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Life into art.

In "Drafts for a Critique of Historical Reason" (c. 1910), Wilhelm Dilthey claims that "autobiography is the highest and the most instructive form of the understanding of life" (2002: 221). In it, the antinomies characteristic of an individual's lived experiences, which make them impenetrable and unique and, for this reason, inaccessible to conceptual cognition, ultimately come to be inwardly and structurally connected to form a "nexus", or a vital totality. Selectivity and the construction of connections between life events prevent it from being a mere reproduction of individual experience. In autobiography, "the self grasps the course of his life in such a way as to bring to consciousness the bases of human life, namely the historical relations in which it is interwoven" (225). In spite of its apparent fragmentariness and multiplicity, each life generates direction, i.e., actualizes specific human values. For Dilthey, only those who dare scrutinize their own lives from such an all-encompassing perspective are capable of understanding history, their own life-history included: "The power and scope of our own lives and the energy with which we reflect on them provide the basis for historical vision" (222).

Independently of his illustrious German contemporary, and in a very circuitous manner, Henry Adams arrives at a somewhat similar conclusion in "The Education of Henry Adams (AE). The "first" life-narrative that allegedly "make(s) the relation between an individual life and history its presiding theme" (Eakin 1992: 145), it gives a new, and, at the same time, surprisingly modern interpretation to the individual life's historicity. In his own way--Henry Adams thought of himself as standing on one foot in the eighteenth century and on the other in the twentieth--and granting foundational status to his personal experiences, in other words, locating himself as subject of American history, and attempting to clarify its effects on such changing concepts as evolution, self, and knowledge, the writer aims to achieve a comprehensive and integrative understanding of life, as a letter to Clara Hay, 15 May 1907 seems to suggest:

All I have sought has been the direction, or tendency or history, of the human mind, not as religion or science, but as fact--as a whole, or stream and this with no view to this relation to me or my benefit [emphasis added]. (The Letters of Henry James 6: 67-68)

Like Saint Augustine, whose Confessions serves as a model, The Education too portrays the efforts and failures of a youth to uncover the development of a full-grown consciousness that will make it possible for him to interpret and understand the world he lives in. However, self-consciousness remains an illusion for its author:

As educator, Jean Jacques was, in one respect, easily first; he erected a monument of warning against the Ego. Since his time, and largely thanks to him, the Ego has steadily tended to efface itself [emphasis added].... (AE: vii-ix)

While ostensibly writing about himself, Adams uses the third person, i.e., the 'character' Henry Adams, as the protagonist of his life-narrative, whom he defines as "a manikin on which the toilet of education is to be draped in order to show the fit or misfit of the clothes" (AE: x). Whether we read it as the "homunculus scriptor", the self-conscious little writer, the store window dummy, or as the marionette, suggesting a lifeless form, on which the author may randomly hang the diverse "lessons" that he picked up in life, we confront with a denial of life-writing as a process of self-discovery. Accordingly, the mature author of the Education can offer little insight into the changes and reverses of his life. Adams cautions the reader looking for a complete record of his life: "This is a story of education--not a mere lesson of life" (AE: 243). For all this, in the final paragraph of the 1907 Preface, the writer warns him that the manikin, as a measure of "human condition... must be taken for real; must be treated as though it had life" (AE: x). Then, acknowledging that the book is autobiographical, Adams ends on the question, "Who knows? Possibly it had!". "The concession", William Decker argues, "is major: the human form cannot (or if it can it must not) be effaced of its past; if it is to be renewed, and kept recognizably human, it will be through the office of bequeathable resources."

