Science and Art
To the Editor:
John P. Sisk’s “The Fear of Affluence” [June] . . . is staggering in its sweep over historical cases—ranging from medieval anchorites through our founding Pilgrims (both the ascetic and the dissolute ones) to Timothy Leary and Janis Joplin. And it is equally staggering in its incessant doctrinal references—drawing on Freudian, Reichean, Romanticist, Anarchist, and other theories for explanations of its cases. Yet nothing much emerges as a finding or conclusion regarding the role of affluence in America. . . . The reason for such a disappointing outcome—in this as in many other social essays by “intellectuals”—may lie in the anomaly that the subject is sociological while the treatment is essentially literary: while the subject calls for a social-science analysis, it gets from Mr. Sisk mainly illustrations, analogies, and assumptions.
His article is written around a notion which may have once been a real insight, namely the possibility that many Americans have a puritanical fear of affluence—as a form of indulgence that weakens the character, diminishes the drive to achievement, and may thus amount to “sin.” Stated so baldly, this notion appears to be not very original with Mr. Sisk (pace Gibbon on the ancient Romans, Spengler on the West, Schumpeter on the capitalist entrepreneurs, Thomas Mann on Germans. . . .). But Mr. Sisk might still have had a subject if he had presented this notion for detailed application to Americans today.
However, in that event he would have been obliged to test the hypothesis against evidence, such as the behavior of various groups at different levels of affluence at any time, or the behavior of any given group evolving over time. He might even have been obliged to measure the pervasiveness of the alleged “fear,” and to assess its weight in various connections. At the least we might expect Mr. Sisk to define “affluence”—rather than merely to use it as a polar extreme to “poverty,” while admitting no intermediate degrees. He might then not have been able so easily to boost the Plains Indians from poverty to affluence once the Spaniards introduced the horse; and he might not so easily have attributed the wastage of resources (such as the slaughter of the bison on our Great Plains) to a supposition of endless affluent resources—rather than to an equally plausible postulate of headlong competition to get one’s share of an evidently shrinking resource. We might also expect Mr. Sisk to define “adversity,” or to distinguish the kind of hardship which disciplines men, and sometimes ennobles them, from the kinds of hardships which are known only to make life “nasty, brutish and short.”
Indeed, Mr. Sisk’s approach is quite representative of the special class which denominates itself as “the intellectuals”—thereby usually referring to literary persons writing about social and moral questions, and writing about them in an image-building or illustrative way. . . . The style, the spectacle, the verbal impact are mainly what such intellectuals are seeking—not a test of hypotheses against objective experience and real constraints. Much the same is true of a lot of current apocalyptic writing about “the limits to growth.” . . . What is revealed in such socio-literary essays is ultimately a fear of evidence, along with an affluence of rhetoric.
Edwin P. Reubens
Department of Economics
City College of New York
New York City
John P. Sisk writes:
I am aware that in responding to Edwin P. Reubens’s letter I am responding to an ancient complaint, directed on this occasion not so much against me as against those writers, many of whom appear in this publication, who write social criticism from an operational base in the humanities. For better or worse, I have been doing this for a quarter of a century, and so have encountered the complaint many times. Generally, it takes the form that Mr. Reubens has given it: calling my attention to the “anomaly that the subject is sociological while the treatment is essentially literary.” So I must once again ask: Why is it better, or more relevant, or more valid to write of social and moral questions in “a scientific and demonstrative way” than in “an image-building and illustrative way”? Why are not the “ways” simply the consequence of different perspectives, each potentially as valid as the other and each potentially capable of reinforcing or complementing the other? Does Mr. Reubens think that it is possible to read literature, especially American literature, without being aware of the relevance to it of psychological, sociological, and economic perspectives? I suspect that he, along with so many other complainers I have encountered, has not been able to shake the notion that literature exists in an enclave apart from the world in which the social sciences happen, so that if one wishes to venture out of it across the two-culture gap he had better disguise himself as someone who belongs on the other side.
As for the more specific complaints. Surely it is as safe for me to assume that COMMENTARY readers will understand interrelated relative terms like “affluence,” “poverty,” and “adversity” as it is for Mr. Reubens to assume that I will understand him when, without defining his term, he classes me with the “intellectuals.” I should think that the tone of my essay makes it clear that I do not believe affluence and poverty to be extremes that admit of no intermediate degrees, though the gradations between the extremes are not my subject. I do not think of what I wrote about the American’s “puritanical fear of affluence” as the presentation of an original insight, but as an effort to present what is a matter of public record in the widest possible context. But then, what insight would seem original once it was “baldly” stated? Mr. Reubens is quite right in distinguishing between the adversity that ennobles man and that which brutalizes him. I believe, as I think he does, that the champions of the school of adversity have too often ignored the distinction, whether out of ignorance or selfishness. But again, I believe that the tone of my treatment makes it clear that I do not take the rhetoric of the school of adversity at face value any more than I take the rhetoric of the school of passional experience at face value. See, for instance, my treatment of Andrew Carnegie throughout and my treatment of the romance of adversity. I must believe that Mr. Reubens—bothered as he is by the absence in my essay of hypotheses that can be tested against “objective experience and real constraints,” by my “fear of evidence,” and by my apocalyptic pessimism—is really accusing me of not writing the sort of essay I had no intention to write, but which both of us would be quite happy to read if someone did write it.
I should take this occasion to correct an oversight. The title of Francis Haines’s book, from which I quoted extensively in the last section of my essay, is The Buffalo.