George Scialabba is a freelance book critic living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has published four collections of essays and reviews: What Are Intellectuals Good For? (2009), The Modern Predicament (2011), For the Republic (2013), and Low Dishonest Decades (2016). All are available from Amazon or from the publisher, Pressed Wafer, 375 Parkside Ave, Brooklyn NY 11226. His writing is archived at www.georgescialabba.net. This essay first appeared in Salmagundi Magazine.
I. Nietzsche taught us that our loftiest pronouncements on the most abstract, universal subjects are just as idiosyncratic, just as much the product of our individual temperament, metabolism, and earliest influences, as our most peculiar predilections, our most eccentric crotchets. So let me declare a prejudice.
Of my great-grandfather I know only that he was recruited from rural Sicily to work on constructing the Panama Canal, and died there of yellow fever. My grandfather was illiterate and worked as a laborer in a factory of the Hood Rubber Company. A few months before he was eligible to retire with a pension, he was fired for no reason; speaking no English, he had no recourse. My father had a high-school education, but because his childhood was shadowed by the Great Depression, he held on to a safe, undemanding civil service job for fifty years and saved every penny, much of it under his mattress. He lived on the same street throughout his adult life and never travelled outside New England. My mother’s background, opportunities, and outlook were equally restricted, in some ways more so.
In Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot wrote: “The primary channel of culture is the family; no man wholly escapes from the kind, or surpasses the degree, of culture which he has acquired from his early environment.” As far as I know, neither of my parents ever read a novel, saw a play, or heard a concert. Nevertheless, their son has two Ivy League degrees, has written books, and has seen the world, in person and at the movies. I spend hundreds of blissful hours each year listening, on splendid but inexpensive equipment, to splendid but inexpensive recordings of the complete works of Bach and Mozart. Durable, inexpensive paperbacks furnish my rooms and my life. Even across one generation, this seems like progress. When I imagine my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather, sunk in the immemorial poverty, ignorance, and humiliation of the Sicilian peasantry, the conclusion feels irresistible: I, at least, am the lucky beneficiary of two or three centuries of progress. And since the carbon footprint of classical music, great novels, independent film, and most of my other chief pleasures is fairly low, it seems like sustainable, universalizable progress.
Do I embody moral progress as well? That’s a harder case to make, but not impossible. Some astute and astringent judgments have been passed on the traditional morality of southern Italians. In The Golden Bowl, Prince Amerigo implores Fanny Assingham, who has brought him together with his rich but inexperienced fiancée Maggie Verver, to “keep him straight.”
“Oh, you deep old Italians!”
“There you are,” he returned. … “That’s the responsible note.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Of my real, honest fear of being ‘off’ some day, of being wrong, without knowing it. That’s what I shall always trust you for – to tell me when I am. No – with you people it’s a sense. We haven’t got it – not as you have.”
“I should be interested,” she presently remarked, “to see some sense you don’t possess.”
Well, he produced one on the spot.
“The moral, dear Mrs. Assingham. I mean, always, as you others consider it. I’ve of course something that in our poor dear backward old Rome sufficiently passes for it. But it’s no more like yours than the tortuous stone staircase – half-ruined into the bargain! – in some castle of our quattrocento is like the ‘lightning elevator’ in one of Mr. Verver’s fifteen-storey buildings. Your moral sense works by steam – it sends you up like a rocket. Ours is slow and steep and unlighted, with so many of the steps missing that – well, that it’s as short, in almost any case, to turn around and come down again.”
“Trusting,” Mrs. Assingham smiled, “to get up some other way?”
“Yes – or not to have to get up at all.”
Later in the twentieth century, in the sociological classic The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, Edward Banfield theorized the southern Italian ethos as “amoral familism.” This unhappy moral culture was defined by a narrow dedication to the interests of oneself and one’s immediate family and a thoroughgoing absence of intellectual or political integrity, disinterestedness, trust, solidarity, generosity, civic virtue, or professional pride, along with equal measures of cynicism about and servility toward all forms of authority. Robert Putnam also found amoral familism flourishing – if that’s the word – among southern Italians in his seminal book Making Democracy Work.
Amoral familism was certainly the prevailing ethos in my largely second-generation inner-city neighborhood. At college, ivied brick walls, timbered dining halls, and portraits of Puritan college fathers prepared me for a change; and in my sophomore year enlightenment arrived, full blast and double-barrelled: On Liberty and Middlemarch, between them a complete moral education. Mill’s noble purity and Eliot’s wise magnanimity had their inevitable effect. I will never be, like them, incapable of a pettiness, but I am a little less of an amoral familist than I would otherwise have been. Hardly perfection, but for one whose not very distant ancestor was very likely, in the words of another Henry James character, “a squalid, savage-looking peasant, a tattered ruffian of orthodox Italian aspect,” undoubtedly progress. And again, in principle at least (notwithstanding the ivied walls), universally achievable.
