American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Dipping into Tocqueville

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tocqueville-loaFor me, Democracy in America is a book to dip in and out of, not a cover-to-cover read, not even in the flowing new translation of Arthur Goldhammer (which I strongly recommend).

I suspect that historians and political scientists feel differently; that they read Tocqueville’s careful and extended analyses with as much pleasure as I do the anecdotes and first-hand observations. The latter, alas, are in much shorter supply than one might expect given Tocqueville’s yearlong stay and extensive travel in North America. It’s a testament to his integrity, I suppose, that he relied so little on subjective impressions, giving precedence to verifiable facts and deductive reasoning.

Democracy has little in common with the travel narratives of Frances Trollope or Charles Dickens, writers who toured the States in roughly the same period. There are several FAQ-like sections, especially at the start, and these can be tedious reading, though Tocqueville’s contemporaries in Europe probably found them the most useful. There are also several theoretical sections, usually structured as comparisons of aristocratic and democratic societies, and these too can be tedious, though not because they are overstuffed with fact. Quite the contrary; they remind me of nothing so much as Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Except that they’re far less silly.

But I don’t want to mischaracterize my interest. If cover-to-cover reading has never worked for me, I’ve never failed to find something of value when I dip in and out. For instance, in the midst of a very long chapter on the Constitution, I found this lovely aphorism on the limits of electoral politics:

The legislator is like a navigator on the high seas. He can steer the vessel on which he sails, but he cannot alter its construction, raise the wind, or stop the ocean from swelling beneath his feet.

And in a chapter on government I found a piquant observation on how things often get done:

Administrative instability began as a habit, but now I would almost say that people have developed a taste for it. No one bothers about how things were done in the past. No one seeks to adopt a method. No archives are assembled. No one collects documents even when it would be easy to do so. If  a person chances to have documents in his possession, he is likely to be careless with them. … In America, society seems to live from day to day, like an army in the field.

Which may or may not be true of the government anymore, but it’s certainly true of my English Department.

tocquevilleVolume 2, Part 1, which deals with the “Evolution of the American Intellect,” relies much more on deductive reasoning than verifiable fact than Volume 1, as I see it because Tocqueville is much more concerned with working through his subjective impressions. The first half of the book (published in 1835) deals with the land, its people, and their institutions — their political institutions — and Tocqueville’s impressions here seem to derive as much from his study of the facts as from his travels. The second half (1840) takes on the more amorphous topics of culture and ideology, and in this portion I see him giving freer reign to his own judgments.

One can deal with culture and ideology in a lot of different ways. Tocqueville’s way is more qualitative than quantitative, more theoretical than empirical. Though both halves of his book engage in speculation, the speculations in Volume 2 are largely derived from narratives, not facts — and not the sort of narratives one would record in a diary or letter. They have the character of myth, not memory, if I can say so without disparaging Tocqueville’s commitment to thinking about American as actuality.

Let me give a concrete instance of what I mean. In the chapter “The Literary Aspect of Democratic Centuries,” Tocqueville supports his contention that content will take precedence over form in a democratic society — and that the forms themselves will be coarse but original — by appealing to contrasting theoretical models, basing these on untested assumptions followed through to their logical conclusions. He makes no bones about this method:

Imagine an aristocratic nation in which literature is cultivated. Works of the intellect, like affairs of government, are controlled by a sovereign class. Literary life, like political existence, is almost entirely concentrated in that class or in those closest to it. This suffices to give me the key to everything else.

And later:

Let us now look at the picture from the other side.

Let us imagine ourselves transported to the heart of a democracy in which ancient traditions and present enlightenment have fostered a sensitivity to the pleasures of the mind. Ranks in this society have mingled and combined. Knowledge, like power, is infinitely divided and I daresay widely dispersed.

In other words, If you imagine “X,” I can prove “Y” — or at least postulate it.  Which is a beautiful method, if you think about it. Or at least an appropriate one for the topic: an argument founded on imagination, used to predict the future of Utopia…

The thing is, I love Tocqueville’s “Y,” but I almost always get bogged down in his “X” … his “X” and its meticulous suturing to “Y.” What I’d like for spare moments of reading is a book shorn of “X,” a Tocqueville quote-book (I have one, actually, for Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and its great; I read from it all the time).  Or better yet, maybe, a red-letter edition. You know, like those red-letter Bibles that give the sayings of Jesus in colored ink. That way I could read the “X” whenever I had the time or inclination.

Am I being a philistine here? Let’s just say I’m a product of my society, just as Tocqueville imagined me:

Taken as a whole, the literature of democratic centuries cannot present the image of order, regularity, knowledge, and art that literature exhibits in aristocratic times. Form will usually be neglected and occasionally scorned. Style will frequently seem bizarre, incorrect, exaggerated, or flaccid and almost always seem brazen and vehement. Authors will aim for rapidity of execution rather than perfection of detail. Short texts will be more common than long books, wit more common than erudition, and imagination more common than depth. An uncultivated, almost savage vigor will dominate thought, whose products will exhibit a very great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will seek to astonish rather than to please and to engage the passions rather than beguile taste.

He adds:

Some writers will no doubt want to try a different path now and then, and if their gifts are superior, neither their faults nor their qualities will stand in the way of their attracting readers. But these exceptions will be rare, and even those whose work on the whole departs from common usage will always return to it by way of certain details.

Which I interpret this way: even if I do succeed in reading Tocqueville — reading him from front to back — I’ll remain a skimmer in essence, reading for what skimmers retain. Which I can accept. As portrait or judgment.

Gotta love a book that reads you while you’re reading it.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

October 3, 2009 at 1:59 pm

One Response

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  1. This is a well written post on a man whose writings have always inspired me. I’ve written extensively on Alexis’ writings. I invite you to check them out. Peace. wjholland.wordpress.com

    William Holland

    June 7, 2010 at 5:12 pm


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