Modernity and Revolution An Intemperate Conclusion

The form of consciousness to which we apply the name modernity seems to represent a transformation as radical, though of a different sort, as that celebrated by Clement, Some have even suggested the emergence of a yet new sensibility, so new and inchoate that it can oniy be designated "post-modern." All this is too close to us to speak of it with much assurance, but I yield to the temptation to offer some suggestions that bear on our theme.

I have argued that experience is molded, root and branch, by narrative forms, that its narrative quality is altogether primitive. At the same time, expression is obviously not limited to storytelling. Mind and imagination are capable of recollecting the narrative materials of experience into essentially non-narrative forms. Indeed there seems to be a powerful inner drive of thought and imagination to overcome the relentless temporality of experience. One needs more clarity than stories can give us, and also a little rest. The kind of pure spatial articulation we find in painting and sculpture, with all movement suspended, gratifies this deep need. Also in meditation and in theoretical endeavors we are a little less completely at the mercy of our own temporality. Traditional myths, stories dominated by timeless archetypes, have functioned in this way: by taking personal and historical time up into the archetypal story, they give it a meaning which in the end is timeless, cosmic, absolute.

14. Clement of Alexandria, Selections from Tne Proirepiikos. an essay and translation by Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1962), pp. 13-16, 17. It is significant that the early Christian preaching was largely a storv-telling mission, offering people a new story, the Christian kerygma, to reorient their sense of the meaning both of historical time and of their own personal life-rime.

But an important feature of the modern situation is the employment of quite different strategies for breaking the sense of narrative time. At a ver}' general level, these strategies fall into two opposite and indeed mutually antagonistic types: one is the strategy of abstraction, in which images and qualities are detached from experience to become data for the formation of generalized principles and techniques. Such abstraction enables us to give experience a new, non-narrative and atemporal coherence. It is an indispensable strategy for conducting many of the practical affairs of life in our society; we are ail technicians, like it or not. In its more elaborated forms, the strategy of abstraction is the basis for all science. Its importance in the formation of modem institutions can hardly be exaggerated. But strategies of the other type seem almost equally important in the formation of "modem" consciousness. This other type we may call the strategy of contraction. Here narrative temporality is again fragmented, not by abstraction to systems of generality, but by the constriction of attention to dissociated immediacies: to the particular image isolated from the image stream, to isolated sensation, feeling, the flash of the overpowering moment in which the temporal context of that moment is eclipsed and past and future are deliberately blocked out of consciousness. It is commonly assumed that this dissociated immediacy is what is concrete and irreducible in experience.

But the sweat and grit of the moment, which some so highly prize, is in fact a contraction of the narrative movement that is really concrete in experience, as generality is the abstraction from it. The point can perhaps best be made indirectly, by noticing that these two time-defying strategies have projected a distinctively modern version of a dualism in the idea of the self: the dualism of mind and body. We state the matter backwards if we say that something called mind abstracts from experience to produce generality, or if we say that "the body" has feelings and sensations. It is the activity of abstracting from the narrative concreteness of experience that leads us to posit the idea of mind as a distinct faculty. And it is the concentration of consciousness into feel-

y ing and sensation that gives rise to the idea of body. Both mind and body are reifications of particular functions that have been wrenched from the concrete temporality of the conscious self. The self is not a composite of mind and body. The self in its concreteness is indivisible, temporal, and whole, as it is revealed to be in the narrative quality of its experience. Neither disembodied minds nor mindless bodies can appear iii stories. There the self is given whole, as an activity in time.

Yet criticism alone cannot dissolve this mind-bodv dualism. The very fact of its stubborn persistence in our ordinary sense of ourselves, even though we know better (in theory!), testifies to the very great importance in the modern world of the two strategies on which it is based.

The power to abstract makes explanation, manipulation, control possible. On the other hand we seek relief and release in the capacity to contract the flow of time, to dwell in feeling and sensation, in taste, in touch, in the delicious sexual viscosities. So "the mind" dwells in the light, clear, dry, transparent, unmessy. 'The body" dwells in the damp privacy of a friendly darkness created by feeling and sensation. In principle, the powers of consciousness to abstract and to contract need no more be in conflict than day and night. But day and night form a rhythm within the continuum of time. If the abstraction and contraction of consciousness were merely temporary suspensions of the narrative quality of experience there would be no crisis.