This two-century trajectory, from squalor to modest comfort, from ruffian to harmless schlub, doubtless predisposes me to see the slope of history tending upward. So does another accident of biography: deliverance from l’infame. I grew up devout and was recruited as a high-school student into Opus Dei, a Catholic lay order of the strictest Counter-Reformation traditionalism and authoritarianism. Majoring in modern European intellectual history was awkward, since much of modern European literature and philosophy was on the Index of Forbidden Books and therefore proscribed. Unwisely, however, the Church failed to forbid everything. Even more unwisely, the order tried to teach its members the elements of Scholastic philosophy, which I found extremely unconvincing. I suppressed my doubts for a long while, out of conscience and natural timidity. I confided them to my confessor, of course, who at first urged prayer and mortification of the flesh. Eventually, after consulting his superiors, he ordered a sacrificium intellectus: I must leave intellectual history alone, on peril of sin and perhaps damnation. This was a serious matter: I was terrified of Hell, and moreover, my confessor very much resembled my mental image of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. But it was too late: I felt the Enlightenment at my back. Emulating the philosophes’ great refusal, I lodged my little one, enrolling timorously but proudly in what I had learned from Peter Gay to call the Party of Humanity – of freedom, science, and progress. Because this mini-heroic auto-emancipation has been the supreme drama – to tell the truth, the only drama – in my life, I am perhaps understandably inclined to see all of history as this drama writ large: “humankind’s emergence from its self-imposed minority,” as Kant defined “enlightenment.” Certainly I am reluctant to consider that my tiny but arduous affirmation has no resonance beyond my own life, no part in furthering a grander scheme of liberation and collective advance. But that’s just a prejudice, I know.
II. Some part of our perplexity about human progress is surely a result of the size of our sample. If we knew the histories of even a few more intelligent species, it would be much easier to extrapolate our future. All we have are imagined histories; that is, science fiction. Some of its guesses seem truly inspired, though; none more so than Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. The fundamental intuition underlying all visions of perfection through cosmic evolution may be summed up as “matter into mind.” It is an ubiquitous trope in intellectual history, from the Middle Ages through Teilhard de Chardin, and in futuristic fiction since Wells and Stapledon, if not before. Matter is limitation, disorganization, inertia. Mind gradually, inexorably rationalizes not only our material and social relations, but eventually even our organismic form, our species being. We become gods.
In Clarke’s version, the path to godhead is not exactly rationalization. A race of super-intelligent, super-powerful beings arrives on earth to midwife humankind’s passage across a cosmic evolutionary barrier. The midwives, or Overlords, have reached a cul de sac of scientific rationality. Their civilization is immeasurably superior, but humans have something they lack: imagination. Most races with this psychic endowment have destroyed themselves, and sometimes others, the Overlords explain. The few that have flourished have fused into an entity that its servants, the Overlords, call the Overmind: a being in which (or whom) beauty, truth, power, and love are indistinguishable and are present in a degree that is, for practical purposes, infinite. Like the Christian God (Clarke must have known some theology), the Overmind seeks to draw up into itself those species capable of sharing in – participating, as Thomistic theologians would say – its beatitude. The Overlords and other apostles are sent to harvest them.
This is not exactly what Condorcet or Spencer or Teilhard, or Joachim da Fiore for that matter, had in mind. Some critics (and some characters in Childhood’s End), find Clarke’s vision objectionable, because humankind does not decide its own fate. Of course this objection only has force if humankind is grown-up enough to comprehend its choices and discipline its lethal (potentially on an interstellar scale, the Overlords warn) energies. Clarke’s answer, implicit in his title and indicated, though not fully developed, in the novel, is persuasive to me. More important, Childhood’s End is at once the most extreme and the most plausible futuristic fantasy I know of. It answers to my (admittedly crude) intuition that fourteen billion years is enough time, and trillions of light years enough space, for a great many things to have happened that have so far eluded most terrestrial imaginations; and also to my (equally crude) sense that at least a few of humankind’s innumerable mystics have glimpsed something ineffable. Those are two very disparate intuitions; I don’t know of any other story that accommodates both.
III. Other stories or (what amounts to the same thing) historical interpretations answer to different, sometimes opposite intuitions. “Matter into mind” is a formula for limitless transcendence. Intuitions of immanence, of the necessity and wisdom of limits, produce visions of stasis or decline and hopes for, at best, a steady state.
