Books Essay - Spring 2015

Reflections on Alexis de Tocqueville

What is the place of the artist in a democratic society?

By Saul Bellow | March 4, 2015


I have for something like 40 years written and published stories and novels, and I must know something. There are, however, happy natures ignorant of their own best insights. I wish I were one of them. Joseph Conrad’s Captain MacWhirr, who skippered his ship through a typhoon, was too endearingly inarticulate to say how he did it. It is a lucky man indeed who does not need to cope with great complexities. Still, it is part of the fascination of Typhoon that Conrad’s appreciation of complexity should be so extensive, for without it we should be unable to take the measure of Captain MacWhirr’s monumental simplicity. I sometimes wish that I too were a MacWhirr, and the wish itself suggests that I feel I owe my survival to the observance of certain quite elementary rules. These rules, flatly stated, would be of small interest to a lover of complexity, but they have seen me over many dark reefs.

What this comes to is that a writer cannot afford to lose his naïveté, but it is imperative to add that in the present age he cannot afford to ignore the complexities in which existence is now set. His simplicity will be steeped in complexity. The more tacit the complexity the better, that goes without saying.

Contemporary American writers (others too) have been willing, far too willing, to let others perform the essential complex operations for them. One can see why. But it has been a mistake to rely so much upon others. “The good are attracted by men’s perceptions, and think not for themselves,” said William Blake. “The good” I translate as “the would-be-good,” the all-too-voluntary innocents who prefer that evil should find them unarmed and unresisting. The opinions of psychologists, critics, sociologists, philosophers cannot however sustain a literature.

Let it be granted then that in the present age it is impossible to escape thinking and that nothing will be accomplished by writers who do not take measures to protect themselves from the tyranny of perceptions—the victorious opinions hanging over us like a smog from which no relief is to be expected. But does that mean that we must devote our evenings to the study of Tocqueville? Lucky writers, born lucid, can get by without reading beautiful books. I myself was not born lucid, unfortunately, and have not been able to manage matters unaided. The anxieties of multiplicity were too much for me. I had to see what it was that had restricted the talents of even the best of modern writers, and I turned therefore to Tocqueville and to others who had what seemed to me a satisfactory, a distinct overview of the modern age. Easily the most important of these was Nietzsche. Less lofty, and for that reason perhaps more congenial, were writers like Wyndham Lewis, himself in his cantankerous way something of a Nietzschean, and two or three modern Russians whom I will presently mention.

I must confess at the outset that in reading Tocqueville I begin with a satisfaction that is presently infected with a growing irritation. He is, to use a word used by sociologists when they review one another’s books, so “magisterial.” He is all seeing, in fairness admirably fair, in prescience uncanny. He admits freely, gracefully everything that has to be admitted: aristocratic Europe, of which he is himself a product, is done for. The new age, which began with Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, is upon us. The democratic world with its masses, its miracles, its mediocrities, its splendid opportunities for freedom and development, its monstrous perversions of the same—no need to push this description too hard, to jump up and down on the rhetorical trampoline—these masses are, in a broad sense, our very selves, the families that begat us, the hands that fed us, the school that schooled us, the press that pressed us, even the vulgarities that made snobs of us (such of us as have been seized by impulses of social climbing). Inadequate to say that we are dominated by this—we are a self-saturated population, a collectivity full of itself, viewing, describing, assessing itself. There is one great act and everybody is in it. Allow me to pinpoint these assertions in Tocqueville’s own words: “In democratic communities, where men are all insignificant and very much alike, each man instantly sees all his fellows when he surveys himself. … I am persuaded,” writes Tocqueville—to continue this brief presentation of his views on the sources of poetry in a democracy—persuaded “that in the end democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man, and fixes it on man alone. Democratic nations may amuse themselves for a while with considering the productions of nature; but they are only excited in reality by a survey of themselves. Here, and here alone, the true sources of poetry amongst such nations are to be found.” He goes further, insisting that democratic nations care little for the past but are haunted by visions of what will be. Here I find one of my cavils in the margin: “Like socialism in one country, or Hitler’s thousand-year Reich?” But this is unwarranted, merely a touch of the occasional irritation I have already confessed. My reading continues, and soon I come upon the following sentences: Americans, we are told, are insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature, and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests which surround them until they fall beneath the hatchet. Their eyes are fixed upon another sight: the American people views its own march across these wilds—drying swamps, turning the course of rivers, peopling solitudes, and subduing nature. This magnificent image of themselves does not meet the gaze of the Americans … only; it may be said to haunt every one of them in his least as well as in his most important actions, and to be always flitting

before his mind. Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests, in one word so anti-poetic, as the life of a man in the United States. But amongst the thoughts which it suggests there is always one which is full of poetry, and that is the hidden nerve which gives vigor to the frame.

