Ahh. Here it was warm again. And quiet. The room still seemed like some empty stage after the audience has gone home. The moth that he had noticed before now circled the wall lamp just above the davenport where Redford's head had been. It went under the shade, made a little noise against the shade and then stopped. He waited for it to start again but it didn't. Resting, maybe . . . Maybe burned by the heat of the bulb . . .
That's what celebrity can do for you . . .
Phaedrus heard a noise that sounded like a flow of water from some pipe draining above and then a wail that sounded like a small girl crying. She seemed about three. Maybe it was just TV. A woman's voice was trying to console her. The woman's voice sounded good. Well bred. Not trash. Then it stopped. Not TV.
He wondered how old this hotel was. Something from the twenties, maybe. The best period. The Victorians created this city, but in the twenties it really flowered.
. . . The joke about that Victorian moth metaphor is that according to science the moth isn't really flying toward the flame. The moth is really trying to fly straight. Moths steer by keeping a constant angle with the sun or the moon, which works because the sun and moon are so far away a constant angle with them is virtually a straight line. But with a close-up light bulb a constant angle makes a circle. That's what keeps the moths spinning round and round and round. What's killing the moths is not a Dynamic aspiration for a 'higher life.' That's just Victorian nonsense. It's a static biological pattern of value. They can't change.
That was the feeling Phaedrus got from this city. He was like a moth in danger of drifting in circles into some kind of celebrity orbit. Maybe at some prehistoric time, before celebrity became important, people could trust their natural desires to keep them going in a straight-forward direction. But once the artificial sun of celebrity was invented they started going in circles. Brains were capable of handling physical and biological patterns in prehistoric times but are brains Dynamic enough to handle modern social patterns? Maybe that scientific explanation didn't weaken the Victorian metaphor. Maybe it fitted in with it.
It was strange the way the talk with Redford had suddenly converged on Blake school. When Phaedrus said he'd gone to that school Redford had looked up with surprise. He'd looked as though he expected Phaedrus to supply something he'd wanted to know for a long time.
'Small world,' Phaedrus had said, and Redford agreed. Phaedrus was going to tell him something more but they didn't get into it. What was it?
Oh yes, what he was going to tell him was that there was more than just money involved, despite all the Packards and Minnetonka mansions and all the other capitalist symbols. The 'graciousness' that he'd talked about was a left-over from Victorian days.
Those Victorians seemed to light Redford up too. He'd made a lot of films about that era. Something about them probably interested him as it does many other people. The Victorians represented the last really static social pattern we've had. And maybe someone who feels his life is too chaotic, too fluid, might look back at them enviously. Something about their rigid convictions about what was right and what was wrong might appeal to anyone brought up in laid-back Southern California of the forties and fifties. Redford seemed to be a rather Victorian person himself: restrained, well mannered, gracious. Maybe that's why he lives here in New York. He likes the Victorian graciousness that still exists here in places.
It was too much to get into but Phaedrus could have told Redford about the fifth grade school play called The Miser's Dream in which he had played the miser who learns generosity through various events. For Blake school it was well chosen. That tiny stage was loaded with little future millionaires. Afterward a bald-headed old Victorian had come down to the locker room and shaken his hand and congratulated him and talked for a long time with a kind of gracious interest, and one of the teachers asked later, 'Do you know who that was?' and of course Phaedrus didn't. But twenty years later when he was reading a magazine article about General Mills, the world's largest flour milling company, he suddenly recognized the face of this little old bald-headed man. He was the founder of General Mills.
The face stuck in his mind as one of those fragments of memory that don't fit. Here was one of the great giants of the evil greed-ridden Victorian capitalist tradition, but the direct primary impression was of a kind and friendly and gracious man.
Phaedrus didn't know what Blake was like today but back then it was grounded in Victorian traditions and values. The headmaster sermonized in chapel each morning on Victorian moral themes with the dedication and vigor of Theodore Roosevelt. He was so intense that after all these years Phaedrus would be able to recognize his face instantly if he saw it in a crowd.
There was never any hesitation in the headmaster's mind as to what quality was. Quality was the manner and spirit that a man of good breeding exemplified. The masters understood it and the boys did not. If the boys studied hard and played hard and showed that they were in earnest about their lives there was a good chance they would some day become worthy people. But there was no sign in the masters' eyes they had any confidence this would occur soon. The masters were always so sure of what was good and what was right. You knew that no matter how hard you tried you would never measure up to their standards. It was like Calvinistic Grace. There was a chance for you. That was all. They were offering you a chance.
