Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review

Update February 11, 2016: "What a lost pleasure it is in our indispensable nation to be in the presence of someone who thinks, acts and speaks out of conscience and conviction. Even better, these were precisely McGovern’s topics that day three years back: The necessity of careful thought, of honoring one’s inner voice, of acting out of an idea of what is right without regard to success or failure, the win-or-lose of life." From Patrick Smith's Feb. 7 article in Salon on Ray McGovern:
[title]  “Intelligent people know that the empire is on the downhill”: A veteran CIA agent spills the goods on the Deep State and our foreign policy nightmares. Recommended.                            

Book Review: Time No Longer: Americans after the American Century
Patrick L. Smith
Yale, 2013

This is the book we have all been waiting forfor years and years. The book that articulates our deepest misgivings about this country, this nation, the United States, and yet does not cancel hope… indeed, offers us  hope—if we will but accept ourselves as historical beings who live in time. And with this hope the work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy can be brought forward in the most  natural way possible, seamlessly, as it were, to the top of the heap. The grammatical method, the Cross of Reality, the creation of the future: these deeper meanings from the Rosenstockian language seem already to belong to Patrick Smith’s vocabulary, as if he understood without knowing. This is an experience I too have had, in discovering Rosenstock’s work. But it seems that the discovery, or rather of the mating of the knowing with the understanding, belongs to a particular historical moment and an urgent historical task. This moment and this task is the subject of Patrick’s Smith’s book.

Patrick Smith is a journalist of high repute. He lived in Asia for about eight years, reporting from there, and has published five books. He writes articles for and other publications—articles distinguished by their truthfulness and good sense, compared to the mendacious journalism we have today from the corporate and government-fed media outlets. For example, the New York Times – which Patrick Smith  assailed in his Feb. 18 article—“Our embarrassing servile media: does the New York Times just print everything the government tells it? [1]

Time No Longer  in the largest sense explores the difference between myth and history. In a more particular sense it is dedicated to digging up  the myth of “American exceptionalism” and uprooting it—root and branch. And there is “time no longer”—the title may or may not be intentionally reminiscent of  the Book of Revelation—because the decision facing us in America is whether to pretend to go on living in myth or to accept ourselves as living in history, accepting the responsibilities that living in history entails and overcoming our “cruelty of innocence,” as Nietzsche put it. 

“American exceptionalism” is the story that began with a 1630 sermon of John Winthrop-- the  “City upon a Hill.” It is now, says Smith,  an “exhausted narrative.”   It depicts a land immune from time, and there never is  or was such a place: “exceptionalism is a national impediment America can no longer afford.”  It’s an imaginary past, and an imaginary past “requires the unceasing production of an imaginary present.”   The four essays in this book—“History Without Memory,” “A Culture of Representation,” “Cold War Man,” and “Time and Time Again”—return again and again to the theme of what time and being modern mean.  “Time is the medium of all human encounters”  says Patrick Smith, and this is as good as anything found in the pages of Rosenstock-Huessy. For Americans today,  too caught up with the latest techno-fads, the statement that “To be modern one must think historically”  should be the beginning of a new curriculum in social studies,  a field which, Smith says, divorced itself from history and thus became “sterilized.”[2]   Smith does not cite John Lukacs in this work, but surely Lukacs’ summary in his Historical Consciousness, Or the Remembered Past (1968) would be appropriate  here: “I believe that the most important developments in our civilization during the last three or four centuries include not only applications of the scientific method but also the growth of a historical consciousness; and that while we may have exaggerated the importance of the former we have not yet understood sufficiently the implications of the latter.”

Smith often remarks the strange fact that while America is a modern society, dedicated to the furtherance and works of science and belief in progress, it nevertheless possesses a strong 17th and 18th century heritage in the form of Protestant evangelism and millenarian thinking.[3] It was as if the new nation were to be an object of belief,   a kind of religion. The new republic erected many barriers against time – as well as against unbelief or dissent.  Confusing  history and myth  leads to narcissism.[4] Nobody else matters; there is no point in learning about other peoples, societies, traditions. But history that passes into myth becomes a history without memory, meaning that “it is unsusceptible to reinterpretation or change from one generation to the next. It is fixed…it leaves those producing it and living by it in a certain state of immobility. They are unable to think anew or to imagine a future that is different from the present or the past.” In order to have continuity there has to be change, a break, re-imagining, dissolution and  renewal--  death and  new life. What is so often missing in this mythologizing of history, says Smith, is “the human agency, and hence a true narrative.”

