Beavis, Butt-Head, and the End of the Modern Age

A Last Lecture by Daniel P. Murphy

Beavis and Butthead are hot. Their program on MTV has become one of the media sensations of 1993. Ever sensitive to the nuances of teen fashion, and ever ready to shamefully exploit a successful commercial property, the executives at MTV have all but surrendered their network to the alliterative duo. "Beavis and Butthead" began as a weekly half-hour show; the program is now broadcast twice daily, Monday to Friday, bracketed with a spin-off show aptly titled "Rock Videos That Don't Suck." On Saturdays the pair command their own hour-long primetime block. Media and cultural critics are already taking notice, and "Beavis and Butthead" is being hailed, or denounced, depending upon your point of view, as a new low in the history of television programming.

For those of you as yet unfamiliar with Beavis and Butthead - and brace yourself, it is only a matter of time before we are inundated with t-shirts, mugs, games, action figures and lunch boxes - let me give you a brief and opinionated sketch of our new cultural anti- heroes. Beavis and Butthead are cartoon characters, boys fifteen years of age, dressed in shorts and, respectively, AC DC and Metallica t-shirts. They live in a suburban neighborhood, though with no discernable families. They attend school, after a fashion, hold down jobs at the local Burger World, also after a fashion, and spend a lot of time at the mall and nearby convenience store. In short, they live the lives satirists and moralists assume middle class white kids live. The true center of Beavis' and Butthead's life is their television set. Much of the program is devoted to their watching junk tv and music videos, flipping from image to image through the magic of remote control, making lewd and inane comments on what they are viewing, occasionally dancing along or fondling themselves to the beat of an especially good video. Beavis and Butthead are so immersed in the glamor of rock and roll that, at moments of triumph or high emotion, they spontaneously burst into loud air guitar versions of classic hard rock riffs. Clearly intended as a cracked mirror of youth in our day, Beavis and Butthead encapsulate all the vices fashionably attributed to the tv suckled Pepsi Generation. The boys are intellectually and emotionally stunted. Possessed of attention spans which would disgrace a three month old, their ignorance borders on imbecility. With Beavis and Butthead words and facts lose all shape and meaning. The word "comedian" becomes "chameleon," and when asked the location of Seattle we are told: "Seattle is a place where everyone you see on the street is cool." For Beavis and Butthead, England is a "place where everything sucks," and all the people "talk like wimps." The boys are also incapable of even the most elemental human empathy. They are violent, cruel and highly destructive, specializing in killing small animals, smashing machines of all sorts, and burning things. Rarely does an episode go by when Beavis and Butthead are not laughing at the suffering of some person or creature. Confronted with a barbecuer with a fork stuck in his head, a security guard who has shot off his toes, or a juggler who has lost his hand - Beavis and Butthead invariably cackle together and say "That's cool." As one might expect of boys their age, Beavis and Butthead are obsessed with sex, though on a level so primitive that they would make the heart of the most icy Freudian grow fond. They give their trademark cretinous cackle whenever anyone, intentionally or not, mentions a body part or bodily function, remarking to each other, "He said butt" or "She said member," and so on. Predictably, Beavis' and Butthead's vocabulary is limited, and their non-stop discourse is punctuated by a series of refrains, such as "That's cool," or "Whoa," or "Oh yeah," or "Let's burn something, fire is cool," or, my personal favorite, "This sucks, I hate things that suck."

Beavis and Butthead, to put it mildly, possess no redeeming social value, nor are they politically correct. MTV, an unctious network, remarkably pleased with its own unctiousness despite, or perhaps because of its own programming, runs a disclaimer before episodes of "Beavis and Butthead," pointing out the crudity, sexism and general stupidity of the boys - but what the hey, because, as the disclaimer concludes, "For some reason the little wienerheads make us laugh." The disclaimer, of course, is part of the joke. The joy of watching Beavis and Butthead is reveling in their social and political incorrectness - basking in their unrestrained and unselfconscious barbarism and nihilism. For Beavis and Butthead are barbarians, and they are nihilists. They lack knowledge of and appreciation for civilized graces, and, above all, they live in a world unmoored from any absolute moral bearings. Watching Beavis and Butthead is an evanescent act of liberation - from responsibility and morality, rationality and compassion. For a half-hour, Beavis and Butthead offer the vicarious pleasure of living beyond good and evil.

