My Utopia

American art critic and philosopher, BERNARD BERENSONwas born in Lithuania in 1865, educated at Boston Latin and at Harvard, became a protégé of Mrs. Jack Gardner and a consultant for her growing collection, and eventually took up his residence in Italy, where he is an Honorary Citizen of Florence. His new book, Rumor and Reflection, which Simon and Schuster are publishing this autumn, describes his thoughts and experiences while a “ civilian prisoner ” in Italy from 1941 to 1944. In spite of his age and renown, he was in increasing danger after the Allied landing in Sicily; friends smuggled him out of his villa and kept him in hiding until the Liberation. It was at this time that he wrote in his diary such Reflections as follow.

by BERNARD BERENSON

1

HAVING reached the shady side of my seventyninth year, I regret at times that I cannot hope to see the outcome of this gogmagoggery of a war. One can vaguely, faintly imagine the lineaments of new territorial combinations, new cartographic shapes, new political unities; one can even guess at the outlines, articulations, and mechanisms of a new social order. What I cannot conceive is how it will affect the Weltanschauung — the attitude toward the whole of existence, the cosmos as a pattern —of individuals; nor can I admit, if serious change there must be, that it will be permanent, as for instance Christianity after paganism, and not a mere passing phase. I have been meditating on the future of mankind, and have accustomed myself to the idea of a society where there will be no want, no forced labor, no prestige values. It is probable that idiosyncrasy among men is so thoroughgoing that individuals exist for every kind of occupation.

Aldington in his autobiography, speaking of the last war, tells how much he feared his Tommies would resent having to remove and get rid of the ordures of the camp, when a noncom came forward and assured him that a friend of his would prefer it to any other job.

Assuming that certain communal and even national tastes exist, for which volunteers in sufficient abundance may not be found, conscription might have to be enacted. It would be taught as a sacred duty in the way that soldiering has been preached, and exalted, for the last century and a half. It would be no greater hardship, and one year’s labor, at say one and twenty, would suffice.

For the rest of their days individuals would be free to dispose of their time as they pleased. Some of it they would give to a trade they enjoyed. Some few hours a week will suffice to supply them with the material needs of life, whether vital or luxurious. How will they put in the rest of their time? The gifted will be able at last to devote themselves to the pursuits urged by their daimon. But the mediocre, the dull, the languid, the lazy, how will they get on with nothing they are obliged to do for a living?

The problem of the future would seem to be above all the problem of how to put in one’s leisure, what to do with idle hours. In a desultory way it has been dealt with by industrial and mercantile organizations. By Ford, for instance, in America, and half a century earlier by the firm of which my friend Herbert Cook’s forebears were the proprietors. On a nation-wide scale, it was first attempted by the Italian Fascist government — unless, indeed, there too the Soviets came first.

The Fascists deserve praise for the intention, and I tribute it the more willingly as it is the only praise I can give them. In practice, however, they turned their Dopolavoro into mere propaganda, into putting megalomaniac ideas into the heads of working people, into inducing them to hate other nations, into a cult of Fascism, and into insisting on loyal adherence to its chiefs.

My imagination is baffled when I try to picture a society with no prestige values, whether of inheritance, gifts, or occupation. Ideologically that is what we are tending to, and it may not take centuries before elaborate efforts are made to realize it. The result should be interesting. Anatomy and physiology will oppose; and it is to be feared that they will win through, for they are coeval with mammalian life. The instincts with which they have endowed us will prove masters of any scheme our so feeble intelligence can frame.

Let us play with the notion - not yet an idea — of a society without prestige values. The scavenger would be a hygienic expert or functionary, on a level with any other. So would the courtesan. She would cease to be a whore or even harlot, and be a hetaera. Even humble females would no more be looked down on for keeping shop than society ladies who do so today. Every activity not manifestly harmful would be as well rewarded as any other.

