The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
7.2 (Spring 2007)
Romanticism and Society
Facilis Descensus Averno , Part II
A Diffusely Comparative Study of Romantic Illusion and Social Dissolution
John R. Harris
“Tros Anchisiade, facilis descensus Averno :
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.”
Vergil, Aeneid 6.126-129
“Trojan son of Anchises, easy the descent to the Avernus.
Night and day, the door of gloomy Dis lies open.
But to retrace one’s steps and flee the bright air above—
Herein lies the challenge, the labor.”
continued from Winter 2007 edition, with all numbering sequent to Part I)
VII . Contemporary Romance: Aesthetic Pre-emption
As we know from antiquity, the romance follows a high road and a low road; and as we know only too well from our own time, most people do not cherish the effort of climbing. One could argue that the high road was traveled heavily for an impressive number of decades in post-Renaissance Western literature’s history: I doubt that antiquity provides enough benchmarks to justify its humble role in this invidious comparison, or that the Middle Ages do not wholly undermine it (for medieval literacy, though rare, was discriminating)—but the claim itself is not prima facie absurd. Allow me, in any case, to neglect what must surely be a vast body of worthy material in order to reach our present distressing state. The romance’s paths today all appear to descend. The psychological novel elicits little interest. It is a mere historical curiosity even in graduate courses, where the focus tends to linger on gender credentials (the superb female analyst like Colette now canonized for an accident of birth) and anomalous “confessions” (whose secondary merit as literature may range from Invisible Man to I, Rigoberta Menchú). Indeed, aspiring novelists have told me off the record that they dare not write of anything except their racial or sexual victimhood, for the university presses and rare Madison Avenue houses where “serious fiction” steals a few crumbs of the budget will have it no other way. There is more than an inkling in this authorial “slumming” and “poor-mouthing”, I believe, of hidden utopianism. That is to say, the contemporary intellectual is far too alert to cultural propaganda—too well initiated, too deeply jaundiced—to be seduced into any kind of romantic journey, any quest of higher possibilities. Yet, alas, that cowardly traitor, the human heart, will not be weaned from hope to dwell in a smugly sophisticated ivory-tower paradise of expectations reduced right down to modernity’s oily tarmac. This clever person, therefore—this novelist of our time—adopts the strategy which Derrida has mapped out so well (except that Derrida ascribes it to a dull laity, not to his inner circle): he or she postpones paradise. All that we have before us is Anti-Paradise: hence, by savaging what is before us, we clear a space for what is nowhere before us. “Everything unknown…”—and we’re back to Tacitus again.
Deconstruction, in fact, is nothing less than the quest to justify the untaken quest by subverting all familiar quests. By clearing the ground of folly, it implicitly creates a place of honor for the folly-not-yet-committed. Deconstructionists will giggle in print (their embarrassment, pride, and adolescent sense of irony inextricably mingled) that their own traduction by romantic notions further demonstrates how all of us are constantly traduced. Yet such pliant logic is little in evidence when the post-structuralist’s first cousin (or the post-structuralist on holiday) steps into the political arena. The urbane wag, capable even of self-deprecation in pursuit of irony, suddenly brooks no opposition. All is speech codes, political correctness, sensitivity training, “hate crimes” legislation, and the abolition of private property.
I have mulled over this apparent contradiction in behavior for years—for people strike me as invincibly logical even in their lunacy: raving always conceals a set of unstated premises. In this case, I believe we see the irresistible craving for romance—for the quest after a personally fulfilling pot of gold—leaking through the sophisticate’s seams. Like so many fire-breathing young (or young at heart) Alexanders, the literary leaders of our intelligentsia occasionally must wave their spears in public on behalf of the always-unseen, always-not-quite-yet utopia in whose favor their cynicism deposes all previous values. Marxist revolutionary in the graduate seminar, champagne-sipping Jesuit at the faculty soirée… at church with the saints, at the bar with drunkards. (It was Dante, not Tacitus, who famously recalled that proverb.)
If this is romance’s high road in our time, then its fatal trajectory is rather less edifying than Aeneas’s. At least Aeneas was aware of having incurred intimately personal obligations. His error lay in succumbing to a blunt calculus of bodies: disappoint Dido on one side, disappoint the whole Teucrian tribe on the other. No liar can be absolved of his sin by pleading that he betrayed one person’s trust to confer wealth and power on a vast horde: what the outer world approves is not what the soul requires. Contrast this sobering failure with the childish crisis of narcissism among our ivory tower’s brightest. We are to hold aloof from the naiveté of chasing horizons, yet—who knows?—if we torch all the engines of transport, maybe we can found a perfect world. Or maybe enlightened aliens will discover us—for the cynic-revolutionary places no end of confidence in satellite dishes beaming wish lists to far galaxies. He is in every detail Ortega y Gasset’s hijo mimado: the “spoiled child” who doesn’t remotely understand how technology works, yet expects it to disappear utterly or to fetch new gods on gamma rays as the whim may move him.
The contradiction in chasing abroad while trying to turn inward (for it is a real contradiction, incapable of conciliation) agonizingly confronted by Vergil is so far from being suspected among our anointed luminaries, indeed, that they often preach the bluntest, crudest forms of “going out”. They are veritable slaves to conquest. Though they deplore gaudy commercialism and capitalist competition, they have transformed the legal, medical, and teaching professions since World War II into venues of society’s most cutthroat self-promotion. The career’s the thing: women, in particular, have romanticized the white-collar world as a setting for self-centered adventures promising lucre and glory wherein collateral damage is no one’s particular fault (certainly not the adventurer’s). That other staple of the romance, self-discovery through sexual experience, has likewise fallen prey to the hypertrophy of feminism. The experience itself—the sex act, amputated of all emotional or social appendages—has become for the “highbrow” a trove of pleasures hunted down through a jungle of hypocritical decorum, and (naturally) yielding delights independent of any particular supplier. To be sure, what Walter Burkert calls the most elemental of all narrative scenarios, “go and get”, is rendered instantly problematic by differences in male and female anatomy.19 Nature’s unwillingness to “get” in these particular circumstances has frustrated more than one female trailblazer. Possible solutions? A resort to Lesbian love, much affected in the academy; an invigoration of “stick it to ’em” spirit in professional activity, where the reality of reified, commitment-free sex as a species of violence has grown especially clear; or a variety of attacks through charges of victimization, the lawsuit ranking among post-modernity’s favorite ways of counting coup. The essence of it all—the thing of quested-and-found things—is the acquisition of something “out there”: a raise, a promotion, a title… a stolen pleasure, an extorted settlement, an incited fear. And the Athena-on-one’s-shoulder, the Isis , the rabbit’s foot? Self-generated power—maximal use of sexual seduction, intellectual wile, and institutional intimidation all rolled into one bludgeon. With a bottle of such lethal thickness, who needs the genie inside?
My last paragraph may be charged with having a) singled out women for rebuke as contemporary romance-abusers, and b) forgotten that romance is an art form rather than a “lifestyle”. I believe that different aspects of a single response will satisfy both objections. To begin with, women have always consumed romance disproportionately to men. One finds a direct correlation between the emergence of romance as a literary genre in cultures around the world and the ceding of more privileges (such as education and legal rights) to women.20 This should come as no surprise to those who understand that literacy awakens among human beings a sense of inner worth, of precious individual uniqueness. Women profit from the awakening along with other conventionally disparaged groups.
Yet the literate woman (and here we are, to be sure, imagining a woman of higher social status) remains as physically cloistered as her forbears—perhaps more so, inasmuch as her more complicated setting has portioned certain robust out-of-door labors such as water-hauling to servants, or to incipient technology. She sees less of the wide world than ever. This would render her much more receptive to the Siren-song of travel to exotic places presented so seductively by the romance. Boccaccio remarks as much in the proem of the Decameron, a work which he dedicates to his female readership.21 The woman would also conceive more obscurely of the threats offered by reality beyond her cloister, knowing of them only second-hand, for the most part. A vague threat is often a more dreadful one, for there is more than one way to magnify the unknown (the truth is that even the original intent of Tacitus’s line is much disputed). While some can ignore the menace beyond the gate blissfully, others are extremely unsettled by its blank face. The romantic assurance that Lady Luck never abandons her initiates to complete catastrophe (and simply reading the romance is a kind of initiation) would have appealed especially to thoughtful but very partially informed minds—such as a literate but sheltered woman’s. By the eighteenth century, educated women were so generally recognized as the romance’s “target audience” that José Cadalso could recommend romance-reading, along with guitar-playing, as a sure way for the amorous courtier to insinuate himself into his beloved’s good graces.22
This was more or less the state of affairs in our own society immediately after World War II, as well, though during the fifties romance novels were fast yielding ground to “women’s magazines” stocked with serial fiction and, still more, to television dramas. The “soap opera” was the American woman’s national badge of dishonor, the proof-positive of her intellectual wool-gathering and general ineptitude at facing harsh realities. Women by the million thus consumed daytime serial romances, ironing or folding clothes before a grainy black-and-white picture while their men labored at “real jobs”. That these jobs themselves were much romanticized by the stay-at-home sex, being both unfamiliar in any detail and located in a population-dense environment beyond the suburbs, may much have influenced the next phase; or it may be, to a greater extent, that women rebelled primarily against the suburb’s mere depletion of social contacts during the day. My own suspicion (based on observation as well as inference) is that the female is essentially more sociable than the male. She has the ability to bear children, whether or not she chooses to exploit it. Even in cases of adult infertility, the woman has been raised supposing herself capable of bearing a child. This mere fact already suffices to sensitize her to social settings more than the male, who is never physically part of his child even if he sires a dozen.
