Would that I were able to bring this argument to a resonant close, that I might end on a rounded note of promise. "It is no longer possible," remarked Eliot, "to find consolation in prophetic gloom." The "pressing needs of an emergency," to which he referred twenty years ago, have become more drastic since. We feel ourselves tangled in a constant, lashing web of crisis.
Whether this feeling is entirely legitimate remains a fair question. There have been previous stages of extreme pressure on and within Western civilization. It is only now, in the provisional light of currently fashionable "archaeologies of consciousness," that we are beginning to gauge what must have been the climate of nerve during the known approach and blaze of pestilence in late medieval and seventeenth-century Europe. What, one wonders, were the mechanics of hope, indeed of the future tense itself, during the Hunnish invasions? Read Michelet's narrative of life in Paris in 1420. Who, in the closing phases of the Thirty Years' War, when, as chroniclers put it, there were only wolves for wolves to feed on in the empty towns, foresaw the near upsurge of cultural energies and the counterbalancing strength of the Americas? It may be that our framework of apocalypse, even where it is low-keyed and ironic, is dangerously inflationary. Perhaps we exaggerate both the rate and vehemence of crisis -- in international affairs, where there has, on the large scale, been a quarter century of peace under unlikely conditions; in the ecology, which has been savaged before (witness the man-made Sahara) and has recovered; in society and personal consciousness, both of which have known previous moments of extreme challenge. A thread of hysteria runs through our current realism." One can imagine Pangloss putting forward a reasoned plea for the humaneness and felicity of the times. But, adds Voltaire, "ayant soutenu une fois que tout allait à merveille, il le soutenait toujours, et n'en croyait rien." Nor do we. Whether or not our intimations of utter menace are justified is not the issue. They permeate our sensibility' It is inside them that the post-culture conducts its fragmented, often contradictory business.
At best, therefore, I can offer conjectures as to what may be synapses worth watching. The picture is one of unparalleled complication and rate of change (the life of Churchill covered the span from a battle fought at Omdurman on horseback with swords, in a manner almost Homeric, to the construction of the hydrogen bomb). I can, perhaps, make some guesses, not with a view to prophetic aptness, but in the hope that they might be erroneous in a way that will retain a documentary interest. I shall focus on the question of a new literacy, of that minimal gamut of shared recognitions and designative codes without which there can be neither a coherent society nor a continuation, however attenuated, however transitional, of a "lived culture." Even in this limited purpose, one is made conscious of Blake's exasperation at "the idiot questioner." The asking, today, is so much more incisive, so much more flattering to one's intelligence, than the blurred reply.
We have seen something of the collapse of hierarchies and of the radical changes in the value-systems which relate personal creation with death. These mutations have brought an end to classic literacy. By that I mean something perfectly concrete. The major part of Western literature, which has been for two thousand years and more so deliberately interactive, the work echoing, mirroring, alluding to previous works in the tradition, is now passing quickly out of reach. Like far galaxies bending over the horizon of invisibility, the bulk of English poetry, from Caxton's Ovid to Sweeney among the Nightingales, is now modulating from active presence into the inertness of scholarly conservation. Based, as it firmly is, on a deep, many-branched anatomy of classical and scriptural reference, expressed in a syntax and vocabulary of heightened tenor, the unbroken arc of English poetry, of reciprocal discourse that relates Chaucer and Spenser to Tennyson and to Eliot, is fading rapidly from the reach of natural reading. A central pulse in awareness, in the language, is becoming archival. Though complex in its causes and consequences, this dimming of recognitions is easy to demonstrate:
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
Laurel, myrtle, and ivy have their specific emblematic life throughout Western art and poetry, and within Milton's own work. We read, in his fine tribute to Giovanni Manso:
Forsitan et nostros ducat de marmore vultus,
Nectens aut Paphiâ myrti aut Parnasside lauri
Fronde comas. . . .9
The ivy stands for poetry when it is particularly allied to learning: Horace's Odes 1. 1. 29 and Spenser's Shepheards Calendar for September tell us that, as they told it to Milton. Odes 1 is at work also in "myrtles brown" (pulla myrtus). The Shepheards Calendar for January and Macbeth, obviously, are resonant in the use of "sere." And the echo moves forward to Tennyson's Ode to Memory and "Those peerless flowers which in the rudest wind / Never grow sere" (rude has carried over into Tennyson's ear from Milton's next line). "Hard constraint" has moved Spenser to write his Pastoral Eclogue on Sidney, and the entire trope of compulsion is summarized in Keats's Ode to Psyche:
O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear.
The Spenser and the Keats phrasings both temper and heighten the special coil of Milton's word order: sad occasion dear, in which "dear" signifies whatever affects us most directly, be it in love or in hatred, in pleasure or in grief (cf. Hamlet, "my dearest foe in heaven," or Henry V, "all your dear offences"). Lycidas is, of course, the name of the shepherd in Theocritus's seventh Idyl and that of one of the speakers in the ninth Eclogue of Vergil. The immediate reiteration of the name, particularly at the start of the line, is a long-established convention of pathos, a musical augment of sorrow. Spenser's Astrophel was probably in Milton's mind:
Young Astrophel, the pride of shepheards praise,
Young Astrophel, the rusticke lasses love.
Both "repeats," the Spenserian and the Miltonic, will sound in Shelley's Adonais. "Who would not sing for Lycidas?" is almost translation: from Vergil's tenth Eclogue 2. 3 -- "Carmine sunt dicenda; neget quis carmina Gallo"? Cf. the reprise in Pope's Windsor Forest:
Granville commands; your aid, O Muses, bring!
What Muse for Granville can refuse to sing?
And so on.
All these are surface markings. We find them in dictionaries and concordances. They can be put at the bottom of the page in what might be called "first-level footnotes." But the information they provide is only the outward of literacy.
Fullness of response depends on an accord, almost intuitive because so thoroughly schooled, with the whole nature of Milton's enterprise, with the context of intent, and agreed emotional, designative reflexes on which the poem is built. A natural reading implies an apprehension, generalized but exact, of what is meant by Idyl and Eclogue, and of the millennial interplay, at once symbolic and conventional, between images of Arcadia and of death. It is an apprehension which includes, for supporting or contrastive reference, not only something of Greek pastoral and a reasonable amount of Vergil, but Giorgione and Poussin. Milton's monody, itself a term charged with precise intimations of range and tone, is nearly impossible to get into right focus if one has no acquaintance with that mode of Italian elegiac pastoral, often composed in Latin, in which the world of Arcadia comprises problematic, philosophically resistant elements of contemporary politics and religion. Is any naturalness of response to the text plausible without familiarity, again unobtrusive because long-established, with the grid of seasonal, botanical, and celestial markers that direct the motion of the argument and allow its vital economy (the amaranth, the daystar, the agricultural and liturgical overtones of May)?