In a sense, there would be no rewards. The pooled products of everybody’s labor would be for everybody to use freely. As there would be no prestige connected with possessions, and consequently no love of display, no manifestation of “conspicuous waste,” people would want only what they could enjoy by way of houses and furniture, of clothes and ornament, of food and drink, and other physical needs. There would be less jealousy if love was purged of prestige, and sex relief was admitted as a physiological necessity, like food, and as distinct from love. Love would be purified and sublimated if it ceased to be what its essence still is, a call of nature, and became a spiritual as well as physical interpenetration.

Unfortunately, jealousy is not confined to sex. It will be hard to get the better of it in persons who resent every inequality that does not suit their heart’s desire. Few are able to admit superiority and, instead of secretly, if not publicly, resenting it, are ready to welcome it to enjoy it aesthetically, and, when it ethically deserves it, to worship it. Resentment is unhappily at the bottom of more social discontent than economical difficulties. When these last are overcome, as in the course of time they may be, inequality of physical make-up, of mental and moral gifts, will remain and fester in many natures.

Nevertheless I go on dreaming of a society based not on theological, sociological, or any other abstract dogmas and pre-established principles, but on the pooled product resulting from the functioning of the individuals composing it. In a sense we have it always; for despite ideologies, human nature resists change and, given time, assimilates every ideal pattern of life, even the Christian one, to what it can realize.

And I have a notion that human nature is so varied that after having been educated to use them properly, the individual, left free to exercise his functions, will end by contributing his full share to the community as a whole. There will no doubt remain over a certain number of lame, lazy, and criminally disposed. I would let the first two live merrily for some generations, and if none of them changed for the better I should condemn the stock to sterility. As for those with incurable criminal propensities, I would try to use their brains and energy for purposes not too repugnant to them. If that failed, they should not be allowed to reproduce themselves; and if homicidal, they would be put out of the way.

There would remain in the community a class of individuals good for nothing except making war. It might be dangerous to ignore them and make no provision for them, as puritans have tried to ignore prostitution.

I would divide them up into two camps situated in some remote region, some Kamchatka, and there let them enjoy warring, in earnest if necessary, until they have had enough and feel ready to return to peaceable society.

These and other problems to be solved before my Utopia is realized are arduous enough to occupy my thoughts frequently; but it would take volumes to write down all that trots through one’s head.

2

HOW will the future deal with boredom, the accidie and the more “common or garden” ennui which grips a society when nothing happens to stir hopes and fears, nothing to excite and absorb, and worse yet, nothing to satisfy youth’s craving for adventure — of youth and those who through a lifetime remain youthful?

Some few years after Waterloo the nieces of Metternich went to him in a body and begged for another war. Life in peacetime was so dull. No exciting news. No hairbreadth escapes of friends in whom one took a peculiar interest, no brilliant dances for the shining youth on leave from the front.

In the middle decades of the last century, again and again, the cry was raised, ”La France s’ennuie” — France is bored — and it frightened Europe.

The whole world may feel like that when wars are no longer possible. Would there still be adventure? Where? How? The earth will have been explored in its entirety: land and sea, mountaintop and ocean floor. Adventure will have to take to interplanetary excursions, or to invention and the solution of problems. The first may be feasible someday, sooner perhaps than we now expect. As for the others, they will be confined to the few who have the gift and character. They will be mathematical and out of reach for people like myself. It is not likely that historical scholarship will survive. Who will look back to a past when selfinterest, passion, and sentiment ruled the world? For an élite there will be abundance of adventure along intellectual lines. What will the rest of the community do, who have no brains for such occupations, and find no happiness except in a sphere where courage and physical aptitudes count along with brains?

Hitherto even the most quiescent communities, say the Confucian Chinese, have found outlets for adventure in conquest and hazardous administration. They wedged their dominion into the Islamitic world as far as Kashgar, lorded it over the vast Amur Basin, colonized or imposed their civilization on Korea, on Japan, on Indo-China, on Siam. This could be achieved only by the material as well as spiritual superiority of the Chinese.

But our midget of an earth will soon be too small for large-scale energizing, in the material sphere. Wars will have been demonstrated to be utterly absurd and survive, if at all, as a sport, as an excuse for betting and gambling. And man’s last gesture may be a wordless yawn.

