Saturday, October 16, 2010

HENRY ADAMS AND US


I want to take a quick break from Saul Alinsky; but I don’t want to wander off too far afield.

It’s taken a while to get to Henry Adams’s 1905 book “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres” (not published until 1933). But I’ve been reading it and it strikes me that Adams is an interesting counterpoint, not just to Alinsky but to an entire dynamic that’s taken Us to where it has these days.

Adams was the kind of soul that saw the darknesses in things. He lived in America – a scion of the famous Adams family of Revolutionary and presidential fame . He was, in Alinsky’s classification, a Have: economically he never had to worry about money.

But he was not a ‘Have’ in the sense that he enjoyed the company of the ‘establishment’ – political, financial, or social – of his day. He watched America morph around him in the immediate post-civil war era; from the antebellum America that still retained a strong resemblance to the America of the Framers. But then he saw the development of the corporations that accompanied the waging of the Civil War – described by one participant as ‘the age of shoddy’ for the profiteering and cheap, shoddy supplies that some businesses provided to the troops in fulfillment of their Army contracts (Union troops in the field found themselves with new uniforms that came apart in the rain because paper-like materials were blended into the fabric to maximize profits, and new boots that came apart after only a few miles of marching).

He saw the traditional American exuberance and – let’s face it – thoughtlessness in the face of the stupendous natural abundance of the country channeled into the making of profits, even as large numbers of Americans left farms to come to the cities for employment in factories and offices, joined by numbers of immigrants after 1880 who were needed to provide sufficient labor in the factories. *

 Adams saw the culture as well as the society changing all around him, and not – he felt – for the better.

But in those days, the country was rich in both productivity and material potential. The agrarian Republic was becoming – had rapidly become – an industrial, producing Republic, urban and a melting-pot of all sorts of folks from many backgrounds, all of whom had ‘come to America’ (though a surprising number, not often noted, then went ‘back’ after realizing that the streets were not paved with gold for just anybody to pick up and enjoy).

The country began to realize (after the shocking Depression of 1893) that industrial capitalism was a creature of ferocious moods and unpredictable performance, and that the solution was – had to be – a wide and utterly reliable access to ‘markets’ around the world. It started to reach out – through guile and outright military adventure – South into Central and South America, and across the Pacific to Hawaii. This iron rule of markets helped McKinley move the country into the ‘expansive’ phase of its history (although the Indians would have said the country has been in an expansive phase since the first English colonists got here in the 1600s and the Spaniards perhaps, a century before that.

Under the remarkably adroit war that was arranged with Spain, McKinley let Teddy Roosevelt go charging around to free Cuba, while ‘the real men’ went to the Philippines, with 10,000 troops – the largest American force ever sent overseas up to that time. In a hell-hot irony – from Our perspective nowadays – they were expected as ‘liberators’ by the residents of that island group, but came as occupiers, plain and simple. But the islands made a perfect base for conducting commercial enterprises in the fabled – or excitedly imagined – ‘market’ of China, while also providing the western end of a daisy-chain of ‘coaling stations’ and naval bases that stretched from the US West Coast, through Hawaii (the deposing of whose last queen had been arranged by the sugar interests), and on until you reached the Philippines.

The whole thing struck Adams as a subversion of the American Ideal as envisioned in 1776 and 1787, and it added yet another frothy layer to the dark gurgling brew that included industrial corporatism, urban complexities of shocking proportions, and concentrations of wealth never seen in any democracy before.

All that change, and the possibility – perhaps probability – of a whole lotta baaad stuff, made Adams profoundly uneasy.

Given his temperament and social position, he turned to Europe. But not the even more shockingly industrialized and urbanized Europe of the late Victorian era, but an earlier Europe – the Medieval Europe of the 12 to the 13th centuries. There was something in that civilization that Adams sensed was hugely valuable and worthwhile, and through the Renaissance and the birth of the Modern Age (that started about 1600 or so) that tremendously valuable something had been fading. He thought it was a great loss, and worried that nothing of equal worth and value had replaced it, and that the development of the corporatist industrial nations of his own era were surely not going to improve matters.

I want to quote a passage from his book and then say a few things.

