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High Road to Heaven

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

“And who is to say that the average man, fleeing from musty churches and unhappy crowded halls to the open road where he can test the mettle of his fifty magic horses, has not chosen most surely the only way that is open for him today for the quenching of his soul’s inner needs?”

Thus Mr. Peter van Dresser closes an interesting essay, “The Only New Vice.” I wish that I could agree with his generally optimistic attitude. I am afraid, however, that the average man is jumping from the frying-pan into the fire; or, more accurately, the frying-pan figure being anachronistic, from vacancy to vacancy. I doubt if he has had a change of heart. I think that this new religion of the highway is the natural child of the old, puritanical Protestantism.

Apparently, it is something quite different. I know the kind of church the average man is fleeing from, for I was brought up in it and have beat a retreat myself. It is a religion of Sunday and the church: the day and the place. This new religion of the road—if one may be pardoned the apparent facetiousness—is a religion of the way and space. Services may be held whenever one speeds away, wherever one is. All time and space are potentially sacred. The older religion has apparently been changed for one far more present and pervasive.

But has it? In order to answer this question, we shall have to note the essential characteristics of the Christianity that has been for centuries the religion of the West. According to various students, Santayana and Spengler among them, Western religion for nearly a thousand years, though nominally Christian, has been in reality an expression of the Teutonic spirit essentially foreign to the spirit of Christ. It has been the religion of a young, self-confident people, who believed, first, in the universal significance of the individual; second, in the basic goodness and friendliness of the universe, however worthless the individual in himself or apparently hostile the world; third, in an immediate destiny of worldly power. What we call the Reformation was that moment in the history of this spirit when it became self-conscious and aware of the alien nature of many of the forms it had adopted from earlier Christianity, and sloughed these forms off. According to Spengler, this religion envisages man as “the Ego in the Infinite,” desperately conscious of dangers and blisses around him, and deeply moved by a “passion of the third dimension” to discover and control this infinite space. Its polar tension is the individual and the universe. When Protestantism therefore protested against many of the Catholic forms and puritanism purified the church, the Teutonic spirit was acting in accordance with its original genius.


What about this religion of the road? One may say, in general, that it continues the old process of purification; continues it indeed to the point of being in danger of purifying itself out of existence. It is puritanical, first, in its simplification of form. Nothing is needed but the streamlined car, the open road, and the driver. Since, in the Protestant belief, every man is his own priest, what is the good of church, choir, and ritual? Protestantism has continued its formal worship for four hundred years partly from habit, partly from failure to realize the implications of its theology. Now that time has made these implications clear, communal worship begins to appear impertinent. Communion with God is an individual matter. If a man chooses to worship at a moving altar, whose affair is it? Indeed, in fleeing from the efficient modern church, he is at least on the way to returning to God’s first temples, the groves, that existed before the Gothic cathedral and found in that form a brief though happy expression.

This religion is also puritanical in its simplification (by unification) of activity. Its followers worship in hours of leisure the god they serve in days of labor. This is the logical development of Teutonic Christianity. From the beginning, it has conceived of a god who gave to chosen individuals power over the things of this world; it has been a world-affirming, not a world-denying, religion. This is the reason that the Reformers took so many lessons from the Old Testament. Jesus saw their deity in the desert—by the way, his early home—and was offered by him the kingdoms of this world, but believing him to be an impostor refused the offer. Teutonic Christianity, however, fell down and worshiped, and arose and conquered. The extension of worldly control became a divine mission; in subduing the wicked world to themselves, these men subdued it to God. If they had read with understanding a certain passage from St. Paul—but St. Paul was really a Christian—they would have seen what was sure to happen. St. Paul said that he who ate meat offered to idols, believing it unclean, would be damned —or words to that effect. Or they could have found it in Shakespeare’s, “My nature is subdued to what it works in, like the dyer’s hand”; or even in the French, “Honi soit qui mal y pense.”

Largely as a balance to and respite from worldly activity, Teutonic Christianity insisted upon a sabbath of unworldly inactivity: sabbath saintliness against week-day worldliness. The religion of the road now discards this sabbath saintliness as of no positive value. This is an honest thing to do. Considering the fact that we believe the way to heaven leads, at long last, through a wickedly attractive earthly paradise, and that it is our duty to reform, each for himself, this paradise in passing, we have probably wasted time seeking road information at church. After all, conquering the world is a worldly job. You need facts. If the mechanic bending over his engine can release the necessary power, why turn aside to perform meaningless exercises? So men’s feelings have clarified themselves. Let us seek the god of power in the world where we need him. Why talk about another world on Sunday? This is evidently the world we mean.

