My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that a man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth, and his alert acceptance of it from whatever quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his relations to society, his Christianity, his world, may at any time be superseded and decease.
—Emerson, “Circles” (1841)
I’m filled with the sadness that afflicted the Roman patricians of the fourth century: I feel irredeemable barbarism rising from the bowels of the earth.
—Flaubert to Turgenev (1872)
Robert Pogue Harrison has been called “the single most significant writer in the humanities today,” the heir to Erich Auerbach. His new book is a relatively short (150-page) essay in cultural interpretation. Juvenescence has a profound but simple thesis, which can be arranged in three parts:
1. Humans are the only animals whose age is complicated by our being born into culture, a set of institutions that reach back behind our birth and out beyond our death; thus, our age is not simply biological but cultural.
2. Cultural renewal comes about by synthesizing the brash ambition of youth (which Harrison calls “genius”) with the custodial stewardship of age (which Harrison calls “wisdom”), so that every genuine renewal—a “neotenic revolution” in Harrison’s vocabulary—preserves the past by revivifying it and making it live anew. Juvenescence, or the strong capacity for neotenic revolution, may be the hallmark of the modern period, beginning with Dante’s reinvention of the Classical past.
3. The current period (Harrison dates it to the end of World War II) makes neotenic revolution difficult or impossible to achieve because it deracinates the young from the past, even though youth’s transformation of tradition is all that can bring about a viable future. Today, the past is blocked from consciousness by the buzz and hum of a coercive techno-culture that interrupts the youth’s inner dialogue with the dead by constantly thrusting the flashily (and merely) new into the budding mind. In distinction to juvenescence, Harrison labels our cultural death-by-techology “juvenilization,” which paradoxically makes us senile, or unable to recall our history.
Harrison’s method is an old-fashioned one, hence the Auerbach comparison: he seeks to understand our world not by running empirical studies or quoting the latest authorities, but by critically interpreting the philosophical and literary tradition. Much of his essay’s argument proceeds from a bravura reading of the chorus’s Ode on Man in Sophocles’s Antigone. The poles of this ambiguous ode—which pictures the human being both as unparalleled adventurer and as shipwreck waiting to happen—provides Harrison with his own ambivalent vision of human neoteny as creator and destroyer of culture.
Harrison is guided in his speculations by the 18th-century Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico, whose cyclical theory of culture structures Harrison’s own theory of how wisdom and genius interact to remake the “world,” or the institutional framework that gives individual life its meaning and value. Harrison’s method is humanistic, and his book is a defense of the humanities. Writing from Stanford, perhaps the capital of contemporary American society’s techno-corruption, Harrison insists that culture requires strenuous engagement with its own past if it is to have a future. His tone throughout is gentle, but his polemic against the disruptors of techno-commercialism comes through clearly.
Harrison’s defense of humanism against scientism licenses a poetic rather than expository writing style; among the poets and sages he quotes, he is clearly most indebted to Emerson as a lyrical panegyrist to human capacity within limitation:
A nation can build for the future, invest in the future, and undertake industrial, social, or technological projects for the future, yet if it does not find ways to metabolize its past, it remains without genuine prospects. That means that its youth remains largely stagnant, culturally speaking. The greatness of Western civilization, for all its disfiguring vices, consists in the fact that it has repeatedly found ways to regenerate itself by returning to, or fetching from, its nascent sources. The creative synergy between Western wisdom and Western genius has always taken the form of projective retrieval—of birthing the new from the womb of antecedence. Thus retrieval, in this radical sense, has little to do with revival and everything to do with revitalization.
Note how Harrison stylistically performs his own thesis by embedding the business cliche “creative synergy” within a much longer history, without which the west’s own reckless impetuosity, signaled by the dire MBA-phrase, would be difficult to comprehend. Harrison’s revenge upon his polemical enemies is, in the classic way of philosophy, to circumscribe them within his own larger consciousness. As David W. Price writes in the review linked in my first sentence, “Harrison has written a book that enacts what it describes, one which boldly explores new ideas through revitalizing the past.”
The centerpiece of Juvenescence is a set of case studies demonstrating how cultural renewal has happened throughout western history. The four examples are 1. Plato’s founding of philosophy, which he accomplishes by arrogating the pre-philosophical mythical conception of the world to philosophy’s own origin, thus giving philosophy an origin more ancient than the paganism it displaces; 2. the rise of Christianity, a movement, beginning with Paul’s own efforts, that incorporates and subsumes three prior traditions—Judaism, Greco-Roman religion, and Greek philosophy; 3. the European Enlightenment, in which humanity becomes young by freeing itself from tradition even as it comes of age by learning to think for itself; 4. the inception of the United States and its democratic renewal with the Civil War, the first of which events created a totally novel polity by encoding a mature mistrust of youthful impetuosity into the balance-of-power founding documents, and the second of which renewed that polity by stressing that the founding documents, to remain relevant, would have to endure the contestation of their meaning through bloody human struggle. This chapter on neotenic revolutions is the most compelling in the book, and its concluding praise for the American experiment could not be more relevant.
Harrison ends his book somewhat optimistically, by imagining a future when adults, even if techno-barbarism has robbed them in younger years of a humanistic education, go back to school to renew their youth by discovering the wisdom of the ages. That seems too cheery to me—some in gated communities may do so, but what is it to those outside the gate? His pessimism, however he mutes it, speaks more clearly to my own experience. I have tried to embody both his optimism and his pessimism in the dueling epigraphs to this review; let me conclude by quoting a pessimistic passage at length, to give the devil (or Flaubert) his due. In the following paragraphs, Harrison looks back to dark-age discontinuities in culture, and implies that our own juvenilization is leading us to such a chasm:
These recurring ruptures in the cultural continuum—ruptures that bring about “dark ages” of destitution, oblivion, and institutional collapse—seem frequent enough to lend at least allegorical credence to Plato’s parable about heavenly declinations. Today we have the privilege of seeing this volcanic process at work up close, in Technicolor, as it were, as the entire Christian-humanist civilization that slowly consolidated itself in the wake of Rome’s collapse unravels before our eyes. It was said of President James Garfield that in moments of boredom or to amuse his friends he would take a pencil in each hand and compose sentences in Greek and Latin at the same time. If one considers that, as a student, Thomas Jefferson used to translate the Greek Bible into Latin, and vice versa, one realizes to what extent the “heavenly declinations” have unleashed their fury upon the American political class of late. It was not so long ago that a university professor in the classroom would typically leave Greek and Latin quotes untranslated. Then he began to provide translations for the Greek but not the Latin. Nowadays he must tell students that there were once such things as the Greek and Latin tongues, that there was once a place called Athens, and so forth. Shortly the professor won’t know even that much. Or he’ll know it, in a way, but not what to make of it, and when you don’t know what to make of something you eventually forget about it.
Why these periodic ruptures in the cultural continuum? In the Timaeus Plato attributes Greek rejuvenilization to heavenly declinations, yet we should keep in mind that civilizations are brought down not only by external enemies or natural forces but sometimes collapse from within, by virtue of their own heaviness. Our age shows that a loss of cultural memory can come about despite—or maybe even because of—an excessive remembering and cataloguing of the past. The more historical knowledge we accumulate—the more we overload the vast data banks of our digital memory with information about the past—the more its essential legacies slip through the cracks of our living memory. We should also bear in mind that the more our cultural memory begins to crack, the more vulnerable we become to heavenly declinations, that is, to nature’s fluctuations and eruptions. Youth has several virtues, yet providing for the future is not one of them.
One way to prevent such regression is to write and to read books such as Juvenescence.