Grace and morals were always external. They were not something you embodied. They were only something you could aspire to. You did bad things because you were bad and when you got whacked for doing something wrong it was an attempt to mold bad old you into something better. That word 'mold' was important. The stuff they were trying to mold was inherently unchangeably bad, but the masters thought that by trying to shape it like modeling clay, through whacks and detentions and obloquy, they could mold it into something that gave it the appearance of goodness even though everyone understood it was still the same old rotten stuff underneath.
Truth, knowledge, beauty, all the ideals of mankind, are external objects, passed on from generation to generation like a flaming torch. The headmaster said each generation must hold them up high and protect them with their very lives lest that torch go out.
That torch. That was the symbol of the whole school. It was part of the school emblem. It should be passed on from one generation to another to light the way for mankind by those who understood its meaning and were strong enough and pure enough to hold to its ideals. What would happen if that torch went out was never stated, but Phaedrus had guessed it would be like the end of the world. All of man's progress out of the darkness would be ended. No one doubted that the headmaster's only purpose in being there was to pass that torch to us. Were we worthy enough to receive it? It was a question everyone was expected to take seriously. And Phaedrus did.
In some diluted and converted sense, he thought, that's what he was still doing. That's what this Metaphysics of Quality was, a ridiculous torch no Victorian would accept that he wanted to use to light a way through the darkness for mankind.
What a cornball image. Just awful. Yet there it was, burned into him from childhood.
Twenty and thirty years later he still dreamed of following the path that led between brown-leaved oaks up the hill to the Blake School buildings. But the buildings were all locked and deserted and he couldn't get in. He tried every door but none were open. He looked in the library window, cupping his hand so that the reflection would not prevent him from seeing inside. There he could see a grandfather clock with a pendulum swinging back and forth, but there was nobody in the room. The only movement was the pendulum. Then the dream ended.
That moth was buzzing again by the lamp.
Maybe he should open the huge glass door to the balcony and shoo it out into the night . . .
Would that be moral? . . .
He really didn't know enough about moths to know whether it was or not.
It would probably just find another light somewhere, a searchlight probably, and really get zapped.
But suppose it flew up from the balcony so high it got free of the lights of the city and saw the moon and began to fly straight. Would that make releasing it moral? What does the Metaphysics of Quality say to that?
Better not to interfere. Maybe that moth had its own patterns to fulfill, and he had his, whatever they were. This Metaphysics of Quality, maybe. Certainly not running around like some Victorian romantic, shooing moths outdoors.
That was the Victorian stance, affecting some romantic notion of social quality without any real intellectual penetration of the meaning of Quality.
Anyway, today they are all gone, those gracious Victorian dinosaurs, and it is possible now to look at them with a little less anxiety and opposition than when they were looking back at you.
Phaedrus thought that the reason his thoughts kept returning to them - and maybe Redford's thoughts, and maybe a lot of other people's thoughts too - is that something enormously important and mystifying has happened in the time that separates us from them. He thought that in returning to them and trying to fathom who they were, one can begin to make some sense out of the social forces that have upheaved the world since their time. What makes them stand out today like dinosaurs is that a gulf exists between us and them. A huge cultural mutation has taken place. They really were a different cultural species. What the torch of the Metaphysics of Quality seems to illumine is an understanding of this gulf and a recognition that this gulf is one of the most profound in history.
If he were going to be precise in talking about the Victorians he would have to be careful not to imply he was talking about a specific group of people. 'Victorian,' as he used the term, is a pattern of social values that was dominant in a period between the American Civil War and the First World War, not a biological pattern. Mark Twain's life coincided with this period but Phaedrus didn't think of him as a Victorian. His stock-in-trade was humor that poked fun at Victorian pompousness. He was a relief from the Victorians. On the other hand, Herbert Hoover and Douglas MacArthur were biologically outside the Victorian period most of their lives. But they were Victorians, nevertheless, because their social values were Victorian.
Phsedrus thought the metaphysics of substance fails to illuminate the gulf between ourselves and Victorians because it regards both society and intellect as possessions of biology. It says society and intellect don't have substance and therefore can't be real. It says biology is where reality stops. Society and intellect are ephemeral possessions of reality. In a substance metaphysics, consequently, the distinction between society and intellect is sort of like a distinction between what's in the right pocket and what's in the left pocket of biological man.
In a value metaphysics, on the other hand, society and intellect are patterns of value. They're real. They're independent. They're not properties of 'man' any more than cats are the property of catfood or a tree is a property of soil. Biological man does not create his society any more than soil 'creates' a tree. The pattern of the tree is dependent upon the minerals in the soil and would die without them, but the tree's pattern is not created by the soil's chemical pattern. It is hostile to the soil's chemical pattern. It 'exploits' the soil, 'devours' the soil for its own purposes, just as the cat devours the catfood for its own purposes. In this manner biological man is exploited and devoured by social patterns that are essentially hostile to his biological values.
