Blessay 23: Dying Salesmen

Last month I went to see the RSC production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It was a great evening. The production, direction and performances were pitched to the highest level. Anthony Sher’s portrayal of Willy Loman, the small-time salesman, was masterly. Yet Sher never dominated the play. He played out Willy’s tragic fate whilst his co-actors brilliantly observed him. Miller’s play was written in 1951 yet our world of 2015 still contains plenty of deluded Willy Lomans.

Once the visceral impact of Miller’s masterpiece began to wear off, I began to think about the role of the salesman/woman today. In America the occupation is in decline. It seems people’s wariness of scams, the ease of Internet shopping, retail outlets not needing sales people to demonstrate their goods ( the information can be found online anyway ), many outlets competing with cheaper products and a general tendency to be more suspicious of the hard sell has all contributed to fewer people doing the job.

According to Angela Stringfellow, Chief Ideation Officer ( what a job title! ) of CODA Concepts LLC ( What a company name! I’m tempted to re-title it COLA Concepts ) door to door sales jobs in the US will decline by 15% by the year 2018. As for the UK there may be fewer salesman around too. But it’s still probably a less endangered species than in America.I suspect that there are great regional variations in the number of people knocking on doors for double glazing, unwanted gold and jewelery, subscriptions to Sky TV services or skin products ( the long-lived survivor Avon left me a leaflet yesterday, and promised to call round if I rang or contacted them online.)

When it comes to charities, the door to door approach seems to have been largely replaced by the obdurate cheerfulness of the high street peddler. That beaming young man, or woman, desperate to persuade you to support their ‘most worthy’ organisation. Wearing bright logo t-shirts they lunge at you, eager to deliver stark statements about cancer rates or child poverty. I move on. Not because I don’t care about those issues but would prefer to consider them, without such badgering, in my own time, at home ( If I do acknowledge their business I tell them that I regularly visit their charity shops. And in spite of the hiked up prices, my purchase of a CD, book or shirt, contributes a little to their cause, or at least their high administrative costs and middle management salaries.)

Of course we all feel that so many other people are alway trying to sell themselves. Politicians, entrepreneurs, models, movie stars, singers, authors, painters, etc. That ego has become a product in a celebrity zoo. ‘Buy me, Love me. Buy me again. Love me more!’ Some sell mediocrity, some their genuine talent and hardly any their genius – except a certain genius for selling you the idea that they are a genius. Add the promotional tool of social media and the narcissistic self has been fully democratized.

I’d like to ruminate a little on the darker implications of the salesman idea. In the introduction to his collected plays Arthur Miller says,

‘…Willy Loman has broken a law without whose protection life is insupportable if not incomprehensible to him and to many others; it is the law which says that a failure in society and in business has no right to live. Willy’s law…is, rather, a deeply believed and deeply suspect “good” which when questioned as to its value, as it is in this play, serves more to raise anxieties than to reassure us of the existence of an unseen but human metaphysical system in the world. My attempt in the play was to counter this anxiety with an opposing system which, so to speak, is in a race for Willy’s faith, and it is the system of love which is the opposite of the law of success.’

That was written in 1958, the year in which such film titles as Sweet Smell of Success and phrases like ‘the rat race’ or ‘dog eats dog world’ circulated in newspapers and books on sociology. I thought such raw terms were no longer employed. That the English had replaced them with ‘hard working’ or ‘enterprising’ in a world where we might ‘prosper’ ( a favourite of Tony Blair.)  However the adjective ‘sweet’ still endures. Just witness the video of  David Cameron uttering the words ‘sweet victory’ on hearing that he’d just been re-elected as Prime Minister this May.

The word success is so bound up with the word ambition. And ambition is tied to the world and workplace. Little emphasis is placed, in our educational system, on inner ambition and realising yourself. Full potential seems to have been appropriated by a conservative free market individualism. What I am saying is really old hat stuff, lucidly expressed in Eric Fromm’s books The Art of Love or To Have or to Be, published many years ago. More giving than grasping. More growing than conditioning. More creating than destroying.

All these words can be mis-used and mis-appropriated. Easily become clichés in a lexicon we compile to try to make sense of living. But let me just rescue three words that should escape from our mendacity ( or bloody lying! )

Aspiration, Realisation and Fulfillment.

We will never realise and fulfill all of our aspirations. Lack of free thinking education, inequality of opportunity, poverty, our temperament, societal constraints and sheer bad luck will prevent us. Yet we have to stop the ‘door to door ‘ selling of our competing egos. We’re not salesmen and saleswomen. Only men and women trying to live as fully as possible in the face of our own mortality.

I’d take my three words, aspiration, realisation and fulfillment and chant them quietly in the moment, knowing we can never full live in the present. And on the back of, not a business card, but some fluid promissory note of well-being, scribble these words of the great mythographer Joseph Campbell.

‘People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive…’

I’d like to think that rapture can resist and subvert relentless salesmanship.


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