Adams's homo autobiographicus is pushed and pulled by forces beyond his control--throughout the Education--man and thought are often spoken of as energy or force--and, for that reason, he may hardly be designated as the "originator" of his own life-story. For the American writer, the traditional overarching concepts of "author" and "subject", as the source and ultimate substantiation of the text, have lost their integrating power. Instead of the discovery of one's self, we are offered an "education", as indicating possibilities of finding of new meanings. Adams rejects the Augustinian formula because "St. Augustine, like a great artist, had worked from multiplicity to unity, while he, like a small one, had to reverse the method and work back from unity to multiplicity" (AE: vii-viii), which explains the intricate and deceivingly loose structure of the Education. Indeed, Adams labels his self-portrayal as The Education of Henry Adams: a Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity and, in a sense, the work is a motley collection of essays, entitled variously: "Quincy," "Rome," "Eccentricity," "The Abyss of Ignorance," "Chaos," "Nunc Age," etc.

In a letter to William James, the autobiographer insists on the tentative nature of his work:

As for the volume [Education], it interests me chiefly as a literary experiment [emphasis added], hitherto, as far as I know, never tried or never successful. Your brother Harry tries such experiments in literary art daily, and would know instantly what I mean; but I doubt whether a dozen people in America except architects or decorators would know or care. (1938: 490)

Adams stresses the formal aspects of the Education, which entails both redemption and disapproval of content. However, the fact that the "historian of the self" chose to approach his role of culture critic from a different position, as he had done until then and that he decided to contend for his world picture "as an artist, not as a scientist or historian or philosopher" (Levenson, 1957: 300) has far more direct and profound consequences.

Dreaming the dream of order

Western mindset, Adams seems to imply in his life-narrative, is obsessed by the dream of an ultimate and permanent order: "Unity and Uniformity were the whole motive of philosophy" (AE: 226). And, indeed, the nineteenth-century world picture seems to have been constructed to do away with differences and rule out multiplicity and variation.

By contrasting, in the early pages of his life narrative, the two locations where he was brought up as a child--Quincy and Boston--, Adams aptly emphasizes the conflict between the stern eighteenth century spirit of his paternal ancestors, John and John Quincy Adams, and the more innovative and commerce oriented nineteenth century spirit of his mother's family. However,

[t]he attachment to Quincy was not altogether sentimental or wholly sympathetic. Quincy was not a bed of thornless roses. Even there the curse of Cain set its mark. There as elsewhere a cruel universe combined to crush a child. As though three or four vigorous brothers and sisters, with the best will, were not enough to crush any child, every one else conspired towards an education which he hated. From cradle to grave this problem of running order through chaos, direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through multiplicity, has always been, and must always be, the task of education, as it is the moral of religion, philosophy, science, art, politics, and economy; but a boy's will is his life, and he dies when it is broken, as the colt dies in harness, taking a new nature in becoming tame. Rarely has the boy felt kindly towards his tamers. Between him and his master has always been war. Henry Adams never knew a boy of his generation to like a master, and the task of remaining on friendly terms with one's own family, in such a relation, was never easy. (AE: 12)

Loyal to the Enlightenment morals, Adams never feels comfortable with the spirit of his own day (AE:9), the more so as any effort to analyze historical movement in terms of man's will and power always collapses in "the sheer chaos of human nature" (AE: 153). Beneath all the major political decisions, Adams finds out only instincts, prejudice, and cultural divergences.

Contemporary American politics show the fourteen-year-old boy that the attempt to reconcile conflict is frequently effected at the cost of principles. He discovers the true George Washington, the man who commanded respectability and authority more than any other American, along a ragged Southern road during a "pilgrimage" to Mount Vernon where "slavery struck him in the face; it was a nightmare; a horror; a crime; the sum of all wickedness! Slave States were dirty, unkempt, poverty stricken, ignorant, vicious!" (AE: 44) The question of "how to deduce George Washington from the sum of all wickedness" suggests the failure of his inherited Puritan morality. The political lessons of 1850-1851 elections provide no acceptable answer either. Equally disturbing is the compromise negotiated by the Free Soil Party, campaigning on an anti-slavery platform, and the Massachusetts Democrats. By supporting Charles Sumner's election to the Senate, at the cost of the Democrat, George S. Boutwell, a known anti-abolitionist, in the governor's office, young Adams finds himself caught in almost absolute confusion:

Thus, before he was fifteen years old, he had managed to get himself into a state of moral confusion from which he never escaped. As a politician, he was already corrupt, and he never could see how any practical politician could be less corrupt than himself. (AE: 50)

As secretary to his father, the American ambassador to London during the Civil War, he has the task of preventing the recognition by the British government of the Confederacy, which would thwart the Administration hopes for a victorious ending of the conflict. With the benefit of the hindsight, the autobiographer wonders how his success (and his father's) had to do with any real comprehension of the personalities and the political forces they were engaged with, how little they understood of the motives driving British policy of those times: "They made a picture different from anything he had conceived and rendered worthless the whole painful diplomatic experience (AE: 178). All these question not only his own ability but man's in general to derive any answer from one's own experience. Adams' reaction to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln remains emblematic of his own awareness of a fragmentary, incomplete self: "His identity, if one could call a bundle of disconnected memories and identity seemed to remain; but his life was once more broken into separate pieces. [emphasis added] (AE: 209)

Historical evidence seems to argue that man alone is responsible for quagmire the autobiographer finds himself. History can express only the recurring failures of man's desire to assign meanings to his experiences, a condition which Adams evokes by means of one of his favorite images: "he was a spider and had to spin a new web [emphasis added] in some new place with a new attachment." (AE: 209)

In Europe, on the occasion of the traditional Grand Tour, the young Adams is faced up with the same problems he hoped to have left behind: "Education went backward" (AE:73). The English Black Districts of Manchester and Birmingham reveal a social oppression that chases away the idealistic haze in which Trollope and Thackeray had enshrouded English life in their novels. The disciplined training of the German students of Friedrichs-Wilhelm-Werdersches Gymnasium, whose student he is for a while, dramatizes the methods of a society founded on a rigid interpretation of law. Education is simply mechanical indoctrination, the leveling of all differences and variations:

All State education is a sort of dynamo machine for polarizing the popular mind; for turning and holding its lines of force in the direction supposed to be the most effective for State purposes. (AE: 78)

Since modern Western scene, both American and European, suggests nothing but violence and chaos, the protagonist of the Education moves back into history in quest of a true point of departure. In Rome, he does find a source without which "the Western world was pointless and fragmentary" (AE: 89). Yet, the historical chaos of the city makes "cool and minute investigation" impossible: "In spite of swarming impressions he knew no more when he left Rome than he did when he entered it" (AE: 93). The only moral to be inferred on the steps of the Church of Santa Maria di Ara Coeli is one of failure: ignominy to identify any meaningful pattern in human history:

One looked idly enough at the Forum or at St. Peter's, but one never forgot the look, and it never ceased reacting. To a young Bostonian, fresh from Germany, Rome seemed a pure emotion, quite free from economic or actual values, and he could not in reason or common sense foresee that it was mechanically piling up conundrum after conundrum in his educational path, which seemed unconnected but that he had got to connect; that seemed insoluble but had got to be somehow solved. Rome was not a beetle to be dissected and dropped; not a bad French novel to be read in a railway train and thrown out of the window after other bad French novels, the morals of which could never approach the immorality of Roman history. Rome was actual; it was England; it was going to be America. Rome could not be fitted into an orderly, middle-class, Bostonian, systematic scheme of evolution. No law of progress applied to it. Not even time-sequences--the last refuge of helpless historians--had value for it. The Forum no more led to the Vatican than the Vatican to the Forum. Rienzi, Garibaldi, Tiberius Gracchus, Aurelian might be mixed up in any relation of time, along with a thousand more, and never lead to a sequence. The great word Evolution had not yet, in 1860, made a new religion of history, but the old religion had preached the same doctrine for a thousand years without finding in the entire history of Rome anything but flat contradiction. (AE: 91)

From the Forum to San Pietro's, Adams traces the collapse of the West's two [ancient Rome and Vatican] most complicated and extended attempts at historical order, and concludes that "nothing proved that the city might not still survive to express the failure of a third" (AE: 91).