Due to some combination of factors, then (and there were economic factors, too), women began to forsake the home for the marketplace in droves by the late sixties and throughout the seventies. That the most published rationale for the exodus was seldom at this time, “We need the income,” but rather an infinitely vaguer, “I want to have my own identity,” would imply that the phenomenon was indeed largely creative. Many women were attempting to write the romance of their lives, at least among the more educated (and remember: we are still on the romantic high road). It was precisely over the final decades of the twentieth century that novels—“serious” novels—came to be written as if they were the author’s diary chronicling her struggles to succeed in a man’s world. That is, life had grown so romanticized that it began to dictate in minutest fashion, like changing weather to a captain’s logbook, the content of the fictional journey beyond the pale—when, of course, the “creator” had any time left over to write.
The confusion of perceiver with thing-to-be-perceived in the post-modern art work is a momentous development. One finds it in visual art, where living persons are provocatively painted or adorned and then stationed around the gallery, sometimes being encouraged to interact with viewers. One finds it in the theater, where players invite audience to participate actively in the drama’s unfolding. One finds it literature to the tenth power, where readers have even been posed the task of organizing chapters as they will. Surely we cannot suppose that so dynamic a relation between perceptor and percipiendum, unique in the history of art, should have nothing to do with what makes our era unique in the history of human culture generally: the collapse of universal literacy to nugatory levels within three generations of the television’s acceptance into living rooms. The fifties housewife wasn’t merely making her chores less tedious as she absorbed soap operas. She was not even merely confirmed in the suspicion that her own life was far duller than most people’s. In conjunction with both, but to a far greater degree, she was seeing herself (or people who posed as someone like herself) dress, speak, and be profoundly interesting. The printed word could never have forged such a tight bond with gesture and tone of voice, and theater could never have represented such detail with such persistent, reach-out-and-touch proximity. Even the movies, which must have had a share in the phenomenon, were typically a once-a-week outing, nor did film genres of the time take nearly as much cognizance of workaday America as did the television.
I call the phenomenon, for lack of a better term, aesthetic preemption. Its victims over-identify with the art work. They cannot retain a more or less objective distance from the work, but rather become part of the canvas in the act of perceiving it. They preempt its artistic effect: they adopt a part. The television serial, purged of reality’s delay and pointless endeavor, seems more life-like than life itself: one’s own life appears comparatively undigested. Even a post-modern novel, wasting not a word in minimalist dedication to speed, requires effort to visualize—and effort requires time. Eventually, works of fiction will trail after successful serials instead of preceding them, their publishers hoping to capitalize upon the warm afterglow of a popular screened romance.
So TV-addicted America, and especially the female audience, began to “preempt” the unveiling of the plot when it found itself in a position to create a life as interesting as those it had voyeuristically studied through a glass rectangle. Forgotten housewives rebelled: they became “involved”. Their days were turned into filming sessions. The new medium was quickly rendered more malleable as the state was compelled to supply an ever broader safety net beneath the tentative first flights of aspiring artists: maternity leave, child care, “affirmative action” hiring, guaranteed minimum wages, rigidly objectified criteria for promotion, etc., etc. Not all such measures were discernably indexed to gender: on the contrary, the Woman’s Movement had effectively transformed the entire private sector into a kind of Hollywood set where “dreams” of wealth, power, and glory could be faintly realized by Citizen X with a finely engineered degree of predictability. Once such artificial, stringent manipulation was imposed upon the highly competitive literate world’s volatile forces, the mystical influence of a patron saint or leprechaun or magic potion proved redundant. The new hero could do it all on his—or her—own. Naturally, when “it” wasn’t getting done, friction around the water cooler or coffee pot could reach super-heated levels. It’s one thing to increase a guy’s working hours until he decides to look for another job: it’s quite another to come between an artist and her canvas. Hence the egotistical ruthlessness of the late twentieth-century white-collar world. Though usually attributed to materialist craving, it makes far more sense as a rather barbaric crisis of “artistic expression” in a strange land where people can read, but no longer do so. The material acquisitions themselves were mere end-of-chapter flourishes published to commemorate an adventure’s successful completion.
Alert academics (or observers of academics) will be very familiar with how bewilderingly thorough aesthetic preemption is in shaping intellectual exchanges. Such impassioned illogic as is often shouted in one’s face during a “debate” about social policy would belong at any other historical moment to the street-corner rabble-rouser. Now it is standard issue among the intelligentsia. One’s interlocutor is no longer a highly trained mind, but a “talking head” for an oppressed minority. (Notice, by the way, how the very word “passion” has become in these times ameliorative in a theatrical sense, suggesting that an infusion of life-like vigor has successfully lit up a string of clichés.) Indeed, the “old” print literature of yesteryear is openly accused now in English departments of attempting the brainwash of its consumers over benighted centuries. That is, it was once intended to feed gullible fools their lines as they waded patiently through its pages. Now the Self-Made Woman preempts the lines by speaking rather than reading, by living out the story rather than absorbing it passively. If the only literature worth reading consists of her sisters’ after-the-fact transcriptions of their triumphs—their own Gallic Wars—then she may say with complete candor, La littérature, c’est moi.
VIII. Maleness and Romance
And what was the male doing during these years of the female’s “going out” into his traditional hunting grounds and killing his big game? Did he assume a less romantic, more Stoical posture in response to being nudged into the margin? Well, hardly. In fact, to him belongs the low road of romance. Back in antiquity, on the contrary, the last gasps of the epic genre and the first brave steps of history-writing had been produced by and for males. Literate women were infinitely more likely to scroll through Daphnis and Chloe (set suggestively in the homeland of the Greco-Roman world’s greatest female love elegist) than the Aeneid or the Annales. The same very likely remained true over the two intervening millennia which I have virtually skipped. Today, however, the tables have diametrically turned. Men are less likely than women to continue their education beyond the legally required level, in the first place; and, having decided to attend college, they are also less likely to major in literary studies or to do well in literary core courses. In complementary fashion, they are more likely to consume “electronic” romances of one kind or another: television serials, movies, and video games. The fifties housewife burning up her husband’s white shirt on the ironing board as she peers at a soap opera has now been transformed into a jobless man watching reruns of The Rockford Files between interviews. Even conventionally female-drawing television genres, such as hospital dramas or sitcoms, have steadily admitted more coarseness (especially of a sexual nature) and more provocative female characters in response to their audience’s changing demography. As I sit writing these words, a website titled “askmen.com” is apparently surveying its vast audience to determine the hundred “hottest” females available to the general public’s eye. My impression of the voting, for which I am beholden to a particular radio announcer, is that vast numbers of men with nothing better to do in life are sitting through television serials very far removed from yesteryear’s male-only police drama or Western. It would seem, indeed, as though men had created their own romance of questing far and wide (from their couch, and with a remote channel-changer or mouse) after the most stupefying female “package” in the universe.
Questing, going and getting, seeking the Holy Grail… I find such activity, modified into “surfing” or “browsing” electronic networks, no more implausible as a degraded species of creativity than the American female’s odyssey of “self-discovery” in the marketplace. Like the career woman, too, this romantically wired man wants his victories to vindicate his personal power, not that of a lucky talisman or secret code (though talismans and codes, with their odor of Gnosticism, also occupy the scene: of them, more anon). The man who successfully identifies his personal “maximum” for sexual arousal from the thousands of voluptuous females represented on his screens can retrieve and download minutiae about her private life until he truly feels that he possesses her. He may wallpaper an entire “trophy room” in her photos and build what may properly be called altars piled with memorabilia of her purchased at Internet auctions.23 If such behavior does not constitute an imaginative pursuit of a distant ideal and the acquisition of treasured relics along the way, then the sun doesn’t set in the West.
I wrote at the beginning of this piece [see Part One in Praesidium 7.1: ed.] that my own adolescence depended heavily upon the television as a social outlet—as a source, at any rate, of hopeful scenarios about “going and getting” in an unpredictable, usually hostile world. I understand the syndrome as a drunkard understands alcoholism. All the same, the ailment observes degrees—and the typical case has grown exponentially more toxic since my childhood. The old movies I consumed were based largely on books; even television serials boasted writers of genuine literary talent. From The Late Show’s docket of old movies, I recall seeing Lawrence Olivier and Simone Signoret in Term of Trial, Ian Carmichael and Peter Sellers in I’m Alright, Jack, Richard Burton and Kurt Jurgens in Bitter Victory, John Mills and Dirk Bogarde in The Singer, Not the Song, Alec Guiness and John Mills in Tunes of Glory. Except perhaps for the last, these films are unavailable today in any form whatever: they might as well have been last year’s snow. Their lead actors became legendary, however—and their stories were stunningly instructive in the matter of basic human nature. As I look back upon this very fragmentary list, I realize that the central characters really didn’t “get” much of anything. Even in Carmichael’s thickly ironic comedy, the dénouement was quite sobering (climaxed by a magnificent speech which Carmichael delivers in a kind of vatic frenzy). Of course, there were less cerebral works within my ken, as well. Yet these also surpassed—by a long shot, in my view—the most mature films and serials that today has to offer. Gary Cooper goes hunting Spanish treasure in the Western, Garden of Evil, tripping over so many archetypal features of the mythic Other World Journey along the way that one can scarcely doubt director Henry Hathaway’s literary cultivation. Cooper’s final line acidly sizes up just what going-and-getting usually amounts to in this life: “If the earth were made of gold… I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.” As for television, the same years that addled the brains of my peers with Star Trek offered Secret Agent, The Prisoner, and Man in a Suitcase—all British imports, all capable of unnerving a starry-eyed “trekkie”, and two out of three very uneasily received by American audiences.