But having purified this religion almost away, we continue, in a new fashion, in any spare hour—and now, I believe, with a note of desperation—the old sabbath flight from the world. Once we fled from weekly turmoil to sabbath vacancy. Now we flee towards spatial vacancy. Our usual means of flight, the automobile, itself exists, as Mr. van Dresser proves, in a sacred air. Our awe and admiration before new models, our affectionate care of our own car, our sense of its uncomprehended power, all suggest a mood beyond the practical. It is hard to say whether the car is the shrine of our god or the god himself. In both cases we are idolaters, for we worship either an object for its power or an unmoral god of power.

This unmoral religion of power is directly in the modern tradition. Calvin, for instance, insisted that God, the Universe, Nature—excluding man, whose innate worthlessness only becomes worthy, but then infinitely so, by divine grace— is good no matter how revolting its acts may appear. The seventeenth century, driven still by the power motive, came to see Nature as a machine; the machine, therefore, became Nature’s perfect expression, and as such a religious object. We lavish upon the machine a care we deny the body. To St. Paul the body was a temple; to us in our thoughtful moments it is a delicate machine.


This religion of the road, with its partial expression in the swift vehicle, has certain undoubted values. To a degree and after a fashion, it can give us freedom. As the car speeds up, the world drops away. Our careful life—and how carefull our life is!—falls from our shoulders. Through long hours we have sat at dead desks adding dead figures, the abstraction of money, that great abstraction. We have made standardized goods on standardized machines until our bodies have been standardized and our minds left swinging between mechanization and vagueness. We have sold these goods, in which we did not believe, to standardized people, whom we did not know. We have walked mechanically the treadmill of the hours, unable to discover there any road to life. No vistas opened into the world about us; none, consequently, opened within our minds, Actually and ideally, we were imprisoned. Back and forth, from one wall to the other, we went our routine way. We were spiritually dead or dying.

But now we seem to live again. A vista opens ahead, a way to follow; machine-made houses, factories, streets, the past itself, fall away behind. Driving is a sort of substitute for confession: we are, temporarily, relieved of the past; our lives, temporarily, redirected by the road. Life assumes meaning, begins to glow with a purpose so simple that the wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein. In the parlance of the early days of automobiling along unimproved roads, it is to “hit between the bushes,” to follow the fascinating vista ahead, to reach the curve or hilltop beckoning from the distance, and then to reach the next and the next. Life has become music, arousing desires only to satisfy them, and the curve or hilltop accomplished is the longed-for cadence.

As our speed increases, all vistas except one fade away, taking with them the little attractions of our leisure time, the thousand blind alleys of our vacant hours. Only enough of the racing world remains to sharpen the sense of life. Nearby fences, telephone poles, houses, edges of fields and woods, streaming outward and backward like feathers to our arrow, send us singing down to the horizon. We are on the high road to heaven.

Liddell Hart, writing of Lawrence of Anabia, says: “On his motorcycle he . . . found his best outlet from harassing thought and sense of futility: to him the sensation of speed was one that never palled, seeming to free the spirit from the bondage of human limitations.”

We may find in speed freedom not only from things but also from time. But before considering how this is possible, we shall have to pause briefly over a difficult problem, time itself. As Spengler insists, there seem to be two kinds, or aspects, of time: organic and inorganic, vital and mechanical, time as destiny and time as the necessary counter-concept to space. The first aspect of time relates to life, the second to death. Through time we gain life, through time we lose it. The days may yield either an increasing spirit-ualization of matter or an increasing materialization of spirit: life or death. Through the continual doing of those things that sustain the spirit—and important among these are the vital customs of our fathers—we come to feel time as vital, organic. The days are linked by living deeds. Having grown out of yesterday, we shall grow into tomorrow. The moments come when they must; we are always on time because we are in time, which is equally in us, the measure of our growth, the clock of our unfolding life. Time is destiny.

