BY OSCAR HANDLIN
The avant-garde of our time has been a minority able to look critically at the society within which it lived but of which it was not wholly a part. The residents of bohemia were intimate outsiders, related to the dominant culture, yet guided by a value system of their own. It is much more difficult, however, to be a minority within the minority, to rebel not against the majority but against fellow rebels, and to do so without backsliding into the ranks of the dominant establishment. The price of extreme individualism is egocentricity and petulance; the reward is sometimes a heightened power of observation.
EPITAPHS OF OUR TIMES (Braziller, $6.95) is a collection of the correspondence of EDWARD DAHLBERG. The letters, addressed to Theodore Dreiser, Herbert Read, Lewis Mumford, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Tate, among others, are eloquent in their protest — against the world, against society, against the practice of literature. They are, like their author, strident and unreasonable. But they constitute one of the significant cultural documents of our time.
Dahlberg was born in a charity hospital and spent much of his youth and adolescence in orphanages, first Catholic then Jewish. He was long a vagabond, then drifted into intermittent periods of study and teaching. His vocation was poetry, although he wrote one moving and passionate book about his youth, Because I Was Flesh.
The lines of his correspondence sound a desolate cry for love and appreciation. Neither his human need for affection nor his poet’s need for an audience is gratified. The Communists on the literary magazines kill his books, and Guggenheim fellowships go only to the untalented. “How foolish and stupid must one be to attract lucre?”
In the fear of rebuff, he anticipates insults and hastens to be offensive. He resents the success of others. He can accept the popularity of the “booby writers” of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He cannot forgive the leap to fame of his fellows from among the avant-garde. Their success rebukes his own failure. Envy, even hatred, poison the words which describe them. “Eliot is a wild son of Ham, and he will not last.” Joyce “can do no more than thinly veil his banal writing by inverting his sentences.”
The friends he needs are particularly vulnerable, for to demonstrate his independence he must break with them before they desert him. “I am always alienating the people who could help me.” It is the end when Herbert Read has the effrontery to claim fame for himself. “I have not known a man in the world today,” writes Dahlberg, “who has sufficient intellectual marrow to survive success. My friendship with Read is very strained.”
Dahlberg justifies his separateness by the reflection that only the outsider is creative. “I must tell you very clearly,” he writes to Herbert Read, “that I do not approve of your way of living.” It is a sin to get on with the well-to-do. “You must remain in the wilderness, for if you cease to feed upon the locust and the honey, your spirits will die.” People who write and paint can become the greatest enemies of art and literature. Resolutely Dahlberg avoided temptation. Asked when offered a university job whether he could get along with nine colleagues, “I promptly replied that I could not get along with nine people in the entire world.”
The lack of success was a sign of quality because society was the enemy of art. America never recognized its great poets. Their only appropriate course was to shun its affairs and preserve their individuality.
MAN AND SOCIETY
The location of the individual in society is the theme of PETER ISRAEL’S THE HEN’S HOUSE (Putnam’s, $4.95). The central problem of this gripping first novel is the preservation of a human personality. The book opens with a nameless man in an unknown place, unclear about what he is doing. He may be a prisoner in a jail or a patient in an asylum, but he is there of his own free will. He is being interrogated, and the questions concern his perception of guilt or innocence. Gradually his consciousness widens. Other characters appear, and he himself acquires a name. He learns the extensiveness of the institution within which he exists and comes to understand that his purpose is to secure admission to the society which operates it. He is preparing for a trial which will determine his fate. The object is to gain a verdict of guilty, which earns membership in the society. The innocent are excluded.
This part of the novel is skillfully written. The realistic, almost laconic sentences dramatically set off the surrealistic environment and impart a sense of immediacy and suspense to the narrative, in a manner reminiscent of Kafka.
But unlike Kafka, who is content to leave the situation ambiguous, Israel attempts to resolve the problem. Early on, the protagonist had discovered that the exercise of his own will ran counter to the system by which the society functioned. The whole purpose of his interrogation was to persuade him that reality stopped at the prison gates. Nothing existed outside. He had only to identify the boundaries of his confinement to flourish in its framework. Liberation was an illusion. “To be truly free, to transcend the limits and the hierarchies, was beyond the capabilities of humans.” All this he accepted.
Yet in the end the novel asks us to believe that the protagonist, Simon (the zealot?), is judged innocent and excluded. “He was different from the others, the man apart.” In him, the spark of individuality, of will, of latent rebelliousness still flickered, so that the judges understood, as he did not, that he did not belong. It takes an abrupt shift in perspective in the last chapter to arrive at this conclusion.
