THE AMERICAN CONTRIBUTION TO UNIVERSAL CULTURE
* AN INTRINSIC VALUE OF ACTION *
Armando Martins Janeira
Americans developed and modernized some fundamental aspects of European humanism: they brought further the Western spirit and experience which is their common heritage. Some other aspects, is though, instead of being deepened were dropped in the New World. We have seen that the Asian concept of time is cyclical, while in Europe time is linear. In America time is quicker than in the old continents, and broken in a multitude of actions: it could be called rhythmical time. Action itself has not a long continuity, it has not a cosmic projection like in Asia, nor the same deep historical content like in Europe. The tempo of action is accelerated to a point that finally rhythm becomes its outstanding trait. The fact that American music is essentially rhythmical seems a symbolic confirmation of this. Time is money: that is time is action, action is production, production is things to exchange for money - and money is the things it can buy. This eminent cycle of action emphasizes implicitly the inner value of action: action is valued for itself. The inaction man, a frequent theme in Chinese art, is inconceivable by American social canons. That is why contemplation has no place either in American art, nor meditation in American life. All the values of life are expressed in action. Action embraces the ideals of individuals and the aims of society. Hence the clarity of purposes of the United States, the facility to understand their politics and social evolution. An ideal of well-being and high standard of living for every citizen, attainable through scientifically elaborated programs, easy to achieve due to the immense wealth of the country. An easy sociability, simple and warm comradeship, good neighbourhood, urban manners, spontaneous, helpful friendship without deep attachment. This is the tonus of human relations.
American civilization is essentially an urban civilization. The feeling of poetic liberty and solitude which the intimacy with the countryside inspired to the men of the past is lost.
The simplicity of American ideals makes them easily attainable by every citizen. In this affluent and optimistic society there is nothing left of the thirst for excellence and immortality which gave depth to the Greek and Renaissance world. The ideal for which every citizen yearns is the common ideal. Every man wants to be a common man, to be dissolved into the anonymity of the prosperous society, to work for its affluence and harmony. The European inquietude descending from medieval mystic yearnings and from classic ambitions of the exceptional, singled out man, was not transplanted to the conformist society of the New World. Here the society absorbs the yearnings of the individual, the warmth of the collective soul comforts and quietens the rebellious and separatist aspiration of its members, the ambition to be a common man evens the urban community. Hence the absence of great symbols and also the lack of style.
The predominance of the collectivist traits in the United States and Russia explains why both countries have chosen the way of realism in art and literature, and why there are so many similarities between socialist realism and American realism. In favour of Russia worked, of course, the circumstances that it was an old society with many centuries of rich history and that communism brought, together with rationalism and cold planning, a cloud of humanitarian aspirations and socialist mythology.
But both countries cut with the poetic myths of the past and in both the sense of style was lost.
We should not suppose, though, that American man is superficial. Sometimes the characters are complex, and then the plays of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams sprout out of a turbid social soil. But such complexity never reaches extremes of tension - that degree of conscious human suffering and despair breaks out in catastrophe - and this is why American literature has no tragedy. But it has the most remarkable epic poetry of our times, as it naturally had to be, because the epopee is the clangorous voice of action. The greatest epic poet of our time, Ezra Pound, is an American. The preference of American public for Westerners shows how the epic taste for action is ingrained in them. The United States is a country of pioneers and of a “third-generation” of bold men and women who came from all countries of Europe, of Asia and of Africa. New arrivals come to refresh every year the Young stock, bringing with them a multiplicity of beliefs, national traditions, human aspirations and an ardent determination to vanquish and have a better life; and all these ideas and immense spiritual force add to the melting-pot of American society.
This tremendous human vitality expressed in a ceaseless struggle, has engendered the most obvious American ideal: success. Success is the ideal of a very vital society, seething with all the energies of immaturity. Success is a value in itself, to attain it all means are good provided they respect the law and the rules of fair play, another American ideal.
American society is a classless society. Success depends only upon effort, not upon birth or breeding as man relies only on his effort, the impulse of work, the ingenuity, the activity of the community is tremendously the most efficient. And it is on account of this, more than of her immense riches, that the United States is the most powerful country on earth.
There is another element which concurs for this result - the lack of hindrances and prejudices from a heavy past. American past - is not yet long enough to prompt a consciousness of history. Americans are proud of their birth as a nation, of their cherished colonial traditions, but their history is only two centuries old and has not in its heritage that large and complex tissue of glories and disasters of enlightened moments of truth and dark breaks of shame and despair which make the heavy heritage of old nations. Hence the peculiar American approach to history - one of juvenile challenge and confidence. Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Franklin, do not represent the past to which one belongs by birth, writes Margaret Mead, but the past to which one tries to belong by effort. Washington is not that to which Americans passionately cling, but which they want to belong. (1) This is the peculiar American approach to history - not as a motive of inspiration for thought, but for effort, not as source of reflection, but as a spring of action.
