Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Age of Anxiety

Rather than working on my current dissertation chapter, a partial draft of which is due on Saturday, I would like to muse about the last chapter I intend to write. Thus, a short improvisational history of The Age of Anxiety, using only the information I have on my bookshelf at the moment.

The Age of Anxiety is the title of two different literary works from the 1940s: a "baroque eclogue" by Auden, and the first chapter of the late Arthur Schlesinger's famous book The Vital Center.

When the historical process breaks down and armies organize with their embossed debates the ensuing void which they can never consecrate, when necessity is associated with horror and freedom with boredom, then it looks good to the bar business.

Western man in the middle of the twentieth century is tense, uncertain, adrift. We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk. Most of the world has reconciled itself to this half-light, to the reign of insecurity. Even those peoples who hastily traded their insecurities for a mirage of security are finding themselves no better off than the rest.

Marx said it more succinctly: "All that is solid melts into air."

I don't know that Schlesinger read Auden. Haven't researched it yet. I would guess not, but that's probably because I have a low opinion of Schlesinger, so I assume the worst. But Leonard Bernstein did read Auden, and the same year that The Vital Center was published, he composed his Symphony No. 2, subtitled "The Age of Anxiety." I haven't spent much time with it yet, haven't even checked out a score. Befitting the source material, I wonder if there will be pastoralisms. Or even a quote of the Sabine Baring-Gould hymn that Auden quotes in the beginning:
Now the day is over
Night is drawing nigh.
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky.

It would be cool if this tune is quoted, it's one of my favorite hymns. My main exposure to Anglican hymns comes not from church, but from attending a weekly hymn singing in the summers while growing up. This is the hymn we sing to close each meeting. It's a pretty hymn, one of those ones where it is impossible to sing just the tune--I can't hum it without trying to hum all four parts. Come to think of it, I've never really thought about this hymn analytically before. Thanks to my handy Episcopal hymnal--the 1940 one, of course, just to be chronologically consistent--I see that good ol' No. 172 (the Merrial tune) has some kind of interesting harmonic stuff going on. But now I'm getting off track.

Anyways, so Bernstein composed his symphony. Then in 1950, Jerome Robbins choreographed a ballet to this music. I don't really know anything about this ballet, other than Robbins danced one of the main roles himself. I wonder if there is any record of what the dance was like. Maybe it's even still in the City Ballet's repertoire. Probably not. I don't know a whole lot about ballet; when I think of Jerome Robbins I tend to think of West Side Story, and it is a little hard to imagine the Jets and the Sharks dancing to any of the above music or literary sources. But I suspect the ballet made sense. I hope I can track down more concrete details about it.

Why the age of anxiety? Every age seems anxious. Many people are anxious now. Marx was anxious. Sabine Baring-Gould, who wrote the hymn not long after Marx, seems anxious:
Grant to little children
Visions bright of Thee;
Guard the sailors tossing
On the deep, blue sea.

Comfort those who suffer,
Watching late in pain;
Those who plan some evil
From their sin restrain.

So why is it in the Age of Anxiety in the late 1940s? Was there more anxiety then, than now, or previously? Was it the Holocaust? World War II? the Cold War? McCarthyism? Civil rights? Women in the workplace? Abstract Expressionism? Be-bop? I doubt people were more anxious in 1949 than in 2007, or 1868, or 1847. But I don't know, maybe they were. Maybe the choice of the word "anxiety" is important--there is a huge growth in American-style Freudian psychiatry in this period. Today we usually speak of "fear" rather than "anxiety." Marx doesn't even us the word "anxiety" in the Manifesto. To experience anxiety might be transhistorical, but to convince oneself of the fundamental anxiousness of the present time might be historically specific.


Heart_Man said...

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BBound said...

whoa. that is some weird spam.

Rebecca said...

Landmark freaks me out a bit. I've known very sane individuals who have gotten a lot out of it but didn't become proselytizing zealots. I've also known people who treat it like a cult.

At any rate, I'd be interested to hear what you learn about Bernstein. I'm finessing Chapter Four of the dissertation (on Bernstein's Mass) so the timing apropos.

I think the "Age of Anxiety" is one of those timeless concepts, because, as you noted, there have been several anxious ages. I think it's alliterative quality also lends itself to poetic constructs. :-)

BBound said...

We should totally trade Bernstein chapters at some point. Your project sounded really interesting.

Three cheers for alluding to alluring alliterations!

Rebecca said...

I'd be happy to share. There doesn't seem to be a way to email you via your profile, so I will give you my e-mail to which I send most of my non-critical email (it has a huge amount of spam). If you wish, you can send me an e-mail there and I will write back from my regular account (which includes my full name which is why I won't put it up here).

rebcamuse at moose-mail dot com

Have you read Bernstein's fifth Norton Lecture (Harvard, 1973)? He describes Auden's work (among others) as "born of despair" and "touched with death" (and therefore epitomizing the twentieth century). He also recommends "that supreme work of [Auden's] "For The Time Being." I'm not familiar with the latter, but I have the feeling I should be. :-)

pkd said...

Leonard Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety" symphony was a favorite of mine from my teens to my twenties. It's been years (actually, literally decades) since I've heard it. Having just ran across Geoffrey Wheatcroft's dismissal of Bernstein ("For all his success in one field after another [and he wasn't a bad conductor], the truth is that he was a master of high kitsch. His musicals aren't as bad as his 'serious' music - the dread Age of Anxiety symphony and the Chichester Psalms...."), I'm wondering if that's the general critical evaluation.

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