BY OSCAR HANDLIN
When the control of history slipped out of the hands of God, the ability to account for the accidental and the contingent disappeared. Seventeenth-century men in Europe and America could still connect the events in the world about them with the active intervention of God or the devil. The flaming comet, the shattering earthquake, the death of a king, victory in battle — all those exceptional disasters or great strokes of fortune which could not be explained as the product of any human agency were nonetheless understandable as the results of divine or diabolical intercession. But when the ability of external powers to alter the course of human events ceased to be credible, men were thrown back upon their own unaided resources of comprehension. In a universe which operated according to the precise action of natural laws, comets and earthquakes, death and victory followed chains of cause and effect which the reason could encompass. Man could explain to himself everything that happened around him. His social, intellectual, and emotional security in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rested upon the certainty that all relevant phenomena were part of a pattern that he could learn to know.
Occasional events that did not conform to a known pattern had to be explained away. Unexpccted defeats in trade, or politics, or warfare, for instance, could be described as the results of some hidden conspiracy. Or a new science could assimilate the data that shook old certainties, as spiritualism did when the soul could no longer be situated in a spatial heaven or hell. The one conclusion to which man, oriented to an orderly world, could not come was agnosticism. The admission of ignorance could only be so slight as to leave intact the assumption that all was knowable. For to have conceded the possibility that important areas of experience would long remain outside the span of his comprehension would have challenged the security on which he depended.
In INCIDENT AT EXETER (Putnam, $5.95), JOHN G. FULLER peeps into an area where there are serious doubts about the limits of our knowledge. On September 3, 1965, at Exeter, New Hampshire, a young man reported to the police that he had seen a strange object come out of the sky directly at him. From the shoulder of the road he watched it descend; then he fled to the police. Two officers returned with him to the site and confirmed his observation. The craft they saw was one of hundreds of unidentified flying objects (UFO) reported by sober witnesses in the last two decades.
John Fuller began the research for this book as a skeptic. He had noticed the Exeter report while working up a human interest column and began to investigate it with the assumption that he would expose another of the manias and delusions that periodically sway the irrational crowd. He collected data on other sightings and then came to Exeter himself to look into the matter.
The result converted him. The people who saw the strange craft were not nuts, but respectable citizens and witnesses whose word would be credible in any court. Furthermore, on one occasion he saw the object with his own eyes. He now is convinced that the UFO’s are vehicles from outer space and, indeed, argues that they were responsible for the great power blackout in the Northeast in November, 1965.
His well-written, exciting account is certainly plausible. Is his argument correct? The only reasonable conclusion — the Scotch verdict of not proven — will satisfy no one, for, as one of his correspondents plaintively put it, “I keep thinking there must be some kind of answer!” Hence the demand for a categorical yes or no.
There is an answer of course. But it is not now knowable. The means of assessing the evidence is unavailable. The testimony of eyewitnesses is not conclusive, no matter how well intentioned or how often confirmed. The naked eye is a fallible instrument that has often deceived unwary observers. Until other kinds of evidence corroborate these reports or until some coherent theory incorporates them, there is no basis for knowing what they mean, and the confession of ignorance is the safest policy.
The unwillingness of government and of organized science to concede that anything is unknown has heightened popular anxiety. The bland public-relations reassurances from the Air Force that everything can be simply explained aim to stifle hysterical tendencies. Yet the positive denials may be less persuasive than open recognition that the causes of the phenomena are not altogether known.
The scientists have been no more willing to admit the limits to their knowledge. There is, after all, nothing inherently implausible in the idea of extraterrestrial visitors. Intelligent life probably exists in other parts of the universe; and in those vast distances it is at least possible that some forms may be much more advanced than that on earth. To dismiss out of hand the evidence for the UFO’s will not quiet the fears that we may be living through the first stages of exploration from elsewhere.
THE WARREN COMMISSION
Often enough, we remain ignorant also of events much closer to home.
Not since Pearl Harbor had Americans received a shock as severe as that on Friday, November 22. when the news came of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The death of a young, well-liked President approaching the peak of his powers was totally unexpected. SEVENTY HOURS AND THIRTY MINUTES (Random House, $2.95) contains the minute-by-minute log of NBC news reports from the first word of the shots in Dallas to the morning after the funeral in Washington. The unembellished sentences, printed as they were delivered, bring back the sense of disbelief and dismay that then overwhelmed Americans. It was clear at the time, it has remained clear since, that the people would demand some credible explanation of what had happened. The murder of the suspect accused of the crime intensified the demand.
