Peter Viereck's The Unadjusted Man: A New Hero for Americans

Reflections on the Distinction between Conforming and Conserving

Boston: The Beacon Press, 1956

Chapter One: "THE UNADJUSTED MAN: A New American Hero"

                         "Only you must be honest with yourselves." --
                         General Epistle of James (I, 22)

Without inner psychological liberty, outer civil liberties are not quite enough. We can talk civil liberties, prosperity, democracy with the tongues of men and angels, but it is merely a case of "free from what?" and not "free for what?" if we use this freedom for no other purpose than to commit television or go lusting after supermarkets. In contrast with earlier eras, ever more colleges (not to mention still more standardized communities) want to know: is the applicant well-adjusted, a good mixer? No new trend and no bad trend would be involved if social adjustment were means, not end; that would still allow for ultimate spontaneity and personality. The depersonalization characterizing the present trend is the goal of adjustment as an end in itself. Thereupon the goal of adjustment, defensible and indeed indispensable as a social lubricant, becomes far more than that; it becomes a prime determiner of American tastes, opinions, recreations, human relationships.

From being well-adjusted for its own sake, what a short step to becoming overadjusted: the public-relations personality of public smile, private blank. In effect, an ecstasy of universal voluntary lobotomy. Adjustment as the new art for art's sake means far more than merely one more "age of conformity," that undifferentiating understatement, or merely one more age seeking shelter (from "the weight of too much liberty") in some supposed normalcy. It is a Procrustean and rather ga-ga normalcy, determined by a continuous secret plebiscite to which inner spontaneity is continually sacrificed. Thus we have moved qualitatively beyond the older, pre-industrial American conformity noted by Tocqueville.

An abnormal desire for normalcy, and that as end, not means, is the trend that countless social philosophers today-and, more important, your own concrete observations-are recording with helpless stupefaction. That helplessness of the recorder, in c forth from such an impersonal machine-world, which-inside eachlls for, sometimes conceals the same satisfaction of surrender that characterizes the trend recorded. Whether morally confronted or evaded, the American problem is not merely surrender of the personality but a complacent kind of surrender, a voluntary cultural thought-control more insidious than the coercive political kind.

This equation is still too new and too big to allow us to predict other than double-valued outcomes. Either the minus sign of the present: no Shakespeares, no Leonardos, no personal genius from such a world. Or the interchangeable plus sign of the possible future: what Shakespeares, what Leonardos, what redoubled counter-assertions of personal genius mill be irritated forth from such an impersonal machine-world, which--inside each personal soul--makes what it does not break. The plus sign, then, need not be excluded; the all-too-convincing pessimism about the minus outcome may encourage, by replacing moral choice with historic determinism, an unheroic abdication of resistance--why vainly beat hands of vulnerable flesh against invulnerable machine--metal?--an abdication that only increases the mechanizing trend and indeed helped cause it. But the optimistic grain-of-sand-in-the-oyster explanation of beauty becomes cold consolation when the bourgeois-philistine grain of sand, goading forth a Joyce or Rimbaud, becomes not a grain but a dumped ton. At some point even oysters give up, leaving a well-adjusted, synthetic utopia to its mass-produced pearls of glass.

From this trend a new American idol emerges: the Overadjusted Man. Against it a new liberator emerges, a bad mixer and scandalously devoid of "education for citizenship": the Unadjusted Man. Unadjustedness seems the only personal heroism left in a machine-era of which William Faulkner said: "We all had better grieve for all people beneath a culture which holds any mechanical superior to any man."

Today the humanist, the artist, the scholar can no longer be the prophet and seer, the unriddler of the outer universe; modern science has deprived him of that function. His new heroism, unriddling the inner universe, is to be stubbornly unadjusted toward the mechanized, depersonalized bustle outside. The Unadjusted Man is the final, irreducible pebble that, sabotages the omnipotence of even the smoothest-running machine. His refusal to adjust is a gesture beyond the need; of colossal rhetoric; he is a hero partly because without heroic pose. Indeed he is no hero at all in the eyes of the majority but a laughable Quixote, too unadjusted to settle down with a steady, productive windmill. His values are not determined by a democratic plebiscite; he may even be arrogant enough to retort, "One man and God make a majority," when accused of being undemocratic for not joining the majority in filtering his reading through the roughage-removal machinery of the digest magazines.

By revering the infinite preciousness of each individual soul, Christianity builds up a deep, soul-felt, inner shield against the outer claims of overadjustment. This religious shield is often more effective against tyrants, in its underground way, than the brain-felt systematizingsides: adjustment to the ages, non-adjustment to the age. This distinction--between lasting roots and ephemeral surfaces--the Unadjusted Man is committed to try to make, even though gropingly, fallibly. A position gets defined in part by its enemies: his selective unadjustedness gets ridiculed by the overadjusted and the maladjusted alike. The overadjusted ridicule him as maladjusted (a Kafka-reading spoilsport at America's million-year picnic); the maladjusted ridicule him as overadjusted (a renegade from their imagined vestal purity of total alienation).

The easy conformity-baiting of adolescent radicalism refuses to adjust even to deep and valid norms. The Unadjusted Man rejects superficialint whose coin has two reciprocal sides: adjustment to the ages, non-adjustment to the age. This distinction--between lasting roots and ephemeral surfaces--the Unadjusted Man is committed to try to make, even though gropingly, fallibly. A position gets defined in part by its enemies: his selective unadjustedness gets ridiculed by the overadjusted and the maladjusted alike. The overadjusted ridicule him as maladjusted (a Kafka-reading spoilsport at America's million-year picnic); the maladjusted ridicule him as overadjusted (a renegade from their imagined vestal purity of total alienation).

