Commentary Magazine

Culture and the Abyss

No matter what the range and virtues of English literature, it is not a literature notable for tragedy. Shakespeare and a few others aside, even when we come to the “darker” literature in English—not tragedy precisely, but various misanthropic views, records of personal suffering, testaments of pessimism, or of frenetic ecstasy—more often than not the writer turns out to be not so much “English” as Gaelic. The virtues of English civilization are manifold, but there seems in it some essential failure to appreciate that side or depth of life Nietzsche meant by “Dionysian”—beneath the social, beneath human individuation, the threatened or promised collapse of man-made civilization and the absorption of man into a kind of ego-less insignificance both terrifying and ecstatic: “the tremendous terror which seizes man when he is suddenly dumbfounded by the cognitive form of phenomena because the principle of sufficient reason, in some one of its manifestations, seems to suffer an exception,” and the “blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis.”

“Failure to appreciate” is perhaps the wrong phrase. Nietzsche often writes as a kind of votary of the Dionysian, and I suggest to no one that he share the enthusiasm. Failure sufficiently to recognize is closer to what I mean—a clear and steady imagining of a realm of existence prior to and beneath human culture and still a potentiality because we have been individuated from nature only recently as historical time goes. Call it, as many have, the “abyss”: the moral chaos before the conclusion of Aeschylus's Oresteia; the irrational fate that Oedipus cannot escape; the witches' brew of Macbeth; the cold grayness of the world of Hamlet, ready at any time to blossom hotly into a chancre. Human success, happiness, ease, association, are fragile because human-made; the abyss is wider and deeper and bides its time.

But if that ego-less space motivates the tragic form to such an extent that there is no “tragic” without the recognition of it, tragedy in turn is really a celebration of human culture, as if to say: “Human artifice may be fragile, at worst a stop-gap, but it is what we have to differentiate us from all that out there.” “Reason not the need,” says Lear to Goneril and Regan, who question his requiring the superfluous accoutrements of state.

               Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's.

After Shakespeare, Thomas Hobbes comes close to imagining the abyss, with his famous characterization in Leviathan of life in a state of nature: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The state of nature we are led to observe by John Locke, on the other hand, is not fundamentally different from a state of law, and in this Locke seems to me a more typically English thinker; while it is true for him that in a state of nature men's “lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name ‘property,’” are in jeopardy, a man still has a right to his property through the law of nature. Consequently, the social contract simply insures what nature has given him. In Hobbes, however, the pre-political state of nature is a much more terrifying affair, fundamentally different from the state of law:

The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body nor mind. . . . They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition that there be no property, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to be every man's that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it. And thus much for the ill condition which man by mere nature is actually placed in. . . .

I am not equating Hobbes's nasty brutishness with Nietzsche's Dionysian, but simply suggesting them both as images of the abyss below culture and civilization—the kind of image that is rare in English letters. Aside from occasional Gothic novels suiting a fashion, wonderful fantasies passed off as opium dreams, prophetic books of genius, depictions of psychological abortion amid general good health—none claiming a tragic vision—the darkness that one is usually invited to view by English literature is that of the malfunctioning of a given social order. Plenty of critics have observed that English literature is primarily a middle-class literature, especially since the 19th century—that is, a literature directed at an upwardly-mobile class of readers, a literature of manners, serving alternately as a kind of collective courtesy book and as a critique of the existing social ways. This leaves room for a very narrow view of tragedy as social or political failure. It is not Sophoclean; not Shakespearean.

Are we in contact here with some national characteristic? English philosophy tends to fluctuate between empiricism and idealism. In both, man's relation to the world, nature, the out-there, is fixed and assured, inspiring confidence; in both a profound pragmatism reigns. For the empiricist, nature serves man by its solidity; for the idealist, nature “might as well” be there, for our actions inevitably assume it. English culture is never in danger of being overwhelmed. Programs fail, empires disappear, the common experience of the race is undergone, but English culture always appears the equal of nature. For it, the abyss is at best a neurotic fantasy—the obsession of weird Germans seeking Teutonic mysteries in some dark forest, the stock imagery of French poets hyped-up on drugs and symboliste language, the frenetic attempt of American novelists to find a usable past in a dead puritanism in order to have a past, the self-indulgence of Russian misanthropes, wallowing in unreason and imagining a tortured incestuous embrace with Mother Russia under a bloody icon.

