|PR 2/ 2000 VOLUME LXVII NUMBER 2|
Henry Adams and Our New Century
I was hardly surprised when The Education of Henry Adams, surely one of the oddest and most important of American books, recently headed up the Modern Library series ranking of one hundred best works of English language non-fiction. Such lists seem quintessentially "American." Indeed, I can imagine many readers ticking off the books they’ve thumbed through, even as they make plans to browse around in the others. Much of what drives this essentially well-meaning effort is the guilt that has always been our country’s blessing and curse. As a people, we like nothing more than to construct ambitious "to do" lists and then to take a measure of satisfaction as each chore is completed, or in the case at hand, as each book is dutifully read. Benjamin Franklin, singularly responsible for such civic improvements as fire companies, circulating libraries, lightning rods, and cobbled streets, is also the patron saint of list makers everywhere. Add the palpable fact that the grains of the twentieth century’s hourglass quickly ran out and all the necessary conditions seemed right for separating what is worth preserving from the merely ephemeral. In looking back, we can see where we once were and why we ended the twentieth century as we have.
Thus, we have seen (and disagreed with) the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the one hundred best American films and the even more controversial announcement by the editorial board of Modern Library series about the one hundred best English language novels. One can safely predict that there will be more such groupings as we speed through the year 2000. No doubt some organization will come up with a list of the one hundred most important American athletes, as others did with American musicians. Granted, such lists are consciously designed to be conversation-starters, and in the cases of the AFI and Random House, to generate publicity for their respective organizations. A case can be made for ignoring such obvious public relations stunts, but the fact is, we all rather enjoy perusing a list that includes the obvious, the outlandish, and the omitted.
Many pundits pointed out that the blue ribbon panel’s first choice—James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922)—may well have been a distinguished novel, but it is also one that few general readers, including themselves, had been able to slog their way through. By comparison, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), the runner-up, emerged easily as nearly everyone’s consensus favorite. After that, however, the ranks of dissenters swelled as some noticed that women writers seemed noticeably absent or that works written after 1965 got very short shrift.
Much the same scenario attaches itself to the more recent Modern Library series list of one hundred best English language non-fiction books. Few general readers, I suspect, have bothered to turn a single page of The Education of Henry Adams. For one thing, Adams, like Joyce, is a difficult read; for another, his book is not at all the tell-all, confessional outpouring that current readers of autobiographies expect. In short, Adams’s tome, then and now, would hardly have made a good candidate for Oprah’s Book Club. Whatever else The Education comes to it is not a survival memoir, which is to say, the story of somebody who escapes his or her probable fate. Quite to the contrary: Adams is as puzzled and as seemingly unprepared at the end of his long rumination as he was in its opening pages. Put even more bluntly: in Adams, one looks for happy endings in vain. And yet, hidden under layers of protective irony, self-deprecating humor, and a deep sense of cultural despair, is not only the complicated story of Adams’s "miseducation" but also a prophetic rumination about where America was headed at the end of the nineteenth century.
In Chapter XXV ("The Dynamo and the Virgin"), the one chunk of Adams that undergraduates are likely to know from surveys in American literature, technology becomes the focus, indeed, the very definition, of American power. Its argument revolves around two tropes—the forty-foot dynamo that Adams watched with increasing fascination while he attended the Paris Exposition of 1900, and the Virgin, a force that, he argues, once unified twelfth and thirteenth century Europe, and that had created such majestic splendors as the cathedral at Chartres. For Adams, the Gallery of Machines not only summed up the Industrial Revolution in an oversized nutshell, but also pointed the way toward what he believed would be a disunified and dehumanizing twentieth century.
One could, of course, argue that Adams worked from a limited sense of what made the year 1900 so important. His fixation on the dynamo speaks to a long obsession with the psychodynamics of force, but a case can be made for other ideas that would change life even more than the dynamo to which Adams ironically prayed. I am thinking, for example, of Max Planck’s quantum physics and Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams—both of which burst upon a startled world in 1900. Adams might well have included them in his litany of things that his (mis) education, at Harvard and elsewhere, had not prepared him for; but the plain truth is that he allowed the dynamo to become a collective symbol for his nagging sense that the past was irretrievable, the present chaotic and confusing, and the future a cause for deep concern. Why so? Because just as the world of earlier schoolmasters had been turned upside down by the observations of Copernicus and Galileo, and later, by Columbus’s explorations, so too had the dynamo confounded every organizing principle that Adams had searched for—presumably in vain.
