"MOST MEN," wrote Henry David Thoreau, "even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously course labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that." Beneath his countrymen's amusements, Thoreau saw "a stereotyped but unconscious despair which permitted no relaxation from the young nation's frenzied strivings."
Now, over a century later, with a continent conquered, plundered, and replundered, Americans continue to lurch fitfully through the confines of their pitifully lengthened lives. We no longer smile. Our institutional jesters fail to amuse us. When the President invades and bombs Cambodia we greet the announcement with a nervous giggle and call it an "incursion." And the women come and go, of course, talking of our recent "entry into Cambodia."
A traveler returning to America from a distant land, comments Philip E. Slater in The Pursuit of Loneliness, "is struck first of all by the grim monotony of American facial expressions-hard, surly, and bitter- and by the aura of deprivation that informs them. One goes abroad forewarned against exploitation by grasping foreigners, but nothing is done to prepare the returning traveler for the fanatical acquisitiveness of his compatriots. It is difficult to become reaccustomed to seeing people already weighted down with possessions acting as if every object they did not own were bread with held from a hungry mouth."
The visions of happiness which television offers us-men and women "running through fields, strolling on beaches, dancing and singing"-contrast with our own very sullen faces. Slater notices a gap between the commercial fantasies by which our lives are formed and the grim realities which are our lives.
"For some reason," he says of his concitoyens, "their fantasies are unrealizable and leave them disappointed and embittered."
The battle-lines for the seventies have been drawn; and the teams are about to be picked. The game, however, is more akin to elimination than it is to any team game, observes Slater. We are beginning to play it with deathly seriousness.
"When the world's most powerful nation behaves not with the restraint of a giant, but with the fierce pugnacity of a midget, the stage is set for atrocity," he writes.
Slater, chairman of the sociology department at Brandeis, views with increasing alarm the irrationally strong reactions we experience toward dissident "blacks, hippies, and student radicals." Contrasting "our intense fear of small and comparatively unarmed minorities" with the cheerful, schizoid blandness with which we greet the possibility of a nuclear holocaust or an ecological Armaggedon (or perhaps last night's neighborhood stabbing and the girl's annoying screams), he is very troubled about what sick things must be happening within ourselves.
Somehow, in the United States, our emotional programming has blown a very serious fuse. The "human emotionality" of the participants in our society has been strangely warped to bring such responses. A delicate balance has been upset.
"What is so severely lacking in our society that the assertion of an alternative life style throws so many Americans into panic and rage?" asks Slater. The warping may result from a frustration of deeply felt human needs by the unique framework of American culture:
The desire for COMMUNITY- the wish to live in trust and fraternal cooperation with one's fellows in a total and visible collective entity.
The desire for ENGAGEMENT-the wish to come directly to grips with social and interpersonal problems and to confront on equal terms an environment which is not composed of ego-extensions.
The desire for DEPENDENCE- the wish to share responsibility for the control of one's impulses and the direction of one's life.
HE CRITICIZES the indivious pushme-pullyou competitiveness of our economic system-and, as a result, the stifling individualism and aloofness each of us has felt. We are a nation of individuals, as Van Wyck Brooks observed, "cast inward upon our own insufficient selves." The uptightness is exacerbated by the disappearance of mitigating institutions, where we could take refuge from our terror- stricken aloneness. The extended family, the stable local neighborhood, where solace from this separateness and impersonality might have been found, are passing from the American scene.
It makes no difference, of course, whose kid comes up to which parent to announce that he has no cavities. Close relations, in a rigorously over- competitive society, are an anachronism. Technological change destroys these bonds in further ways, fracturing the relationships and community by which an individual once defined himself. Encounters with other individuals are abrasive and unsought.