A corner has long been turned, it seems to me, in the television/movie audience’s patterns of male consumption. When men are not “writing their own story” in pursuit of an Aphrodite born from a new kind of wave, they are vicariously savoring psychotic varieties and degrees of violence. Nothing from the days of my youth remotely approaches the graphic portrayals of evisceration ubiquitous in today’s films. Research indicates, however, that a steady diet of such viewing fare produces passive onlookers—with extraordinarily high “revulsion thresholds”, to be sure—rather than bloodthirsty criminals. What is far more credibly implicated in the growth of violent crime also happens to be the latest sort of viewing popular among young males: the video game. Here aesthetic preemption is taken to a new level. The participant can actively “go and get” victim after victim through ever more sophisticated simulations. The “player” can “live” (in a fashion more participatory than looking on, at any rate) the thrill of beating, raping, and murdering. Many young males appear to consider this sort of diversion their “real” existence, sleepwalking their way through life’s necessary motions in a pitiable state until they can at last be reunited with their controls. Make no mistake: this is their odyssey, their adventure, their holy quest. If the New Woman’s preempted romance is professional success, the New Man’s is an insatiable will to power once known only to mythic superheroes.
Writing of modern man’s quintessential “going and getting” tool, Ortega y Gasset observed, “The new man desires the automobile and enjoys it, but believes it to be the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree. In the depths of his soul, he is ignorant of the artificial, almost fantastical character of civilization, and will not enlarge his enthusiasm for appliances to include the principles that make them possible.”24 So for the romantic low road provided by advanced technology: the contemporary Western male, hazed from the marketplace by women wanting to “find themselves” rather than simply bring home a paycheck, is becoming more of a brute as the latest technology renders his brutality ever less vicarious and ever more plausible. An oral-traditional tribesman—but lacking both oral fluency and traditional reverence for precedent—is rising from this electronically flooded swamp of cliché and formula, his muscles grotesquely bulging from exercise machines rather than from useful labor, his life held just this side of a gory adventure in rapine by the thinnest of threads. Jails are already overcrowded, budgets of police departments already exploded: what will restrain this post-literate sociopath from carrying off loot and women like a pirate if his means of “virtual piracy” should dry up in massive malfunction? Deprived of inner resources by the failure of literate culture and of outer opportunities by the success of that culture (i.e., by the transformation of hard labor into romantic adventure, now coveted by everyone), where will he turn, this creature who turns only outward? What will he go and get, this creature who must always be going and getting?
IX. The Failure of Contemporary Faith
The spiritual genius of the Middle Ages lay in allegorizing the inner search as an adventure: where is that fertile tradition now? Just as educated Americans are “living” their romance today rather than reading it, so Christian practice has turned outward with very heavy emphasis in virtually all denominations. Proselytizing is underscored in the self-styled evangelical community. That one’s church grows bigger is reflexively, unreflectively interpreted as a sign of its health and success. The believer’s obligations, beyond attempting to rope in more members, consist largely of group behaviors—especially attendance of Sunday services, but more generally of supporting church-sponsored events and (in the closest approach to introspection) maintaining a “clean” marriage in the eyes of the community. I do not remotely intend here any disparagement of such virtues as marital fidelity and a disciplining of sexual urges, let alone of sacrificing one’s egotistical ambitions to the well-being of one’s children. To the extent that “going and getting” has yielded in this scenario to “staying put and cultivating”, I regard the typically projected Christian habit of living as very salutary. Yet the resistance to the romance’s magnetism strikes me as unsteady, to say the least. The believer does not search his soul (or is not so represented in church practice) and then emerge with a new commitment to his moral duty. He grooms himself to suit the tribe, rather: he lives by the tribe’s calendar and competes zealously for tribal honors. A young woman may join a church group and vow pre-marital chastity; a mature man may enlist in the army of Promise-Keepers and vow to take his vows seriously. Joining, it seems, must precede righteous action. Little reading of any kind occurs at any point, and that either directly from or explicitly indexed to sacred texts. The liturgy has been purged of silence. The being within finds no place to lay his head.
Ponder the history of American Christianity over the past half-century, and you find a geometrically accelerating growth in its most romantic forms. Since the late sixties, when the nation was enduring a widely reported, somewhat manufactured shift to an antinomian secularism, the more substantial and consequential shift among the young, employed, married or marriage-tolerant bourgeoisie was from inward-turning to outward-turning patterns of devotion. Within a very few years, religious services altered from strictly scripted orders of worship in dark, sublime spaces inviting personal reflection to crowded, brightly lit scenes of hand-shaking, spontaneous testimonials, stool-and-guitar musical interludes, children’s sermons, and “power” prayers (i.e., cheerleading paeans warbled into a microphone, usually—as time went on—accompanied by sound-system special effects and more hand-holding). Simply to be on church property was to be in heaven. The church compound came to provide gyms for church members, movie theaters for church members, bowling alleys and billiard rooms for church members, dating clubs for church members, bussed excursions to mall or athletic event for church members… one’s life was far more thoroughly and diversely occupied here, and far more realistically, than any collection of video games might ever manage. Middle America’s bland romance of the good life—the constant variety of wealth wedded to technology, the “virtuous eroticism” of sexual pleasure within monogamous bounds, the charmed security of having a supernatural protector overseeing the whole carnival—solidified into what must surely be the best example of aesthetic preemption ever constructed.25
It is small wonder that people conditioned to such extroverted, non-literate habits should have been collectively roiled by that silly romance, The Da Vinci Code. In the romantic world, salvation is a high trump card, a magic ring: a material possession or external rite which produces empirically solid results. Slip the ring in your mouth, and you can sneak away from your captors unseen: say a fervent prayer in the right formula, and your child’s leukemia will vanish. Church-sponsored “info-mercials” in the southwestern United States have lately been peddling what is quite literally called a talisman (associated with the Virgin of Guadalupe) to be inserted under the mattress before one’s bedtime prayers. A young man, having sprung from a jaunty red sports car, assures us that the talisman transformed his financial situation, and a voice-over explicitly promises dividends in suerte, amor, salúd, y dinero (“luck, love, health, and money”).26 In such a “go and get” (or “go-getter”) atmosphere, the objectified secrets to success are bound to be purloined sometimes, sold on the black market, plastered up in walls, or stashed away for centuries. If only one might find the hidden key, the vault of heaven would open.
The edition of U.S. News & World Report intended, apparently, to be something of a Christmas issue for 2006 used the Da Vinci Code craze —and quite correctly—as a springboard for discussing Gnosticism.27 “Some fear that the new Gnosticism ‘threatens the shape of the Christian faith’,” reads a large-print caption, quoting the caveat of a professor at Emory University. The most interesting words here are some fear. When Christendom was healthy, Gnosticism was categorically heretical: secret passwords and arcane symbols hushed up among the elect had nothing to do with the Jesus who felt a sublime pity for masses which could not even name man’s true hunger. Now the best that a major publication’s staff writer can do to stress the matter’s importance is some fear. The article proceeds to treat such fears as curmudgeonly and rather silly, of course, while Gnosticism is finessed toward the tolerant, open-minded end of the “debate between progressives and traditionalists”!
The reader will have noticed that I have made no effort to distinguish among denominations with regard to the corruption of romantic extroversion. Frankly, I believe such distinctions to be trivial. No organized Christian denomination has come to my attention which currently urges the importance—the primacy—of deeply individual involvement with one’s faith. I do not say “personal involvement”, but “individual”: romance, of course, is intimately personal—but the persons at its heart are small fish in a great ocean trying to defy their unpromising link in the food chain. They are not Stoic philosophers refusing to admit the moral relevance of any event beyond the reach of their will—refusing, even, to call “bad” a beloved child’s death from a dread disease. On the contrary, the romantic protagonist’s personal longings (for sex, power, or simply survival) eclipse every other crisis in the universe for him. An individualist’s adherence to right reason—to universal law—rather than to some formidable tradition or mystical aegis (accessed precisely by a “secret tradition”) is not for him.
