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Prometheus Patton

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

The appalling thing about the late Big Bill Thompson, sometime Mayor of Chicago, is not how wrong he was, but how nearly right he was in some of his most unpleasant manifestations. Bill’s contribution to diplomatic protocol, you remember, was a promise to bust King George in the snoot if that potentate ever stuck his nose into Chicago. He was wrong; but his error was in picking his objective. It shouldn’t have been King George. In the first place, that blameless monarch never evinced the slightest desire to interfere with Chicago; and in the second place, the King is not an Intellectual with a capital “I” and recent history affords much evidence that it is Intellectuals who are most swiftly and permanently convinced by a wallop on the beezer.

If this assertion is attacked as paradoxical, sacrilegious, and even blasphemous I shall not accept the challenge. It probably is. But if it is assailed as untrue, I appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober, from our present distracted state to the unclouded judgment of ten years hence. As this is written, we are in the very act of delivering a bust in the snoot to two of the most formidable military powers on earth. The effect cannot be observed for some time; but I formally predict that one effect will be an enormously increased respect for American art, literature, and philosophy.

This observation, which I grant is somewhat sour, is the product of a succession of stimuli, the latest being Jose Ortega y Gasset’s “Mission of the University.” I do not mean to intimate that I dislike Dr. Ortega’s book. On the contrary, I was enchanted by it. It is a noble ammunition dump for every gunner who wishes to fire upon pedantry, and his paean to enthusiasm without faith, which I shall quote presently, is a singularly apt message to our time. It is a pungent book, witty, hard-hitting, reckless. I like it.

But it did excite reflections upon General Patton as the most effective proof yet advanced that Whitman was a poet, Jefferson a statesman, Emerson a philosopher. I am not aware that the General ever posed as a critic; for that matter, I have no proof that he ever read a line of Whitman, or Jefferson, or Emerson. But he did tear loose the German line at Avranches, he did go whirling across France in the most amazing campaign of the century, and he did smite the southern edge of Rundstedt’s salient a mighty blow at the moment when the German was on the verge of success. In brief, Patton is a tough baby, so tough that Europe’s keenest weapons were blunted when they struck him.

What has that to do with the significance of American thought? Patience, we’ll get around to that in a moment.

It has been more than a century since Sydney Smith made his famous inquiry, “In the four quarters of the Globe, who reads an American book, or attends an American play, or looks at an American picture or statue?” and nearly that long since Lowell noted a certain condescension in foreigners. Today, with Chungking and Novosibirsk, as well as London, addicted to American pictures as the true opiate of the people, and with Jack London and Upton Sinclair, at least, known wherever novels are read, Smith’s remark no longer applies. To be sure, he did not mean that kind of picture, or that kind of play, or, probably, that kind of novel. He meant the European type. In that sense, his remark still has some application. America has not produced the sort of thing at which Europe is best.

Go beyond dramaturgy and literature, however, and the condescension of foreigners has not lessened—or had not until very recently. Spengler, engaged in wholesale denunciation, wasted no breath on America; why predict the ruin of a culture that never had come into existence? Had he been acquainted with our idiom, he might have explained his omission of America from any prominent part in his jeremiad by proclaiming it literally not worth a good goddamn. Andre Siegfried announced a dozen years ago that he would henceforth turn to South America, for the civilization of North America obviously could produce nothing further. In 1931 Ortega was proclaiming, obviously under the impression that they were sensational, a set of ideas over which American universities have been battling for at least a quarter of a century. American thought, to the extent that it is distinctively American, simply has not registered with these people; and to the extent that it is derivative it is, of course, merely a carbon copy of the European original, therefore hardly worth serious consideration.

But why have our ideas failed to register? Is it due to the dullness or the snobbery of Europeans who have investigated this country? Not at all—at least not dullness or snobbery in the ordinary meaning of those terms. Siegfried, Spengler, Ortega, and most of the others are far too intelligent to fall victim to stupid prejudices. But they are all Europeans and every man, including the most intelligent, is the child of his age, the product of his own culture. They are all aware that, historically, American is an offshoot of European culture. They assume, reasonably enough, that it is to be judged by the standards, at least by the basic standards, of European culture. The basic standard of judgment of any culture is its tendency to create an environment in which intelligent men find life tolerable. If its tendency is to create an environment in which existence is intolerable to the intelligent, then that culture has within it the seeds of its own destruction. It is not a true development of civilization, it is a mere excrescence, transient and therefore hardly worth serious study.

