an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Individualism

You ask about conformity vs the individual in the USA. Well, let me say first that in my, let us call it, “definition” of individuality, there are very few (unfortunately, but obviously amidst the humanity we see about us) individuals – in any case in any nobler sense of that word. In every American cities’ telephone book you will find – and I am using this as an example – hundreds of “John Smiths” listed. Now each of the people referred to by this popular name has a separate telephone number, address, house, family, face, etc. – but perhaps not much of the only “individuality” it seems to me worth talking about: great, strong, exemplary individuality – self-guided, courageous souls who are their own masters, or perhaps have the courage to follow higher guidance above, especially in the face of epidemic of crowd opinions. You might say that it is, conditions in this world being what they obviously are, inherently sacrificial, because it so often must go against the ignorance, stupidity and conformity of the fearful, following majority, which the Grand Inquisitor seems to me to well understand the psychology of. James Truslow Adams, who as you know, coined the expression “American Dream” (which so many millions blithely pursue a material version of in America), gave a very good description of conformity in his 1926 piece: “Our Dissolving Ethics” (which I first read by the way in the Moscow Lenin Library!). Anyone who has any degree of deeper insight into the cultural and psychological conditions in the USA, will immediately recognize its applicability to America today. He wrote:

Before we pass on to consider the intellectual environment of the younger generation, we may note another point with regard to the general atmosphere which has been provided by the older. That atmosphere is one of intense absorption in the material basis of life. The older generation has lost its spiritual bearings by its mad scramble for money at any spiritual cost in order to pay for the so-called high standard of living which, to a great extent, has been due to a lack of character, that character which enables a person to perceive clearly what is for his genuine good and to reject what is not as forcibly as the body tries to reject poison. The high standard is, in most of its aspects, a high standard on a low plane, and to a considerable extent it has been made possible because people have given up using their energies and resources to attain to any standard on the higher plane. Having with all the accumulated resources of a wealthy and powerful civilization, devoted their energies to the easier task of elaborating their life on the lower, the material plane, it is little wonder that they achieved “the highest standard” on that plane the world has seen.

But by devoting all their energies to the elaboration and piling up of things, to the making of possession of things a necessity of their lives, a symbol of success and a basis of personal appraisal, they have brought about a situation in which the obtaining of money in quantities wholly unnecessary for the sane ordering of life has become the overwhelming preoccupation of their minds. The softness of intellectual fiber that makes the search for material good so much easier that the search for spiritual, that lack of character that makes us easy victims of the opinions and standards of others, that lack of resisting power that makes us the victims of any advertising expert or persuasive salesman, that fear of mass opinion, that love of luxury which is always insidious and which grows by what it feeds upon, – all combine to make us believe that we are rising to a higher life when we are in reality losing that life in a complete devoting of ourselves to the mere machinery of life.

True individuality, as Dostoyevsky wrote in his private journal, is sacrificial to and for the community. For humanity being what it obviously – fortunately or unfortunately is (depending on one’s view of human history and spiritual anthropography), real individuals must have the courage (the English word here comes from the French for heart – coeur) to die for what they uniquely know is true. For what a million are wrong and herded about, an individual alone must be able to say “no, I know differently”. One only has to say the names or Stalin and Hitler – and the Crucifixion of Christ as well – to indicate that this sacrifice, the willingness, the strength and courage to die, is, one might say, savagely real – and rare.

