A few years ago a college generation was profoundly moved by a novel by Albert Camus, L’Ētranger. It seemed to express the alienation of youth from society, an alienation that had its roots not in ideas and ideals, but, negatively, in a total lack of emotional and intellectual response to the conventional social structures. L’Ētranger is a parable. In the opening lines lies the clue to our condition. In the last few years there are new spokesmen for youth, but none who have responded to that clue.
In the August-September 1967 issue of the French magazine Preuves, K.A. Jelenski analyses the attitudes of a modern youth now influenced by Marshall McLuhan and Norman O. Brown. According to McLuhan, youth intuitively understands the new environment within which we live. They live it “mythically and in depth,” but “are instructed according to the methods of another age.” They are seeking a formula for this “visual age of imprint,” one that will recognize the mystique of participation in a “put-on” universe. Jelenski quotes John Cage as a “hero” of McLuhan whose ideas are representative of this generation. “The highest project is not to have a project.”
Norman O. Brown calls for a return to the pre-Oedipal state and the abolition of repression. He wants a revindication of the “id” and a condemnation of the “ego” since the latter is not natural to man and has been formed uniquely by the past. “The frontier between interior reality and exterior reality is artificial; it is nothing but the ramparts of the repressive personality.”
Jelenski claims that if we understand McLuhan and Brown we will better understand what youth wants today.
On comprend mieux alors l’esprit d’une jeunesse qui se réclame de ces idees, qui ont en commun le refus de l’histoire, la dénonciation de l’éxistence social telle que nous la connaissons, le desir d’abolir le sens d’identité, l’érotisme diffus, le nostalgie du mysticisme oriental ou du quiétisme chrétien. (Then one understands better the spirit of a youth that refers to these ideas, that have in common the refusal of history, the denunciation of social existence as we know it, the desire to abolish the sense of identity, diffuse eroticism, the nostalgia for oriental mysticism or for a Christian quietism.)
Unfortunately, this “spirit of youth” is fundamentally negative and destructive since it springs from the modern radical situation of the breakdown of unity. Historically there have been breakdowns in the beliefs of an age, in the organizing principles of a civilization; but never until recently the sophisticated, desperate and thorough attack on belief itself that is now paralyzing traditional structures of thought and action, communication and organization.
Due to our modern tendency to distrust form and to associate idealism with totalitarianism, at no time have we seen a greater failure of unity. Moreover, despite the attempt to equate freedom with formlessness, there is also a concomitant failure of freedom. This is because we no longer have a framework to which we can commit ourselves and within which we can act. The paradox of the loss of unity is that the emphasis is more and more on the search for freedom—for a total freedom, seen only in terms of the destruction of all boundaries, definitions, limitations.
The picture presented by the modern world is one of explosive liberation from the traditional controls of nature and society. We are essentially free from all tyrannies. But our confusion, hesitation, purposelessness mark us not as free men, but as slaves. Freedom has ironically set up its own unique categories of limitation more profound and disturbing than those from which we have struggled to free ourselves. The Crowd, the Monoculture, on the one hand, and the Alienated Individual on the other, are manifestations of this new tyranny. We experience the essence of absurdity: i.e., a condition inversed so as to become its own contradiction—freedom itself as a kind of framework. This inverts our perspective so that we tend to discover absurdity in life, nature, the external world, rather than in our own position. It accounts for our confusion when we are confronted simultaneously by alienation and conformity, chaos and superorder. It accounts for the strong appeal of the philosophies and attitudes of absurdity that have resulted from attempts to reason from this inverted perspective. The consequences are most tragic on the level of youth. While we have been driven to “embrace our paradox.” to exist within our “free society,” carrying on our “piecemeal engineering” and making our compromise decisions, young people are reacting blindly, explosively and intensely. They are reacting to a world condition without any significant basis from which they can understand, condemn and correct that condition.
