Thursday, July 1, 2010

Cheever -- Is America a distinct "civilization"?

            Someone from Germany has been reading The Stories of John Cheever and was struck by the following passage:

           "There are some Americans who, although their fathers emigrated from the Old West three centuries ago, never seem to have quite completed the voyage and I am one of these. I stand, figuratively, with one wet foot on Plymouth Rock, looking with some delicacy, not into a formidable and challenging wilderness but onto a half-finished civilization embracing glass towers, oil derricks, suburban continents, and abandoned movie-houses and wondering why, in this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world--where even the cleaning women practice the Chopin preludes in their spare time--everyone should seem to be disappointed." (from "The Death of Justina")

            He wondered in a sometimes intellectual discussion group if any American might be inclined to respond to Cheever's assessment.   To begin with, "American" isn't a "civilization" -- at least not by any standard or definition I'm familiar with.  Samuel P. Huntington in his The Clash of Civilizations utilizes definitions of "civilizations" commonly accepted by social scientists.  While these social scientists do disagree about some of the "civilizations," they do not disagree about the one we are concerned with here: "The Western."   Though Westerners may have been in North America for only three centuries, they didn't come here to begin a new civilization.  Nor having come here for other reasons did they decide to create a "new civilization" later on.  They are inextricably part of "The Western Civilization."  When they set foot on Plymouth Rock, it wasn't a "new civilization" they were interested but a "new farm." 

            There was something distinctive about many of those who colonized North America.  They were opposed to the European Monarchist social framework.  They weren't sure what they wanted in a positive sense (perhaps Cheever's sense) but in the negative, they (many of them) didn't want a king.  But at the time that Cheever wrote (he lived from 1912 to 1982) very few nations in the world retained a Monarchist system of government.  Some have argued that what was begun in North America by the colonists was a revolution.  Americans favored (as time went on) "free market economy" and "personal rights" that were antithetical to any sort of oppressive government.  If you want your boot on the necks of your subjects, as George III did, then you do not want them to be armed.  And you do not want them to be able to say anything they like. 

            The rest of the Western Civilization hasn't embraced all of the American ideals, but it has embraced more of them than not, and the ideals they have embraced are far from those of the anciens regimes.   The French would disagree with my previous sentence arguing that they had their own revolution and were more of an influence on "the West" than America has been --  Perhaps so.  I'm not sure it makes any differences.   All the Western nations are unique in some way.  In fact, if Cheever had used the term "culture" instead of "civilization" he might be on safer ground.  We would then be able to see that the "culture" Cheever was raised in and is perhaps intending (in the above statement) is "Old New England."   I personally have never been to New England.  Except for a few months in the Orient I have lived my entire life in California.  And while I have no reason to think that my ancestors (most of them anyway) were not here three centuries ago, "One foot on Plymouth Rock" isn't an image that evokes anything for me.  For Cheever as for many New England intellectuals, Europe had fully finished Cultures and while there were many distinctive "cultures" in America, perhaps none of them qualified in Cheever's mind as being "finished."

            That was certainly true of other intellectuals Cheever was undoubtedly familiar with.  A whole generation of American intellectuals preferred living in the "finished cultures" of Europe.  T. S. Eliot hated the fact that he had been born in St. Louis, and eventually (in 1927) gave up his American citizenship to be part of a finished culture. 

            Even less cultured that St. Louis was Idaho Territory where Ezra Pound was born.  He too relocated to Europe and while he didn't give up his American citizenship, perhaps he should have, for his support of Italian Fascism resulted in his being indicted in 1943 for treason. 

            Was it the half-finished American "civilization" Eliot and Pound rejected or its culture -- the "culture" Sinclair Lewis demeaned in Main Street and Babbitt?  Clive Bell (1881-1964) comes to mind.  I read his Civilization twice: the first time when I was young and very impressed by it.  The second time when I was older and less so, but Bell's ideas on aesthetics are hard to set aside.  Civilization for Bell wasn't what Huntington later came to mean by it but a culture where a predominate-number of its members had a well-developed and sophisticated aesthetic sensibility.  Earlier, Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy called those without this sensibility, without even an interest in gaining it, "philistines."   Surely Eliot and Pound were being consistent with Arnold's and Bell's thinking when they left the philistines they were raised with and moved to centers in Europe which had standards (they believed) that were closer to those favored by Bell and Arnold.

