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The Thread of Ariadne

ISSUE:  Summer 1982
Entering the Maze: Identity and Change in Modern Culture. By O. B. Hardison, Jr. Oxford. $19.95.

Is modern man in a maze? Are his perplexities so great that he has a desperate time finding his way out? O. B. Hardison, the distinguished scholar and director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, thinks mankind really is in a maze. Modern society “may be moving irreversibly toward disaster” or it may be moving “toward a new level of human development.” Dr. Hardison does not say which is more likely, but he catalogues a vast array of perplexities. In 300 erudite pages he weaves into his own comments the observations of many score learned writers, scientists, historians, philosophers, and poets. In the end one is left to search for the way out—for what Dr. Hardison, in brilliant discussion, calls the Thread of Ariadne, the thread that saved Theseus in the maze in Crete. Although he is cautious in prophecy, Dr. Hardison does tell us where we might look for that thread—of all places in poetry! That may seem a rather tentative suggestion, but I think that, if Dr. Hardison leaves us in some doubt, it may be because another book or so will follow to clear up our doubts.

Something deep inside me at first made me resist Dr. Hardison’s argument-—made me resist the somber conclusion that we are be-mazed (my word, not his). I could not believe that the way out of our troubles is so obscure. I reached for the works of one of the few great philosophers whom Hardison does not quote: Jose Ortega y Gasset. In The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega writes that all previous civilizations had failed through the “insufficiency of their underlying principles,” but that for modern society the failure was not in its principles, but in its men. Why should that not be as true today as it was a half-century ago when Ortega wrote it?

We suffer today because we have neglected the professed virtues underlying modern life. They are the virtues that once shone in great men whose lives have since been veiled in pathetic popular illusions. For too many generations we have seen George Washington in marble and not in terms of the rigidly self-disciplined man who devoted a lifetime to serving the principles he learned from a great tradition. We have seen Robert E. Lee in the images of the saccharine, romantic, post-Civil War poetry and not as the hero “totally without personal ambition,” to whom the English historian, Robert Conquest, recently pointed as the personification of the morality needed for moderns. Conquest contends that Lee was the kind of man with qualities of unselfishness, intellect, and will that political leadership requires. Far too many of our modern politicians are selfishly ambitious for fame or fortune or power. Lee sought none of these. Selfishness was for Lee a supreme vice to be scrupulously abhorred. But in modern society, selfishness is quite regularly converted into the alleged virtue of self-expression. Our career counselors, our psychotherapists, even our preachers and poets extol the importance of self-expression, especially among the young. Our politicians operate all too often from a base of self-glorification as if it were a necessary means for entering government. Political consultants, who may be about to take over our society, want their candidates to do ridiculously egoistic things in order to get attention and win elections. What a depraved way to run a political system!

Twenty-five years ago I talked to a scholarly friend who was already gaining fame as a speech-writer to presidents and-author of books on the world and its politics. He said he had just made a serious study of Communist China and had discovered why Chinese leaders behaved as they did. “It’s power,” he said, clenching his fist. “They want power.” He might have been talking about our own government or about the Russians. Almost all politicians want power. Politicians make decisions so that they can retain their offices and their power. A society trapped by the selfishness and greed for power of its politicians is not a society in a maze. The way out is not obscure. The society simply needs the leadership of men who can recapture Lee’s sense of unselfish public service or Washington’s sense of public duty or George Marshall’s self-effacing devotion to his country or Bishop H. St. George Tucker’s completely selfless dedication to the summum bonum of his own faith. These men never thought they were in a maze. They knew they had to make a choice between right and wrong, and they did what they saw was right.

