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Archive for September, 2008

The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

By Henry Brooks Adams

Penguin Classics, 566pp

The Education of Henry Adams was privately printed in 1907. Upon Adams’s death in 1918 it received its first public printing, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1919. Now largely forgotten, and some of his theories discredited, The Education of Henry Adams still retains a enigmatic allure in autobiographical writing – for it is not really an autobiography (it misses out large chunks of its authors life) and is presented in the third person, and more so because Adams uses it to theorise on history, religion, politics and nationhood. At many times in his autobiography, Henry Adams does not even feature.

Henry Adams was born into a family known throughout America. His great-grandfather and his grandfather had both been American presidents – John Adams and John Quincy Adams – and the accumulated weight of history bore down on Henry Adams from a very young age.

“The Irish gardener once said to the child: “You’ll be thinkin’ you’ll be President too!” The causality of the remark made so strong an impression on his mind that he never forgot it. He could not remember ever to have thought on the subject; to him, that there should be a doubt of his being President was a new idea.” (p.12)

In a family of learning and political motivations, education was forever on the young Adams’s minds. Education at this stage meant learning, reading, understanding how things worked. One of the great powers of The Education of Henry Adams is how that key word changes its meaning throughout the work, until he is forced to admit “that nine-tenths of his acquired education was useless” (p.220), for education is more than the knowledge of fact.

The closest antecedent for this work is St. Augustine’s Confessions (397). What is left out of that book remains concealed in this one – the presence of death. Death hangs over this work, a constant shadow, but the deaths that have impacted upon the tellers life remains unmentioned. Augustine concealed Adeodatus’s death; his son’s tragic end remained a spectre behind words. In Adams’s work, the suicide of his wife (in fact almost any mention of his wife) is excluded, creating a hollow point in the very centre of this work. Adams’s education allows him to consider the political assassinations that pepper American history, but does not allow him to discuss the lessons learnt of love, of marriage or of loss. Only by understanding this absence does The Education of Henry Adams reveal its depth. There is just one death that is given due attention, that of his sister Louisa, in Bagni du Lucca, the result of a “miserable cab accident.”

“She faced death, as women mostly do, bravely and even gaily, racked slowly to unconsciousness, but yielding only to violence, as a soldier sabred in battle. For many thousands of years, on these hills and plains, nature had gone on sabring men and women with the same air of sensual pleasure.” (p.251)

Like all young men, Henry Adams faced the future with excitement. He did as young men of his generation and standing were expected to do: he enrolled at Harvard University. He studied with fervour, energised by the act of learning. In retrospect he knows he learnt little through his formal education:

“he needed… the facile use of only four tools: Mathematics; French; German, and Spanish. With these, he could master in very short time any special branch of inquiry, and feel at home in any society… These four tools were necessary to his success in life, but he never controlled any one of them.” (p.30)

But he is aware that education does not have to be formal.

“For the next eighteen months the young man pursued accidental education, since he could pursue no other; and by great good fortune, Europe and America were too busy with their own affairs to give much attention to his. Accidental education had every chance in its favor, especially because nothing came amiss.” (p.70)

Adams spent a large portion of his life in Europe, particularly in London and Paris. It was through these travels that he learnt about thirteenth century life, giving rise to his famous Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres (1904). The remainder of his time was spent in Washington, but he becomes a man adrift, uncertain of his purpose.

“He had tried to make himself useful, and had exerted energy that seemed to him portentous, acting in secret as newspaper correspondent, cultivating a large acquaintance and even haunting ball-rooms where the simple, old-fashioned, southern tone was pleasant even in the atmosphere of conspiracy and treason. The sum was next to nothing for education, because no one could teach; all were as ignorant as himself; none knew what should be done, or how to do it ; all were trying to learn, and were more bent on asking than on answering questions. The mass of ignorance in Washington was lighted up by no ray of knowledge. Society, from top to bottom, broke down.” (p.90)

Time and again this becomes his understanding of society – that there is ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn. Of his time teaching as Professor of Medieval History at Harvard, he said:

“The number of students whose minds were of an order above the average was, in his experience, barely one in ten; the rest could not be much stimulated by any inducements a teacher could suggest.” (p.263)

Finally even he has to admit defeat in life:

“Adams read and failed to understand; then he asked questions and failed to get answers.” (p.330)

Perhaps this is the sign of a great mind – that he knows much but understands little. To be able to admit this lack of education is not a galling thing for Adams, for what he has learnt has led him to his finest achievement – his Dynamic Theory of History. The last quarter of his Education is given over to elucidating his theory, which one suspects he feels will be his lasting force upon the earth. The theory attempted to resolve “all the forces of history into the perfect divine plot of conflict between the forces of the Virgin and the Dynamo.”[1] Though a fascinating and brave attempt to understand the twine of history, the theory was a failure. Three years later Adams proposed another theory based on the second law of thermodynamics and the principle of entropy, but this theory was discredited, and Adams spent the remainder of his life attempting to correct his theory.