Looking at the ancient abbey-complex built on the slopes and the crest of a small island just off the Atlantic coast of France (reachable by causeway, or by walking if the tide was out), he studied the many-layered architecture that successive generations had built there since before 1100 AD.

I won’t go into the architectural commentary he provides at great and competent length.

But in the final paragraphs of that chapter, he says this:

“The whole Mount still kept the grand style; it expressed the unity of Church and State, God and Man, Peace and War, Life and Death, Good and Bad; it solved the whole problem of the universe. The priest and the soldier were both at home here, in 1215 as in 1115 or in 1058; the politician was not outside of it; the sinner was welcome; the poet was made happy in his own spirit, with a sympathy, almost an affection, that suggests a habit of verse in the Abbot as well as in the architect. God reconciles all. The world is an evident, obvious, sacred harmony. Even the discord of war is a detail on which the Abbey refuses to insist. Not till two centuries afterwards did the Mount take on the modern expression of war as a discord in God’s providence. Then, in the early years of the fifteenth century, Abbot Pierre le Roy plastered the gate of the chatelet, as you now see it, over the sunny thirteenth-century entrance called Belle Chaisse, which had treated mere military construction with a sort of quiet contempt. You will know what a chatelet is when you meet another; it frowns in a spirit quite alien to the twelfth century; it jars on the religion of the place; it forebodes the wars of religion; the dissolution of society; loss of unity; the end of a world. Nothing is sadder than the catastrophe of Gothic art, religion, and hope. One looks back on it all as a picture, a symbol of unity; an assertion of God and Man in a bolder, stronger, closer union than ever was expressed by other art; and when the idea is absorbed, accepted, and perhaps partially understood, one may move on.” (p.50, or the last page of Chapter III).

A couple of thoughts come to me.

First, I am not trying to suggest that We need to get back to the Medieval Synthesis or the society of the Medieval era. It is a profound bankruptcy of civic competence and imagination, a trahison to Our responsibilities as Citizen-Stewards of the American Vision, to merely look back at some fancied ‘better’ time and thereby escape Our responsibilities in the Present and to the Present.

What I AM trying to do is to put before you – as a Citizen – the vision that Adams saw, so that you might make of it what you will, and perhaps it will help you as you try to develop a picture of where the country has gone and where it should go, what Shape it should take as well as what Course it should generally pursue.

There was back then not simply a Vision but a Sense – in the largest, deepest, highest meaning of that word – that somehow Life Has A Meaning, that Life Makes Sense. That the great actualities of human existence – Life and Death, religion and government, people of different views and life experiences – somehow connected one with the other, held together.

And in so doing, provided a Web or Net of Meaning. You weren’t alone in a meaningless booming, buzzing confusion (let alone in Alinsky’s ‘permanent civic-war’ or Post-Modernism’s Flat world where no Big Picture is even possible and everything is broken up into dirty fractals, sharp-edged and glittering with spiky troubles and danger).

Sinners were welcome – and, since it was for them back then firmly established that EVERYbody was a sinner when you got right down to it – then this was a deeply inclusive welcome indeed, reaching throughout the entire society that depended on both the wider world and the Higher world for support. Conducting a human life in this Vale of Troubles – let’s face it – is not something you can do on your own.

Nor is it something you can expect a government to competently and completely handle. Because the Mont insisted that Spirit and Soul and Belief had to be strong, as strong as the society could make it. And that’s not something governments and sovereignties can do. Indeed, the King and the nobles came to pray along with their subjects and their peasants and villagers.

The entire society was under judgment, rules and ruled together.

But if under judgment, under the shelter of a Presence as well. Not an alien Presence, but rather a Presence that had precisely called the people and their society and their culture forth from a prior chaos, and Shaped it into a Trellis that offered a support and a dynamic strength that transcended any flames of motivation that could be fueled merely by the things of this dimension.

And actually, there were not simply chapels where you could formally exercise your relationship to the Beyond, as an individual and as a community, but there was also a pons seclorum, a Bridge of the Ages, over which, it was believed (and perhaps sensed) that the dead passed back over in spirit to assist those still laboring in this demanding dimension of human history.