Accordingly, Catholic and Protestant Christians, liberal and conservative Christians, all seem to me united in their romantic opposition to the individual—in their romantic emphasis that believers should “go and get” their heart’s desire by following proper channels rather than chasten and redefine that desire through contemplation. One eloquent proponent of a Catholic perspective recently wrote, “The writings of Bacon and Descartes reveal clearly… 1) the desire to overturn the received tradition and begin anew; 2) the denigration of authority; 3) radical individualism; 4) skepticism; and 5) the centrality of method.”28 This is a pretty standard attack on rationalism, and it is without neither merit nor oversimplification. Allow me in the present context merely to juxtapose the words of liberal secularist Will Hutton: “In a world that is wholly private, we lose our bearings; deprived of any public anchor, all we have are our individual subjective values to guide us.”29 Strange bedfellows, indeed—but the devout Christian conservative and the unbelieving social progressive describe their loathing of introversion in fully compatible terms. Notice that neither targets the “odyssean” individual who wanders far and wide sowing wild oats: not at all. The focus is on the Socratic individual who stays put, minimizing the outer world’s interference, and seeks the voice of God in his essential nature.
A rolling stone is not an individual, but a stone like any other that stands out because it rolls. An individual is not a rebel without a cause, or a counter-conformist. He or she is primarily a soul (in Christian terms), precious to God because it partakes of divine inspiration sufficiently to long after, seek, and find goodness through environmental clouds of witness. The purveyor of romances is rendered nervous by this search because it resists romance, ultimately—because, while it may be helped by wise direction from without, it is independent of such direction; and, in being independent, it is unresponsive to worldly ambition. Visionaries of church and state alike seem nowadays to have big plans for us, plans which will make us happy personally and also benefit our community. They are utopians one and all, these creative thinkers. Heaven can move over and wait—they have a blueprint that will work right now.
But what the soul requires and what the world approves will never be the same: Vergil produced a negative proof of that proposition. That certain souls will mislead themselves, even as certain souls are misled by their ecclesiastical or political shepherds, is indubitable. The truly introverted search, however, enjoys the advantage of learning quickly and thoroughly from its errors, for the evidence is all within sight, and only needs to be seen. The worldly search, in contrast, can be drawn out for lifetime after misspent lifetime, whether on the authority of the past or the promise of a transformed future. There is no end of variety: the planet is round, and always offers a new horizon. If a significant denomination of Christendom can yet be found which offers no remedies for social dissolution, no maps to the perfectly harmonized community, no legal agendas for building the virtuous state, but only salvation for individual souls, then Christendom lives. Yet the cacophony of competing “blanket salvations” for this or that body of faithful, like a quick dialing through the satellite dish’s endless fare, makes so weak a signal very hard to receive.
X. Post-Literacy Meets Orality: The Cataclysm
I posed the question earlier—and it was by no means rhetorical—“What will the post-literate male, underemployed and finding his most vital expression in simulated acts of mayhem, go and get in his fully mutated form?” The transition from massacring dozens of people on a screen to acquiring an AK-47 so as, for once, to smell the blood is probably not a small step. Young men inclined to murder become “better”, less inhibited murderers as a result of their “simulation sessions”: that much is true. Yet there is little to suggest that young men fond of the simulators, by extension, typically graduate to real murder. On the contrary: boys who spend hours every day enacting such violent fantasies are often known as “geeks” among their peers, which seems to put them at the polarity opposed to real-life thuggery. In the same way, young men who devote hours every week to visiting pornographic sites online are very often hard pressed to sustain a simple conversation with a comely lass. Recall that life before a screen is not “real life” for most of our technically savvy youths. It is more real, in that real life is a senseless succession of disappointments. The video game, like the soap opera—and like the literary romance not so long before—is an alternative to reality, a place to which society’s forgotten members may flee.
I will confess that I first thought of young Islamic men turning to suicide attacks when I studied the picture of jobless males dishing out Armageddon in their bedroom from manual controls. Upon consideration, I believe that such a connection exists, but that it is more complicated than a + b = c. After all, the extreme version of Islam which promises a harem in heaven to a warrior expiring amid his infidel victims is not a romance, appearances notwithstanding. For one thing, the evolutionary forces which go into creating romances are inoperative here. This vision of apotheosis is, instead, oral-traditional. The message consists primarily of an assured celebrity in the tribal memory for killing the tribe’s enemies. The beautiful virgins awaiting the martyr’s embrace in paradise are readily misinterpreted by Westerners, and even more readily caricatured. They do not represent a sexual orgy, but rather the achievement of those marks of respect most widely recognized in an oral-traditional community: many wives, and the wealth implied therein. The message remains crude, no doubt, to literate tastes—but it is really no more so than the motives of Homer’s Achilles when he volunteers to trade his life for eternal glory in his native isles. What surprises us is that Achilles, in certain parts of the world, is still very much alive. We were similarly surprised—and outraged—when Japanese kamikazes flew into our ships during the Second World War. It was grotesque—it was more brutal, even, than what one would expect of an animal. Yet to young Japanese pilots, it was a means to undying honor within the tribe.
Furthermore (and in pursuance of the same point, really), the romance’s hero is going it alone in a turbulent, almost incomprehensible world. I have tried to distinguish him from a true individualist, who he is decidedly not. He is Everyman with a lucky charm in his pocket. While the graduation, not to one lovely princess, but to scores of exquisite brides at the story’s end might appear to be the very height of good fortune—and all of this in paradise, no less—the latent passivity of the romantic hero cannot be reconciled to the jihadist’s berserk frenzy of destruction. Remember that the romance was born of the Other World Journey’s archetypal sequence, wherein the traveler moves quietly, keeps a low profile, and often acquires or feigns some of the attributes of the dead. In its more sophisticated forms, the romance continues to insist that the protagonist should be rather befuddled about all that goes on around him; for the thrusting of this naïf into chaos creates an essential resonance with the reader’s discomfort in his own too-changeable world. The Islamic martyr is not this sympathetic lost yokel. He is Genghis Khan, not Odysseus.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that bright, technically sophisticated, yet radically disaffected young men are indeed prone to romanticize jihad. Virtually all Islamic males involved in terrorist incidents throughout the Western world have been, not only literate, but fairly well educated. The kamikaze who blows up a bus in Tel Aviv may be a different story; but in our midst, the killer’s profile begins to look alarmingly like our son’s classmate’s—or like our son’s. Though oddly distant now to our crisis-glutted national recollection, the rash of murderous rampages in schools which harrowed the nineties was perpetrated by these same young males, minus the profile’s Islamic element. Something about Islam, or a certain strain of Islam, has spiced up the stew from which these hapless boys emerge; but religion is not the sole ingredient, and I venture to say that it is not even the most peppery one.30 Let us recall that Westerners-born-and-raised are starting to embrace the romance of jihad without any thorough exposure to Islamic custom, any profound knowledge of Koranic law, or any ever-so-brief experience of an oral/tribal setting. Far from having deep roots in a community inextricably bound to their personal identity, these boys tend to spring from upwardly mobile environments where lonely electronic amusements are abundant, where the family physically relocates every few years, and where extended family and neighborhood ties are non-existent. A context more unlike the streets of Gaza is scarcely imaginable… yet our adolescent males are too often ready to die in an annihilating blaze, even without virgins waiting on the cataclysm’s far side.
It appears fair enough to say, then, that the jobless young male addicted to video games might metastasize into a suicide-bomber. If he memorizes a few passages from the Koran along the way, he probably takes from them something very different from what another jihadist halfway around the world find there: not a transcending sense of purpose within the ethos which suckled him from birth, but… fearful courage. Manly virtue. For what we have not given our young men in the West—what we give our own sons less and less, and what young men around the world find less and less of as they Westernize—is manliness. Western culture, as human history’s quintessentially literate venture, is perhaps insuperably romantic. It writes things down, so that they may be analyzed; these things, having been analyzed, become susceptible to change; the Westerner, having changed all things (or at least rendered all things subject to change), acquires an ethic of transformation. Metamorphosis—the soul of the Journey to the Other World: the fully developed Westerner is not intimidated by the most horrid mutations, by the most vertiginous flux, because he has come to associate it with cocoon-to-butterfly improvement. His very gender is subject to alteration: like that sage of the Underworld, Teiresias, he may become a “she”—and then shift back again on a whim, or explore some third gender. Death itself is potentially soluble. Genetic engineering, cryogenic preservation, travel at the speed of light… there’s more than one way to beat the devil. And the Westerner, like a true romantic, knows that he will eventually “get lucky” in his search for ways.
Such a mentality negates the most important qualities of manliness. The man stands firm. He is here and not somewhere else: he honors his word and defends his territory unto death. His gender is that of the epic hero and the mythic demigod—the figure whose fallen corpse becomes the mountain range marking the tribal border. To the extent that manliness has been able to withstand the transformative seductions of literacy, it has always reaffirmed the boundaries beyond which change must not proceed. Like a racked Aeneas (or like the crucified Christ), Literate Man has had to define the No Man’s Land between moral duty and the community’s material progress. Aeneas actually fell on the wrong side of the line, and “leaders” such as Machiavelli’s Cesare Borgia have been ceding territory ever since. So hopelessly haggard has that line grown, indeed, that celebrated “conservative” scholars may hold up Machiavelli as a paradigm of something like “manly realism”—the “manly ability”, I suppose, to throttle conscience and go get the loot.31 This is the manliness of a buccaneer; and I will write nothing very insightful in remarking the current popularity of such figures—pirates, hoodlums, hired assassins, etc.—in electronic narratives. In our advanced state of degradation, the less academic expression of this “ideal” is actually the more honest. The ”true man” is a muscled-up bully who imposes his will by force, yet who in fact wills nothing much differently than might an ape—whose relations with women, for instance, are dictated by his seething libido rather than by anything remotely akin to will power: a sybarite on steroids.
