On February 26, 1950, a couple of years before I was born, Leonard Bernstein premiered his second symphony, The Age of Anxiety, in New York City. It was based on W. H. Auden’s 1948 Pulitzer Prize winning poem which had used the metaphor to describe the spiritual, psychological, and political milieu after World War II. It is little wonder that anxiety preoccupied Auden and Bernstein at the time. So also in so much art and poetry. The war had left some 50 to 60 million (!) dead in its awful wake. How was the world expected to just get on with it, with life, after such a conflagration?
Now, over a half century later, I am myself over half a century old. I have seen much of the world, much of life, and I still can’t get used to the numbers of the dead —the unknown faces and hearts— which still stagger me. Were we baby boomers born into a time of progress and wonder, or were we born into Hell itself, I often wondered.
No wonder my generation had had it with war; two “world” wars, the mountains and mountains—no! veritable oceans — of corpses which were bequeathed to us by the previous generations. We tried to avert our eyes. But we couldn’t.
Eisenhower’s retreat from his sad life and the “boring peace” of his Presidency seemed something ominous. He was tired, worn to death by war and rumors of war, such as the world had never before seen. The stuff of science fiction.
In fact, before he left he gave us an astounding warning. He warned the American people about the “military-industrial complex” in this country; that is, how the military industrial sector profits from war and therefore has a vested interest in promoting it. Eisenhower had seen too much. He walked through the death camps at the end—as if the war was not enough— and saw human ghosts littering the blood-soaked ground, a tribute to a dark nihilism —-what we once called sin.
No wonder my generation just took to the streets when Vietnam erupted into our “living” rooms, into yet more and more death. We were determined to find new ways to resolve human conflicts. We had been given very mixed, indeed contradictory signals: On the one hand we had a handsome, young, Catholic President in the White House. We had the youthful enthusiasm of The Beatles. In Rome we had a rolly-polly jolly Pope named John, who said that both the Church and the world would have to rethink the whole question of war itself in light of the very recent horrors: Hitler’s psychotic Third Reich, the splitting of the Atom, the fruits of which we dropped like Hell-fire on whole cities—on the elderly, on women and children (to say nothing of the firebombing of Dresden, Tokyo and so many other cities, incinerating all the hapless inhabitants.)
We had, we were told, inherited the genius of the Enlightenment, of “Science”. We had finally gone beyond the “mythic notions of the past,” our teachers told us, even the old theological understandings of the deity and His ways. Anglican bishop J.A.T Robinson, following the famous unbelieving NT scholar Rudolph Bultmann, assured us there was no Heaven “above”, even as rock stars prayed “there ain’t no Hell”. And a young Harvard professor, Harvey Cox, was to tell us we should now get down and just relish the Secular City, that it was our (new) manifest destiny to be free of the tyranny of the gods.
But our handsome young President, who promised us the moon, got shot. Murdered. We saw the top of his head blown off later on TV. We stared at it in shocked unbelief. Our developing nervous systems tried to take it in.
Then his assassin was murdered—also on TV. “The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan. It stunned an anxious world all over again.
Upheavals Upon Upheavals
Then the cities burned. “What’s happening?” I asked my father. He had no reply. The “have-nots” rose up against the “haves” and the “have-mores”. The elite masters.
Then Martin Luther King took the bullet. Robert F. Kennedy shortly after him went down too. I was a student at Keith Academy, a Catholic prep school in Lowell, Massachusetts when Kennedy bled to death on that cafeteria floor after winning California. Maybe history is a conspiracy, after all, we thought. There was plenty of cognitive dissonance and double-binds —the very stuff of anxiety— to go around.
Meanwhile, Pope John’s naive Council, which sought to incarnate immutable truths for unprecedented times, was hijacked by giddy progressives who could not distinguish the baby and the bath water. And the traditionalists reacted by blaming the Council itself, doubtless correct in part. Rollo May, the famous existentialist psychologist, wrote a best-selling book simply titled: Anxiety. I saw people reading it in the parks. I read it too. Victor Frankl, another existentialist psychiatrist, who was himself a prisoner in Aushwitz, wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in 1959, but now it was everywhere. Freudian couches were occupied in every corner of the earth, even if Freud was shortly to get the boot himself, leaving a whole generation to anesthetize itself against despair through over-or-underground drug markets. And make no mistake about it, the sexual revolution was in part simple promiscuity, yes, but also part despair.
Nowhere to Hide
Kids like me had to dive under the desks in preparation for—of all things—nuclear war! A lot of good the desk would do.
We were taught that we were living in a “Cold War,” which was not a “hot” war —yet!— but it may very well be soon, we were told. This was information our little nervous systems were supposed to take in calmly: the sudden cataclysmic death of everyone on the planet, everyone and everything we loved and needed. (‘Now back to the Weekly Reader, children’).
There was no winning in this bi-polar world. No matter which side launched first, the Soviets or us, it was Dooms Day. Not a nightmare, it was the real thing. This was enlightenment?
The fact is we were afraid, and we were afraid to show our fear; our young minds were not supposed to register that fear openly. So we tried not to think about it. We had to find ways to forget it—and we did. This too is, of course, anxiety-producing. Repression of the most profound kind.
In 1942, during the War, the philosopher-novelist Albert Camus anticipated the apathy born of a kind of shell-shock in a short novel, The Stranger. In the story Monsieur Meursault is too numb to feel. He was numb when his mother died, numb when he walked through the streets of Paris and sat down in its cafes, numb when his Arab mistress was beaten, numb when he shot and killed a relative of one of the culprits and numb when he was condemned to death for killing.
Unlike fear, which has an object, anxiety is said to be free-floating. One hardly knows from whence the danger is coming. That is the worst fear of all. The fear without a name or direction.
So this was the schema: no God as humankind until recently knew Him, in a world armed to the teeth. Is it any wonder the pharmaceutical companies are doing so well, or that art began to intensify in the direction of dissonance, though this had begun much earlier? We don’t even know what sustained peace is. Now they’re turning mega-huge passenger jets into flying Hell tanks and taking down skyscrapers. Meanwhile, we’re prepping for perpetual premptive war—and screw the question of root causes.
Simply put, by the time I began reading the New Testament as a teenager, Jesus of Nazareth, Prince of Peace, made more sense to me than all the ‘teachers’ and literature and Con men I devoured, both in and out of the schools. Sorry about that Mr. Darwin, Herr Bultmann, Adolph Hitler, Messers Mao and Stalin, Bishop Robinson, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Osama bin Laden, Hans Kung, George Bush, Mr. Obama…