The New Optimism — from Prufrock to Ringo by William Hamilton

Radical Theology and the Death of God
by Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton

The New Optimism — from Prufrock to Ringo by William Hamilton

Theologies change for many reasons. Old theologies break down, or just lose their effectiveness. Everybody knows, or at least feels, that the time of troubles for the neo-orthodox-ecumenical-biblical-kerygmatic theology has arrived. This theology, once the prophetic disturber of peace, has now become the establishment, and under attack has turned querulous and defensive.

The theological reasons for the deterioration of neo-orthodoxy are beginning to become clear. Neo-orthodoxy was a striking protest against the liberal confidence that God could be possessed, and its return to the dialectic of the presence and the absence of God testified to the way believers felt during the years before and after World War II. The reason neo-orthodoxy is not working today surely has something to do with the collapse of this dialectic, a collapse which is the overcoming of the presence of God by the absence that men are calling the death of God.

There are some non-theological factors in the new theological mood in Protestantism. The most striking aspect of neo-orthodoxy, in America at any rate, was its doctrine of man. Moral Man and Immoral Society was a book from the Depression and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Gifford lectures were being delivered in Edinburgh as Europe stumbled toward war. Just as we were learning despair and tragedy from daily events, the theological equipment was there to help us interpret what was happening. Neo-orthodoxy was in part a pessimistic theology, even though many have made that point insensitively. As neo-orthodoxy moved into the 1950’s taking psychotheraphy, existentialism, I and Thou in its stride, it more and more turned man to his inner world, leaving behind the outer world of politics which gave it its birth in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It is ironical that neo-orthodoxy, born as a radical protest against liberal conformism, became one of the fashionable ideologies for the Eisenhower period in American intellectual life -- that time when men sagely advised us that the real battle was not bohemia or radical politics or ideology, but the mystery of the inner life. Old Niebuhrians tended to go to the back pages of the National Review to die. Inner submission, prudent realism, accepting with maturity the tragic structures -- all of these styles of the fifties were as readily being justified by neo-orthodox theology as by anti-communism or psychoanalysis.

During this time Hawthorne and Melville were being reread. Men stopped crying out against injustice and learned to delight in life’s complexity and richness, perhaps with Henry James, perhaps with the Playboy ads. It was discovered that the tragic sense of life went along quite well with good manners, nice clothes, sensitivity to interpersonal relations, and a good conscience about the rat-race. When Niebuhr, in his famous prayer, distinguished between the things we could change and the things we couldn’t, there were -- for him -- a lot of the first and very few of the second. But by the time the bad gray-flannel suit novels started and everybody began to talk about conformity, the courage to accept the unchangeable was much more highly prized than the will to change, mainly because in the fifties nobody (besides Rosa Parks and a few others) thought there was much that could be changed. Neo-orthodox theology -- though not it alone -- created men skilled in avoiding unprofitable commitments, careful about risks, very wise in seeing how not to make fools of themselves. Thanks to it, men became quite at home in this world. These were canny, realistic believers whose wry view of self and others could be as well confirmed by the poet, the existentialist novel, or one’s own analyst, as by theology.

I suspect that one of the reasons neo-orthodoxy now doesn’t work is that this pessimism doesn’t persuade any more. I have no way of knowing how changes in sensibility come, or how they are identified and tested. But I think optimism is a possibility for many and a necessity for some today in a way that has not been the case in America for some time. Things would, of course, be much easier if one could do without words such as "optimism" and "pessimism." Part of what I mean by the first is an increased sense of the possibilities of human action, human happiness, human decency, in this life.

If one had to choose a date for this change of sensibility, one might, for the fun of it, pick January 4, 1965. On this day, T. S. Eliot died in London, and Lyndon Johnson delivered his State of the Union message. It is hardly necessary to remind ourselves that one of the reasons Americans and the British have not required a total immersion in the imagery of continental existentialism is that they had already found, in the early work of Eliot, an adequate description of not being at home in the world. We were all Prufrock before we had heard of Meersault.