No one in his right mind would maintain that the late Oriana Fallaci was anti-occidental, or in any wise an apologist for the many haters of the West. La Rabbia e L’Orgoglio (The Rage and the Pride), composed within weeks of the September 11 attacks and through the anguish of an advancing cancer, made Fallaci persona non grata among the politically correct Italian ruling elite (and also a champion among ordinary Italians). Signora Fallaci had more manly courage in her little finger, for my money, than 90% of the men (at a conservative estimate) who speak any cousin of the language native to Regulus.32 Endowed with such credentials, Fallaci should be dealt the utmost attention in her testimony against the dominant vector of Western culture as offered in a much earlier book, Se Il Sole Muore (If the Sun Dies). A rambling reportage of America’s romance with the Space Race during the sixties, the work is largely devoted to bravery. Fallaci does not seek to conceal her admiration for the first astronauts: they remind her of the men who reared her during the dark years of Fascism (including a grandfather who slapped her for sniveling as American bombs hailed upon Florence). Yet an insoluble perplexity torments her, as well, throughout this unique search for truth—this odyssey through a foreign land which draws her ever deeper into herself, like a medieval allegory. She cannot quite come at an adequate explanation—or perhaps an adequate justification—for America’s need to replace nature with artifice. Her scruples are not the peacenik’s or the hippie’s: the girl who injured her leg trying to cycle away from falling bombs (in yet another air raid) did not mature into a tree-hugger. What ultimately bemuses Fallaci about American culture, I think, is the unmanliness that taints its unquestionable manhood. To attempt a lunar landing, where a single miscue would leave one separated from the human race forever, perhaps—even in death—appears to demand stunning courage. Yet the same ethos which generates endless volunteers for a probe of the black abyss also endorses frivolous abuse of resources and—of all things—laziness as a habit of daily life. Raze a forest and build a highway, push a button and avoid five seconds of manual effort… the instances of such ignoble surrender to lethargy under the illusion that technology somehow demonstrates an assertion of moral will pile up about her in the most unlikely places, in the most absurd manner, as she tours various training facilities and launching sites. Cicero had chosen the word frugalitas to sum up the truly philosophical life in one of his last treatises (the Disputationes Tusculani: see 3.8.16): “frugality”, that brave virtue—often distorted in contemporary usage—of taking minimally from the outside, of placing one’s treasure within. What Fallaci’s book disturbingly chronicles is the inconsistency of extravagance with moral courage. A brave man shouldn’t need to have his pillow plumped electronically.
In the technologically sophisticated world pioneered by Americans and now being exported all over the globe, men no longer know how to go about being men. When the latest machine malfunctions and threatens mass destruction, perhaps one man will leap up from somewhere and have his life’s finest moment fighting the behemoth’s high-tech guts with a wrench. On a typical day, however, the drone who mops the floors and collects the trash does more heavy lifting than any of the lavishly paid technicians around him. The technicians, of course, represent that small minority of educated men (smaller all the time) who have been able to find work more profitable than collecting trash, so their presence may scarcely be said to constitute an escape valve. Furthermore, while their muscles are too weak to transport a computer monitor up a staircase, let alone do conventionally “manly” tasks, they are the successful providers in this dichotomy, and the manual laborer a pitiable beast of burden. The latter cannot support a family unaided, and indeed has grown uninviting to females thanks to his penury. The Male Provider is a powerful archetype; yet the males among us most capable of yoking an ox to a plow are least capable of fulfilling that image today, for bread now comes in a wrapper.
To be sure, hands still move shovels at certain low-lying points in the modern economy. Little discussed among economists is the grim reality that, beyond a certain fluctuating border, the use of human drudges for age-old tasks becomes more cost-effective than designing and producing new technology run by new technicians. A robot to collect and empty a whole building’s trash could readily be engineered—but the waif loitering around the parking lot would do the job instantly and for bottom-rung wages. These are the fabled “jobs that Americans won’t do” for which, it is argued, vast supplies of unskilled immigrant labor are required. The situation is neither particularly novel nor unique to the United States: impoverished Irish were shuttled back and forth to Scotland as farm laborers for decades before World War II, Poles were similarly used in the factories of northern France, and now the Islamic population of the Middle East and North Africa is massively altering Europe’s demographic landscape.
As technology advances and new techniques are not developed to catch thousands of displaced white-collar workers on the next rung down, a new class of underemployed citizen arises. In fact, intermediate rungs on the ladder are rapidly disappearing. Yet the educated, unemployed male, having grown accustomed to (or been raised to expect) a technician’s level of pay, disdains the gardener’s pittance; while gardeners, in turn, are being paid as well as their fathers only if they can secure a clientele of the royally salaried technician elite. Since the native-born male does not seek seasonal work or crave a gypsy’s existence, but rather wants a steady job and a place to call his own, he falls ever nearer to the bottom in this shuffle. His education suddenly appears to serve no better end than to awaken him to his group’s historical decline and to mock him with the awareness that less “manly” men are buying property and siring children while he withers away.
For, unless this man can reinvent the plow and reform urban zoning codes so as to permit him an ox, his powers as a provider must inevitably be linked to the salary he draws. Salaries, alas, are hard to come by, both because technology has shrunk the volume of steady jobs and because the large-scale entry of women into the work force has further shrunk the pool for the male. (As well as from the preferential hiring practices enforced in some professions, women may well have profited from an ability, either natural or cultural, to outperform males in sedentary, enclosed situations involving constant social interaction.) Consider, finally, that the educated male traditionally found his mate from among the very class of women who now exceed him in earnings and hence, by the reigning measure, are more manly than he is. The resulting dilemma has created excruciating problems for both genders. I could personally bear witness to the misery of a young, bright, beautiful, lavishly paid, and nationally recognized female attorney who (while consulting me professionally about her book manuscript) confessed a terror of being “taken in” by some man who only wanted her money—a terror inspired in her, quite clearly, by her more experienced sisters in the field. Such women seem to adopt the protective strategy of never allowing themselves to be courted by a man who earns less than they: a patently bizarre outcome to a feminist uprising which demanded at every stage, and continues to demand, higher pay for women.
An economic problem, then, this matter of frustrated manhood? Alas, it runs even deeper than that. The successful amassment of wealth in the private sector tends to require a certain lubricity, an ability to hedge on agreements and to cut corners in production. The good provider, that is, may not be a very upstanding specimen of manliness. (The salesman’s “firm handshake” and “straight look in the eye” are rather loathsome mimicries of manly gestures, a manipulative invocation of a vanished era.) Even professional work in the public sector, where the profit motive is largely tamed, often calls for a willingness to compromise in ways which women find fairly routine—but which may well disgust some men as excessively humbling. If such “invertebracy” were not repellent enough to the true man, mere material wealth in itself—let it have been acquired ever so scrupulously or ever so openly—represents an unmanly objective, an ambition exposed top-to-bottom to such whims of fortune as the Stoics refused to serve. Perhaps the marginalized “geek” finally graduates from gunning down adversaries on his computer games to “Web-mastering” for large companies; perhaps a generous salary and the envy of neighbors will suffice to calm his alienation. What about those of his classmates in whom electronic romances never produced marketable skills, however, and who now shampoo his carpets? How long will they lap up the relicts of his dirty shoes?
I am now in a position to repeat—in a more coherent manner, I hope—that the contemporary Western male is likely to find a certain seduction in daydreams of driving an explosive-laced truck into the building where he used to work, the battlecry of some dishonored truth trilling from his throat as he grins over the steering wheel. Islamic terrorist organizations would no more decline this man’s assistance than he would refuse to consider their variety of dishonored truth (for the key here is lost honor, to be recovered in a bloodbath). Though the jihadist’s vision of death by, with, and on the sword is no romance, for reasons I have explained, it can easily become so in the mind of a young man reared to be independent and upright only to find himself universally avoided and despised. The oral community admires its martyred sons for obliterating themselves in a pool of infidel blood. The obsolete male of the late-literate West will similarly—in the strangest of ways—exit consciousness in a beatific vision of community. Surviving neighbors will curse his memory, fear his name, marvel at his daring, bid up his possessions on e-Bay, fantasize about being his mate, and otherwise bear witness to his eternal impact upon a neighborhood which collectively looked straight through him when he lived. From the castaway who is not allowed to wash up on one of the romance’s exotic isles, but only to perish at sea with other “losers”, he has metamorphosed into a tsunami from the sea bed—a wall of destruction that will reach even those happy few heroes and heroines on the beach and utterly rewrite their ending.
