The Study of Man: The Alienation of Modern Man
If, as Sidney Hook wrote recently, the two great semantic beacons of our time are the terms “transition” and “crisis,” then a third term is perhaps necessary to capture the special quality of this transition and this crisis. That term—the third semantic beacon—is “alienation.” It expresses a unique facet of the crisis of our times: the widespread belief that there has been a revolutionary change in the psychological condition of man, reflected in the individual’s feeling of isolation, homelessness, insecurity, restlessness, anxiety.
It is not hard to find evidence of the agonized awareness that man’s presumed oneness with his fellows and with the world is no more: of a sense of the splitting asunder of what was once together, the breaking of the seamless mould in which values, behavior, expectations, were once cast into interlocking forms. Housman’s plaintive lines, “a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made,” appear in a hundred guises in titles, articles, books, and book reviews, a spontaneous mass projection of an underlying discomfort. The life and works of the most widely-discussed writers of our time (Joyce, Kafka, Proust) are interpreted by critics as paradigms of alienation. The re-establishment of the unity of medieval life becomes one of the most popular goals of modern intellectuals, together with, on the part of others, the establishment of a new unity through the replacing of modern complex forms of social organization (Paul Goodman, Dwight Macdonald). Perhaps half of the twelve contributors to this magazine’s series on “The Crisis of the Individual,” though they represent a variety of traditions and disciplines, have interpreted it as a crisis caused by alienation. And while theologians (Reinhold Niebuhr, for example) see alienation as a permanent condition of man, and not peculiarly a modern problem, the widespread appeal their theories have achieved just at this time might indicate the contrary.
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