In the Country of the Young (1970)
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To Alexis your blood and mine
(citations' page references are to the edition by Chatto & Windus, Ltd., London )
(from the Preface)
This book is a highly personal, highly impressionistic study of the younger generation in America in these years when the life-styles of the young--their manners, morals, and, above all, their militant social concerns--have so radically affected the cultural climate in which we live. I have departed from popular custom by presuming to suggest that the influence of the young is not always salutary, that their motives are not always above suspicion, that their values are not always impeccable, and that the fact of their youth does not by itself guarantee them a monopoly on the world's virtue.
By the end of the sixties this country will have been dominated by children for almost twenty-five years.
Coming out of the war (Second World War) with long-deferred ambitions to live our lives, we settled down, began at once to breed, as if to prove we were still alive, and then proceeded to let our children do our living for us. It was a strange process, gradual, almost imperceptible, as natural as dying. Without quite intending it, we stopped--if we ever really began--making demands on life, perhaps because we thought there was no longer enough time for such frivolity, that our youth had been used up in the war, and that nothing must interfere now with the grimly earnest business of becoming middle-aged.
(citations' page references are to the edition by Chatto & Windus, Ltd., London )
Or it may be that the Depression and the war together accustomed us to asking nothing for ourselves, to seeing ourselves with a certain bleak pride as the sacrificial generation, to being grateful simply to have the necessities and utilities of existence. There was also the fact that the war had broken our connections with the past in a peculiarly final way. It represented a chasm separating not only two periods of time but two distinct cultural worlds. The social structures which had once ordered, contained, and given meaning to our lives—the structures of community, school, parents, relatives, and friends—had all been left behind on the other side of the chasm, and we had a powerful sense of being without identity or place, and an urge that was something near to panic to make a structure of home, wife, and children to replace what we had lost. (p. 4)
None of us in these years seemed to have any sense of the kind or quality of life we were trying to establish on this barren ground, what our values were or our aesthetic assumptions or our humane objectives. We had brought no resources with us out of the past, no norms or precedents of conduct, no tradition of amenities or graces, luxuries or even comforts. We were like people who had been deprived by disinheritance of the family fortune, the heirlooms, the antique furniture, the silver service, the old homestead. We had nothing to start with except our talent for self-sacrifice, our compulsion to set up housekeeping and live for the future of our children. So the children rushed in to fill the vacuum, and with our full cooperation and blessing they began to dictate the terms of our existence. (p. 6)
Yet if we look behind the image of seemingly standardized behavior projected by the young, we become aware of paradoxes and contradictions which suggest that their actions derive not from a coherent ideology or even a coherent emotional attitude but more nearly resemble series of random gestures enacted in a climate of metaphysical confusion. One notices, for example, that although they are passionate about causes and issues--especially as these relate to the quantitative, material problems of society--they are strangely indifferent to questions of quality, as well as to the processes of intellectual discrimination and analysis by which qualitative judgements are made. It is as if the act of discriminating among qualities were inseparable in their minds from the act of discriminating among (Editing Note : and, more precisely, against ) races, creeds, and colors, so that it has come to seem to them undemocratic even to think. (p. 10, 11)
Instead, life in America became frozen--apparently for good--at the level of utilitarian existence. ... so that before long the production of labor-saving devices and material facilities took the place of the resistant wilderness as the chief consumer of our pioneering energies. The hard work and ingenuity which had formerly gone into pushing back the physical frontier became diverted into pushing back the commodity frontier, into refining and endlessly re-refining the mechanical processes of life. (p. 17)
We always move, it seems, both physically and philosophically through a present we do not care to experience toward some future time and place at which real life will finally begin. Like Gatsby, we are all believers in the green light, the orgiastic future--not only the young and idealistic but all of us. (p. 20)
It follows logically--although the logic is poignant--that whenever we have tried to solve the social problems created by life in an alien environment, we have applied to them the same utilitarian methods which have helped to distract us from life in an alien environment. Now that the work ethic, rigorously enforced, has enabled us to close the physical frontier and push back the commodity frontier seemingly to its outermost limits, we have for some years been using it (i.e. the work ethic) to push back the social frontier. Social engineering has replaced pioneering and profiteering as America's chief contribution to world progress, and our national self-image has become increasingly that of a country which, having succeeded in subordinating environmental phenomena to the material needs of men, is fast reducing men to the condition of environmental phenomena. This, in fact, has been the great evolutionary development of the postwar period: the shift of our technological interest from the conquest of things to the conquest of people as things. In the process we have, of course, employed the same materialistic philosophy which has served us so well in the past. If we brought a species of civilization to the wilderness by equipping it with mechanical facilities and conveniences, it has seemed to us perfectly feasible that we could engineer the salvation of society by making a wider distribution of these facilities at all levels of the social wilderness--as always, in the religiously utilitarian belief that quantities must sooner or later beget qualities and that goods and gadgets will provide the basis for the civilized life as well as rehumanize the dehumanized.