To "read" Lycidas, to seize its purpose at any level but that of vague musicality, is to participate, and not only with one's brain, in the central equivocation between death and poetic glory. Milton's is one of the archetypal statements of the trope of transcendence, of that cast for immortality beyond "the parching wind." This is a poem about fame and the sacrificial gamble which "scorns delights and lives laborious days." The pulse of allusion that beats steady in almost every line, back to Greek, to Latin, to Scripture, and which echoes forward to Dryden, to Arnold, to Tennyson's In Memoriam, is no technical ornament. It is a full-scale pronouncement of accord with the value-relations of personal genius and menacing time which underlie a classic culture. The lament for the poet gone is always autobiographical: the mourner tenses his own resources against the ubiquitous blackmail of death. The "sincerity" of his grief is intense but reflexive. Dissent from this code of moral, psychological conduct, be deaf to its particular idiom, and you will no longer be able to read, to hear, the great tradition of elegy and poetics, of mediation between language and death, which led unbroken from Pindar and Vergil to Thyrsis and to Auden's commemoration of the death of William Butler Yeats.
Here, too, there could be footnotes. Conceivably, such "second-level" annotation could refer the reader of Lycidas to all the requisite classical, scriptural, and contemporary material. It could tell him of the history of elegiac modes and of Milton's notion, old as Hesiod, of the civilizing and sacramental functions of the shepherd-singer. In fact, of course, such annotation would soon run to incommensurable absurdity (it is this which distinguishes it, though not always sharply, from what I called "first-level footnotes") . To be genuinely informative, contextual annotation would soon amount to little less than a history of the language and of culture. We would find ourselves involved in a process -- familiar to information theory -- of infinite regress. The total context of a work such as Lycidas -- or the Divina Commedia or Phèdre or Goethe's Faust -- is "all that is the case," or the active wholeness of preceding and sequent literacy. The thing cannot be done.
But suppose that it could. Suppose that some masterly editorial team devised a complete apparatus of explanation, by virtue of glossaries, concordances, biographical and stylistic appendixes. What will have happened to the poem?
This is the decisive point.
As the glossaries lengthen, as the footnotes become more elementary and didactic, the poem, the epic, the drama, moves out of balance on the actual page. As even the more rudimentary of mythological, religious, or historical references, which form the grammar of Western literature, have to be elucidated, the lines of Spenser, of Pope, of Shelley, or of Sweeney among the Nightingales blur away from immediacy. Where it is necessary to annotate every proper name and classical allusion in the dialogue between Lorenzo and Jessica in the garden at Belmont, or in Iachimo's stealthy rhetoric when he emerges in Imogen's chamber, these marvelous spontaneities of enacted feeling become "literary" and twice-removed (in part, of course, the problem is one of time, of the mere fact that meaning is no longer grasped as quickly, as directly, as it is articulated). How is Pope's Essay on Man to register its delicate precision and sinew when each proposition reaches us, as it were, on stilts, at the top of a page crowded with elementary comment? What presence in personal delight can Endymion have when recent editions annotate "Venus" as signifying "pagan goddess of love"?
These are no rhetorical, futuristic questions. The situation is already on us. In the United States there have appeared versions of parts of the Bible and of Shakespeare in basic English and in strip-cartoon format. Some of these have circulated in the millions. The challenge they represent is serious and credible. It will not be brushed off. We are being asked to choose. Would we have something, at least, of the main legacy of our civilization made accessible to the general public of a modern, mass society? Or would we rather see the bulk of our literature, of our interior history, pass into the museum? The question cannot be evaded by consoling references to paperback sales or to presentations of classic material -- excellent as such presentations sometimes are -- on the mass media. These are only surface noises and salutations to a past whose splendor and authority are still atavistically recognized.
The issues are compelling and demand the most honest possible response. Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist. There it leads a kind of bizarre pseudo-life, proliferating its own inert environment of criticism (we read Eliot on Dante, not Dante), of editorial and textual exegesis, of narcissistic polemic. Never has there been a more hectic prodigality of specialized erudition-in literary studies, in musicology, in art history, in criticism, and in that most Byzantine of genres, the criticism and theory of criticism. Never have the metalanguages of the custodians flourished more, or with more arrogant jargon, around the silence of live meaning.
An archival pseudovitality surrounding what was once felt life; a semiliteracy or subliteracy outside, making it impossible for the poem to survive naked, to achieve unattended personal impact. Academy and populism. The two conditions are reciprocal, and each polarizes the other in a necessary dialectic. Between them they determine our current state.
The challenge is: Was it ever different?
The answer is not as straightforward as current abrasiveness would suggest. Despite pioneering studies, particularly with regard to the nineteenth century in England, our knowledge of the history of reading habits, of the statistics and quality of literate response at different moments and in different communities of Western Europe, is still rudimentary. Such well-attested but local facts as the wide dissemination and collective study of Godwin's Political Justice during the 1790s, or what we know of the sales and circulation of such writers as George Sand and Tennyson, may or may not be more generally indicative. The evidence is hard to come by and harder to assess. One deals with impressionistic notions of "climate" and "tonality."
Nevertheless, certain contours do emerge. Scriptural and, in a wider sense, religious literacy ran strong, particularly in Protestant lands. The Authorized Version and Luther's Bible carried in their wake a rich tradition of symbolic, allusive, and syntactic awareness. Absorbed in childhood, the Book of Common Prayer, the Lutheran hymnal and psalmody cannot but have marked a broad compass of mental life with their exact, stylized articulateness and music of thought. Habits of communication and schooling, moreover, sprang directly from the concentration of memory. So much was learned and known by heart -- a term beautifully apposite to the organic, inward presentness of meaning and spoken being within the individual spirit. The catastrophic decline of memorization in our own modern education and adult resources is one of the crucial, though as yet little understood, symptoms of an afterculture.
As to knowledge of the classics, here again the evidence varies and is susceptible of different interpretations. But exposure to the forms and conventions active in Lycidas was certainly part of a sound" education from the seventeenth century until very recently. Different curricula and different social settings obviously entailed varying degrees of depth: but the Homeric and Vergilian epic, the poetry of Ovid and of Horace, the theory of genres in Aristotle and Longinus were no recondite topics. With a few exceptions (mainly those bearing on the Italian and Renaissance-Latin corpus), none of Milton's imitations and pointers would have been outside the scope of my father's schooling in a Vienna Gymnasium before the first World War, or indeed outside my own in the section lettres of the French lycée system of the 1930s and 40s.