Granted, Adams’s persona was firmly wrapped in the mantle of failure—so much so that savvy readers soon suspected that he was protesting just a bit too much about his ignorance and ineptitude. Still, when he writes that "Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts," we can, I think, take Adams at his word. "Inert facts," the material that one dutifully memorizes and then reproduces on exams, were essentially useless because they could not be actively applied to rapidly changing situations. Such "facts" simply sat there, rather like cornflakes in a bowl of milk, and became increasingly soggy. Here it is worth mentioning that Adams’s proposed subtitle for The Education was "A Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity." If the Virgin harkened us back to a simpler age, one that organized and thus unified itself around the force of religion, science often seemed to dump the human component altogether, preferring the disinterestedness that is an essential component of the scientific method.
Adams had, in fact, explored the tensions between religion and science earlier—in a novel (Esther, 1884), and in Mont-Saint-Michel (privately printed in 1904), to which The Education is a sequel. What his ruminations point toward is nothing less than the rapid collapse of Western culture as science replaces religion and dehumanized people increasingly pray to machines rather than to God. Adams may not have been the "failure" he made himself out to be, but he was surely a sour, disappointed man. Part of the reason probably lies in the long shadow cast over his name by great-grandfather John Adams, second president of the United States, and grandfather John Quincy, our country’s sixth president; another part is the unexpected suicide, in 1885, of his wife, Marian Hooper; and the final part has to do with the large intellectual ambitions of The Education itself. Not since the days when the Puritan mind of Jonathan Edwards tried to reconcile determinism with free will has there been such a dazzling display of intellectual sophistication as there is in Adams’s Education. That the book concludes on a pessimistic note is hardly surprising, given his sense of the quickening pace that a technology-dominated society would exact on its citizens.
That was then, as they say, and this is now. One of my favorite writing assignments asks students to consider the following puzzler: "At the end of the nineteenth century Henry Adams fixed on the dynamo as the appropriate symbol/trope for the then new twentieth century. What do you imagine he might write with regard to the twenty-first century—that is, if he were still among us?" As you might imagine, responses ranged across a wide spectrum—from those who envisioned America as a utopian dream to those who figured that the planet wouldn’t survive the next century. Most, however, argued that the thumbnail-sized computer chip would replace the world of forty-foot dynamos. No doubt Mark Twain’s quip that nobody should be a pessimist before the age of forty, and that nobody should be an optimist thereafter, is part of the generational arithmetic (unconsciously) built into the assignment. Not surprisingly, I number myself among those who feel that our culture is speeding toward hell in the proverbial handbasket, but with these caveats: I do not imagine a golden age of television, or anything else; and I think that all the grim talk about an apocalyptic smash-up just around the corner is so much romanticism on the cheap.
What I am concerned about, however, is how the human spirit will fare in a world increasingly defined by the computer chip. This past winter, many people were worried about what would happen when the Y2K bug finally hit on January 1, 2000. Some had already established a foothold in the wilderness, laying up stores of dehydrated food, bottled water, and weapons. Others planned not to travel by airplane on that day, or on any that immediately followed. Still others figured that they’d just ride it out. After all, an event as hyped as Y2K usually turns out to be a disappointment, rather like the hurricane that does not hit or the much-ballyhooed Hollywood film that ends up a bust. What remains clear, at least at this post-Y2K point, is that the microchip remains ubiquitous: it browns our toast, turns our lights on and off, and is the guiding principle in our cars. No one can buy a house or deposit money in a bank without running into a computer chip somewhere along the line. Indeed, we are told, in terms that approach patriotic cant, that the computer is responsible for our nation’s very strong economy and for the "smart bombs" (talk about a contradiction in terms!) that have turned us into (selective) policemen of the world. To imagine our computers "down" and dysfunctional reminds me of nothing so much as those ex-Marxists who contributed to a collection entitled The God That Failed. Is it possible, I wonder, that romancing the chip might lead to a similar despair?
"Not so," I can imagine many muttering. The computer chip has made much possible, but as they used to say in vaudeville, "you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!" If a person is casting about for an equivalent to Adams’s dynamo, he or she need go no further than the Internet, the most powerful source of information the world has come up with thus far. One would have to be a curmudgeon of the first rank to toss cold water at the oceans of material that can be called up by a simple double-click of the mouse. Fortunately, there are any number of such curmudgeons in the house, including some who put the kibosh on the Internet’s ancestors. "I know too much already," detective maven Raymond Chandler once observed, and he went on to make this startling assertion: "I would be happier knowing less." Eyeballing these words, Joseph Epstein, a cultural scold of the first water, could hardly contain his enthusiastic agreement: "We read certain writers for those moments when they tell us what in our hearts we already know, but for one reason or another, haven’t managed to formulate for ourselves. This was such a moment for me." It is also high praise of the sort that Epstein parcels out very sparingly.
