This article originally appeared in the December 27, 1952 edition of The Nation.
WHEN the wise old kings of Egypt decided to have a ball, I’m assured, they placed a mummy at the head of the table to remind themselves, even at the height of the festivities, of their own mortality. We might today with equal wisdom, in this our own season of celebration, nod respectfully toward the head of our own high-heaped board. Lest we also prove too proud.
For ball or no ball, any season at all, we live today in a laboratory of human suffering as vast and terrible as that in which Dickens and Dostoevski wrote, the only real difference being that the England of Dickens and the Russia of Dostoevski could not afford the sound screens and the smoke screens with which we so ingeniously conceal our true condition from ourselves.
So accustomed have we become to the testimony of the photo-weeklies, backed by witnesses from radio and TV, establishing US as the happiest, healthiest, sanest, wealthiest, most inventive, funloving, and tolerant folk yet to grace the earth of man that we tend to forget that these are bought-and-paid-for witnesses and that all their testimony is perjured.
FOR IT IS NOT in the afternoon in Naples nor yet at evening in Marseilles, not in Indian hovels half sunk in an ancestral civilization’s ruined halls or within lion-colored tents pitched down the Sahara’s endless edge that we find faces debauched by sheer uselessness. Not in the backwash of poverty and war but in the backwash of prosperity and progress.
Here in the back streets and the boulevards of New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, unused, unusable, and useless faces, so purposeless yet so smug, harassed, or half-dehumanized, so self-satisfied yet somehow so abject—for complacency struggles strangely there with guilt. Faces of the American Century, full of such an immense irresponsibility toward themselves.
As though the human cost of our marvelous technology has indeed been much too great.
Do American faces so often look so lost because they are most tragically trapped between a very real dread of coming alive to something more than merely existing and an equal dread of going down to the grave without having done more than merely exist?
If so, this is truly the great American disease, and would account in part for the fact that we lead the world today in incidence of insanity, criminality, alcoholism, narcoticism, cancer, homicide, and perversion in sex as well as perversion just for the pure hell of the thing.
NEVER BEFORE till here and now have men and women been so divided by the discrepancy between life and the representation of life.
Nowhere has any people set itself a moral code so rigid while applying it so flexibly.
Never has any people been so outwardly confident that God is on its side while inwardly terrified lest He be not.
"It is as if we are being endowed with a vast and thoroughly appointed body," Walt Whitman prophesied, "and left with little or no soul."