“God reconciles all.” Not in the sense that there will be no suffering; there is an incompleteness to this dimension, a lack of perfect fullness, and complications seep quickly into the vacuum. But in the sense that no suffering is Ultimate, no matter what pain it inflicts. Death had lost its Ultimate Authority – and not even the Greeks, with their shadowy Underworld of dysphoric, aimless, disembodied spirits condemned to an eternity of hopeless existence as a ‘shade’, could claim to have accomplished THAT.

Although – and it was taken as Good News indeed – humans hadn’t actually accomplished it either: it was Given to them as a Gift; they had only to use it well. And there was Help as well for that task of making good use of that Gift.

The Help wasn’t so much centered in the Mont like some pagan deity was centered in its statue, set up in a temple or a sacred grove. But even if you couldn’t read, or couldn’t organize yourself enough to focus, you could come here and see your own life connected to Everything, and well. And you could sense the Presence that perhaps the heat and dust of your day and your ‘day-to-life blocked out like some sad small lonely planet’s dense cover of cloud blotted out much of its sun.

The Mont reminded you, in literally rock-solid terms, that there is a Trellis that simultaneously Shapes and Energizes, that frees you from the death-in-life of Meaninglessness. Such a ‘freedom’ cannot be endowed by any earthly power because it flows out from Beyond the grasp of any earthly power. And in those days, the earthly power knew it.

Even war would be reconciled in God’s Plan. You didn’t know how, but then you weren’t God.

Nothing was perfect – far from it – but somehow it made Sense. More, it was Held Together – and Who did that Holding was a lot more reliable than the average run of the mill human or some mysterious magical force.

But as the world got shinier, human beings – at least the shiny ones – fell into the baby’s eternal trap and figured that if it was shiny and they were shiny, then that was all you needed to be happy. You and your shiny – nothing else was necessary.

It wasn’t that after the breaking of the Medieval synthesis there were wars or suffering as if there wasn’t violence and suffering before the break.

It’s that the Meaning – a dynamic Meaning that Accompanies, Supports, and Vitalizes across all the spectrums of human existence – is gone now.

And Meaninglessness – even when it is sheeps-clothed as some sort of ‘new’ Meaning – brings a darkness all its own, one that can hide in humans’ very refusal to see it.

But it happened. As Adams realized a century and more ago – and you have to “move on”.

But you should to the best of your ability get a least a partial grasp on what was lost.

So that you might have a better chance of figuring out how you might usefully salvage something for the Present.

I’ve been hard on Alinsky and I will continue to be. But the motivating perception of human suffering that fuels him is legitimate and decent, as was the motivating perception of Karl Marx. We live in a society where Wealth concentrates.

And the Modern Age wanted more room for humans to try to make things better, on a timetable shorter than God’s. And after a while, things seemed to be working so well that God came to appear as a Hypothesis for which there no longer existed a need.

And along with Himself went the Beyond, the overarching and under-arching sense of Meaning.

As Adams quotes the Archbishop Hildebert from the 11th century: “God is over all things, under all things, outside all, inside all, within but not enclosed, without but not excluded, above but not raised up, below but not depressed, wholly above presiding, wholly beneath sustaining, wholly without embracing, wholly within filling”. Or, as Gregory the Great had put it half a millennium before Hildebert: “sursum regens, deorsum continens” – reigning from above, sustaining from below. (p.320, second page of Chapter XIV)

And what has Modernity managed to put up to replace that? “Nothing outside the State, nothing against the State, nothing above the State” said Mussolini (and it’s not impossible that he was thinking of Hildebert and Gregory when he formulated his own pithy little theory – they got an education in those days, no matter how poorly they used it).

But Mussolini was a man of the Modern Era.

In the Postmodern Era (since 1970 or so) you can’t even accept the possibility that any Big Picture is possible. Any such Big Picture would be – shades of Alinsky and his Marxist-Leninist forebears – merely an illusion deployed by those with the defining social power against those who have no power or voice to define. God himself, back in the Medieval day, was just another illusion designed and deployed to distract people from the extortion being wrought upon them.

But human beings without a Big Picture … they don’t do so well, over the long haul. What the Medieval era – the Medieval Synthesis, as it is called – offered human beings was a coherent Narrative of their lives that was at the same time SUFFICIENTLY COMPREHENSIVE to offer Meaning that covered ALL the dimensions of human existence.