Social engineering is, of course, the inevitable response of technology to the social conditions of the modern American superstate. (p. 24)
But the population explosion and the collapse of the old communal structures have forced upon us a radically altered social metaphysics. As the possibilities for individually experiencing others have receded, we have had no choice but to begin visualizing society in abstract and macrocosmic terms, no longer as a reality accessible to us but as a vastly remote monolithic enterprise to which we necessarily relate more and more provisionally and programatically. By degrees we have fallen into the habit of seeing people as statistical phenomena or as a race of generalized others who do not exist except as embodiments of the inequities or injustices which first called them to our attention. (p. 25)
Culture for us is still, regardless of our official passion for it, essentially a diversion from, rather than a vital expression of, real life. (p. 28)
Our physical environment was created to meet the material needs of large masses of people who were either laboring men or who shared the tastes of laboring men. Hence life in this country imposes no aesthetic hardship on that part of the population who, regardless of how well educated they may be in a formal way, have the sensory equipment of peasants or early learned how to look at their surroundings without seeing them. But for the person quirky enough to be environmentally sensitive, life here can be a nightmare from which he is much too awake to awaken, .... He is obliged to exist in a society formed physically on values radically opposed to his own, and while this may be a stimulus to the production of rebellious art--as our intellectual history proves it to be--it is a serious obstacle to the pursuit of the civilized life. (p. 31, 32)
In spite of their official preoccupation with individuality and with mystical states of personal consciousness, the young seem to think, even to perceive, almost entirely in collective and materialistic terms. ... For them, virtue or freedom or salvation does not seem to be finally a personal matter at all. It is not to be found in creative fulfillment, in aesthetic appreciation, or in the solitary pursuit of excellence in any form, but rather in the radical revision or overthrow of the existing power structures, in the abolition of a system that seems to them to have manipulated or programed their repsonses, grossly limited their freedom of choice and action, and generally obstructed their progress toward utopia--which in their view seems to be a condition of infinitely harmonious, democratically depersonalized interpersonal relationships. (p. 42, 43)
The idea that all men are, or ought to be, equal under law or in the eyes of God has been adulterated, out of the purest motives, into the notion that all men are equal in every respect, and that differences among them are either illusory or the result of the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. Thus we have the peculiar phenomenon of apparently sophisticated and certainly high-minded idealism for the reform of society existing side by side with the crassest and most philistine views of the nature of man in society. (p. 50)
It was probably no more than natural that parents committed to such a way of life would not, as a rule, have a very firm grasp of problems which do not lend themselves to material or manipulative solution or which might not be open to solution at all. They would scarcely be in a position to instruct their children in the unpopular but necessary wisdom that man is innately weak and imperfect, that human progress is slow and may even be illusory, that political systems cannot always be depended upon to cure the world's ills, that measures cannot always be taken, and that sometimes the most serious problems a man may face are those that exist between himself and his courage or conscience...