Science, the machine, the industrial revolution have to a great extent destroyed not only the fundamental context, but also the content of tradition: the architecture, manners, ceremonies, crafts, that took centuries to develop. There has been a sacrifice of the wisdom of the hand for the productivity of the machine. The natural environment has been exchanged for an artificial one. Youth has never experienced this traditional cultural context and content except in fragments. Feeling the painful and confusing effects of the fragmentation without being able to understand or define the values of civilization, they seek to destroy the last of tradition as irrelevant to their lives. Fragmentation thus acquires a “logic.” That which has been happening erratically, sporadically and spontaneously now is given a myth. The mechanical age is brought to its logical climax by the defeat of everything human and civilized. What is left of reason is made to serve irrationality. A Marshall McLuhan who speaks for the machine becomes the prophet—a prophet of discontinuities—along with Norman O. Brown who speaks for the naked dehumanized psyche—also a prophet of discontinuities.
The obscure depths of the “id” are all that remains to man in a mechanical, denaturalized environment once he recognizes that environment as necessary and irreversible. He retreats from intellect to what he considers his primeval responses and his most authentic self. He seeks within what he can no longer discover in the external world. But these responses are also artificially evoked and developed.
Jelenski’s ideas characterizing L’Esprit de la jeunesse can be interpreted as follows:
1. The refusal of history
The architecture of our institutions and character of course lies within history. The historical process is intimately tied up with western civilization. Youth understands that the link between cause and effect and the historical raison d’etre of power structures must be broken in order to give freedom from the past. And yet there can be no escape if they continue to accept the same antitheses of self to society, freedom to security, unity to complexity that have brought us to this impasse.
2. The denunciation of social existence
Youth feels the effects of the breakdown of individual, family and community relationships. Lacking the experience of stable institutions and therefore emotionally uncommitted to these, youth tends to condemn society itself, rather than those factors leading to its disintegration.
3. The desire to abolish the sense of identity
Since society no longer provides youth with an adequate identity, the tendency is to refuse identity altogether. The sense of the undefined, isolated yet intensely conscious self is so painful that youth seeks to lose itself within some wider mystical experience such as drugs or Indian philosophy, both nihilistic rather than authentic communal experiences.
4. Diffuse eroticism
Norman O. brown’s books are examples of the attempt to apply a difficult, complicated (because expressed on the level of a highly sophisticated intellectuality) but basically negative and destructive solution to a simple and primary lack. The lack is that of adequate satisfactions during childhood due to the failure of modern parents to recognize and devote themselves to the needs of their offspring. Instead they substitute a bewildered permissiveness. Due to the very “individualism” of our culture there is no true commitment to the individual.
However, no amount of eroticism, “diffuse” or concentrated, private or social (such as Marcuse has suggested) can adequately supply at the adult level an essential need frustrated at the infantile one. Paradoxically enough, if these early needs are satisfied, social disciplines, repressions, sublimations and tensions actually tend to enhance the eroticism. For instance, Latin culture is not free. It has put great value upon chastity, elevating the spiritual role of woman—but at the same time it is deeply erotic. One senses this eroticism permeating every relationship within society. This is due to the early tender relationship of the child with his mother in particular, the tenderness within the family, the interest shown in children—combined with the clearly defined and disciplined roles of the sexes.
Sexual “freedom” only defeats its supposed end of satisfying the adult. The normal adult must live within a framework of disciplines and tensions, of planned goals and rewards. These adult needs are as important and legitimate as those of tenderness and security. But the adult can only commit himself to them and support them if he has been “released” for social and self-control by the fulfillment of childhood needs. The failure of the family and society to give a value and a framework to the child leads to an adult continually seeking infantile gratifications and rebelling against the requirements of adult life.
It is only natural that today’s deprived youth has no real understanding of the nature of their deprivation and that they have no perspective from which they can regard the whole person in terms of his movement from infancy to old age. They cling to adolescence and their peer group. They condemn the family because they have known only the consequences of a disintegrating family—and a mother and father confused about their proper roles.