The organized amnesia of present primary and secondary education is a very recent development. There is irony in the fact that one associates the main impetus of this change, its frankest theoretic justifications, with the United States. For it was in the North America of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the ideal, both Puritan and Jeffersonian, of a general biblical and classical literacy was most widely aimed at.
Concentric to these spheres of "book-knowledge" lies a personal, unforced intimacy with the names and shapes of the natural world, with flower and tree, with the measure of the seasons and the rising and setting of the stars. The principal energies of our literature draw constantly on this set of recognitions. But to our housed, metallic sensibilities they have become largely artificial and decorative. Do not, today, inquire of the reader next to you whether he can identify, from personal encounter, even a part of the flora, of the astronomy, which served Ovid and Shakespeare, Spenser and Goethe, as a current alphabet.
Any generalization in these matters is suspect. But the fundamental "polysemic" texture of poetry, drama, and fiction, certainly since the seventeenth century, the writer's deployment of meaning at many simultaneous levels of directness or difficulty, does imply the availability, perhaps utopian, yet perhaps realistic also, of a wide literate public. Heremeticism, the strategy of the incomprehensible, as we find it in so much of art and literature after Mallarmé, is a reaction, haughty and desolate, to the decay of a natural literacy:
We were the last romantics -- chose for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness;
Whatever's written in what poets name
The book of the people; whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.
But let us assume that Yeats's picture is idealized, that Pegasus has gone more often than not bareback. Let us suppose that the Victorian public-school boy, the Gymnasiast or lycéen to whom the text of Homer, of Racine, of Goethe, offered natural purchase, were always but a small number, a conscious élite. Even if this was so, the case stands. Restricted as it may have been, that élite embodied the inheritance and dynamics of culture. Its social, economic predominance and confident self-perpetuation were such that the model of a culture -- whose values may, indeed, have been specialized and minority-based -- served as general criterion. This is the point. Power relations, first courtly and aristocratic, then bourgeois and bureaucratic, underwrote the syllabus of classic culture and made of its transmission a deliberate proceeding. The democratization of high culture -- brought on by a crisis of nerve within culture itself and by social revolution -- has engendered an absurd hybrid. Dumped on the mass market, the products of classic literacy will be thinned and adulterated. At the opposite end of the spectrum, these same products are salvaged out of life and put in the museum vault.
Again, America is the representative and premonitory example. Nowhere has the debilitation of genuine literacy gone further (consider recent surveys of reading comprehension and recognition in American high schools). But nowhere, also, have the conservation and learned scrutiny of the art or literature of the past been pursued with more generous authority. American libraries, universities, archives, museums, centers for advanced study are now the indispensable record and treasure house of civilization. It is here that the European artist and scholar must come to see the cherished afterglow of his culture. Though often obsessed with the future, the United States is now, certainly in regard to the humanities, the active watchman of the classic past.
It may be that this custodianship relates to a deeply puzzling fact. Creation of absolutely the first rank -- in philosophy, in music, in much of literature, in mathematics -- continues to occur outside the American milieu. It is at once taken up and intelligently exploited there, but the "motion of spirit" has taken place elsewhere, amid the enervation of Europe, in the oppressive climate of Russia. There is, in a good deal of American intellectual, artistic production (recent painting may be the challenging exception) a characteristic near-greatness, a strength just below the best. Could it be that the United States is destined to be the "museum culture"? There is no more fascinating question in the sociology of knowledge, none that may touch more intensely on our future. But it lies outside the scope of this essay.
These changes from a dominant to a post- or subliteracy are themselves expressed in a general "retreat from the word." Seen from some future historical perspective, Western civilization, from its Hebraic-Greek origins roughly to the present, may look like a phase of concentrated "verbalism." What seem to us salient distinctions may appear to have been parts of A general era in which spoken, remembered, and written discourse was the backbone of consciousness. It is a commonplace of current sociology and "media-study" that this primacy of the "logic" -- of that which organizes the articulations of time and of meaning around the logos -- is now drawing to a close. Increasingly, the word is caption to the picture. Expanding areas of fact and of sensibility, notably in the exact sciences and the nonrepresentational arts, are out of reach of verbal account or paraphrase. The notations of symbolic logic, the languages of mathematics, the idiom of the computer, are no longer metadialects, responsible and reducible to the grammars of verbal cognition. They are autonomous communicatory modes, claiming and expressing for themselves an increasing reach of contemplative and active pursuit. Words are corroded by the false hopes and lies they have voiced. The electronic alphabet of immediate global communication and "togetherness" is not the ancient, divisive legacy of Babel, but the image-in-motion.
Many aspects of this analysis (which was, in fact, put forward some years before McLuhan gave it explosive currency) may well be mistaken or exaggerated. Transmutations of this order of magnitude do not occur overnight and at the immediately graphic surface. But the general "feel" of the argument is persuasive. There is a comprehensive decline in traditional ideals of literate speech. Rhetoric and the arts of conviction which it disciplines are in almost total disrepute. Pleasure in style, in the "wroughtness" of expressive forms, is a mandarin, nearly suspect posture. More and more of the informational energy required by a mass-consumer society is being transmitted pictorially. The proportions of articulate charge between margin and column of print is being reversed. We are moving back to a layout of the "spaces of meaning" in which the pictorial bordure preempts more and more of the whole. Often now, it is the shred of text which "illustrates" (here also, the premonitory presence is that of Blake).
If my previous suggestions are at all valid, it will be obvious where the principal connections lie.
The classic speech-construct, the centrality of the word are informed by and expressive of both a hierarchic value-system and the trope of transcendence. These nodes of sensibility are interactive and mutually reinforcing at every point. Indo-European syntax is an active mirroring of systems of order, of hierarchic dependence, of active and passive stance, such as have been prominent in the fabric of Western society. The cliché tag regarding the capacity of Latin grammar to reproduce characteristic attitudes in Roman feeling and conduct is true in a more acute and general sense. An explicit grammar is an acceptance of order: it is a hierarchization, the more penetrating for being enforced so early in the individual life-span, of the forces and valuations prevailing in the body politic (the tonalities of "class," "classification," and "classic" are naturally cognate). The sinews of Western speech closely enacted and, in turn, stabilized, carried forward, the power relations of the Western social order. Gender differentiations, temporal cuts, the rules governing prefix and suffix formations, the synapses and anatomy of a grammar -- these are the figura, at once ostensive and deeply internalized, of the commerce between the sexes, between master and subject, between official history and utopian dream, in the corresponding speech community.