Here Tocqueville anticipates Walt Whitman’s celebration of the pioneers. He anticipates also the American skyscraper with its regular masses of cellular units—“crowded with paltry interests” but forming our celebrated skylines. Tocqueville makes his observations with evenhanded poise. He does not, like Nietzsche, burst out against the herds of “voting cattle” and the decadent philistinism of the democratic public; nor does he approach the more sober depths where Nietzsche defines historically the discouragement by which nihilism is identified: “the recognition of the long squandering of strength, the agony of the ‘in vain,’ the insecurity, the lack of any opportunity to recuperate and to regain tranquility.” And yet this would be implicit in the Cartesian view of being ascribed to Americans by Tocqueville. I quote from his chapter on Philosophical Method—Americans follow the maxims of Descartes because their “social condition disposes their understanding to accept them.” “Everyone shuts himself up in his own breast, and affects from that point to judge the world.” And further, Americans have little faith for whatever is extraordinary, and an almost insurmountable distaste for whatever is supernatural. As it is on their own testimony that they are accustomed to rely, they like to discern the object which engages their attention with extreme clearness; they therefore strip off as much as possible all that covers it, they rid themselves of whatever separates them from it, they remove whatever conceals it from sight, in order to view it more closely and in the broad light of day. … The Americans then have not required to extract their philosophical method from books; they have found it in themselves. The same thing may be remarked in what has taken place in Europe.

Yes, and this nakedness of the perceptions was noted by Wordsworth as the abstract passion with which a man may “botanize upon his mother’s grave” and was denounced by William Blake as “single vision.” I will not associate Nietzsche with these romantics, for whom he had little regard. He made his own statement, far more comprehensive, on nihilism and the special meaning of nihilism for world history. Tocqueville, with more modest objectives, seeing in democracy the shape of mankind’s future, tried to be nice about the inevitable. He wanted to encourage us, or to put a floor under us. The worst he could foresee would after all be tolerable. Only we have more than once fallen through the floor.

But let me postpone awhile what the collapsing floor may mean and ask you to turn your attention briefly to what art and literature, its theorists and practitioners, have done or might have attempted to do, during the centuries identified by Nietzsche as times in which “the devaluation of the uppermost values” has occurred so swiftly as to leave us standing quite naked. To Nietzsche, as I read him, this nakedness was an exhilarating opportunity, a challenge to find a surer foundation for being. He would have waved away Tocqueville’s assurances that democracy would find its floor. Such a floor did not even begin to resemble Nietzsche’s far grander quest for a foundation of being. Besides, Tocqueville’s project (individuals are negligible and therefore collectivity will be the heroic theme) has the air of being one of those happy French thoughts that sound terribly plausible but won’t actually bear much weight.

When he speaks of America’s mental life he refers to “a motley multitude whose intellectual wants are to be supplied. These new votaries of the pleasures of the mind have not all received the same education; they do not possess the same degree of culture as their fathers, nor any resemblance to them—nay, they perpetually differ from themselves, for they live in a state of incessant change of place, feelings, and fortunes.” Attachments based upon tradition or common habits are hard to find. “It is, however, from the bosom of this heterogeneous and agitated mass that authors spring.” In the same paragraph comes the following assertion: “Amongst democratic nations each new generation is a new people.” If you join together these two propositions concerning the instability of individuals and the radical alteration of succeeding generations, the time “of the nation itself must be either change or else the elements of permanence resistant to changes.” I don’t think the “conquest of nature” by the settlers, the theme suggested by Tocqueville, will fill the bill. The “romance of the frontier” was quickly gulped down by the colossus Technology. What then has persisted amid changes, I try to think: for one, using the strength of the Constitution, which was tested by the Civil War, and for another, slavery and the still unresolved problem of race.

There is no need, however, to speculate further upon Tocqueville’s forecasts, for we live in the future he was so intelligently imagining. My present concern is with various attempts of theorists, historians, artists who in the present democratic ages refuse “absolutely to live without art,” cannot even conceive of such an existence. This refusal—or more exactly, this assertion—takes many forms. I will cite several of them, beginning with one familiar to many of you. Henry James, in defending himself from H. G. Wells’s charge that his all-too-“aesthetic” novels neglected ordinary human interests, replied that “art makes life, makes interest, makes importance.” But in this making one must have the strength for what a Russian, Osip Mandelstam, in very different circumstances (far from Jamesian amenities) described much later as the “struggle with the barbarism of a new life.” And yet those who call it barbarism themselves spring from what Tocqueville called the heterogeneous and agitated mass.

