In an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa tries to warn Homer about becoming obsessed with revenge on an animal, citing Moby Dick as an illustration of such a foolish course of action. “Oh, Lisa,” Homer breezily corrects her. “The point of Moby Dick was ‘be yourself.'”
The joke is based on Homer’s character–a lazy, entitled idiot who swallows whole everything Hollywood feeds him (remember his movie-addled mindset in “Homer Goes to College?”) and, therefore, thinks the world revolves around him. Homer thinks the point of everything is “be yourself.”
Many a Simpsons episode has poked fun at our tendency to accept ourselves as we are, conveniently declaring that our natural state is good enough. For example:
- “Bart’s Inner Child”–After being suckered by a self-help guru, Springfield puts on a feel-good festival which nobody prepared properly because they felt their automatic impulses should be validated, i.e. nobody wanted to work and nobody should judge them for it. The festival is a chaotic disaster.
- “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious”–After suffering a nervous breakdown from stress, Marge hires a Mary Poppins-like servant to help the family. Despite her magical powers and inspirational attitude, the Simpsons persist in dysfunction, until the nanny gives up and tells them just to do what’s natural, suggesting (for instance), sweeping garbage around the house under the rug, because, “It’s the American way!”
- “Homer’s Enemy”–After a life of suffering, sacrifice, and hard work, the new guy at the power plant can’t believe how successful Homer is despite his total incompetence, which nobody else seems to care about. At the episode’s end, he goes insane and dies; at his funeral, Homer is childish and oblivious, and everybody laughs with him. My favorite episode.
These jokes work for the simple, obvious reason that our culture is awash in the message that we’re entitled to high self esteem, that the American Dream now encompasses self-realization and total, universal acceptance. This radical egalitarianism has, to say the least, depleted our societal maturity. It’s a clichéd trope these days, for example, that American students are shown by studies to have some of the lowest achievement in the world, while having some of the best feelings about themselves.
Something I can’t help but point out to American Literature students as we study most everything from the colonial period (from Jefferson’s advice to Peter Carr about the high expectations he’s supposed to live up to and Benjamin Franklin’s project to develop perfect virtues) through the 19th century (Theodore Roosevelt’s speech praising “the strenuous life“), such automatic self-aggrandizement is not part of our cultural heritage. Quite the opposite. Until the 20th century, Americans were expected to develop themselves and earn their positions, comforts, and esteem in life. Nothing of the sort was easy or guaranteed.
The Simpsons is hardly the first outlet to criticize such a juvenile philosophy. Such was also the target of the island of the Lotus Eaters in The Odyssey, and Pleasure Island in Pinocchio; each a place where people are seduced into ignoring their responsibilities in life and claiming instead the instant gratifications of sloth. Of course, in both Pinocchio and The Odyssey (on Circe’s island), the result of such short-sighted indulgence is the same–people literally become the animals they’re acting like.
So, some of the best advice I think I’ve ever given others in my long career of contrarian muckraking is this: don’t be yourself. We are not born good enough. We have the ability and the opportunity to make ourselves into much more than we are. Such a pursuit will ultimately yield a life of far more satisfaction than that of the Lotus Eaters, of Pleasure Island, and of Hollywood.