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The Crime of Hope : CROSSTOWN SABBATH: A Street Journey Through History by Frederic Morton (Grove: $15.95; 119 pp.) : HISTORY AND UTOPIA by E. M. Cioran; translated by Richard Howard (Seaver: $17.95; 118 pp.)

July 05, 1987|Hayden White | White's most recent book is "The Content of the Form" (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Here are two slim books on a fat subject: nothing less than the meaning of human history. Neither Frederic Morton nor E. M. Cioran finds much to commend in modern civilization. They feel we have purchased its advantages at too high a cost. But neither has any hope of a return to a happier past and just as little in the possibility of a brighter future. Indeed, according to Cioran, a Romanian exile living in Paris, there never was a happier condition; our humanity is the disease from which we are dying. As he puts it: "No use retracing the old paradise or racing toward the one to come: The former is inaccessible, the latter unrealizable." As for Morton, a Slovakian Jew living in New York City, the only happier condition he can imagine was the Old Stone Age--it's all been down hill ever since: "They ordered these things better in the Pleistocene underbrush, those ha1886419232The first furrow in a clearing was the initial wrinkle of degeneration. The long, treacherous progress to the bus stop of zombies began with the plowing of a field." For him, our problem is civilization itself.

Neither author really argues his position. Morton tells a story of a day in his life and lets its anecdotes do the work of justifying both his dark thoughts about our condition and his reflections on how it came to be the way it is. The result is something like Spengler meets Woody Allen. Cioran, by contrast, takes the high road of the satirical essayist. He deals in aphorisms rather than arguments, wagers everything on his mordant wit, and comes across sounding rather like a member of the Russian aristocracy on the eve of the revolution. Unlike Morton, Cioran finds nothing funny, even in the sense of absurd, about humanity's effort to raise itself above the animal. Here is an example: "Yet I marvel still more than some of us, society being what it is, have ventured to conceive another one altogether--a different society. What can be the cause of so much naivete, or of so much inanity? If the question is normal enough, even ordinary, the curiosity that led me to ask it, on the other hand, has the excuse of being morbid."

Morton is at least enraged: " 'Where is our Sabbath?' " I want to cry--'Who stole my father's Sabbath?' " Morton's father's Sabbath was the last outpost against the incursions into modern man's residual humanity of what Morton calls "the Factory," his metaphor for civilization in all its forms. The Factory, which runs all the time and has as its sole purpose the tailoring of our lives to its production-schedule, began with the transition from a hunting to farming society. But the Factory really took off with the advent of the Hebrew God, "the God of the gratification-postponers," the God of Work as an end in itself. "Before the Hebrews," Morton says, "no other people had a Sabbath. No other people needed one." But the logic of "the Workaholic Supernal" is such that even the Sabbath, the one moment of repose in the work week promised the Children of the Covenant, must ultimately be rescinded, so that "Progress can be served."

Morton is furious, really furious, because he has no time for doing anything human, intimate, re-creative--and no way of justifying his longing for such a time in his life. As far as he is concerned, even our diversions and vices partake of the nature of work. He's mad as hell, but he sees no way of escape.

Cioran would agree with Morton about our general condition but for him neither anger nor despair is justified, because justification has nothing to do with the matter. His villain is not Moses but Prometheus, the Titan who brought hope and aspiration to mankind: "Prometheus . . . the instigator of all the indiscretions and misdemeanors of knowledge, the source of that murderous curiosity that keeps us from marrying the world: By idealizing knowledge and action, did he not thereby ruin Being and with Being, the possibility of the golden age?" Our problem is not that we have failed to attain Utopia (which, Cioran reminds us, means, after all, "nowhere") but that we have wished to attain it. This was especially the West's "crime," to have infected the rest of the world with the desire for Utopia and then to have defected from the quest for it, leaving it to communism to continue to spread the infection.

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