Beavis and Butthead can not be dismissed as a disturbing curiosity because they are not alone. Indeed, they are merely the latest, and frankly relatively benign, phase in a trend towards pop barbarism and nihilism. Well before Beavis and Butthead, we had Al and Peg Bundy on "Married With Children," and Homer and Bart Simpson on "The Simpsons" - anarchic idiots through whom we celebrated the thrill of the abyss. All these popular characters, intended as parodies of middle American stereotypes, exist in a dystopian American landscape drained of order or meaning. They live, as a Seattle musician might put it, in a world of grunge. To borrow a phrase from Allan Bloom, the Bundys, the Simpsons, and now Beavis and Butthead are all examples of nihilism American style - of nihilism with a happy face. As comic characters, as morons, the Bundys, the Simpsons, and Beavis and Butthead possess a distinctly American innocence. This innocence should not be confused with the nineteenth century American concept of the noble savage, or American Adam, best embodied in the works of James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper's savages, his frontiersmen and Indians, were ennobled by their wild existence in nature. They read in the forest the structure of God's law. When Al Bundy, Homer Simpson or Beavis and Butthead hit the trail we are on a short path to Conrad's "heart of darkness." Rather, the American innocence of these characters lies in their sporadic yearnings for formal repectability, to fit in with white bread American life. And so week in and week out, Al Bundy will launch his latest attempt at a Bundy Sunday funday, or Homer Simpson will work up the resolution to take the family camping, or Beavis and Butthead will pursue the forbidden fruits of the flesh at a convenience store or trailer park - all of them knowing all along that these endeavors will end only in disaster.

But, as Allan Bloom wisely pointed out, nihilism and happy faces do not necessarily belong together. Beneath the superficial goofiness of these programs lies an only partially concealed existential terror. A profound darkness undergirds the adventures of the Bundys, Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead. Pain and loss are the leitmotivs of their programs. Violence and corruption dominate their worlds. As any regular viewer of "Married With Children" knows, the openly acknowledged Bundy family formula for ending an argument with outsiders or getting out of trouble is to beat somebody up. The "Simpsons," with acidic precision, presents a scorching panorama of Bart's hometown as a highly dangerous ship of fools, its inmates ranging from a blandly murderous police force to Itchy and Scratchy, stars of a cartoon within the cartoon, a homicidal takeoff of Tom and Jerry in which the mouse Itchy bloodily dispatches Scratchy the cat in various horrorific ways, to the accompaniment of delighted peals of laughter from the children and adults watching in their living rooms. And of course you have Beavis and Butthead contributing to the mayhem, among other things chopping up grasshoppers with chainsaws and shooting down airliners with pellet guns.

And on this level, Beavis and Butthead, and these other programs, form a continuum with other contemporary examples of American barbarism and nihilism - nihilism without a happy face - such as the popularity of "Faces of Death," a series of videos filled with footage of executions, fatal accidents and the slaughtering of animals, or the music of rockers and rapmeisters like Dr. Dre, a favorite of MTV, who caused quite a stir in Kentucky last week, with his misogynistic and violent lyrics, and, apparently a pre- concert video showing him killing white cops. What is intriguing about these various cultural phenomena, whether we talk of Beavis and Butthead, or "Faces of Death," or Dr. Dre and his ilk, is that they are not isolated expressions of some eccentric subgroups. Depending on the term, I have found that up to 3/4 of my History 111 sections are acquainted with "Faces of Death." Dr. Dre makes his money not from the alienated members of a victimized underclass, but from selling his albums to suburban white kids.

Cultural commentators and moralists have all seen in this the signs of a Roman-style decline and fall of the American Republic. Their lurid prose at times conjures up images of post-apocalyptic movies like "Bladerunner," "Escape from New York," and "The Road Warrior." The cultural phenomena I have been discussing are often seen as the harbingers of a new era, with Beavis as the prototype of 21st century man. I share the concern of these commentators, but not their confidence in the novelty of these phenomena. Beavis and Butthead are really nothing new - in fact, they are a good example of something rather old. They are symptoms of the decay of modernism, and with it the end of the Modern Age.