New advances in the natural and physical sciences seem to offer exciting possibilities of furthering one's understanding of the ways of the world and the ways of people. Replacing natural selection and natural uniformity with historical sequence and divine design respectively, Charles Darwin's theory on the evolution of species (1857) seems "the very best substitute for religion" (AE: 225). For all this, the attempt to affirm the protagonist's faith in the new theory breaks down in the face of Pteraspis, the fossil ganoid fish that Sir Charles Lyell (Principles of Geology, I-III, 1830-1833) made the original ancestor of man:

Out of his millions of millions of ancestors, back to the Cambrian mollusks, every one had probably lived and died in the illusion of Truths which did not amuse him, and which had never changed. (AE: 231)

The "accident" of Pteraspis shows the failure of the Darwinian evolutionary theory to account for accident and mutation. Like many other contemporary theories, it too leads to the inevitable conclusion that unity is mere wishful thinking:

Ponder over it as he might, Adams could see nothing in the theory of Sir Charles but pure inference, precisely like the inference of Paley, that, if one found a watch, one inferred a maker. He could detect no more evolution in life since Pteraspis than he could detect in architecture since the Abbey." (AE:230).

The protagonist of the Education is thus forced to admit that the eighteenth moral certainties with which he had been brought up, and their nineteenth century substitutes, with their belief in progress, cannot make sense of the modern world: "The progress of evolution from President Washington to president Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin" (AE:266).

Moreover, taken out of its scientific context, "evolution" provides Adams with a scale whereby he weighs up his own age. For a variety of reasons, Adams depicts himself, his generation but also Grant, or Garibaldi, "accidents" of evolution (Ch. 20 "Failure"), and concludes skeptically:

Evolution that did not evolve; Uniformity that was not uniform; and Selection that did not select. To other Darwinians--except Darwin--Natural Selection seemed a dogma to be put in the place of the Athanasian creed; it was a form of religious hope; a promise of ultimate perfection. Adams wished no better; he warmly sympathized in the object; but when he came to ask himself what he truly thought, he felt that he had no Faith; that whenever the next new hobby should be brought out, he should surely drop off from Darwinism like a monkey from a perch; that the idea of one Form, Law, Order, or Sequence had no more value for him than the idea of none... (AE: 231)

Every effort to understand ends in confusion: "... in the eyes of history he might, like the rest of the world, be only the vigorous player in the game he did not understand. The student was none the wiser" (AE: 95). Ultimately, all scientific theorizing breaks down in the fact of (his sister's) death:

The first serious consciousness of Nature's gesture--her attitude towards life--took form then as a phantasm, a nightmare, an insanity of force. For the first time, the stage-scenery of the senses collapsed; the human mind felt itself stripped naked, vibrating in a void of shapeless energies, with resistless mass, colliding, crushing, wasting, and destroying what these same energies had created and labored from eternity to perfect. Society became fantastic, a vision of pantomime with a mechanical motion; and its so-called thought merged in the mere sense of life, and the pleasure in the sense. The usual anodynes of social medicine became evident artifice. (AE: 288-9)

The "repetition" of the "accident" in his wife's suicide accounts for the ominous silence that surrounds twenty years of Adams' married life (1871-1892), which he variously labels as 'afterlife' or 'posthumous life'. In a letter to Henry Holt, dated March 8, 1886, Adams writes of "the only chapter of one's story for which one cares is closed forever, locked up, and put away, to be kept, as a sort of open secret, between oneself and eternity" (1983, 3: 5). Significantly, the metaphor equates his own life with a book that obviously he cannot author.

