Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Lears - No Place of Grace

Lears, T. J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

Methodology and Scope
As the title suggests, Lears discusses Antimodernism set against the modernizing events around the turn of the 20th century. He uses a lot of Freud to get at the psychology of the people he discusses, probing the anxieties that drove them to antimodernism. He also uses Gramsci to elevate the importance of his topic; "The shift from a Protestant to a therapeutic world view, which antimodern sentiments reinforced, marked a key transformation in the cultural hegemony of the dominant classes in America." (xv) Freud is mentioned often, Gramsci less so, while Weber is almost never mentioned but serves an equal importance conceptually for Lears. His "concept of the rationalization of Western culture - the drive for efficient control of outer and inner life" (xv) explains the system the antimodernists resisted and hoped to escape from.

Historiographical Aims (xvi-xvii)
1. Dispute the common argument that antimodernism was merely the final gasps of old-stock Northeastern elites, trying to hold back the tide of the new industrial society. On the contrary, this group maintained its wealth and prestige. The people discussed by the book were the children of NE elites. Their struggle, in fact, helped maintain and renew bourgeois values and ease the transition for old school peeps. Almost all of Lears' examples end with a demonstration of how the antimodernism of a certain individual was not destroyed but ultimately subsumed into the dominant cultural hegemony.
2. Lears argues that the therapeutic orientation (away from Christian protestantism) was not merely an affect of post-WWI disillusionment but rather had its roots in the antimodernists reaching back into the 1800s.

Antimodernism sprang from a psychic crisis in the period. The emerging bureaucratic systems of big business as well as the changing nature of labor and success led to a crisis of self for many individuals, feeling an existential "weightlessness" (a term often used by Lears) about their lives. The main figures Lears discusses were prominent enough to have a small yet significant effect on culture in their reactions to their own psychic crisis.

neurasthenia - A vague, all-encompassing diagnosis of the era steming from the anxieties related to societal changes. (47)
weightlessness - According to Nietzsche, the "weightless" period occurred as secularization leads to the loss of distinctive moral boundries, weakening emotional ties, and the undercutting of formerly certain principles and conduct. Humanity felt "weightless" because it lost its perception of the supernatural framework of meaning. (41)

Key antimodernist groups
Chapter 2 - Artisans, including Gustav Stickley, argued for an "arts and crafts" ideology, that the best way to make a living was a craft lifestyle. This was hypocritical because craft business owners participated in the modern capitalist economy to survive. It was impossible for craftsman to compete with factory-made goods. Such ideologues argued for the societal and aesthetic value of paying a higher price for a craft-made good, but to no avail. Lears notes the religious undertones, suggesting Arts and Crafts movement as a way to spiritual salvation.

Chapter 3 - Antimodernism also has an important connection to the martial ideal, typified by Teddy Roosevelt. The ultimate example of this can be found in Nazi Germany, and indeed, the American martial ideal also contained a strong racial strain. For examples, Lears offers NOT stories of men wandering off to fight in foreign wars, but rather cultural examples of literature that celebrated the martial ideal. Arthurian legends and medieval tales became popular.

Chapter 4 - Medievalism took things farther for antimodernists. They began to celebrate the childishness of the Medieval human. Japan was, until its own agressive modernization, seen as a "childlike" place where Medieval values remained.

Chapter 5 - Similarly, Catholic architecture was elevated as beautiful by many antimodernists. Also, a turn towards Anglo-Catholocism represented a similar search for and clinging to values perceived as old.

Key Antimodernists (Chapter 6 and 7)
William Sturgis Bigelow (1850-1926) - Son of a successful surgeon (brusque father) who felt the burden f parental and familial accomplishments. Eventually embraced Buddhism, but still maintained a restless spirit, wandering in Europe and Japan.
Van Wyck Brooks - Son of a failed speculator, semi-invalid, who worked as a clerk on Wall Street. Mother took him on tours of Europe. Yearned to be a successful writer, but couldn't put it all together. Early on sought aestheticism and withdrawal. Later attacked antimodernism out of a search for a stable adult life.
Henry Adams - Affected by successful family, death of his wife. Dove into his History and novels. Writing simultaneous expressed doubt in Christianity and attacked secularism.

Lears is a really good writer, and an insightful historian. Like Rebirth of a Nation, I found this one to be a slog. I think the way he organizes his paragraphs does not lend itself to quick reading. Still, it was worth the effort.

Must-read for Jason, and probably Adam. Lots of masculinity issues, tied to Freud. Not exactly religious history, but there is a lot of religion in this book.

Final Thought
Lears: Henry Adams and T.S. Eliot were both antimodern modernists - "resolving to search for faith even while accepting the knowledge which erodes it, resigning himself to the insoluble contradictions in his own psyche. This attitude, in its aversion to static systems, is a thoroughly "modern" one. But in a more profound sense, it is as old as the Biblical cry: "Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief." p.312 (End of the book)

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