Since the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, organized in covenants as a joint stock company, imagined themselves a mystic brotherhood reborn in the body of Christ, American history has progressed under the sway of two, conflicting vocabularies. One, the language of exterior, marketplace relations, takes the contract as its master symbol. The other, the language of interior religious and psychological experience, centers around regeneration. The first vocabulary is economic,the second is familial.
At first both vocabularies defended the Puritan community against an alien wilderness. In time, however, American identity shifted from the Puritan God and his European interests to new world nature and her products. The search for visible signs of God’s grace, combined with the material reality of nature, turned the Puritans toward economic acquisition on the one hand and the American landscape on the other. The original religious communities disintegrated in the process. What happened to the two vocabularies of American self-image, and what role does nature play in their development?
Political science is the child of the marketplace metaphor, and finds the religious language of inner division and rebirth an alien one….
Contractual relations in society have formed the classics of American politics, rebirth in nature the classics of American literature. The political tradition that comes down to us from Franklin and Madison to such moderns as Daniel Boorstin and Robert Dahl pictures an America of individual and group conflicts, rational bargaining, and the struggle for concrete, material interests. This tradition ties the special destiny of America to politics, but politics of a peculiarly narrow sort. Derived from economic categories, it is characterized by economic and ethnic conflict,racial, sexual, and philosophic uniformity.
The literary tradition evolves from Charles Brockden Brown through Cooper, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and Twain, to such moderns as William Faulkner and Norman Mailer. Here the major actions take place not insociety but in nature, and racial division and emotional intensity replace social interdependence. Here the asocial innocent, searching for a lostpastoral idyll, encounters despair, nightmare, and wilderness apocalypse.Here America’s special destiny is fulfilled in nature. Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition is the best description of the one America; D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature is the seminal exposure of the other. The two books seem to describe entirely different countries.
Thus begins an academic paper by Michael Paul Rogin titled “Nature as Politics and Nature as Romance in America” published in Political Theory in 1977. Don’t you want to read more? Fascinating right? I mean, if you look at it as Rogin presents above you’d have to say that a vast amount of Americans sing only one song–the economic one that is sung to them from birth and still finds lyric resonance in our “Lemonade Day” celebrations of the marketplace metaphor.
Where is your artistic, psychological, familial regeneration, America? Why have we sublimated and repressed a deep current in our human (and national) being?
Read a book not written by a founding economist but one written by a founding artist. Turn off the digital imaging memory eraser and open up a novel or short story or book of poems. Then, you know, maybe talk to somebody about it.
If you don’t you are only singing one song, only hearing one song….
Two bleak poems by Mark Strand
“The One Song”
I prefer to sit all day
like a sack in a chair
and to lie all night
like a stone in my bed.
When food comes
I open my mouth.
When sleep comes
I close my eyes.
My body sings
only one song;
the wind turns
gray in my arms.
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More is less.
I long for more.
“Coming to This”
We have done what we wanted.
We have discarded dreams, preferring the heavy industry
of each other, and we have welcomed grief
and called ruin the impossible habit to break.
And now we are here.
The dinner is ready and we cannot eat.
The meat sits in the white lake of its dish.
The wine waits.
Coming to this
has its rewards: nothing is promised, nothing is taken away.
We have no heart or saving grace,
no place to go, no reason to remain.