            What would a modern German think when reading this passage by Cheever?  Russell Berman has some interesting comments about the German view of America in his Anti-Americanism in Europe, A Cultural Problem."  They, many of them, without any evidence see the destruction of our "glass towers" as a rejection of American influence.  Contrary to this assumption, those who destroyed those towers were influenced by Sayyid Qutb's Islamist ideology.  They weren't concerned about rejecting American influence but about carrying forward Mohammad's Jihad.  Destroying infidels is something all dedicated Islamists can engage in and it makes no difference whether the infidel is Russian, American, Jewish, or German.  But many modern Germans liked to see America get some sort of comeuppance.  Their reasons for wanting this are based more on emotion than anything tangible.  At least that seems to be the position of Revel and Berman.

            It is worth noting that the intellectual abandonment of America for Europe in the latter part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries was reversed as a result of European Totalitarianism.  Whether or not this Totalitarianism exemplifies in some way the "finished Western civilizations" of Germany, Italy, Spain and France (not to mention Russia), I cannot say, but the buildup to World War II resulted in many intellectuals fleeing to the U.S.  They didn't flee for aesthetic reasons but for practical ones.  The civil rights guaranteed to American citizens was more amenable to whatever it was the European intellectual was interested in than the Totalitarian systems controlling most of Europe, east and west.

            If we base our understanding of the beginning of Western Civilization as found in such books as Religion and the Rise of Western Culture by Christopher Dawson, and The Awakening of Europe, the growth of European Culture, from the ninth century to the twelfth by Philippe Wolffe -- and more specific histories such as R. W. Southern's Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages we shall have difficulty providing any uniform description of "Western Civilization."  We will get much closer to a workable description if we list all the Cultures of Western Civilization and say something like "together they form Western Civilization" without going into the details of the distinctiveness of each culture, how it relates to its neighbors and how as a group these Western Cultures comprising Western Civilization contrast with other Civilizations and cultures.

            If we eliminate anti-American emotion and stick to tangibles, China and Russia have both described aspects of American culture they do not like, primarily that its "freedoms" have taken several licentious turns.  The Chinese and the Russians do not want their children growing up like licentious Americans.  Interestingly, most Americans don't want their children growing up that way either. 

            Another objection we often hear is American's power.  Other nations don't like America to have so much power.  France as we know tried to interest other European nations in banding together as a counterforce against America.  That plan has been abandoned, but the resentment against America's power remains.   I cannot help but observe that it is as a result of the European squabbling (a euphemism for World Wars I & II) that America gained this power.  We were, in a manner of speaking, "the last man standing."  Should we apologize for that?  Should we say, whoops, why don't you other nations come over here and split up all of our power; we don't need it any longer?  Where is the European nation that can be put forward as our example?  Did the British voluntarily abandon their Empire?  Or did they run out of the money and resources necessary to maintain it?  Winston Churchill dearly wanted to hang onto that empire, as did De Gaulle the French Empire.  Post-World-War-Two resentment was built up in France because the French wanted to regain its empire and the Americans wouldn't help them do that.  As to Germany's empire, well yes that too was opposed by America, but Germany never had a chance to keep any of it after their failure to win WWII.  But we see that none of these European nations, maintaining resentment against America's power though they are, can provide us with an example of a powerful nation giving up its power voluntarily.

            As to cleaning women practicing Chopin preludes in their spare time, I haven't seen that in California.  My wife has a serious health problem so we have had a good deal of experience with cleaning women.  To the best of my recollection none of them practiced Chopin preludes.  And while I don't know this of a certainty, I doubt that any of them appreciated classical music.  Our present cleaning lady happens to be a man.  He is a manager at a local Jack in the Box and also cleans a few houses.  I have heard that he spends his spare time at the nearby Soboba Indian Casino.

            I note in conclusion that while Cheever describes one of his feet as being on Plymouth Rock, he doesn't tell us where the other one is.  Is it in the sea?  Is he hesitant to become a whole-hearted American?  And did "everyone" in his day really "seem to be disappointed"?  Perhaps if everyone were to leave New England and move to California that might change . . .  On second thought I suspect that has already happened.


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