English commonsense has provided the Englishman with more physical, emotional, and social comfort than any other European, and has provided him and hundreds of expatriate continentals with an extraordinary degree of liberty. In the 19th century Walter Bagehot found the French, unlike his English, “not dull enough to be free.” “Why are we free and they slaves? We praetors and they barbers? Why do stupid people always win?” Bagehot's answer: “What we opprobriously call stupidity, though not an enlivening quality in common society, is Nature's favorite resource for preserving steadiness of conduct and consistency of opinion”—which is both an intelligent celebration of dullness and its rewards and, typically, an offhand assumption that culture is the mirror of nature rather than something which keeps us from falling into it. There is something admirable about this commonsensicalness, what Orwell called the “humbug and decency [and] subtle net of compromises.” But I suggest again, realizing the relative smallness of my concern, that such a milieu does not nourish great tragic literature—a point of interest to a literary critic; and I wonder, with little hope of a clear answer, if it doesn't effect some essential human cost.


Surely one of the most tragic books of this century is Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. First, it is a heroic book—dogged (“But if we want to know . . . we must clearly attack another problem”) and argumentative in spite of being tentative and nervous. More important, it evinces a clear and steady imagining of the abyss and a willingness to observe both nature and civilization without sentimentality.

The existence of this inclination to aggression which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbor and which forces civilization into such a high expenditure. In consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work in common will not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests. Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man's aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestation of them in check by psychical reaction-formations. Hence, therefore, the use of methods intended to incite people into identifications and aim-inhibited relationships of love, hence the restriction upon sexual life, and hence too the ideal's commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself—a commandment which is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man.

The last clause especially contains an irony like nothing I know in English letters.

But I assume the general outline of Freud's argument in this book is familiar. I would like to look for a moment at the first chapter, which was originally published separately. It is a curious essay. Freud describes his correspondence with a friend—later identified as Romain Rolland—in which the friend reported having experienced a kind of “oceanic feeling,” “a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded,” which he suggested as the source of religious sentiment. Freud doubts this, in detailed fashion; and as for the “oceanic feeling,” he writes that he cannot discover it in himself. Something related, perhaps. For while ordinarily “there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, of our own ego,” there are states in which the external boundaries of the ego seem to disappear and we are somehow a part of something larger. The possible experience of being in love, for instance, when “the boundary between the ego and the object threatens to melt away”; or the sure experience of the infant, who does not “distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensation flowing in upon him.” Later in life the individual marks out the space of his ego (in ways familiar to Freud's readers) but even then there remains something of the earlier state.

Our present ego-feeling is . . . only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive—indeed, an all-embracing—feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it. If we may assume that there are many people in whose mental life this primary ego-feeling has persisted to a greater or lesser degree, it would exist in them side by side with the narrower and more sharply demarcated ego-feeling of maturity, like a kind of counterpart to it.

A kind of oceanic feeling.

Now, this essay in Civilization and Its Discontents does not exhibit the profound (and, paradoxically, inspiring) pessimism of the rest of the book. But it uses the same method (for want of a better word). As if to say: I do not find precisely what I am looking for; I find something very much like it; I do not like what I find; here it is. What Freud finds, the “here it is,” is that civilization is as fragile as it is necessary, it is threatened by the very same moral chaos and undifferentiated rapacity out of which it arose; and that the individual ego is equally fragile, its boundaries never really certain, counterpart even yet with a more primal feeling. More important—in some way both civilization and ego are denials, are denatured nature. Civilization is the repression of instinct, a trade of happiness for longevity. Ego is a “shrunken residue” of a more inclusive feeling. Neither man nor his culture is “natural.”

Freud's book is so rich and complex that it is easy to mistake. Some “followers” have said, “Consequently, let us tighten the restrictions on man”; others, “Consequently, to hell with civilization.” Both miss the point. The suggestion that ego and civilization are denatured nature, so to speak, that they are against the original nature of man, does not mean that they are artificial in any effete sense. The very fact that they are sustained in a tension against nature means that they are profoundly related to it in a kind of longing and hostile embrace. This is no deracinated, epicene view of man and culture; civilization is not what we mean in the bad sense of the word “cultivation,” has nothing to do with teacups, delightful conversational trivia, pale bookishness. Freud's view of civilization is a thoroughly tragic one; it grows out of a clear and steady imagining. Another way to put it is that for him civilization is always in danger of being overwhelmed.

