summed up in the quip, “Whoever has the most toys at the end of the game is the winner!”

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“Within be Rich, Without be Fed No More”

Shakespeare knew that life was a spiritual enterprise, that the essence of life was buried inside what Hamlet described as “this mortal coil.”  The Bard knew that human nature was to avoid this inner essence, preferring instead to invest in the external where sensual experience offers a ready deterrent from the excruciating labor involved in delving into the heart.  In his 46th sonnet he encouraged us to overrule those “rebel powers” that encourage arrayment in the gaudy apparel of this ego-driven “mortal coil.”  He knew that the accomplishments and accouterments that culture entices us with to avoid our inner essence gives us a sense of fulfillment that is illusory, leaving us with an inner emptiness gnawing away at our soul.  He suggested a different emphasis, “Within be fed, without be rich no more.”  I do not think that he would say that cultural contrivances have no value.  But when these superficies become predominant and we become the “Hollow Man” of T.S. Eliot or Willy Loman in the Arthur Miller play, “Death of a Salesman,” we have allowed superficial accomplishments to predominate at the expense of paying attention to our own soul.  This is what Jesus had in mind with his famous question, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”

And, with the quotation of Jesus, I think Shakespeare was quite aware of false piety and hypocrisy which facilitate a gross misinterpretation of that famous verse from the Bible.  Even spirituality can become a “thing” purveyed by a “thing-oriented”, objectifying culture and we can miss the danger of letting “godliness” and “piety” be merely a thing of the external, a matter of adherence to creeds and dogma while allowing the “stillness” of our heart to go untouched.  Thereby we reduce this teaching of Jesus to the superficial cognitive grasp of his teachings and disallow them penetration into our heart, failing to realize that in keep his teachings and the whole of our life on that superficial cognitive dimension we are “losing” our own soul.  This is the truth that Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he expressed fear of coming to the end of his life and realizing that what he had lived was not life at all but a mere facsimile of life.  And that can be readily done under the guise of spirituality.  As Shakespeare noted, “With devotions visage and pious action we do sugar o’er the devil himself.”  Shakespeare was the most astute teacher of the human soul since Jesus.

 

Sonnet 146, Shakespeare

Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,
Thrall to these rebel pow’rs that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more.
  So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
  And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are:

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com