Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Why did we get Bourne?

I've been posting a bit lately on an American intellectual by the name of Randolph Bourne. He is "special" in the sense that he was the prototype (as far back as 1916) of the artsy left-liberal so familiar to us today.

The writer at Happy Acres put it well in a post of his own, that in Bourne's writings:
It’s already there: boundless resentment, alienation, the loathing of Old America, valorization of The Exotic Other, etc.

I was curious to find out more about this man. I've been able to read a few chapters of a book about Bourne, and here are a few things to note.

First, Bourne was influenced by a variety of thinkers:
Add to his praise of Dewey and Dreiser, his earlier and sustained passion for Tolstoy, Nietzsche, William and Henry James, Shaw and Wells and one sees the making of a modern mind.

Bourne seems to have had the view that an older bourgeois moral sentimentalism should give way to the deliberate restructuring of society along more scientific lines. He was a "presentist" in the sense that he wanted to break with the past to do this; a "pragmatist" in the sense that he wanted to justify this reform according to what could be held to be useful; a vitalist nihilist in seeking out vibrant life experiences; and someone who thought of the pagan in positive terms.

This makes it sound as if he had a plan, but the truth is that he felt cut adrift. He had that intellectual personality which feels estranged from ordinary society. For instance, he could hardly abide by the people of his hometown or his own family:
I am constantly confounded there by the immeasurable gulf between my outlook and theirs and I feel a constant criticism of my futile high-browism and Godless pursuit of strange philosophers. My young sister is almost a passionate vulgarian and takes with really virtuous indignation any deviation from the norm of popular music, the movies, Chamber's novels, Billy Sunday, musical comedy, tennis, anti-suffragism, and the rest of the combination that makes up the healthy, hearty, happy young normal person of the well-brought up family of the day of the middle-middle-class. I find her an index to current America, but we scarcely get along.

That's hardly an uncommon experience for intellectual types. The problem is that Bourne didn't connect with an alternative. Early in WWI he complained that he lacked "a stable and satisfying way of living."

It's possible, I think, that the older liberalism might be partly to blame here. The older liberalism preached a kind of neutrality, according to which we either cannot know the good or that it is impossible to obtain agreement as to the good, and that therefore the guiding principle should be a willingness to allow the good to be individually self-defined and to respect each person's right to do the same.

You can see the predicament that this left Bourne's generation of intellectuals in. If a society doesn't have a sense of a higher truth that it takes to be objectively grounded in reality, then it becomes more likely that social values will be dismissed as private, individual and sentimental ones, rather than objective and profound, and it becomes difficult to uphold a higher tradition in which the intellectual class can obtain its moorings.

What was left to Bourne? He was still open to the idea of the importance of national cultures and identity for other peoples, but not for his own - so that was not there to sustain him. He had rejected his own religious tradition in favour of a vitalist paganism (prefiguring D.H. Lawrence). He did yearn for a woman who combined "high seriousness about personal relations" with "the sensuous" but he found it difficult to meet such a woman. In part, this was because of his own physical disfigurement, but also because the progressive women he mixed with in Greenwich Village had become by 1910 radically feminist and hostile to men. He himself supported feminism as a "vital idea" but he wrote articles criticising the women he knew who saw all men, including feminist men like himself, as the enemy.

The anchor that men like Bourne found was to think of themselves as members of a special caste in society, an avant-garde destined to be unappreciated in their own times, but harbingers of the future, reformed social order.

So how does a society avoid the Bourne mentality from catching on, as it has in the West?

First, a John Stuart Mill, define-your-own-good system isn't adequate. Intellectuals can't find the good in everyday life (as Bourne's young sister was able to do). Nor can they be expected to raise a serious tradition from scratch individually as adolescents and young men. There needs to be a serious tradition within which the higher values of society are transmitted from generation to generation.

Second, it is important that these goods are thought of as great and expansive, rather than narrow, stagnant and limiting. Intellectuals have a sense of the creative spirit in life, in which there is a creative unfolding of personality and a shaping of the social environment. Intellectuals are inclined to worry that if there is a communal identity it will be so closely defined that rather than inspiring the personality to higher loves and commitments, that it will close off avenues for development. Similarly, they worry that a masculine essence might only be expressed in one rudimentary fashion, rather than representing a questing spirit that raises and challenges the character and the ambitions of individual men.

It is up to each generation to so impart these goods that they retain a sense of greatness, and so inspire a sense of connection to an ongoing tradition.

A society should therefore take care with those institutions charged with transmitting such a higher culture: the schools, the universities and the churches, as well as the various branches of the arts.

Finally, it is normal for class or caste identities to arise in society, but these should be subsets of a larger communal identity that joins classes or castes together, rather than being set in opposition to, or as a substitute for, such a larger identity.


  1. Bourne sets himself apart and above other cultures. He is the consumer of other cultures, and other cultures are servants and providers to his intellectual, emotional, cultural and other needs. Other cultures are providers of intellectual diversity and Bourne is the great selector, separator and combiner of other cultures' aspects to whatever whole he wishes. Hence in Bourne's identity is a hidden superiority and dominance. Bourne enjoys that he can ostensibly value, protect and support other cultures, and people of other cultures appreciate and accept it, but at the same time they unnoticingly accept their own inferior position and Bourne's superior position. Bourne's ideology is a wily Trojan horse, a hidden tool of dominance, which ensures that other people want and seek their own inferiority, and are blind to dominance and don't challenge it. Dominance becomes permanent, stable, self-arranging, and tenacious. This has been the wish of power holders throughout ages, but only rare persons have been cunning enough to know how to do it.

