22 March, 2010

The Quest for the Force

No, this post has nothing whatsoever to do with the unfortunate science fiction trilogy (more than that now?), "Star Wars" (I will probably never be able to get past the execrable acting and dismally waffling philosophy of that series).

Happily, my subject is Henry Adams instead. First off, Please tell me not that this book is convoluted or confusing! Its complexity pales in comparison to, say, that of Moby Dick, which itself is not such an arduous read, though certainly (like HA) deserving of multiple readings which will only flesh out a single strongly coherent argument.

For instance, he spends three of his post-twenty-years-of-silence chapters ("The Dynamo and the Virgin", "Twilight", and "Teufelsdrockh") reiterating the same essential point: explaining (more explicitly than is his usual ironic habit) his search for education as a search for a dynamic Force that gives history some direction and thus some meaning. This search he frames in terms (quite brilliantly) of a conflict between the power of Science and the power of Woman (take that, ye twentieth-century feminists!). Is the Dynamo or the Virgin (Woman imagined specifically as imaged in the figure of Mary, the mother of God) the real driving force of history? That's something I'll have to get into later; it's largely the focus of "The Dynamo and the Virgin" and "Teufelsdrockh", whereas "Twilight" has to take a bit of a time out to return to Adam's age old argument for the idea that there should be such a force to identify at all.

People need to recognize someunifying force if they're going to think at all. He comes into the chapter presupposing that, and proceeds to explain a bit. While the multitudinous heirs of the Enlightenment were invested in bringing to light such a panoply of seemingly unconnected bits of information, a similarly multitudinous series of drastically opposing "explanations" for how these might be thought to fit together were springing up on every side--Darwinism, chemistry, physics, progressive history:
All one's life, one had struggled for unity, and unity had always won. The National Government and the national unity had overcome every resistance, and the Darwinian evolutionists were triumphant over all the curates; yet the greater the unity and momentum, the worse became the complexity and the friction.

A strangely ambivalent statement. You'd think the man whose nostalgia for the 18th century world of the Founding Fathers, even for the unified world of Christian Medieval Europe, would hardly identify unity and directionality in history as itself the very source of multiplicity and the confusion of the early modern (1901) era. Now that's a taste of his irony coming through. Yes, national government and Darwin are examples of modern attempts at a synthesis, but that doesn't mean they succeed, despite his ironic praise of "the Darwinian evolutionists"' triumph "over all the curates". All these efforts for unity prove is that everyone wants it, that "the wisest of men could but imitate the Church, and invoke a 'larger synthesis' to unify the anarchy again". In actuality, for the thinking individual, Darwin (and his analogues in other disciplines--Hegel, for instance) doesn't have the final answers: "The ganoid fish [a subject of evolutionists' study] seemed to prove--to him--that it had selected neither new form nor new force, but that the curates were right in thinking that force could be increased in volume or raised in tintensity only by help of outside force...a little more, and he would be driven back on the old independence of species" (my emphasis).

Now please don't dismiss Mr. Adams as a stodgy old conservative afraid of scientific ideas. He was actually obsessed with science to an almost amusing degree throughout his life, and quite the rabid Darwinian (by his own account) as a young man. No, he's not afraid of evolutionary theory as it exists in biology. What he's protesting against is that that single biological concept (not less than physical theories about magnetism and electricity a little later) is being held up as an alternative to traditional faith. These modern "wise men" would have us believe not merely that Darwinism explains something, but that it explains everything.

Truly the animal that is to be trained to unity must be caught young. Unity is vision; it must have been part of the process of learning to see. The older the mind, the older its coomplexities, and the further it looks, the more it sees, until even the stars resolve themselves into multiples; yet the child will always see but one.