But the modern world has seen these two strategies played off ever more violently against one another. One could show how the reification of mind and body has killed modern metaphysics by leading it into arid controversies among dualistic, materialistic, and idealistic theories. But this comparatively harmless wrangle among post-Cartesian metaphysicians is only a symptom of the modern bifurcation of experience. Its more sinister expression is practical: the entrapment of educated subcultures in their own abstract constructions, and the violent reaction against this entrapment, a reaction that takes the form of an equally encapsulating constriction of experience into those warm, dark, humid immediacies. One thinks of Faust in his study where everything is so dry that a spark would produce an explosion, and then Faust slavering and mucking about on the bracken. Against the inhumanly dry and abstract habitations of the spirit that have been erected by technological reason, the cry goes up, born of desperation, to drop out and sink into the warm stream of immediacy. Within the university the reaction and counterreaction have been especially violent in the humanities.

And that is ironical. For the material with which the humanities have traditionally dealt is predominantly narrative. There have been deep conflicts among different kinds of stories and divergent interpretations. Still, the humanities have kept the story alive in the university; and it is precisely the story, with its underlying musicality, that provides generality and immediacy their humanly fruitful functions. So long as the story retains its primary hold on the imagination, the play of immediacy and the illuminating power of abstraction remain in productive tension. But when immediacy and abstract generality are wrenched out of the story altogether, drained of ali musicality, the result is something I can only call, with strict theological precision, demonic. Experience becomes demonically possessed by its own abstracting and contracting possibilities, turned alien and hostile to experience itself. When the humanities give up the story, they become alternately seized by desiccated abstractions and scatological immediacies, the light of the mind becoming a blinding and withering glare, the friendly darkness deepening into the chaotic night of nihilism. Ethical authority, which is always a function of a common narrative coherence of life, is overthrown by a naked show of force exercised either in the name of reason or in the name of glandular vitality. Contrary to the cynical theory that violent force is the secret basis of authority, it is in fact always the sign that authority has dissolved.

So much for modernity. Now one speaks, perhaps wistfully, of the emergence of a "post-modern" sensibility. This new sensibility is sometimes called "revolutionary," a term that sounds less empty than "post-modem," but is still obscure enough. Certainly it is often discussed in terms of the same dualisms and wearisome strategies of abstraction and contraction that have plagued the "modern" period. Some envision a "revolution" that would consist in extending the control of abstract, technological reason to the whole life of society; maximum manipulation justified on the high moral ground that it would improve behavior-—down to the least flicker of an eyelash. Others appear to hope for a society perpetually turned on ana flowing with animal juices. The utopia schemed in the crystal palace, or that plotted in the cellar of the underground man: the lure of either of these Utopias or any all-purpose combination of them can lead one to nothing more than a variation on an all too familiar refrain. Neither appears to catch the cadences of the new song that I think is struggling to be heard when people speak seriously of revolution.

I think that "revolution" is the name that a post-modern consciousness gives to a new sacred story. I realize that if this essay has ever strayed into the sphere of sober theory, it has with this suggestion abandoned it altogether in favor of testimony. But if we really are talking about a sacred story, what can we do but testify'? Certainly the sacred Story to which we give this name cannot be directly told. But its resonances can be felt in many of the stories that are being told, in songs being sung, in a renewed resolution to act. The stories being told do not necessarily speak of gods in any traditional sense, yet there seem to be living continuities in this unutterable story with some of the sacred stories of the past. Certainly, too, revolution is more than the name for an idea or a program, though it is giving rise to many ideas and programs, some no doubt half-baked and quixotic—anything radically serious seems to gather a penumbra of lunacy—but also some that actively express the most intense needs of our times.15 This revolutionary story has united

15. There «ire also, of course, theories of revolution itself. But it is significant that the most important theories of revolution are dialectical. For a dialectical theory- is that form of generality that preserves in itself the vital pulse of a temporal movement. A dialectical theory of revolution is not an alternative to a study of revolution, but is its exegesis.

the angry children of poverty and the alienated children of abundance in a common moral passion and a common sense of the meaning of their experience. Among those for whom the story is alive there is a revival of ethical authority otherwise almost effaced in our society. For it establishes on a new basis the coherency of social and personal time. It makes it possible to recover a living past, to believe again in the future, to perform acts that have significance for the person who acts. By so doing, it restores a human form of experience.

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