At issue is information overload, a phenomenon that poor Chandler, pecking away on his typewriter, only felt in its intimations. He did not live long enough to see the full blossoming of search engines and databases. Nonetheless, even in his day people were drowning in too many books, too many magazines, too many claims on our limited time and attention spans. Rather like a person held captive at a party by a distraught friend all too willing to share the intimate details of his or her impending divorce, I often think that what the information highway most needs is a rest stop. Do I really need to pop into every chat room with available seating or check up on the latest tell-all book being peddled by Amazon.com? Whatever happened, I wonder, to the leisurely conversations of yesterday, the ones conducted everywhere from Greenwich Village espresso bars to old-fashioned suburban coffee klatches? Gone (some would say "sacrificed") into the mighty maw of the Internet. Today, urban coffee shops on the cutting edge boast that they are fully wired and that patrons can slurp down lattes as they surf the Net.
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, nothing if you happen to figure that human connections aren’t worth a fig and that what matters is a blinking, never satisfied cursor. Adams rightly worried that the dynamo would lead to dehumanization, but even he wasn’t prescient enough to realize how machine-like we would become. Here, one can distinguish between those in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s who took a certain pleasure in announcing that they were "alienated" and the way that subsequent generations passively accepted their dehumanized state. Let me be more specific about this. I have always been affected by a single line from Saul Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944). Describing a typical Chicago landscape, his protagonist suddenly pulls away from his exercise in realism to ask the following question: "What in all this speaks for man?" One might argue, as several critics in fact have, that the central project in Bellow’s work is the care and feeding of the soul. He uses this loaded word without apology or embarrassment, for it is the (often troubled) soul that makes us fully human. Is that enough to put Bellow in the same camp as the Mont-Saint-Michel-loving Adams? I suspect not, because Bellow has a grittier, more existential sense of what matters in our human contract, and because he is not likely to give himself over to the curious theology that pulses just beneath Adams’s ruminations. Still, reverence of a sort factors in to what turned both men into important writers.
At this point, I find myself on the slippery slope that leads to gloomy thoughts those of a certain age call "the end of civilization as we have known it." Perhaps it is better, wiser if you will, to remember what Amory Blaine, the protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920), said about time in the newly forming modern world: "Modern life. . .no longer changes century by century, but year by year, ten times faster than it ever has before—populations doubling, civilizations unified more closely with other civilizations, economic independence, racial questions, and—we’re dawdling along. My idea is that we’ve got to go very much faster." Granted, we do not continue to read Fitzgerald’s novel for its penetrating analyses of socialism or its "ideas" in general, but rather for its uncanny way of putting a finger squarely on the pulse of modern times.
Whatever stability was associated with a generation of out-of-it Victorian parents had been forever shattered by the destabilizing effects of World War I. As such, Fitzgerald spoke for "a new generation. . .grown to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken." To be sure, this is the stuff of which romantic postures were then constructed (Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald’s Princeton classmate, famously called them "gestures of an indefinite revolt"), but if Amory Blaine is dead wrong about nearly everything—and never more so than in his final line about "knowing himself"—he is dead right about the way that years in the modern world seem to race ahead more quickly than do centuries.
Adams understood that timelessness was inextricably connected with the Virgin’s power and that the dynamo offered up quite another emblem of force—mechanistic and ultimately masculine. "An American Virgin," Adams proclaimed, without his usual self-deprecating ironies, "could never dare command; an American Venus would never dare exist." Adams felt this because, for better or worse, America retains elements of a Puritan sensibility, not only in its no-nonsense assumptions about "educational toys" (an oxymoron of the first water), but also in the heated debates that revolve around pornography. Here, the Monica Lewinsky affair can stand as Exhibit A. Pundits divided themselves between those who deplored the feeding frenzy that led to an impeachment hearing and those who gleefully participated in it. Roughly the same thing might be said of the American citizenry as a whole: even those who did not number themselves in Geraldo Rivera’s nighttime TV audience could not escape the video footage of Ms. Lewinsky hugging a president who, later, denied categorically that he had ever had sex with "that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." At stake were the rights of privacy and the obligations of character, a sense that morality still mattered or that what consenting adults did was nobody else’s business. That positions pro and con soon took on a heavy political coloration was as sad as it was predictable.
