The Peripatetic Reviewer

by Edward Weeks
THE MYTH OF THE MACHINE: THE PENTAGON OF POWER
by Lewis Mumford
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95
Those who heard Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer deliver the Arthur Dehon Little Lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in November of 1947 will remember the anguish in his voice as he spoke of the moral dilemma which confronted those who, like himself, had prepared the atomic bomb and were aware of the still more terrible weapons to come. It was as if the rabbi in him was pleading with the nuclear physicist for the future of man. He left us with a heartfelt warning and the wonder of how it ever transpired in this vastly promising New World of ours that machines were so firmly in the saddle and were riding mankind.
The reckless pace has been steadily accelerated in our competition with the Soviet Union, and our leaders - and theirs—seemingly lack the power to slow it down. We have watched with dismay the extravagant sums spent on the space program when outhome space was in such crying need, and we are appalled by the capture of our economy by the military-industrial partnership. To expect that our republic with its vast resources could be restored to peace and devoted to rehabilitation is almost unthinkable. It is in such dismay that one turns to Lewis Mumford’s penetrating, indignant, and refreshing volume The Pentagon of Power, his second to explode “The Myth of the Machine.”
Mr. Mumford begins by tracing the evolution of technical power, and to anyone who trusts history his interpretation of the great explorers of science like Galileo, Kepler, and Descartes is surprising and pointed up with memorable insight. The modern world picture, he says, was first conceived in the fifth decade of the sixteenth century, which saw the publication of Copernicus’ treatise on astronomy, Vesalius’ on anatomy, Jerome Cardan’s algebra, “The Great Art.” and Fracastoro’s enunciation of the germ theory of disease. This led to a religious, a scientific, and ultimately a technological revolution, and, as Mumford says, it was not only the Christian heaven which diminished. “Viewed through the new glasses of science, man shrank in size: in terms of astronomical quantities the human race counted for little more than an ephemeral swarm of midges on the planet itself. By contrast, science, which had made this shattering discovery by the mere exercise of common human faculties, became the only trustworthy source of authentic and reputable knowledge.”
This was the first stage in reading man out of the real and primary realm, and in the centuries that followed the truths of subjective experience and the testimony of history were belittled by the cult of the new and fascinating abstractions. But not without purpose: “Scientific thought is essentially power thought,” wrote Bertrand Russell, “the sort of thought, that is to say, whose purpose, conscious or unconscious, is to give power to its possessor.”
Just as the mechanical world was opening up so was the terrestrial. For four centuries the New Exploration ransacked every part of the planet: Exploration was merely the first stage of exploitation; and with it came back war, slavery, economic pillage and piracy, and environmental destruction: the ancient trauma of ‘civilization,’ which has been imprinted upon every ‘advanced’ culture ever since.” It was Alexander von Humboldt, one of the most humane and articulate of the scientists, who remarked that “in this paradise of the American forests, as well as elsewhere, experience has taught all beings that benignity is seldom found together with power.”
This book is the brilliant culmination of a life of reading, remonstrance, and reflection, a body of constructive criticism begun a long time ago and steadily ripening in strength. Jane Jacobs is right: Mr. Mumford has never liked our cities; essentially he is an arcadian, happiest in the small community where man comes closer to nature. His heroes of the New World are Audubon, Olmsted, Emerson, Marsh, Melville, and Whitman - “neither hermits nor primitives; but in their minds at least they had thrown off the frayed and soiled clothes of all previous civilizations”— and he lives to see their tribe increase.
It will not do to paraphrase his concluding chapters; they must be thoughtfully absorbed in the short subsections which help to make his text digestible. Like Beethoven’s, the variations on his main theme renew and deepen our appreciation. The book is not easy reading, but one’s patience is rewarded by Mumford’s relish of Samuel Butler, who, ahead of his time, saw through our technological obsession; by his scorn of Dadaism and the vacuity of Bop Art; by his laughter at the absurdities of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan; and by his understanding of the misguided primitivism of our longhairs. “In their unconscious,” he writes, “the young are living in a postcatastrophic world; and their conduct would be rational in terms of that world. Only by massing together and touching each other’s bodies do they have any sense of security and continuity.” He derides the illusions they grope for “in the haze and daze of pot.”
Mumford believes that old and young must face up to changes, for, he says, “in surrendering unconditionally to the power system, with its ‘automation of automation,’ modern man has forfeited some of the inner resources necessary to keep him alive. He challenges us to turn the “power complex into an organic complex, and a money economy into a life economy.” These are difficult turn-arounds but mandatory in Mumford’s view, if man is to restore control over his own creations.
BOMBER
by Len Deighton
Harper & Row, $7.95
What distinguishes Bomber, Len Deighton’s novel about the RAF, from the many other stories I have read about the airmen in World War II, is its involvement with both sides: opposed are seven hundred British bombers directed at the heavy industry in the Ruhr, and the German night fighters and antiaircraft crews who plot to intercept them. Involved also, and punishingly, are the German civilians in the medieval town of Altgarten, which, through the force of the wind and the fault of the crews sent to place the incandescent markers, became the innocent victims.