There comes back to me a summer afternoon when I was enjoying the cool on the veranda of a cottage neighboring on the park at Versailles. Suddenly there appeared a shortish old man, all bald head, with malicious eyes and a quizzical smile, who, when we were introduced to each other, spoke with a warm, husky voice. He stayed but a few minutes and, in connection with I remember not what, remarked that in the Middle Ages people were more amused than in our own time.

I was in my early forties. I had read and reflected, and this observation of Henry Adams was like a spark on tinder. It flared and lit up so much that hitherto had remained vague and murky, because I had been taking too deterministic, too solemn, even too pompous a view of the past.

Fledglings of puritanism that we were, we had given ourselves up to studying history as a spiritual combat against evil within and without ourselves, and thought seldom of panem — of bread — and never of circenses — amusements.

By amusement, however, neither Adams nor I had in mind circuses and other deliberate entertainments. What we meant was living keenly, zestfully, relatively free to work as one liked and to loaf when one pleased. It meant not to be the slave of fixed hours, and of so much output per hour. It meant to run risks, to allow for ups and downs — in short, to leave room for variety, excitement, and some sense of adventure.

We retain this kind of life in the slums. Cobblers, tinkers, chimney sweeps, plumbers, clothesmenders, small shopkeepers of every kind in these purlieus, can alternate work with play and are not obliged to take either in impalatable, in indigestible doses.

Though frequently exposed to cold, disease, hunger even, as indeed most city dwellers were in the Middle Ages, may they yet not be happier, more zestful, more eager, in short more amused, than the same number of people in their comfortable well-supplied mansions and country houses?

Once upon a time a woman of my acquaintance who was trying to uplift working girls in the East End of London asked a class of them what the words “bore,” “being bored,” and “boredom” meant.

None of them knew the words except one, who thought it referred to being lost in deep thought. This happened some fifty years ago. By now uplift may have taught slum girls what it means to be bored.

It is interesting to reflect that accidie — no appetite for life — never attacked city dwellers of the Middle Ages with their helter-skelter, higgledypiggledy manner of life, but haunted the overorganized, clockwork monasteries.

I have known women with incomes the income of which would allow one to live opulently, yet not knowing how to get through the day. Too old to attract, too shrewd to be trapped by adventurers, they would snatch at this or that diversion, but in no sense of the word were they amused. To be amused by art, by ideas, or even by society, one must have the appropriate gifts, and few of the overrich have them. I verily believe that charwomen get more out of their lives than these millionairesses.

Nor is the condition of the average well-to-do American woman much better. Often she has no housekeeping or children to occupy her; and where she has both, they yet leave her with a leisure that she does not know what to do with. If she is energetic, she may go into business or push a gentleman friend. More likely, she will go into politics and, as a rentière, campaign against Franklin Roosevelt, or in favor of something else which she understands little. The average female of the same class, apart from joining her in cursing the President and his Jewish and Irish advisers, will look forward to the fad lectures she will hear, the discourses she will not understand, but above all to the bridge parties of the afternoon.

I recall staying at a hotel in Boston — in cultured Boston — where the average rentière women of the possessive classes would come by hundreds and occupy all the sitting rooms at small tables. There they sat. Not a word was spoken. Not a sound was heard except the hushed thud of the cards as they flapped on the tables.

Killing time, instead of employing it as the very substance of life lived and not merely got through with, is surely the sin of sins. And that is what overleisure may lead to!

Happily, it is conceivable that the majority of mankind will evolve, through inheritance and instruction, tastes for art creation of every kind. As women, in leisure hours, knit and embroider, man may develop talents for the arts as well as for the sports that we take to naturally. When so many will be working with no expectation of material reward, intent on the same problems, who knows what genius may be revealed, and what masterpieces created! Already, in almost every civilized country, hobbies are rife among individuals with a certain leisure. As leisure increases, these hobbies will find more opportunities for spreading out and flowering into something more artistic, more creative, at once more penetrating and more expansive, pushing further and further back the flaming frontiers of the human universe and turning aspiring man into a hopeful rival of the Demiurge.

