Commentary Magazine


The Public Happiness, by August Heckscher

Soft Advice, Hard Problems

The Public Happiness.
by August Heckscher.
Atheneum. 344 pp. $5.75.

If everyone where as humane, sweet-tempered, rational, and liberal-minded as August Heckscher there would have been no need for him to write this book. Paradoxically, these qualities, so engaging in the man as he reveals himself in these pages, are the very ones which, in the end, make The Public Happiness seem so irrelevant. One puts it down with a wistful sigh, wishing that Mr. Heckscher’s understanding of our society were true, for then its problems would be soluble in the pleasant, comparatively simple ways this good and gentle man suggests. Its power would then be controlled exclusively by men of good will who would, in a decent, good-humored sort of way, set things to right, meantime carefully respecting both the human and property rights of others. There would be no ugly masses to thwart them, and no economic royalists either. Irrationality would be purged, opportunism would cease to exist, politicians would act like statesmen rather than the culturally laggard pawns of pressure groups, and the citizenry in general take the long rather than the short view of public affairs.

Looking into our society Mr. Heckscher has found real problems, but he seems unable to believe that most men are not like himself and that, therefore, the appeal to reason is likely to have little effect upon them. It is an odd failure; for Mr. Heckscher’s diagnosis of our ills, if not especially original, is quite correct. Having sensed that we are traveling the road of unreason, what makes him think that a good, no-nonsense lecture will suffice to set us back on the right track? Why does he seem unwilling even to mention the workings of our power structure, much less analyze it in detail?

I suspect that Mr. Heckscher does neither one because he is a representative of the vanishing tradition of natural aristocracy in this country, a sort of powerless elite who, though shunted aside first by Jacksonian democracy, then by the proprietors of the industrial revolution, retained control of many of our oldest and finest cultural institutions, which were consolation prizes for them as losers in the big power game. They proceeded to build a tradition of noblesse oblige, of service toward culture, the nation, and humanity in general. It was—and is—a good tradition, one which has contributed as much to “the public happiness” as any other, and one which has too frequently been dismissed or made fun of by ruder and more radical elements in American intellectual life. Mr. Heckscher’s career has been entirely within this somewhat genteel tradition. He went to the right schools (St. Paul’s, Yale, and Harvard); he has held the right jobs (editorial writer for the Herald Tribune, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, director of the Twentieth Century Fund); sits on the right boards (Mt. Holyoke College, the American Civil Liberties Union, the New School); and has just the right kind and amount of government service (with the OSS during the war, and now the first to be appointed Special White House Consultant on the Arts).

Mr. Heckscher’s experience is impeccably correct. It lacks only total engagement in those processes of society which truly determine its course. Thus Mr. Heckscher’s book turns out to be an elegy for a vanishing style of life rather than a specific for the deeper sickness of our times. It has its virtues, though. Its tone is unpretentiously learned and it is happily free of both the moralism and the crack of doom which sounds through so many contemporary works of social commentary. And, in his opening section he gives us a true rendering of the causes of modern man’s alienation from the community which formerly sustained him. His thesis is that

there can be no public happiness unless there are first of all public things . . . things in the sunlight, things with hard surfaces and clear lines. . . . There has never been such a superfluity of objects, but the way men and women relate themselves to these objects reduces and diminishes them, so that in the end they hardly seem to exist.

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This loss of the sense of the world’s reality he traces to science which introduces an important new level of reality which the average man cannot comprehend, to the dehumanizing effect of machines, to mass communications, to the modernist spirit in art, and to our outlandishly swollen institutions, particularly government. Mr. Heckscher feels, quite rightly, that we are attempting to comprehend and rationalize this world, and to manage it, with the outworn intellectual equipment created in—and only suitable for—an earlier, easier time.

“Amid simplicity and order rationalism is born, but rationalism proves inadequate in any period of upheaval,” he writes. “Then equilibrium must be created out of opposites. Such inner peace as men gain must represent a tension among contradictions and uncertainties. A spirit of irony permits men to see that nothing is quite what it appears to be and that causes almost invariably have unexpected results.”

A little later, at the end of his discussion of foreign policy, Mr. Heckscher says, “Even the greatest matters call for a sense—submerged but nevertheless potent—that the world is mad.” At first glance the statement, coming from Mr. Heckscher, is a startling one. But one soon becomes aware, that for all his strictures against it, he remains a rational idealist at heart. He is merely trying to stretch the definition of this mode of thought a little, so that it will fit modern circumstances. It is an effort foredoomed to failure, for most people have not the time, training, or temperament to adopt that “detached and quizzical spirit” which he proposes as the savior of our sanity, or at least our grace, in the century of the mass mind and the giant institution.