Saul Bellow recently has written about the end of pessimism, and he has significantly spoken of the end of the Wasteland era, the end of the hollow men. Moses Herzog, in Bellow’s novel, single-handedly takes on the whole fashionable pessimism of modern intellectual life. He lashes out against those who tell you how good dread is for you; he speaks of the "commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness." Perhaps the most thoroughly post-modern, post-pessimistic act Herzog commits is his decision, at the close of the novel, not to go mad -- his decision for human happiness. "I am pretty well satisfied to be, to be just as it is willed, and for as long as I may remain in occupancy."

Is it possible to note, some forty years after the publication of Eliot’s The Hollow Men, that the world has ended neither with a bang nor a whimper? There was a period in the recent past when the fear of the bang was acute, but in spite of Vietnam today, America is not afraid, and it once more is beginning to take seriously the fact that it has a real future. Prufrock, the typist, the hollow men, never really connected with the real world; they were afraid of it. "In short, I was afraid." But on the night of Eliot’s death, President Johnson invited his fellow countrymen not only to enter the world of the twentieth century but to accept the possibility of revolutionary changes in that world. Johnson’s speech was just political rhetoric, one can say, and he would be correct. But it was somehow unlike political rhetoric of other eras -- it was believable. And the legislative record of the first session -- on domestic issues -- has partly confirmed the rhetoric. This shift we are charting from pessimism to optimism can also be described as a move from alienation to politics, from blues to the freedom song.

There are three areas in which this change of sensibility, this move from pessimism to optimism, can be discerned -- in the social sciences, in the field of art, and in the civil rights movement.

There is a good deal of very interesting avant-garde research in the social sciences being carried on in America, some of it in connection with universities, some of it not. Kenneth Boulding’s recent book, The Meaning of the Twentieth Century, is an admirable example of this kind of work. Boulding describes the change of sensibility we’ve been describing. His point is that we are moving from a civilized to a post-civilized society, and that since civilized society is so disagreeable for so many, no tears should be lost as a result. The post-civilized age is the age of the mass media, of automation, of the constantly accelerating rate of change. The television show "Defenders" was civilized; "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is post-civilized. Boulding’s book describes the mood of those who are saying yes to the radical changes in our society, yes to technology, yes to all the new and even threatening ways that man is finding to handle the world in which he lives. The atmosphere of the Conflict Resolution Center in Ann Arbor, where Boulding works, is one of a resolute confidence and optimism that even the really intractable problems that have marked our civilized period can be overcome, problems as apparently irreducible as war and mental illness.

Another example of technological optimism is to be found in the writing of Professor Marshall McLuhan and in the work of the Institute of Culture and Technology in Toronto. In his books and particularly in the recent Understanding Media, McLuhan delivers a vigorous indictment of the literate Western civilized man, busily engaged in rejecting the new media of communication and information-passing such as television. He claims, for example, that all media are extensions of our central nervous system, extensions of consciousness, rather like the psychodelic drugs. Because of this, he asserts, the process of knowing will very shortly be extended to the whole of human society, not merely to those we call educated in some limited sense. Since the media have so extended our consciousness of the whole world (i.e., we no longer travel to see things, but to compare real things with pictures we have already seen), the era of the aloof, disinterested, liberal, scientific Western man is at an end. We are totally involved in everything that happens, and our goals, he says, are no longer control or mere understanding, but "wholeness, empathy, depth of awareness." (Understanding Media, p. 5 )

The Negro and the teenager, for example, once could be isolated from the rest of society. They have become deeply involved with the rest of society and no longer can be pushed away. Television desegregates, as Bull Connor found out. This is what the media do; this is what the whole realm of automation technology does. It involves and unites, in contrast to the machine technology which separates and isolates.

McLuhan is to the post-civilized age, the electronic era, what Lewis Mumford has been to the mechanical age, with one striking difference. Mumford understood, but did not enjoy, the world the machine brought. McLuhan understands, delights in, and invites all men to delight in the new media of the post-civilized world.

Optimism in men like Boulding and McLuhan is related to acceptance of change, and even to creation of change. It is therefore an optimism about the future, and will remind some of the venerable doctrine of progress over which we have preached so many funeral orations In their zest and optimism such men are still isolated voices, for complaints about the vulgarity and crudeness of a world moving too fast still predominate in intellectual circles. But these men, and a few others, see what is going on, and invite us to responsible and excited participation. Here, in the social sciences, is a radical "yes" to this century, an invitation to face, and a confidence that we can solve, some of our most difficult problems.