The test is survival. There can be no other, since cultures are by their very nature incommensurable. The Englishman, with rare exceptions, does not understand why French life is tolerable to an intelligent Frenchman; nor does the Frenchman know how his British neighbor is able to endure existence. But each knows that the other’s culture has survived tremendous shocks; therefore, being permanent, it is bound to have satisfactions, whether they are comprehensible or not. Moreover, any culture that contains elements satisfying intelligent men, however well concealed, is worthy of the consideration of intelligent men of all nations, for the function of intelligence is to track down and uncover factors of the good life not obvious to stupidity.

It does not take the European Intellectual long to discover that American civilization, despite its tremendous amelioration of the physical hardships under which the average man lives, does not tend to create the sort of environment in which the ideal man of Europe would find satisfaction. The life of the average American, that is to say, the man with little money and no distinction, is by long odds the most luxurious ever enjoyed by men of his class anywhere in the world. Your European will readily allow that this is not bad; but he is very certain that neither is it the summation of all good. “The life is more than meat, and the body than raiment”—so much Scripture the most violent anti-clerical will accept. The environment that a really intelligent man finds tolerable depends to a relatively small extent upon modern plumbing, furnace heat, and internal-combustion engines. It is a matter of the intellectual climate.

But it is plainly evident that the intellectual climate of the United States is not favorable to the growth of European ideals. At the very basis of our system is a factor that most Europeans find distasteful to the point of being intolerable. This is the negation of the cult of the superior man inherent in our political and social democracy. The blithe American assumption that ideas and institutions, like toilet soaps, must submit to the competition of the marketplace and stand or fall by popular favor is a flat countermarch against the trend of European culture. Americans are certainly not going the same way as Europeans; therefore it is natural, not to say right, for Europeans to assume that they are going the wrong way, in the absence of conclusive evidence to the contrary. But what evidence can be taken as conclusive? There is one test, and only one, to wit, survival.

To that test American culture is being submitted at this moment, and so, by an easy and natural transition we come back to General Patton. Whatever else you may say of him, Patton is obviously a survivor. There is no manner of doubt about that. Yet Patton and his men are products of American culture. It seems, therefore, that this culture has some of the elements of survival. Since there is no arguing against a fact, it follows that this culture must in some way be satisfactory to intelligent men and, if that is the case, it deserves respectful consideration. Let us therefore examine again what Whitman, Jefferson, Emerson, representatives of that culture, had to say. If this thing is going to survive, and produce conquering armies, perhaps the civilization of Bolivia and Peru may be of considerably less practical concern to Europe than that of the United States for a century at least.

There are many Americans, unquestionably men of good will, to whom this analysis will be distasteful in the extreme. It comes too close to justifying Big Bill Thompson’s idea of protocol. Patton is the incarnation and glorification, the archetype and the apotheosis of a bust in the snoot. If it takes Patton to establish our poets, statesmen, and philosophers as worth the respectful consideration of Europe, what is liberalism, what is man—

what to him Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades? What the long reaches of the peaks of song?

The answer is, quite a lot. A supplementary and expanded answer is, quite a lot, but not everything. Our men of good will, whether they are liberals, internationalists, Wil-sonians, or parlor pinks, ought to study the answer even more carefully than Europeans ought to study the trend of American thought. Unfortunately, at the moment there is all too much evidence that they are inclined to reject the answer with violent and opprobrious comment. It having appeared that not even Britain and still less Russia is thoroughly imbued with Plato as expressed in the Atlantic Charter, or the swing of Pleiades at Dumbarton Oaks, therefore the glory is departed and we are betrayed into the hands of the Philistines.