So, if society and the nation and the history we are living through is something that “just happens” and goes humming along, why worry to renew and repair its institutions, infrastructure, society’s self-understanding? The height of complacency was reached a few years ago when I read, perhaps in a neoconservative publication, that Americans didn’t really have to worry about the quality of our leaders because the institutions we received from the Founders were just so great. How easy it is to spare oneself the confrontation with conscience!

But how great the cost: and this is what Smith’s book is about. In his chapter on the Cold War he has an arresting image: America “spent 50 years staring at its own reflection.”   There was the “Cold War silence”: the inability to speak; ignorance and inflexibility in thinking; the persistence of myths. It was the beginning of the National Security state, when “Fear would be transformed from an individual emotion into a social condition.” Few people understood the relationship between science and security better than John Dewey, whose book The Quest for Certainty was “a vigorous defense of the scientific ‘arts.’” (Smith, p. 93)  Rosenstock-Huessy also  had a few words to say about John Dewey and his"... scientific silently functioning all inclusive cooperative impersonal painless order, an order in which nothing vital has to be settled by force…”
--  summarizing it as follows: "But it borders on social irresponsibility to take the timberwork of society, the beams of authority, decision, faith, love, worship, for granted while everywhere those beams crack.” [5] I feel sure that Patrick Smith would be in accord with this judgment. Everything he says in this book is a call for us to break out of the “unsayable myth” that holds American life in its icy grip. “Gods that age become demons,” I think this was from Strindberg. Never has this been more true than the present.

Although I have issues with Smith’s final chapter “Time and Time Again,” – it deals with the September 11th event – I can only agree that  it signified the end of the American Century. Smith describes the event as a “collision with history… a war between those dedicated to sustaining sacred time and national myth and those attempting to think historically and place events in a historical context such that Americans could achieve an understanding of them.” This chapter also contains interesting reflections about the increasing atomization of American life, the “de-contextualization”  which tears things out of their social and historical nexus. “To see only individuals in the foreground is to see with a mythologically defined consciousness—without context.” Another word would be—idiotic. The word ‘idiotes’ comes from the Greek, meaning private, individual—that which was not a part of the polis, the city, could not be considered  human in the full sense. It is interesting that, for us, the word has come to signify a low intelligence.[6]

Our most important, urgent task, our imperative, is to achieve the condition of history with memory. This means holding ourselves and others accountable for acts. In no other manner can we be considered responsible; in no other manner would we be able to create future—in contrast to just letting things happen. “Under no circumstances is man a spectator of history,” thunders Rosenstock-Huessy in The Christian Future (83). “We can now see why man’s life must be neither linear nor spiral but crucial.” (ibid) And “things happen not by living but by birth and death. ‘Living’ is but one half of life, the repetitive and predictable part. The other half is the agonizing creation and the creative agony of dying and being born.” (ibid, p. 57) For as Rosenstock again reminds us, “the sloughing off of old stages and the insistence on new ones distinguishes life from mechanism.” (ibid, p. 139) With politics in America reduced to mere spectacle, our social order resembles a mechanism punctuated by outbursts of  violence, leaps of passion that have no fathers and no children, so to speak—solo acts of anarchy.   

Whether or not Patrick Smith considers himself Christian is a question of minor importance. What is significant in Time No Longer is that he enunciates a view and a call for history that reveals the true meaning of Christianity – a true meaning long eviscerated by church history, sectarian squabbles and popular evangelisms. To see ourselves as others see us: this is the imperative for America to throw off, finally, the mythological spectacles that have led us to take a false view of ourselves and our place in the world. Only then can we move forward with purpose toward the creation of future.

[2] He adds: “And the absence of history—an absence that has marked off American social sciences from Europe’s ever since—would allow American social scientists to serve the exceptionalist mission.” p. 101. In other words, the social sciences in America became a kind of propaganda ministry.

[3] “America was a modern nation with features of a premodern society prominent within it. This produced an identifiably American personality. Americans were unable to understand events but by interpretation, blind to history’s course, deaf to the voices of others.” p. 133.

[4] “An inability to change is symptomatic of a people who consider themselves chosen and who cannot surrender their chosenness.” p. 193

[5] Rosenstock-Huessy, The Christian Future, p. 53.

[6] Rosenstock-Huessy expresses a kindred idea when he says the great temptation of our time is impatience: refusal to wait, undergo, suffer. “To be non-committal means to keep all relations without important consequences, to rob them of their reproductive, fruit-bearing quality.” The Christian Future, p. 19.  Historically grounded people engage in the labor of building a viable political order; wounded birds flock to New Age healers and preachers who promise quick salvation. 

No comments:

Post a Comment