But we may know time as the measure of our death, the mechanical beat of our absorption into matter. He whose life is mechanical, whose actions have engaged his effort without satisfying his will, knows time as the ticking of the clock upon the wall: the clatter of boredom or the chatter of death. This, naturally but unfortunately, is the time that self-conscious modern man is most aware of: mechanical time, wearing away our bodies, and, as Proust has so elaborately shown, our spirits also. With consciousness of space arose consciousness of time. To the degree that we became conscious of time, it became something beyond us, not something within us. The modern world therefore invented the clock to tell time, and, as Lewis Mumford points out, thereby made time something to use. Now we can make time, save time, and kill time. All this, however, is mechanical time. He who finds meaning in life itself, significance in the sequence of the days, does not dream of either making or saving time. As soon think of making life. He makes a machine, but life unfolds. Nor does he strive to save time, for he cannot lose it: it is himself. To strive to save it is already to have lost it. As for killing time—this is necessary only after time has died. It is when we find time smothering our lives, leaving no living memory, killing us, that we must kill it. But we are beating a corpse. We have recently become so conscious of time that, though we still take it, like a drug, we dislike to hear the clock’s empty comment. We have therefore invented a clock that merely stands and holds its hands before its face, a silent memento mori.

Now, it is the weary weight of all this unintelligible time that speed lightens; lightens, therefore, the burden of the world; increases, too, perhaps, the sense of organic time. How, we shall consider presently. We may note in passing that the automobile as a practical instrument helps us to save time and make time; but the time so saved or made is still mechanical. The dashboard clock belongs to this secular automobile. It has no more place in the sacred car than a clock inside a cathedral. It is in its sacred capacity that the automobile helps us to kill time.

While weakening the hold of inorganic time, it is possible that speed strengthens, at least temporarily, the sense of organic time, that is, of destiny. With all vistas except one blurred, and that one, the road ahead, sharpened; with far horizon points, symbolic of the future, so surely and swiftly made the present; we may find the lost sense of destiny renewing itself within us. “Every form of . . . ecstasy,” says Spengler, “is . . . the escape out of space into time” time here meaning organic time, destiny.

Freeing us from a mechanical world and mechanical time, speed also increases our sense of power. This point needs small comment. It is power, especially over the world, that we have prayed for; and seated in a speeding car, we palpably have it. The world lies prostrate before and beneath us. Dropping into the valley we apparently flatten the opposing hill, and a moment later, actually topping it, we fling a new horizon like a new dream before our eyes. We are so strong that we may become for the moment quietly happy and stroke the steering-wheel in tender approval.

With increasing speed the increasing danger is light to the eyes, wine to the brain, iron in the blood. The need to control the power we are unleashing unlocks power within us. Hurling death continually behind us, we find life a singing arrow of light.

There are times, however, when the reward is peace rather than freedom or power, especially the peace of timelessness. There is a timeless magic about night-driving, when no urgent destination lies ahead, that is unusual by day. Most of the world is blotted out; the lights brush only the borders of darkness. Into and through this luminous fan pour steadily, swiftly, the road itself, adjacent ditches, fences, trees, houses. This stream of lighted objects is hypnotic, and sooner or later one may feel that the world is moving, the car standing still or floating free in space. Consciousness, restrained within narrow limits and cradled in a strange immobile movement, finds peace. Especially is this true if one is riding with quiet friends. The experience then assumes large symbolic value; it contains, I think, most of the things that we of the West deeply desire: the mystery of darkness, the cosmic light of the stars, continual movement toward an unknown, receding horizon, and a small company of sympathetic spirits. Action with peace.

I remember the strange magic of an evening on a bus. As the winter twilight deepened over the rolling hills of Virginia, beyond the bare trees the west flamed and died. Looking about at the other passengers, some of whom I had been with for twenty-four hours, I suddenly felt as if we had been riding always and always should ride. The world outside, too, became strange, no longer the known country we had planned to traverse. We had gone beyond significant space, beyond time, and floated now, a planet ourselves, along our cosmic orbit.


It appears, then, that driving at the speed our vehicles are capable of maintaining has an immediate value: the integration of a man with himself and, at times, with the universe. We are correct in speaking of a religion of speed. There still remains, however, the question of its final value. Here, I must admit, I am less optimistic than Mr. van Dresser. It may be true that the average man, speeding away from musty churches, has chosen the only way that is open for him today for the quenching of his soul’s inner needs; but will even this way quench them? That it will allay them seems clear.

