Professor Trilling has made good and graceful use of his invitation to give the first annual Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. He has no difficulty in showing that Jefferson took for granted that men in their political associations were equal in their rationality. He also shows that such a view is warm and optimistic in the confidence it has in the speculative powers of the mind and in its ability to judge social policy and to understand the natural world. He notes that many of the educated have lost this high confidence; and that among the causes of this loss are not only the social and political vicissitudes through which the world has passed since Jefferson’s day but also the astonishing performances of “the wild ranging intellect of man” in bringing about a kind of self-stultification of mind.
There is something paradoxical about this. The intense energy with which the processes of mind themselves are now examined both exhibits the power of mind and makes plain its impotence. Arnold’s attempt to see the object as it really is, the obligation, that is, to strive after objectivity and rise above prejudice, is held by many today to be both epistemologically absurd and politically undesirable—it is the attempt, of course, that is seen as wrong, for if objectivity can’t be had it can’t be had. The notion of a humane education resting upon an appreciation of the long historical development of our culture and upon the study of letters (the study Lionel Trilling has in so distinguished a way advanced in his time) is now derided, not so much by the obvious louts and bullies who reach for their revolvers when they hear the word “culture,” but by such members of the intelligentsia as the 1971 president of the MLA.
Self-laceration to provide a mock blood-sacrifice before a fashionable idol is not of great interest in itself, and Trilling is concerned with Professor Kampf not as a contributor to a debate but as a representative of, presumably, some members of his profession who have, since the apocalyptic year 1968, come (in Trilling’s words) to believe that “their faith in the educative powers of literature…was a commitment to a corrupting frivolity.” This is, for the university teacher, what finds expression among university students in a concern for “relevance,” a confidence in spontaneity, and a distrust of formalized learning procedures.
Nothing quite like this has ever been known in the world before, though there have been signs for some years that the “transvaluation of values” was impending. Many of the surface phenomena are quite certainly ephemeral. But Trilling doesn’t doubt that there are deep changes. One of them is the gradual prevailing of the view, even in notable institutions of the highest reputation, that “the intellectual disciplines in which they give instruction are to be regarded not as of intrinsic value, but, at best, as elements of a rite of social passage and, at worst, as devices of social exclusion.” But there is, he thinks, no sufficient reason for despair.
…I have ventured to urge upon you the awareness that mind at the present time draws back from its own freedom and power, from its own delight in itself. That my having done so is not a counsel of despair is assured by one characteristic of mind, its wish to be conscious of itself, with what this implies of its ability to examine a course it has taken and correct it.
In a footnote Trilling refers to Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture as “the best tempered defense of the ideologized antagonism to mind.” The comment is kind and not all that unfair, though it wasn’t really clear in that book on which side the author in the end came down. Certainly, Roszak thought the dissident young people he had in mind were on the whole going in the right direction. But a certain avuncular anxiety showed itself. Here are a couple of examples. Roszak had (understandably) found it creepy that an “underground” newspaper should have printed a long article on Aleister Crowley, a shrewd Englishman who took dabblers in the occult on entirely bogus “spiritual” trips and gave it out, toward the end of his life, that he was the Beast 666. Roszak suggested that “at this point…the young, who are offering us, I feel, a great deal that is good to work with, need the help of mature minds, in order that enduring distinctions can be drawn between the deep and the shallow, the superstitious and the wise.” (This doesn’t sound much like a defense of the ideologized antagonism to mind, though the expression “a great deal that is good to work with” is forbidding.)
Again: “How is one to make certain that the exploration of the non-intellective powers will not degenerate into a maniacal nihilism? The matter needs sorting out (sic) and I am uncertain that many of the young have reflected sufficiently upon it.” Not that he is really uncertain about this—to say he is is just a part of the avuncular style. He is quite certain not only that the young he has in mind haven’t reflected on this problem but that they don’t propose to reflect upon it and don’t see why they should.