The Education of Henry Adams reads as memoir, history, intellectual discussion and as the attempt of an old man to finally understand his place in the world. One feels the reverberations of a mind still suffering under the weight of his personal history and his family history, who has tried breaking free of those binds, only to fail. Near the end of his Education he seems to come to an important realisation but this too is not understood:

“As he saw the world, it was no longer simple and could not express itself simply. It should express what it was; and this was something that neither Adams nor La Farge understood.” (p.277)

The Education of Henry Adams remains an interesting and thoughtful document whose greatest impact comes not in the theories that he proposes, but in the world that he reveals. Adams lived through one of the greatest changes the world has known – the electrification of the world, the coming of the twentieth century, when the old models of understanding would become defunct. Perhaps Adams saw this but could not process it. He spends his twilight years visiting exhibitions and asking questions of scientists about what all this advancing technology will mean, but comes to no conclusions. The last few years of his life were spent as the greatest conflict the planet had known raged on the fields in France – how could a nineteenth century education have understood that?

The Education of Henry Adams is out of print in Penguin Classics.

The copy used for review purposes, and from which the page numbers come, was downloaded from the Million Books Project and is a copy of a privately published edition from 1907.


[1] Gooder, Jane. Introduction to the Penguin Edition

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The Face of Another (1964) Tanin No Kao

By Kobo Abe

With an Introduction by Kaori Nagai

Translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders

Penguin Classics, 237pp

For his second novel Kobo Abe attempted to deal with larger issues of identity and personality on a national scale, by focussing on one nameless man. In Woman of the Dunes (1962), his first novel, Abe’s prose had a simple elegance, but with The Face of Another (1964) the basic form is much diluted, and complicated by multiple questions. The protagonist of Woman of the Dunes was simply trying to escape; the protagonist of this work is trying to find himself and lose himself, and trying to find a way to live in a society that seems to have rejected him. Abe’s novel eventually brings in a host of other concerns – taking in Noh theatre, the Hibakusha, and racism, and all thoughts connected with them. All of this has the cumulative effect of making The Face of Another a less successful novel than Woman of the Dunes, but one still filled with interesting undertones.

The narrator, who tells his story through a series of notebooks (black, white and grey), records how following an accident at the laboratory where he worked is left with keloid scars covering his face. This disfigurement (and the first resonance with the Hibakusha (those people who survived the atomic bomb blasts in Japan and were permanently disfigured)) causes the narrator to feel an outcast in society, and estranged from his wife to whom he feels he can no longer make love. The first Frankenstein allegories becomes clear as the narrator begins to furnish a mask, one so detailed and perfect that it will fit him like skin, and be indistinguishable as a fake. He dedicates himself to this with zeal, perfecting the technique and seeking out the perfect model.

With the mask complete, the protagonist is faced with further questions of identity and personality – can one live as a man without a face? Can one live with another man’s face? The mask begins to exert power upon him, and he finds his personality changing, becoming more forceful and assertive for the mask has given him anonymity, despite having a face.

“The mask was growing thicker and thicker. It had grown at last into a concrete fortress that enveloped me; and I crept out into the night streets wrapped in concrete armour… I hid beneath my mask, which had neither name nor status nor age.” (P.152)

Abe never takes his novel into the horror territory it could quite easily stroll – he is much cannier than that. At times imagination is allowed to run riot – as Abe the novelist and the narrator ponder upon what might happen if everyone were allowed a mask (actors copyrighting their faces for instance), and what crimes one might theoretically get away with. The main concern is of a sexual one, though, as the narrator seduces his own wife wearing the mask, bringing up questions of fidelity and play within a relationship.