Imagine, for instance, an editorial in the New York Daily News written in detached, quizzical, ironic style. Or imagine the owner of a split-level trap in a jerry-built subdivision managing to be ironic about the leaks in the roof or those alarming cracks that have been developing in the foundation. Or, better still, imagine the Special White House Consultant on the Arts maintaining his composure, much less his sense of irony, while some Yahoo congressman, chipped off the McCarthy block, questions his activities.

Thus, Mr. Heckscher’s advice to the individual seems very limited, indeed. It is hardly a strategy for engagement or commitment. Rather it is for those who, secure in income, heritage, and taste, prefer to withdraw into a small, neat room with a view, there to observe the surpassing strangeness of the world as it goes by.

But even the more aware among them are likely to be disappointed in Mr. Heckscher’s discussion of those problems which can only be solved in what he calls “the public sphere.” There he demonstrates a peculiar reluctance to press his point of view to its logical conclusion. He simply refuses to place specific blame for our shortcomings on specific groups or specific styles of thought. He prefers that we all share equally in the blame. For instance, the last section of the book is devoted principally to an attack on the physical ugliness of the modern American landscape. He points out that one cannot live amidst ugliness without its having an effect on the spirit. He pleads for a greater appreciation of beauty and makes a few modest suggestions for improving our cities and dealing with urban sprawl. But there is no recognition of the economic and political facts of life. It is all well and good to say that government could help by building more beautiful buildings for its own use, but that is only the tiniest scratch at the surface of the problem. Indeed, one would not care if the government went right on building badly so long as it insisted that those private citizens who construct the great majority of our buildings, build well. The problem in our cities is that, in the name of free enterprise, real estate operators are allowed to perpetrate both human and aesthetic crimes with impunity. Mr. Heckscher does not so much as hint that these people are specifically to blame for the rot of our cities, and that they quite deliberately balk the common weal, which undoubtedly stands in favor of beauty over blight. Listen to any general conversation in New York City about the proliferation of high-rise, high-rent apartments done in the wedding-cake style and one becomes aware that (a) everyone knows they are a shame and (b) everyone feels powerless to do anything about it. Only governmental compulsion can change this pattern of building, which compulsion will only occur when the citizen achieves leverage on the city fathers equal to that of the real estate lobby (i.e. never). Mr. Heckscher, gentle soul, would apparently like to sit down and reason with the realtors as one concerned citizen to another. That I would like to see. I’m certain his ironic, quizzical, detached approach would triumph over the demands of the balance sheet.

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He demonstrates a similar lack of realism in his discussion of education. Mr. Heckscher is almost poetic in his description of the virtues of the small liberal arts college. Predictably lamenting the decline of Greek and Latin in the curriculum, he nevertheless notes that “in a day when much else is ugly or has been overrun . . . [a] philosopher may discern something close to Utopia in the sight of these young people living and learning together, free of worldly cares.” Here, he says,

young men learned what society required of them as gentlemen and scholars. . . . Yet the best managed to come through with a kind of innocence intact. They were at the same time hopelessly unprepared for the world and yet ready to be at home in it, as only men can be who have learned not to be fooled by the outward look of things. . . .

Well, one hopes the little liberal arts college will not be forced to grow in order to survive. But the principal problem of education today is not preservation of the small college. Nor is it to find a way for the huge educational cafeterias to rescue the old virtues. This is the age of the managers, and what is needed is to find a way to civilize them. Introducing them to the pleasures of being gentlemen and scholars in their off hours may be helpful in this task, but such training hardly strikes at the heart of the matter, and neither does a course in Plato. The job of producing these men in quantity has changed the quality of what must be taught them. They must learn somehow to relate both pressing and long-term human problems to the kind of seemingly abstract decisions they will be called upon to make. But once again, Mr. Heckscher contents himself with wooly generalizations. As with real estate, so with education. He simply will not be specific. He will not go to the power nexus of our society to attempt to reform or change it.

If one wishes to see the inadequacies of the code of the gentleman which Mr. Heckscher so ardently espouses in his section on education, one need look no further than the book in which that section is contained. Perhaps the adherents of the code did learn not to be fooled by “the outward appearance of things.” The trouble was that being “hopelessly unprepared for the world” they were bound to fail in their attempt to impress their point of view upon it. Perhaps knowing why they were defeated made their defeat easier to bear, but I doubt it. That they were defeated is clear, for that is why Mr. Heckscher is the President’s artistic counselor and not President, as he would be in the ideal state. It is also why he has written merely A Gentleman’s Guide to the Twentieth Century and not the truly trenchant book about how to achieve the public happiness which we all so deeply desire.

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