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Henry Adams (1838–1918). The Education of Henry Adams. 1918.


Teufelsdröckh (1901)

INEVITABLE Paris beckoned, and resistance became more and more futile as the store of years grew less; for the world contains no other spot than Paris where education can be pursued from every side. Even more vigorously than in the twelfth century, Paris taught in the twentieth, with no other school approaching it for variety of direction and energy of mind. Of the teaching in detail, a man who knew only what accident had taught him in the nineteenth century, could know next to nothing, since science had got quite beyond his horizon, and mathematics had become the only necessary language of thought; but one could play with the toys of childhood, including Ming porcelain, salons of painting, operas and theatres, beaux-arts and Gothic architecture, theology and anarchy, in any jumble of time; or totter about with Joe Stickney, talking Greek philosophy or recent poetry, or studying “Louise” at the Opéra Comique, or discussing the charm of youth and the Seine with Bay Lodge and his exquisite young wife. Paris remained Parisian in spite of change, mistress of herself though China fell. Scores of artists,—sculptors and painters, poets and dramatists, workers in gems and metals, designers in stuffs and furniture,—hundreds of chemists, physicists, even philosophers, philologists, physicians, and historians,—were at work, a thousand times as actively as ever before, and the mass and originality of their product would have swamped any previous age, as it very nearly swamped its own; but the effect was one of chaos, and Adams stood as helpless before it as before the chaos of New York. His single thought was to keep in front of the movement, and, if necessary, lead it to chaos, but never fall behind. Only the young have time to linger in the rear.

The amusements of youth had to be abandoned, for not even pugilism needs more staying-power than the labors of the pale-faced student of the Latin Quarter in the haunts of Montparnasse or Montmartre, where one must feel no fatigue at two o’clock in the morning in a beer-garden even after four hours of Mounet Sully at the Théatre Français. In those branches, education might be called closed. Fashion, too, could no longer teach anything worth knowing to a man who, holding open the door into the next world, regarded himself as merely looking round to take a last glance of this. The glance was more amusing than any he had known in his active life, but it was more,—infinitely more,—chaotic and complex.

Still something remained to be done for education beyond the chaos, and as usual the woman helped. For thirty years or there-abouts, he had been repeating that he really must go to Baireuth. Suddenly Mrs. Lodge appeared on the horizon and bade him come. He joined them, parents and children, alert and eager and appreciative as ever, at the little old town of Rothenburg-on-the-Taube, and they went on to the Baireuth festival together.

Thirty years earlier, a Baireuth festival would have made an immense stride in education, and the spirit of the master would have opened a vast new world. In 1901 the effect was altogether different from the spirit of the master. In 1876 the rococo setting of Baireuth seemed the correct atmosphere for Siegfried and Brünhilde, perhaps even for Parsifal. Baireuth was out of the world, calm, contemplative, and remote. In 1901 the world had altogether changed, and Wagner had become a part of it, as familiar as Shakespeare or Bret Harte. The rococo element jarred. Even the Hudson and the Susquehannah,—perhaps the Potomac itself,—had often risen to drown out the gods of Walhalla, and one could hardly listen to the “Götterdämmerung” in New York, among throngs of intense young enthusiasts, without paroxysms of nervous excitement that toned down to musical philistinism at Baireuth, as though the gods were Bavarian composers. New York or Paris might be whatever one pleased,—venal, sordid, vulgar,—but society nursed there, in the rottenness of its decay, certain anarchistic ferments, and thought them proof of art. Perhaps they were; and at all events, Wagner was chiefly responsible for them as artistic emotion. New York knew better than Baireuth what Wagner meant, and the frivolities of Paris had more than once included the rising of the Seine to drown out the Etoile or Montmartre, as well as the sorcery of ambition that casts spells of enchantment on the hero. Paris still felt a subtile flattery in the thought that the last great tragedy of gods and men would surely happen there, while no one could conceive of its happening at Baireuth, or would care if it did. Paris coquetted with catastrophe as though it were an old mistress,—faced it almost gaily as she had done so often, for they were acquainted since Rome began to ravage Europe;—while New York met it with a glow of fascinated horror, like an inevitable earthquake, and heard Ternina announce it with conviction that made nerves quiver and thrill as they had long ceased to do under the accents of popular oratory proclaiming popular virtue. Flattery had lost its charm, but the Fluch-motif went home.

