Thursday, September 15, 2011
Babbitt's Awakening -- Writer's Poke #317
Joseph Campbell is one of my personal heroes. This week, I stole some time to re-watch his amazing interview series with Bill Moyers, and I was reminded that many people live a life of excuses.
Campbell mentioned the ending to Babbitt, the classic novel by Minnesota author Sinclair Lewis. Babbitt's son tells him that he doesn't want to continue college; instead, he wants to drop out and work in a factory. To this, Babbitt responds: "I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life! .... But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it.... I'll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don't be scared of the family.... Nor of yourself, the way I've been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!"
Babbitt supports his son's decision, even if it's one that society might not understand. In terms of Campbell, his son is "following his bliss." It might seem weird to prefer a working-class life over the "promise" of a college degree, but Babbitt understands that the promise isn't bliss. Bliss is in finding what you want to do, and then finding a way to go about doing it. Bliss is about living your own life the way you desire, regardless of what others might think.
The tragedy of Babbitt is that he always lived the life he thought he was supposed to live rather than the life he needed to live. It's actually a pretty common idea in 20th century American fiction. The characters who fail are not the characters who lack passion or dedication or potential; they are the characters who are unable to combine all three components into a life worthy of living.
How can you live the life of your dreams on a daily basis?
"The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." -- Joseph Campbell