The affinities between the preeminence of the word and the classic gamble on and against death are even more central and complex. The ontological and hermeneutic aspects of the modulations between a language-culture and death, explored, for example, in Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur, are too demanding to be touched on here. The point is that the very verb-systems of Indo-European languages are "performative" of those attitudes towards act and survival which animate the classic doctrine of knowledge and of art. What the poet terms "glory" is a direct function of the felt reality of the future tense. The ordered density of remembrance hinges on the prodigal exactitudes of Indo-European preterits. Thus the time-death copula of a classic structure of personal and philosophic values is, in many respects, syntactic, and is inherent to a fabric of life in which language holds a sovereign, almost magically validated role. Diminish that role, subvert that eminence, and you will have begun to demolish the hierarchies and transcendence-values of a classic civilization. Even death can be made mute.
The counterculture is perfectly aware of where to begin the job of demolition. The violent illiteracies of the graffiti, the clenched silence of the adolescent, the nonsense-cries from the stage-happening are resolutely strategic. The insurgent and the freak-out have broken off discourse with a cultural system which they despise as a cruel, antiquated fraud. They will not bandy words with it. Accept, even momentarily, the conventions of literate linguistic exchange, and you are caught in the net of the old values, of the grammars that can condescend or enslave.
Changes of idiom between generations are a normal part of social history. Previously, however, such changes and the verbal provocations of young against old have been variants on an evolutionary continuum. What is occurring now is new: it is an attempt at a total break. The mumble of the dropout, the "fuck-off " of the beatnik, the silence of the teenager in the enemy house of his parents are meant to destroy. Cordelia's asceticism, her refusal of the mendacities of speech, proves murderous. So does that of the autistic child when it stamps on language, pulverizing it to gibberish or maniacal silence. We empty of their humanity those to whom we deny speech. We make them naked and absurd. There is a terrible, literal image in "stone-deafness," in the opaque babble or speechlessness of the "stoned." Break off speech to others and the Medusa turns inward. Hence something of the hurt and despair of the present conflict between generations. Deliberate violence is being done to those primary ties of identity and social cohesion produced by a common language.
But are there no other literacies conceivable, "literacies" not of the letter?
This is being written in a study in a college of one of the great American universities. The walls are throbbing gently to the beat of music coming from one near and several more distant amplifiers. The walls quiver to the ear or to the touch roughly eighteen hours per day, sometimes twenty-four. The beat is literally unending. It matters little whether it is that of pop, folk, or rock. What counts is the all-pervasive pulsation, morning to night and into night, made indiscriminate by the cool burn of electronic timbre. A large segment of mankind, between the ages of thirteen and, say, twenty-five, now lives immersed in this constant throb. The hammering of rock or of pop creates an enveloping space. Activities such as reading, writing, private communication, learning, previously framed with silence, now take place in a field of strident vibrato. This means that the essentially linguistic nature of these pursuits is adulterated; they are vestigial modes of the old "logic."
The new sound-sphere is global. It ripples at great speed across languages, ideologies, frontiers, and races. The triplet pounding at me through the wall on a winter night in the northeastern United States is most probably reverberating at the same moment in a dance hall in Bogotá, off a transistor in Narvik, via a jukebox in Kiev and an electric guitar in Bengazi. The tune is last month's or last week's top of the pops; already it has the whole of mass society for its echo chamber. The economics of this musical esperanto are staggering. Rock and pop breed concentric worlds of fashion, setting, and life style. Popular music has brought with it sociologies of private and public manner, of group solidarity. The politics of Eden come loud.
Many contexts of the decibel culture have been studied. What is more important, but difficult to investigate, let alone quantify, is the question of the development of mental faculties, of self-awareness, when these take place in a perpetual sound-matrix. What are the sweet, vociferous hammers doing to the brain at key stages in its development? We have no real precedent to tell us how life-forms mature and are conducted at anywhere near the levels of organized noise which now cascade through the day and the lit night (rock, in particular, bends and colors the light around it). When a young man walks down a street in Vladivostock or Cincinnati with his transistor blaring, when a car passes with its radio on at full blast, the resulting sound-capsule encloses the individual. It diminishes the external world to a set of acoustic surfaces. A pop regime imposes severe physical stress on the human ear. Some of the coarsening or damage that can follow has, in fact, been measured. But hardly anything is known of the psychological effects of saturation by volume and repetitive beat (often the same two or three tunes are played around the clock). What tissues of sensibility are being numbed or exacerbated?
Yet we are unquestionably dealing with a literacy, with codes of recognition so widespread and dynamic that they constitute a "metaculture." Popular music(s) have their semantics, their theory of genres, their intricate play-offs of esoteric against canonic types. Folk and pop, "trad music" and rock, count their several histories and corpus of legend. They show their relics. They number their old masters and rebels, their betrayers and high priests. Precisely as in classical literacy, so there are in the world of jazz or of rock 'n' roll degrees of initiation ranging from the vague empathies of the tyro (Latin on sundials) to the acid erudition of the scholiast. At the same time there is an age factor which makes the culture of pop more like modern mathematics and physics than the humanities. In their execution of and response to popular music the young have a tension-span, a suppleness of appropriation denied to the old. Part of the reason may be a straightforward organic degeneracy: the delicate receptors of the inner ear harden and grow opaque during one's twenties.
In short, the vocabularies, the contextual behavior-patterns of pop and rock, constitute a genuine lingua franca, a "universal dialect" of youth. Everywhere a sound-culture seems to be driving back the old authority of verbal order.
Classical music has a large part in this new presence of sound. Increasingly, I believe, it is penetrating the lives, the habits of attention and repose, of men and women who were once "bookish." In numerous homes the hi-fi components and the rack for long-playing records occupy the place of the library. High-fidelity reproduction and the LP are more than a mechanical gain. They have opened up, brought into easy range, a large territory of music, of tonality and lost form, accessible before only to the eye of the archivist. In many respects the quality of the modern phonograph makes of the private sitting room an idealized concert hall. It allows a new fastidiousness of listening: no alien coughs disturb, no shuffling of wet feet, no false notes. The long-playing record has changed the relations of the ear to musical time. Because they can be put on at one go, or with a minimum of interval, works in a large format -- a Mahler symphony -- or meshed sequences such as the Goldberg Variations can now be listened to integrally, at home, and also repeated or segmented at will. This flexible interplay between time notation in the musical piece and the time flow in the listener's personal life can be at once arbitrary and illuminating. As is the entirely novel fact that all music can now be heard at any hour and as domestic background. Tape, radio, the phonograph, the cassette will emit an unending stream of music, at any moment or circumstance of the day. This probably accounts for the industry in Vivaldi and the minor eighteenth century. It explains the prodigality of the baroque and the preclassical chamber ensemble in the LP catalogue. So much of this music was, in fact, conceived as Tafelmusik and aural tapestry around the busy room. But we now tend to employ the great modes also as if they were background. If we so choose, we can put on Opus 131 while eating the breakfast cereal. We can play the St. Matthew Passion any hour or day of the week. Again, the effect s are ambiguous: there can be an unprecedented intimacy, but also a devaluation (désacralization). A Muzak of the sublime envelops us.