As with Woman of the Dunes, the film director Hiroshi Teshigahara turned Abe’s novel into a film (Tanin No Kao (1966)), and though the film is less successful than the novel (or indeed their previous collaboration), cinema is something of an issue within the novel and Abe has clearly been influenced by his collaboration with Teshigahara. In the novel the protagonist watches a film – leading to further discussions upon the nature of masks, for all actors are wearing one though they still have the same face – and it is later revealed that the woman in the film is Hibakusha, the right side of her face covered in keloid scars. The man she loves kisses her finally, and the protagonist asks his wife (and us) what the significance would be if he kissed her on the left or right cheek. Also, we are to consider how much the mask that he is wearing becomes a cinema screen, how much it might remove him from his actions, whether there is any responsibility left there.

From Kaori Nagai’s introduction we learn one further fact. The title Tanin No Kao is a play on words: “By choosing the word which can mean at once the other and the stranger as his keyword, Abe turns our most familiar landscape – the face of our most intimate other – into a baffling maze.” (p.vii) The other can be familiar – the other is his wife – but it is also a stranger. Abe’s novel does not appear baffling, but it certainly becomes a moral maze, filled with ambiguity and doubt.

Our final scene of the protagonist is of him watching and waiting, wondering whether he should commit a crime. It becomes the final perfect metaphor for everything that has come before, and the final unifying choice: he will be committing the crime, whatever face he wears, and the implications of that will rest in him, not on the face, though he shall find freedom.

“I wonder if I shall become a swan with an act like this. Can I make people feel guilty for me? It is useless to think. What is amply clear, at least, is that I shall be lonely and isolated, that I shall only become a lecher. There will be no reward outside of being freed from the crime of being ridiculous. Perhaps that’s the difference between movies and actuality.” (P.237)

Abe’s novel, though not entirely successful, and some of the concepts and thoughts contained within now seem dated or outmoded – we live now in a world where a face transplant has occurred – and it does seem very much of its decade. As one of Abe’s stories of metamorphism – a familiar motif in his work – it is not his best, but one worth wallowing in for a few hours. For like all the best pulp it asks questions of us, and what more can we ask from such fiction?

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Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904)

By Henry Brooks Adams

The abbey at Mont-Saint Michel and the cathedral at Chartres are the subject of Henry Adams’ history, self-published in 1904 for the education of his nieces and “nieces in wish” but later released by Ralph Adams Cram with the support of the American Institute of Architects. This history takes in not only the architecture of these two buildings, but a detailed examination of poetry, religion, science, art and philosophy. It is a precise and understanding deconstruction of life in twelfth century France. By taking just two buildings as his focal point, Adams was better able to reveal the spirit of the century, and with more erudite skill than almost everyone since.

Mont-Saint Michel’s importance in history is evident in every step one takes within it. The weight of history is accumulated here, it is breathed in everywhere. Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Mont-Saint Michel is now protected against invasion, development and rivalry. The town of Chartres, south of Paris, is another place enveloped in history – there has been settlement there since Roman times – but unlike Mont-Saint Michel which withstood many invasions and attacks, Chartres suffered frequently, and greatly, especially during the Second World War. Remarkably the religious buildings at both sites survived these onslaughts almost intact, though both suffered at the hands of successive generations that wrought upon them their own distinct style.

As we can ascertain from The Education of Henry Adams (1907), Henry Adams first visited France in the late 1850s, following his graduation from Harvard University. He said of time in France in that book:

“He squandered two or three months on Paris. From the first he had avoided Paris, and had wanted no French influence in his education. He disapproved of France in the lump… He disliked most the French mind. To save himself the trouble of drawing up a long list of all that he disliked, he disapproved of the whole, once for all, and shut them figuratively out’ of his life. France was not serious, and he was not serious in going there.” (p.81, Education of Henry Adams)

The Education of Henry Adams is a book of his education in all things and of how his mind becomes changed, and so sometime between 1857 and the opening of the twentieth century, Adams came to respect France.

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres takes the form of a monologue from “uncle” Adams to his “niece”, and as such has at times a very conversational tone. His introduction is such like:

“The party, then, with such variations of detail as may suit its tastes, has sailed from New York, let us say, early in June for an entire summer in France. One pleasant June morning it has landed at Cherbourg or Havre and takes the train across Normandy to Pontorson, where, with the evening light, the tourists drive along the chaussee, over the sands or through the tide, till they stop at Madame Poulard’s famous hotel within the Gate of the Mount.” (Preface, Mont-Saint-Michel)

Despite this tone, Adam’s work contains a wealth of detail. He refers to the reader as “tourist” and says he does not need to go into great detail for tourists never do: but he does, and frequently. It is the detail of the place that most excites him. It is a work engaged with the history of the place at every level, and Adams manages to bring to life a long forgotten world. His version of Pierre Abelard (whose letters to Heloise were examined earlier on this blog) comes to life on the page, as does St. Francis and all the other figures of twelfth century life that circle around Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. There is even poetry in his detail.

