Wednesday, 5 June 2013

On Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"

I can reflect on being one of the thousands, if not millions, of men who have been passionately moved by this play.

I saw it when I was the age of the character Biff (34 yrs), older son to the Salesman, Willy Loman.

I had no inkling, before the play started, of how much I would identify with Biff's plight. By the play's end, Biff has struggled to put into words some of the many painful moments of his existence, pitching them against the self-image of his father, which Willy refuses to yield even at the cost of his life. It was a shattering experience.

One of the many moments that has remained in my mind is Biff's description of having been filled with hot air:
“And I never got anywhere cause you blew me so full of hot air that I could never stand taking orders from anybody”.

The need to be shining (“a star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away!”, says Willy of his imagined hero son) is sustained in Biff’s mind and body. The moment when a setback happens, his being failed in mathematics at high school (denying him the opportunity to attend college, and along with it, his chance in college sports), Biff is thrown into a depression and with only questions in his mind he seeks out his father, who is away on a business trip. Thinking Willy will tell the teacher something, reassure the teacher, get him through, get him off, Biff genuinely believes his father ro be someone who has that power in the world. With what complete shock, then, does Biff realise that his father is in his hotel room with a young woman.

Moments when Biff encounters circumstances that contradict the self-image have led him to walk out of jobs and then to thieving suits, maybe feeling entitled to break rules as he had been encoraged to do as a boy.

I think Biff undergoes a crisis that can form in many people, especially men, of finding oneself unable to sustain mentally, inwardly, what has become one’s physical being and expression.
Sex might prop up the fantasy that one’s self has become, but real closeness can result only in the self being exposed, in all its despair and rage and depression.

How and why could I have moved from this visceral, existential recognition to an idea that surfaces in the work of Karl Popper, of biological expectation.
Of course it is to do with the source of power in my father’s life, which I took to be scientific knowledge. (Later I could understand that being given to feel confident in oneself – childhood experience – is the deeper and more important thing. Before we ever make a scientific reduction, there is some sort of active self-conception against which to perform the self-negation that an ideally pure objectivity requires. This is the Cartesian move.)

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