Habits of the bibliophile -- of the library-cormorant, as Coleridge called him -- have shifted to the collector of records and performances. The furtive manias, the condescensions of expertness, the hunter's zeal which bore once on first editions, colophons, the in-octavo of a remaindered text, are common now among music lovers. There is a science and market in old pressings, in out-of-stock albums, in worn 78s, as there has long been in used books. Catalogues of recordings and rare tapes are becoming as exegetic as bibliographies. Particularly in America, the record and music store will be where the bookstore was, or books will hang on, in uneasy coexistence, as part of a music emporium. Where the Victorians published pocket books for lovers, garlands of prose and rhyme for lovers to read aloud to one another or in whispered exchange, we issue records to seduce by, to spin when the fire is low in the grate. If Dante wrote the line now, crystallizing total passion and the world shut out, it would, I think, read: "and they listened no more that day."
The facts behind this "musicalization" of our culture, behind the shift of literacy and historical awareness from eye to ear (only some, even among serious listeners, can read the score), are fairly obvious. But the underlying motives are so complex, one is so much a part of the change, that I hesitate to put forward any explanation.
The new ideals of shared inner life, of participatory emotion and leisure, certainly play a part. Except in the practice of reading aloud, paterfamilias to household, or of the tome passed from hand to hand and read aloud from in turn, the act of reading is profoundly solitary. It cuts the reader off from the rest of the room. It seals the sum of his consciousness behind unmoving lips. Loved books are the necessary and sufficient society of the alone. They close the door on other presences and make of them intruders. There is, in short, a fierce privacy to print and claim on silence. These, precisely, are the traits of sensibility now most suspect. The bias of current sentiment points insistently towards gregariousness, towards a liberal sharing of emotions. The "great good place" of approved dreams is one of togetherness. The harsh hoarding of feelings, inside the reader's silence, is out. Recorded music matches the new ideals perfectly. Sitting near one another, in intermittent concentration, we partake of the flow of sound both individually and collectively. This is the liberating paradox. Unlike the book, the piece of music is immediate common ground. Our responses to it can be simultaneously private and social. Our delight banishes no one. We draw close while being, more compactly, ourselves. The mutual tide of empathies can be disheveled and frankly lazy. The sheer luster, the fortes or pianos of stereophonic reproduction in a private room can be narcotic. A good deal of classical music is, today, the opium of the good citizen. Nevertheless, the search for human contact, for states of being that are intense but do not shut out others, is real. It is a part of the collapse of classic egoism. Often music "speaks" to that search as printed speech does not.
Perhaps one may conjecture further. The lapse from ceremony and ritual in much of public and private behavior has left a vacuum. At the same time, there is a thirst for magical and "transrational" forms. The capacity of organized religion to satisfy this thirst diminishes. Matthew Arnold foretold that the "facts" of religion would be replaced by its poetry. Today, one feels that in many educated, but imperfectly coherent lives, that "poetry of religious emotion" is being provided by music. The point is not easy to demonstrate; it pertains to the interior climate of feeling. But one does know of a good many individual and familial existences in which the performance or enjoyment of music has functions as subtly indispensable, as exalting and consoling, as religious practices might have, or might have had formerly. It is this indispensability which strikes one, the feeling (which I share) that there is music one cannot do without for long, that certain pieces of music rather than, say, books, are the talisman of order and of trust inside oneself. In the absence or recession of religious belief, close-linked as it was to the classic primacy of language, music seems to gather, to harvest us to ourselves.
Perhaps it can do so because of its special relation to the truth. Neither ontology nor aesthetics has satisfactorily enunciated that relation. But we feel it readily. At every knot, from the voices of public men to the vocabulary of dreams, language is close-woven with lies. Falsehood is inseparable from its generative life. Music can boast, it can sentimentalize, it can release springs of cruelty. But it does not lie. (Is there a lie, anywhere, in Mozart?) It is here that the affinities of music with needs of feeling which were once religious may run deepest.
Conceivably, an ancient circle is closing. In his Mythologiques Lévi-Strauss has asserted that melody holds the key to the "mystère suprême de l'homme." Grasp the riddle of melodic invention, of our apparently imprinted sense of harmonic accord, and you will touch on the roots of human consciousness. Only music, says Lévi-Strauss, is a primal universal language, at once comprehensible to all and untranslatable into any other idiom. Speech comes later than music; even before the disorder at Babel, it was part of the Fall of man. This supposition is, itself, immemorial. It is fundamental to Orphic and Pythagorean doctrines, to the harmonia mundi of Boethius and the sixteenth century. It guided Kepler and was inferred, almost as a commonplace, in Condillac's great Essai sur l'origine des connalssances humaines of 1746. It is no accident that the two visionaries most observant of the crises of the classic order, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, should have seen in music the mode of preeminent energy and meaning. With the mendacities of language brought home to us by psychoanalysis and the mass media, it may be that music is regaining ancient ground, wrested from it, held for a time, by the dominance of the word.
In part these are metaphors and discursive myths. But the condition of feeling which they reflect is real. The literacies of popular and classical music, informed by new techniques of reproduction no less important than was the spread of cheap mass-printing in its time, are entering our lives at numerous, shaping levels. In many settings and sensibilities they are providing a "culture outside the word." This movement will, I expect, continue. We are too close to the facts to see them whole. The test of objectivity is, still, bound to be personal. In ways which are simpleminded but difficult to paraphrase, the "motion" of these lectures seeks to echo, to parallel by other means, a musical figure: a tentative upward arc and descent in the orchestra -it holds one's breath-towards the close of Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. We seem to stand, in regard to a theory of culture, where Bartók's Judith stands when she asks to open the last door on the night.
For Matthew Arnold the touchstones of supreme civilization, of personal feeling in accord with the highest moral and intellectual values, were passages of Greek, Shakespearean, or Miltonic verse. One suspects that for many of us, now, the image of decisive recourse would be less a touchstone than a tuning fork. Musique avant toute chose.