Certainly they (i.e. parents) seem to have given their children very little sense of their own reality as living and suffering human beings who just possibly might once have had, and even might still have, sould. And because they did not, their children have grown up with apparently no awareness of, or tolerance for, human limitations, and no understanding of the obstacles that may stand in the way of the changes they are so anxious to bring about in our society. (p. 57)
It is just here, in their pragmatic approach to knowledge, that the young reveal what must be the most ironical and, for them, the most embarrassing of the many inconsistencies underlying their position. For although they profess to be vigorous opponents of technocratic society, anti-materialists to the core, and ardent believers in the primacy of feelings over things, states of soul over states of physical affluence and well-being, their idea of relevance happens to be a perfect expression of technocratic philosophy, which evaluates knowledge on the basis of usefulness in solving practical problems and in providing statistical measurements by which social phenomena are analyzed. It would seem, therefore, that the thinking of the young has been programmed by some of the very influences they are rebelling against, and that in their crusade to restructure the university education in the shape of their interests, they are in fact giving aid and comfort to their supposed enemies. But this may not be so very surprising when one considers that they have all along displayed an inordinate interest in procedural questions and answers, and that even their interest in feelings and soul, like their infatuation with tarot cards and Eastern mysticism, is not so much a sign of religious consciousness as another form of their search for mechanistic solutions—in this case, a kind of easy-to-assemble, do-it-yourself metaphysics which, once constructed, will “explain” or cure the complicated problems of being and function as an occult welfare program for the spiritually underprivileged. Thus one can see how the young would be obliged to take only a very slight tuck in their thinking in order to move quite happily into the brave new world now in the process of being created by technocracy, a world in which all problems will be solved by social engineering, all injustices erased by benevolent legislation, and all qualitative values declared irrelevant—very probably by law. (p. 70, 71)
If activism gives them an opportunity for violence and a sense of heroic mission emulative of the more adventurous moments of history, hippyism allows them to affect the manners and costumery which have become identified with the life styles of past ages. Thus, one sees the hippy youth wandering the streets dressed in the U.S. Army tunics of World War I, in the broad-brimmed hats and plunging sideburns of the western plainsman, in the headbands of Comanche braves. ...
All of this is understandable, if rather infantile regressivism. But the sad thing is that as a form of defiant self-assertion it is so singularly impotent, so utterly without force or originality, so lacking in the power to make a critical or even satirical point or disturb in any serious way the complacency of those it is supposedly intended to provoke. As social protest, it is empty because it offers one kind of futility in ostensible rebuttal of another kind of futility. If modern life seems meaningless, it is absurd to attack it by resorting to an even more blatant meaninglessness. Walking around in the exhumed costumery of another age is no more interesting or daring than capitulating to the system and becoming a General Motors slave. In fact, the truly radical gesture these days would be to do just that. But both have equally little relation to the problem of how to achieve real identity and individuality in the modern world. (p. 85)
It is perhaps fortunate for such people that affluence has produced a particular social etiquette which tends to discourage self-fulfillment and to promote self-effacement. The uncommitted young are naturally obedient servants of this etiquette, and it is not surprising that they have inflated it into very nearly the proportions of a new world religion—since whatever their ineffectuality impels them to do, they are inclined first to make it holy. But one notices that as the economic and psychological pressures to distinguish themselves from others—whether through aspiration or achievement—have declined, new pressures are being exerted among the young to enforce cooperation with others and deference to the feelings of others. Subservience to the interests of the group has come to be regarded as the supreme virtue as well as the most valuable attribute of the ideal society, while competitiveness of any kind, like intolerance of any kind, is considered very bad form indeed and may result in one’s expulsion from the group. To be gentle and unassuming, to be solicitous of one’s peers and sensitive to the delicate shifts of their emotional temper—in particular, to project an image of oneself as having no personal being apart from the being one shares with others and which is their communal property before it is your private property—all this is to be not merely humane but to affirm one’s membership in the universal brotherhood of man, which enfolds us all in a warm placenta of togetherness and makes us one flesh and one soul. (p. 99, 100)
See also: Citation #1 at The Waning of Humaneness
, ( http://www.librarything.com/work/9866...
