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One of the most notable aspects of a contemporary living in the West is that, as time goes on, more and more people tend to adopt a highly individualistic (atomistic) approach to addressing life-challenges while assuming that there is only one true purpose to a person’s existence – to indulge in the consumerist behavior 24/7, without giving much thought to what account for such behavior’s overall societal effects. What contributes to the described situation even further is that the promoters of Neoliberalism (good old Capitalism in a new “wrapper”) in high governmental offices continue to apply much effort while striving (explicitly and implicitly) to convince ordinary citizens to make a point in succumbing to their anti-social (egoist/consumerist) anxieties, within the context of how the latter go about trying to achieve self-actualization.
In fact, many conservative politicians consider it thoroughly appropriate to go as far as denying the existence of the society (in the traditional sense of this word), whatsoever. For example, according to Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families” (Brittan, 9). Such a point of view, however, cannot be deemed even superficially legitimate. The reason for this is quite clear for just about anyone familiar with the basic provisions of the Systems Theory.
Apparently, the very communal framework of people’s coexistence, as the fully integrated society members, creates the objective preconditions for the human society/community to be discussed as an entity of its own, with the main principles of its functioning being only indirectly concerned with the actual “quality” of each of its integral components. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, with regard to the themes and motifs contained in the novel Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck and the short story The Semplica Girl Diaries by George Saunders. While on the task, I will also promote the idea that the reading of both literary pieces will inevitably prompt one to doubt the validity of the Capitalist (Neoliberal) take on consumerism as the agent of historical progress.
When it comes to discussing the discursive significance of Tortilla Flat, it can hardly skip one’s attention that there is a strongly defined phenomenological quality to the novel’s plot. The reason for this is apparent – there is a striking dichotomy between what appears to be the featured characters’ psychological predisposition to act anti-socially, on the one hand, and their ability to choose in favor of the most socially responsible approach to tackling a particular challenge while socializing with each other, on the other. After all, neither of the novel’s characters has what it takes to be considered an upstanding citizen. This simply could not be otherwise – the very term paisano refers to an uneducated and socially uprooted person of Hispanic descent, whose only preoccupation in life is drinking cheap vine, in time free from stealing things from others and looking out to start a fight. Therefore, after having read about Danny’s decision to allow his numerous paisano friends to come sharing quarters with him in his house, one would be naturally inclined to assume that it is only a matter of time before the concerned development proves disastrous.
Nevertheless, as the plot continues to unravel, we get to realize that, far from what it should have been the case, this decision turned out beneficial for both Danny and his friends, as well as for the neighborhood’s (in Tortilla Flat) well-being, as a whole. The reason for this is that, while residing together under the roof of Danny’s house, the novel’s paisano characters began to exhibit the signs of being endowed with the acute sense of “communal belongingness” – something that in turn allowed them to adopt a conscientious stance to tackling different problems and feel better about themselves, as the ultimate consequence. The validity of this statement can be illustrated, regarding the novel’s episodes in which paisanos are seen experiencing a genuine desire to please Danny and each other by whatever means possible and indulging in the clearly altruistic type of behavior.
Apparently, there was indeed much rationale for Pilon to assume that Denny’s house provided the necessary settings for just about every of the featured paisano characters to be able to attain happiness living together: “‘We will all be happy here, Danny,’ he (Pilon) said. ‘In the evenings we will sit by the fire, and our friends will come in to visit. And sometimes maybe we will have a glass of wine to drink for friendship’s sake’” (Steinbeck 90). Evidently enough, the pursuit of the strongly collectivist/communal lifestyles, on these characters’ part, was having a strong effect on their perception of the surrounding social reality, in the sense of causing paisanos to grow increasingly indifferent about trying to accumulate material riches, unlike what it is the case with the conventionally minded “gringos”.
