Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Compartmentalization

At the very beginning of his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), Goethe describes the house he grew up in, with special emphasis on one room in particular. It was a large, open room located on the ground floor. It had a sitting area for the household staff with a partial opening on to the street, so that visitors and passers-by could come and go easily. Goethe and his sister could play in this room, and could also easily communicate with their friends and neighbors. This room brought work and play together, as well as the public and the private. Goethe concludes his description with this sentence: “One felt free insofar as one was comfortable with the public.”

This room exemplifies the proper integration of different aspects of our lives we must seek to achieve in our own lives, and which we as a society must strive to achieve. The nuclear family did not feel under siege from the outside world, nor were recreation and labor mutually exclusive. Family life was important, but it did not need an oppressive shelter to flourish. This older arrangement of the household is at odds with our modern approach. Today, Goethe's father (a wealthy, influential citizen of Frankfurt) probably would have lived in a suburb with restrictive zoning laws not allowing stores or businesses anywhere near homes. Furthermore, no extended household (including servants) would be allowed on the property, or at the very least would be strongly discouraged. If Goethe and his sister wanted to play, their mother would probably have to drive them to a park. Goethe’s last sentence today would have been: “One did not feel free unless one’s private (non-economic) life was completely separated from one's public (economic) life.” However, family life today is weaker despite the efforts we make to protect it from the outside.

This separation of the public from the private, of the economic from the non-economic, is present in other areas of society, and I will give three specific examples below: art, exercise, and nature. What unites all three examples is that in each case we attempt to protect a particular good from the encroachments of the economic by assigning it a separate compartment. Yet we fail precisely because each good, once it has been restricted to a distinct sphere, is less able to influence the economic realm and everyday life.

First, consider art museums. Many philosophers and artists in the 19th and 20th century established a strict dichotomy between work and art, in order to glorify art all the more, with some even elevating it to the status of a religion. Accordingly, many shrines to art have been erected in the form of grand museums. The Art Institute of Chicago, for instance, is a world-famous museum housed in a building reminiscent of a classical temple—and it even has two lions to guard the sanctuary. Yet how relevant is art today? Has the separation of art from other institutions in society really improved modern man’s aesthetic judgment and his overall taste? Probably not. Visiting an art museum on vacation is merely a civic duty, rather than true enrichment.

Second, consider exercise. More than one commentator has remarked on modern Americans’ worship of physical perfection, embodied in a nearly obsessive concern with exercise (think of gym memberships), yet the average American grows fatter from year to year, despite warnings about the dangers of obesity. We have, on the one hand, lengthened the average person’s life expectancy by relieving him of the necessity of performing hard physical labor in order to earn his daily wage, but we have simultaneously harmed his health by relieving him of this necessity. We separate work from physical activity to help ourselves, but in the end only create new problems.

Finally, think of how America sets aside more and more land as “nature reserves” and some environmentalists seem to worship nature, yet fewer and fewer people are really in touch with nature on a daily basis. At best, the average American spends a week camping or hiking in a national park, but out of touch with nature for the remaining 51 weeks of the year. One writer (Nicolás Gómez Dávila) has even warned of the danger that an “age is upon us in which nature, displaced by man, will not survive except in arboretums and museums.”

Priests and pastors have long admonished their congregations not to restrict religion to Sundays; instead, they must let their faith permeate their daily activities. The same applies to all other areas of life. Art, exercise, and nature must be released from their holding cells and be free to influence society at large. There is no easy way to do this. However, I would suggest that one rule will apply generally: The only way to integrate all these separate goods into society is under the aegis of a single “architectonic” institution with the breadth of vision to encompass them all, to allow them all space for development yet also impose limits on them. Art and nature will not be worshiped, but nor will they be denigrated; each in its proper place. Until we recover some conception of an architectonic institution that can give order to the various goods, our compartmentalization of these goods will only hurt them in the long run.
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