29 MARCH 1963, Page 8

The Seven Temptations

By JOHN ROSSELLI THERE are seven; and none of them is what Lord Hailsham thinks it is. When a British intellectual turns over in his mind the notion of going to America to live it is hardly ever because he sees the chance of a split-level show house, a large car, and unlimited bourbon, T-bone steaks, and mohair suits. The people for whom America is now a sevenfold standing temp- tation are most of them young; what they think beckons to them is the chance of a life freer, more useful, more meaningful, in a word more satisfying than the life they face at home.

Money does come into it; but it comes chiefly at second hand, as The Temptation of the Efficient Onion Slicer. Continentals used to imagine that the English spent their lives mutter- ing to one another, 'Time is money.' It would be truer to say that money is time. In a back- ward economy money allows the rich few to enjoy long days for work or idleness; in an ad- vanced economy it at least affords the many some relief from the drudgery of keeping their bodies warm, fed and clothed. An efficient onion- slicing gadget may not save you as much time as a cook, or a fully automatic washing machine as much as a laundress; but they save more people more time than most of us are likely to find in Britain—a society that has outgrown cook and laundress without having as yet reached or even specially craved the most ad- vanced substitutes for them, and where, in winter, coal-dust softly coats the frozen water-pipe. In America the onion-slicers, for the most part, slice.

To the man who wants to write a learned paper or a novel (and to his wife) these things matter. They may make the difference between getting the thing done and having it trail after you for years; they partly explain why the industrious American academic, who used to provoke among us such superior smiles, now makes us smile on the other side of our mouths.

But there is another sense in which the onion- slicer draws the British intellectual. Mr. Malcolm Bradbury has testified that in America publishers reply to him promptly and interestedly, whereas here manuscripts come back months later with tea-stains and tentative suggestions. For my part I have had my luggage mislaid in America, my manuscripts lost, my letters left unanswered; f have waded through the verbiage of over- organisation; but I know what he means. There is a strong sense abroad that the socio-economic organism ought to work and that if it does not it ought to be made to work. There is none of the sense of impending breakdown that has for some years troubled frequent users of our tele- phone system; there is little of the inertia that blandly measures the time for any improvement in Royal Commission light-years. To the research scientist waiting for some essential piece of equipment the American desire for an efficient society may well—because it is so widely shared if not always fulfilled—ring truer than Lord Home's proclamation of it as a Government air".

The other attractive shape that money in -America takes is The Temptation of the Hand- Built Hi-Fi Set. Several of the people I know there live on the frontiers of Academe and Bohemia, in poky flats amid rickety second-hand furniture; but wriggling between the chair-legs all over the flat are the innards of a stupendous hi-11 set, stereophonic and all the rest of it, that my friends (or their friends) have mostly built themselves, and stacked along the walls are far more records than anyone I know here scans able to afford.

`A soul is a very expensive thing to keep,' says Elie Dunn in Heartbreak House, 'much more so than a motor-car.'

CAPTAIN SIWTOVER: IS it? Flow much does your soul eat?

ELLIE : Oh, a lot. It eats music and pictures and books and mountains and lakes and beauti- ful things to wear and nice people to be with- in this country you can't have them without lots of money; that is why our souls are so horribly starved. In a really advanced economy like the United States people have more superfluous product to lay out on food of this kind. Many of their can buy both the Oscar Peterson and the com- plete Tristan that they have set their hearts on instead of wondering whether they can manage either; they can live in beautiful instead of uglY surroundings; they can choose whether to go t° Mexico, the Rockies, or Europe this year; theY can buy their children the elaborate, near-life- size tractors, the portable sandpits, the Jungle Ems to swarm over and swing on that (simple- lifers notwithstanding) often feed a child's soul better than a block of wood and a piece of string.

There is no doubt another, more withdrawn and contemplative way for the soul to conduct itself; but the Buddha did not live in an industrial society. In such a society the only answer to the problems created by the effort to accumulate material wealth seems to lie through the accu- mulation of yet more material wealth. It is wonderful what real satisfactions that 'more' can hold, especially for those who, like many intellec- tuals, despise it a little on principle.

Soul-food and a society that at least wishes itself purposeful: for some these are not enough; some want power. To them America offers at least the hope of power. Here we come to The Temptation of the Washington Dinner Table (known in its extreme form as The Temptation of Santa Monica, after the headquarters of the Rand Corporation); for the British intellectual there is a treacherous supplementary, The Temp- tation of JFK's Savile Row Suit.

Go out to dinner in Washington and with any luck you will find that the place is full of highly educated people all concerned with the inner workings of American government, which means, nowadays, with the inner workings of the world. Soon, as titbits of gossip go back and forth, interspersed with bright gegeralisations (someone is quite likely to mention platonic kingship or the concept of the heartland), you begin to imagine that you are doing your bit to keep the world from flying apart. Besides, isn't the government now staffed with professors right to the top? Never mind that there is some doubt whether the professors are using the political managers or the political managers are using them; never mind that some of them helped to land the country in the Bay of Pigs. At least they had the chance to give advice in a field we usually leave the soldiers to make a muddle of. At least the man with the habit of abstract thought has a chance to urge the country in practice (within the limits acknowledged by us disenchanted moderns) towards the true and the good. At least his hand—urgent or restraining— is within reach of the bomb.