    This wears people like Bourne and their liberal culture in the long run, but in the short run it is enticing.

    1. Valkea, that's very interesting. Even in enthusiastically consuming the other culture, there is a diminishing of it - in what it exists for, in what the centre point is, in its point of distinction with other cultures.

    2. Indeed. It reminds me a lot of how there is now "Western Buddhism". Basically, liberals felt like Buddhism was a cool exotic status marker, but then noticed that it conflicted in some ways with liberal though. So they simply eliminated those things (via rationalization) and came up with a synthesis that didn't challenge their desires.

  2. Tolstoy ... well there is the problem right there.

    While Tolstoy was arguably the superior artist, Dostoevsky was certainly the superior thinker, and had no issues being creatively intellectual within a very defined tradition (and defending that tradition, intellectually, through art).

    It's no coincidence that one of Tolstoy's books was presented in Oprah's book club, while none of Dostoevsky's were.

    More broadly, the intellectual class is of course quite capable of being assertive of a specific tradition. The problem with the Anglo intellectual class was specifically in its snobbery. A traditionalist intellectual does not see the low-brows of his own tradition in a snobbish way, and doesn't portray them as such in his art (if a writer, etc.). The snobbishness of the typical contemporary intellectual is perhaps his defining characteristic, and one that makes him reluctant to embrace any culture which would claim his as its own, precisely because such culture is, inevitably, at the very least largely influenced by its own low-brows.

    The trick is finding grace in the low and middle brow culture of one's own tradition -- which is what someone like Dostoevsky did to some degree -- while at the same time not using that to foment a class war against the high-brow of the culture. It's a work of seeing everything in its cultural perspective. But it's hardly ever done today, even though most literature today is written about mundane people rather than the elites. It's still written with an axe to grind against the perceived downsides of the ambient culture in its low-brow manifestation.

    1. "A traditionalist intellectual does not see the low-brows of his own tradition in a snobbish way, and doesn't portray them as such in his art (if a writer, etc.)."

      That is certainly true of Wordsworth.

      You've raised a very good point Novaseeker. In some ways I'm an intellectual type myself, so to some degree I "get" Bourne. For instance, when I turn on commercial pop radio I'm often surprised by how low-brow it is - it's like another world to me. Nor did I really fit in with the "jock" types at school (though I'm grateful that the environment at the school was a rigorously masculine one).

      But I still found things to love both within the ordinary mainstream of my national culture as well as in its higher cultural achievements. If I went into little Australian country towns there would be a distinct atmosphere and flavour of life that drew me in and inspired me to a sense of wanting to contribute to an ongoing tradition. I recognised too the cultural achievement of the suburbs and my debt to earlier men who had created it.

      But Bourne was cut off from this. Novaseeker, you blame snobbishness and that's a fair call as it is not difficult to recognise this in modern intellectual types. But that raises a question of why snobbishness should have become so widespread and what we might do to combat it.

    2. I am curious as to what is objectionable about Tolstoy. I have only read half a dozen of his shorter works.

  3. Reminds me a lot of:

    1. Asdf, in particular there is evidence of vitalist nihilism in Bourne. What mattered was how "vital" something was. He called feminism a "vital" idea and he said of a young woman he had been interested in that she was "the only Pagan and passionate thing that ever crossed my horizon".

    2. Well, the whole path. As you said,

      "It's possible, I think, that the older liberalism might be partly to blame here. The older liberalism preached a kind of neutrality, according to which we either cannot know the good or that it is impossible to obtain agreement as to the good, and that therefore the guiding principle should be a willingness to allow the good to be individually self-defined and to respect each person's right to do the same."

      Stage 1: Relativity, Doubt, Subjective Truth

      After that it becomes a mix of stale materialism and vitalist response based on the pragmatic issue at hand. As Bruce C said, Doubt in Philosophy, Materialism at Work, Vitalism on Weekend or Holiday.

  4. Excellent find, Mark. And excellent comments to go with it.

    My only humble comment would be that Bourne, as a man, has no higher calling than his intellectual pursuits; he is a cultural narcissist. Without the higher power to guide him, everything is robbed of its spiritual meaning. Nothing will ever be good enough for him because his vanity is unbounded.

    I really thought the nihilistic materialism so prevalent nowadays had its genesis in the horrors of WWI. It seems the metamorphosis was well underway prior to that great catastrophe.

    1. What's interesting is that many of the military men that went into WWI thought it would have the opposite effect. That this kind of vapid intellectualism would seem so obviously emasculated and worthless on the battlefield. And perhaps that would have been true had the war not grinded on in trench warfare for years.

  5. This is a most worthwhile post - but in response to Jason may I suggest that it is not just cultural narcissism - but spiritual narcissism which together forms Secular Humanism where the problems lies. By worshiping Humanity we have made a new graven image - and it is only a mirror.

    We have to get back to the garden.

  6. "By worshiping Humanity we have made a new graven image - and it is only a mirror."
    Yes, indeed. Excellent point.

  7. This is an excellent post. Thank you for the work you do Mr. Richardson!

  8. Fred Siegel The Revolt Against The Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined The Middle Class

    He gets into Bourne quite a bit.