If you are devoting your energies to trying to communicate with others, you are obviously not able to devote them to self-fulfillment. Your psychic eye is turned outward rather than inward, and you are counting on an intimate relationship with another person to supply you with the gratification you would otherwise be forced to create through the solitary cultivation of your own resources. Besides, the two interests are political opposites. The desire for self-fulfillment makes for unpleasant competitive tensions between people and is by nature aristocratic, since it presupposes that what you make of yourself is more important than what you make with others. Communication, on the other hand, democratizes in the sense that it necessarily takes place between people who wish to share themselves with each other and who are therefore equals rather than egotistical snobs. Hence, if you have no particular ambition to fulfill yourself or suspect that you have very little self to fulfill, it is a great comfort to be able to rationalize the deficiency by insisting that reaching others is actually far more socially valuable than self-fulfillment---that, in fact, it may even be the highest form of self-fulfillment. (p. 102)
The electric, tense, exacting, cantankerous, abrasive, ambitious, and obsessively self-monitory personality so characteristic of past generations of rebels seems to have become as obsolete as the fat boy and the freckled-faced redhead with warts, and one very, very seldom encounters any longer aa young person who is sufficiently maladjusted to be shy, or who appears ever to have known what it is like to blush or tremble with stage fright when required to perform in public. (p. 106)
Of course, it takes no special knowledge of human psychodynamics to understand why the young are this way. If they are people of notably limp personalities, it is very probably because certain factors necessary to the development of strong personalities are missing from their experience. This is to say that strong personalities, like all neurotic disorders, are made rather than inherited, and they are made, as a rule not by conditions of jolly good fellowship, such as are enjoyed by the masses of the young, but by conditions of a far more stressful kind.
Essentially, it would seem that the factors required for strong personality are the same as those required for strong ambition: some degree of psychological isolation at the right moment in life and some productive relationship with an accessible but resistant environment. To define himself, to become aware of himself at all as an individual human being, a person needs to acquire what Henry James called the perspective of “otherness.” This can only be acquired if he has the opportunity to be physically alone for extended periods during adolescence, and creatively alone in the sense that he is deprived of the usual social distractions and soporifics, and therefore is forced to turn inward and seek satisfaction in the consciousness of his own powers, the cultivation of his own unique perceptions. In time, if isolation is prolonged, a person will develop a powerful awareness of his own identity and a correspondingly powerful awareness of the very different identities of other people. He will take on the spectatorial attitude, the habit of seeing what is happening in the world of others as interesting or remarkable or preposterous just because it is happening to them and not to himself, because they are strangers or actors performing a play in which he has no part.
... But the isolation, however valuable it may be for a certain period, is neither desirable nor supportable if continued for too long a time. It can only lead to permanent withdrawal, a distortion of the perspective of otherness into a sense of estrangemlent, and eventual immobilization of the psyche. (p. 108,109)
Thus it follows with sound Darwinian logic that their personalities should be perfect adaptations to the requirements of the collectivist society which they inhabit, that they should be self-effacing, colorless, politic, and free of all competitive tensions and idiosyncrasies. They have not needed to prove their worth or compete for the approval of the group because approval is instantly granted as a condition of general membership. They have not needed to develop themselves intellectually because the group does not believe in ideas, only in actions. They have not needed to learn how to express themselves in language because the group has learned how to communicate without resorting to language. They have never felt estranged from one another, only from everybody else, so there is no question of their ever having had to impose their personalities upon their environment in order to provoke or subdue it. They already are their environment—and it is perhaps not a sufficiently militant irony to daunt their deadly earnestness that their qualities of personality are remarkably similar to the qualities of their physical surroundings, that they are just as bland, vacant, and structureless as the drek culture with which they cannot identify but which now seems to have reclaimed them, as the jungle sooner or later reclaims even the most domesticated of its creatures as its spiritual brothers and human counterparts. (p. 112)
But a far more poignant irony lies in the fact that the vision of the future so widely shared by the young is also the result of technological programming. For it would appear that their isolation from the specifics of experience inside the bureaucratic cage has given them such a horror of experience that they have incorporated into their image of the ideal society precisely the bureaucratic restrictions they now find so restricting, and so project a society purified of risk, uncertainty, and every form of physical and intellectual challenge, the aim presumably being to make life safe from every possible intrusion of life. Their abstractedness, in short, has caused them to conceive of a paradise of abstractedness, to escalate the nightmare of their alienation into a dream of utopian alienation.