The two most persuasive 20th-century anti-progressives I’ve encountered could hardly be more different: D. H. Lawrence and Christopher Lasch. Lawrence championed matter against mind. He despised “thin-minded” rationalists like Shaw and Wells; he scoffed at labor-saving technology; and he believed in natural hierarchies and charismatic leaders. Yet he was hardly a friend of any status quo, past or present. From an unpublished manuscript:
I know that we could, if we would, establish little by little a true democracy in England: we could nationalize the land and industries and means of transport, and make the whole thing work infinitely better than at present, if we would. It all depends on the spirit in which the thing is done.
I know we are on the brink of a class war.
I know we had all better hang ourselves at once, than enter on a struggle which shall be a fight for the ownership or non-ownership of property, pure and simple, and nothing beyond.
I know the ownership of property is a problem that may have to be fought out. But beyond the fight must lie a new hope, a new beginning. …
I know we must take up the responsibility for the future, now. A great change is coming, and must come. What we need is some glimmer of a vision of a world that shall be, beyond the change. Otherwise we shall be in for a great debacle.
Lawrence’s “glimmer of a vision” flickers throughout the two volumes of Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers, especially in the “Study of Thomas Hardy,” “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine,” and “Education of the People.” It involves a far more direct connection with the sun and the solar plexus, with cosmic mysteries and instinctual rhythms, than he observed in his contemporaries. Against the prevailing rationalism, he defined reason as “the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters” and conceived “man’s body as a kind of flame … and the intellect is just the light that is shed on the things around.”
What kind of future follows from that image of humanity? Lawrence never explained in detail. His vision found its strangest and most lyrical expression in another unpublished fragment, a utopian fantasy in the form (and something like the spirit) of William Morris’s News from Nowhere. The speaker has woken up in his native place after sleeping a thousand years. The new humans are “flower-like” and “comely as berries” – not at all disembodied Mind. He watches them at sunset:
When the ball of fire touched the tree-tops, there was a queer squeal of bagpipes, and the square suddenly started into life. The men were stamping softly, like bulls, the women were softly swaying, and softly clapping their hands, with a strange noise, like leaves. And under the vaulted porticoes, at opposite ends of the egg-shaped oval, came the soft booming and trilling of women and men singing against one another in the strangest pattern of sound.
It was all kept very soft, soft-breathing. Yet the dance swept into swifter and swifter rhythm, with the most extraordinary incalculable unison. I do not believe there was any outside control of the dance. The thing happened by instinct, like the wheeling and flashing of a shoal of fish or of a flock of birds dipping and spreading in the sky. Suddenly, in one amazing wing-movement, the arms of all the men would flash up into the air, naked and glowing, and with the soft rushing sound of pigeons alighting the men ebbed in a spiral, grey and sparkled with scarlet, bright arms slowly leaning, upon the women, who rustled all crocus-blue, rustled like an aspen, then in one movement scattered like sparks, in every direction from under the enclosing, sinking arms of the men, and suddenly formed slender rays of lilac branching out from the red and grey knot of the men.
All the time the sun was slowly sinking, shadow was falling, and the dance was moving slower, the women wheeling blue around the obliterated sun. They were dancing the sun down, and dancing as birds wheel and dance, and fishes in shoals, controlled by some strange unanimous instinct. It was at once terrifying and magnificent, I wanted to die, so as not to see it, and I wanted to rush down, to be one of them. To be a drop in that wave of life.
This was Lawrence’s answer to Wells’s Men Like Gods and Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, a vision of human perfection achieved by going not onward and upward but inward and downward. Whether it means going forward or backward depends on whether one believes – and is glad – that organic, embodied human nature has unalterable limits.
Christopher Lasch believed that and preached it eloquently in The True and Only Heaven, his masterpiece of social criticism and intellectual history. That book, like Lasch’s entire career, is an extended quarrel with modernity, defined as the advance of an overlapping, mutually reinforcing phalanx of political centralization, mass production, expanded consumption, automation, geographical mobility, the bureaucratization of education, medicine, and family life, moral cosmopolitanism, and legal universalism. Against this march of abstractions, Lasch insisted on the fact of human scale. The human creature has a specific evolutionary endowment and gestational history; as a result it has a specific infantile fantasy life, which it can only outgrow gradually, through a range of close-up interactions, involving both authority and love, with the same caregivers over many years. The bureaucratic rationalization of work and intimate life plays havoc with this scheme of development, producing a weak self, stripped of traditional skills, tools, and autonomy, entirely dependent on large forces beyond its comprehension, much less control, and crippled by ambivalence toward remote, impersonal authority. What sustained the strong pre-modern self was the virtue of hope; what sustains the weak modern self is the ideology of progress.