This is also true of intellect and society. Intellect has its own patterns and goals that are as independent of society as society is independent of biology. A value metaphysics makes it possible to see that there's a conflict between intellect and society that's just as fierce as the conflict between society and biology or the conflict between biology and death. Biology beat death billions of years ago. Society beat biology thousands of years ago. But intellect and society are still fighting it out, and that is the key to an understanding of both the Victorians and the twentieth century.
What distinguishes the pattern of values called Victorian from the post-First World War period that followed it is, according to the Metaphysics of Quality, a cataclysmic shift in levels of static value; an earthquake in values, an earthquake of such enormous consequence that we are still stunned by it, so stunned that we haven't yet figured out what has happened to us. The advent of both democratic and communistic socialism and the fascist reaction to them has been the consequence of this earthquake. The whole 'Lost Generation' of the twentieth century which continues, as lost as ever, through generation after generation, is a consequence of it. The twentieth-century collapse of morals is a consequence of it. Further consequences are on their way.
What distinguishes the Victorian culture from the culture of today is that the Victorians were the last people to believe that patterns of intellect are subordinate to patterns of society. What held the Victorian pattern together was a social code, not an intellectual one. They called it morals, but really it was just a social code. As a code it was just like their ornamental cast-iron furniture: expensive looking, cheaply made, brittle, cold and uncomfortable.
The new culture that has emerged is the first in history to believe that patterns of society must be subordinate to patterns of intellect. The one dominating question of this century has been, 'Are the social patterns of our world going to run our intellectual life, or is our intellectual life going to run the social patterns?' And in that battle, the intellectual patterns have won.
Now, with that illumination, all sorts of things clear up. The reason the Victorians sound so superficial and hypocritical to us today is because of this gulf in values. Even though they were our ancestors they were another very different culture. Trying to understand a member of another culture is impossible without taking into account differences in value. If a Frenchman asks, 'How can Germans stand to live the way they do?' he will get no answer as long as he applies French values to the question. If a German asks, 'How can the French stand to live the way they do?' he will get no answer as long as he applies German values to the question. When we ask how could the Victorians stand to live in the hypocritical and superficial way they did, we cannot get a useful answer as long as we superimpose on them twentieth-century values that they did not have.
If one realizes that the essence of the Victorian value pattern was an elevation of society above everything
else, then all sorts of things fall into place. What we today call Victorian hypocrisy was not regarded as hypocrisy. It was a virtuous effort to keep one's thoughts within the limits of social propriety. In the Victorian's mind quality and intellectuality were not related to one another in such a way that quality had to stand the test of intellectual meaning. The test of anything in the Victorian mind was, 'Does society approve?'
To put social forms to the test of intellectual value was 'ungracious,' and those Victorians really did believe in the social graces. They valued them as the highest attributes of civilization. 'Grace' is an interesting word with an important history, and the fact that they used it the way they did makes it even more interesting. A 'state of grace' as denned by the Calvinists was a state of religious 'enlightenment.' But by the time the Victorians were through with it, 'grace' had changed from 'godliness' to mean something close to 'social polish.'
To the early Calvinists and to ourselves too this debasement of the word seems outrageous, but it becomes understandable when one sees that within the Victorian pattern of values society was God. As Edith Wharton said, Victorians feared scandal worse than they feared disease. They had lost their faith in the religious values of their ancestors and put their faith in society instead. It was only by wearing the corset of society that one kept oneself from lapsing back into a condition of evil. Formalism and prudery were attempts to suppress evil by denying it a place in one's 'higher' thoughts, and for the Victorian, higher spiritually meant higher socially. There was no distinction between the two. 'God is a gentleman through and through, and in all probability, Episcopal too.' To be a gentleman was as close as you would ever get, while on earth, to God.
All this explains why Victorian robber barons in America aped European aristocracy in ways that seem so ludicrous to us today. It explains why it was so fashionable for Victorian nabobs to pay large sums to be included in biographies of 'distinguished citizens.' It explains why Victorians so despised the frontier part of the American personality and went to ridiculous extremes to conceal it. They wanted to strike it from their history, conceal it in every way possible.
It explains why the Victorians were so vehement in their loathing of Indians. The statement, The only good Indian is a dead Indian,' was a Victorian statement. The idea of extermination of all Indians was not common before the nineteenth century. Victorians wanted to destroy 'inferior' societies because inferior societies were a form of evil. Colonialism, which before that time was an economic opportunity, became with Victorians a moral course, a 'white man's burden' to spread their social patterns and thus virtue throughout the world.