Dr. Hardison’s book, conceived as it is on a grand scale, deals in full measure with politics. In a lofty chapter, called “Politics and Beauty,” he writes, “Politics desperately needs to believe in itself, to have an object. Without an object it degenerates into opportunism.” (I wish he had written instead of “opportunism” something like “naked greed.”) “The relation between politics and beauty is perennial and essential . . .beauty saves politics from itself. It is not only an adornment of the state and a symbol of the transcendent goal of politics, it is also an assertion that the human spirit is larger than the political system.” One cannot deny that Dr. Hardison is provocative. He concludes his study of beauty and politics by quoting Schiller: “Man will never solve the problem of politics except through the problem of the aesthetic, for it is only through politics that man makes his way to freedom.”

The maze that Dr. Hardison describes has become more complicated in the past half-century because of what technology has done to what the author calls “values.” (In my own youth in the 1920’s or 1930’s we did not talk so much about values but about right and wrong or good and bad. ) Modern medicine, communication, information handling, cinema, theatre, and technical advances may have weighed heavily on “values,” but nothing has done so much to our system as the creation of the atomic sword of Damocles. Dr, Hardison does not deal with this explicitly, but the threat of total disaster does overshadow his discussion.

In searching for the Thread of Ariadne for escape from the maze, Dr. Hardison makes many contributions toward solving the problems of society, but one of the most important is in what he has to say about education. In holding the thread, or passing it on to others, education must transmit from generation to generation a sense of leadership, a sense “of commitment to honesty, service and nation.” He sees the role of education as a powerful force that prevents the fragmentation of American society. He likes “the idea of education as a center around which Americans can arrange their diversities and in terms of which they can sense each other’s common humanity.” (One might remember just this if one is ever startled to hear a very high U. S. Government official speak with a heavy foreign accent—Polish or German—and boast of “our revolutionary ancestors,” meaning Jefferson, Franklin, Mason, or Madison, so far removed from his own personal antecedents.)

Poetry plays a surprisingly key role in this book. Dr. Hardison is a poet who respects the power of poetry. In reading what he says about “identity” (that rather modern word that embraces what we used to call “character”), one recognizes the importance of poetry in shaping one’s character or identity. One likes to think of his identity (i. e. , character) being shaped by the poems one has learned, the poems one has sloughed off, and even the poems that one adds to the repertoire in middle age or later. One faces each crossroad in life with lines of poetry coming to mind, sometimes softly, sometimes loudly. It is as if there were a timely utterance from Virgil or Lucretius or Propertius or from Dante or Donne or Shakespeare or Milton or Wordsworth or Tennyson or Rupert Brooke and Robert Frost or even from Rudyard Kipling plus a stray line from Edgar Guest. If one’s identity has been formed by good enough poetry, one need not be bemazed.

In “The Future of Poetry,” Dr. Hardison seems to rise above the maze—to the level where one needs no Thread of Ariadne to find the way out. He talks bluntly of the First World, the Second World, and the Third World, all in familiar terms. Then he suddenly takes off. He soars upward to discuss the Fourth World. It is a world of artists, a timeless and universal world. It is a world that regards “infinite diversity as a means to discover an essential unity.” What better than such a world to make man put aside the horrifying weapons of his own mass destruction? Dr. Hardison keeps his enthusiasm under control and tells us that the “emerging international consciousness is new and consequently fragile, whereas vanity, greed and aggression are as old as history. We have a long way to go before war becomes impossible simply because it seems absurd to those who are asked to plan it; and a still longer way to go before we recognize that we have a collective responsibility for the life of every person on this planet.”

It is cheering in this grim year of menacing nuclear weapons to find a writer who thinks in universal terms in the upper airs above the gathering storm. One’s good cheer will have more substance when Dr. Hardison completes the trilogy that he must have in mind. He must tell us more about his Fourth World. When he does, I have three wishes. First, I hope he will present his further thesis in his own words without all those quotations from other writers who don’t always write as well as he does. Second, I wish he would eschew exhausted words like “identity” and “values.” A poet need not bow to the language of psychotherapists. Third, I hope he will aim his darts directly at the politicians, whose greed and narrow-mindedness, whose thirst for power, whose pandering to jingoism have led them to discard their reason and sink into acceptance of what amounts to inevitable nuclear doom.


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