The attraction for many of The Making of a Counter Culture was just that element of good humor Trilling talks about. People who could be spoken to so indulgently and have fingers wagged at them with such bonhomie were plainly not going to bring middle-American society to destruction. It wasn’t serious stuff. The subversiveness of the people and beliefs of the “counter culture” was to real subversiveness as Playboy is to hard pornography. (Of course, unless one is very corrupt Playboy is the more distasteful.)
Since 1969 Roszak has done some sorting out. In his new book he is clear that the “counter culture” has the brightness of a coming new day for humanity and that within the old society the new is already present in the form of rude sketches or wavering adumbrations. There is an alternative society
…people seek once they have broken the spell of the urban-industrial Reality Principle. We can see the postindustrial alternative emerging in a thousand fragile experiments throughout America and Western Europe on the part of the young and the no longer young; communes rural and urban; voluntary primitivism; organic homesteading; extended families; free schools; free clinics; handicraft co-operatives; community development coops; Gandhian ashrams; neighborhood rap centers; labor gift exchanges…. Here is the new society piecing itself inventively together within the interstices of the old.
Roszak professes to have a general explanation in the light of which this farrago of principles and practices constitutes a living unity. I have some difficulty in stating the explanation, but it seems to go something like this. Natural science since Bacon and Galileo has given us a reductive, falsifying account of nature. The scientific account of nature spills over into our attempts to state what it is to be human and impoverishes the inner world or even hollows it out, leaving us shells of men. We begin from Hobbes and Gassendi and advance by way of La Mettrie to Professor B.F. Skinner. The scientific attitude to nature issues in technology of the kind we are familiar with, and this technology was developed at a time when, by a piece of great good fortune, the bourgeoisie was available to push the whole thing ahead.
It was the good fortune of science, not only that its world-view should have been so readily identified with praxis, but that there should have existed in Western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a restive class of practical-minded people who had begun to sense their own social importance. For these dynamic middle-class entrepreneurs, the New Philosophy conveniently became part of a bold liberal ideology….
The technological society at its present state of development blunts our sensibilities, robs us of natural piety, crams our lives with trivia. Our hubris is such that we move toward catastrophe without noticing what awaits us. The remedy? We need to learn from a variety of sources a new vision of things. The sources are many: shamanism; various Eastern religions; the mystical traditions; the Romantic poets, especially Blake and Wordsworth; the mavericks of our own religious traditions such as Boehme and Goethe. Curiously, there seems to be no mention of John Aubrey. He, surely, deserves a mention, for he notes, at a time when Bacon and Hobbes were victorious in the land, an incident which must be almost the last occasion on which visionary powers were exercised, before the time of Blake. “Anno 1670, not far from Cirencester, was an apparition: being demanded, whether a good spirit or a bad? returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume and most melodious twang.”
The perfume and the twang are of some relevance to Roszak’s case. When he says that the natural world has been drained of its richness by natural science he seems to have in mind the distinction, familiar to the seventeenth century, between primary and secondary qualities, that is, those macroscopic properties of bodies that are of a geometrical and dynamic sort, and those microscopic properties that (it was believed) causally affect our senses in such a way as to provide perceptions of color, sound, odor, and the like. It is important to state this theory correctly. Secondary qualities are not subjective; they are as geometrical and as dynamic as the primary qualities, though they may be imperceptible; it is the ideas of secondary qualities, our “sensations” of color, odor, and so on, that are in a sense subjective, though they are the steady signs of secondary qualities that are themselves perfectly objective though not very accessible.
This is of some importance for weighing Roszak’s heavy moralizing about the flattening effect of the scientific view of nature. Roszak would suggest that Galileo, for example, or Locke takes the view that seeing the world as colored and noting that it is full of sweet sounds and odors is a misperception, a kind of weakness, like a belief in the evil eye, to which simple men are prone. There is nothing to this interpretation by Roszak of Galileo and Locke. As a piece of epistemology the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is full of difficulties; but it isn’t at all committed to the absurd view that if we hold with Newton, for example, that it is only under such and such material conditions that we perceive such or such a color, then really we don’t perceive the color in question. Even if the theory were as crazy as Roszak seems to think it is, and as Berkeley for other reasons thought it was, it could hardly have such vast effects. To take a parallel example, we all of us know, in at least a vague kind of way, a great deal about the central nervous system of which Aristotle was totally ignorant. But how does Aristotle’s ignorance, or our knowledge, make a difference to those issues in the philosophy of mind that Aristotle talked about and that we are still talking about?
