AmericaThe Pursuit of Loneliness
THE PURSUIT OF LONELINESS: American Culture at the Breaking Point,
"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.
It is easy to produce examples of the very ways in which Americans attempt to minimize, circumvent, or deny the interdependence upon which all human societies are based. We seek a private house, a private means of transportation, a private garden, a private laundry, self-service stores, and do-it-yourself skills of every kind. An enormous technology seems to have set itself the task of making it unnecessary for one human being ever to ask anything of another in the course of going about his daily business. Even within the family Americans are unique in their feeling that each member should have a separate room, and even a separate telephone, television, and car, where economically possible. We seek more and more privacy, and feel more and more alienated and lonely when we get it. What accidental contacts we do have, furthermore, seem more intrusive, not only because they are unconnected with any familiar pattern of interdependence.
Our society has few common goals. "Our encounters with others tend increasingly to be competitive as a result of the search for privacy." Contacts with one another have so degenerated that, if they occur, they tend to be abrasive, and we meet our fellow being not to share and exchange but encounter him as an impediment or nuisance-"making the highway crowded when we are rushing somewhere, cluttering and littering the beach or park or wood, pushing in front of us at the supermarket, taking the last parking place, polluting our air and water, building a highway through our house, blocking our view."
And, because our contacts with our compatriots are so abrasive, we seek more apartness and join a vast competitive struggle to be unusual. We search for rarer and more expensive symbols by which we can announce our uniqueness. But, as Slater says, this quest to be individual is increasingly futile since individualism itself is to blame, producing a strangely disquieted uniformity of symbol-consumers.
Slater goes on to describe the escape into the suburbs and the do-it-yourself movement as attempts "to deny human interdependence and pursue unrealistic fancies of self-sufficiency."
His argument demolishes any notion that we possess a well-knit social fabric. His fears are much the same as Fromm's in Escape from Freedom. His solution to our dangerous discontents- calling for a reintegration of ourselves into a community-is remarkably similar. Slater criticizes our compulsive inability to confront important issues and chronic social problems. He notes wittily that our approach to transportation problems has had the effect of making it easier to travel to more and more places that have become less and less worth diriving to-that is, if one can afford the luxury of a private automobile.
Our solutions make a noticeable effort to avoid the problems they purportedly seek to solve. Americans, supposedly a very pragmatic people, naively continue to hope "that our transportation crisis will be solved by a bigger plane or a wider road, mental illness with a pill, poverty with a law, slums with a bulldozer, urban conflict with a gas, racism with a goodwill gesture."
Slater is harsh with our half-hearted attempts at solution:
The avoiding tendency lies at the very root of American character. This nation was settled and continuously repopulated by people who were not personally successful in confronting the social conditions of their mother country, but fled these conditions in the hope of a better life. This series of choices (reproduced in the westward movement) provided a complex selection process- repopulating America disproportionately with a certain kind of person.
FROM THIS follows Slater's description of a major rule in our lives-the Toilet Assumption. The Toilet Assumption is "the notion that unwanted matter, unwanted difficulties and obstacles will disappear if they are removed from our immediate field of vision." Our approach to social problems, he says, is to decrease their visibility. Thus, we see the populace angered at press and mass media for keeping unwanted difficulties in front of us.
The Toilet Assumption, however, frequently bogs down in jaded theories about Vietnam (napalm and saturation bombing, of course, are simply brutal forms of the Toilet Assumption), discussions about various forms of child-rearing, and theories of the generational combat between old culture and new culture. He unfairly sets up David Riesman (circa 1954) as an apologist for the demented individualism.
He discusses the oppression of women, noting the chauvinist ideas of Dr. Benjamin Spock. The suburban American woman, Slater says, is imprisoned in the emotional and intellectual poverty of the housewife's role.
The idea of imprisoning each woman alone in a small, self-contained, and architecturally isolating dwelling is a modern invention, dependent upon an advanced technology. In Moslem societies, for example, the wife may be a prisoner but she is at least not in solitary confinement. In our society the housewife may move about freely, but since she has nowhere to go and is not part of anything anyway her prison needs no walls.
ON THE STATUS of the suburban housewife, Slater is brilliant. When the society demands-and Dr. Spock declares-that the mother become the primary child-rearing instrument, her sexuality must be muted. The American housewife, Slater writes, has become thoroughly desexualized. In most societies, a woman does not become full-fledged sexual being until she is married. In America, the erotic standard is based upon mindless nymphets and (does the term betray the childlessness of our preoccupations?) glossy playmates.
"Stylistically, it is only young unmarried girls who are allowed to be entirely female," says Slater. "Their appearance is given strong sexual emphasis even before there is anything to emphasize, but as soon as they are married they are expected to mute their sexuality somewhat, and when they become mothers this neutralization is carried even further."
He notes the appearance, the hard and rectangular hair and clothing styles, the "bluff, hearty, and sarcastic conversational style" of suburban house-wives and suggests that, cheated of a career by the male-dominated standards around them, these women express their "masculinity" (society's primary calling-card to success and self-fulfillment) in the only form left to them.
Throughout The Pursuit of Loneliness, in a wildly subjective manner, Slater delivers compelling conclusion upon conclusion. His criticisms reach all portions of American society, digging deep into the dark crevasses where the Toilet Assumption has attempted to hide significant and pressing problems. Many revelations, following what we have often felt but never considered deeply or cogently expressed, appear excessively simple upon investigation.
For example, in order to feed its own economic gain, Madison Avenue has sought "to maximize sexual stimulation and minimize sexual availability," so that an infinite supply of consumer products can be inserted in the resulting gap. The basis for this assumption is flimsy at best. He offers no evidence. The direction of his prose attempts to push us along, quietly nodding, into the next gaggle of generalizations.
When the young, who grew up not in a scarcity-oriented environment but one of affluence, remove society's artificial restraints upon sexual availability, Slater says, the stage is set for their refusal to fall for the pseudo-erotic lures of the commercial culture. And another conclusion slips by.
Slater, who fears the gnawing individualism of American life, cautions against the disordering influence of anarchic "do-your-own-thingism" upon America's counter-culture. A sense of firm community and individual involvement within that community-requiring social compliance and shared responsibility-is essential to Slater's solution. The individual must reintegrate himself into his environment before he becomes totally estranged from his fellows and himself.
Slater's desire, of course, differs considerably from Thoreau's demand for more individual autonomy based upon the dictates of his own personal different drummer.
"The only obstacle to utopia," he notes, "is the persistence of the competitive motivational patterns that past scarcity assumptions have spawned. Nothing stands in our way except our invidious dreams of personal glory. Our horror of group coercion reflects our reluctance to relinquish these dreams, although they have brought us nothing but misery, discontent, hatred, and chaos. If we can overcome this horror, however, and mute this vanity, we may again be able to take up our original utopian task."
The Pursuit of Loneliness, frequently imaginative in its observations, often weak in its catch-all subjectivity, is nonetheless a vivid critique of a society increasingly reckless in its push toward lonely self- destruction.