Again, it is precisely this view that I do not find in English culture as a rule. Overwhelmed? No; civilization is the equal of nature, as it is its assumed reflection. If, as Kenneth Burke has remarked, “men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss,” then it seems to me that the structure of English culture was completed long ago and most energy since has gone into elaborating on it, with only a very occasional glance beneath. It is there now, as something like an institution, animated not by any particular felt necessity. Consequently, while English commonsensicalness is nothing if not admirable, there is something worn and yet adolescent about English civilization.



Before I ever went to England I had been told I would find the landscape a singular sight. It does not loom over one as in the United States; it is human-sized, as if created intentionally for man to feel at home; the rivers are quintessentially “bridgeable,” the mountains within reasoned scope; the fields do not reach into the distance but rather are interrupted and contained within one's vision by something of moderate height, a hill, a hedge. Nature on a human scale, in other words.

But my impressions were more extreme than that—English nature seemed to me not so much on a human scale as somehow smaller than human. The landscape was not merely contained within reasonable limits, but altogether lacked the power to overwhelm; one was on a level footing with it. There is a story by Tolkien, called “Leaf by Niggle,” about a landscape painter who has a journey to take, a kind of fantastic death, and who discovers that the journey is into a landscape he has already painted and indeed, in the logic of this fantasy, is the painting itself—“a mountain-peak and a spray of leaves.” An accidental metaphor but to the purpose—a very small landscape indeed.

These impressions returned to me in Spain three Augusts ago, partially out of sheer contrast with the Spanish landscape (always startling and seldom less than just short of oppressive). But they returned in a way and for a reason which intensified them and created an illusion, at least, of cultural significance—a chain of associations and observations. There seemed something consistent between the English landscape and the relative absence of a vision of the abyss in English letters, as if English literary culture were an internalization of place—and, given the modes and gestures of English people abroad, as if the internalization of the culture itself ill-suited one to appreciate, or even to notice, beyond the flicker of an eye, the surroundings abroad.

Accident had it that I was fairly well surrounded by English people in Spain; which was at first a comfort before it became an unexpected amusement which yielded finally to a kind of unnerving impatience. I have made my living as a kind of professional Anglophile, professing things English in university English departments, and to a degree internalizing that culture as a standard of sanity and perceptiveness. So I was not prepared for my mild disappointment with the legitimate inheritors of English culture, not prepared for my ironic feelings about that cliché so long accepted as admirable: the whiskey neat in Malaya, the high tea in Africa. But there was something about the Englishmen I met that suggested a lack of adventure, as if they were simply making their vacation an extension of the familiar, carrying the familiar with them in their baggage. Not a defensive or assertive behavior—a screwing-oneself-up—but one which suggested that nothing was in question for them: neither their identity, their place in the world, nor the meaning of the place they happened to be at the moment. I may be exaggerating, but the English capacity to be unmarked by surroundings, as if all surroundings were somehow smaller than the occupant, depressed me when it didn't amuse me. To put it at its least worthy and most self-indulgent, I confess to annoyance that the English were not overwhelmed by a place that moved me so deeply. And if I was not prepared for these thoughts about the English, neither was I for my response to the place.

I wish to be clear that what moved me about Spain was not the popular image, La Leyenda Negra: the land of blood-soaked earth, Inquisition, oppressive priestly black, repressed desire and suppressed ambition, cold arrogance and hot anger, the Escorial, the Alcázar, interminable fratricide, death and Christ the King in an embrace of mutual endorsement. (Bernanos reports the satisfaction of a Nationalist bishop with the opportunities for confession afforded to Loyalist prisoners: “Only 10 per cent of these dear children refused the last sacraments before being dispatched by our good officers.” A Basque priest recalls the execution of a Loyalist by Carlists: arms extended as if in crucifixion, he was commanded to cry, “Viva Cristo el Rey!” as his limbs were amputated.) It was not that rampant and murderous sentimentality that moved me; I am a Southerner and I've heard enough paeans to the dark and bloody ground and had enough literary necrophilia to last a lifetime.

Rather, there was a kind of formality and elegance of speech and movement—absolutely classless—which impressed me much more deeply than English formalism; a range of alternating rhythms and gestures, swift and then slow-moving, brooding, subtle, and graceful, a gesture of the soul rather than mere external manners—as if there were something necessary about it. And the prevalent formality of the Spaniards—altered in degrees by personal style, to be sure, receding into the background of gesture now but reappearing with the force of a ritual at unexpected moments—in its turn seemed somehow consistent with the size and overwhelmingness of the Spanish surroundings.