The great discourses of intellectual unity and order that were his Enlightenment heritage disintegrate in a progressive stepping up of chaos. Mont Blanc which, for Shelley, had been a symbol of the sublime, ordering "Power" behind all natural and mental processes ("Mont Blanc," 1816), becomes in the Education "a chaos of anarchic and purposeless forces" (AE: 289). Practically, "chaos" is the end of "education".

The unpredictable order of art

Henry Adams reveals man's quest for order as a vain dream and necessarily concludes on a Shakespearean note: "The rest is silence!" (AE: 504). The autobiographer discovers that only change remains permanent and states that only it can provide the necessary foundation of meaning, suspecting however that "the change might be only in himself" (AE: 402).

At the end of chapter 29 of the Education, the writer suggests, on a note that recalls James's World of Pure Experience (1912:5), that the only thing one might assume as true is relation. The study of history could be only the study of such relations: "Past history is only a value of relation to the future, and this value is wholly one of convenience" (AE: 488). By bringing to consciousness the historical relations into which one's own life is interwoven, the life-narrator is thus capable of understanding history, his own included.

Although autobiographer's pursuit of unity in the cosmos and directionality in history apparently fails, he discerns meaning in the diverse interrogations he makes of his own condition. In the preface to the Education Adams writes: "The training is partly the clearing away of obstacles, partly the direct application of effort" (AE: x). Ultimately, meaning resides in the individual alone, yet man deludes himself that his knowledge might ever replace the emptiness at the center of his being. In his anxious need for order, man only destroys the difference and multiplicity on which his being and world are founded. The final "historical proofs" refuse to resolve the paradoxes of existence; they only harbor more doubt. However, choice and construction make the autobiography significant of one's life experience. "Between the parts we see a connection which neither is, nor is it intended to be, the simple likeness of the course of a life of so many years, but which, because understanding is involved, expresses what the individual knows about the continuity of his life." (Dilthey 202:222, emphasis added).

For Adams, the rational quest for absolute values must ultimately acknowledge the impossibility of determining them. Yet, this very recognition perpetuates the search and necessitates continuing acts of interpretation, a view which he shares with William James, (Pragmatism's Conception of Truth, 1907). Every "lesson" that the manikin learns centers on a choice that can be neither justified nor repudiated on the basis of any code of values. Unable to define history, Adams struggles to develop a method of education based on his own incomplete knowledge:

Education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard, but by choice [emphasis added], on the lines of force that attract their world. (AE: 314)

He thus affirms the power of consciousness to assign significances to the accidental forces of a physically impelled universe. By a twist of irony, it is this capacity of man that makes his survival possible. The desire for discovering a final order has to be abandoned and so has "the traditional, unitary model of the self as innate and changeless in favor of a situational model of identity" (Eakin, 1992: 19).

The Saint-Gaudens monument at Rock Creek Church commissioned in memory of his wife (Marian Clover Hooper), which Adams briefly comments in The Education, is the very paradigm for this process. This is how Duco van Oostrum describes it:

With one hand touching the lower face on the right side, the figure appears lost in contemplation. Only the face, neck, part of the right side, breast and shoulder, and the lower right arm are not veiled underneath the uniquely colored bronze cloak, and the figure's eyes and mouth are closed. While the figure finally bears the dress of a female figure, the gender of the figure remains slightly ambiguous. The pose reflecting the acceptance of the inescapable fate links the hand to the face, while the coat apparently veils the material reality of the inevitable. (2000: 158-159)

A composite of diverse theological and philosophical ideas from Eastern religions, mythic archetypes, and the modern arts, devoid of any references,--significantly writing is notably absent from this Memorial--the figure expresses an ironic unity that denies the languages of man and appears to raise more questions than to reveal answers. Nevertheless, meaning and value are made possible in the very ambiguity of the figure.