The Modern Age emerged in the 17th century, with the triumph of science and the final victory of the moderns over the ancients in the battle of the books. The Modern Age was characterized by a fundamental confidence in the ability of humanity to master its environment and perfect its condition. The Enlightenment of the 18th century and the Victorian Era of the 19th century both envisioned humanity as being engaged in an upward march of progress. This optimistic faith in the power of men and women and their reason came to an abrupt halt in the 20th century. For some years in the late 19th century the ideas associated with the cultural mode of "modernism" had been percolating, spreading doubts about the sympathy of heaven and the absoluteness of truths. Philosophers as diverse as Nietzsche, James, Bergson and Freud paved the way for a new understanding of life in which reason and order originated in Man, not God and Nature, and truth was relative to the knower. Unhappily the advent of modernism coincided with the First World War, a horrifying disaster for the West, and a conflict from which can be dated the true beginning of the 20th century. The war soon came to be seen as the destroyer of the old Victorian dispensation and the parent of modernism. A moral vision which some of its pioneers had hoped would be a liberating and exhilarating release from the dead hand of convention, instead took on the war's aura of disruption and pain. The face of modernism's nihilism became set in a frown. This can be seen in the words of contemporary American writers. Thomas Wolfe observed that the war "cut straight across the face of time and history, a dividing line that was as clear and certain as a wall. ... The America that they knew before the war, the vision of America they had before the war, was so different from the America and the vision of America they had after the war. It was all so strange so sad and so confusing." In 1940 William Henry Chamberlain, looking back, declared, "Brutal and irrational in character, the First World War imposed a brutal and irrational stamp upon social changes which might have otherwize come about in a peaceful and orderly way. It ushered in a period of ever widening violence, an era of unreason to replace the predominately rationalistic age of the eigghteenth and nineteenth centuries. ... The golden age of European civilization passed with the world war. An iron age set in and gradually tightened its grip on every part of the world." In that same year Anne Morrow Lindbergh described the totalitarian powers then carving up the world as "The Wave of the Future." Lindbergh was severely criticized for her passivity in the face of the totalitarian challenge, but not for her identification of those powers with the cultural forces inleashed by the First World War. Already modernism was firmly saddled with a subtext of barbarism. By 1940 the promise of the Modern Age was gone. With modernism as it emerged in the wake of the Great War, the triumph of the 17th century had made an ironic full circle, and by 1940 the forces of what Winston Churchill called "perverted science" threatened to overwhelm western civilization. The dismay which greeted atomic weapons five years later was only an intensification of an already well-established fear.

The moral landscape left by modernism was barren, what T.S. Eliot termed, memorably, a Wasteland, populated by Hollow Men. "Man is but a foundling in the cosmos, abandoned by the forces that created him," wrote Carl Becker. Humphrey Cobb, in his powerful war novel Paths of Glory expressed the same sentiments less elegantly, but more forcibly, "The world is an immense graveyard, getting perpetual care from the survivors who are living off it." Successive waves of pulp novels, detective stories and movies purveyed the hardboiled vision of an America paved with streets of no desire. Popular myth gives the impression that the 1920's, the heyday of early modernism, was a madcap, wacky time. That decade had its share of fun, but the reality was more complicated. Walter Lippmann wrote the following in 1929: "What most distinguishes the generation who have approached maturity since the debacle of idealism at the end of the war is not their rebellion against the religion and the moral code of their parents, but their disillusionment with their own rebellion. It is common for young men and women to rebel, but that they should rebel sadly and without faith in their rebellion, that they should distrust the new freedom no less than the old certainties - that is something of a novelty." What strikes me as most interesting about the flaming youth of the 1920's is its uncanny applicability to the young people chronicled in such contemporary literary sensations as Less Than Zero and Generation X.

The moral is that we have not yet escaped modernism, for all our brave but empty talk of post-modernism. Modernism, in the guise of novels like Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, and cartoons like "Beavis and Butthead," is merely growing overripe - and beginning to smell. To any student of the vibrant modernist culture of 1920's and 1930's America, phenomena like "Faces of Death," Dr. Dre and Beavis and Butthead won't seem surprising or fresh - simply bad. "Faces of Death" advances beyond Hemingway's "A Short Natural History of the Dead" only in its simple-minded literalism. Dr. Dre's odes to the joys of offing police echoes only faintly the challenge of Brecht and Weill's brilliant song "Mack the Knife" from The Threepenny Opera. And the antics of Beavis and Butthead, Al and Peg Bundy, Homer and Bart Simpson are just variations of themes pioneered by the marvelous absurdist humor of comedians like W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. The sublime anarchic expressiveness of Harpo Marx has degenerated into the idiotic grin of Beavis. Beavis is the 1990's answer to Nietzsche's call for a blond beast. Thus, nothing much has changed except that we are exhibiting cultural arterial schlerosis. We are living amidst other people's ruins, fashioning pale and increasingly crude imitations of other people's masterworks. Modernism, and with it the tottering edifice of the Modern Age, is dying not with a bang, but a whimper. We are at the end of the ending.

What the future holds I cannot say. Undoubtedly the true post- modernist era of some twenty years hence is being pioneered by a few even as I speak. But I can no more predict the shape of the future than an ordinary historian of the 1890's could have predicted the 1920's. We may live to see a rebirth of confidence in an eternal and benificent order to life. We may be on the brink of a dark age.

In any case, we must face the future with hope, with resolution, and with open eyes. We live in exciting times. We have seen the end of the Cold War and the division of Europe. We have witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and with it the Marxist-Leninist dream of communism. Just a few days ago we looked on as the Premier of Israel and the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization shook hands on the White House lawn. Meanwhile nuclear weapons are proliferating with hothouse nationalisms. The world order is rapidly disappearing, and with it more slowly, the cultural order of our youth. It is our fate, perhaps happy, perhaps sad, certainly hard, to be living in the last days of the Modern Age.
 

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