I take it that the culture of a nation reveals itself in the commonality of ready assumptions, tones, physical and mental inflections, that it is nothing but bibliophilic oddity if it reflects only the heated thoughts of poets or ambitious philosophical systems. Culture—or its formalized distillation into gesture, movement, and speech—is not exactly the mirror of nature, as Bagehot might have assumed it to be, but it can be something close to that: a kind of arrogant imitation of the landscape which is at the same time a form of homage to it. The Spaniards' dark formality and sullen grace suggested that they knew something. I can only guess, but I had the impression within a few days that what they knew was connected intimately with the physical environment of their country.



The particular province doesn't matter; it includes all of Spain: plains, tablelands, mountains, sea. One can easily enter the mountains from the village I lived in; they look down upon you and roll off into the distance. Or one can drive thirty miles or so into the flat-lands and turn to look at the mountains in the distance on a level with one's eyes. As one drives back, approaching the mountains gradually, they are bluish gray in contrast to the prevailing light brown, burnt yellow, of the flatlands. That burnt color is as much a matter of heat and dryness of air as it is literal hue, but it tends to obliterate the considerable greenery—the almond trees, for instance—which fixes itself in your vision only when you focus on it consciously and exclusively.

I gradually left the flatlands behind and drove into the mountains, exiting finally from a serpentine road over the hump of the range onto the equally serpentine coastal range. As you travel this road, the range rises above you and the cliffs step down below you to the sea. Where a cliff does not plunge directly into the sea, it plunges to the shoulders of another, and that to another until the sea is reached. Only rarely are the peaks of the range not visible—a thousand feet, I suppose, above. A sheer face of rock, pock-marked, resting on a green bulge of mountain-side which farther down rests in turn on a series of rock-walled terraces, shaped there, I was told, by the Moors. There are long stretches of road with no terraces visible, and then they appear again, sometimes on either side or inside of an occasional village, sometimes in the middle of nowhere. Always on this road you are held, it seems, on doubtfully secure space: riding the hip of the range which is itself merely leaning inland from the sea.

My destination was a promontory to the north which I'd been told I should see. The approach to the peninsula is through a port which has become a vacation land—the result of sitting approximate to a natural beach five or six miles long. Mid-afternoon, I was tired from the drive, didn't want to cope with accommodations late at night; so I selected the hotel nearest my parking-space, registered, and deposited my traveling possessions in the room—a very few clothes, the Freud I was reading sporadically for no particular purpose, and a textbook on tragedy I was dutifully lugging about in intended preparation for a course I was to teach in the fall. Then I went out to the street to recuperate with coffee before driving out on the peninsula. I was startled by the waiter's greeting—in English. English had not been a useful language where I had been, but here it was; most of the tourists here were English.

The peninsula is about thirteen kilometers long and no more than three at its widest point, so that it's often the case that you're looking at the northern stretch of sea one moment, and after turning the next bend, looking at the southern stretch. But first one has to leave the puerto and drive toward what appears an impassable mountain which rises sheerly and without subtlety from a vast, flat field. Then, after zigzagging back and forth up the face of the mountain, one descends a gradually easing decline, increasingly wooded, into a valley some four or five kilometers long and so heavily wooded that there is no evidence at all to the eye of being among mountains. The road rolls through this valley, the forest aggressively green to either side.

After a while—it did not occur to me to time the journey—I was out of the forest. Around one curve, with the barest of road-shoulder protection—a few small boulders, a decaying fence—would appear the sea, seemingly directly some few hundred feet below; around another curve, a deep, blanched valley spotted with boulders and lined with useless stone walls and pinching inland behind me; around another, totally unprepared for, some two hundred feet below the level of the road with no visible traverse to it, an absolutely flat hilltop which reached out toward the sea, becoming at its farthest extremity a ledge of rock and plunging as a cliff to the water.

The very end of the peninsula is an enormous cylinder of rock rising some five or six hundred feet out of the sea, perhaps two hundred in diameter at the top, a lighthouse dead center; and claimed by half-a-dozen aging mountain sheep, obese, their wool browning, with bells about their necks.