We are still reckoning the costs of this sordid, unseemly mess. Surely one of them will be the realization that there is often less than a dime’s worth of difference between (formerly) responsible journalists and tabloid rumor-mongers. Another, potentially more serious result is that we will (at last) be forced to confront sexuality in ways that go well beyond the pragmatic lobbying of feminists or the juvenile attitudes of those males who associate fast cars with the female body. It is high time that, as a nation, we grew up—but that is not quite the same thing as saying I agree with those European journalists who pointed out that presidential mistresses are taken for granted in sophisticated countries such as France, Italy, and Greece. Only in America could there be such hand-wringing and finger-pointing about behavior that every schoolchild in Europe understands as commonplace.
Adams, I hasten to point out, took an entirely different tack on America’s wide, prudish streak. It was, for him, evidence of a refusal to take the sheer power of sex into consideration, to transform it from inert idea to abiding presence:
The dynamo was, thus, the perfect American symbol, a way of giving to force an inhuman, altogether mechanistic face. Its orgasms were belches of steam or smoke, wheels turning ever faster, and at the end what it produced in great abundance was the very power that an Industrial Revolution requires. As for history, it was, in the words of assembly line maven Henry Ford, so much "bunk," something that Europe had far too much of, and that America could do well enough without.
The coming attractions that the Internet promises are part of the same "faster is better" mentality that has always been our country’s blessing and its curse. Computers, I am told, are out of date at approximately the same moment they leave their respective packing cartons. Indeed, one often gets the uneasy sense that bells-and-whistles currently on display are destined to be replaced, and in the blink of an eye, by even snazzier bells and whistles. What matters most, of course, is speed, a phenomenon that science writer James Gleick explores in his latest book entitled, appropriately enough, Faster. Gleick’s book is a fountain of "factoids" out to make the point that our culture is moving along at warp speed. But from my vantage point on the far right lane, the real race seems to be between the various causes of heart-stopping stress and the pills one can pop to keep anxiety under control.
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois confidently asserts that "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." His prophecy (sadly enough), turned out to be true, and, sadder still, some would argue that the problem Du Bois spoke about in the early years of his century will continue well into the next one, if not beyond it. But a problem, however (seemingly) intractable, is not the same thing as the problem; and it is here that I am forced to disagree not only with Du Bois, but also with Adams. Why so? Because there are any number of other, equally worthy candidates for the dubious honor of defining the twentieth century: totalitarianism, environmental suicide, the atomic bomb, gas chambers, and ethnic cleansing. Even this expanded list will surely not please everyone, nor was it meant to. My point is simply that things have grown too complicated for prophets of the Adams-Du Bois sort; and that this realization comes with the territory of our new century.
There was a time, Norman Podhoretz points out in the opening pages of Making It (1967), when sex was "the dirty little secret" of proper late-Victorians. The memorable phrase belongs to D. H. Lawrence, and small wonder that he came to feel it necessary to smash the artificial walls of social convention if candor were at last to speak. Adams suggests much the same thing when he takes American culture to task for its puritanical fear of sex and of the force that women represent in the potent emblem of the Virgin. Nowhere was this conflict between the Self and Society more pronounced than in the life-choking silence both writers felt had long surrounded sex. Lawrence’s unflinching modernism was a recipe for what he regarded as a healthy sexual liberation.
In 1967, the year Making It was published, Podhoretz used the book to admit, or confess, that "success" was the dirty little secret of his day: on the face of it, nothing seems simpler than the notion that it would be better to be a success than a failure and better to be rich than to be poor. But at one time in the America of the last century, if you happened (or aspired) to be an intellectual or a writer, living above the poverty line was a sure-fire mark of the philistine, and too much success placed you squarely in the camp of the bourgeoisie.
Today most writers, with certain notable exceptions (one thinks of reclusives such as J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon), grit their teeth and develop good manners when on a book tour, and most intellectuals are only too happy to chat about ideas on Nightline or The Charlie Rose Show. No doubt those who shake their heads at such behavior still regard SUCCESS as the "bitch goddess" William James thought it was, but they are in a tiny minority, one usually dismissed as green with jealousy.