“For seven hundred years Chartres has seen pilgrims, coming and going more or less like us, and will perhaps see them for another seven hundred years; but we shall see it no more, and can safely leave the Virgin in her majesty, with her three great prophets on either hand, as calm and confident in their own strength and in God’s providence as they were when Saint Louis was born, but looking down from a deserted heaven, into an empty church, on a dead faith.” (P.197, ibid)

This also points to one of the most interesting contradictions in Adams work. As we saw in his novel Esther (1884) the debate between science and religion has been a crux of Adams’ life. In his Education he says of his youth, “but neither to him nor to his brothers or sisters was religion real.” (P.27, Education) By 1904 it is a “dead faith” and yet the debates of religion and of church construction are of deep fascination to this man of knowledge.

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres is also engaged with another subject, explored also in Esther, and that is the position of women. Adams was very much for women’s liberation – his life had been dedicated to freeing those who suffered repression – and this work, dedicated to his “nieces” shows a deep understanding of the role of women in twelfth century society – from the Virgin Mary to Heloise:

“At any time of her life, Heloise would have defied society or church, and would at least in the public’s fancy have taken Abelard by the hand and gone off to the forest much more readily than she went to the cloister; but Abelard would have made a poor figure as Tristan. Abelard and Christian of Troyes were as remote as we are from the legendary Tristan; but Isolde and Heloise, Eleanor and Mary were the immortal and eternal woman.” (P.221, Mont-Saint-Michel)

Adams continues to rhapsodise upon this issue, culminating in one of his most eulogist passages:

“The fact, conspicuous above all other historical certainties about religion, that the Virgin was by essence illogical, unreasonable and feminine, is the only fact of any ultimate value worth studying, and starts a number of questions that history has shown itself clearly afraid to touch. Protestant and Catholic differ little in that respect. No one has ventured to explain why the Virgin wielded exclusive power over poor and rich, sinners and saints, alike. Why were all the Protestant churches cold failures without her help? Why could not the Holy Ghost the spirit of Love and Grace equally answer their prayers? Why was the Son powerless? Why was Chartres Cathedral in the thirteenth century like Lourdes to-day the expression of what is in substance a separate religion? Why did the gentle and gracious Virgin Mother so exasperate the Pilgrim Father? Why was the Woman struck out of the Church and ignored in the State? These questions are not antiquarian or trifling in historical value; they tug at the very heart-strings of all that makes whatever order is in the cosmos. If a Unity exists, in which and toward which all energies centre, it must explain and include Duality, Diversity, Infinity Sex!” (P.261, ibid)

His engagement with philosophy is also of deep fascination. Adams frequently displays his knowledge but is not condescending of excluding with it.

“If God is everywhere; wholly; presiding, sustaining, embracing and filling, “sursum regens, deorsum continens,” He is the only possible energy, and leaves no place for human will to act. A force which is “one and the same and wholly everywhere” is more Spinozist than Spinoza, and is likely to be mistaken for frank pantheism by the large majority of religious minds who must try to understand it without a theological course in a Jesuit college.” (p.286, ibid)

His expositions take in the most diverse of subjects, from Spinoza, to the Chanson de Roland and the writings of other deep thinkers. His work shows a willingness to engage with life, to debate its intricacies. Adams says, “Freedom could not exist in nature, or even in God, after the single, unalterable act or will which created.” (P.369) This becomes the nexus of art borne of religion. He goes on to say:

“The theology turns always into art at the last, and ends in aspiration… All they saw was the soul vanishing into the skies. How it was done, one does not care to ask; in a result so exquisite, one has not the heart to find fault with “adresse.”” (p.379)

There are many other exquisite ideas contained within Adams work and is worth tracking down a copy. History can only be glad that Ralph Adams Cram saw fit to rescue this work from its relative obscurity and bring it forth to a grateful public. It is a work of such education and erudition that to sum it up successfully is impossible. All I can do is urge you to read it yourself. If you have any interest in religion, architecture, history, poetry, or philosophy Adams’ Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres is essential.

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