Tennessee Williams’s Desire teaches us about corporate creed and the culture of death

After You Touched Me!, which did nothing to enhance his reputation as a dramatist, Tennessee Williams relocated to New Orleans in the hope that the Big Easy would provide the inspiration he had been lacking. There can be no doubt that his new venue inspired the title of the play he was working on. While looking out the window one day, his eyes fell upon a streetcar that bore the intriguing name Desire. His play became an immense success, earning him a flurry of prizes including the Pulitzer, and solidified his reputation as a leading American dramatist.

A Streetcar Named Desire, even as a phrase, is exquisitely dramatic. It stirs in our hearts the conflicting images of excitement and danger. By contrast, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is singularly devoid of the slightest hint of drama. As a rule, philosophers do not make good dramatists. Plato, in using spirit to harmonize desire with reason, offered a neat solution to the drama of human life. Williams wants us to follow what inevitably results when desire is separated from reason, as our own streetcar – powerful, vibrant, heedless, and unstoppable – brings about our ruination.

A Streetcar Named Desire is the accelerator without the brake, choice without check, power without appeal. It is also reverie without reality, titillation without truth, darkness without light. Poor Blanche Du Bois, who is dissociated from other people to the point that she can be intimate only with strangers, is the personification of a desire that is entirely divorced from any saving connection with reality: “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! Don’t even turn the light on!”

Blanche is a pathetic figure whose mental and emotional disintegration, at the time she utters these words, is well advanced. This was certainly clear to those who witnessed the premier of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947. What that audience could not have imagined then was how, some 50 or so years later, Blanche Du Bois would ascend to the status of a national role model.

The shadow that outlines the “pro-choice” movement is anti-reason. Blanche herself, in one of her moments of delirium, could have penned the words we find in the United States Supreme Court’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Another successful dramatist, William Shakespeare, knew, perhaps even better than did Tennessee Williams, how desire alone is a ticket to death. In his dramatic poem, The Rape of Lucrece, he makes the following comment about Hector and the Trojan War: “Had doting Priam check’d his son’s desire/Troy had been bright with fame and not with fire.”

Desire without destiny equals death! St. Augustine’s oft-repeated phrase, “Love God and do what you will,” indicates how, by directing desire to its proper and divine destiny, we protect it from going up in flames. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with desire. The problem lies in its divorce from a meaningful direction. Evil is in the rupture of desire from its nourishing complement. The ancient Greeks knew this well. Their word symbol comes from sym (together) and ballein (to throw). Parties to a contract retained the piece of a broken stick. When they needed to validate their partnership, they re-united or brought together the two severed parts. The opposite, diabolic, referred to breaking the stick and permanently keeping the parts estranged from each other. Man without God exemplifies the diabolic, as does the devil without love, desire without reason and liberty without justice. The ruin lies in the rupture. Nothing in God’s good creation is evil in itself.

The diabolical legacy of choice without check has proceeded, itself, without check and has now infected the world of economics. If a woman can choose her career over her child, why cannot a corporate executive choose his capital over his co-workers? Is it not simply a matter of choice? Why not give yourself a fat bonus, even if it means that your underlings will suffer economic deprivation? Do not corporate executives have the right to define their own “concept of existence?”

Neither the public nor the press, however, is content to identify corporate greed merely as “corporate choice.” Both condemn this present culture of greed, as they call it, in the strongest terms. A newspaper cartoon, for example, shows three adults facing an American flag with their rights hands placed over their hearts reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. They replace the currently troublesome phrase, “one nation under God” with the more crass and telling expression, “one nation under greed.” Unfortunately, the pundits of criticism are myopic. They have failed to notice that the termites who are causing the rot are immigrants from the “culture of choice.” The alternative to God, of course, who is the essence of generosity, is greed, the life-blood of acquisitive individualism.

How far have the termites travelled and what other institutions have they invaded and infected. Consider the recently established website, MenNotIncluded.com, that in its first 48 hours has attracted 8,000 registrants, 3,000 lesbians and 5,000 sperm donors. What is more diabolic, one might ask, than depriving a child, even before that child is conceived, of a right to have a father? The diabolic rupture that separates man from God the Father has entered the domain of the family to separate the child from his father. Even biological fathers are only too eager to sever their own spiritual paternity from their offspring.

While Blanche Du Bois expatiates on her fevered notion of desire without truth and sex without commitment, Tennessee Williams, in what must be regarded as a master-stroke, allows the audience to hear the words of a Mexican flower lady rising from the streets: Flores. Flores. Flores para los muertos (flowers for the deceased). Here, the playwright, Tennessee Williams and Pope John Paul II intersect. A culture of desire, a culture of mere choice, is also a Culture of Death.