There is no protection for anyone in this compelling, skillful story, not for the fliers who are being shot at, not for the Burgomaster and his guests who are celebrating his birthday, and not for the reader. What holds one fast is Mr. Deighton’s surpassing knowledge of machines, his breathless “sweating out” of the raid, and his vital, compassionate characterization of the men who fly, and of the women, children, and elders who are hurt. It requires no stretch of the imagination to substitute a thousand small communities in Vietnam for the one German town on which, on this soft June night, ten million pounds of high explosives and incendiaries are unleashed.
The novelist is not sparing in his detail; the suspense and the suffering in this book would be unbearable were it not for his ability to light up the lives of those he writes about. He deals as fairly with the British at Little Warley in the Fen country, where the bombers are preparing for their run, as with the Germans at Kroonsdijk, where the Luftwaffe night fighters are waiting in anticipation of the midnight call. At each station there is a protagonist through whose reaction and remonstrance we are made sensitive to the others who must brave death: at the British field, Sergeant Sam Lambert, a survivor of forty-five missions, probably the best pilot in the Group, whose loathing of destruction has made him dangerously outspoken, and on the German field Baron Victor von Löwenherz, the ace from Prussia, aware that the war is going badly, appalled by what he hears of the concentration camps but still obeying orders. In the little town of Altgarten itself is a third transmitter, August Bach, a veteran of the First World War and now too old for combat but not too old to fall in love.
Through these three men, strangers, of course, to each other, through the men who serve them and the women who love them, one feels the common link of courage, loyalty, and desperation with which they are sustained. They are the pygmy heroes. And the machines they command—which eventually command them—are the villains.
August’s son is fighting on the Eastern front, and when asked by his dearest friend whether the boy hates it, August replies, “Max, my friend, I have to tell you he likes it. We have given our world to our children. Can we be surprised that these children are destructive . . . and wreak havoc upon the world that it’s taken us old men so long to put together?” There is the theme: the devastation of machines and the decency powerless to bring them to a halt.
THE SPAWNING RUN
by William Humphrey
Knopf, $4.50
A most charming and mischievous story about salmon is The Spawning Run by William Humphrey. The author, a young American with a saucy humor, has gone to England in quest of some good fishing on protected water. Scotland is too rich for his blood, but at a fishing inn on the River Teme in Wales, he and his wife are accepted by the habitués as unconventional but agreeable colonials. For one thing Mr. Humphrey fishes “in old blue jeans, a blue work shirt I once wore to paint a red barn, and my Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap,” which, of course, sets him apart from the Harris Tweeds and beige drillcord breeches.
The inn is full of surprises, and chief of them “poor old Holloway,” a low-built, balding bachelor turning fifty, who for all his reputed diligence has not killed a fish in twenty years. Holloway and his failures have become a legend, and the members would have too little to laugh at without him, but it is the American who discovers that Holloway is not there to fish but to care for the salmon widows with time on their hands. I have frequented such inns: I have seen the Admiral who each morning bangs the barometer and predicts that no fish will be taken; I have tasted the food; and I have remarked the appealing look of the abandoned wives who do not cast. If pleasure can be expressed in a single word, it is Bravo!
ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPERY
by Curtis Cate
Putnam’s, $10.00
A pioneer airman whose love for flying was awakened by Wilbur Wright, a daring pilot who flew first in 1912 and who was to navigate the primitive crates over the Pyrenees and through sand storms of the desert, a writer whose power of description made his two books, Wind, Sand and Stars and Night Flight enormously popular in French and in English, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Saint-Ex,” as he was known to his friends, was above all a patriot whose heart began to fail with the German Occupation of 1940. Because of his mercurial temperament (he could be as gay as a cricket or as downcast as lead), it must have been exceedingly difficult to contain his spirit in the biographical form, and I do commend Curtis Cate for having written a volume which is at once dedicated and definitive.
Mr. Cate has spent most of his life in France, and in his early maturity he was the Atlantic’s representative in Paris. There his several years of research and his hero worship have combined to create a handsome volume which will be of special interest to Francophiles and to those who were touched, however briefly, by the magnetism of “Saint-Ex.”
The buoyancy of the man is incredible: he was the sole survivor of the Casa-Dakar team of the early days; he had crash-landed in the dunes of the desert and staggered back to life; he had narrowly flown the fog-bound Pyrenees, and been rescued when ditched at sea.
The strain of all these near-misses made him feel old before his time but not too old to play a commanding part in the eleventh-hour revitalization of the French Air Force. He scorned the capitulation of Pétain and Laval, and some of the most valuable passages in this book recount his outspoken opposition to the Nazis and his visit to America in 1942 to recruit help for France, lost somewhere in the night, all lights extinguished, like a ship. Her consciousness and her spiritual life are gathered together in her depths. . . .” But, he added, “It is always in the cellars of oppression that new truths are born.”
Because Mr. Cate is bilingual and because he understands so clearly the sensitivity of the relations between the Free French and the Americans, the closing chapters are charged with Saint-Ex’s conviction that France would be liberated though he himself was approaching the limit of his horizon.