I got out and walked about, thoughts aimless, half listening to the silence interrupted by bells until the bells faded; the sheep, follow-the-leader, walked slowly down beside the road to the foot of the mountain until they looked like brown shrubbery moving and resting. It was now getting toward twilight—the sun descended from view while I was there—but there was no suggestion of fading of light. The visible air was simply of a different quality about the area—less the luminous, burning haze—and allowed the scene a fantastically etched clarity: rocks and sturdy shrubs and the silence like an absence of movement.

This was the sort of place that could be described in travel brochures as “beautiful, wild nature in the raw”; I had unthinkingly assumed something like that. And it was raw and beautiful; but beautiful in a harsh and brutal way almost indistinguishable from ugly—all angularity and absence of soft line, emphatic, chiseled, stark. I found myself admiring the place for its aesthetic brutality as fixedly as one would admire uncompromised beauty, and recognizing a surprising quality in the surroundings which was far from wild, and seemed instead . . . formal: the brownness, the whiteness, the solidity, the clarity, the quiet; a whole concert of shape, color, and quality seeming to contain something.


I do not remember when I first gazed with attention at the sea, which from a six-hundred-foot high water's edge looked more expansive than I had ever seen it. So I cannot tell if it was that belittling expanse or the locked-in rock immobility which first made me begin to feel so lonely. In any case, I did feel a loneliness that was profound, seemed to resonate, and was of a quality unrelated to mere isolation. On the seaward side of the rock was a low stone wall for the protection of visitors. I turned and walked to it, settled my palms upon its top, and looked to the sea for some time, trying to see where the knife-point white of waves became gentle undulations and finally glazed surface farther out. After a few minutes I became aware with a start that although I was looking straight ahead, the horizon was not where it was supposed to be—it came into view only when I raised my eyes. The horizon was above the level of where I stood, and straight ahead was the sea tilted up and away. I realized then of course that I was simply not standing straight, that I had been leaning outward without being aware. But I was chilled: the explanation seemed inadequate. I felt in some way I had been attracted or pressed outward.

I know perfectly well that it is possible to have an unrealized suicidal compulsion lacking specific motivation, an experience of frightened attraction to something expansive and inclusive and undifferentiated—an experience which is real and inevitable, given the right moment. It should not be confused with that conscious flirtation with death that some people convert into a badge of moral superiority and insight, claiming for themselves a greater profundity than those of us who merely wish to live. I am not at all certain that the experience I am describing is a good one to have.

Upright now, I looked in an angle over the edge of the rock, but the closest water I could see must have been a hundred yards from shore; the stone wall kept me from standing at the edge. I moved down several yards to where the wall was closer to the edge, but still I could not see the water line below. So I leaned over intentionally this time, then crawled over, and finally kneeled at the very edge of the rock and peered down to see the water. I had to look down and slightly back and under before I could see clearly where sea met rock: the rock itself was leaning appreciatively toward the sea. So I hadn't been standing straight up before, but on and somehow with the rock, my posture conforming to the shape of things.

I climbed back to the other side of the stone wall and stood looking inland, scanning the giant rock, and feeling a weighted pressure in the air about me. With no sun visible to seize my attention, all things seemed intent upon this rock leaning out toward the sea which was battering away just under it. The mountain faced this point; the range behind peered over the closest mountain toward this point; the cartographic lines of the peninsula, as I recalled my journey here, formed a slender, imperfect triangle converging on this place.

All things focused on this rock and the sea. The sea was silently lashing away at the rock as it had been doing forever. It was expansive, reaching as far as I could see and as wide; and the lines of vision, center, left, and right, seemed to correspond to some immense funnel ushering all that sea to this point. There was something quiet and intentional about it. Odds were in its favor: given the mute method and fierceness, it was sure to topple the rock someday. And no secret to the rock cylinder. But until then, it would stand its ground and absorb the violence—locked anyway in this elemental dance. And both in recognition of what must inevitably happen, and in defiance of it, the rock leaned out over and toward the sea: a strong, quiet, formal gesture.

I was seized with a feeling so heavy it was suffocating and seemed to reach down into my body—my muscles were aching, I realized; a feeling that I did not belong here and that warred with my desire to remain. I walked to my car, and drove away, knowing, when I was able to sort out wishes, that what I needed most at this moment was a chance to ease into the privacy of a comfortable chair in a public place and reflect, preferably surrounded by the half-heard conversation of confident English voices.

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