Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sam Tanenhaus and Others on Death of a Salesman

Photo from October 28, 2009

I can't say that I ever much cared for Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, though I've seen it two or three times . . . inadvertently. But I was interested in something that Sam Tanenhaus -- writing in "A Nation of Willy Lomans" for Newsweek (March 19, 2012) -- said about it in response to Mike Nichols's current revival of the play:
What [many critics] . . . missed [but Nichols hasn't] was that Miller's play isn't ideological at all. There is not a whiff in it of anti-capitalist "critique." Its subject, at once deeper and less abstract, is the American myth of self-invention or reinvention, the dreams and delusions it fosters in us, which lead us away from our true selves.

I thought that Tanenhaus's remark about Miller's play not being anti-capitalist was rather neatly to the point. I never got that message from it. The damn thing was depressing, but to see it as anti-capitalist seemed to me more like eisegesis than exegesis. I was also interested in Tanenhaus's view that the play is really about the 'American' myth of self-invention or reinvention. I guess I can see that, sort of, but I don't think that I quite agree. Still, let's see where this point leads. Willy Loman tries, without success, to invent himself as a salesman. Tanenhaus cites a remark by Nichols as evidence:
"Willy has chosen to follow the craft that is not a craft, and he has a craft," Nichols says. "The sad thing about it is, as his sons know, there are things he's very good at -- carpentry, building, putting in a ceiling in his house. But he doesn't have any respect for that. What he thinks is important is to be able to sell, to convince, to charm, and it's one of the things that's wrong with us now. If you go into any office and ask people, 'What exactly is it that you do?' they either say, 'I record the numbers, and then I put them in another book,' or they say, 'I have ideas. I have ideas for commercials, promotion.' We basically are promoting our product."

This remark by Nichols, if viewed through the refractive power of the right interpretive lens, could have supported the point made by Tanenhaus, but it seems more to indicate our identification with what we do in our work than with who we are. Nichols draws a somewhat different point, however, that we're "promoting out product" (though his examples aren't typical products). Loman, however, wasn't interested in a product. He wanted to have the reputation of being a great salesman, and though selling involves promoting a product, the product itself doesn't interest Loman (as Tanenhaus notes later with respect to the fact that we never find out "what's inside the heavy sample cases Willy lugs into the house"). Granted, this may amount to the same thing -- Loman's product is himself (as Tanenhaus also later notes) -- so maybe the quote from Nichols could support Tanenhaus's point that Loman exemplifies "the American myth of self-invention or reinvention." I just wish Tanenhaus had drawn out the implications more clearly.

But I nevertheless wonder if Loman's wish to have the reputation of being a great salesman is a matter of 'invention' (whether 'self-' or 're-') or more the optimistic American belief that the future is open for you to be what you want to be. That might be an illusion, if life in America is more closed than usually believed, but is it about invention, whether self-invention or reinvention? It seems to me to have more to do with the belief that one has more than just a single talent to pursue. Loman's personal tragedy is that he couldn't bring himself to see that he had talents for things other than salesmanship. In short, that while he had tried all his life to 'invent' himself as a salesman, he couldn't see that he needed to 'reinvent' himself through following his true talents, though that was what he truly ought to have done.

Incidentally, although I've just referred to Loman as a tragic figure, the man can also be seen as a hero who sacrificed himself for his family by ensuring that his life insurance policy was up to date before he suffered his fatal automobile 'accident' -- the death of a salesman alluded to in the play's title. That word "death" tells us what we should be asking about when we talk about the play, namely, what kind of death is this, tragic or heroic?

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