Success, in short, is no longer the dirty little secret that Podhoretz once set out to expose. The question, then, is this: Is there another dirty little secret for our time? When a student put this poser before me—and smack in the middle of a class on Making It—I was rather taken aback. My first inclination (which I kept to myself as I pleaded for a professorial "extension") was to say "no"—because we are so awash in tell-all confessions, between hard covers and on daytime television, that I have a difficult time imagining if anything, anything at all, could now be considered "tasteless." Indeed, tastelessness threatens to become our taste. Henry David Thoreau once argued that the mass of people live "lives of quiet desperation." My hunch is that "quiet" will hardly do in a culture that grows ever-noisier about its complaints.
However, subsequent ponderings about our age’s dirty little secret—or lack thereof—took me in a rather surprising direction. If the litmus test of a dirty little secret is that one is afraid to give public voice to private feeling, then it just may be that the dirty little secret of our time is that we miss God. The Death of Satan (1995), Andrew Delbanco’s estimable study of how Evil no longer packs the power it once did, chronicles the decline and fall of Satan as a potent emblem of sinfulness. I would argue the other side of his coin by suggesting that missing God is a by-product of a culture that prefers to explain evil away rather than to confront it directly. For example, there are enough scholarly "explanations" of Hitler for journalist Ron Rosenbaum to write a thick book on the subject. Evidently, to know about Hitler’s (abused) childhood is enough to excuse his adult behavior. Nor does the drift toward relativism end there: at the end of the day many trendy intellectuals are no longer able to distinguish good from evil, the noble from the base, or truth from falsehood. What matters much more, indeed, what will place you nicely on the cutting edge, is a conviction that authority of any sort must be deconstructed—including, of course, God’s.
The dirty little secret, then, is that many intellectuals and writers know better, but are afraid to come clean—and small wonder because to speak about missing God is not only to risk being lumped with religious fundamentalists on the far right but also to earn the censure, if not the contempt, of those who roll their eyeballs whenever public intellectuals speak too glibly about God. After all, missing God implies that people once had a defining relationship with the Deity, and that the secular rhythms of the twentieth century have whittled it away. No one, including me, can "prove" that this is the case, but one has intimations, hunches, if you will, that much in our culture lacks a spiritual anchor. Such inchoate feelings fly in the face of those much longer certainties. They will tell you, for example, that our real problem has nothing to do with God and everything to do with replacing the old, bad social constructions with new and improved ones. The result is that those in the spiritually ambivalent middle learn to keep their silence in the face of everything that coarsens the cultural atmosphere and drastically lowers the human bar.
It would be easy, indeed, too easy, to end this piece, as Adams did his, on a sour note. Granted, prophets of doom have a way of being right while those who see a rosy future are usually wrong. But this is an occasion when the words of my grandfather seem particularly appropriate. He would ask me if I knew how to make God laugh. I would think about his strange question until my eight-year-old head hurt. But nothing came to mind. Satisfied that he had my attention, he unloaded the answer: "Tell Him your plans!" This struck him as very funny, although the eight-year-old me ended up just as perplexed as I had been before. Only much later did I realize that we live on one time continuum and God on another. A delayed reaction (in my case, some fifty years) is often the benchmark of the best Yiddish quips. Despite the brouhaha that turning the millennial calendar kicked up in the Christian (and, yes, non-Christian) world, my hunch is that life will go on pretty much as it has in the months and years before 2000. Granted, there will be new occasions for debate—about genetic engineering, the social consequences of people living well beyond one hundred, and the exploration of outer space—but it is also true that the fundamental questions of why and how we live, and why and how we suffer, will abide, just as the earth and the heavens abide.
For Adams, what mattered was the source of power. He could no more turn the clock back to ages that looked to the Virgin than he could stop the progress represented by the dynamo. We are, I suspect, in something of the same boat. Indeed, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to quote him once again, ended The Great Gatsby with an image of our collective American fate as boats beating against the current, "borne ceaselessly into the past." But will this trope prove true as we speed through the twenty-first century? I suspect not, even as I am sure that Americans will continue to wrestle with the purity of Gatsby’s deluded dream so long as serious stories of our national consciousness survive. I say this because our new century is likely to be one in which power belongs to a new generation of dynamos—smaller, faster, and more efficient than Adams could envision. They will pump out information for the same reason that efforts to clone human beings will continue—namely, because they can. Social disapproval, even stringent laws, will prove no match for the curious scientist/technocrat working away in a secret laboratory. He or she will speak to the ahistorical values deeply imbedded in the American consciousness, where fully understanding the Virgin’s force never had a chance. And as with much that we count as "progress," the capacity to create will be coupled with an equal ability to kill. If our last century was one of nightmare, it is possible that the new one will force us to reevaluate the term as a new landscape of nightmare emerges.