Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The American Soul

Life is but life, and death but death!
Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath!
And if, indeed, I fail, At least to know the worst is sweet.
Defeat means nothing but defeat, No drearier can prevail!
Emily Dickinson, "Rouge Gagne"

The only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history. One must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles that tend to liberate and enlarge him. This categorical imperative is in no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error; it is a worse error merely to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity. This conviction has brought me, as it has brought others, to a somewhat unusual destiny. But we were, and still are, in line with the development of history, and it is now obvious that, during an entire epoch, millions of individual destinies will follow the paths along which we were the first to travel. In Europe, in Asia, in America, whole generations are in upheaval, are ... [learning] that the egoism of "every man for himself" is finished, that private enrichment is no fit aim for life, that yesterday's conservatisms lead to nothing but catastrophe, and sensing the necessity for a fresh outlook tending towards the reorganization of the world. - Victor Serge*, Memoirs
Who are we, as a people? It would seem this question, which should have been settled long ago, still demands an answer. In a review of Morris Berman's Why America Failed, after rehashing some well-worn statistics on American idiocy, laziness, profligacy, and short-sightedness, George Scialabba writes:
Contemplating these dreary statistics, one might well conclude that the United States is, to a distressing extent, a nation of violent, intolerant, ignorant, superstitious, apathetic, shallow, boorish, selfish, unhealthy, unhappy people, addicted to flickering screens, incurious about other societies and cultures, unwilling or unable to assert or even comprehend their nominal political sovereignty. Or, more simply, that America is a failure.
What will become of us? After Rome's fall, wolves wandered through the cities and Europe largely went to sleep for six centuries. That will not happen again; too many transitions - demographic, ecological, technological, cybernetic - have intervened. The planet's metabolism has altered. The new Dark Ages will be socially, politically, and spiritually dark, but the economic Moloch - mass production and consumption, destructive growth, instrumental rationality - will not disappear. Few Americans want it to. We are hollow, Berman concludes. It is a devastatingly plausible conclusion.
An interval - long or short, only the gods can say - of oligarchic, intensely surveilled, bread-and-circuses authoritarianism, Blade Runner- or Fahrenheit 451-style, seems the most likely outlook for the 21st and 22nd centuries. Still, if most humans are shallow and conformist, some are not. There is reason to hope that the ever-fragile but somehow perennial traditions and virtues of solidarity, curiosity, self-reliance, courtesy, voluntary simplicity, and an instinct for beauty will survive, even if underground for long periods. And cultural rebirths do occur, or at any rate have occurred.
Berman offers little comfort, but he does note a possible role for those who perceive the inevitability of our civilization's decline. He calls it the "monastic option." Our eclipse may, after all, not be permanent; and meanwhile individuals and small groups may preserve the best of our culture by living against the grain, within the interstices, by "creating 'zones of intelligence' in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping them out of the public eye." Even if one's ideals ultimately perish, this may be the best way to live while they are dying.
In the midst of the gloom, then, Berman offers the cold comfort to those like Scialabba who see themselves as willing and able to carry forward the candle of Enlightenment as darkness descends around our benighted, becalmed, and besotted fellows. Few, indeed, are those who might be willing to admit they see themselves as those who, seeing the coming collapse so clearly, might yet do nothing to avoid it, but perhaps carry a spark that might start a rebirth. Sometime.

How different is this from Whitman's survey of America. First, his prescription, from "Democratic Vistas":
America . . . must, for her purposes, cease to recognize a theory of character grown of feudal aristocracies, or form'd by merely literary standards, or from any ultramarine, full-dress formulas of culture, polish, case, &c., and must sternly promulgate her own new standard, yet old enough, and accepting the old, the perennial elements, and combining them into groups, unities, appropriate to the modern, the democratic, the west, and to the practical occasions and needs of our own cities and agricultural regions. Ever the most precious in the common.
Now, a description:
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine.
One of the great nation, the nation of many nations - the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable,
A Yankee bound my own way . . . ready for trade . . . my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings,
A boatman over the lakes or bays or along coasts . . . a Hoosier, a Badger, a Buckeye,
A Louisianian or Georgian, poke-easy from sandhills and pines,
At home on Canadian snowshoes or up in the bush, or wth the fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of iceboats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians . . . . comrade of free northwesterners, loving their big proportions,
Comrade of draftsmen and coalmen - comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat;
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfulest,
A novice beginning experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion,
Not merely of the New World but of Africa Europe or Asia . . . a wandering savage,
When Ralph Waldo Emerson read Leaves of Grass, he wrote to Whitman, in part:
I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.
Whitman understood himself not just as a poet for America; he was not content to be a poet of America. Leaves of Grass, for all its faults, is nothing more or less than Whitman speaking as America, of America, to America. Never once truckling, never once ignoring the coming near-Apocalypse, never once hiding behind the careless platitude, Whitman offered to us a picture of ourselves, strong in our diversity, alive in our struggle to make the democratic dream real. He celebrates the sensual, earthy realism of American life, a sensuality and earthiness that cares little for the refinements of the moralizers, but rather sees in that very amorality a special American morality that celebrates life.