Could he possibly conceive of his own end as happy, even in the exhilaration of suddenly being a man? One struggles to imagine his last moments: they might indeed be romantically passive, since he need only pilot the bomb-laden vehicle rather than wield a scimitar, and he might indeed be contemplative enough to savor the “luck” of having so many destinies bowing before his fingertips. As for the triumphant return—the rescued princess, the purloined treasure, the unveiled knowledge—his narrative must admittedly remain mutilated, for one can scarcely picture him at T Minus One anticipating a celestial harem rather than a mourning mass of terrestrial girls who had once derided him. Unfortunately, this young man has nothing but romances from which to patch his cliché-ridden tale. Whatever he finds to cover the gap where happiness should have gone can be very approximate, because all of his late-literate, post-literate generation are content with loose fits.33
XI. Can Escapism Be Escaped?
To the extent that human beings cannot exist without hope, the romance is a salutary accretion to a mature culture, where literate people, steadily more aware of their individual duties, grope after a focal point amid the general flux of manners and morals. Patience can indeed be a virtue: it is not always irresponsible onlooking. If the “onlooker” is also standing fast in some body of principle, he may well be generating more force than any of the objects he observes streaming by him in the current. In my personal recollections, I should perhaps credit the romance with inducing the abstemious torpor of my own youth—an abstracted confidence that “something better would come” which held me aloof from the toxic levels of “participation” imbuing the seventies and eighties. I am happy, in retrospect, that I did not participate. What keeps a young man from joining in is often not a mature understanding of the principles he faithfully supports—how could it be?—but simply a naïve belief that a benign power will escort him through the Strange Land’s ghouls if he remains immobile before thumps, teases, and menaces. I will not say that the sunlight I finally found at the far end of my youth’s otherworldly tunnel has in fact rendered me happy—or not so in such a way as a young man might have understood. The young man probably would have given up the journey to join the Dance of Ghouls had he known that the sun would rise again on such a desert. It is the rare saint—or that wonder of the world, the Stoic Sage—who can rejoice in the company of truth as he would in the company of warm bodies. May God pity us all in our need for touches, images, and stories!
The real problem, however (for an uplifting story is God’s pity), comes when romance does not navigate a turbulent world by subtly indexing higher goals to specific tasks, but pours its energies into that world, instead, and mingles the two until they fuse: for then there can be no escape from the world. Hope is doomed to disillusionment. Everyone, after all, must die in the flesh: science may find ways to postpone natural death, but our own protracted survival would then have to absorb ever more “accidents” which deprive us of those who enrich our lives. Love will fade after its flower, and the petals pressed between wax sheets will be more pathetic than seductive as reminders: if we cannot retain a tenderness for the child’s spirit shocked by a suddenly withering body, then our one-time princess will become an enchanted reptile morphing in the wrong direction. Knowledge itself eventually trips over its own tracks, a trail of flotsam circling a null and final Charybdis. Were we to explore the very fringe of the universe visible to our technology, we could still not demonstrate that, immensely far beyond this fringe, an infinitely vast amount of universe does not negate every law we had ever “discovered”, reducing our accumulated wisdom to a dropped stitch in a Navaho rug.
Clearly, romance in the contemporary world predominantly carries our imagination outward into fantasies of material wealth, power, glory, and sensual “fulfillment” (as if any sensual appetite could ever be fulfilled). Our “dreams”—as the politicians like to call romantic illusions—have destroyed us. That for which we reach cannot at last be grasped; and, in our hurt-child frustration, we cannot turn within to the comforts of philosophy or true faith. Literacy has made us inquisitive, and inquiry has made us experimental, and experiment has made us inventive… but as we have invented more and more solutions to age-old obstacles, the very thoughtfulness which inaugurated our creative chain has drifted into range as an obstacle. We have lately invented shortcuts which bypass the “nuisance” of thinking out a page of printed words. Our romances were first transformed to fully visible images, then into the environment of our lives, as if we had been sucked into one of the screens we watched for amusement. We play parts and await the crowns and embraces promised to our character by the formula. Nirvana, of course, is constantly partial or postponed: something more is needed. So we apply what remains of our highly trained ability to making the imperial crown more jeweled or the princess’s image more palpable. I am surprised, frankly, that a major industry has not already sprung up around the designing of verbally savvy appliances programmed to address their sovereign with honorific epithets, or of robotic sexual partners programmed to make love in whatever vein suits their master (or mistress).
I will not be so fatuous as to suggest that a return to a Great Books reading list might re-connect post-literate man with his found-and-lost soul. Little is more vexatious than attending the red-alert to an epochal menace and then being offered a pedantic solution. To be sure, a renewed acquaintance with great authors could only prove healthy to our ailing culture; but the Ivory Tower, which has either turned its head as this particular menace worsened or—not infrequently—contributed to the threat, will hardly be able to rush to the rescue now by altering core requirements for an undergraduate degree. The decay is far too advanced. You can no more make an angry young male surmount his smoldering frustration by assigning him The Consolation of Philosophy than you can make an ambitious young female chasten her hungry expectations of life by assigning her Oriana Fallaci’s The Useless Sex. Whatever changes can possibly be made at this point must appear at ground-level, where people actually live in and with their frustration or ambition. These changes must be therapeutic rather than homiletic: that is, they must set the populace to doing in some way different from going and getting, not merely warn everyone to stay home.
Yet would that be so very hard—is life, in fact, not at least as much a matter of staying as of going? Nobody ever went more (or at least was ever more renowned for going) than Odysseus, but his primary motive was always simply to return home. We are told that women love homes. The man, I believe, is similarly enamored of the idea of “sinking roots”—or would be if he were permitted to satisfy his nature rather than persuaded to ape some pop-cultural parody of manliness. The man loves his territory. He loves to build, maintain, and improve it with his hands and with his wits. He is more settler than drifter: his ambitions lean more to the small-but-independent than to the well-salaried-but-subordinate. He could make more money selling the farm and being milord’s bailiff—but the position of wealthy lackey is not one he envies. The lackey’s life offers a much ampler scope for romance: more lands visited, more people met, more amorous conquests amassed, more danger narrowly averted, more unguarded treasure pocketed along the way. Everyone knows that the farm is “boring”, and the hired “go-doer”—the mercenary like Xenophon, the aggressive trader like Homer’s Phoenicians, or the mere unskilled drudge like Daphnis—is far more likely to meet excitement along his path than the dull cultivator wearing a rut between hovel and barn. Recall Boccaccio’s exquisite portrait of literate young females, however: the romance was historically their antidote to tedium, for rather few men ever really left the farm until the bailiff evicted them. Men do not need excitement: boys and pricey women need excitement.
From a political economist’s point of view, surely the society where people stay put—the “frugal” society, in Cicero’s sense of the word—would be more healthy than its modern American alternative. Today our economy is propped up by various social pathologies: wanting to change residences (rent, home sales, new housing), craving instant amusement (movies, sports, fast food), needing a means of swift conveyance (cars, private aircraft, commercial jets), calming one’s nerves after constant going-and-getting (alcohol, marijuana, sex), requiring artificial stimulation to go-and-get once more (sugar, caffeine, cocaine), and demanding immediate repair when the system finally crashes (counseling, “rehabbing”, surgery). The very partial list which I have just rambled off accounts for a huge amount of the U.S. Gross National Product. One wonders, to hear “free market” exponents hold forth, how the nation would avoid a major economic collapse if people suddenly decided to live in their houses for a decade or drive fewer cars less often for more years or consume less booze and tobacco. (Even state governments are now financing critical functions with taxes on alcohol and tobacco—and, of course, with lotteries.) The alternative, fast-paced scenario is offered as the “natural” one: a free people living with choices wholesome and unwholesome alike, generating new employment opportunities as they grab, gorge, sicken, and discard. On the other side of the ledger, to revive something like the family farm would involve going against human nature—for no one wants to stay on the farm! Massive tax incentives and subsidies would be incurred; and, besides, were such a “back to the boondocks” movement successful, it would drain the nation’s progressive energies, exposing us all to conquest or extermination as goats grazed over our abandoned particle-accelerators.
The latter objection is somewhat coherent: the former, not at all so.. People currently leap from residence to residence, burn oil like so many private dynamos, and devour junk food and junk entertainment because a) they have never known anything else (youth), b) they are addicted to the collective experience (lack of character), or c) they cannot materially effect a change (poverty). About lack of character, society can do little; about youth, it need do nothing but offer more options. The onus of creating a more static, less romantic, more manly environment therefore falls upon the sheer expense of altering our present material circumstances. Many men (and I include myself) would produce significantly more of their own food and invest significantly more labor in their current residence if circumstances allowed them to do so. Tax incentives and subsidies? Nothing of the kind is needed. Much the greatest expense is represented by an exhaustive war against oppressive bureaucracy. For instance, local zoning codes abound which would banish one far from any community if one were to raise a cow in the back yard; likewise for local tax codes which would assess one’s property at surefire-bankruptcy levels if one were to add a room to the house. Thundering farther up Mount Olympus, state and federal statutes would quickly smite a small milk-producer if he attempted to share his labor’s fruit. OSHA manages to shut down small businesses left and right for not having a fire exit. What it could do to a poor stiff sitting before a pail on a stool would resemble a master samurai practicing on a bamboo shoot.