Adams had been carried with the tide till Brünhilde had become a habit and Ternina an ally. He too had played with anarchy;—though not with socialism, which, to young men who nourished artistic emotions under the dome of the Pantheon, seemed hopelessly bourgeois, and lowest middle-class. Bay Lodge and Joe Stickney had given birth to the wholly new and original party of Conservative Christian Anarchists, to restore true poetry under the inspiration of the “Götterdämmerung.” Such a party saw no inspiration in Baireuth, where landscape, history, and audience were—relatively—stodgy, and where the only emotion was a musical dilettantism that the master had abhorred.

Yet Baireuth still amused even a conservative Christian anarchist who cared as little as “Grane, mein Ross,” whether the singers sang false, and who came only to learn what Wagner had supposed himself to mean. This end attained as pleased Frau Wagner and the Heiliger Geist, he was ready to go on; and the Senator, yearning for sterner study, pointed to a haven at Moscow. For years Adams had taught American youth never to travel without a Senator who was useful even in America at times, but indispensable in Russia where, in 1901, anarchists, even though conservative and Christian, were ill-seen.

This wing of the anarchistic party consisted rigorously of but two members, Adams and Bay Lodge. The conservative Christian anarchist, as a party, drew life from Hegel and Schopenhauer rightly understood. By the necessity of their philosophical descent, each member of the fraternity denounced the other as unequal to his lofty task and inadequate to grasp it. Of course, no third member could be so much as considered, since the great principle of contradiction could be expressed only by opposites; and no agreement could be conceived, because anarchy, by definition, must be chaos and collision, as in the kinetic theory of a perfect gas. Doubtless this law of contradiction was itself agreement, a restriction of personal liberty inconsistent with freedom; but the “larger synthesis” admitted a limited agreement provided it were strictly confined to the end of larger contradiction. Thus the great end of all philosophy—the “larger synthesis”—was attained, but the process was arduous, and while Adams, as the older member, assumed to declare the principle, Bay Lodge necessarily denied both the assumption and the principle in order to assure its truth.

Adams proclaimed that in the last synthesis, order and anarchy were one, but that the unity was chaos. As anarchist, conservative and Christian, he had no motive or duty but to attain the end; and, to hasten it, he was bound to accelerate progress; to concentrate energy; to accumulate power; to multiply and intensify forces; to reduce friction, increase velocity and magnify momentum, partly because this was the mechanical law of the universe as science explained it; but partly also in order to get done with the present which artists and some others complained of; and finally,—and chiefly—because a rigorous philosophy required it, in order to penetrate the beyond, and satisfy man’s destiny by reaching the largest synthesis in its ultimate contradiction.

Of course the untaught critic instantly objected that this scheme was neither conservative, Christian, nor anarchic, but such objection meant only that the critic should begin his education in any infant school in order to learn that anarchy which should be logical would cease to be anarchic. To the conservative Christian anarchist, the amiable doctrines of Kropotkin were sentimental ideas of Russian mental inertia covered with the name of anarchy merely to disguise their innocence; and the outpourings of Elisée Reclus were ideals of the French ouvrier, diluted with absinthe, resulting in a bourgeois’ dream of order and inertia. Neither made a presence of anarchy except as a momentary stage towards order and unity. Neither of them had formed any other conception of the universe than what they had inherited from the priestly class to which their minds obviously belonged. With them, as with the socialist, communist, or collectivist, the mind that followed nature had no relation; if anarchists needed order, they must go back to the twelfth century where their thought had enjoyed its thousand years of reign. The conservative Christian anarchist could have no associate, no object, no faith except the nature of nature itself; and his “larger synthesis” had only the fault of being so supremely true that even the highest obligation of duty could scarcely oblige Bay Lodge to deny it in order to prove it. Only the self-evident truth that no philosophy of order—except the Church—had ever satisfied the philosopher reconciled the conservative Christian anarchist to prove his own.

Naturally these ideas were so far in advance of the age that hardly more people could understand them than understood Wagner or Hegel; for that matter, since the time of Socrates, wise men have been mostly shy of claiming to understand anything; but such refinements were Greek or German, and affected the practical American but little. He admitted that, for the moment, the darkness was dense. He could not affirm with confidence, even to himself, that his “largest synthesis” would certainly turn out to be chaos, since he would be equally obliged to deny the chaos. The poet groped blindly for an emotion. The play of thought for thought’s sake had mostly ceased. The throb of fifty or a hundred million steam horse-power, doubling every ten years, and already more despotic than all the horses that ever lived, and all the riders they ever carried, drowned rhyme and reason. No one was to blame, for all were equally servants of the power, and worked merely to increase it; but the conservative christian anarchist saw light.

