It’s embarrassing. I’ve never seen nor read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. I know it’s supposed to be one of the great American pieces of literature, but in high school they assigned The Crucible instead, and let’s just say I wasn’t in a huge rush to seek out more afterwards. But John Lahr’s review of Mike Nichols’ new staging of the play (with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Willy Loman) in The New Yorker has changed all that. Lahr waxes very eloquently on what he calls “the gospel of achievement” that is embodied in the character of Willy Loman–which is almost synonymous with what we call a theology of glory, and the works righteousness that fuels it. This is the mentality that refuses to call bad thing bad (but instead recasts every defeat in positive terms), the one that measures to the point of despair, eliminating the possibility of giving or receiving love. In other words, it’s much more than a theological (or exclusively American) category — it’s a tragic way of life. Willy represents the endpoint of bootstrapping idealism, perhaps even the existential suicide that W.H. Auden described in The Age of Anxiety when he wrote, “We would rather be ruined than changed/ We would rather die in dread/ Than climb the cross of the moment/ And let our illusions die.” Oh boy, oh boy:
A blowhard of pluck and positivity (‘be liked and you will never want’ is one of his mantras), Willy [Loman] has always wanted to seize victory from the world and to claim the kingdom of self, to be a somebody—which is both the promise and imperative of American individualism. In his grandiosity, he inflates the facts and figures of his hapless life; and he puffs the same optimistic smoke into his two adult sons, Biff and Happy, who bear the scars of his delusional expectations.
Willy, for all his fervent dreams of the future and his fierce argument with the past, never, ever, occupies his present. Even as he fights, fumes and flounders, he is sensationally absent from his life, a kind of living ghost. It is existence, not success, that eludes him.
Willy is defined by the spirit of competition and by its corollary, invidious comparison. Envy is the gasoline on which American capitalism runs; it also runs Willy, driving him crazy. His “powerful strivings,” as Miller calls them, are his way of battling a corrosive sense of inadequacy. When Willy’s neighbor Charley shows him some generosity—he offers Willy work after he is crushed by the loss of his sales job—Willy’s bumptious, confounding ingratitude underlines Charley’s surplus and his own pathetic emptiness. The best defense against toxic self-loathing is to become the object of envy, which is why the gospel of achievement is Willy’s fundamentalist faith. He lives by the metric of success, constantly measuring the imagine distance between himself and others. “You are going to be five times ahead of him,” he says to his boys about Bernard, Charley’s nerdy son, who get’s good grades. “I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises,” he tells them when they are teenagers. “Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world… is the man who gets ahead.”
Willy is “tired to the death”: his exhaustion is spiritual, not just physical—the result of a soul-sapping struggle to face down humiliation in a world that keeps telling him he’s a failure. … Willy has never actually known his boys—he knows only his dream of them. He has never reflected back a true picture of them; he has never let the truth be spoken. As a result, the family has lived a collective lie, which endures even after it is denounced. When Biff, crying and broken, begs his father, “Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?,” it’s a searing moment. But Willy, on seeing tears in his son’s eyes, announces, with astonishment and elation, “Isn’t that… isnt’ that remarkable? Biff! He likes me!” At a stroke, he eliminates the negative: hate becomes love, and suicide becomes a father’s heroic sacrifice in order to jump-start Biff’s success with an insurance payout. “That boy… that boy is going to be… magnificent,” Willy says, “chocking with his love.” The love is pure; it’s the fantasy that’s perverse. The greatest loss is the loss of an illusion; Willy goes to his grave with his mad, destructive dream intact.