A recent essay by Lionel Trilling seems to belong with these developments. In his superb "The Two Environments" (included in the recent collection Beyond Culture) Trilling describes the moral climate within which the study of contemporary literature takes place in the American university today. Here, he finds, literature serves an almost religious function, placing before students not so much values or standards, but guides to the source of life, zest, and style. The contrast between Trilling’s "first" and "second" environment, between moral seriousness (Matthew Arnold) and non-moral vitality (D. H. Lawrence), is very close to Boulding’s distinction between civilized and post-civilized. And Trilling’s moral criticism of some of the internal rules of the second environment -- his attack on the over-valuation of literature and criticism and on alienation and despair as the artist’s only gift to the moral life -- parallels some of Bellow’s recent concerns. This is a difficult and beautiful essay, and it is about the new America in which optimism is possible, the America in which the radical theology is trying to live.

There are some artistic movements today which point in the same direction -- from pessimism to optimism. If one listens to the music of John Cage, for example, one engages a very articulate opponent of the modern tradition of art as self-expression, art as the imposition of the artist’s selfhood and creativity on the chaos of experience. In this modern tradition art is work. It is serious, and it can be made to bear serious values. Cage rejects this tradition, and declares that the end of artistic creativity is not order or value but purposeless play, a play that affirms life and invites other men to wake up to the ordinary life around them that can be lived here and now. But for art to make this kind of invitation, the self and its desires must be removed. In some ways Cage represents an attack on the whole Renaissance conception of self-consciousness, and an adoption of a kind of secular-mystical idea of self as an enemy that must be removed before one can delight in the world for its own sake. Cage, and a number of others, represent an extensive revolt against modern, self-expressive art whose function is supposed to be that of uncovering or portraying the human condition. Art as selfless celebration or play is a very ancient concept of art, though it has been rather rare in the West since Goethe and romanticism. The theater of the absurd, the anti-novelists of France, some recent techniques in film-making, are all connected both by their protest against artistic self-expression and by their sharing this element of play or celebration in life.

One might almost say that the function of Cage’s music is to remind people of the fact that every sound they hear is potentially music, if listened to in the right way. Every man, therefore, has the capacity to be his own artist and the materials of his art are simply the moments of his life as he lives it. Thus, if you say in response to some of Cage’s indeterminate music, "My child could do that!", the proper answer is really, "Of course, so go home and teach him to do so!" Certain kinds of contemporary art -- Robert Rauschenberg, in particular -- show that the ordinary things which technological society rejects (Coke bottles, cans, old newspapers, tires) can be reassembled, with only the slightest nudges from the artist, into something gay and beautiful, and thus the whole of life can become the subject matter for such creativity.

Those who were lucky enough to be pulled or pushed, a year or so ago, to the Beatles’ first movie, A Hard Day’s Night, will recall the enchanting scene in which the four of them escape from the prison-like television studio, where worldly men are trying to get them to perform properly, and flee to an open field for a few surrealistic moments of jumping, dancing, abandon. This movie, and perhaps even the famous Beatles’sound, is part of this mood of celebration and rejoicing. In a review of the movie, the critic in the sombre New Republic (October 10, 1964) writes, "’A Hard Day’s Night’ floats above despair and alienation without ever challenging them head-on, but also without ignoring them."

Finally, in this sketchy list of movements toward optimism, the civil rights movement cannot be left out. It is, I think, my most decisive piece of evidence. That there is a gaiety, an absence of alienation, a vigorous and contagious hope at the center of this movement is obvious and this optimism is the main source of its hold on the conscience of America, particularly young America. You can most easily discern this optimism, beyond tragedy, beyond alienation, beyond existentialism, by singing the songs of the movement. If we think back to some of the great blues songs of the past, Bessie Smith’s "Empty Bed Blues" for example, we hear no hope. The man is gone, he’s not coming back, and the only healing is in the singing of the song. But when we listen to "We Shall Overcome" we have come into the world of historical optimism, in which this world is the place, and now is the time, for the making of the long-overdue changes.