An important question to ask about any flight is this: Is it predominantly flight from or towards? The answer points to the flight’s value. It is already evident that I think this modern flight predominantly a flight from, and primarily not from churches musty with dry-rot but from a moribund mechanical world. I say this in spite of my agreement with Spengler that probably the basic motive of our Western civilization is flight into distance; in spite of the Gothic cathedrals, the admitted upward drive of which Mr. van Dresser would equate with our outward drive. While granting that the automobile is the child of the cathedral, I consider it the ignoble son of a noble father. Paradoxical as it may seem, the cathedral, I think, affirms life, the automobile denies it. Let us consider briefly this paradox.

We of the West, so Spengler maintains, worship infinite space, and desire knowledge and control of space. (I dismiss consideration of the question, What is to be thought of a religion that seeks not only to know but also to control its god? with the reminder that to men who believe, like us, that knowledge is power, such an attitude is inevitable.) The Gothic cathedral is the highest expression of this desire. The air of infinity blows through its forest aisles, lingers under its lofty nave, and touches its numerous spires. Its walls enclose, as Werf el says, “the cool spaces of God, those spaces so strangely remote from every other space on earth, exotic as the air of distant stars, with something in them of water, something of the twilight under leaves, yet not all of either, only a little. They lull like the dimness of forests, they lave the body like water, though the day outside burn down with canicular heat. It is as though at a church’s consecration an angel had shattered a small crystal vial full of sky, whose escaping essence should rise and cling about the vaultings henceforth.”

The Gothic cathedral was built by men who loved the finite material world enough to entrust to it their dream of an infinite immaterial world they loved better. It is a beautiful etherealized body. Its builders had the faith to write their dream in stone. Fortunate for us that they did, for the days of faith were brief. As the centuries passed, it waned. Men gradually lost the power to imagine the infinite in visible finite form, but, still attracted by it, they now pursued it, here with the mind, there with the body. This was a fatal division. The dream became increasingly abstract, the world increasingly concrete, until Western man as a whole, inspired originally by the reality of space, had, ironically, cluttered space with things. Today, only a few mathematical giants can find God in that generally inconceivable net they cast over the universe. The rest of us build and drive automobiles. The passion of the third dimension has been split into brain and body, into higher mathematics and swifter machines. The automobile is the instrument of men who have manipulated the material world until they are weary of it and must fashion from it a machine by which they may temporarily escape it. Let us grant that, following the original dream, they flee into space. This dream, no longer clear, is only partially, temporarily, and mechanically realized, and is entrusted to nothing more material than the air. The cathedral masters space; the automobile hurls itself at it. We would reach infinity in a machine.

We have followed the brain to power but lost the passion for life. We could behold in the cathedral our infinite, eternal desire in finite, temporal form; the priest, too, “was a visible link with the infinite,” “a hand with which even the poorest wretch could grasp God.” But we could not use the cathedral and the priest. The flying buttress, however, exhibits mathematical laws of stress and strain; these abstractions we could and did use. By them we have conquered the world; through them been conquered by it: enslaved by the single desire for power, and dependent upon the machines that make power available. By abstraction also, and by resultant power misused, we have both killed the world and continue to kill it. We do not give it life both because we lack the life to give it and because it suits us better dead: our will to conquer it would be weakened if we believed it alive with our life. We prefer control to kinship.

Thus we have sold the world as a home to have it as a house. (And we say we are at home in the world!) The price of the exchange is, most disconcertingly, our freedom. We hold ourselves aloof, free from the world, in order to make free with the world, only to find ourselves, by a spiritual paradox, enslaved by the world. We had done better to remember the words of a great religious genius: he who attempts to save his life will lose it; he who loses his life (in imaginative sympathy, comments William Blake) will save and increase it. Now we seek desperately that lost freedom, and if necessary will blot out the world (and with it life) to gain it. We flee from the world as from a corpse, but we drag it with us, for we are fleeing mechanically. The religion of the road seems finally futile. It is the sad end of an earlier puritanism which at least claimed for the earthly conflict unearthly power and offered unearthly peace. Now that the claim has failed, we must find salvation as we may.


This is my basic criticism; the religion of the road seems predominantly a method of escape, a flight from. With the possible exception of its moments of peace, the benefits it offers are illusory, dangerous, temporary, and too dear. Let us consider the last point first.