The independent homesteader, then, would indeed have to be a farmer to escape property tax and urban ordinance, and then he would be so distant from his own or his wife’s employ within the city that travel would become a major expense. Furthermore, a rural setting would largely undermine the kind of neighborhood-driven small enterprise which might flourish within independent communities. A man with an apple orchard might sell his surplus to the corner grocer, who might employ a boy on a bike to deliver to the incapacitated elderly. The grocer would naturally take orders over the telephone—or even the Internet; and the apple-grower’s wife might work at home servicing computers for the neighbors. In short, features of progressive living could readily be integrated into this Norman Rockwell landscape. As things stand, however, so placid a scene remains an exotic Shangri-La to be visited by some wide-roving traveler, because every government from City Hall to the Houses of Congress would obstruct its birth in the Land of the Free. Minimum-wage laws would preclude the grocer’s employing the bike-boy at a reasonable rate. Zoning laws typically prohibit most kinds of economic activity within residential areas which might involve clients in cars: the cars (it is assumed), unless kept to thin concentrations, would congest streets or menace wandering gangs of unemployed boys.
Indeed, directly or indirectly, much of the obstructionist phalanx is mustered to preserve the sacred rites of American suburbia’s founding and most reverend deity, the Automobile. Wide streets and broad driveways eat away possible space for growing squash and tomatoes. Wider residential lots render a stroll to the corner hairdresser’s or tax accountant’s (for one may still dress hair or prepare tax returns out of one’s house, as long as appointments are kept minimal) so long for most in the neighborhood that an internal combustion engine must be cranked up. Adults and teenagers alike, finding the suburbs as rich in destinations after a work- or school-day as a cemetery, invoke the car to fight more traffic for the sake of a good pizza and a game of pool or miniature golf. It is maddening to reflect how easily and pleasantly such jaunts might be satisfied from down the block, where Mrs. Marzano makes the best pizza in the metropolis and where the Stalworths, for a small fee, might let you have the run of all the game tables in their basement. The savings in gasoline, road maintenance, traffic patrolling, car repair, and emergency-room visits would be incalculable, while the decline in urban crime which would be engineered by keeping youths in their neighborhoods and by not collecting all money-making enterprises into a tiny sector would likewise be breath-taking. But no: the United States economy sinks or swims depending on the volume of gasoline gushed from its pumps, we are told, and on the volume of vehicles sold to sail that ocean.34
On those two commodities, yes—and also on the buying and selling of zoned real estate, and also on the litigation of complex deals, and also on the construction of highly artificial venues reflecting our absurdly compartmentalized lifestyle…. Oil, cars, land, construction: the going, and then the getting. Romance has so garbled our thinking habits (which we cultivate less than our tiny gardens, now that reading takes too long for us) that we scarcely register—even out of our own mouths—a vast testimony of frustration. Studies (somewhat dated studies) show that the average American changes residence over a dozen times during his life.35 My personal tally, going back to childhood, is over twenty. As far as I know, these studies do not further inquire into which residence the respondent most cherished. In other words, researchers seem not to have questioned whether or not we like moving. I, for one, do not: I currently inhabit a house and a location much inferior to those atop my list of favorites, simply because my family grew psychologically exhausted by my efforts to find steady employment as a college professor. I know of many others in similar states of discouragement, though they cannot always afford to debark from the merry-go-round and feed their families from the rubble of vanished opportunity. I have suggested that such deracination is every bit as distressing to men as to women: the creation of communities where men might keep their house and survive through lean times by the literal sweat of their brow would indeed bring paradise to earth for many a male.
Intimately connected to the “musical chairs” phenomenon of residence change is another peculiarity of modern life distinctly odious to men: the unprincipled boss. To be sure, the past knew its share of harsh taskmasters—but the loathsome boss is something quite other than a ferocious overlord, really. He—or she—has a palm-of-the-hand kind of control over the employee’s professional future (the résumé, the good reference) as well as over immediate evaluations based on little but subjective interpretation (be they ever so “objective” in appearance). This species of “workplace hell” is a far cry from being ordered to labor all night on a special edition of the newspaper or to survey and map the whole county by the end of the month. The jobs of yesteryear—even white-collar jobs—were less bureaucratic than the jobs of today, less cut off from physical effort and visible result. A “man” could do his work and stand behind it. Today’s male, if he falls afoul of a superior who simply doesn’t care for him, may very well have to sell his house, sever all ties with his community, and leave his extended family far behind as he goes in search of yet another “second try”. In many cases, the spouse eventually refuses to follow, and the family disintegrates. No such situation was ever typical of any skilled labor force at any time before about the last half-century.
The independent community, allowing neighbors to provide goods and services to each other while essentially remaining sole arbiter of their work, would eloquently respond to one of the male’s fondest dreams: the expansion of his personal will’s domain. He would decide where to dedicate his labor and for how long, whether to keep his home and stay among his neighbors—not a superior who enjoys watching employees dangle from strings. I hinted earlier—and I cannot substantiate this suspicion with anything but hearsay—that such superiors may actually have grown more common when the workplace was revolutionized by a massive entry of females intent on having careers. Money is but one measure of a career’s success: promotion, with its airy honors and titles, also intoxicates many who crave a romantic journey to a higher state. The ascent to the ladder’s top rungs can perhaps be felt no more palpably than when one showers the lower rungs with boiling oil and sharp barbs. Ordering the performance of needless tasks, requiring enthusiastic support of a silly project, eliciting subservient behavior at venues outside the workplace, and harrowing the wage-slave with the specter of an unflattering job review are favorite ways of relishing authority over the lives of other human beings. When the foreman’s bipartite objective was a) to build a road, a ship, or a grand piano and b) to feed his children, such sport would have possessed far less savor. Now that the objective has become “romanticized” into a thrilling self-metamorphosis, the emperor’s new clothes require admiring by all whose knees can be made to bend.
So much, then, for the paradoxical “invertebrate savagery” (more popularly known as “passive aggression”) characteristic of the romanticized workplace: any man worthy of the name would disdain both to bow and scrape before a careerist egomaniac and to abuse an advantage by bullying defenseless subordinates. For this man, a series of such appointments might very well seem like island-hopping in an archipelago colonized by Cyclopes and blood-drinking witches. He would wish to find a safe haven as soon as possible. But is such a haven safe only in appearance today, or selfishly safe—must we live together in urban, progressive existence or perish separately in our artificial idylls? Many other nations patiently wait to do us harm: our superior technology is the only fire keeping the wolves at a distance. Once the unsociable, independent male decides en masse to grow apples and go fishing… no more bomb-detectors, and no more early-warning system.
This objection to overhauling our civic economy is substantial, but it is also completely misguided. Having educated students at every level from kindergarten to graduate school, I can attest that our technological advantage is imperiled primarily by two factors: the weakness of our basic education and the narrowness of our thinking even at the most sophisticated kinds of prognosticating. The two problems are indeed but one problem: i.e., the very success of our high-tech approach to life has insulated us in a machine-world rather than creating more resources for us to negotiate the human world. We understand machianical—but not human—behavior. We treat our own children like pristine computers needing to have information-filled disk after disk inserted into their ports. We run periodic tests on them to assess how many “bits” of knowledge have been transcribed. We ourselves reveal the perils of such pedagogy. We can imagine a better missile penetrating our missile-defense net, but we do not foresee some embittered young man delivering the missile’s payload to downtown Manhattan on a bicycle.
The independent community which I have outlined would ameliorate the problem at both ends. Small private schools—and even “home schools”—are already cleaning up much of our public school system’s wreckage. The more a school is integrated into its neighborhood circumstances, the more each parent will take part in the process and the easier educators will find their eternal battle with truancy and delinquency. As for creativity, students whose neighborhood is affected by some unique quality (an abundance of Russian-speakers, a high risk of summer tornadoes, a proximity to ancient caverns or an Indian reservation or a military base) should be educated with a regional awareness rather than by standardized checklist. At present, of course, “diversity” is all the rage in education—but the word and its implicit programs are no more than a shoulder-shrug of resignation toward the moral incoherence of our racially, ethnically, and religiously unfocused society. Far from filtering variety into the content of courses, the “diverse” campus is scene to a more lock-step presentation and assessment of knowledge than the nation has witnessed since paper replaced slates. Class work is a rigidly channeled irrigation network: everything beyond the classroom is a perilous collision of cross-currents where elderly supervision seldom dares to dip an oar. As a result, the very best graduates emerge with a wealth of empirical knowledge indexed to no particular reality, and with a self-contradictory social and moral outlook confirming them in their childhood prejudices while inclining them to tolerate any sort of behavior whatever beyond their immediate circle. In the same way, a state-of-the-art automobile programmed to take itself from hotel to airport and back without any human intervention would have far fewer wrecks per annum than a human-steered throwback; yet it could not advance fifty feet on the highway to Peoria, and, if a jet should just happen to skid off the runway onto the adjacent street, our techno-car would plow right into it with never a flinch.
When systems are malfunctioning in this manner on all fronts at once, it is difficult to accept that a re-structuring of how we live would make things worse. We would become more independent, not less so; more creative, not less so; more “parsimonious” (another Ciceronian favorite) and able to make shift, not less so; more satisfied with our lives and aware of our mortal limits, not less so. The economic “collapse” feared by those heavily invested in oil and land would in fact be a renaissance of opportunity driven by shuffled priorities. A larger portion than ever of the GNP would be available for the development of necessary security systems, while our national intrusions into other parts of the world—and the deep incursions of other nations into our own economy, and indeed our homeland’s demography—would be minimized.