Roszak rests so much upon what he thinks to be epistemological considerations that it has been necessary to go into detail. On at least one occasion he changes sides in a strange fashion. He gives a scientific account of perception that seems to rest upon physiological considerations and uses it to suggest conclusions of a very startling character. It seems to us (he argues) that we see things at a distance from us in space; and when we listen to their reverberations when struck we locate the ringing tone (or whatever) at the place where we see the things. It thus seems to us that we are spectators of things “outside and away from” ourselves.
We are deeply mistaken. Seeing and hearing take place “inside the head.” We are the victims of a “well-rationalized illusion”; and whereas we are aware of, e.g., loud noises and smells as “internal phenomena,” “our eyes and ears are numb to their own act of feeling. We know nothing of their internal action, but only the cerebral representation of things Out There.” This is almost impossible to unmuddle. If our application of spatial concepts to our perceptions is in some way delusory—really we only know “cerebral representations”—then the notion of “inside the head” and the presupposed contrast between what is inward and what is not are equally in a mess. But then the argument just doesn’t add up to anything coherent at all.
What in the end Roszak wishes to say is something very broad and, I believe, false: that the scientific concern with the “mechanical” properties of the natural world did something to our perceptions of the world and to our attitudes to it. In certain kinds of mystical experience and in looking, if we can, through the eyes of such Romantic poets as Blake and Wordsworth, we learn, he thinks, to see things aright; and if we do this we shall be preserved—or we shall have a good chance of being preserved—from the grosser attractions of the technological society, from social programs that involve the spoliation and pollution of nature, from the machinations of the behavioral sciences, from the wrath of God, and from spiritual death.
He seems to me wrong about the Romantic poets. Blake was at a crucial period in his development heavily influenced by Berkeley, and Berkeley is of all the philosophers of that period the one who most insists on our perception of a common world which is just as ordinary men suppose it to be. Blake’s visions are not more adequate perceptions of what other men inadequately perceive but the work of the imagination, as Professor Frye makes clear in Fearful Symmetry. As for Wordsworth, there is certainly a mysticism of nature in his work, but it is connected with no extraordinary perceptions, but with the reflections of which the perceptions are the occasion. We can call Wordsworth a visionary only with much caution. Take, for example, “Yew-Trees” or “The Thorns.” The full effect of both poems is connected with the botanical reality of the subjects. The vision doesn’t dissolve the perceptions Wordsworth shares with common men, and the effect of the poems depends upon our taking his perceptions as ordinary.
Roszak has another thesis, perhaps even more central than his thesis about epistemology and natural science. It goes something like this. Judaism and Christianity are necessary conditions for the rise of natural science and have always been enemies of magic, of ecstatics outside their own traditions, and of a multitude of divinities. They, together with natural science, have felled the sacred groves, have expelled the nymphs and the satyrs from wood and stream, have turned into amusing but light fictions the mythical accounts of the great cosmic processes, have excommunicated the alchemists and the wizards, and have given to particular historical events—the reign of David, the Babylonian captivity, Jesus of Nazareth “crucified when Pontius Pilate was Procurator of Judaea”—a significance that can properly belong only to the archetypal events of myth.
This is the prejudice of the Enlightenment turned upside down and inside out; one almost expects Roszak to say that nothing will go well in the world until the last physicist has been strangled with the entrails of the last Christian theologian or Talmudic scholar. That it is the children of Christ and Newton who are responsible for the evils of the technological society; that it is in the dark forces of the world expelled by natural science and by a rigorous and intolerant monotheism that salvation is to be found; that the shaman, rather than Isaiah or Paul, is the exemplar of saving wisdom: all this is bound to strike most literate persons over the age of twenty-five as so strange as to be almost not discussable. A famous philosopher is said to have exclaimed from time to time: “I don’t know what’s true [i.e., about such and such a subject matter], but I know that [particular theory] CAN’T be true.”
