Best of Times, Worst of Times

In a new essay for the July/August issue of The American Interest, Theodore Dalrymple outlines a common theme that runs through the plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller:

Both Williams and Miller took pains to draw attention to the existential limitations of human life, to which the American dream is not, in their view, an adequate response. The fact that there is not a better one, deep religious conviction aside (which most Americans do not have, polls of belief in God and church attendance notwithstanding), only makes matters worse. It is therefore natural that these existential limitations should have been pointed out by acute and reflective writers precisely at a time of general optimism, for when palpable dissatisfactions arise from specific circumstances—war, economic depression, epidemics and so forth—the illusion is possible that, once the circumstances improve, life will become free of dissatisfactions. It never will, of course, which is perhaps why the best of times, as some writer once said, can also be the worst of times. It is bitter indeed to come close enough to bliss to smell it but not to taste it.
Read the entire essay here (purchase required).

3 thoughts on “Best of Times, Worst of Times

  1. Mark

    I wonder why he says that most Americans really do not have any deep religious conviction. Anyone know?

  2. Clinton

    Just guessing here, but it probably has something to do with our being the country that invented modern pop culture, celebrity worship, the glorification of ghetto attitudes, and overtly sexualized mass media. I agree with him.

  3. Steve

    If being religious means practicing a religion, I think the vast majority of Americans are not religious. It’s one thing to believe in God and thereby ease your existential concerns, but it’s quite another to study that religion’s doctrines, to make a serious effort to live your life in accordance with those doctrines and to strengthen your beliefs by engaging in its rituals on a routine basis. How many Americans do this? Not many.

    I would describe most Americans as deist.


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