Sunday Morning! “The Fable of the Bees” & Film Noir
I suppose you could call this my “Week of Vice”. I’ve watched about ten noir films from the 1950s and read “The Fable of the Bees” by Bernard Mandeville, an Enlightenment text that was widely vilified as a quasi-satanic celebration of vice. Mandeville was called a “Champion of Vice and Luxury,” compared unfavorably to Machiavelli, and it was promised that his name would be eternally infamous- the critics invariably spelled it “Man-Devil”. Mandeville claimed he was rather defending the loud and insincere public tributes we make to Virtue knowing them to be primarily composed of hot air. It would probably comfort him to know that a little more than three centuries later, almost none of us remember his name.
It occurred to me that film noir was a similar sort of response to the “official story” that society tells itself about its bedrock of virtue. The 1950s were a time in which loud and repeated proclamations about hard work and decency and the American way of life could probably become a bit stifling to say the least. The postwar prosperity of the Bretton Woods era was unprecedented in human history (still is), fascism had been mostly defeated in Europe, living standards were on the rise, and a WASPish Doris Day & Rock Hudson ideal held sway in American cinema. The average noir protagonist, by contrast, is hard-bitten and cynical about all of your optimistic chatter. The women have been let down by men whispering sweet nothing and the men are working schlubs who’ve never gotten a break or a piece of the American dream. As the schmuck in “Nightfall” (1957) accuses us: “You don’t know what it’s like to live with your back against the wall.”
Prosperous societies like to think of themselves as virtuous societies and certainly this was true of America in the 1950s. Noir is fun because it laughs in the face of this- everyone is scheming and cynical and essentially in it for themselves. But the moral order is nevertheless upheld: wrongdoers get theirs in the end. There are really no happy endings in noir. Like the Greek tragedies, even if you trip and stumble over the moral line, you get punished. The hero in “Detour” (1945) kills the driver who picks him up by complete accident, and still he can’t escape the web of fate! The Coen brothers greatness was in recognizing how funny this type of Old Testament morality can be.
Mandeville, meanwhile, was writing about Vice and Virtue at the time and place (England in the early 1700s) that the capitalist economy was just getting going and he argues that its great prosperity would ultimately depend on the vices of its citizens rather than the virtues they advertised. He does this through the image of a flourishing beehive driven by “Fraud, Luxury, and Pride”. There are pickpockets and thieves and other noir characters, to be sure. But the Lawyers live off crime, the Judges take bribes, the physicians are only interested in collecting fees, the clergy is lazy, and the bees only behave virtuously because authority figures appeal to their sense of pride. It’s a regime of “Public Virtue, Private Vice.” In other words, it’s not very different from England in 1714.
In fact, one wonders pretty quickly just what exactly Mandeville achieved by writing his satire as doggerel poetry about bees. Obviously, he was trying to soften the bite a bit; yet, he never really does anything with the beehive as setting. There aren’t even any pollen merchants! It’s not really a fable, and it apparently didn’t work as a standalone poem because Mandeville attached an extended essay “An Inquiry into the Origins of Moral Virtue” and a series of “Remarks” expounding on passages of the poem.
Mandeville is trying to get at why it is we behave virtuously when we’d really rather not. The story we tell the tourists is that virtuous behavior is guided by reason or, conversely, by “disinterest”. An ethical notion back to the Stoics holds that we are virtuous when our passions are overruled by our reason. However, he rejects this entirely, arguing that our reason isn’t that strong and we almost never act disinterestedly. Instead, when we’re taught to be good children by society, we’re more easily motivated by our feelings of pride. A child who behaves well is praised and flattered. A soldier who sacrifices himself for God and Country, is motivated by the desire for glory. We’re nearly always self-interested in some way
Mandeville distinguishes between Qualities and Virtues. Society requires of us a certain “regard for others”:
“But when we are by ourselves, and so far removed from Company as to be beyond the reach of their Senses, the words Modesty and Impudence lose their meaning; a person may be wicked, but he cannot be immodest while he is alone, and no thought can be Impudent that was never communicated to another… Good manners have nothing to do with Virtue or Religion; instead of extinguishing they rather inflame the passions.”
Perhaps even more provocatively, Mandeville suggests that those classic sins of avarice, prodigality and pride had better exist in abundance if we want to maintain a healthy consumer market. Frugality might be good for shaping character, but it’s “useless in a trading society.” As he puts it elsewhere “Religion is one thing, and Trade is another.” Never the twain shall meet.
No doubt Mandeville’s most controversial opinion was his attack on the “charity schools” that were established in England to deal with the children of the growing body of dependent poor who could hardly care for them, and to prevent those waifs from falling into crime and desperation. When the mercantilists claimed that “people are the wealth of a nation” they meant a large body of laborers at subsistence wages. Charities were established to save their children from a fairly bleak existence to grow up and become drudges, an equally bleak existence. Mandeville’s argument seems to be that there’s nothing disinterested about this sort of “charity”. Even when we give the poor welfare, it’s a down payment to prevent them from throwing trashcans through plate glass windows. Even our current high minded talk about a “universal basic income” treat the poor as a problem of management rather than unique and unrepeatable human beings. He’s no humanist either; he thinks charity schools are a bad idea because our laborers should remain ignorant.
So, all of this can become rather cynical, and we should remember that virtuous behavior is sufficiently commonplace that we hardly ever notice it around us. Why do people behave virtuously? I think the noir answer would be either out of love or fear of being shot dead in a damp alleyway. Either one works.
So what are YOU reading, watching, pondering, or playing this weekend?