Thus the student of Hegel prepared himself for a visit to Russia in order to enlarge his “synthesis;”—and much he needed it! In America all were conservative christian anarchists; the faith was national, racial, geographic. The true American had never seen such supreme virtue in any of the innumerable shades between social anarchy and social order as to mark it for exclusively human and his own. He never had known a complete union either in Church or State or thought, and had never seen any need for it. The freedom gave him courage to meet any contradiction, and intelligence enough to ignore it. Exactly the opposite condition had marked Russian growth. The Czar’s empire was a phase of conservative christian anarchy more interesting to history than all the complex variety of American newspapers, schools, trusts, sects, frauds, and Congressmen. These were nature,—pure and anarchic as the conservative christian anarchist saw nature;—active, vibrating, mostly unconscious, and quickly reacting on force; but, from the first glimpse one caught from the sleeping-car window, in the early morning, of the Polish Jew at the accidental railway station, in all his weird horror, to the last vision of the Russian peasant, lighting his candle and kissing his ikon before the railway Virgin in the station at St. Petersburg, all was logical, conservative, christian and anarchic. Russia had nothing in common with any ancient or modern world that history knew; she had been the oldest source of all civilisation in Europe, and had kept none for herself; neither Europe nor Asia had ever known such a phase, which seemed to fall into no line of evolution whatever, and was as wonderful to the student of Gothic architecture in the twelfth century, as to the student of the dynamo in the twentieth. Studied in the dry light of conservative christian anarchy, Russia became luminous like the salt of radium; but with a negative luminosity as though she were a substance whose energies had been sucked out,—an inert residuum,—with movement of pure inertia. From the car window one seemed to float past undulations of nomad life,—herders deserted by their leaders and herds,—wandering waves stopped in their wanderings,—waiting for their winds or warriors to return and lead them westward; tribes that had camped, like Khirgis, for the season, and had lost the means of motion without acquiring the habit of permanence. They waited and suffered. As they stood they were out of place, and could never have been normal. Their country acted as a sink of energy like the Caspian Sea, and its surface kept the uniformity of ice and snow. One Russian peasant kissing an Ikon on a Saint’s day, in the Kremlin, served for a hundred million. The student had no need to study Wallace, or re-read Tolstoi or Tourgueneff or Dostoiewski to refresh his memory of the most poignant analysis of human inertia ever put in words; Gorki was more than enough: Kropotkine answered every purpose.

The Russian people could never have changed,—could they ever be changed? Could inertia of race, on such a scale, be broken up, or take new form? Even in America, on an infinitely smaller scale, the question was old and unanswered. All the so-called primitive races, and some nearer survivals, had raised doubts which persisted against the most obstinate convictions of evolution. The Senator himself shook his head, and after surveying Warsaw and Moscow to his content, went on to St. Petersburg to ask questions of Mr. de Witte and Prince Khilkoff. Their conversation added new doubts; for their efforts had been immense, their expenditure enormous, and their results on the people seemed to be uncertain as yet, even to themselves. Ten or fifteen years of violent stimulus seemed resulting in nothing, for, since 1898, Russia lagged.

The tourist-student, having duly reflected, asked the Senator whether he should allow three generations, or more, to swing the Russian people into the Western movement. The senator seemed disposed to ask for more. The student had nothing to say. For him, all opinion founded on fact must be error, because the facts can never be complete, and their relations must be always infinite. Very likely, Russia would instantly become the most brilliant constellation of human progress through all the ordered stages of good; but meanwhile one might give a value as movement of inertia to the mass, and assume a slow acceleration that would, at the end of a generation, leave the gap between east and west relatively the same.

This result reached, the Lodges thought their moral improvement required a visit to Berlin; but forty years of varied emotions had not deadened Adams’s memories of Berlin, and he preferred, at any cost, to escape new ones. When the Lodges started for Germany, Adams took steamer for Sweden and landed happily, in a day or two, at Stockholm.