The weak ending was unavoidable once the author decided to round out his story. The view of society as a prison is an instructive exaggeration which helps us better to understand some features of the world we know. But it is a view best perceived in the half-light, as in Kafka, where much remains credible because it remains unexposed and unexplained. The Hen’s House tries too hard; and by telling all, reminds us that Simon’s imagined society is not ours.
THE USES OF POWER
The simplest relationship of the individual to society is that involving the use of force. The citizen expects the state to protect him by detecting and punishing the lawbreakers. But when the police, the agents of the state, abuse the power entrusted to them, their victims are helpless.
ED CRAY’S THE BIG BLUE LINE (Coward-McCann, $5.95) contains a vivid account of police malpractice in the United States and makes a plea for the civilian review board. The book contains a careful study of some 200 cases in which officers exceeded their authority in making arrests, questioning suspects, searching homes, and using their guns. The materials are drawn from Los Angeles, Washington, D. C., and other cities. Cray, a staff member of the American Civil Liberties Union of southern California, charges that Negroes, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans are the most frequent victims of police brutality and that complaints to the departments are whitewashed. Hence his belief that only a civilian board can restrain abuses.
Recent judicial decisions confirm the validity of these accusations and also expand the protection of the rights of the individual. These rulings may ultimately ease some of the problems here discussed. But it would take extraordinary optimism to expect an early end to the abuses.
Nor is the civilian review board the panacea Cray considers it to be. In Philadelphia it has had the considerable psychological value of reassuring the minority groups of a channel of protest. But it handles relatively few cases even there. And the experience of New York has shown how widespread is the mistrust of such a body among both the police and the public.
To get at the roots of the problem, it is necessary to examine an aspect of it that the book does not treat. To Cray the police are simply powermad brutes. Each of the cases presented is clear-cut. Yet the motives for the police actions are worth understanding.
Unit 4A37 pursues a youth in a stolen car at high speed through the crowded streets of Los Angeles. In the course of the chase, the stolen vehicle twice swerves in an attempt to collide with and wreck the police car. Finally cornered, the fugitive attempts to escape. The officer shoots him.
To point out that the arrest could have been made without the use of the gun is to deal with part of the problem. The motives are also important. The truth is that the police are frightened. The men in the cruiser had risked their lives in the chase. They were not in a mood for rational reflection about methods. Increasingly, the police see themselves at war with a dangerous enemy—outnumbered, handicapped by legal restraints, and supported only by a fragile sense of authority which they must maintain intact. That is why they will often instinctively close ranks in defense of those among them who forget the rules; and that is why the police reject unreasonably any suggestion for civilian review.
Merely to preach at the men in blue will only heighten their resentment, so long as little is done to assist them. Almost daily, for instance, there is evidence of the scandalous weakness of the laws to control the availability of weapons. Yet both Congress and the legislatures have been unwilling to act to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. The consciousness of being a target always haunts the cop.
More important is the development of a professional sense of responsibility that will give the police pride in doing the job properly and that will apply internal sanctions against malpractice. Solidarity can supply a motive for exposing as well as for shielding wrongdoers when the members of the force come to value the confidence of the public. Essential above all are the links to the wider community, which some departments have begun to fashion and which demonstrate that society intends the police to protect rather than to punish the individual.
HELL’S ANGELS by HUNTER THOMPSON (Random House, $4.95) shows the extent to which, in our society, the individual needs protection against himself as well as against others. This is a reporter’s account of approximately a year spent in contact with the California gang of motorcycle outlaws who attained occasional notoriety in the past few years. Thompson complains that the news media have exaggerated the extent to which the Angels terrorize the communities through which they ride. But his lurid narrative, despite its sympathy for his subjects, reveals the threat they pose.
Speed, violence, sex, and drugs are the outlets of absolute individualists committed to total defiance of society. “There is more to their stance than a wistful yearning for acceptance in a world they never made. Their real motivation is an instinctive certainty as to what the score really is. They are out of the ball-game and they know it. . . . The outlaw motorcyclist views the future with the baleful eye of a man with no upward mobility at all. . . . The Hell’s Angels are obvious losers, and it bugs them. But instead of submitting quietly to their collective fate, they have made it the basis of a full-time social vendetta. They don’t expect to win anything, but on the other hand, they have nothing to lose.”
The fallacy lies in the inaccuracy of the appraisal. Thompson makes much of the fact that the Angels are war babies, the offspring of the uprooted Okies and Arkies of the Depression. But what forces in personal and family life led them to the road, while others attained the split-level luxury of the California way of life, remain unclear. What is beyond doubt, however, is the fact that they pass the line at which society can tolerate individual deviance. The world of the metropolis, like the traffic of the freeway, is so complex in its interconnections that those who will not accept the rules threaten the safety of all.