In "Democratic Vistas", Whitman made his clarion call for an American literature worthy of the nation that nurtured it. Even more than our politics or commerce, it would be in the creation of a singular aesthetic that the American promise would find itself fulfilled. Oddly enough, the greatest of our literati were even then in the process of doing their best works. Emerson's essays, Twain's novels, and Whitman himself in and through his poetry were creating an American literary canon that the next century might meet on occasion, but certainly never surpass. The bar they set is, thankfully, quite high.

So, too, their vision of our country and its people. Few would call either Emerson of Clemens boundless lovers of humanity. All the same, they along with Whitman couldn't help but celebrate "the precious in the most common".  Many 20th century artists, such as Steinbeck and Barth and Ellison and O'Connor and Dylan continued in this tradition.  They speak for us when they name our  failings precisely so we can overcome them.  Never perfectly, of course, but all the more amazing for that very reason

More recently, alas, our writers have succumbed to the self-congratulatory pseudo-smugness of Morris Berman, fiddling while Rome burns. Jonathan Franzen epitomizes the narcissistic American, not shedding a tear as things crumble around us. In his novels and essays, Franzen makes clear the contempt with which he holds not only his fellow Americans, but women, minorities, and even members of his own family. In Franzen's eyes, the world that exists to serve him well has, by and large done so. He only wants to make clear who has failed in that regard: his mother and father, for instance; women who are just too pretty to write well or be taken seriously; those who fail to recognize the tiny patch of civilization he has scraped from the rubble.

It has been far too easy, I think, to surrender to the barrage that insists we are lazy, purblind ignoramuses who, perhaps, deserve the fate that even now is settling around us (please note that the title of Berman's book is in the past tense; we are perhaps too stupid to recognize even this reality).  A nation whose self-confidence, not to mention perhaps self-indulgence, was so recently shattered by the devastating terrorist attacks, two subsequent wars, two economic downturns in a decade, and the evident inability of our public institutions to cope with or correct our current flaccid state of affairs might indeed surrender to those voices who insist the end may yet be near.  Whether that end be in the neo-fascism of corporate oligarchy overpowering populist democracy or multicultural political correctness overpowering the natural state of white rule, or some other dystopian vision, we all fear we might well already have arrived at the bottom, from which we cannot extricate ourselves.

The late American pragmatist Richard Rorty, very much Whitmanesque in his invocation of American identity as something unique even while it recognizes its debts to an older world, says of the American experiment:
[M]aybe we should just . . . concede that democratic societies do not embody anything, and cannot be reassured by anything, larger than themselves (e.g., by “rationality”). Such societies should not aim at the creation of a new breed of human being, or at anything less banal than evening out people’s chances of getting a little pleasure out of their lives. This means that citizens of those societies who have a taste for sublimity will have to pursue it in their own time, and within the limits set by [John Stuart Mill's] “On Liberty”. But such opportunities might be quite enough.

I think it should be obvious that I do not believe we have, yet, failed.  I do not think it inevitable.  I also do not think we shall right ourselves without some effort, however.  We should be brave enough, first of all, to recognize our current state of affairs and call it what it is - perilous, indeed.  I hitch my wagon to Whitman's horse precisely because, in writing and singing the first and best American tune, he tells us not so much who we wish we could be so much as who we are.  We need not be exemplary to be excellent; we need not be perfect to be good; we need not be extraordinary to be courageous.  Precisely in our living, not merely our surviving, we are already, excellent enough and good enough and courageous enough to do what needs to be done.  We have no need either to justify ourselves to ourselves or anyone else or found ourselves upon the no doubt high and lofty ideas of others.  America is sufficient unto itself; for this reason, I shall grasp Whitman's hand as we move forward, confident he has seen the true American soul and, not fearing the shadow side of life that rests uneasily in our national sense of ourselves, bids us move onward.

*I owe to Scott McLemee my introduction to the life and thought of Victor Serge. Scott gave a lecture on Serge at last year's International Socialist Conference in Chicago which I was privileged to attend. For all his dedication to revolutionary praxis, as this quote makes clear, Serge was animated by a kind of compassion, a deep love for suffering humanity, that overshadows what one might fear would be dull, ideological cant.

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