29 MARCH 1963, Page 23


Difficult Freedom

BY ANTHONY HARTLEY RENTIEwitva a book on the history of the Mormons during the Sixties of the last cen- tury, the French critic and historian Hippolyte Taine remarked on the self-confidence which enabled an ordinary American to set himself up as a prophet with few either of the literary gifts or thelogica attaients traditionally equired by such a vocatlion.nm In France, these defects would have sunk Joseph Smith; in America, his assurance carried him through. Since then things have changed. American Prophets now come to us clad in the armour of Modern philosophy and science and writing good Prose. The Joseph Smiths and Brigham Youngs have gone for ever, but, for a European, the intellectual life of the US is still marked by a gift of prophecy, a readiness to undertake the discussion of large problems, an optimism about their solution which We have not known since the nineteenth century. And since we assume that, economically and socially, the way America has gone will be our way, is, indeed, already our way, it is natural to find more things relevant to can' future in the works of American social critics than in books produced nearer home. August Heckscher's book The Public Happi- ness* falls into this category of works whose diagnoses we read with a feeling of half-recog- ,tilti°u if not of premonition. Mr. Heckscher is concerned with social phenomena which we have not Yet encountered in all their majesty, but which—in the south-east of England at any rate

are beginning to take on recognisable shape.

bLeaning heavily on Hannah Arendt's distinction etween the public and private spheres of life, talks of the blurring of the lines between the and of the merging into the social; of the corresponding confusion between town and ccalLutrY which produces the suburban; of the " of real privacy and real community to be '0°.u.nd in those suburbs; of the metamorphosis of ofbieets into services or into a fleeting succession articles of consumption, no one of which is PrefePreferable to any other and which exist as a rable in time rather than as artifacts. HThe picture is rather a horrifying one. Mr. eckscher in his lucidly prophetic way conjures 1112 before the reader's eyes an infinite succession i°111 cars, refrigerators and washing machines stretch- mgtalike way to all eternity, evolving in a flickering that seen by Wells's Time Traveller. Be- „ri_ti the picture windows of the split-level or social-type houses sit the prisoners of a pervasive ethos unable to shun their neighbours uL fully to commune with them. In the intervals offiew°rk—rather harder at home than in the ssae—, they defend themselves against the dev 11,48 of the mass media by a systematically .e'oPed lack of attention, but, even if they desire to concentrate, how could they hope to air% sorb the 158 feet of news which the New York to more provides each day for its readers, or take re than a tithe of the swarming images of television? What Mr Heckscher is describing and, of utehinson, 30s.

course, denouncing is a type of conformity which is liable to find itself at a further and further remove from reality. One example of this is the teenager 'retired into a special teenage world, where the landscape is submerged in shifting clouds and fogs.' Here public and private are hopelessly confused in a pattern of rigor- ously similar behaviour. 'Petting is open, while speech and action—the doing of plain deeds and the speaking of clear words—become lost accom- plishments.' There are penalties of meaningless- ness and isolation lying in wait for the arcane meandering of Holden Caulfield.

However, Mr. Heckscher speaks as a moralist rather than as a sociologist, and foreigners would do well not to take this sombre description of the American suburb too literally. No more than Europeans are Americans depersonalised. They may, indeed, be unhappy as their desire for individuality fights against the pressures of con- formity, but the very disquiet engendered by that unhappiness is as potent a source of moral action as ever sectarian Protestantism was in the past.

Still, this analysis of the twilight which creeps over a society where the lines of individuality are blurred is unpleasantly convincing. At least we, on this side of the Atlantic, are not quite there yet. We still have sufficient slums and bidon- villes not to have succumbed entirely to the magical paralysis of suburbia—nor, indeed, does that fate look quite so terrible when seen from the latitude of two rooms in a decaying building.

A more general consequence of the blurring of distinctions between public and pri- vate life is a lessening of importance of the public mode of action which we call political. Mr. Heckscher points to the modern convention by which the domestic intrudes itself on to the political scene. The public oration is replaced by the 'fireside chat,' the speech by the carefully prepared (and, therefore, misleading) 'private' conversation between political leader and jour- nalists. A public man reduced to the level of a public entertainer is measured by his 'goodness' or 'sincerity' rather than by the quality of his policies or the capacity with which he executes them. So that, in this country, we have the ludicrous spectacle of a Leader of the Opposi- tion trying to recommend himself to his fellow- countrymen by recalling his days as a boy scout —not necessarily an essential part of the training of a future Prime Minister. Politics has become thoroughly cosy, but, in so doing, it has lost some quality which might roughly be described as that of exemplary leadership and which, in the past, has been held to be its essence. This situation is potentially dangerous. For it is not possible to run a country without men playing their parts decisively, nor would most of us wish to eliminate the impabt of confident and eccentric character upon government. One of the subconscious wishes of modern man, uttered time and again' in the science fiction that is a repository of such wishes, is a desire to return once more, to the city-state where public speech or action could have an evident” effect upon events. We have all wished to be Roland, or Odysseus, or Pericles , commemorating the Athenian dead, but the contemporary world denies us the open satisfactions of the heroic. From this frustration springs, I suspect, a great deal of the disaffection towards the political which is now so widespread. But the heroic may yet take its revenge. The organisation of the modern State leads us towards a kind of Bona- partism, in which the man at the top has con- centrated upon him all the publicity and, per- haps, more and more of the power pertaining to his administration. The Prime Minister or President is proposed to us as an image and is free to become an idol if we are ready to project on to him our own thwarted desires. From Prime Minister or President he will become the Leader. Thus we are liable to take a tower- ing shadow for the substance of that meaning- ful life in society which the political should imply.

As a • remedy -for these unrealities Mr. Heckscher proposes the reality of art and, in particular, of the social art which he calls 'public works.' Public works are essentially deeds by which a society is summed up and through which it possesses a criterion of reality. To build a bridge or a fine building or a city, and to build them to last, is to create an environment free from the transient quality of modern industrial civilisation. It is to satisfy the individual urge towards creation, to turn into constructive chan- nels our incurable itch for the dramatic and the heroic. Mr. Heckscher—and it is• a measure of his optimism—sees the State as the instru- ment of these purposes. Like Matthew Arnold, he does not fear the power of the State, but wishes to put it to work. , -

Mr. Heckscher's book is a very well-written plea for an injection of humanism into a way of life where human satisfactions are increas- ingly hard to come by. But I wish he had not called it The Public Happiness. Most of it, in fact, is an argument to show (what is certainly true) that happiness is a by-product of other things, that, if we aim at it directly, it will escape our grasp. 'The quest for happiness,' writes Mr. Heckscher, 'will inevitably make a man uncom- fortable . .', thereby echoing Dr. Johnson, who made the same point in Rasselas: 'What . . . is to be expected of our pursuit of happiness, when we find the state of life to be such, that happi- ness itself is the cause of misery.' The title should have been 'Public Creation,' for that is its author's medicine for our ailments. Even if we cannot ourselves participate directly in such a project, we can, at any rate, consider the assaults of society on us with irony and compassion, thereby ordering our experience instead of being overwhelmed by it. Mr. Heckscher recommends real work and real wisdom..No doubt we must believe that an effort of the will can bring them into plentiful supply, but we shall believe it. if at all, in anguish and torment as the first adepts of a religion believe in their god—because they have no other resource.