It is understood, of course, that this undermines the overall integrity of the Capitalist paradigm, which glorifies consumption as something that has the value of a “thing in itself”. After all, in the aftermath of having been exposed to Steinbeck’s masterpiece, one will be naturally prompted to give a thought to the essentially Socialist idea that a person’s likelihood to succeed in attaining happiness positively relates to the varying measure of emotional comfortableness with the mentioned “communal belongingness” virtue, on his or her part. Regardless of whether the author deliberately strived for it to be the case or not, Tortilla Flat can be indeed seen as the work of literary fiction that undermines the legitimacy of the Capitalist/Neoliberal outlook on what should be considered the actual purpose of people’s lives.
Essentially the same can be said about the overall significance of the short story The Semplica Girl Diaries – the literary work that presents readers to the dystopic extrapolations of Capitalism’s developmental logic. As is described by Saunders, the world of tomorrow is closely reminiscent of the one observed in the West nowadays, which functions as the living embodiment of the term “consumerism”. After all, it does not represent much of a secret that, as of today, the measure of one’s social worth in Western countries is considered reflective of the amount of money that she or he happened to have in the bank. Just about every pursuit in the life of an average Westerner serves one purpose only – to move “up the ranks” in the class-hierarchical sense of this word.
Within the context of how a person goes seeking enrichment, the considerations of morality/ethics have no place, whatsoever. In fact, the most desired types of enrichment are deemed to be the most effortless ones. In this regard, The Semplica Girl Diaries is best discussed as the futuristic account of today’s Neoliberalism having been brought to its logical end, resulting in the creation of the extremely class-obsessed society of hypocritical hedonists, clearly incapable of understanding what the notion of “communal solidarity” stands for. Hence, the relational specifics of the story’s plot: “The Semplica Girl Diaries tells the story of a few unusual weeks in the life of a petit-bourgeois American family whose class anxiety leads them to fear not meeting the expectations of their community” (Nalerio 90). The story’s narrator is represented being quite incapable of doing anything useful for a change, but engaging with the self-reflective thoughts on the class while wanting to be thought of as someone much wealthier than he really was: “Do not really like rich people, as they make us poor people feel dopey and inadequate. Not that we are poor.
I would say we are middle. We are very, very lucky. I know that. But still…” (Saunders 4). After having won “ten grands” playing a lottery, the story’s narrator could not think of any better way to spend the money, but to buy the so-called Semplica girls, used by the rich and powerful to be strewn on the high wire one after another as lawn decorations. Being nicely dressed, Semplica girls are supposed to please the eye of a rich onlooker. What really pleases the latter, however, are not the peculiarities of the Semplica girls’ physical appearance, but the fact that being in the position to afford this kind of “decoration”, helps him/her to emphasize its dominant status within the society. Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that, as it is seen in the Saunders’ story, in the future American society has grown utterly decadent – not the least due to the people’s inability to experience emotional empathy towards each other, especially when the representatives of different social classes are in question.
The author has made a point in presenting such a development as having been predetermined by the contemporary socioeconomic realities in the US, concerned with the continual glorification of one’s endowment with the sense of extreme individualism, as the main indication that he or she does have what it takes to qualify for social advancement. Hence, the narrator’s anxiety: “Sometimes, in our time, families get into dark place… we are losers, everything we do is wrong” (Saunders 15). Therefore, even though the story’s subject matter is distinctively different from that of the earlier discussed novel, it will be thoroughly appropriate to suggest that the reading of both literary works should prove utterly beneficial for just about anyone interested in learning more about the actual forces at play behind the society’s functioning.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defense of the idea that there is nothing illusive about the concepts of “society” and “community”, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, those who believe in otherwise simply lack education for their opinions, regarding the issue, to be given any serious thought. Unfortunately, only a few Westerners appear capable of understanding this simple fact – hence, the ongoing “decline of the West”, symbolized by America’s most recent setbacks in confronting Russia while trying to become “great again”.
Brittan, Samuel. “Thatcher was Right – there is no such Thing as Society.” Financial Times, Apr 19, 2013, p. 9
Nalerio, Juliana. “The Patriarch’s Balls: Class Consciousness, Violence, and Dystopia in George Sauders’ Vision of Contemporary America.” Miscelánea, vol. 52, no. 3, 2015, pp. 89-102.
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Saunders, George. The Semplica Girl Diaries. Steinbeck, John. Tortilla Flat. Penguin, 2000.