President Johnson immediately ordered the FBI to make a full investigation, and a week later he induced Chief Justice Earl Warren to assume the direction of an impartial study that would close the case by a definitive statement of the facts. The FBI submitted its five-volume report on December 9, 1963. Some nine months later, the Warren Commission published its conclusions along with twenty-six accompanying volumes of testimony and exhibits.
Impressive as were the characters of the members of the Commission, their report did not still speculation or earn universal support for the judgment that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin. Critics have continued to raise questions about the events in Dallas; and some of them, particularly in Europe, have suggested that a conspiracy was responsible both for the crime and for the concealment of evidence thereafter. In that respect, alas, the Warren Commission failed in its assignment to quiet doubts.
INQUEST: THE WARREN COMMISSION AND THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE TRUTH by EDWARD J. EPSTEIN (Viking, $5.00) shows some of the reasons why. The book is not an account of the assassination, and it makes no effort to advance alternative explanations to the guilt of Oswald. Rather, it analyzes the adequacy of the Warren Commission investigation. Details of the crime and its results are given only insofar as they are necessary to illuminate the work of the Commission. The focus is the extent to which that distinguished body was able to get at the facts.
Several features impeded the work of the Commission. Its prominent members were busy, unable to devote much time to its work, and frequently inattentive when they did participate. They delegated the main burden of their task to lawyers, who were inclined to approach the issue as if they were making a case. Yet unlike a trial in court, the adversary, Lee Oswald, was not there to argue his side.
The Commission seems also to have been swayed by a vague concern for the national interest that may have limited its search for the truth. In some instances, at least, it did not probe as deeply and as independently into FBI activities as it might have.
Epstein’s criticisms are negative; they raise serious doubts about the validity of the Warren Commission report. But they do not point to any alternative explanation of the events in Dallas.
That is not surprising. There is complete certainty of detail about few historic events. More than a hundred years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, there remain enough puzzling elements to generate plausible if not altogether convincing alternative interpretations of the death of that President. It is more than likely that we shall never have the whole truth about the Kennedy assassination. But probably the Warren Commission came close to the truth.
Its mistake was to pretend that it could establish the whole truth, an effort doomed to failure from the start. Mr. Epstein makes a suggestive comparison between the Warren Commission and the Roberts Commission of 1942, which investigated the attack on Pearl Harbor. That earlier effort to enlist the prestige of a Supreme Court Justice produced an unconvincing and in some ways misleading report. These experiences suggest that the Supreme Court should not lend itself to such efforts. But the Justices would be better able to resist these calls on their services if the public realized that important events which affect its future may not wholly be susceptible to explanation.
The capacity to assimilate the meaning of a disaster is also the subject of RAFAEL STEINBERG’S POSTSCRIPT FROM HIROSHIMA (Random House, $3.95). The author, who served as correspondent in Japan for more than ten years, is well acquainted with its people. He returned to Hiroshima two decades after the bridges of that city appeared in the bombsight of the Enola Gay to talk to the survivors of the holocaust which changed the configuration of the world even more than had the war it brought to a close. His perceptive little book records a series of enlightening contacts with the men and women who were the victims of the first atomic explosion.
Steinberg found traces of the shock still evident, not only in the visual appearance of the reconstructed city but also in the seared characters of its inhabitants. No one has forgotten; the memory of the disaster created and kept alive a deep desire for a world without war. But that desire did not make the people of Hiroshima more peaceful, more tolerant, more loving or kind than anyone else. Atomic attack was not a purifying or cathartic experience for the victims. Indeed, “the most terrible thing about the bomb was its destruction of the human heart,” observed one of the survivors. The people were not converted; bitter hatreds still burn. “Workers are working hard and the students are studying hard, and everyone is looking out for himself.” The feeling for peace appears only “on the signpost of the inn and in the souvenir cookies.”
We lack even the consolation that suffering led to an increase in understanding. “We don’t say much about the causes of the war,” observed one teacher, “just that it happened, and that Japan’s allies were defeated in Europe, and the United States and Britain were chasing us down.” That the climactic disaster was somehow related to the opening blow at Pearl Harbor or that the war had some connection with the nature of the Japanese society — these ideas do not intrude upon the consciousness of the people of Hiroshima. Instead, the simple refusal to go beyond the reiteration that it shall not happen again reduces them to dull immobility.
