February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
Given that the full written history of man encompasses approximately twenty-five hundred years, the lesson of the century may be calculated proportionally as 4 percent of the wisdom of the ages. Although movie stars do better, in this instance 4 percent of the gross from dollar one is a major assignment for someone who at mid-century was three years of age, but I think that even then what I now see as the century’s most important truth began to come clear for me, although of course I did not know it.
I turned four in the summer of 1951, in Paris, in the care of a French woman whose name was Thérèse and whom I considered both strict and severe. She was a traditional Catholic who had neither time for nor understanding of the fashionable doctrines according to which I was being brought up in Manhattan. Most likely unacquainted with Ethical Culture, psychoanalysis, and moral relativism, she was probably ignorant as well of Alfred Adler, John Dewey, and Dr. Spock. She had never heard of Wilhelm Reich. She had never heard of the Third Ear. But she did believe in Heaven and Hell, and she widened my eyes a number of times with her classical description of their mesmerizing characteristics.
She was a stickler and she loved routine. Every day we would take a walk, stopping invariably in the Place de la something or other—I never knew the name, or if I did I have forgotten it—to sit in an outdoor café. There she introduced me to the lumpy kind of yogurt and World War II. The buildings fronting the square had been pockmarked to death. “Why?” I asked. Then came, from this woman of great reserve, this stickler, this disciplinarian, this prude, a torrent of emotion.
The war was not even six years behind us. She had struggled through it, she had survived, she had lost the man she loved. I, who hadn’t even known what a war was, by the time she finished had begun to know. I could feel it. I could sense it. It lay underneath, the unseen foundation of everything—of my parents’ lives, of her life, of my life. Having been alerted to this great and terrible thing, I was from then on as watchful for it as if for a sabertoothed tiger. That summer I became, wherever I went, the amateur registrar of the pockmarks of buildings. Especially in Italy, after we had crested the Grimsel Pass in our Hillman Minx, with Thérèse and me in the back, remarking on the summer snowfields, I was attentive to the ruined buildings, the fortifications, the remnants of battle now rusting steel.
My father had been in this war, and my uncles: thirty-two of my family all told, including cousins. All had returned but one, though I was not told of him until many years later and then, for some reason, only offhandedly. I speculate now that I was able to read the war in people’s faces, as I had in the deceptively severe visage of my nurse. Certainly later in my childhood I was afforded the opportunity. I was privileged then to live for several years with Louis and Marie Mignon, he a poilu in the First War, both of them Resistance fighters in the Second. I found it more than magnificent that he was a member of something that was called … the Legion of Honor . Any lesson or communication that Thérèse had missed was taken up by him and by Marie. The war. The war. It was always the war.
They had watched as people they knew were burned alive in a church. They had hidden Jews in their attic. They had typed newspapers and carried explosives for the Resistance. They related these things in such a way that they brought me in, and then it was as if I, too, had been there. The trembling of the lips, the clenching of a fist, the hard breathing, the tears: These were the rivers upon which their story flowed with absolute authority.
I am biased, therefore, emotionally and by early experience. At every turn it was repeated and reinforced. Let me not forget, ever, Mrs. Drew, my sixth-grade teacher, and her daughter, who never knew her father because he was killed in the war. Mrs. Drew had moments, when in class we would come upon something in a text, a phrase or a line of poetry, past which she could not go on. Let me not forget her, or her husband, or those who lie under memorials, or are forever lost, who perished as they did, even if not willfully like saints and martyrs but, still, so that we might live.
The great wars and totalitarian purges, unprecedented and unmatched in human history, the cataclysms that pulled vast populations into them like leaves drawn into a flume, are the century’s center of gravity. This seems to me indisputable, for if we are nothing more than spirit loosely bound to flesh and blood, it is this that they took, and separated, and sent up in smoke. The lesson of this century must, therefore—or the century would be too incomprehensible and unjust—derive from their cause, their prosecution, and their effect.
I am confident that it does and that it is associated as well with like tragedies and catastrophes: the entrapment of hundreds of millions within nightmare political systems; the slow death of humane accommodation in things that steady disappearance of grace in art and graciousness in living; the “mechanization” of humankind in that the dominant ethos is no longer that the body is the mere carrier of the soul but that there is no soul and man is nothing more than a very fancy machine.
All these are interrelated, and they serve one master: man’s belief that he is the measure of all things; that by his engineering, war can be abolished, history ended, human happiness decreed. But if man believes that he is the master of his fate, he loses the subtlety and skill that allows him to accommodate, ameliorate, dodge, and adjust, and he concentrates instead on a vain struggle to direct what he cannot direct, shape what he cannot shape, and decree what he cannot decree.
A passion to decree animates not just vicious tyrants but the self-declared helpmates of humanity. Anyone who believes that a moral divide separates fascism and communism is simply dishonest about the body counts. Both tendencies are reflections of the same black light. Both see government not as an instrument for deftly channeling powerful forces that otherwise might be overwhelming but as the originator of forces that will remake the world.
Though this desire to transform the world—and it blooms in an infinite variety of wishes—has not been confined to our century, in our century more than in any other it has found its most costly expression. Science and reason have empowered it to do what it will, and in the everyday life of the West they have swept aside traditional religion, which, though sometimes stimulating the lust for transformation, mostly holds it in check by stipulating to man that he is not God and that therefore he cannot plan like God, judge like God, or act like God.
When religion seeks to transform the world—pressing for converts, conquering territory, ruling states, directing thought—it violates its essential principles and falls victim to the temptations it condemns. But now religion is marginalized. Modernism is the great religion of the world, having risen long ago and steadily conquered, and it dovetails seamlessly with the idea that man not only proposes but disposes, for it recognizes no limit to human power, admitting of nothing greater.
When the arrogance of a one-dimensional plan collides with the unfathomable complexity of a whole society or a single individual, that which is complicated and delicate is destroyed. We have barely recovered from the wounds dealt us by our many saviors, who believe one and all in the monstrous doctrine that it is their responsibility to repair the world. They have always done so by hammering it until it meets their liking, and sometimes they hammer it quite hard.
Better to live by the dictum “First, do no harm” and, when events require intervention, to temper all action with humility. The lesson of the century, then, is that, in the main, such humility has been absent. The lesson is that though man may think he is God and may try to act like God, he is not and he cannot. The lesson is that, until this is understood, the unprecedented misery, destruction, and war of the last one hundred years will continue past this eye of the hurricane in which we now live at the end of the century, and will be amplified no doubt by man’s ever-growing powers and clever capacity to bring down upon himself the wreckage of his own pride.