If music is one of the principal "languages outside the word," mathematics is another. Any argument on a post-culture and on future literacy will have to address itself, decisively, to the role of the mathematical and natural sciences. Theirs may very soon be the central sphere. Statistics can be shallow or ambiguous in interpretation. But those which tabulate the growth of the sciences do, in plain fact, map a new world. More than 90 percent of all scientists known to human record are now living. The number of papers which may be regarded as relevant to an advance in chemistry, physics, and the biological sciences -- that is, the recent, active literature in these three fields alone -- is estimated as being in excess of three and a quarter million. The critical indices in the sciences -- investment, publication, number of men trained, percentage of the gross national product directly implicated in research and development -- are doubling every seven to ten years. Between now and 1990, according to a recent projection, the number of monographs published in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology will, if aligned on an imaginary shelf, stretch to the moon. Less tangibly, but more significantly, it has been estimated that some 75 percent of the most talented individuals in the developed nations, of the men and women whose measurable intelligence comes near the top of the curve in the community, now work in the sciences. Politics and the humanities thus seem to draw on a quarter of the optimal mental resources in our societies, and recruit largely from below the line of excellence. It is almost a platitude to insist that no previous period in history offers any parallel to the current exponential growth in the rate, multiplicity, and effects of scientific-technological advance. It is equally obvious that even the present fantastic pace (interleaved, as it may be, by phases of disillusion or regrouping in certain highly developed nations) will at least double by the early 1980s. This phenomen ology brings with it wholly unprecedented demands on information absorption and rational application. We stand less on that shore of the unbounded which awed Newton, than amid tidal movements for which there is not even a theoretic model.
One can identify half a dozen areas of maximal pressure, points at which pure science and technological realization will alter basic structures of both private and social life.
There is a galaxy of biomedical "engineering." Spare-part surgery, the use of chemical agencies against the degeneration of ageing tissues, preselection. of the sex of the embryo, of the manipulation of genetic factors towards ethical or strategic ends -- each of these literally prepares a new typology of man. So does the direct chemical or electrochemical control of behavior. By implanting electrodes in the brain, by giving personality-control drugs, the therapist will be able to program alterations of consciousness, he will touch on the electrochemistry of motive to determine the deed. Memory-transfer through biochemical transplant, for which controversial claims are now being made, would alter the essential relations of ego and time. Unquestionably, our current inroads on the human cortex dwarf all previous images of exploration.
The revolutions of awareness that will result from full-scale computerization and electronic data-processing can only be crudely guessed at. At some point in 1969 the information-handling capacity of computers -- that is, the number of units of information which can be received and stored -- passed that of the 3.5 billion brains belonging to the human race. By 1975, computers will be leading by a fifty to one ratio. By whatever criterion used -- size of memory, cost, speed and accuracy of calculation -- computers are now increasing a thousandfold every fifteen years. In advanced societies the electronic data-bank is fast becoming the pivot of military, economic, sociological, and archival procedures. Though a computer is a tool, its powers are such that they go far beyond any model of governed, easily limited instrumentality. Analogue and digital computerization are transforming the relations of density, of authority, between the human intellect and available knowledge, between personal choice and projected possibility. Connected to telephone lines or to more sophisticated arteries of transmission, multipurpose computers will become a routine presence in all offices and most homes. It is probable that this electronic cortex will simultaneously reduce the singularity of the individual and immensely enlarge his referential and operational scope. Inevitably, the mathematical issues of electronic storage and information-retrieval are becoming the focus of the study of mind.
The fourth main area is that of large-scale ecological modification. There is a good deal of millenarian naïveté and recoil from adult politics in the current passion for the environment. Nevertheless, the potentialities are formidable. Control of weather, locally at least, is now conceivable. As are the economic exploitation of the continental shelves and of the deeper parts of the sea. Man's setting or "collective skin" is becoming malleable on a scale previously unimaginable. Beyond these fields lies space-exploration. Momentary boredom with the smooth histrionics of the thing ought not to blur two crucial eventualities. There is the establishment of habitable bases outside a polluted, overcrowded or war-torn earth, and, remote as it now seems, the perception of signals from other systems of intelligence or information. Fontenelle's inspired speculations of 1686 Sur la pluralité des mondes are now a statistical function.
We cannot hope to measure the sum and consequence of these developments. Yet all but the last-mentioned are in definite sight. That not one of these exploding horizons should even appear in Eliot's analysis of culture indicates the pace of mutation since 1948, Our ethics, our central habits of consciousness, the immediate and environmental membrane we inhabit, our relations to age and to remembrance, to the children whose gender we may select and whose heredity we may program, are being transformed. As in the twilit times of Ovid's fables of mutant being, we are in metamorphosis. To be ignorant of these scientific and technological phenomena, to be indifferent to their effects on our mental and physical experience, is to opt out of reason. A view of post-classic civilization must, increasingly, imply a vision of the sciences, of the language-worlds of mathematical and symbolic notation. Theirs is the commanding energy: in material fact, in the "forward dreams" which define us. Today, our dialectics are binary.
But the motives for trying to incorporate science into the field of common reference, of imaginative reflex, are better than utilitarian. And this is so even if we take "utilitarian, " as we must, to include our very survival as a species. The true motives ought to be those of delight, of intellectual energy, of moral venture. To have some personal rapport with the sciences is, very probably, to be in contact with that which has most force of life and comeliness in our reduced condition.
At seminal levels of metaphor, of myth, of laughter, where the arts and the worn scaffolding of philosophic systems fail us, science is active. Touch on even its more abstruse regions and a deep elegance, a quickness and merriment of the spirit come through. Consider the Banach-Tarski theorem whereby the sun and a pea may be so divided into a finite number of disjoint parts that every single part of one is congruent to a unique part of the other. The undoubted result is that the sun may be fitted into one's vest pocket, and that the component parts of the pea will fill the entire universe solidly, no vacant space remaining either in the interior of the pea or in the universe. What surrealist fantasy yields a more precise wonder? Or take the Penrose theorem In cosmology, which tells us that under extreme conditions of gravitational collapse a critical stage is reached whereby no communication with the outside world is possible. Light cannot escape the pull of the gravitational field. A "black hole" develops, representing the locale of a body of near-zero volume and near-infinite density. Or, even more remarkably, the "collapse-event" may open "into" a new universe hitherto unapprehended. Here spin the soleils noirs of Baudelaire and romantic trance. But the marvelous wit is that of fact. Very recent observations of at least two bodies, a companion to the star Aur and the supergiant star Her 89, suggest that Penrose's model of a "hole in space" is true. "Constantly, I seek a poetry of facts," writes Hugh MacDiarmid:
The profound kinship of all living substance
Is made clear by the chemical route.
Without some chemistry one is bound to remain
Forever a dumbfounded savage
In the face of vital reactions.
The beautiful relations
Shown only by biochemistry
Replace a stupefied sense of wonder
With something more wonderful
Because natural and understandable.