The life of Honoré de Balzac spans the first half of the nineteenth century. One of those young men who found Paris a fair field for the search for fortune, Balzac was a failure in most of the small affairs of life. His personal finances were always in disorder, he was a disappointment to his mother, and he drifted in and out of affairs with a succession of women. Through much of his life he remained a Catholic without faith, a royalist without illusions; the Church and the crown he regarded pragmatically as instruments for holding the corruptible masses in line.
ANDRÉ MAUROIS’S PROMETHEUS: THE LIFE OF BALZAC (Harper & Row, $8.95) is an excellent account of Balzac the man. Maurois is a skilled biographer, for whose purposes it was not necessary to dig deeply into the sources. A substantial secondary literature treats both the biographical and critical aspects of Balzac’s life, and Maurois has knowledgeably exploited that material. He writes effortlessly and well, drawing enough from the works of his subject to give a flavor of the times to the narrative, yet he does so without making excessive demands on the patience of the reader.
Maurois has emphasized the dramatic, picaresque aspects of Balzac’s life. That certainly gives a lively quality to the story. But Balzac was also a writer, and though his work was of uneven quality, he produced at least three genuine literary masterpieces. No one better than he sketched the essential qualities of the bourgeois life that emerged in Europe with the onset of industrialization. Yet to this aspect of Balzac’s life Maurois pays little attention. He deliberately chose to produce a “life, not a critical study.” He does provide brief accounts of Balzac’s methods of work, but no analysis of his books.
More important, Maurois pays almost no attention to the social context. “Balzac set out to be the chronicler of society; I am simply the chronicler of Balzac,” he notes. In this of all authors, the decision is unfortunate. Balzac’s novels were fully furnished, marked by an intense immediacy of time and place. There is nothing abstract about his characters; nor about their rooms, the streets through which they move, and the personal relationships in which they are involved. All are informed by a precise awareness of the society and its institutions. By sacrificing these elements of his subject’s life, Maurois added liveliness to his book, but at a loss in understanding.
THE NEGRO IN CONTEXT
As the United States comes slowly and painfully to grips with the problems of racial equality we need more than ever to sec the position of the Negro in context. For a longtime the formulation of Gunnar Myrdal was adequate: the American dilemma arose from the historic difficulties of extending to the former slaves the equality that society promised them. But the steady progress of desegregation in recent years has given a new dimension to the issue. As the hard-core racists have begun to yield and as the assumptions of inherent inferiority have dissolved, a somewhat different question becomes important. How does the Negro, once assured equality, develop his own identity as a human being?
CHARLES KEIL’S URBAN BLUES (University of Chicago Press, $4.95) makes a serious although not a totally successful effort to explore the Negro’s identity by way of his folk music. Keil examines the works of contemporary jazz musicians, particularly the blues singers, in an effort to understand their significance as expressions of the urban Negro community. There are interesting accounts of the workings of the record business and of the relationship between blues men and the church. But the heart of the book is a serious examination of what songs say about the culture of the people who sing them.
Keil denies that this music is just an embarrassing relic of slavery days, destined for oblivion in the promised great integrated society. With Malcolm X he denies “that integration was either the issue or the answer.” A Negro culture exists and ought to be recognized. Once Negroes have achieved equality, “they will cherish and defend cultural identity” and will regard their entertainers as “primary carriers of an irreplaceable tradition.”
The argument is exaggerated and schematic, and sometimes calculated to shock. Occasionally it becomes silly, as in the flat statement that “Negroes are the only substantial minority group in America who really have a culture to guard and protect.” Nevertheless, the book is worth attention; it expresses an authentic concern of people who are coming to realize that their past was not just a worthless mistake but the source of meaningful cultural values. In time that concern may test the worth for Negroes as it has for other Americans of the national tradition of cultural pluralism.
The problems of the Negro also fall into a more meaningful context when slavery is viewed in a broader setting than that of the United States alone. DAVID BRION DAVIS’
THE PROBLEM OF SLAVERY IN WESTERN CULTURE (Cornell University Press, $10.00) is a helpful survey of the origins of the institution and of its development down to the end of the eighteenth century.
Professor Davis’ attention focuses mainly on the changing image of the slave and of the Negro rather than on legal or economic conditions. His comments on the evolution of ideas are incisive and raise challenging questions. The volume ends on an optimistic note. By the 1770s, English and American writers were able to use a wide range of themes and conventions which portrayed the Negro slave as a man of natural virtue and sensitivity, oppressed by the worst vices of civilization, yet capable of receiving its greatest benefits. But the succeeding century witnessed his most severe degradation. Ironically, the generation of the American Revolution created unparalleled opportunities and then failed to take advantage of them.