When we speak of a lack of reflection we do not mean in any way that American has not found his own way of intellectual reflection and philosophical thought, but we refer only, as Mortimer Adler puts it, to the little participation and interest of the public in abstract reflection, in what concerns the penetration of philosophy in the intellectual and political life in country. (2) For the common American the opinion of the businessman is more respectable than that of the intellectual, and unlike in France, where artists are kings, it seems that in America there is even a certain suspicion in regard to the intellectuals. (3) By contrast to this general trend, there are in the United States highly cultured elites. To them is due the extraordinary advance of science, the appearance of excellent books on all branches of knowledge and even the existence in American museums of some of the best collections of art of the world, acquired frequently with the support of businessman of wide vision and rare consciousness of the social duties of fortune.
We have mentioned that Americans have not acquired a consciousness of history in the European sense - history for them is not a reflective contemplation of the past, but rather an active projection of the past in the present. And this must be why they do not feel the need of creating for the future great, lasting works like the Gothic cathedrals, the Buddhist temples, the admirable mosques. The large American cities are constantly renewing themselves. The Rockefeller Center is built on a piece of land leased for 99 years.
The instinct of belonging to a community is normally much stronger in America than in Europe, and still it never attained the dramatic intensity shown in serious historical crisis in some European countries. Is it because the conformism breaks down the impulse towards the heroic tension, tames the hero and softens him by the perspective of a life of comfort in suburbial quietness and respect?
People who admired Mac Arthur, the only general of the last war with a True Roman grandeur, could not feel being disappointed when, after the breadth of view he has shown in his consular government of Japan, saw him taking prosaic shelter in the management of a big company, occupied with the making of typewriters and other gadgets and things.
The tragic sense of life which inspired great Europeans the historical moments of grandeur of Western civilization has never been very distinct, through acts or in works of art, in America. If we look back in history, we realize that the tragic sense of life was more conspicuous in the Greek and Roman world than in later Europe. Is it possible that the transplantation of European civilization to America has weakened once more the tragic depths of man?
Connected with the sense of history is the sense of style. We see a beautiful sense of style imbuing the life of societies with an old civilization. In modern Japan the sense of style gives still a great beauty to some aspects of social life. The aesthetic feeling predominant in Shinto religion, certain religious aspects of politeness toward foreigners, originated in Buddhism, as among the Arabs similar forms derive from Mohammedanism, impregnate beauty and style into human relations. Certain traits of the art of sociability, like flower arrangement, the art of the tea, introduce a number of social practices which inspire an atmosphere of taste and refinement in the community and a deep sense of style in every member. We have in mind not outmoded or pretentious habits belonging to an aristocratic minority, but general practices and ideas which make part of the common uses and conventions of a certain human society.
In Europe there are still some of these social practices which throw a spiritual light and beauty on communal life. I could quote certain social ceremonies and festivals at the time of harvesting, or at the passage of the equinox and solstice, the association of certain songs with certain works or of singing while working, not to mention certain charming, affectionate forms of welcoming.
The importance of such social practices lies in the fact that they introduce a sense of form, substance and depth in human relations, bring out the hidden meaning of social intercourse and at the same time lift up the spirit of the communion and their yearn for beauty, increase harmony. They introduce ease, charm beauty and understanding in the social atmosphere. Style makes human relations more natural and denser and gives the individual more self-discipline, more self assurance to his mind, more grace to his manners.
The simplicity of American character and the speed of American life have killed what was received from the European sense of style; lately an effort appears to be made toward restoring it, or creating a new one, but the visible results are rather a superficial formalism, empty of grace, which is the essence of style.
By what has been said, we can conclude that American civilization has emptied men of some of their deepest yearnings and immortal aspirations. We do not know yet if happiness diminishes man’s intellectual inquietude and in what measure the satisfaction of material needs weakens his metaphysical thirst. Maybe all those heroic ideals and immortal aspirations are one more vanished dream, an arduous desire of the past, now useless and incapable of moving the car of history.
But on the other hand, there are in America life and tradition aspects and ideas through which some humanist European trends were enlarged and restrengthened with a new faith and vigour. The main one is liberty.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the inalienable right of all men to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Lincoln wanted a government of the people, by the people, for the people and spoke of “that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to all the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.
Here is a characteristic American declaration of humanism, extending to all men the benefits of liberty and recognizing in everyone the dignity and respect of a human being. This is the best of the heritage America received from Europe and the one the New World is making its own holding as its highest value.
The independence of character is a reflection of this love of liberty; it originates in the hard temper of the first American immigrants who decided to suffer no more the intolerance of Anglican Church and to go to settle far away and build a new country. From their Anglo-Saxon ancestors the first Americans inherited Puritanism and a precious training of public debate: America did not need to make the apprenticeship of liberty, because England did it for her, writes André Marouis. America had only to invent new forms of liberty adapted to her needs and that she did from the beginning. (4)
The rejuvenescence produced by the challenge of the new environment, and the idealism and strong realism of the explorers of the New Continent is still alive today.
