Saturday, April 22, 2006

Never mind how she died. Who was she when she lived?

JUST WATCHED an interesting 48 Hours Mystery on Marilyn Monroe and the still hotly debated circumstances surrounding her untimely death. Without question, Monroe's enduring hold on the popular imagination exceeds that of any figure* in American history--with only the possible exception of Elvis.

To me, the most intriguing aspect of this most enigmatic (and peculiarly American) icon was who Monroe was--or wasn't--and the steps she took to "fully actualize," if you will. Looking at Monroe's life in sober-minded fashion, through the clarifying lens of hindsight, one would almost conclude that she prized self-destruction as her foremost goal, or at least a core value. It seems reasonable to state that in the course of becoming "all she could be," Monroe in effect transformed herself into something she wasn't--or clearly shouldn't have been. The real Norma Jean Baker was, by all accounts, a sweet, soft, nurturing girl (albeit a confused one). And though she might never have rivaled the last of her three husbands, playwright Arthur Miller, for sheer intellectual firepower, she would nonetheless surprise people (which is to say, people who bought her screen self) with the acuity of her randomly authored observations on life and living. Too bad she was unable to apply that same vision to herself. (But then, isn't that ever the case?)

The point here is that Marilyn Monroe represents as good an object lesson as there is in how some of us (if not many of us) pursue images (or "story lines") rather than authentic, idiosyncratic, unique lives. We seize upon, and pattern ourselves after, boilerplate personas that approximate what we think we want, and we set about the fastidious process of arranging our lives to conform to that persona. As best we can, we squeeze ourselves into one of the dominant psycho-social archetypes, or maybe a blend of two: We become The Successful Corporate Guy/Gal, The Don Juan/Vamp, The Star Athlete, The Brain, whatever. (Have you noticed that all the sexpots from the 1950s and '60s looked, acted, and dressed the same? Sure, some were blondes, some were brunettes, a few were redheads...but other than that? They were interchangeable. They even spoke their lines the same, through the same absurdly puckered lips.) Which, again, returns me to my objections to ANYTHING that frames itself as "12 steps..." or "10 sure-fire ways...", etc. It's a contradiction in terms to distill human individuality down to a prototypical format that supposedly can be applied across the board. And if you do that, it is not "self-help." What it really is--as we've observed before in this blog--is self-abandonment: the abdication of self to a generic image. That generic image did not work for Monroe. Indeed, it was catastrophic for her.

Which is also why it's so important--essential--to realize that "self-actualization" should never be framed as necessarily implying the pursuit of wealth and/or fame. Or even status. It's altogether likely that a certain naturally lovely young woman named Norma Jean could've achieved her most successful self by staying down on the farm and milking cows, instead of running off to the Left Coast to become a private joke among her Hollywood peers and a disposable sex toy to an entire generation of men named Kennedy (as well as their relatives and hangers-on).

The truly tragic part is...we almost never know such things in advance.

* and one uses that word slyly, in Monroe's case.

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AND, MOVING ONCE MORE FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE RIDICULOUS, A QUICK (SORRY RODG) LOVE SMART UPDATE: Someone please explain to me how a two-line, 5-star review from a nicknamed reader dubbing himself "synaptic mogul" gets to be a coveted Spotlight Review. "Mogul" writes of McGraw's book that "just to be on the safe side, I tried it out first on my wife. [?] I'll be darned if we didn't end up doing that hot monkey sex till almost dawn..." Oh please, gag me.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

When you're speaking of American historical (i.e., the non-Mickey Mouse crowd) figures who have a firm--even unshakeable--hold on the popular imagination, don't forget our good friend Ben Franklin, the veritable father of self-help. (Thanks, Ben!) I'd argue that he is a strong if not the strongest contender for the #1 spot, even now...

Steve Salerno said...

Anonymous, I see your point, of course. And believe me, I sympathize with what you seem to be saying here about the relative contributions made by Ben vs. Marilyn. But come on. You think the average product of our culture knows more about Ben Franklin? Or MM? The sad part is, American society-at-large, for all intents and purposes, has *become* the "Mickey Mouse crowd."

Anonymous said...

Well, I would say that Marilyn and Elvis probably seem about as "historical" as Ben Franklin in the era of Eminem and 50 Cent. But, while Elvis and Marilyn remain icons of their era, people are continually finding new relevance in Franklin's life, words, and vision. Perhaps that's because, while every generation has its entertainers, there was only one Franklin!