Then, too, the President is such a patrician— patrician in looks, in clothes (that Savile Row snit), in demeanour; patrician, not least, in, the enjoyment of real power. So strong in Britain is the hierarchical cast of thought that this makes a difference even to intellectuals. J think We ought to have admired at least as much a democratic politician like President Truman, who took decisions without fussing about 'leadership' and who was spontaneous enough to slang a music critic for having knocked his daughter's singing. But the democratic style is not yet our style; one reason why America is now popular among our young graduates is that, purged of McCarthyism and Eisenhower bumbledom, she has at her head a man who not only thinks good thoughts but looks born to rule and have them carried out. It matters little that in the face of a conservative Congress he hasn't been able to do much about it.

How subtle and many-sided just, now is this

'Order of Liberation down a bit.'

American lodestone! Not only does it draw, by the temptation of power, the careerist, the man who must belong to the elite of command wherever that may be; it also attracts his precise opposite. Against the centripetal America of the Washington dinner table and the push-buttons in the Omaha control room stands the centrifugal America of private affection and astonishing possibilities.

The Temptation of the Grey-Haired Graduate stands for all the things that still seem possible in America and are impossible here. Just as our lives seem so often predetermined, if not at twenty-one then at eighteen, if not at eighteen then at eleven-plus or seven or even in the womb, with every lap, hurdle and heat allowed for and all eliminations carefully and irrevocably planned from the start, so in America a man's life seems still subject to the accident of change and to his own will and courage. Do you decide at forty to drop your career and go back to college? Why, by all means go ahead if you can manage it. Do you choose to move across the continent, start a new business, train your singing voice, write a novel in an unfashionable style? Splendid. No doubt society as a whole will wait to see if you make a go of it and will drop you if you do not. But meanwhile there are plenty of people to approve the mere effort —to confirm that to stretch yourself as far as you can is both a possible and a good thing.

This sense of possibility, so strong in the open, unfinished landscape, and, even now, in the ordering of society, conies into private lives, too, like a repeated heady scent. It lives in memory as The Temptation of the Dawn Friend- ship: you meet somebody for the first time, talk, drink (probably one or two drinks too many), exchange the whole truth (nearly) about your lives, and, as dawn draws near, find that you have become friends. You may never again care as much or even see each other; what communi- cation you had may not have been lasting or deep. But it was an attempt at communication; it was not a wary or clever game with social counters. This, I take it, is one reason why a man like the singer of frustration and laureate of discomfort, Mr. Kingsley Amis, feels less uncomfortable at Princeton than at Cambridge.

The sense that many things are immediately possible can wear a darker face. The Temptation of the Dark at the Top of the Stairs is what meets us when we contrast the humaneness of British society with the wider humanity of America. In William Inge's play the boy feared a patch of darkness at the top of the stairs for the unknowable things it might conceal; he didn't like to cross it alone. The received morality, upheld by this not very good play, is that if you pluck up courage and cross the dark you will find the American sunshine on the other side. There are Americans enough to question this reassurance. To an Englishman it should be a great thing that—reassured or not—these people acknowledge the dark.

Much of our present trouble comes of a refusal of experience. After the war we as a nation refused the political experience of a Western Europe that was trying to knit itself up. We had already refused the intimate moral ex- perience of this same Europe; we did not wish to know what had happened to people in the extremity of violence, dissolution and despair. The one refusal followed on the other. Now we still refuse to contemplate the dark of tragedy and the dark, dark, dark of annihilation, unless perhaps as something remediable by a social act: 'giving up the bomb,' say. The texture of our lives is thin and we wish to keep it so. We show fright at any manifestation of excess— above all (and this in one of the most ordered societies in the world) at any sign of violence. We neither wish to cross the dark nor to lose ourselves in it; we want our stairs greyly and evenly lit.

America is in many ways even farther removed from the European experience; yet, because the idea of death, despair, emptiness is seldom far away—from the cable-forested freeways of Los Angeles, from the West Side tenements, even from the green suburbs with their look of places not finally charted—because these places enter- tain the possibility of the dark, they seem at times closer than we are to the experiences that have shaped the most exposed parts of mankind. Why else is Faulkner understood in France and Yugo- slavia as he is not understood here? Why have so many American writers tried to follow on from where Joyce and Kafka got to while so many of ours still try to patch up the Victorian house?

To go to America because its possibilities in- clude the tragic may seem unlikely; yet to the artist especially this temptation is the subtlest of all. True, one may claim that the very sense of possibilities is a drawback. A certain Middle European sage maintains that however dead- locked life in Britain may be it is preferable to life in America just because we are nearer to acknowledging the breakdown of Western civili- sation and making a leap into another discipline; the Americans, have merely not finished locking all the doors on themselves. This is a special view, though I should not like to say that it is quite wrong.

Some who have felt the seven temptations have never seriously entertained them. Some who have entertained them have been held back by reasoned hope for their own society and their ability to change it. Some have resisted them neither from reasoned hope nor from the sage's reasoned despair, but because certain English faces, cer- tain voices, the corner of a London street or the outline of a down, act on them as occasional phrases in music do, at once moving and familiar. And of these some must hope that the American music will not in time come to seem moving and familiar too.