3

IF MANKIND survives another five thousand years, making progress slow indeed, yet progress, we now living and acting will seem to people of that distant date to have belonged to what we call “antiquity.” Should anyone question this, he will be advised to look at the place Jewish and Greek expressions, Jewish and Greek feeling and thinking, went on occupying; how much that combination of Jewish religion, Greek metaphysics, and Roman imperialism known as Christianity dominates us still; how much our literature, no matter in what offspring of Greek, Latin, or antique barbarian speech, still carries on the values, the traditions, the historical references, and the rhetoric of antiquity. Our ethical axioms, the courses of conduct to which we consent, even if they do not enjoy our reasoned approval, will seem singularly like those of the ancient Oecumene. They will point to our preference for Greek and Latin literature, to our cult of Homeric notions of virility and war, and to an even greater and more formative regard for the Bible among Protestants and its derivatives among Catholics; point to our creeds and prayers and hymns.

Time and time again I have asked myself when and how the break would come. A full hundred years ago a Parisian gamin cried out, “ Qui nous délivrera des Grecs et des Romains? and the cry was not to a wilderness. Some fifty or sixty years later Viennese politicians shouted, “Los von Rom!” — away from Rome—Rome as the administrative seat of Catholicism. The ejaculation was not taken too seriously but attracted my attention. It was followed some two or three decades later still by the revulsion of Professor Strzygowski from the visual art of the Mediterranean world and its “hothouse products.” He favored anything that did not glow with the heat and did not smell of the honey and brine of the Midland Sea. He ended by finding little to his taste in the world’s architecture, except the timber buildings of Galicia and of more and more northern climes. As for the figure arts, nothing pleased him but Runic and even more primitive scratchings in lands close to where Shakespeare’s Lapland sorcerers gather.

Despite the considerable influence he had not only in Germany but in France and England as well, I would not let the Viennese professor have the honor of directly inspiring Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler, or the practitioners and interpreters of “abstract art" who surpass him by turning altogether away from representation to find satisfaction in geometrical pattern only.

Art and its interpreters are like the swallows that do not make a spring but prelude it. Bode’s behavior over his “Leonardo bust,” and the way the whole of Germany was marshalled to support him, gave, before the First World War, a foreboding of what was cooking up in Berlin and Potsdam and how they would conduct hostilities and propaganda.

Nazism, and the present conflict, are continuations and realizations of the means and ways of the last war, with overwhelmingly improved instruments of combat . Nazism is, in a sense if not in essence, a barbarian revolt — let us hope not a revolution — against the humanistic values thought out by the best Greeks and their Hellenized disciples in Alexandria, in Rome, and even in Judea. Its anti-Semitism is but the spearhead of its antiChristianity, and is based on resentment against minds subtler, quicker, and more cognizant of fact as well as value. It would rage as furiously against Catholics as against Jews if they were as small and as vulnerable a minority. Nazism is the last phase of the intermittent, ever-renewed attempt of partially Romanized Germany to shake itself free of Mediterranean influence.

Despite the horrors committed and damage done, it does not look as if these descendants of Hermann, Attila, and Genseric would have their way.

More probably the present phase of the antique world, the harmony of Greek, Jew, Roman, and assimilated barbarian known as Christianity, and identical with European civilization wherever found, will gradually give place to a society which has outgrown, forgotten, or discarded it.

No longer is Greek regarded as essential in education. It is already being pursued only by students who mean to make a profession of teaching it, or of using it as philologers and archaeologists. Latin will follow before long. Hebrew disappeared from general culture generations ago. Little by little their literatures, including our rituals, will sink into the background and disappear along with institutional Christianity itself.

What will replace them? I for one cannot conceive. Our languages will cease to be understood even earlier than our ideas and feelings. Our literature will be as dead as Hebrew is today. If aspirations toward the good and the beautiful survive, what shape will they take, what expression will they find in the visual and verbal arts, and in music? We can no more imagine it than even an Alexandrian, let alone a Periclean, Greek could foresee Chartres or Rheims Cathedral, the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Beethoven, Wagner, and Strauss. And I speak of art only. What of the material world, and all that will have been invented — inventions and discoveries that may change society even more radically than the arts! Underneath it all, the least changed will remain man himself.