Until the student is fairly sure that his problem is soluble, he gains little by obstinately insisting on solving it. One might doubt whether Mr. de Witte himself, or Prince Khilkoff, or any Grand Duke, or the Emperor, knew much more about it than their neighbors; and Adams was quite sure that, even in America, he should listen with uncertain confidence to the views of any Secretary of the Treasury, or Railway President, or President of the United States whom he had ever known, that should concern the America of the next generation. The mere fact that any man should dare to offer them would prove his incompetence to judge. Yet Russia was too vast a force to be treated as an object of unconcern. As inertia, if in no other way, she represented three-fourths of the human race, and her movement might be the true movement of the future, against the hasty and unsure acceleration of America. No one could yet know what would best suit humanity, and the tourist who carried his La Fontaine in mind, caught himself talking as bear or as monkey according to the mirror he held before him. “Am I satisfied?” he asked:—
‘Moi? pourquoi non?
N’ai-je pas quatre pieds aussi bien que les autres?
Mon portrait jusqu’ici ne m’a rien reproché;
Mais pour mon frère l’ours, on ne l’a qu’ébauché;
Jamais, s’il me veut croire, il ne se fera peindre.’

Granting that his brother the bear lacked perfection in details, his own figure as monkey was not necessarily ideal or decorative, nor was he in the least sure what form it might take even in one generation. He had himself never ventured to dream of three. No man could guess what the Daimler motor and X-rays would do to him; but so much was sure; the monkey and motor were terribly afraid of the bear;—how much, only a man close to their foreign departments knew. As the monkey looked back across the Baltic from the safe battlements of Stockholm, Russia looked more portentous than from the Kremlin.

The image was that of the retreating ice-cap,—a wall of archaic glacier, as fixed, as ancient, as eternal, as the wall of archaic ice that blocked the ocean a few hundred miles to the northward, and more likely to advance. Scandinavia had been ever at its mercy. Europe had never changed. The imaginary line that crossed the level continent from the Baltic to the Black Sea, merely extended the northern barrier-line. The Hungarians and Poles on one side still struggled against the Russian inertia of race, and retained their own energies under the same conditions that caused inertia across the frontier. Race ruled the conditions; conditions hardly affected race; and yet no one could tell the patient tourist what race was, or how it should be known. History offered a feeble and delusive smile at the sound of the word; evolutionists and ethnologists disputed its very existence; no one knew what to make of it; yet, without the clue, history was a nursery tale.

The Germans, Scandinavians, Poles and Hungarians, energetic as they were, had never held their own against the heterogeneous mass of inertia called Russia, and trembled with terror whenever Russia moved. From Stockholm one looked back on it as though it were an ice-sheet, and so had Stockholm watched it for centuries. In contrast with the dreary forests of Russia and the stern streets of St. Petersburg, Stockholm seemed a southern vision, and Sweden lured the tourist on. Through a cheerful New England landscape and bright autumn, he rambled northwards till he found himself at Trondhjem and discovered Norway. Education crowded upon him in immense masses as he triangulated these vast surfaces of history about which he had lectured and read for a life-time. When the historian fully realises his ignorance,—which sometimes happens to Americans,—he becomes even more tiresome to himself than to others, because his naïveté is irrepressible. Adams could not get over his astonishment, though he had preached the Norse doctrine all his life against the stupid and beer-swilling Saxon boors whom Freeman loved, and who, to the despair of science, produced Shakespeare. Mere contact with Norway started voyages of thought, and, under their illusions, he took the mail steamer to the north, and on September 14, reached Hammerfest.

Frivolous amusement was hardly what one saw, through the equinoctial twilight, peering at the flying tourist, down the deep fiords, from dim patches of snow, where the last Laps and reindeer were watching the mail-steamer thread the intricate channels outside, as their ancestors had watched the first Norse fishermen learn them in the succession of time; but it was not the Laps, or the snow, or the arctic gloom, that impressed the tourist, so much as the lights of an electro-magnetic civilisation and the stupefying contrast with Russia, which more and more insisted on taking the first place in historical interest. Nowhere had the new forces so vigorously corrected the errors of the old, or so effectively redressed the balance of the ecliptic. As one approached the end,—the spot where, seventy years before, a futile Carlylean Teufelsdröckh had stopped to ask futile questions of the silent infinite,—the infinite seemed to have become loquacious, not to say familiar, chattering gossip in one’s ear. An installation of electric lighting and telephones led tourists close up to the polar ice-cap, beyond the level of the magnetic pole; and there the newer Teufelsdröckh sat dumb with surprise, and glared at the permanent electric lights of Hammerfest.