That "poetry of facts" and realization of the miraculous delicacies of perception in contemporary science already informs literature at those nerve-points where it is both disciplined and under the stress of the future. It is no accident that Musil was trained as an engineer, that Ernst Jünger and Nabokov should be serious entomologists, that Broch and Canetti are writers schooled in the exact and mathematical sciences. The special, deepening presence of Valéry in one's feelings about the afterlife of culture is inseparable from his own alertness to the alternative poetics, to the "other metaphysics" of mathematical and scientific pursuit. The instigations of Queneau and of Borges, which are among, the most bracing in modern letters, have algebra and astronomy at their back. And there is a more spacious, central instance. Proust's only successor is Joseph Needham. A la recherche du temps perdu and Science and Civilization in China represent two prodigiously sustained, controlled flights of the re-creative intellect. They exhibit what Coleridge termed "esemplastic powers," that many-branched coherence of design which builds a great house of language for memory and conjecture to inhabit. The China of Needham's passionate recomposing -- so inwardly shaped before he went in search of its material truth -- is a place as intricate, as lit by dreams, as the way to Combray. Needham's account, in an "interim" essay, of the misreadings and final discovery of the true hexagonal symmetry of the snow-crystal has the same exact savor of manifold revealing as the Narrator's sightings of the steeple at Martinville. Both works are a long dance of the mind.
It is often objected that the layman cannot share in the life of the sciences. He is "bound to remain forever a dumbfounded savage" before a world whose primary idiom he cannot grasp. Though good scientists themselves rarely say this, it is obviously true. But only to a degree. Modern science is centrally mathematical; the development of rigorous mathematical formalization marks the evolution of a given discipline, such as biology, to full scientific maturity. Having no mathematics, or very little, the "common reader" is excluded. If he tries to penetrate the meaning of a scientific argument, he will probably get it muddled or misconstrue metaphor to signify the actual process. True again, but of a truth that is halfway to indolence. Even a modest mathematical culture will allow some approach to what is going on. The notion that one can exercise a rational literacy in the latter part of the twentieth century without a knowledge of calculus, without some preliminary access to topology or algebraic analysis, will soon seem a bizarre archaism. These styles and speech-forms from the grammar of number are already indispensable to many branches of modern logic, philosophy, linguistics, and psychology. They are the language of feeling where it is today most adventurous. As electronic data-processing and coding pervade more and more of the economics and social order of our lives, the mathematical illiterate will find himself cut off. A new hierarchy of menial service and stunted opportunity may develop among those whose resources continue to be purely verbal. There may be "word-helots."
Of course, the mathematical literacy of the amateur must remain modest. Usually he will apprehend only a part of the scientific innovation, catching a momentary, uncertain glimpse of a continuum, making an approximate image for himself. But is this not, in fact, the way in which we view a good deal of modern art? Is it not precisely through intervals of selective appropriation, via pictorial analogies which are often naive in the extreme, that the nonmusician assimilates the complex, ultimately technical realities of music?
The history of science, moreover, permits of a less demanding access, yet one that leads to the center. A modest mathematical culture is almost sufficient to enable one to follow the development of celestial mechanics and of the theory of motion until Newton and Laplace. (Has there been a subtler recapturer of motive, of the dart and recoil of mind, than Alexandre Koyré, the historian of this movement?) It takes no more than reasonable effort to understand at least along major lines, the scruple, the elegance of hypothesis and experiment which characterize the modulations of the concept of entropy from Carnot to Helmholz. The genesis of Darwinism and the subsequent reexaminations which lead from orthodox evolutionary doctrine to modern molecular biology are one of the "very rich hours" of the human intellect. Yet much of the material and of its philosophical implications are accessible to the layman. This is so, to a lesser degree, of some part of the debate between Einstein, Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and Max Born -- from each of whom we have letters of matchless honesty and personal commitment -- on the issue of anarchic indeterminacy or subjective interference in quantum physics. Here are topics as crowded with felt life as any in the humanities.
The absence of the history of science and technology from the school syllabus is a scandal. It is an absurdity to speak of the Renaissance without knowledge of its cosmology, of the mathematical dreams which underwrote its theories of art and music. To read seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature or philosophy without an accompanying awareness of the unfolding genius of physics, astronomy, and algebraic analysis during the period is to read only at the surface. A model of neo-Classicism which omits Linnaeus is hollow. What can be said responsibly of romantic historicism, of the new mappings of time after Hegel, which fails to include a study of Buffon, Cuvier, and Lamarck? It is not only that the humanities have been arrogant in their assertions of centrality. It is that they have often been silly. We need no poet more urgently than Lucretius.
Where culture itself is so utterly fragmented, there is no need to speak of the sciences as separate. What does make them so different from the present state of the humanities is their collectivity and inner calendar. Overwhelmingly, today, science is a collective enterprise in which the talent of the individual is a function of the group. But, as we have seen, more and more of current radical art and anti-art aspires to the same plurality. The really deep divergence between the humanistic and scientific sensibilities is one of temporality. Very nearly by definition, the scientist knows that tomorrow will be in advance of today. A twentieth-century schoolboy can manipulate mathematical and experimental concepts inaccessible to a Galileo or a Gauss. For a scientist the curve of time is positive. Inevitably, the humanist looks back. The essential repertoire of his consciousness, the props of his daily life as a scholar or critic are from the past. A natural bent of feeling will lead him to believe, perhaps silently, that the achievements of the past are more radiant than those of his own age. The proposition that "Shakespeare is the greatest, most complete writer mankind will ever produce" is a logical and almost a grammatical provocation. But it carries conviction. And even if a Rembrandt or a Mozart may, in future, be equaled (itself a gross, indistinct notion), they cannot be surpassed. There is a profound logic of sequent energy in the arts, but not an additive progress in the sense of the sciences. No errors are corrected or theorems disproved. Because it carries the past within it, language, unlike mathematics, draws backward. This is the meaning of Eurydice. Because the realness of his inward world lies at his back, the man of words, the singer, will turn back, to the place of necessary beloved shadows. For the scientist time and the light lie before.
Here, if anywhere, lies division of the "two cultures" or, rather, of the two orientations. Anyone who has lived among scientists will know how intensely this polarity influences life style. Their evenings point self-evidently to tomorrow, e santo è l'avvenir.
Or is it really?
This is the last question I want to touch on. And by far the most difficult. I can state it and feel its extreme pressure. But I have not been able to think it through in any clear or consequent manner.