Aside from being an excellent bit of prose, this comment helps (ironically, once again) to further refine his position. Both the old mind and the child as depicted here are seeing part of a truth, but each one is to some extent missing the whole. The child--seen again and again in Henry Adams' depiction of his younger self--thirsts for the type of unity that all these theories attempt to provide, and has faith in man's potential to find it. In a way, the child is right. Unity is real, and it can be accessed by men. What he doesn't have such a strong natural instinct for is the idea that it can't be discovered by men. "For human purposes a point must always soon be reached where larger synthesis is suicide." In this, Henry Adams is shamelessly hearkening back to the traditional Christian conviction of the necessity of revelation to provide the final "synthesis" of history that human reason cannot discern for itself. As appealing as their claims to authority may be, Darwinism, Hegelianism, Marxism, Scientism, etc. are ultimately misleading in the way they narrow the meaning of the universe to whatever their proper discipline can comprehend.

This latter point is precisely what the older mind comes to comprehend. Attempted on a purely human level, the synthesis seems an impossibility, an invitation to ruin, an intellectual suicide. Complexity seems unavoidable as one begins to learn that while Darwin might have a decent explanation for the meaning of life and Hegel a slightly different one, the physicist and chemist is in possession of a hundred other facts that reduce the former to a jumble (though maybe one that can still be synthesized). And none of these have even the slightest explanation for the mysterious power of Woman--Adams' way of figuring those other forces of duty, faith, love, and family. Yet to ignore these (as is so often done) is to mutilate human history; one must simply take everything up to Descartes and lop it off ("Oh, those were just the 'Dark Ages'"), then proceed to explain the post-Cartesian believers in such antiquities as fascinating sociological relics of a long-extinct Age of Ignorance.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Woman vs. the Machine is a fight to save for a later post. All I'm trying to get at is the idea that once you've seen more of the world than the young Darwinian or young Hegelian, one human explanation for everything begins to seem a bit pale. Blast! Can't we have a sythesis after all then? Maybe we should just do as the turn-of-the-century society was beginning to do: "throw up [our] hands and [avow] that progress depended on studying each rock as a law to itself." Why not? Well, it all comes back to the very quotidian fact that we can't think, we can't see ("Unity is vision") except in context...of something. The mid twentieth century would begin to admit utter meaninglessness as a possible "explanation" for the world; cf. Jean-Paul Sartre and the other Existentialists for whom nothing means anything and only the stark fact of free choice has any reality. Henry Adams is not an existentialist. And who can blame him? Existentialism is really the most logical answer to anyone who tries to locate the core of reality in human measurements of a physical world, or even in human measurements of what various theoretical models of that world, but no one wants to be one. Sartre's students had an unfortunate tendency to throw themselves off bridges when hearing one of his particularly dismal proofs of the meaninglessness of life.

There's an alternative, of course. You could--but don't do it: you'll be anathema to the orthodoxy of modernism--you could search for that meaning...outside of human society. You could admit the fact that perhaps the faith of the Church, which Adams so frequently refers to in ironically degrading-but-really-uplifting-because-he's-echoing-the-modernists terms. Because that's what Adams wants you to get out of these chapters, "Twilight" in particular.

Henry Adams' desperate protest rather reminds me of Puddleglum's heroic speech in The Silver Chair, when the witch is trying to enchant away the childrens' belief that there is anything real beyond the dim, two-dimensional reality of her cave world: "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones."

Anyway, more to come, most likely. The book certainly deserves it.


Nick Milne said...

I have nothing much to say about this particular post (unfortunately), but wish rather to congratulate you on an excellent blog overall. You're striking very close to the heart of everything I love, with the authors and thinkers upon whom you've focused, and I can assure you that I'll be checking back often.

I only found out that you existed (I'm ashamed to say) because my own blog - The Daily Kraken - received a hit from yours today and my tracking robot registered it. I don't know what the context of that hit was, but I'm thankful for it all the same.

Anyway, I'll close by wishing you the best of luck, and by saying that I await your future posts with great interest. Keep up the good work!

Therese said...

Thanks Nick, and thank you in particular for the nod on your blog. I only just discovered your site through "Turin Speaks" the other day. I must say I was likewise impressed, and I'll probably be returning to it fairly often. The post on the Holy Father's letter was especially interesting, and quite on the mark, in my opinon.