He had good reason,—better than the Teufelsdröckh of 1830, in his liveliest Scotch imagination, ever dreamed, or mortal man had ever told. At best, a week in these dim Northern seas, without means of speech, within the Arctic circle, at the equinox, lent itself to gravity if not to gloom; but only a week before, breakfasting in the restaurant at Stockholm, his eye had caught, across, the neighboring table, a headline in a Swedish newspaper, announcing an attempt on the life of President McKinley, and from Stockholm to Trondhjem, and so up the coast to Hammerfest, day after day the news came, telling of the President’s condition, and the doings and sayings of Hay and Roosevelt, until at last a little journal was cried on reaching some dim haven, announcing the President’s death a few hours before. To Adams the death of McKinley and the advent of Roosevelt were not wholly void of personal emotion, but this was little in comparison with his depth of wonder at hearing hourly reports from his most intimate friends, sent to him far within the realm of night, not to please him, but to correct the faults of the solar system. The electro-dynamo-social universe worked better than the sun.

No such strange chance had ever happened to a historian before, and it upset for the moment his whole philosophy of conservative anarchy. The acceleration was marvellous, and wholly in the lines of unity. To recover his grasp of chaos, he must look back across the gulf to Russia, and the gap seemed to have suddenly become an abyss. Russia was infinitely distant. Yet the nightmare of the glacial ice-cap still pressed down on him from the hills, in full vision, and no one could look out on the dusky and oily sea that lapped these spectral islands without consciousness that only a day’s steaming to the northward would bring him to the ice-barrier, ready at any moment to advance, which obliged tourists to stop where Laps and reindeer and Norse fishermen had stopped so long ago that memory of their very origin was lost. Adams had never before met a ne plus ultra, and knew not what to make of it; but he felt at least the emotion of his Norwegian fishermen ancestors, doubtless numbering hundreds of thousands, jammed with their faces to the sea, the ice on the north, the ice-cap of Russian inertia pressing from behind, and the ice a trifling danger compared with the inertia. From the day they first followed the retreating ice-cap round the North Cape, down to the present moment, their problem was the same.

The new Teufelsdröckh, though considerably older than the old one, saw no clearer into past or future, but he was fully as much perplexed. From the archaic ice-barrier to the Caspian Sea, a long line of division, permanent since ice and inertia first took possession, divided his lines of force, with no relation to climate or geography or soil.

The less a tourist knows, the fewer mistakes he need make, for he will not expect himself to explain ignorance. A century ago he carried letters and sought knowledge; to-day he knows that no one knows; he needs too much and ignorance is learning. He wandered south again, and came out at Kiel, Hamburg, Bremen, and Cologne. A mere glance showed him that here was a Germany new to mankind. Hamburg was almost as American as St. Louis. In forty years, the green rusticity of Dusseldorf had taken on the sooty grime of Birmingham. The Rhine in 1900 resembled the Rhine of 1858 much as it resembled the Rhine of the Salic Franks. Cologne was a railway centre that had completed its cathedral which bore an absent-minded air of a cathedral of Chicago. The thirteenth century, carefully strained-off, catalogued, and locked up, was visible to tourists as a kind of Neanderthal, cave-dwelling, curiosity. The Rhine was more modern than the Hudson, as might well be, since it produced far more coal; but all this counted for little beside the radical change in the lines of force.

In 1858 the whole plain of northern Europe, as well as the Danube in the south, bore evident marks of being still the prehistoric highway between Asia and the ocean. The trade-route followed the old routes of invasion, and Cologne was a resting-place between Warsaw and Flanders. Throughout northern Germany, Russia was felt even more powerfully than France. In 1901 Russia had vanished, and not even France was felt; hardly England or America. Coal alone was felt,—its stamp alone pervaded the Rhine district and persisted to Picardy,—and the stamp was the same as that of Birmingham and Pittsburgh. The Rhine produced the same power, and the power produced the same people,—the same mind,—the same impulse. For a man sixty-three years old who had no hope of earning a living, these three months of education were the most arduous he ever attempted, and Russia was the most indigestible morsel he ever met; but the sum of it, viewed from Cologne, seemed reasonable. From Hammerfest to Cherbourg on one shore of the ocean,—from Halifax to Norfolk on the other,—one great empire was ruled by one great emperor—Coal. Political and human jealousies might tear it apart or divide it, but the power and the empire were one. Unity had gained that ground. Beyond lay Russia, and there an older, perhaps a surer, power, resting on the eternal law of inertia, held its own.

As a personal matter, the relative value of the two powers became more interesting every year; for the mass of Russian inertia was moving irresistibly over China, and John Hay stood in its path. As long as de Witte ruled, Hay was safe. Should de Witte fall, Hay would totter. One could only sit down and watch the doings of Mr. de Witte and Mr. de Plehve.