They forget that Russians and also Britons are indubitably and immutably non-American, whereas the Atlantic Charter and Dumbarton Oaks are as American in tone and spirit as Jim Bludso. Both were accepted, certainly, but what wouldn’t have been accepted at the time and under the circumstances? To Churchill from the beginning and to Stalin a little later it was evident that America would have to come into the war to save her own skin; but they wanted us to come in with all possible enthusiasm, because they desired the bust in the snoot that they hoped we would deliver to start right from the canvas.

Why, then, should we have expected any more than lip-service to a profoundly American scheme in the beginning? Our liberals need something of the wisdom of the Catholic fathers who followed Cortes, and who were not disturbed if the converted Indians mingled a bit of superstition with their newly-acquired Christianity. The new worship they instituted was far from pure, but it was at least an improvement upon the old man-eating gods of the Aztecs; and the institution they established endured.

Liberals should make up their minds here and now that liberal ideas are going to take a beating when this war is over. They have already taken one in Poland and another in Greece. They will take more. But what of it? Was there ever a really great cause that was not betrayed, sold out repeatedly, kicked all over the lot by its supposed friends before it approached success? But is that any reason to quit? Hear Ortega:

Man would be badly off, indeed, if he were incapable of enthusiasm except for the things in which he has faith! Humanity would still be pursuing its existence in a hole in the ground; for everything that has made it possible to emerge from the cave and the primeval jungle appeared in its first hour as a highly dubious undertaking. Nevertheless, man has been able to grow enthusiastic over his vision of these unconvincing enterprises. He has put himself to work for the sake of an idea, seeking by incredible exertions to arrive at the incredible. And in the end, he has arrived there.

There are some to whom the idea that American civilization is in the way to receive respectful consideration because its protagonists are exhibiting a ferocity that dismays the two hitherto most ferocious nations on earth is so painful that they would rather have it remain without influence than gain influence in such a way. They are to be pitied, but nothing can be done for them. They are simply not adjusted to survival in this particular kind of world.

The point is that we are not fighting for the advancement of American civilization, but for its survival. We didn’t start this. We didn’t even enter it until we were kicked in. Anatole France remarked to Max Eastman that in the last war the Americans were there just long enough to prove one thing, namely, that they couldn’t fight. France was probably just trying to be nasty, but he spoke better than he knew. We didn’t go to the battlefields to fight, we went there to win. D. W. Brogan discovered the real point and explained it in his study of the American character. When Europe was under absolutism, war was the sport of kings and some echoes of that tradition still ring in European ears. But to Americans war never was anybody’s sport; it is simply a messy and disgusting job, to be finished as quickly as possible by the most convenient available means. We don’t believe in beautiful gestures and forlorn hopes.

“Gentlemen of the French Guard, fire first,” is European; “Git thar fust with the mostest men” is American. Whether we can fight or not, we don’t believe in fighting; we believe in winning, and we do. Even Anatole France cannot deny that.

But if we keep on winning, our conception of war will inevitably impress the world; and would that be any detri-. ment to civilization? The romantic conception of the joy of fighting was the basis on which Hitler built up the German frenzy that has caused us so much woe. German prisoners still are scornful. “We could beat you, man to man,” they say. It may take them many years to learn that they are never going to be permitted to fight us man to man, not if we can help it; but when they eventually learn that they will always have to fight as men against machines, their ardor for war may cool. When they learn that American civilization has power to survive the worst they can do, they may find it worth while to study that civilization seriously.

Nay, more—our allies may study it, too. Ortega, for example, may learn that the democratization of culture is not only an idea familiar to American universities, but one with which some of them have experimented, with results interesting if not conclusive. The successor to Spengler may learn that the American is not merely a transplanted European. Perhaps Siegfried may begin to suspect that he was looking in the dark room for the black cat that wasn’t there.

The next ten years will tell the tale. Incidentally, they will be years in which Americans should take heed unto themselves, for they will be under closer scrutiny than ever was given them before. Look for an extraordinary postwar invasion of scholars, reporters, investigators of all kinds; and look—unless we are incredibly fortunate—for plenty of embarrassing revelations. Never was a better time for us to lay to heart Burns’ sage advice:

If there’s a hole in a’ your coats,
I rede you, tent it; A chiel’s amang you takin’ notes,
And faith he’ll prent it.


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