Devolution, Triviality, and Vocation


“Ruskin and Carlyle feared it nearly a hundred years ago,” said John Crowe Ransom in 1930, meaning by “it” industrialism. “And now,” he continued, “it may be said that their fears have been realized partly in England, and with almost fatal completeness in America.”

In 1930!

Ransom’s critique was pretty thoroughgoing. Industrialism “means the decision of society to invest its economic resources in the applied sciences”; “the modern laborer has not exactly received” the benefit of leisure and enjoyment “under the industrial regime. His labor is hard, its tempo is fierce, and his employment is insecure.”

And, under industrialism, “the God of nature … is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in the religious experience is not there for us to have.”

The effects of industrialism extend even to education: “The young men and women in colleges[,] … if they are already placed in a false way of life, cannot make more than an inconsequential acquaintance with the arts and humanities transmitted to them. Or else the understanding of these arts and humanities will but make them the more wretched in their own destitution.”

All of this is fairly well-known to anyone familiar with Ransom’s “Statement of Principles” in I’ll Take My Stand or with its lead essay, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” also by Ransom.

I dip into this book frequently. It annoys me some, as any book with a whiff here and there of racism should, but it also gives me a great deal of pleasure and hope, because, on the whole, its weaknesses notwithstanding, it is a right-minded book. It looks back to what we all can (and must) look forward to: a life founded on the soil—whatever soil is left to us, that is. Our lives are land-based, no matter our attempts to hover above the glebe.

Now one of the easiest acts of dissent available to anyone reading this book is to accuse it of “nostalgia,” which, as we all know, is a Bad Thing.

(If you’re going to do this you should practice using the phrase “for a past that never existed,” because nostalgia in and of itself isn’t Bad Enough. Your luddite enemies must always be “nostalgic for a past that never existed,” even though the past here ridiculed did, and in some communities still does, exist.)

And, because nostalgia is a Bad Thing, we should never indulge it. We should never let ourselves feel homesick.

But Ransom anticipated even this: Nostalgia “is hardly a technical term in our sociology or our psychiatry, but it might as well be. Nostalgia is a kind of growing-pain, psychically speaking. It occurs to our sorrow when we have decided that it is time for us, marching to some magnificent destiny, to abandon an old home, an old provincial setting, or an old way of living to which we had become habituated.”

Nostalgia, said Ransom, is an “instinctive objection to being transplanted.”

For my part I will have none of this easy accusation against homesickness, usually hurled by those whose lives are not inheritable. I mean the comfortably deracinated. If they are incapable of nostalgia, then may they rot in their vinyl-clad suburban cartoons of country living. Nostalgia isn’t a Bad Thing. It may in fact be the one salvific sentiment available to a secular age. If there is any truth to our governing paradigm—creation, fall, redemption—then surely the backward glance is worth a turn of the head.

Back then: back to the pleasure and hope. There’s pleasure in the well-wrought line, and hope in its efficacy: “Industrialism is a program under which men, using the latest scientific paraphernalia, sacrifice comfort, leisure, and the enjoyment of life to win Pyrrhic victories from nature at points of no strategic importance.”

I wonder if there has been a more fitting phrase leveled against us in the intervening eighty-two years than “to win Pyrrhic victories from nature at points of no strategic importance.”

What are the victories available to us for celebration? Improved strategies for killing foreign “enemies”? “Greener” strategies for doing so? Uninterrupted entertainment? Cars with cameras that show us what we’re about to back into? Texting? Rock-hard odorless tomatoes in February? Improved techniques—and more sophisticated legal arrangements—for the infertile?

Meanwhile, at the points of strategic importance, we lose: topsoil erodes, aquifers drain, communities, along with marriages and parishes, fail.

Ransom said, “Industrialism is an insidious spirit, full of false promises and generally fatal to establishments since, when it once gets into them for a little renovation, it proposes never again to leave them in peace.”

Need we look further than those addicted to their hand-held devices to see what this prescient sentence anticipated? No wonder that Lyle Lanier, in his contribution to the same book, called progress a “public anæsthetic”–and advertising the “modern magic” of “social control.” No one who thoughtlessly caves in to what’s for sale is at peace, and the most frightening part of this is how unsettled, how ill-at-ease, how unpeaceable our children are. I can hand around a bucket filled with water and collect, with impunity, the iPhones that appear in class, but ask the ham-strung high school teacher what his or her options are when the quadratic equation has to compete with what Mackenzie is doing over in homeroom, and you have some measure of what Ransom meant when he said industrialism “proposes never again to leave them in peace.”

What was it Eliot said? Distracted from distraction by distraction?

Industrialism has devolved into triviality, and, when what is trivial won’t let us be, we may be sure we’ve been successfully trivialized. Industrialism is “rightfully a menial, of almost miraculous cunning but no intelligence,” Ransom said.

As we move deeper into this election cycle and hear more about job-creation, we would do well to remember Ransom’s critique. Our economy must create jobs, we are told. And it is assumed by those who tell us this that we’re too stupid to notice that our economy has always had its sights set on the exact opposite: on eliminating jobs. A “growing” economy will always require the introduction of a labor-saving device, which, said Ransom, “does not emancipate the laborers … so much as it evicts them.”

This is the story of American farming no less than of Oldsmobile. The harvester and the robot alike evicted laborers. Perhaps it is time to think not of labor but of work—or, rather, not of work but of vocation–the “best and most sensitive” of which, said Ransom, is “the culture of the soil.” It “should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.”

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