No society in the world – not America, or Germany, or England, or Russia, or wherever, no matter what their social rhetorics and ideals – is full of strong individuals in any higher sense and meaning of humanity. They are, as history and humanity in the 20th century and around us show, very rare indeed. America, where Tocqueville helped to coin the word and idea of “individuality”, after his 1830’s American cultural observation, all to obviously shows great levels of conformity. Or, if one will call it individualism – then it is individualism on a very low common level. I really wish that I could say that this was not so in the USA; that I had seen quite otherwise, but anyone who observes US society can readily see the common conformity – the lack of individual courage on any great level. But one must add immediately that this is not a condition unique to the USA at all. In fact, since the USA is made up of people from every nation in the world, it is fair to say that America proves that the conformity so apparent in the world, is a condition of man, humanity. It will not do to blame the USA. It may be a problem of fallen Adam – of the common variety; but it is not a mere problem of a bad nationality, American or otherwise. Still, in the USA there is a unique opportunity for the individual to freely develop – to which two observations need be added. It seem to me that Solzhenitsyn’s critique before some of America’s elite at Harvard in 1978 is quite accurate: that the suffering in Eastern Europe had produced stronger more interesting individualities, than standardized Western well-being. In Russia, it is common to hear that suffering is expected and inherent in life, and any accomplishment of greatness; in America you would need to say that there exists a fear, a phobia, an ignorance of suffering. Comfort and convenience are too strong an ideal in the USA, for suffering to be honored, revered, or wisely recognized – certainly this is not so in the general culture. In fact, America’s secular ideals: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (about which we have already spoken: “America’s Creed”) – are themselves an example of conformity. For, you see, millions of Americans passively accept these (and other related) phrases as some sort of ultimate ontic statements of man and world (when they are really Jefferson’s penultimate, secular, humanitarian ideals); and it is simply not serious living history of man – though it is certainly the case – that had Jefferson just used some other phrases, for example: the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, nobility or such, that the history of America would have developed differently. This is not a serious human identity – though it is popular. A serious identity for an individual, or so I see it, places them in a stance to the greater cosmos in which man lives. I don’t know where else the courage to die can come from – be it via great, noble ideals, love of others, etc. But such courage cannot be written in a “how-to” book. It is a vertical question, a question of God and man – what our scientists will soon tell us is a chromosome for courage. Imagine that they found a way to alter the genes so as to make stronger individualities; do you think governments today would support such a project. Hardly. More likely the opposite: docility and conformity – which, again, the Grand Inquisitor in my view convincingly argued the common man wants as a spiritual need. Individuality is suffering in this world. Christ for example: not a “bad guy” (if I can speak a bit irreverently), but a strong enough individual to need to kill. How many people can we expect to have such a love (coeur, courage) and strength? The western seer Steiner, who understood the USA as the land of a great spiritual trial of mankind amidst matter and materialism in all areas of life, society and soul, said that in America, individuality must overcome race. And if race is the group, even the physiology of a group and its capacities, then individualism is a spiritual challenge of the individual. Low common varieties of individualities can be found in phone books. But I for one cannot live on such examples for inspiration. But for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. He is an example of the self-sacrificing individuality of which Dostoyevsky wrote in his journals; King new, when he heard of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963, that he would also be shot someday. And yet he kept on going. Anyone who has seen and heard the recorded speech he gave the day before he was shot – and it is absolutely clear in this last address that he knew it might happen – cannot but see that King had his individuality in the sky, in the spiritual, in the vertical. His was a great Christian individuality. The forces in man that killed him, killed Jesus Christ, and the nobler amongst our ambiguous race of man. But such personalities are rare. But they – thank God, or thank man, or thank both – do exist, from time to mysterious time. They are human like the rest of us; but they are the best of us – us also, if we were our very best, that to which few of us have the needed strength and courage. The problem of conformity in America is not especially American; that is clear to me, just by observing the post-Soviet changes in Russia. A walk on the Arbat is not too different in spiritual fact from a walk among a conforming crowd in a shopping mall in the USA. It takes great courage to not conform (in relationship to serious matters of mankind).

Seeing western businessmen on the streets of Moscow is rather instructive. They are so obviously conformists – uniformed soldiers of earning money: their predictable suits and ties, hair cut, style and manner of speaking and moving…and the face is somehow honestly bland, uninteresting and conformist as well, often cowarded and even incomplete somehow. The eyes are this-worldly, concerned with objects and money, and acquiring them; I have not often seen a noble face among such – nor one disturbed by “divine discontent”, or even the mind or courage for it. Ortega y Gasset well described this type in his 1930 essay on the triumph of the mass man.

Emerson, Thoreau, and some others articulated the idea of strong individuality in the USA – but this is seldom actualized. However much Americans make repeat the rhetoric of individuality. The sources for this are spiritual, not national. It is a question of human being – not forgetting Martin Luther King. Unfortunately, James Truslow Adams description of America in 1926, is accurate in 1996 as well. Indeed, I would say even more so.


Moscow, April 23, 1996 (unpublished)