Thoughts on a Quincentennial Lately Passed

Printer friendly version |

Personally, I can’t help being glad that Europeans found their way to America. The thought of having been born into and growing up in the Neapolitan working class or the Sicilian peasantry, without even a reverie of transoceanic freedom and abundance to mitigate the quotidian horror, freezes my heart. Over the years I’ve collected literary references to my ancestral lands. A couple of representatives, one from Trollope: “Dogs have turned against their masters, and even Neapolitans against their rulers, when oppression has been too severe.” And from D.H. Lawrence, on the mores of a Sicilian village: “so squalid, so pottering, so despicable; like a crawling of beetles.” Standing tall is a nobler ideal than any cardinal or Mafia chieftain aspired to or could even comprehend. In Naples and Sicily, most people stood stooped; the rest sat in state.

Two years ago, V.S. Naipaul expressed similar sentiments in an uncharacteristically eloquent New York Times essay, “Our Universal Civilization.” Contrasting the ethos of the West with that of his Hindu and Muslim forebears, this normally skeptical and sardonic author wrote with enthusiasm of “the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness”; with fervent appreciation of all that is contained in that “immense idea”: “the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement”; and with an almost grateful wonder at its extraordinary (though sometimes fearfully costly) historical success:
I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition.

Of course many others, contemplating the last several centuries of North American history, have found them too full of strange and bitter fruit to share this satisfaction. Every literate person (few, I imagine, better than Naipaul) knows at least in outline the bloody history of European expansion. If one book may stand for an entire literature: Howard Zinn’s great A People’s History of the United States -- our national history narrated from the viewpoint, and often in the words, of Indians, slaves, workers, and women-- presents so enormous and vivid a panorama of suffering that what seemed, reading Naipaul, a matter of easy, obvious assent is put in question. Is “the pursuit of happiness,” resting as it does on the Renaissance and Enlightenment ideals of scientific rationality and individual liberty, still a “beautiful,” “marvelous” idea? Or is that idea inextricably compromised, irredeemably tainted? Must we acknowledge that, for all the promise of its setting forth, modernization and the associated European ethos have become (to adapt Susan Sontag’s anguished formulation) “the cancer of human history”?

During the recent quincentennial of Columbus’ landing, I have, like most other conscientious intellectuals, frequently agonized (i.e., scratched my head now and then) over such questions. They’re awfully big questions, though; and fortunately, lack of space absolves me of the obligation to make a fool of myself trying to offer here what would undoubtedly be-- in any venue, actually, given how far I’ve (not) gotten in thinking through these deep questions -- a banal and superficial answer. What I can usefully do instead, perhaps, is call attention to a superlative but none-too-well-known discussion; itself more a muse than an argument, but full of some of the wisest, subtlest reflections I’ve ever encountered on the vast, vexed topic of modernity and progress. I refer readers of the Winter 1993 Harvard Review to the Winter 1983 Yale Review viz., Ursula Le Guin’s “A Non—Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be.” (Reprinted in her 1989 collection Dancing on the Edge of the World.)

“When going in the wrong direction,” G.K. Chesterton observed, “one makes progress by turning back.” But how does one know? The case for modernity has been stated fully and fairly. No one will ever improve on the philosophes, the utopians from More to Wells, and the classical socialist tradition. Even a Naipaul can and need contribute at most an occasional reminder or rhetorical ornament. The antimodernists have also had their innings, from Herder to Heidegger, from Joseph de Maistre to Christopher Lasch.

We haven’t heard enough, though, from the pre-moderns themselves, the historically dispossessed. Nonurban and nonliterate, they left behind traces that only determined and sympathetic anthropological investigation could assemble and only a keen and generous historical imagination could reconstruct into a way of life. In some measure, by Levi Strauss and others, these efforts have been made. To interpret them to the rest of us, to sift the findings of specialists for clues to a lost and possibly vital wisdom, is Le Guin’s purpose.

To the rest of us, the archaic, the forgotten, is new. And here as elsewhere, there is no avoiding the shock of the new. Le Guin’s essay is a series of gentle shocks, friendly slaps, familiar-sounding revelations, like this:

California ... when the Anglos came ... was in fact better known to human beings than it has ever been since: known and named. Every hill, every valley, creek, canyon, gulch, gulley, draw, point, cliff, bluff, beach, bend, good-sized boulder, and tree of any character had its name .... Each of those names named not a goal, not a place to get to, but a place where one is: a center of the world. There were centers of the world all over California. One of them was a bluff on the Klainath River. Its name was Katimin. The bluff is still there, but it has no name and the center of the world is not there. The six directions can meet only in lived time, in the place people call home, the seventh direction, the center.

Or this:

Non—European, noneuclidean, nonmasculinist: they are all negative definitions, which is all right, but tiresome; and the last is unsatisfactory as it might be taken to mean that the utopia I’m trying to approach could only be imagined by, or inhabited by, women; and I mean nothing of the kind. Perhaps the word I need is yin.

Utopia has been yang. In one way or another, from Plato on, utopia has been the big yang motorcycle trip. Bright, dry, clear, strong, firm, active, aggressive, lineal, progressive, creative, expanding, advancing, and hot.
Our civilization is now so intensely yang that any imagination of bettering its injustices or eluding its self—destructiveness must involve a reversal. ... We must return, go round, go inward, go yinward. What would a yin utopia be? It would be dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold.

These are neither airy cliches nor airtight arguments. But then, Le Guin is not really arguing in this essay, nor even, exactly, musing. She’s presiding; and with fine expository tact she draws oracular Lao Tse (“To ignore the constant/is to go wrong, and end in disorder”), wild-eyed Blake (“I cast futurity away, and turn my back upon that void/Which I have made, for lot, futurity is in this moment”), severe Levi-Strauss (“With [science] having integrally taken over the burden of manufacturing progress, society…is placed outside and above history, could once more assume that regular and as it were crystalline structure, which the surviving primitive societies teach us is not antagonistic to the human condition”), and many other likely and unlikely participants into fruitful conversation.

By now the arguments for and against modernity are wearyingly, almost maddeningly familiar. Perhaps what we need in our exhaustion and confusion are not more arguments but voices: voices we can trust. I partly trust Naipaul’s voice, though he is too wounded, too haunted, not to give way now and then to malice or (far more rarely) a compensatory sentimentality. I partly trust John Berger. I myself cannot be trusted at all: I splutter and seethe at the mere notion that East Boston, where I grew up, might be the center of the world. I don’t trust Germaine Greer, who has earned our everlasting gratitude many times over but forfeited my trust, at least, when she idealized the peasant women of southern Italy. I trust Ernest Callenbach. I trust Richard Rorty completely; so that the appearance in the first issue of the wonderful new journal Common Knowledge of a short essay on this subject by Rorty which is difficult not to read as, at least in spirit, contradicting Le Guin’s, has left me bewildered and temporarily frustrated.

But not despairing; on the contrary. The deeper the contradictions, the higher the synthesis, as the pre-postmodern and now extinct tribe of Marxo-Hegelians used to say. I’m just impatient to see how Rorty, Le Guin, or someone else puts it all together. Not too far into the next demi-millenium, I hope.



Powered By Movable Type 4.1

Copyright © 2004-2008
George Scialabba