They are too dear, for they involve the blurring or blotting out of most of the world. This, although of little immediate moment if the world has already been mechanized to death, is finally fatal, since I suppose human life must still be lived in the world. I think I have already shown that fast driving does blur or blot out the world; even though it takes us among woods and fields it blurs them all. It illuminates one thing only, the narrow ribbon of concrete. All other vistas it tends to destroy; if very fast, it may even telescope the road-vista itself. This destruction of the vista, of the depth-felt world, is, I believe, the destruction of felt life in the world, which is essentially the destruction of ourselves. The world lives for us to the extent that we project ourselves—our selves, not merely our bodies—into it, thus giving it depth. The speeding car, by mechanically eliminating or drawing in the vistas, prevents the vital spirit from beholding a living world and encourages the dull in its dullness.

This is a high price, and the benefit largely illusory. It is not freedom in the world, a rational ideal, but freedom from the world, and that only relative, since the automobile and our body are present with us. Granting that modern man, as Spengler says, does desire to “free himself from the earth, rise to the infinite, leave the bounds of the body, and circle in the universe of space amongst the stars,” he can attain this desire through the mind alone, not through the body. Whitman imagined the joy he should have if he were the swift, far-flying man-of-war bird; I am inclined to think his imagined joy purer and freer than the actual, which would possibly be tinged, as was Lawrence of Arabia’s, with a sense of power. Nor is the sensuous vividness which may accompany speed an accurate index of life itself, whatever illusion of increased life results. It may in fact indicate decreased life. In a characterization of the Baroque period of Western culture—a characterization which can be false to the period and still true to life—Spengler says this: “Being becomes more and more languid, sensation and reason more and more powerful.” Again, the sense of power, like the sense of freedom, depends in part upon the extreme limitation of the field, the drawing in of the attention toward the immediate self.

This sense of power, which we so mistakenly confuse with life, is finally dangerous and may be dearly bought. It is dangerous because the desire for power has done much to bring us to our present situation, and satisfaction of this desire may merely prolong our illness; it is dearly bought because of the fear of its loss that always accompanies it, and because of the weakness that by reaction follows the unusual expenditure of energy needed to control it. Campbell, says Mr. van Dresser, “had to be lifted out of the cockpit of the Bluebird, after setting the world’s record of 272 miles an hour.”

Finally, these benefits, partly because they are illusory, are mostly temporary. Even granting that we carry back to the world, from which we seem temporarily to have escaped, some increase of power, what final good can result from its haphazard application there? The increased sense of life is largely sensuous, possibly galvanic, and tends to disappear with the removal of the stimulus. The re-awakened consciousness of purpose, supposing that the possible vista of the road is really felt as depth, and therefore as life, as will, is also effected mechanically, and is dependent upon continued motion.


In the main, then, speed is not a true religion but a drug. Its effect is narcotic, its freedom spurious. True freedom rests upon understanding, and, as Goethe said, upon the courage to declare oneself conditioned. Speed offers no reasonable pattern that can be used in the organization of the world as a whole; it merely gives temporary forgetfulness of the world. Our roads, our automobiles, are marvels of design and organization; but, for that matter, so are our ledgers, our other machines: all our instruments, of both leisure and labor. They are not, however, necessarily expressive of nor conducive to spiritual order, heaven’s first law, which, in the words of Lavater, is the opposite of sin. Modern man, desperate for such an order, finds in speed a religion of escape.

Something can be said, however, for the mystic peace that speed may bring. To the degree that this floods over and suffuses life, it will be taken back into the world, where it is sorely needed. One who holds, with Ouspensky, that reality is spaceless and timeless, might value speed as a possible means of its attainment. Ouspensky himself, however, holds that we attain reality not by the obliteration of things but by the realization of their timeless ideas, that is, by symbolism. Such a course seems preferable to me. I do not wish to sacrifice the concrete living world upon the altar of either a car or a concept. I should much prefer my mysticism with Bernard of Clairvaux, medieval and artistic, “in the presence of woods and hills and clouds and stars,” than with Martin Luther, modern and scientific, in the conceptual world. Unfortunately, however, neither Bernard nor Luther is accessible to most of us. We therefore take what is left, the machine-made mysticism of speed. Though it serves perhaps some purpose, it lies under the shadow of being a flight from a world destroyed and destroying, instead of from a world we love to another we love more. Bernard left the world, and not the shadow of it, behind him.


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