Elsewhere, Mandelstam wrote (“Humanism and Modern Life”): “There are certain periods that say they have nothing to do with man; that say he should be used like brick, like cement; that say he should be built from, not for. … Assyrian captives swarm like chickens under the feet of the immense King. … Egyptian builders dispose of the great mass as if it were inert matter.” Obviously Mandelstam here is writing of the dictatorship of the proletariat, to which he opposes a personal essence, the true human dwelling utterly different from the constructions of despotism. The “barbarism” of a new life “does not make us deaf to true music”—of which he writes, in an essay on Alexander Scriabin, that “it contains the atoms of our being.”

But in quoting from Mandelstam I have jumped forward farther than I intended. My first intention was to introduce several statements from those who do not accept the democratic degradation of art and artists as an ineluctable destiny.

“It would be a disaster if we didn’t have an art of our own time,” said our old friend Harold Rosenberg in what I take to be the last interview he ever gave. And in answer to the next question, “Why is it so important for us to have an art of our own time?” he said,

Art has a lot to do with the level on which the public apprehends events. This is the sense in which art has political significance. Without new relevant art we live in a world in which everything is either of the past or without reference to the deepest developments of the time. Today it’s extremely important that we shouldn’t be left, as people are in totalitarian countries, with no other public experience than that which the government permits us to have. Yet something close to that takes place with the reign of the mass media, whose managers decide what news you are going to receive, what kind of emotional experience is allowable. What makes a poem acceptable to be printed? How should a picture be organized? If this has been decided in advance by some authority whom one doesn’t dare to defy, you are living in a blind world where nobody has any experience to communicate to anybody else. This is called the triumph of communications—which is very much what the state of affairs is now. That’s why artists keep struggling to be able to say something new.

Two noteworthy suggestions arise from his statement: the first is that the Tocquevillean collective theme (the life of the nation as a whole) is at present in the hands of the media managers; the second is that the capacity to experience is itself threatened by the conditions of our existence.

Now one more quotation, this one taken from Wyndham Lewis’s Men Without Art, a lengthy study of the subject we are discussing tonight. I give you these sentences with which he concludes:

The valuing of our arts is bound up with the valuing of our life, and vice versa. All I have done here has been, starting from the assumption that a non-material system of values attaches to the exercises of the artist, to denounce the various interferences, by the agency of which, at present, his activities are impaired … and at least I may have directed your attention to a question of great moment—namely, whether the society of the immediate future should be composed, for the first time in civilized history, of Men without art.

As to that, it is perfectly possible, as the Russian novelist Andrei Sinyavsky has strikingly testified, to live without art, just as possible as to survive on a salt-free diet, only (I paraphrase him) the trees, the sky, cats, dogs will be obliterated for us, and we will inhabit a world that is just as unfurnished as our souls will have become.

I myself perceive something less apocalyptic. The democratic mass itself has begotten a class of persons awakened to thought and art. They temperamentally require it, they refuse privation, they insist on the exercise of their power—they are determined not to be disappointed. This is why a Henry James will maintain that “art makes life, makes interest, makes importance” or a Wyndham Lewis will give it as a postulate that the valuing of art is bound up with the valuing of life and vice versa. Lewis goes further in The Writer and the Absolute where he declares that “Truth, Clearness, and Beauty naturally are public matters. Indeed, Truth (but written truth) … is as public and as necessary as the air we breathe. Truth or Beauty are as much public concerns as the water supply.” “It is true,” he continues,

that the writer in our day—succumbing to the glamour of cryptical techniques and the lure of easy reputation—has allowed himself to be edged into a dark corner of the forum. Progressively he has been pushed away from the center of things. Whatever style he adopts, daily he tends to lose his worldly place. Yet the writer belongs where the public is. … In one way or another truth, or what is the same thing, clearness—not the big Victorian
abstractions of the classic mind—must be the major object of his search.

I have much more to say on these matters. I might for instance talk about the strangeness and ingenuity, the queer genius, of certain minds and souls developed under the monstrous weight of the modern world or set free, so to speak, by its very momentum, released by centrifugal impulses and liberated above all from the determinist obsession that art depends utterly upon a nourishing or fructifying “culture”—a responsive or properly educated society, the nourishment of traditions, the support of a setting, of manners. To wait upon any of this is to court aggravation and disappointment and perhaps also to betray one’s powers, which in this day and age are bound to be the unpredictable powers arising from singularity, from the special perspectives to which history has given us special access. Humankind has today the advantage of an overview—in which ancient epic mingles with modern dehumanization. These are properties of our being in the modern age.

Instead of elaborating these ideas now—and I have already taken far too much time—I will conclude with two statements, very brief, from Osip Mandelstam. The first is: “Do not dare describe anything in which the internal state of your spirit is not reflected in some way or other.” The second: “My breath, my warmth has already lain on the panes of eternity.”

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