And this is something the Modern Era never could do and most surely the Postmodern Era cannot do (it refuses to accept the possibility of any Big Picture at all, as it also refuses to accept any possibility for a politics except the fractious fractals of Identity Politics).

Since the Medieval Synthesis (and I am not proposing to return to the Middle Ages either in actuality or in some sentimental nostalgic phantasmagoria) no philosophy or theology has managed to do that. In order to make more room for ‘Man’ (not meant in a genderist way) the Modern Era had to engage in a zero-sum wresting of Power (including the Power of Narrative) from ‘religion’. But rather than that being simply a power struggle between one and another earthly institution (the Church on one side, and Man and his States and works on the other) the entire Beyond or Higher dimension of existence had to go.

Which Flattened the human ‘world’.

And tried to Flatten humans themselves. But THAT didn’t work because it never could work: there is a stubborn awareness of the Beyond in humans. Marx – and he wasn’t the first – tried to explain this away as some sort of ‘opiate’ effect imposed on people or that people were ‘weak’ enough to induce themselves. Or perhaps the Beyond was – as Dickens put it in the mouth of Scrooge confronted by Marley’s Ghost – “an undigested bit of beef”.

For centuries, with not only the conductor (religion, and in the West the Church, grandsire of all Western religion) gone but even with the Composer tossed out of the hall, various instruments or groups of instruments in kaleidoscopic combinations tried to play the Symphony according to their own interpretations. The result for the Symphony have not been good, and in Postmodernism you see the whole thing taken to the absurdity of orchestral players now wishing to be listened to as they play, though they refuse to accept that there can be any Symphony – let alone Composer – at all.

In the United States, Alinsky – as one example I’ve been considering in Posts recently – tried to provide a Narrative of Meaning by reducing all human meaning and purpose to the eternal war of Haves against Have-Nots. This results in a Hobbesian world (and politics) of civic-war against “the status-quo”, whatever it may be.

Interestingly, Jean Courthoys, noted European feminist thinker, in her brave and intelligent effort** to discern the rhyme and reason and purpose and meaning of feminism, admits that the greatest moral value she can find in the formal movement of Feminism in the West is that it provides a shining example of a group willing to “challenge the status-quo”, echoing – and I doubt it’s a coincidence – Alinsky from 1971, whose Vision (such as it is) and Approach (ditto) was a strong influence on the ‘thinkers’ of the Movement in its early days.

But to simply claim that you are going to oppose and oppose and oppose whatever is established is hardly sufficient to ground the desperate and profound need for Meaning in any human life (male or female). Indeed, a psychological assessment of an individual whose basic life-plan is to ‘oppose everything that’s established’ might well be Oppositional Disorder.

You cannot sustain a culture or a civilization or a society on such a basis. And I assert that NOT because ‘it is written’ that you have to have a god or a God or a Beyond, but rather because human beings dwell in more than one dimension or plane of existence and to cut them off from any but the this-worldly plane of existence is going hugely damage them. And, if you recall what happens if in playing with a dolphin you try to put your hand over its blow-hole (whence it breathes), it will agitate the human immensely and lethally.

Nor can it be enough to assert, as the Dems did in the early 1970s, that ‘religion’ is a ‘private’ matter and doesn’t belong in the ‘public’ sphere. This is a variation on the old schematic, going back to the early Western monarchs’ power-struggles with the Papacy in the later Dark Ages, that the Crown deals with people’s ‘bodies’ and the Church deals with their ‘souls’.

But Thomas Aquinas would have none of it. God works not simply on the individual soul but rather His Grace informs the entire human dimension – public and private, individual and social – and energizes it. It is not only artificial but grossly mistaken to imagine that the Beyond is limited to the ‘individual’ and the ‘soul’ and the ‘conscience’.

This was one of the deepest assumptions of the Protestant Reformation (in its more radical manifestations). That movement rightly realized the vital struggle that takes place in each individual soul, created by God and called by God. But the movement wrongly assumed that since this struggle within the individual human soul was so VITAL then it was the ONLY site and portal through which God’s Grace worked on the human plane of existence.

And THAT theological ‘map’ was – like so many other maps of the era – hugely insufficient to the vast reality that is the Beyond interacting with, intersecting with the human realm.