But if the general lines of Roszak’s argument are such that one can only exhibit them and then ask oneself if it is even worth while to start looking at them in detail, it remains that caught up in the whole (to me) impossible tangle there are mistakes, not logical muddles, but plain mistakes; and there are also some observations that are sensible and useful and worth looking at.
Roszak wants to include certain Christian mystics within what he calls the Old Gnosis (there is a lot of talk of this kind, rather like the stuff in the advertisements for Rosicrucianism). Theresa of Avila is mentioned and, especially, Francis of Assisi. It has to be said that he doesn’t understand this part of the Christian tradition at all. Theresa was intensely suspicious of the phenomena—trances, ecstasies, levitations, and what have you—to which Roszak gives so much importance. She was a tough sensible woman full of practical ability; she would have loved the telephone, thanked God for anaesthetics, and driven a jeep.
In speaking of Francis, he takes the Canticle of the Creatures to be an assertion of the magical, animistic view of nature, against the iconoclastic, secularizing tendencies of what he sometimes calls “mainstream Christianity.” The plain sense of the Canticle goes against him. “Praised be my Lord God with all his creatures.” This is why he can assert his kinship with “our brother the wind,” “our sister water,” “our sister, the death of the body.” This is at the farthest extreme from animism. It is a celebration of the world of creation ex nihilo; the world is now seen aright, cleansed of all idolatrous imaginations. Francis, a creature, salutes and praises his fellow creatures as issuing from the hand of God. Roszak would have done better had he cited Francis as evidence for his view that Judaeo-Christianity is the nurse of the natural sciences. He could even have brought in the convenient bourgeoisie, for the coming of the friars is associated with the growth of the medieval town.
In The Making of a Counter Culture Roszak claimed Paul Goodman for the “counter culture.” If one puts together under this vast umbrella all the phenomena that aren’t straightforward main-line American culture, then this is all right. But Goodman was easily misunderstood by those who missed the Socratic irony that salted his best work and the Aristotelian concept of what it is to be human that is always there. Roszak cited a splendid passage from Goodman’s contribution to Gestalt Therapy.
The question may quite seriously be asked, by what criterion does one prefer to regard “human nature” as what is actual in the spontaneity of children, in the works of heroes, the culture of classic eras, the community of simple folk, the feelings of lovers, the sharp awareness and miraculous skill of some people in emergencies? Neurosis is also a response of human nature and is now epidemic and normal, and perhaps has a viable social future.
We cannot answer the question.
Roszak’s comment, his ineffable comment, was: “The evasion is strange, for the ‘criterion’ is obvious enough. The behavior of children, heroes, lovers, ‘simple folk,’ and people in crisis is beautiful and ethically inspiring.” Thus Roszak on the hardest question in moral philosophy.
In Little Prayers and Finite Experience Goodman gives us, interwoven with short poems in the form of prayers, his notes for a course he gave to students at the University of Hawaii in 1971. If anyone of an older generation could communicate with the children of the “counter culture,” it was Goodman. He turns out to be at moments depressed and skeptical, though one guesses the total effect on his students was better than he knew. The quality of this charming, shrewd, and poignant book is best brought out by quotation rather than analysis. First, a passage to illustrate how good lay writing about natural science can be.
I like a scientific explanation that is solidly grounded in what we do not know, for instance The Origin of Species. Darwin starts with varieties, from which he builds everything, and he knows nothing at all about the nature of variation. He did not know Mendel’s laws of inheritance, nor chromosomes and genes, nor the causes of mutation. What is astounding is that he knew he did not know, instead of inventing some nonsense. But it is as if his ignorance let him really scrutinize the varieties, in domestication, in geographical distribution, in geological sequence. They were the matter, the material cause, dark but potential for his investigation. So Harvey had no way of connecting arteries and veins, but the blood circulated anyway.