But we would be “going” less and “getting” less. The great obstacle to this “transformation to the stationary” is really neither logistical nor economic nor strategic, but emotional. It is our fixation with the romance—our childish insistence that the world must hold external adventure for us, that it must transport us from a “boring” known to Tacitus’s “magnificent unknown”. Neither side of the political divide seems capable of weaning itself from the “great adventure” so cherished by people devoid of inner resources. The faithful of the Left cling to their “hands around the world” infantilism despite overpowering historical and current evidence, on both the global and the personal scale, that the human being possess a flawed, potentially rapacious and deadly nature. They will have their secular Eden, though it require them to turn their backs upon the advancing barbarian horde until they feel an axe descend upon their shoulders. The Right (as it styles itself these days) makes much rhetorical hay out of such puerile ineptitude by representing itself, contrastively, as the custodian of reality. It scoffs at environmental hazards, celebrates the joys of affluence, talks coolly of the “nuclear option”, and generally comes to terms with human wickedness by demonstrating how to turn a profit from it. This, too, is a childish romance—the early adolescent’s who enjoys “grossing out” his parents and aping Nazi salutes rather than the toddler’s who still believes in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It is a raucous tale of Sinbad the Sailor rather than the Left’s pastoral love-fest, a Golden Ass to the Left’s Daphnis and Chloe.36
If advanced human communities continue to survive—if we do not all starve in the nuclear winter following a series of dirty bombs and hipshot paybacks unleashed by frustrated young men and their lunatic handlers—then a more insular, more manly approach will at last prevail. I do not say that it must prevail if calamity is to be averted; I say that, calamity or no, people will revert to the way they have lived successfully for most of human history if they continue to live at all. If grass continues to grow, then a few men in the neighborhood will set cows out upon a common so that everyone may have milk and cheese rather than wait for a distant bureaucracy to settle the terms upon which milk may be expensively imported. In other words, even if things get very bad in the twenty-first century, they may also get a little better. There will be less sitting around or standing in line to find out what stone-dragging for what pyramid the elite intends to exact or what rabble-finessing subsidy it intends to dole out. Men will go about the business of protecting and feeding their families, which will require little going and much staying. Hopefully their women may also continue to design new satellites from home computers, for the liberation of women from manual drudgery is a true measure of civilization. Yet if all the power lines come down and all the power plants fall silent, men will still hunt and gather as women keep the fire going. And at any given point in the most sedentary version of this deep freeze, the community will remain more likely to appreciate whatever literature it may have preserved than are today’s cavemen with cell phones. In that regard, going backward might correctly be described as going forward.
19 Cf. Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley: U of California P, 1982), 15 ff.
20 Cf. the exquisitely romantic Sanskrit play of the fourth century (AD), Šakuntala and the Ring of Recollection, by Kalidasa. That the young women in the hermitage are fully literate is revealed by their stratagem of composing a love note on a lotus leaf. In China , too, educated women were expected to be proficient in poetic composition during the very time when romantic tales were abundant.
21 More exactly, the dedication is to women in love—but the ensuing portrait would fit most literate young women of Boccaccio’s age: “… Restricted by the desires, pleasures, and commands of fathers, mothers, brothers, and husbands, they remain enclosed most of the time within the narrow circuit of their rooms, and sitting about with virtually nothing to do, full and empty of wishes at the same time, they turn various thoughts about in their minds which cannot possibly always be happy.” The translation is mine.
22 I am citing from the former work in a joint edition of Cadalso’s Cartes Marruecas y Noches Lúgubres (Barcelona: Planeta, 1985), 27.
23 Diehard students of literature will recall that Kafka’s Gregor Samsa (of Die Verwandlung) cherishes in his room a framed picture of an ebullient young woman clipped from a magazine. The beguiling of social isolation through images marketed by the mass media is the same as in present cases, though immensely less encumbered with imaginary narrative.
24 From José Ortega Y Gasset, La Rebelión de las Masas (Madrid: Revista de Occidente en Alianza Editorial, 1990), 105. The translation is mine.
25 My enlistment of the fundamentalist church into the ranks of those concerned about “good sex” is not gratuitous. Louis Smedes, a Protestant minister, had the following to say in Mere Morality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983) after a decade of slipping down the slope: “It is a mistake, I think, to use the Seventh Commandment as a club against sexual passions. What happens when we do is that eros seems totally defiled and passion an ugly product of sin” (160). Note the double invocation of “passion” as a highly desirable element in experience, a phenomenon which we have already linked to the contemporary admiration of “command performance” role-playing as people turn their lives into melodramas.
26 The commercial has aired for weeks at the moment of this writing (winter of 2007) in Spanish on Telemundo 39, a Dallas station.
27 See Jay Tolson, “The Gospel Truth,” U.S. News & World Report ( December 18, 2006 ): 71-72, 75-79. Subsequent citations in this paragraph are drawn from p. 72.
28 From p. 16 of Mark T. Mitchell, “The Homeless Modern,” The Intercollegiate Review 41:1 (Spring 2006), 13-22. I would add here that a) Descartes awaited middle age to carry forth the project outlined in his Meditations, if he is to be believed; and b) his impatience with tradition in Discourse on the Method was clearly aimed at received teaching about empirical phenomena, which had changed little since antiquity. To suggest that revised theories of optics or the solar system somehow undermined sound moral instruction at the time is to contend that moral health depends upon sustaining certain kinds of delusion—a position which should outrage any believer in God All Good, Author of All Truth.
29 Quoted from Mark Steyn, America Alone ( Washington : Regnery, 2006), 50. Mr. Steyn’s style of composition, I will note, in a book well worth reading for its content is distressingly characteristic of post-literate habits. The free use of slang, the ready slide into childish word play (e.g., “Hizzoner” for “His Honor”), the insertion of largely irrelevant vignettes having a single point of intersection with the subject at hand, the development of major theses by offering a chain of such desultory associations… these are the qualities of casual speech—of idle chatter, even. While they do not invalidate the book’s argument, they do it no favors. Yet most telling of all is the work’s considerable success on the market and Steyn’s own long-standing success as a journalist. That is, such flippant twists and distaste for filtering subjective from objective have now so embedded themselves in public discourse that the general reader no more cares for sober logic than a clannish hunter-gatherer would care for algebra.
30 The slaughter of almost three dozen people at Virginian Tech on April 16, 2007 , by deranged student Seung Hui Cho has confirmed these comments (which were first written at the end of 2006) in a most unwelcome fashion. Cho seems to have appropriated a very limited amount of Islamist rhetoric and symbolism to raise the temperature of his bloodbath.
31 I refer to Leo Strauss, designated sire of neo-conservatism, and Harvey Mansfield, translator and evident admirer of The Prince. Professor Mansfield has written extensively on the subject of manliness (cf. Manliness [ New Haven : Yale UP, 2006]), which plainly fascinates him as much as Machiavellian politics, and for some of the same reasons. I do not think I distort his views in saying that he considers the essential man to be driven more by egotism than by idealism—a position certain to palliate his “defense” of maleness to fellow academics.
32 The story, perhaps apocryphal but much beloved in ancient Rome , goes that Regulus, having been captured by the Carthaginians, was sent to Rome to propose a treaty. Regulus advised the Roman senate to reject the terms, then willingly returned to Carthage to face an excruciating death. Such was the ancient ideal of manhood.
33 I do not intend some kind of pun alluding to current habits of dress among the young. The fact is that, as the analytical discipline of literacy wears off, people are beginning to reason once more (i.e., in oral fashion) by association rather than by rigorous scrutiny. Marshall McLuhan had optimistically predicted half a century ago that television would revive a more participatory, communal atmosphere in the West. Yet participation via latching on to cues or formulas can be lethal if not accompanied by a traditional sense of the forbidden. The post-literate youth will follow an echo from his world of electronic images virtually anywhere.
34 It would be presumptuous to single out a particular passage from the collaborative work, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck (New York: North Point Press, 2000). Many of my ideas throughout this section are supported (and a few inspired) by the finely documented study of these three architects.
35 More than two decades ago, the rate was already being reported as 14 moves per lifetimes among Americans, and it has surely risen. See T. Heller, “The Effects of Involuntary Residential Location: A Review,” American Journal of Community Psychology, 10 (1982): 471-492.
36 The parallel with ancient romance is more apt than one might think. For instance, when the Lesbian coast in invaded by pirates, Chloe ingeniously and actively saves Daphnis by inducing the plundered cattle to overturn the raiders’ ship. When an invading force similarly kidnaps Chloe, however, Daphnis is busy hiding: his only hand in rescuing the maid is to run weeping to a rustic altar—by which act the god Pan may or may not have been decisively moved to terrorize the marauding fleet into returning their victim. Likewise, when Chloe is abducted by Daphnis’s rival Lampis toward the tale’s end, it is the loathsome Gnatho who mounts a rescue while Daphnis weeps disconsolately (and, one would like to say, contemptibly) over the rape of his fiancée. In short, masculine initiative and daring have no apparent currency whatever in Longus’s romance, while the feminine version of such virtues is often comparatively effective.