Interpretation is not external to the sculpture but fundamental to its art, as Adams comments:

From the Egyptian Sphinx to the Kamakura Daibuts; from Prometheus to Christ; from Michael Angelo to Shelley, art had wrought on this eternal figure almost as though it had nothing else to say. The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer. (AE: 329)

The muteness of the figure should not be seen as a denial of man and consciousness. Rather, it embodies the dream of man for unity as it reveals the fundamental silence of any such total order. Playing upon one of his favorite images, Adams expresses his theory in the figure of the spider and its web:

For convenience as an image, the theory may liken man to a spider in its web, watching for chance prey. Forces of nature dance like flies before the net, and the spider pounces on them when it can; but it makes many fatal mistakes, though its theory of force is sound. The spider-mind acquires a faculty of memory, and, with it, a singular skill of analysis and synthesis, taking apart and putting together in different relations the meshes of its trap. (AE: 474)

Translating the image into the language of science, Adams formulates the following law: "A dynamic law requires that two masses--nature and man--must go on, reacting upon each other, without stop, as the sun and a comet react on each other, and that any appearance of stoppage is illusive" (AE: 478). Man's beliefs can never be certain, exact, or final. The quest for certainty has to be replaced by piecemeal, multidirectional efforts to verify and warrant existing opinions. At this point, Adams' view comes close to William James' own position, as expressed in his A World of Pure Experience, namely that experience is an active, ongoing affair in which experiencing subject (the knower) and experienced object (the known) constitute then primal, integral, relational unity. Experience remains existentially inclusive, continuous, and unified: it is that interaction which constitutes both the subject and the object--as partial, interrelated features of an otherwise active, yet unanalyzed totality (1912: 10-26). Man is condemned to the critical activity of making tentative meanings to deal with natural forces. "Failure and incompletion become laws of adaptation, suggesting the constant effort needed to make any sense out of a constantly changing universe, and to discover their own nature... The center of man's meaning is his own design, as elusive as the shifting interpretations he makes of his world" (Rowe 1976: 127).

An entire system of values depends upon man's ability to affirm his own power to interpret his world, however illusory and deceptive such a world might be. In his own way, and despite repeated failures, Adams envisages some possibilities of emancipation. Finally, he seems to have identified a method to articulate the functional interchange between man's dream of unity and experience of multiplicity that is as effective in its own way. Cutting and piecing together the history of his "education", Adams constitutes meaning(s) in the very struggle to find a place for himself in a bewildering modern world. The obligation that one must choose from among the disconnected narrative of a life in order to be-in-the-world remains constant. Although the scientific accuracy of "A Dynamic Theory" collapses in the end, the artistic qualities of the Education endure and Adams dramatizes his own notion that "unable to define Force as a unity, man symbolized it and pursued it, both in himself, and in the infinite, as philosophy and theology..." (AE: 476), and, we should add, as art too. His solution is an attempt to bridge the gap that separates imagination and science. Finally, "the historian of the self" comes to value the world created by his imaginative will as highly as the world which his senses, or the intellect, reveal to him. Thus, while testifying to the possible collapse of the modern mind through its acknowledged failure to arrive at a positive formulation of historical experience, the Education paradoxically yields illuminating insight into Adams' own life, reaffirming the vital, redemptive power of self-writing, and the humanizing importance of art on the subject of history.


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van Oostrum, D (2000) All that it had to say. Henry Adams and the Rock Creek Memorial. Memory and Memorials, 1789-1914: Literary and cultural perspectives, pp 147-159. Campbell M, Labbe JM, Shuttleworth S, eds. London: Routledge.

Rowe JC (1976) Henry Adams and Henry James: the emergence of a modern consciousness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Saint Augustine (1961) Confessions. Pine Coffin RS, trans. London: Penguin.

Shelley PB (1839) Mont Blanc. The poetical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 3: 28-33. Mrs. Shelley, ed. London: Edward Moxon.

Remus Bejan

Ovidius University

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Title Annotation:The creative process
Author:Bejan, Remus
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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