The closest he came to sadness and frustration, and that wasn’t too close, for he was inventive, was in his finding at times that humane culture was just not to be comprehended by his pupils.
People like us have a use. It would be woeful if the great moments of spirit did not survive…. But I don’t know any method to teach what we know, namely that Beethoven, the Reformers, the authors of The Federalist, were real people and meant what they did. The great difficulty is that, in order to know them in our terms, it is first necessary to make the abnegation of learning them in their terms. And the less culture one has to begin with, the harder this is to do.
Some of the best of the prayer-poems in this book are about death. I should like to quote one, to serve for Paul Goodman’s own death, and to show that a decent poem doesn’t have to be rhapsodical or apocalyptic to say how things truly are. It is worth noting that the poem is closely related to a chorale—indeed, it is an “imitation”—in Bach’s St. John Passion.
Rest well thy weary head and heart
and work no more, my sorely hurt; thee God when in the pit of night thy sight is sealed can new create.
Each breath, I know, is almost more,
poor child of lust, than life can bear and forethought has betrayed thy foot. Let help come if it will or not.
I want to mention a few things I thought good in Roszak’s book. He has some enlightening stories. The best one is about the man and his family waiting to take photographs of Old Faithful. The geyser was on time but they missed the picture, for they expected Old Faithful to rise much higher. As they were leaving one of the children voiced the general sentiment of the family: “Disneyland is better.” Then, of the articles in the learned journals of the behavioral sciences: “Who, except as an afterthought or as a pinch of incense on the professional altar, ever used another person’s methodology to produce a significant idea of his own? The methodologies of Max Weber or Sigmund Freud yield brilliant insights only in the hands of Weber or Freud; in the hands of lesser talents, they yield what may be less worth having than the blunders of a great mind.”
I applaud also Roszak’s support for the use of the organic wastes of modern industrial communities. Reclaiming these wastes is technically feasible—some European cities do it and sell the subsequent product to the market gardeners, thus keeping the land in good heart and preserving the humus content of the soil. It would probably be economical as well, in that it would lessen our dependence upon synthetic fertilizers. But it would need an intense application of the ingenuity of scientists and technologists. If we ask why this doesn’t happen already on any great scale, the answer is probably that market considerations, that is, short-term calculations of profit and loss, argue against it. Here the demon is not that of “the technological society,” as Roszak would argue, but that of an unregenerate capitalism, something he doesn’t much talk about. At any rate, shit is common as expletive and adjective in the language of the “counter culture.” Let us pass from using it in talk to doing something with it.
Our three writers provide fascinating material for the comparative study of style. Trilling’s style is nourished by the best Victorian prose and his lecture proves that such a style is still an adequate vehicle for one who wishes to commend humane studies. It is strengthening and shows us how a man can be both honest and subtle. Goodman is closer to Cobbett or to George Sturt. He is a master of the plain style and is thus able, as in the piece on Darwin already quoted, to make difficult subject matter clear (not easy). Roszak is now flat, now confused. The flat has already been illustrated. Here is the confused. He has been explaining that “society decisively governs the psyche” at some deep, “subliminal” (a word thrown around a good deal) level. Then:
To probe these foundations of the personality by way of all too ordinary language poses no small problem. Consciousness is the universe of personal awareness; and anyone’s universe, being a totality, admits of no relations outside itself…. What authentically escapes our awareness, we are free to dismiss as unreal, non-existent.
It is hard to know just what is going on here. Assuming that to pose no small problem is to pose a big problem, just what is it that is all too ordinary about ordinary language? That it doesn’t contain such words as “consciousness” and “totality”? That it lacks names, logical operators, adverbial expressions…suitable for the probing task? There are no answers to these questions; for the passage is an instance of what Wittgenstein has in mind when he speaks of language “idling,” that is, engaging no gears and doing no work, though the similitude of a piece of work is presented. This is the sadness of much of Roszak’s book. Huck Finn found The Pilgrim’s Progress interesting but tough. The trouble with Roszak’s book is that it is not tough enough to be interesting.
November 30, 1972