5. Nostalgia for oriental mysticism
This is the project of cultivating nothingness. It gives youth a mystique de participation, a sense both of denial and acceptance—of reconciling the one with the many. Oriental mysticism is a turning inward, away from the external world—a rejection of a difficult, hostile, disconnected reality and the evocation of inner experiences. Its attraction is ultimately due to a basic alienation from nature and, following that, a breakdown of family, community and religion. Life in the impersonal modern city, industrialism, the machine, consumer society have destroyed man’s sense of belonging to the world.
What is significant about this esprit de la jeunesse is that there is no real sign of revolt against the initial causes of alienation. Rather, the contrary is true. An attempt is made to adjust to these causes on an infantile level. As Jelenski puts it in describing the popularity of the works of Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), the struggle is seen in terms of “un revindication de l’innocence et de la spontanéité contre les structures socials du pouvoir” (a call for innocence and spontaneity against the social power structures). Activism in the United States, and youth’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement, have these same aspects.
What kind of community could one expect to emerge from this esprit de la jeunesse? In an important sense Western civilization can be said to have been built upon the principles of antithesis and alienation, the substitution of an artificial world for a natural one. The Christian Fathers, the hermits of the fourth century, were followed into the desert by hordes of people seeking God. They were faced with the dilemma of establishing a community on the tenets of an anti-community—of alienation from society and self-communion as a basis for organization.
Christianity represented the adjustment of society to a created world of the spirit, to the City of God, rather than to nature. But the Catholic Church survived as an architecture because of its genius for joining two worlds, the eternal and the temporal. Saint Augustine reconciled Plato with Freud, reason with the emotions, the State with the Heavenly City. Saint Thomas of Acquinas reconciled logic with mysticism, God with the machine. As is evidenced by the dual popularity of McLuhan and Brown (pop culture, mysticism, eroticism), youth is trying to reconcile the “electronic” environment with primitive impulses, the machine with the “id,” the acceptance of mass society by individual escape.
Henry Adams in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres saw the medieval period as an “age of unity” (as opposed to the modern “age of complexity”) when the Catholic Church had reached a climax of influence and organization. His analysis revealed the crucial fact that its success lay primarily in the concept of the Virgin Mary. This idea of the Mother enabled the Church to establish its ties with nature—the natural in man and in the external world—and therefore to ensure its strength. Wherever this idea of the Mother and her necessary relationship to the Father has been strong, as in Latin countries, the family and tradition, the natural wisdom of hand and mind, have survived. Society has resisted the machine and its fragmentation.
The Protestant Revolt removed the role of Mary and made the scientific revolution possible. Machine society cannot operate without the destruction of the woman—of the natural—and the release of reason to serve the mechanical. As Adams put it, the conflict lay between the “Virgin and the dynamo.” Now, with the “liberalization” of the Catholic Church and the movement towards a final equation of male-female, there is no further halt to mechanization. According to Jacques Ellul the individual can no longer halt the process. The machine is self-perpetuating, casting man in its own image. The only hope lay in the “Mother.”
“Aujourd’hui maman est morte” (Today mother is dead)—those crucial opening lines of Camus’ L’Ētranger—is a statement of fact, both personal and immediate, universal and historical. Youth couldn’t care less since they don’t see the connection between that death and their alienation. God is dead today because Mary is dead. This all has its origin in the time of the Greeks when Gaia, the Earth, was sacrificed for Odysseus—who was, in effect, Ouranos, the god of the boundary in the guise of the wanderer.
Modern man has rejected the notion of a cosmos governed by a unifying principle. By so doing, he has denied the cosmos itself. Actually, he lives today in the condition that the Greeks named “ouranos,” the boundary, the area of change and becoming. He is freed from his relationship with the natural world and possesses no external framework by which to measure or define himself. Youth, desperately needing unity and lacking the guidance of the older generation, cannot be blamed for following anti-heroes and false prophets; for attempting to destroy the final distinctions between natural and artificial, male and female, form and freedom.
A slightly abbreviated version of this article (translated into French) was printed in the June-July 1968 issue of the French journal Preuves