That science and technology have brought with them fierce problems of environmental damage, of economic unbalance, of moral distortion, is a commonplace. In terms of ecology and ideals of sensibility the cost of the scientific-technological revolutions of the past four centuries has been very high. But despite anarchic, pastoral critiques such as those put forward by Thoreau and Tolstoy, there has been little fundamental doubt that it ought to be met. In that largely unexamined assurance there has been a part of blind economic will, of the immense hunger for comfort and material diversity. But there has also been a much deeper mechanism: the conviction, centrally woven into the Western temper, at least since Athens, that mental inquiry must move forward, that such motion is natural and meritorious in itself, that man's proper relation to the truth is one of pursuer (the "haloo" of Socrates cornering his quarry rings through our history). We open the successive doors in Bluebeard's castle because "they are there," because each leads to the next by a logic of intensification which is that of the mind's own awareness of being. To leave one door closed would be not only cowardice but a betrayal -- radical, self-mutilating -- of the inquisitive, probing, forward-tensed stance of our species. We are hunters after reality, wherever it may lead. The risks, the disasters incurred are flagrant. But so is, or has been until very recently, the axiomatic assumption and a priori of our civilization, which holds that man and the truth are companions, that their roads lie forward and are dialectically cognate.
For the first time (and one's conjectures here will be tentative and blurred), this all-governing axiom of continued advance is being questioned. I am thinking of issues that go far beyond current worries in the scientific community about the environment, about weaponry, about the mindless applications of chemistry to the human organism. The real question is whether certain major lines of inquiry ought to be pursued at all, whether society and the human intellect at their present level of evolution can survive the next truths. It may be -- and the mere possibility presents dilemmas beyond any which have arisen in history -- that the coming door opens onto realities ontologically opposed to our sanity and limited moral reserves. Jacques Monod has asked publicly what many have puzzled over in private: Ought genetic research to continue if it will lead to truths about differentiations in the species whose moral, political, psychological consequences we are unable to cope with? Are we free to pursue neurochemical or psychophysiological. spoors concerning the layered, partially archaic forms of the cortex, if such study brings the knowledge that ethnic hatreds, the need for war, or those impulses toward self-ruin hinted at by Freud are inherited facts? Such examples can be multiplied.
It may be that the truths which lie ahead wait in ambush for man, that the kinship between speculative thought and survival on which our entire culture has been based, will break off. The stress falls on "our" entire culture because, as anthropologists remind us, numerous primitive societies have chosen stasis or mythological circularity over forward motion, and have endured around truths immemorially posited.
The notion that abstract truth, and the morally neutral truths of the sciences in particular, might come to paralyze or destroy Western man is foreshadowed in Husserl's Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften (1934-37). It becomes a dominant motif in the theory of "negative dialectic" of Horkheimer, Adorno, and the Frankfurt School. This is one of the most challenging, though often hermetic, currents in modern feeling and in the modern diagnosis of the crisis of culture. Tito Perlini's long essay, Autocritica della ragione illuministica (in Ideologie 9/10 ) is not only a lucid introduction to this material but a stringent statement of the case.
Reason itself has become repressive. The worship of "truth" and of autonomous "facts" is a cruel fetishism: "Elevato ad idolo di se stesso, il fatto è un tiranno assoluto di fronte a cui il penslero non può non posternasi in. muta adorazione."10 The disease of enlightened man is his acceptance, itself wholly superstitious, of the superiority of facts to ideas. "La spinta al positivo è tentazione mortale per la cultura."11 Instead of serving human ends and spontaneities, the "positive truths" of science and of scientific laws have become a prison house, darker than Piranesi's, a carcere to imprison the future. It is these "facts," not man, which regulate the course of history. As Horkheimer and Adorno emphasize in the Dialektik der Aufkldrung, the old obscurantisms of religious dogma and social caste have been replaced by the even more tyrannical obscurantism of "rational, scientific truth." "Reality has the better of ideology," writes Perlini, meaning that a myth of objective, verifiable scientific evidence has overwhelmed the utopian, fundamentally anarchic springs of humane consciousness: "In nome di un'esperienza ridotta. al simulacro di se stessa, viene condanatta come vuota fantasticheria la stessa. capacità soggettiva di progettazione dell'uomo."12
The vigor of the indictment, its moral and intellectual attractions, are evident. But so are its weaknesses. It is no accident that Horkheimer and Adorno were unable to complete the Dialektik. Nowhere do we find substantive examples of how a liberated, "multidimensional" man would in fact restructure his relations to reality, to that "which is so." Where is the actual program for a mode of human perception freed from the "fetishism of abstract truth"?
But the argument is flawed at a more elemental level. The pursuit of the facts, of which the sciences merely provide the most visible, organized instance, is no contingent error embarked on by Western man at some moment of élitist or bourgeois rapacity. That pursuit is, I believe, imprinted on the fabric, on the electrochemistry and impulse-net of our cortex. Given an adequate climatic and nutritive milieu, it was bound to evolve and to augment by a constant feedback of new energy. The partial absence of this questing compulsion from less-developed, dormant races and civilizations does not represent a free choice or feat of innocence. It represents, as Montesquieu knew, the force of adverse ecological and genetic circumstance. The flower child in the Western city, the neoprimitive chanting his five words of Thibetan on the highway are performing an infantile charade, founded on the surplus wealth of that same city or highway. We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing. We shall, I expect, open the last door in the castle even if it leads, perhaps because it leads, onto realities which are beyond the reach of human comprehension and control. We shall do so with that desolate clairvoyance, so marvelously rendered in Bartók's music, because opening doors is the tragic merit of our identity.
There are two obvious responses to this outlook. There is Freud's stoic acquiescence, his grimly tired supposition that human life was a cancerous anomaly, a detour between vast stages of organic repose. And there is the Nietzschean gaiety in the face of the inhuman, the tensed, ironic perception that we are, that we always have been, precarious guests in an indifferent, frequently murderous, but always fascinating world:
Schild der Notwendigkeit.
Höchstes Gestirn des Seins!
-- das kein Wunsch erreicht,
-- das kein Nein befleckt,
ewiges Ja des Seins,
ewig bin ich dein Ja:
den ich liebe dich, o Ewigkeit!13
Both attitudes have their logic and direction of conduct. One chooses or alternates between them for uncertain reasons of private feeling, of authentic or imagined individual circumstance. Personally, I feel most drawn to the gaia scienza, to the conviction, irrational, even tactless as it may be, that it is enormously interesting to be alive at this cruel, late stage in Western affairs. If a dur désir de durer was the mainspring of classic culture, it may well be that our post-culture will be marked by a readiness not to endure rather than curtail the risks of thought. To be able to envisage possibilities of self-destruction, yet press home the debate with the unknown, is no mean thing.
But these are only indistinct guesses. It is no rhetorical move to insist that we stand at a point where models of previous culture and event are of little help. Even the term Notes is too ambitious for an essay on culture written at this moment. At most, one can try to get certain perplexities into focus. Hope may lie in that small exercise. "A blown husk that is finished," says Ezra Pound of man and of himself as he, the master-voyager of our age, nears a homecoming:
A blown husk that is finished
but the light sings eternal
a pale flare over marshes
where the salt hay whispers to tide's change.
(September 1970/January 1971)
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