I have learned, with some reluctance, from Lawrence and Lasch how readily things go wrong, how ingeniously progress can be faked. The division of labor, advances in industrial and information technology, the growth of medical knowledge, even the emancipation of women: every liberation can be captured and exploited. We had better stay inside our own skins – and even, perhaps, within traditional social forms – until we are sure that it’s safe to discard them. And as long as modernization is involuntary – imposed within a class system, for profit or social control – it’s difficult to know that.
Two other, minor masterpieces teach similar lessons about false promises. Whether or not (as Nicholas Carr argues in The Shallows) the Internet makes us stupid, it undeniably makes us different, especially as readers. In The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts masterfully elaborates a phenomenology of “deep reading”: the heightened focus, the inner stillness, the imaginative motility, the immersion in a linguistic matrix. It is a habitus that, like the attention of a meditator, strengthens gradually, as a muscle does. It requires verticality and temporary isolation. The capacity for such concentration must erode and eventually dissipate in a horizontal, hyperlinked, continuously connected world. The alteration in our psychic metabolism that Birkerts foresees seems to me no less probable and fateful because his is a qualitative, literary description, without benefit of neurobiology or social science.
The alteration Bill McKibben discusses in Enough (and, not quite so sensitively and eloquently, Francis Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future) is even more radical. Not all scientists agree that germ-line genetic engineering will be feasible within the next hundred years, but most do. The elimination of genetic diseases will be a blessing, of course, but a market in “designer children,” programmed for outstanding cognitive, athletic, and other abilities, may transform present economic inequalities into irreversible caste distinctions – eventually even species distinctions. Surely the free market knows best, and if it decrees that the master class should become a master race, who is wise enough to interfere? “There is no alternative,” Mrs. Thatcher instructed us; in which case, Jefferson’s ringing declaration that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God,” is only sentimental egalitarian rhetoric.
IV. Perhaps the problem of progress is a pseudo-problem. Coleridge observed that every great and original poet creates the taste by which he is judged. But tastes, criteria, perspectives can also be destroyed or wither away. Print-based civilization, for example, has not answered the earliest objections to the eclipse of oral literacy; it has merely ignored them. No doubt the inhabitants of the Electronic Hive that Birkerts foresees will miss deep reading about as much as most of us miss having vast quantities of verse committed to memory, as many educated people did in the age of oral literacy. And a population that has exchanged its skills, tools, and independence for SUVs and consumer electronics may be perfectly happy, or at least comfortable, with saddles on their backs. To measure progress, one needs a standard; and if standards alter drastically, what are measurements worth?
George Orwell had a view of the question. Though best known for his dystopias, he did write one – characteristically skeptical and downbeat – piece about Utopia, a Christmas 1943 Tribune essay entitled “Can Socialists Be Happy?” “All efforts to describe permanent happiness … have been failures, from earliest history onwards,” he began cheerfully. Utopias “seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.” Even News from Nowhere induced in him “only a sort of watery melancholy.” Orwell was never a blithe spirit, and in London in December 1943 it was probably hard to conceive even temporary happiness.
Anyway, he continues, happiness is not the point:
Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue. …
Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks that happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wiser course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business.
This seems reasonable to me, and I suspect it would have seemed reasonable to Condorcet, who ended the penultimate section of his Sketch with a passage of near-Orwellian sobriety:
The labours of recent ages have done much for the progress of the human mind, but little for the perfection of the human race; much for the honour of man, something for his liberty, but so far almost nothing for his happiness. At a few points our eyes are dazzled with a brilliant light; but thick darkness still covers an immense stretch of the horizon. There are a few circumstances from which the philosopher can take consolation; but he is still afflicted by the spectacle of the stupidity, slavery, barbarism, and extravagance of mankind; and the friend of humanity can find unmixed pleasure only in tasting the sweet delights of hope.
That sounds as much like 2016 as 1794 (except that recent ages haven’t done as much for “the honour of man”). “Thick darkness” accurately describes the American economic and political outlook; and toothache is the only possible response to either Democratic or Republican politicians or pundits. Occupy and Wikileaks and 350.org, Krugman and Greenwald and Chomsky, seem to me a “few points” of “brilliant light,” from which I “take consolation.” Are they, along with the last three centuries or so, enough to furnish the “sweet delights of hope”? I suppose so – but that’s just a prejudice, I know.