History has made Americans uncomfortable about drawing the line. Respect for individual rights is deeply enshrined in their experience, and power was long associated with monarchical despotism. It is significant that John Adams was almost alone among political thinkers in the New World to say a good word for Machiavelli.
MACHIAVELLI by GlUSEPPE PREZZOLINI (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.50) reminds us of the relevance for our times of the founder of modern political science. The book is not a conventional biography but rather an analysis of ideas. It begins with a lucid exposition of Machiavelli’s doctrines, then passes to an exposition of the sources on which he drew, the books he wrote, and the stages of his life, and concludes with a long thoughtful discussion of his later influence.
Machiavelli presents “a vast universal panorama that offers no reward to valor, no justice to innocent victims, and only partial victory over adverse forces” to those who know how to use power. The view is unpalatable to men who like to be pictured as noble, honest, idealistic. Nevertheless, today Machiavelli’s unacknowledged influence is everywhere. The state takes possession of people’s minds through education if not through propaganda and controls their bodies through the draft. It dominates religion and morality and intrudes upon personal and family life.
Prezzolini’s survey shows that, paradoxically, the more men deny the reality of power, the more unwitting they are in the use of it. That would suggest the value of recognizing the reality and learning to use it deliberately and wisely. The invidual does not stand apart from, but in, society, and power establishes the order on which his freedom depends.
Some demonic curiosity kept men from the contentment of being alone. Long before the population densities of our own time, they reached out to make contact with others. Living space, trade, and conquest were the names they gave the necessities that justified their restlessness. But beneath these rational motives lay also a less well defined need of their nature — to be part of a larger unknown. That need perhaps thrusts us into space today.
BEYOND THE PILLARS OF HERACLES by RHYS CARPENTER (Delacorte, $5.00) is a lively account of discovery in the ancient world. Its author is a classicist and archaeologist who commands his materials thoroughly and who is able to convey the sense of excitement in them. He quotes heavily from translated texts but integrates them into the narrative to make an altogether readable book.
The surviving records are too fragmentary to reveal much about the nameless adventurers who made the earliest Mediterranean voyages. The information becomes coherent only after the Greeks appeared. Hemmed in by ignorance and by half-forgotten legends, they took to building ships strong enough to carry them “where all the wide Mediterranean and the Atlantic world beyond were waiting to be explored.” Their tiny vessels penetrated the western sea beyond the Tunisian Strait and reached Gibraltar. The Phoenicians, after starting southward by way of the Red Sea, probably circumnavigated Africa. Hanno the Carthaginian pushed down to the mouth of the Senegal. By the time the Roman hegemony was established, the ways to Britain and India were traced, as were the paths across the Sahara to the heart of Africa. These daring voyages, whatever the immediate reasons that occasioned them, stand as testimony of man’s desire to know his world.
An analogous longing animates the scientists who are the true explorers of today’s world. Their laboratories in little more than a century have carried them a distance far greater than any ancient Greek mariner traversed. Having perceived in nature phenomena that the mind could not previously imagine, they too reach out for connections in the effort to give meaning to their voyages.
In THE BIOLOGY OF ULTIMATE CONCERN (New American Library, $5.00), the distinguished geneticist THEODOSIUS DOBZHANSKY strives to find a place for modern biology within a general Weltanschauung. He wishes to understand the location of humanity in the scheme of things and to venture some hypotheses about the future evolution of man.
The effort is valiant, although the outcome reveals the urgency of Dobzhansky’s desire more than his ability to arrive at an acceptable destination. In a vast evolutionary perspective, life appears from out of the inorganic world, rational beings arise, the light of the human spirit begins to shine, and man arrives at self-awareness with its somber companions — fear, anxiety, and consciousness of death. Hence man’s search for faith and meaning.
The whole evolutionary process has a definite orientation. It proceeds by groping toward cooperativeness, and the meaning of an individual life is its inclusion in some larger synthesis. Hermits live in vain. “Self-assertion which makes an individual break away from humanity is inimical to the growth of the person as well as of humanity. . . . Healthy growth is fostered by love.”
Dobzhansky does incorporate in his statement of faith interesting data from modern biology. But the central concepts originate elsewhere — in Arnold Toynbee, Erich Fromm, and P. Teilhard de Chardin. And it is significant that in the end the scientist joins the mystic in the longing for meaning.