I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me about the new Steve Jobs movie until I thought of Perry Miller. Perry Miller was the brilliant literary analyst of the Puritans. His monumentally important books, Errand into the Wilderness and The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century in particular, nailed the Puritan dynamic.
The Puritans, you will recall, were the English radical extremists of the Protestant Reformation. Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I, did not go far enough in their rejection of the Roman Catholic Church. True reform lay in stripping down the pageantry in dress, liturgy and clerical power to a simple belief in the first principles of Christianity. Losers of the English Civil Wars and persecuted by the crown and aristocracy, Congregationalist sought refuge in the New World and were the settlers of first Plymouth and then the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Miller did not trifle in these historical details. He cared about the psychology of these pioneers. Repudiated by the their “mothers and fathers” of England, dogmatic and self-righteous in their beliefs, the Puritans (a name originally derogatory but as do many oppressed groups, they appropriated it) drove themselves with the internal tension of believing they were “sinners in the eyes of an angry god” (actually Jonathan Edwards words, a century later but a good summary nonetheless) and yet strove to prove themselves worthy if not chosen for salvation. If I lived a million years in dogged study, I could not do Miller justice in how he articulates this dynamic. For the purposes of this blog post, please forgive the banality expression and just go with the basic interpretation.
This same deep, profound conflict, I believe, is what drove Steve Jobs. Given up for adoption by a mother who was too afraid to confront her father over an affair with a fellow graduate student from Syria, a Muslim and not, as her father was, a staunch Catholic, Jobs would spend his first few months in limbo through a failed adoption before finally being placed with a loving, post World War II family in Palo Alto, California. His biological parents must have bequeathed unto him prodigious genes. For a short period after Jobs was adopted, they married and had another child, a daughter. The marriage declined and they eventually divorced. Mona Simpson, their daughter and Steve Jobs biological sister, chronicled her parents divorce and mother’s hegira to Beverly Hills in two outstanding memoirs (which I adored at the time of publication with no knowledge of the connection until recently). Still, why had they abandoned him only to subsequently marry and keep a second child?
Steve Jobs is the quintessential Puritan. Fighting between the extreme emotional waves of worth and worthlessness, he pushed the limits of his prodigious talents to create one of the most important, and currently the most capitalized, company in the world. He sits in the pocket of America lore about finding meaning through innovation, creativity and work. Upward mobility pulses from his efforts and makes it seem possible for anyone who just would try hard enough. One can overcome his or her own past and shape one's future. Even his adopted name speaks to the gift he gave: employment. Whether he ever achieved peace from his legendary emotional swings and raging tantrums is difficult to assert, especially in the light of his early and untimely death. U.S culture would rather dress in him in a laurel wreath than care particularly about this point.
To frame the film around the relationship with his first, illegitimate child is an attempt to tell the story of what made Steve run. To be sure, if the viewer sets aside whatever knowledge or legend about Jobs, the story could be one man’s struggle to come to terms with his own demons. As such, there is an underlying, unaddressed narcissism to it. What if Lisa had not demonstrated creativity on that Apple computer graphics program when she was five? Had he not identified with her, would he have been able to accept her? Did he love her unconditionally, or was he simply proud? The movie fails to bring forward the foundational question of whether Jobs ever came to accept and love himself unconditionally.
But whatever else this movie strives to represent, it ultimately failed to capture the essence of the man as well as the resonance of that essence with a core thread of American culture. This lapse leaves the viewer unsatisfied. I actually care about Steve Jobs as a figure of American culture, but I did not care about the character in the movie too much. For its failure to capture this essence, we never get to ask deeper questions about what Jobs represents once we set aside the hagiography (which was the nature of the first movie, which I liked better because it at least it told a story): the tensions between a drive to prove one’s self and outrageous perfectionism, the complex relationship between form and function, iconic beauty and empty narcissism. And never mind thinking about whether accomplishment brings about the willingness to pay a daughter’s college tuition or a lasting acceptance of one’s self and responsibilities in greatness ... for Steve Jobs, or for the culture he so authentically represents.
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