We seem to be out of the fifties when the young were tame, safe, and cool, and when they explored, with guidebooks by J. D. Salinger and William Golding, the mysterious recesses of inner identity. The sixties may well be the time for play, celebration, delight, and for hope. A few years ago, Norman Podhoretz wrote about the young before the civil rights movement and the New Frontier rescued them from their inner preoccupations:

Since this is a generation that willed itself from childhood directly into adulthood, it has still its adolescence to go through— for a man can never skip adolescence, he can only postpone it. And something very wonderful may come about when a whole generation in its late thirties breaks loose and decides to take a swim in the Plaza fountain in the middle of the night. (Doings and Undoings, p. 111.)

I think the prediction is coming true. Pessimism -- political, theological, cultural -- is coming to an end. The Plaza pool is crowded these nights.

The connection between the Plaza pool and Protestant theology has yet to be determined. What does theology make of this new optimism? In the thirties the cultural mood of anti-optimism drove men to rediscover Paul, Augustine, Kierkegaard. Does the new anti-pessimism simply compel us to look up some optimistic parts of the Christian tradition? Some would say so. Some are saying, and they may be right, that the life of Jesus with his disciples is the theological center of the new theology, just as Paul’s struggle with the law was the center of the postliberal development. This would mean that we would move from the "pessimism" of Paul to the eschatological optimism of the synoptics and thus give the new optimism a theological and biblical base. Something like this is already happening at those points where theological reflections on the civil rights movement are taking place.

The hunting up of biblical or theological foundations for something (in this case optimism) that has already taken place is not a thing I wish to do here. What are, if any, the theological reasons for this new optimism? We have, up to now, noted only a shift of sensibility, a shift due to cultural factors. I am persuaded, however, that in addition to cultural factors, the death of God has made this new optimism possible, and it is not an accident, but intended, deliberate, and natural, that the theologies of the death of God should be in themselves optimistic.

Perhaps the best way of showing the connection between the death of God and optimism is to note the central role that discussions of tragedy have taken in the intellectual world of pre-death of God theology. Neo-orthodoxy has talked a great deal about Christianity and tragedy, the possibility of Christian tragedy, the meaning of the tragic sense of life. More recently, a new point has been made. Not only are there no tragedies around -- this could be described as an accident -- but there can’t be tragedies, many are saying. Why? Because the presence of tragedy requires the presence of God or the gods, and the presence of the gods is just what we do not have. The death of tragedy is due to the death of God.

God grew weary of the savagery of man. Perhaps he was no longer able to control it and could no longer recognize his image in the mirror of creation. He has left the world to its own inhuman devices and dwells now in some other corner of the universe so remote that his messengers cannot even reach us. I would suppose that he turned away during the seventeenth century. . . . In the nineteenth century, LaPlace announced that God was a hypothesis of which the rational mind had no further need; God took the great astronomer at his word. But tragedy is that form of art which requires the intolerable burden of God’s presence. It is now dead because his shadow no longer falls upon us as it fell on Agamemnon or Macbeth or Athalie. (George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy, p. 353)

We haven’t had tragedy, Steiner claims, since the seventeenth century. It is not merely because men have not written them; it is also because there is no audience for them. Because, in other words, there are no tragic men either to create or to receive tragedy. And the disappearance of the tragic man is the consequence of the disappearance of the presence of God who makes tragedy possible.

Steiner’s thesis is suggestive, but it needs refinement. It is much too simple, when we think of Romanticism and Deism for example, to talk about the disappearance of God in the seventeenth century. Even Nietzsche’s madman confessed that his message of the death of God had come too soon. And if tragic man, in a rather narrow sense, did indeed disappear in the seventeenth century, some close relatives of his have continued down to our own time. Consider that very characteristic modern man, the man who fears his own death. Death is the tragic category, and death and the fear of death have been close to the center of modern sensibility for some time. Existentialist man and the man threatened by his own death -- these are our modern comrades. They have not disappeared.

Steiner, I think, is wrong in his simple affirmation that the presence of tragedy and the tragic man requires the presence of God. Lucien Goldmann has seen the issue more clearly. What tragedy has always presupposed is not merely the divine presence, but a certain mixture of the divine presence and absence.

