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"Metropolitan", Edmund Burke, and The Loss of Tradition

Updated on February 22, 2011
Whit Stilman's "Metropolitan"
Whit Stilman's "Metropolitan"
Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke

So much more than detachable collars

What will happen to a generation whose parents were more interested in being friends with, rather than parents to, their children?  If not properly transmitted, how can tradition be respected or improved upon?  These are major thematic questions addressed –  though not necessarily answered – in Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” (1990).  Whether it is Nick Smith’s diatribe concerning the dearth of detachable collars in fashion, or Tom Townshend’s discovery of his discarded childhood toys, Stillman employs dialogue and symbolism to reveal the malaise of generation “doomed” by its ignorance of tradition.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) - the preeminent eighteenth-century British traditionalist – had a certain degree of antipathy towards the Protestant Reformation.  A Protestant himself, Burke’s aversion to the aftermath of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was not grounded in theology, but in his stalwart belief in the importance and virtue of tradition.  To Burke, the iconoclastic Reformation represented an abrupt divorce from over one thousand years of European tradition, a tradition by no means flawless, but a complex and important tradition nonetheless.  

Woven throughout many of the works of Burke is an emphasis on a moral prudence derived from tradition, without which, Burke argues, a society cannot properly function.  Burke’s traditionalism was not based on a static conception of tradition, but instead an ever adapting (albeit slowly) and transformative traditionalism that draws on the conventions and understandings of the past in order to inform the matters of the present.  Traditional conventions and expectations may shift over time, but these changes must result from a respect, analysis, and synthesis of tradition.

In light of this Burkean conception of tradition, Metropolitan poses the question: what if tradition is neither bequeathed nor respected?  If there is one exchange that sums up Metropolitan’s argument concerning tradition, it is certainly the “detachable collars” conversation between Nick Smith and Tom Townshend:

Nick: “You haven’t seen this?  Detachable collar, not many people wear them anymore, they look much better.  So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned for supposed convenience.”

Tom: “I had no idea anyone wore those anymore.”

Nick: “It’s a small thing, but symbolically important.  Our parents’ generation was never interested in keeping up standards, they wanted to be happy.  But of course, the last way to be happy is to make it your objective in life.”

Tom: “I wonder if our generation is any better than our parents.”

Nick: “Oh, it’s far worse.  Our generation’s probably the worst since…the Protestant Reformation, it’s barbaric.  But a barbarism even worse than the old-fashioned, straightforward kind.  Now barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.”

Tom: “You’re obviously talking about a lot more than detachable collars…“

Nick: “Yeah, I am.“

The characters in Stillman’s Metropolitan may represent the upper echelons of the American aristocracy, but as Henrie points out, “like all of us, the well born suffer the disorientation of modernity, the loss of tradition”.  Therefore, while Nick’s symbol of tradition (detachable collar) may be rather bourgeois in itself, Stillman’s message transcends the societal class of debutante balls and tuxedos.  Instead, Stillman’s message is aimed at an entire American generation plagued by a pervading ignorance and neglect of tradition(s).

Nick’s reference to the “many things which were better in the past” is poignant. Nick’s traditionalism, not unlike Burke’s, is complex in that it does concede that some things have improved over time (for example, even the most ardent traditionalist can see the benefit in discontinuing the tradition of slavery).  Nick does not maintain that conventions and tradition should remain stagnant, but simply argues that with a breakdown of tradition, there is no way to carry on that which has worked best in the past – and may work well for the present.  The abandonment of the good for the supposedly convenient is a result of this breakdown.

Stillman’s traditionalism is principally concerned with the important role of conventional expectations.  Nick’s indictment of his parents’ generation’s fanatic desire for happiness highlights Stillman’s emphasis on traditional expectations.  In their pursuit of “happiness” and happiness alone, the generation of Nick’s parents was responsible for the abrupt dissolution of tradition, replacing it with an ultimate emphasis on happiness for one’s self.   Nick’s assertion that “the last way to be happy is to make it your objective in life” later finds its physical symbol in the discarded childhood toys of Tom.

Through dialogue and background characters, Stillman suggests that a fulfilling life is one that is predicated on a dualism between happiness and duty.  Whereas Audrey’s absentee - and miserable - father is the victim of his pursuit of duty and neglect of happiness, Tom’s father represents the converse.  The absence of Tom’s father is most evident in the fact that he has been raised by a single mother, and it is suggested throughout the film that this is a result of his fanatical pursuit of happiness.  By pursuing happiness alone, and neglecting duty, Tom is forced to pay the costs of his father’s “contempt for convention”.  Tom’s discovery of his discarded belongings implies the inherent egoism possessed by a life of happiness sans duty.  In his arguably indefinite pursuit of happiness, Tom’s father has discarded his very duty as a father (e.g. revoking Tom’s trust fund).  In doing so, Tom’s father not only reinforces an unfulfilling life for himself, but produces the externality in which Tom is deprived of a source of traditional transmission – the father figure. 

With his argument against the barbarism of the Protestant Reformation, Nick Smith is echoing (intentionally or unintentionally) the traditionalist sentiments of Edmund Burke.  Both view the event with contempt because of the manner in which it fragmented and dissolved tradition, leading to a “barbarism” that stems from such a breakdown.  However, one could draw parallels between the views of Nick and Charlie Black, and those of Burke on the French Revolution.  Burke rather prophetically asserted that a society devoid of tradition is a society doomed to fail.  One cannot help but notice this argument woven throughout Charlie’s thoughts on the doomed and downwardly mobile “UHB”.  Without the reinforcing stability of convention and tradition, Charlie notes “the downward fall is going to be very fast”.

In Metropolitan, Fournier and Brook Farm can be paralleled with Rousseau and the French Revolution.  Towards the end of the film, Tom is ultimately persuaded by the virtues of tradition over utopia, “Maybe Fournier was a crank – his ideas are completely unworkable”.  Similar to Tom’s earlier views on Brook Farm, one could argue that the French Revolution was successful insofar as it occurred.  However, from its very beginnings, Burke believed (rather prophetically) that it was a system doomed to failure.  This failure would be the result of its neglect of traditional morality, and “the principles which hitherto have been employed to regulate the human will and action”.  While a Reign of Terror or Napoleonic Wars may not mark the failures of the “Metropolitan generation”, Stillman argues that generational contempt for tradition inevitably results in failure (by its own terms or otherwise).


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