NEW YORK — It isn't unusual to hear the idea and the history of the nuclear family either elevated to an Olympian condition of domestic paradise or vilified as the source of all early and enduring prob lems. If one is listening to a proponent of the family, it is described as an answer to the problems that so pervade the cultural, political, social and spiritual lives of Americans. Mom, Dad, Sis and Bud, the dog and the gathering at the dinner table provide bulwarks against the disorder that has always dogged our society. From the responsible father and the understanding mother the wisdom of the culture is passed on, usually to a daughter and a son who recognize that age provides a clarity of understanding that is obviated by their youth.
Those on the other side see the family as a repository of every element of unfair power our democracy fights to reduce in the interest of individual freedom. They describe the traditional family as a patriarchal dictatorship, in which male privilege defines all parameters. There the father is, as one poet said, "just a big fat American wallet whose money gives him the right to oppress women and children." Women are subservient and children who resist will be twisted into the shapes determined by the head man. Rule is maintained by force, economic deprivation and psychological domination, the latter characterized by a willingness to use all means necessary to break the spirit attempting to run too freely.
While both sides allow us the stretch we need to see the possibilities of the home at its best and the horror that money and blood union can impose, our present condition is so shaky from coast to coast that those attempting to lead the country out of its social bog, whether Bill Clinton or Dan Quayle, see the re-establishment of family values as essential. Each recently talked of the importance of the family, of responsible adults shouldering the chores of moral grooming the country needs if it is to face the mirror with something other than a succession of grotesque masks dripping gooey sludge and swamp water.
I'm not sure that the real context of our dilemmas are yet recognized by politicians or by the friends and the enemies of the family. There are harsh problems down in the decadent murk of the worst aspects our country, and they have less to do with the family unit than with the idea of what an individual is in our contemporary terms and what the relationship of that individual is to others, whether in or out of the family. Unless those aspects of our sensibility are examined, it won't really matter much if men and women stay married and their kids listen to their philosophies and emulate the ways in which they have become successful in the work place.
I say this because we can recognize the adolescent inclinations that have foreshadowed the crumbling of decadent aristocracies in which marriage stayed put and the kids were trained to do the tricks of culture in the arena of privilege. Marriage doesn't need to break down and families splinter in order for us to witness the dissolution of the kinds of discipline and generosity central to social vitality. All we need to understand is how far we move from the riches of democratic civilization when the central ambition of the individual is opposed to any demands outside what have become the accepted and insatiable appetites of the self. In our writing and our talk, we are so concerned with ourselves that almost any subject, no matter how worldly, is reduced to a metaphor that inspires the autobiographical anecdote. So our sickness rises up from the corruption of our sense of relationships and the re-education of all elements to tools or objects that service our self-obsession or get in its way.
This makes us very impatient when confronted by difficulties. We assume that somebody else should take care of them or that they exist primarily to deprive us of something so personal it has no general significance. F. Scott Fitzgerald recognized this tendency years ago in "The Great Gatsby" when he put Nick Carraway in a car driven by Jordan Baker, the cheating athlete. After Nick complains that Jordan is a terrible driver because she doesn't pay attention, she replies that she doesn't need to pay attention when everybody else on the road can!
When Fitzgerald was writing, he was describing the moral opaqueness of excessive privilege, the corruption and disdain that came of money, class and the willingness to ignore the effects of one's actions on others. Fitzgerald saw his people as children made malevolent by their narcissistic insensitivity. They were actors performing their interpretations of aristocracy. Their images and their appetites were more important to them than anything else. As spiritual small fry, they were too little to truly fit the big clothes of sophisticated sensibility they wore.