The bald fact remains, I am saying, that the Medieval Synthesis was and remains the most comprehensive and – I will also say – accurate map of the cosmos: of the several planes of existence, of which the one humans know as History and ‘the world’ and ‘life’ is but one … and not the primary or ultimate plane of existence either.

And I think further that Adams – who in the 1890s-1900s saw this against the backdrop of an America that was still on the ‘up-swing’, swelling still toward a large power and substance on this plane of existence - was drowned out by the excitements of that continuous prosperity and power. His realization could not compete against the vastly strong and attractive undertow of American ‘success’ and ‘power’ (which, neatly, were taken as God’s seal of approval on everything that America and Americans did).

But it’s not just a matter of ‘natural resources’; it’s a matter of how well a culture and society can metabolize those resources, and turn them to productive use.

America at this point – its society and culture as well as its productive ‘infrastructure’ capacity – is now … well, no longer on an up-swing.

And as the dust of the huge American brass band marching along, and the brassy brazen music of its marching, start to subside, I think that it will become clearer to Americans than perhaps ever before since the Founding itself, that there is more to life than what had previously been thought. As the Great American Parade starts to wind down, and the delirium and pleasure that all humans take in an entertaining diversion fades away with the music, there will arise a chilly sense that ‘reality’ is coming back now. The Parade was able to replace reality for a while, but that’s ending now.

I do not take this as necessarily a bad thing. I don’t – as I have said here – want to see folks retreat back into some new ‘parade’, a retreat into a ‘past’ that is now irretrievably gone (whether it is Adams’s Medieval Era or some earlier Era of American greatness***). You know how you’d feel if the day after or the week after the big 4th of July parade you run into somebody eagerly buzzing around on Main Street trying to tell every passer-by about the parade, as if in the constant, agitated, obsessive re-telling the parade could be kept alive to illuminate and give meaning to an otherwise empty life and self.

BUT I do fear that this is precisely what is going to happen here. And I think that American politics, desperately in need of ‘good news’, will settle for some form of National Greatness Remembering in order to mask – like pepper on the spoiled meats of a Renaissance feast – the essential rot.

It will be as great an ‘opiate’ as any religion. But unlike the Medieval Synthesis it will not be able to help because, most essentially, it is so fundamentally un-real, and perhaps even anti-real. So opposed to the real that is also, the human plane not being the Primary plane of existence, anti-Real.

The challenge that Henry Adams sought to offer to his times may yet find that its time has come.

We have a rendezvous with that destiny (and that Destiny). And We, even We here, must rise to the challenge. That challenge exists in no small part because it has been on Our watch – the generations of Americans now living – that so much has gone wrong and been done wrongly.

Making amends, as best may be done, will surely offer a more realistic and – I would suggest – Realistic source of Meaning than any effort at mass escapism through the cheering of increasingly tattered parades.

NOTES

*If you’re looking for a meaty read, yet a well-told story, I can recommend “Rebirth of a Nation: American 1877-1920” by Jackson Lears, now out in paperback, light to hold and less than $20.

**Her 1997 book is “Feminist Amnesia”.

***On the streets of his hometown, banners now advertise JFK’s winning of the Presidential election of 1960, now a long, long half-century ago. “Jack’s Back!!!” the ad-banners hopefully and shrilly proclaim, their half-prayer superimposed on a photo-image of him in that year. But Jack’s gone and his world and – for better or worse – his America as well. Were he not now otherwise preoccupied, no doubt little brother Teddy would be polishing up his ‘Dream’ speech to phone-in with ponderous portentousness at this and that civic commemoration-cum-election-rally. I find it more than interesting that in all his speeches, Teddy never put in plain words just what his platform always was: Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can be made to do for you.

And while We're on the subject, a news article reports today that there is much brouhaha in Berlin over an exhibit of German history that includes a photo of a young Hitler among the crowd cheering the Kaiser’s exhortation to war in 1914. It’s a sign of a great lack of Meaning when folks are so personally invested in a long-ago (and frakkulent) past. Their sense of Meaning in the Present and in their own lives (nobody alive now lived in those days of 1914) is insufficient to engage their emotions and their attention.

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