This is, of course, exactly the society that technology has been endeavouring all along to bring into being, and it is a logical extension of the one the young are now demonstrating against. If left alone, our present society will naturally evolve into it, and if the reforms of the young are instituted, it will most certainly do so more quickly. But what is especially interesting is that this is also a more highly disinfected version of the society which their parents created for the young when they were growing up, one in which measures could always be taken and solutions could always be found and happiness consisted of discovering infinite distractions from the real. … Surely the controlled environment which they anticipate for the future and which technology will inevitably provide is not so very different from the controlled environment of the nursery, and it is perfectly appropriate to the child’s fear of the dark forces of contingency that seem, in his night-time imagination, so monstrous and threatening. But these happen also to be the forces that give adult life its edge of adventure and provide the only assurance we have that life is something more than a bubble of contentment drifting between the security of the nursery and the perfection of the grave. (p. 118, 119)
The young also apparently find little exhilaration in those other hazards and dislocations of life which can prove so challenging. They appear to dislike and do all they can to avoid encountering people who are capricious, crotchety, intolerant, or just plain bigoted rather than reasonable, understanding, and colorless. (p. 120)
It is only through a profound alienation from the dynamics of experience that the human mind can think in such coldly generalizing abstractions about experience, and I have already suggested that this kind of alienation is especially common among the young at the present time. It appears to be responsible for their tendency to see society in terms of large manipulable masses of people rather than individuals, and to be concerned with issues rather than ideas, with quantitative rather than qualitative values, with political and economic reforms rather than the rehabilitation of the physical and cultural environment. It also seems to have produced in them a narrowing sensibility, a decrease in emotional and intellectual responsiveness, a passivity in the face of challenge, a rigidity in the face of the ambiguous. Just as the urban and rural landscape has been uglified as a result of the materialism and environmental insensitivity of the men who exploit it, so personality has become trivialized by this same insensitivity to the qualities of existence beyond the material, by its inability to relate to the world except in the abstract, from the standpoint of social theories and technological programs.
All this is particularly unfortunate because if the young wish to make society over in the image of their idealism, they will need all the force of personality they can muster. They will need quite simply to be exceptional men, exceptional in mind, imagination, sensitivity, and courage. But the praiseworthy effort to provide all men with the opportunity for a decent life—and the social philosophy usually responsible for such an effort—is not always congruous with either the need for or the production of exceptional men. We can attempt to save the masses of people only at the risk of destroying the unique and individual. We can become so concerned about rights that we forget about privileges and responsibilities. In trying to abolish unfair distinctions we can wash out distinction. The quality of life can be diminished for all in the effort to raise the standard of living for all. We can easily produce—and may, in fact, have already produced—a society in which more and more people have less and less, and fewer and fewer have really enough. And, of course, the more we concentrate on providing for the security and sustenance of the whole population, the more sterilized of uncertainty and risk life will become. For a collectivist utopia must above all be bureaucratically organized and efficiently run, and every action must be judged on the basis not of its originality and daring but of its value in promoting the greatest good for the greatest number.
Nevertheless, before the young can create such a utopia, they must somehow manage to become original and daring themselves. If they expect to be the custodians of its conscience, as they have tried to be of ours, they had better acquire some direct knowledge of the specifics of moral experience, and this they cannot do without exposing themselves to hazards rather more potent than those they have so far confronted at the campus barricades. If they expect it to embody a revised and liberated American sensibility, they had first better become men of sensibility. If they wish it to be free of materialism, they had better stop thinking so exclusively in materialistic terms. They had also better begin now to develop human resources to put in place of the abolished materialism, resources which will enable them to survive in a world from which not only materialism but all imperfections will presumably have been abolished—survive and create a civilization that will have the power to preserve the quality of the individual life at the same time that it guarantees the tranquility of the collective life. (p. 123, 124, 125, 126)
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