The God of tragedy is a God who is always present and always absent. Thus, while his presence takes all value and reality from the world, his equally absolute and permanent absence makes the world into the only reality which man can confront, the only sphere in and against which he can and must apply his demand for substantial and absolute values. (The Hidden God, p. 50)

When tragic man experiences the presence of God, Goldmann says, the world is forgotten or devalued (it is worth noting here that Pascal and the Jansenism of Port Royal stands for tragic Christianity; Goldmann could hardly have assumed the unworldliness of the Christian man if he had focused on Calvin’s elect man in the midst of the middle-class world), and when God is absent the world is remembered. Thus the world is both everything and nothing for the tragic man; it must never be abandoned for God; nor must God be abandoned for the world. The world cannot be changed; absolute values cannot be realized in it; the world can never satisfy tragic man. Why? Because the eye of God is always upon the tragic man, and the tragic man always returns from the world to the presence of God, even after long periods of absence. Thus, he can never really love or care for anything in the world, but can feel only longing and incompleteness in it. At this point, it would seem, the tragic man is virtually identical with religious man in the post-Reformation sense.

Goldmann is deeply influenced by Marx and the early Lukàcs and thus would agree that the tragic God of Pascal is dead. But unlike Steiner he does not think that tragic thought is dead. Modern man, instead of rescuing God from a permanent absence by means of a Pascalian wager, wagers instead on the human community, but he keeps his distance from this community, and never expects much from the world.

It seems to me that Steiner is right in insisting on the end of tragedy and tragic man, but wrong in simply identifying the death of tragedy in the seventeenth century with the death of God. I think Goldmann corrects Steiner when he points out that tragedy thrives not on the mere presence of God but on the dialectic between his presence and his absence.

The death of God, only hinted at in the seventeenth century, is the breakdown of the dialectic between the presence and absence. Absence has won a decisive victory over the presence. The madman predicted it, the plays of Ibsen work out the transformation of God into the conscience of man, and with Karl Marx the divine reality becomes the historical process. The greatest holdout in the nineteenth century was perhaps Dostoevsky, in whose very soul the struggle between the presence and the absence of God took a classical form. He was both Ivan and Alyosha.

As far as I am concerned [Dostoevskv writes in a letter, March 1854], I look upon myself as a child of the age, a child of unbelief and doubt; it is probable, nay I know for certain, that I shall remain so to my dying day. I have been tortured with longing to believe -- am so, indeed, even now; and the yearning grows stronger, the more cogent the intellectual difficulties that stand in the way. . . . And yet God sometimes sends me moments of complete serenity. It is in such moments that I have composed in my mind a profession of faith.... This is what it is: to believe that there is nothing finer, deeper, more lovable, more reasonable, braver and more perfect than Christ; and, not only is there nothing, but I tell myself with a jealous love, there cannot be anything. More than that: if anyone had told me that Christ is outside truth, and if it had really been established that truth is outside Christ, I should have preferred to stay with Christ rather than with truth.

I have been concerned to establish a new mood of optimism in American culture. If I have seen this mood at all accurately, then we might be able to conclude that tragedy is culturally impossible, or unlikely. We trust the world, we trust the future, we deem even many of our intractable problems just soluble enough to reject the tragic mode of facing them. I am further adding to this descriptive argument that tragedy is theologically impossible, if it is the case that either the presence of God or the dialectic between the presence and absence are required. We do not have an equipoise between a having and a not-having; this was the equipoise of the neo-orthodox theology, the world of Dostoevsky’s struggle, of existentialism and Prufrock and the rest. We are the not-havers, whose undialectical yes to the world is balanced by a no to God.

This is not an optimism of grace, but a worldly optimism I am defending. It faces despair not with the conviction that out of it God can bring hope, but with the conviction that the human conditions that created it can be overcome, whether those conditions be poverty, discrimination, or mental illness. It faces death not with the hope for immortality, but with the human confidence that man may befriend death and live with it as a possibility always alongside.

I think that the new optimism is both a cause and a consequence of the basic theological experience which we today call the death of God.