Saturday, April 4, 2015

His World Fails Him

I noticed the other day in Sketches From a Life by George Kennan, a passage from 1959:
A man's life, I reflected, is too long a span today for the pace of change. If he lives more than a half century, his familiar world, the world of his youth, fails him like a horse dying under its rider, and he finds himself dealing with a new one which is not really his. A curious contradiction, this: that as medicine prolongs man's span of life, the headlong pace of technological change tends to deprive him, at an earlier age than was ever before the case, of the only world he understand and the only one to which he can be fully oriented. For it is only the world of one's youth, the nature of which is absorbed with that tremendous sensitivity and thirst for impression that only childhood and early youth provide--it is only this world that answers to the description. The Western world, at least, must today be populated in very great part by people  like myself who have outlived thier own intellectual and emotional environment, and who are old not only in the physical and emotional sense, but also in relation to the time.  We older people are the guests of this age, permitted to haunt its strange and somewhat terrifying halls--in a way part of its life, like the guests in a summer hotel, yet in a similar way detached from it. We sometimes talk with the hotel staff. We are listened to with interest, amusement, or boredom, depending on the relevance of our words.
A look at the front matter showed that Kennan was then 54 or 55, a bit younger than I am now. It does not say that in a couple of years he would again be an ambassador, this time to Yugoslavia.

I don't think that the pace of change increased that substantially in the twentieth century. Think of the revolutions, not simply in government but in technology and thought, that an American born in 1795 or a Frenchman born in 1782 would have seen in seventy years. John Lukacs makes such a case in his Confessions of an Original Sinner:
Well before the Sixties I found that in the twentieth century--surely after 1945--we were living in a world of intellectual near-stagnation, that the movement of ideas had slowed down, something that Tocqueville observed and predicted in a chapter of Democracy in America with the title: "Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare." What I saw in the Sixties was that the stagnation was now near-complete, with the pendulum moving back and forth without advancing at all--something that people  obsessed with superficial appearances (and with words such as "progressive" or "revolutionary") mistake entirely, unable as they are to distinguish between motion and direction, or between position and tendency, their very seeing and hearing having  been impaired by public spectacle and public noise.
As for the world I live in, I am used enough to being heard with amusement or boredom. I have to say that the the world that we live in remains largely understandable. Many of its features I would not have imagined, but I think that I understand the principles by which they developed, and see their seeds in an earlier time. Now, I never had at all the hand in my world that Kennan did in his, and so my loss of touch should be relatively the less. But I think he overstated the matter.

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