Truth, knowledge, beauty, all the ideals of mankind, are passed on from generation to generation like a flaming torch, the headmaster said, which each generation must hold up high and protect with their very lives lest that torch go out. But what he meant by that torch was a static Victorian social value pattern. And what he either did not know, or found it convenient to ignore, was that the torch of Victorian romantic idealism had gone out long before he spoke those words in the 1930s. Perhaps he was just trying to relight it.
But there is no way to light that torch within a Victorian pattern of values. Once intellect has been let out of the bottle of social restraint, it is almost impossible to put it back in again. And it is immoral to try. A society that tries to restrain the truth for its own purposes is a lower form of evolution than a truth that restrains society for its own purposes.
Victorians repressed the truth whenever it seemed socially unacceptable, just as they repressed thoughts about the powdery horse manure dust that floated about them as they drove their carriages through this city. They knew it was there. They breathed it in and out. But they didn't consider it socially proper to talk about it. To speak plainly and openly was vulgar. They never did so unless forced by extreme social circumstances because vulgarity was a form of evil.
Because it was evil to speak the truth openly, their apparatus for social self-correction became atrophied and paralyzed. Their houses, their social lives became filled with ornamental curlicues that never stopped proliferating. Sometimes the useless ornamentation was so heavy it was hard to discover what the object was for. Its original purpose had been all but lost under the gee-gaws and bric-a-brac they had laid upon it.
Ultimately their minds became the same way. Their language became filled with ornamental curlicues that never stopped proliferating until it was all but incomprehensible. And if you didn't understand it you dared not show it because to show it meant you were vulgar and ill-bred.
With Victorian spirits atrophied and their minds hemmed in by social restraints, all avenues to any quality other than social quality were closed. And so this social base which had no intellectual meaning and no biological purpose slowly and helplessly drifted toward its own stupid self-destruction: toward the senseless murder of millions of its own children on the battlefields of the First World War.
Where the physical climate changes suddenly from high temperature to low temperature, or from high atmospheric pressure to low atmospheric pressure the result is usually a storm. When the social climate changes from preposterous social restraint of all intellect to a relative abandonment of all social patterns, the result is a hurricane of social forces. That hurricane is the history of the twentieth century.
There had been other comparable times, Phasdrus supposed. The day the first protozoans decided to get together to form a metazoan society. Or the day the first freak fish, or whatever-it-was, decided to leave the water. Or, within historical time, the day Socrates died to establish the independence of intellectual patterns from their social origins. Or the day Descartes decided to start with himself as an ultimate source of reality. These were days of evolutionary transformation. And like most days of transformation, no one at the time had any idea of what was being transformed.
Phaedrus thought that if he had to pick one day when the shift from social domination of intellect to intellectual domination of society took place, he would pick 11 November 1918, Armistice Day, the end of the First World War. And if he had to pick one person who symbolized this shift more than any other, he would have picked President Woodrow Wilson.
The picture of him Phaedrus would have selected is one in which Wilson rides through New York City in an open touring car, doffing the magnificent silk hat that symbolized his high rank in Victorian Society. For a cutline he would select something from Wilson's penetrating speeches that symbolized his high rank in the intellectual community: We must use our intelligence to stop future war; social institutions cannot be trusted to function morally by themselves; they must be guided by intellect. Wilson belonged in both worlds, Victorian society and the new intellectual world of the twentieth century: the only university professor ever to be elected president of the United States.
Before Wilson's time academicians had been minor and peripheral within the Victorian power structure. Intelligence and knowledge were considered a high manifestation of social achievement, but intellectuals were not expected to run society itself. They were valued servants of society, like ministers and doctors. They were expected to decorate the social parade, not lead it. Leadership was for practical, businesslike 'men of affairs.' Few Victorians suspected what was coming: that within a few years the intellectuals they idealized as the best representatives of their high culture would turn on them and destroy that culture with contempt.
The Victorian social system and the Victorian morality that led into the First World War had portrayed war as an adventurous conflict between noble individuals engaged in the idealistic service of their country: a kind of extended knighthood. Victorians loved exquisitely painted heroic battle scenes in their drawing rooms, with dashing cavalrymen riding toward the enemy with sabers drawn, or a horse returning riderless with the title, 'Bad News.' Death was acknowledged by an occasional soldier in the arms of his comrades looking palely toward heaven.
The First World War wasn't like that. The Catling gun removed the nobility, the heroism. The Victorian painters had never shown a battlefield of mud and shell holes and barbed wire and half a million rotting corpses - some staring toward heaven, some staring into the mud, some without faces to stare in any direction. That many had been murdered in one battle alone.