Courage is held in America as “the most admirable of human virtues” as John Kennedy defined it in a book about the idealism and realism of American public life, which delineating the portraits of some American senators with a some times Roman imposing dignity, shows the author’s exceptional political seriousness and civic grandeur. (5)
One of the greatest humanist values America has kept from her Western heritage is optimism. An optimism which confides in innovation and searches constantly for it, creates a fertile technological devotion, affords decentralization, flexibility and individual responsibility in management. In the American smile there is something of the joyous courage and confidence of the Roman and Renaissance smile. It expresses the audacity of a new man confident of his force, ready to submit the world to his will.
Man knows his limitations and he knows also that it is unwise to wish to go beyond them:
“And I know I am solid and sound. I exist as I am - that is enough”.
Sang the greatest American poet, Walt Whitman. The praise of experience, the strong sense of fact are the evidence of American realism; they are also the bases for its known optimism. (6)
And this optimism is not an individual force, it overflows into a warm social feeling of solidarity, into offering joyous help and consolation to other men.
Here must lie the spring of the dynamic force of American achievement, of that tremendous power that sustains American prosperity at home and American enterprise in the world at large.
We have characterized American humanism by a strong realism, humanitarian idealism and disinclination toward abstract speculation. The sense of reality and the love of action lead to the American bend for producing things. It must also account for America having achieved the highest forms of technique and for rating science as the first intellectual activity. There is a belief in the inevitability of progress as well as in science as an automatic key to happiness. (7) Here again, Americans distance themselves from the old scales of Europe, which continue to attribute the primacy to humanities. That is why many European educationalists praise the advanced nature of American and Russian education: in both countries the investment in people’s education is staggering to be compared to the old nations.
From the predominance of science and technique derives another distinct aspect of this new humanism - the conscience of power. This new man is conscious of his tremendous power to dominate and change the material world. But science and technique, with their immense benefits, bring also the inconvenients of concentrating man’s desires on the merely utilitarian sides of life, of dazzling him with the splendours of material civilization, making him happy and content in a primitive enjoyment of comfort and utilities. (8)
Without a need to go beyond the immediacy of reality, to enquire about its essence and moral and metaphysical projections, man feels easily content in his world, and happiness becomes easy, but shallow. Man, instead of interrogating himself, runs away from himself, afraid of feeling lonely. Moral and intellectual hierarchies are abolished and all energies including those of ideal and almost those of religious nature concur to the same purpose - production. “We have here a society of output, writes André Siegfried, nearly a theocracy of output which aims finally to produce things still more than men. Never before in history such a convergence of social forces had been achieved, neither on such a scale nor with such an intensity”.
This intensity of the American effort for production is bringing, according to economists, to a gross over-exploitation of resources, to the waste of energy and talent, to an excessive advertising tending to persuade more people to consume more products. Thus a tremendous dynamism is lost in futile production, in aimless channels.
The standard of living does not consist only of material comfort and consuming things: it consists mainly of being able to enjoy the beauty created by nature and by art, to appreciate the lucid pleasures of the thought and of achieving a harmonious feeling of union with the universe and of living in accord with such feelings. Have the United States, in this sense, a high standard of living? Arthur Miller, as most American poets, answers, not. If living means appreciation of life, writes Miller, we have the lowest standard of living in the world, in spite of the fact that it costs more to live in America than in any country in the world. The cost is not only in dollars and cents, Miller concludes, but in sweat and blood, in frustration, ennui broken homes, smashed ideals, illness and insanity.
The two factors which contribute most to cause death in the United States are traffic accidents and suicides - both symptoms of today’s spiritual crisis and of a divorce from a universe inspiration of peace and harmony. The two extremes of material wealth and spiritual void of modern civilization have reached their highest point in the United States. The more powerful and richer it is, the acuter is the question - what is the sense of American wealth?
Western civilization, transplanted to American, has given new fruits in the fresh, new soil. When an European lands in the United States and sees for the first time with amazement the skyscrapers of New York and the hectic activity of American life, he cannot help asking himself - Am I treading on the way of the future? Is this the new life opened up for man? This man with “a robust sense of fact”, convinced that “knowledge of the possible is the beginning of happiness”, confident on his boundless power for material construction, is he the man of the future? Is the yearn for the absolute, which in the old West produced heroes, wars, saints, the greatest books and works of art, going to sink into the satisfaction of scientific-industrial happiness?
American civilization is a response and a challenge to the ancient values of European civilization. These values, which continue to develop and to be proved in the old continent are simultaneously being proved and developed in a new society, on a new soil. If they are going to separate and progress in two different branches or if they will be tied to each other forever in an essential concordance, is too early to foresee. It is already evident that in the United States, through their extraordinary industrial applications of science and consequent impressive production of wealth, have shown the world a new path for happiness. What cannot yet be seen is at which price of fundamental human values lost or diminished.