01 July, 2006

The beast, the fog

20th Century, Summer 1964: 'Alone'.

A once-popular sociology journal (founded in 1877) with middlebrow academic pretensions; I found this issue in Henry Pordes' basement for only 3 quid. I bought it mainly for the cover, pictured below. But reading it on the bus back home made me quite glad I'd shelled out for it. I first noticed the ads. Even in the 60s, advertising editorial was a different world. The TLS assures prospective readers that its standards are high:
This does not—repeat not—mean that the Lit. Supp. will not on occasion censure a book, or even damn it, with all the critical fervour and talent at its command (which is considerable); but of this much you can be certain—it was well worth damning.
Meanwhile, Barclays Bank quotes Browning and uses language like 'the colour of dangers and alarums' and 'We cannot, alas, scatter these facilities with a fine, careless rapture'. How quaint! As for the articles, they just pile up, one after the other, about the bleak loneliness of modern life, some scientific, others emotional, with some charmingly trite poetry too ('I do not want to be consoled / because this grief is all I hold'), literary quotations, and cartoons without punchlines. The most interesting thing in the book is a piece by the Chicago journalist and scriptwriter Clancy Sigal about alienation among intellectuals.

Sigal's primary argument is that sensitive intellectual types, for whom he expresses the clearest contempt, shy away from human warmth and emotional interaction: 'He reacts with violence and repugnance, customarily in the form of amused indifference, to anybody who attempts in any but the most meaninglessly general terms to touch upon this nerve.' Sigal then lists possible reactions to personal vulnerability: "What's he on about? Looking for sympathy?" and so forth. The 'American response', as he terms it, is to seek generalised explanation for the individual's lament. He damns these reactions because in his view, intellectuals are the ones responsible for analysing the ills of themselves and of society as a whole; the intellectual is the 'doctor' to society, who is 'to help supply the general population — Them — with the mental arithmetic for mounting life-saving counter-attacks against the beast, the fog, the whatever-it-is that surrounds, envelops, and breaks us'. Sigal goes on to speak in rhetorical terms of what Joyce called the 'paralysis' of the civilised world, and particularly of those who count themselves radical: careerism, specialization, 'survivormanship', even the adoption of the language 'of the oppressors'. This, remember, is 1964, before the riots, but just after the Beats and their countercultural ilk, and in the wake of Leavis' critique of the situation in the academic humanities, which were moving, as they are today, towards intellectual ossification, directionless and underfunded in favour of the sciences. C. P. Snow (whom Leavis attacked without mercy) had famously decried the 'Two Cultures' in 1959: 'Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative.' All, it seems, were complaining of 'coldness'.

All this reflects that old debate about how humanistic studies can be justified in scientific terms; that uneasy and anti-romantic feeling that a scientific standard of value is the only valid one. Why, then, talk about emotions? Let's get on with the business at hand of finding truth. My dear friend M., a passionate and literate intellectual, gave up on the humanities in disgust; he felt that literary criticism was nothing but a mess of glorified value-judgements. What was the point of it? He has no interest in the emotional either, though he is open about his own feelings.

But is the intellectual really the 'doctor to society'? I think Sigal knows the heritage of that idea: all of the Greek philosophers considered their occupation essentially curative or therapeutic, from Plato through to Sextus Empiricus. Mens sana in corpore sano, as Juvenal put it. As for myself, though I try to make my family and my friends happy, I feel no responsibility for their happiness. And I labour under no delusions that my professional work will remotely aid the public weal. Sigal has in mind that ancient concept of a society in which all members play their part towards the whole. This might be true in economic terms, but has no longer any psychological or sociological meaning. Just as the printing press encouraged a dispersed readership over a clustered listenership, so the internet has made us alone in our unity. The 1960s saw the destruction of the street as a social unit, as friends and family were scattered in high-rise apartments; now I know neither the names nor the faces of my immediate neighbours. We have become, perhaps irrevocably, atomised.

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