Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Lately rediscovered notes:

Henry Adams

I am ill-equipped to discuss history very much at all, but I do read it on occasion, and one of my favorite American writers, Henry Adams, was by trade a historian. During his lifetime, he was primarily known for the massive History of the United States Under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison -- considered something of a classic among those who have actually plumbed all 3,000 pages of it. Today, of course, Adams is known, if at all -- I suspect he isn’t any more a part of today’s American Lit curriculum than he was when I was in school -- for the two extraordinary works of intellectual biography he privately published in his declining years: Mont Saint Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams. One is positive, one is negative, and together they work like an electrical charge on the brain.

As old men will, Adams became increasingly self-introspective as he and the 19th Century he was born in reached old age. He -- and most of the people he knew -- seemed increasingly out-of-date, dwarfed by a period of progress both unmatched and unchecked. The Industrial Age bred not only change but a chaotic, fractured society -- one which had gone, as he put it time and again, from unity to multiplicity. History, which Adams had devoted his life to charting, suddenly seemed beyond his reach; it had become a “dynamic force” of such volatility that it required a physical scientist. In these books, Adams tries to trace the arc of history’s trajectory and his own role in it.

In the first, Adams visits the classic cathedrals of France to rediscover a 12th-Century world before the Enlightment or Darwin had played havoc with faith in God. Adams peers deeply not only into the sheer craft of these vast, meticulously rendered cathedrals -- the apse, the transept, the glass, the vaulting -- but the mind and world that produced them: the efforts of “man’s littleness to grasp the infinite.”

There’s an optimistic yearning in all this -- within the smooth, luminous writing there’s a prayerful desire for a time when, despite its limits, the vision of mankind could see beyond earthly boundaries. But the hopeful tone of this “Study in 12th Century Unity” gives way to bitterness in the Education, “A Study in 20th Century Multiplicity” that is one of the most eloquently sour books ever written -- a Boston Brahmin’s long and very jaded look back.

For one thing, the metaphor for infinity was different: the Virgin of the 12th Century had been replaced by the dynamo. Looking at the dynamo at the Exposition of 1900, Adams

began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring -- scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's-breadth further for respect of power -- while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.

Ultimately, Adams -- who pleads ignorance of just about everything all the way through the book -- posits the possibility that unity is multiplicity, since all matter is reducible to atoms and atoms may be nothing more than pure motion. Chaos is the only game going. History itself, rather than being a cause and effect sequence of events, begins to seem at the turn of the century to have assumed the nature of sheer force:

The motion of thought had the same value as the motion of a cannonball seen approaching the observer on a direct line through the air. One could watch its curve for five thousand years. Its first violent acceleration in historical times had ended in the catastrophe of 310. The next swerve of direction occurred towards 1500. Galileo and Bacon gave a still newer curve to it, which altered its values; but all these changes had never altered the continuity. Only in 1900, the continuity snapped.

Adams sees a modern world that has become a slave to its own progress: “Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid.”
Nearly a century later, it is hard to imagine a work that is more prescient.

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