The dust-jacket of Mr. Gardner’s new book leaves the reviewer with very little more to do. “John Gardner is the most perceptive living observer of American Society,” Adolph A. Berle asserts. This is an unequivocal statement, dismissing in one breath David Riesman, Daniel Bell, Jules Henry, James Baldwin, and for that matter, Norman Mailer. “I can think of no recently published book which deserves wider attention for the perception and clarity with which it analyzes today’s complexities and the soundness and wisdom with which it prescribes for revitalization,” writes Grayson Kirk. This seems a pity, but Dr. Kirk would surely not have said so unless it were a fact. Presidents of Columbia, to be sure, are not always great readers.
I cannot find in the book anything that can be called a prescription for revitalization, though the effect of the book is mildly euphoric. It isn’t that specific, and makes no recommendations for change in the structure of society itself. Mr. Gardner’s book is actually a clear but very elementary analysis of the way a bureaucratic society operates. Into this he incorporates suggestions for altering our values and moral posture in such a way as to take more advantage of the opportunities for autonomy that he insists that society presents. It is not a critical examination of American social institutions as such.
Mr. Gardner, as the dust-jacket chastely affirms in the smallest possible print, is himself President of the Carnegie Foundation; and the “warm, hard-hitting wisdom” with which, Mr. Berle observes, he “must offend the cultists of decay, self pity, and chaos” is therefore a matter of considerable public interest. The tone of the book is set in its very first paragraph:
As I was browsing in a university bookstore [Columbia?] recently, I heard an apple-checked girl say to her companion, “The truth is that our society and everything in it is in a state of decay.” I studied her carefully, and I must report that she did not seem even slightly decayed. But what of the society as a whole?
What, indeed? To this question, Mr. Gardner devotes the 141 pages of his book—little enough for the task. The task itself is not a dishonorable one. Mr. Gardner attempts to draw from the ideas of thinkers, like Fromm or even Kierkegaard, who have carefully considered the sources of creativity and selfhood in the often agonizing human condition, a simple, comprehensible message in terms that will not frighten a cautious, ordinary reader. From the very title of his book, and in every sentence in it, he clearly considers himself to be a defender of the creative individual against the system, whose constrictiveness and hostility to individuality he asserts and deplores:
This is a day of inner estrangement and outer conformity, and we must combat both. On the one hand, the processes of modern society have placed subtle and powerful restraints on the individual. At the same time—and this is the confusing part—other aspects of modern life are slicing through the moorings that relate the individual to his own tradition, to his own group and to the values that lie beyond the self. It is as though a deep-sea diver were to find his movements constricted by more and more ropes binding him to the mother ship, but at the same time to find that his air hose had been cut. All the constricting ties intact, the one life-giving tie severed!
This defines our task. We must combat those aspects of modern society that threaten the individual’s integrity as a free and morally responsible being. But at the same time we must help the individual to re-establish a meaningful relationship with a larger context of purposes…. Unfortunately, we have virtually no tradition of helping the individual achieve such commitment. We now have a fairly strong tradition of helping him detach himself from the embeddedness of childhood. Most teachers make a conscious efforts to help a youngster outgrow the unexamined beliefs of his childhood. They jolt him out of his hand-me-down attitudes.
Just as we help him in this way to achieve independence, we must later help him to relate himself to his fellow man and to the best in his own social, moral, and intellectual tradition. If we address ourselves seriously to this task, we shall soon discover that one of the reasons young people do not commit themselves to the larger social enterprise is that they are genuinely baffled as to the nature of that enterprise. They do not really understand their own free society. They do not understand the requirements and realities of a complex modern society. They do not see where they fit in.
If we succeed in our delicate task, then we shall no longer need to agree with Yeats’ grim comment on the modern world:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I have quoted from this section of Self-Renewal at length, because it is just here that the switch is pulled, putting us back on the track to adjustment again, and because at this point Mr. Gardner finally got me really mad. I will put up with a lot from our intellectual leadership, having no power to do otherwise. But, by God, I will not let them quote Yeats in their favor at the end of such a chapter as this one.
In fact, no matter how much on the side of the angels Mr. Gardner may be, he continually and superficially makes assertions about society that few serious scholars would accept, and that evade the questions he has set himself. Sometimes these statements are merely banal (“Most teachers…jolt him out of his hand-me-down attitudes”). But often they are quite essential to his argument, which fails if they are untrustworthy.
The institutional arrangements of an open society are not themselves the means of renewal. Their virtue is that they nourish free men.
One of the most significant safeguards against monolithic integration is our tradition of the dispersal of power and restraints on power. The power of our government is limited, and even within the government there are checks and balances, conflicts, rivalries, countervailing power and many points at which initiative may be exercised. The great corporations compete with one another and with a host of lesser corporations…
But it is precisely the effect of an open society on freedom that is in question; while our system of checks and balances seems to work, as it did in Tocqueville’s day, to increase the tyranny of the majority and fritter away ethical clarity in continual log-rolling and compromise. The great corporations are less typically competitive than collusive, and function more as a part of government than as countervailing power against it. The readers Mr. Gardner is addressing, to judge from his tone, undoubtedly share his reluctance to challenge the implications of such basic articles of American faith, and will join him in assuming their validity as a patriotic duty. But one cannot do this and continue to treat Self-Renewal as serious social or ethical criticism.
It isn’t. But neither is the book simply slick pro-Establishment propaganda, though it would serve that purpose very well. What has happened, I think, is more nearly like what happens when Stouffer’s packages frozen gourmet-type foods, except that Stouffer’s products survive better and come out quite tasty. Mr. Gardner has so thoroughly adapted his product to his readers’ tastes, as he conceives them, that the more his book drips with praise of nonconformists and distinguished rebels, the more his very style and terms affirm that he neither understands nor respects them. Certain passages from the book, indeed, express a point of view not too different from that which one associates with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Mr. Gardner is greatly opposed to negative thinking:
It is hardly surprising that mid-twentieth century man takes a less cheerful view of the world than his grandfather did. But for some of our contemporaries the pendulum has swung so far toward a bleak and despairing view of life that one may ask whether it has reached the end of its arc. One is inclined to hope so as one contemplates the excessive, self-dramatizing and essentially romantic pessimism that characterizes some modern writers, artists and thinkers…. Our generation is not the first to discover the chance and tragedy of this world, but if some of these writers had their way it might be the first generation to drown in self-pity at the thought…. It is not easy to see why some intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century should agonize and attitudinize about circumstances that hundreds of generations have lived through without comparable self-pity.
His specific bêtes noires are Celine, Ionesco, Beckett, and Rexroth. But, here, I believe, Gardner mistakes the adversary. These authors, in their turn, have no quarrel with him; he and his work are perfectly accounted for in their various systems. The President of the Carnegie Foundation writes exactly as they would have expected. Henry James or Henry Adams, however, might have been astonished and, I think, displeased. In their own polysyllabic way they would probably have raised quite a row. Mr. Gardner has almost perfectly succeeded in reducing the idea of creativity to lower-middle-class terms; and in doing so has dramatized the plight of the artist and intellectual in America rather more clearly than he could have wished. In this curious sense, Self-Renewal makes a contribution in spite of itself.
February 6, 1964