The easy conformity-baiting of adolescent radicalism refuses to adjust even to deep and valid norms. The Unadjusted Man rejects superficial norms not for rejection's sake but to serve valid ones; his attempt to distinguish between such rival value claims is a dilemma of tragic soul-searching, not of easy conditioned answers. Unadjusted, in the highest sense of tragic freedom, were the dying words of Thomas More on the scaffold: "I die the king's good servant but God's first." For "king's servant," substitute today: "servant of the state" or "servant of secularism." "Secular," used in no clerical sense, means keeping up with the well-adjusted joneses, the pushers and rushers, the obscenely wholesome ones who never glimpse the abyss behind whatever vanity they are go-getting.

An indiscriminate radicalism against authority says in effect: "I die the king's bad servant; I refuse to serve the status quo even in duties that must be rendered not unto God but unto Caesar." More's revolt is essentially conservative because he does remain voluntarily "the king's good servant" until driven to some ultimate moral extreme.

"Good servant" distinguishes not only More's unadjustedness from the radical's nonconformity; it also distinguishes western man, deliberately committed to the guilt of action, from the passive, otherworldly waiter for Nirvana. Western man, even while rejecting the priority-claims of secular reality, knows he must (in this life) live within it. He cannot misuse otherworldly morality as a pretext for evading the moral choices involved in facing the material problems of this earth. Without thoroughly material reforms, morality may become an empty phrase, equally condemning the rich and the starving for stealing bread. Even while rejecting the vanity of this world, western man remains not only its servant but its good servant up to a point. That point occurs when society's demand for service encroaches on God or conscience.

Western man, with his not-to-be-despised material and organizational achievements, rejects being "the king's servant" only as the last resort, never the first. In our own time, the last resort did occur when the "king" was Hitler or Stalin. Let us make sure it will never occur in America. But if ever it does occur, during some ultimate hour of moral choice between principle and expedient survival, then the non-materialist, the Christian, the man with inner liberty, walks to his scaffold smiling and unhesitant, like Saint Thomas More, because he is "God's servant first" and not the servant of some healthy well-adjustedness.


An unadjusted value-conserver like Thomas More is rare in any age; the overadjusted and the maladjusted are more frequent and are often allied against him. Such has always been the case. What is new today is the more sophisticated ability of the Overadjusted Man to masquerade as his opposite: as the unadjusted conserver of humanistic, artistic, and religious values. On the more exquisite campuses and in the self-consciously advanced pages of the quarterlies, highbrow nonconformity has succumbed to its own kind of hacks as blithely as the lowbrow conformity of Screen Romances and True Detective Stories. This choice between lowbrow and highbrow overadjustedness allows humanistic values the choice of two modes of execution: starvation or bear-hugs.

So we must inspect closest the credentials of those writers who proclaim loudest their nonconformity, their anti-philistia, their sensitivity. Picture a conveyor-belt, endlessly unloading noble-browed educators, sonorously eloquent pillars of culture, and tweedy, pipe-smoking teachers of "creative-writing" courses, which-with "lovable" whimsy-they call "workshops." Genuine sensitivity, genuine humanity have nothing in common with this conveyor-belt of robots, each of whom intones dutifully: "I'm a real flesh-and-blood human being, wincing sensitively,-an independent, non-conforming individualist, just like everybody else."

Three alternatives: (1) the Unadjusted Man, cultivating his inner riches of independence and reverie; (2) the adjusted lowbrow-Rotarian, snug in his hellish heaven of plastics and hygiene-worship; (3) the adjusted highbrow-Rotarian. This third new alternative, like the first, affirms the humanities and spiritual values; but unlike the first, does so in a mechanical, uninspired way that only masks more subtly the crassness of alternative-two. Alternative-one has rightly taught us to return to the traditional humanistic and religious values of the spirit. But alternative-three is parloring God just as snobbishly as "parlor socialists" used to verbalize humanitarianism in the 1930's: in both cases, not out of inner conviction but out of adjustment to smart fads. To manicure our sacred humanistic and religious values into fads may kin them more surely than any invasion of open barbarians, torch in hand, burning our churches, our libraries, our universities.

When our graduate schools betray the humanities today, they no longer do so with the old-fashioned vulgarity of alternative-two but with the new elegance of alternative-three: by creating a generation of trained seals, leaping sleekly through the hoops of the criticism of the criticism of criticism and, after each hoop of the newest New Criticism, gratefully swallowing some fishy "explication" in mid-air.

Educators are proudly "impressed" by the current growth of college courses in Great Classics, Great Issues and by the student shift from materialist radicalism to religion. More impressive is the fact that for these classics, these issues-now made gregarious, painless-their creators toiled in loneliness, faced the rack. And when anti-materialism gets publicized like toothpaste, when religion gets wrapped in cellophane, then commercial materialism wins its biggest triumph of all: a triumph in the name of anti-commercialism. In every city's put Christ back into Christmas" campaign, the carols blare their anti-materialist reminder the loudest from the mechanical loudspeakers in the busy department stores. Is it accidental in our society or is it typical that precisely our most money-avid industry, the cinema, includes a firm whose motto is "Ars gratia artis"?

Synthetic food pills we already have. Why not synthetic culture pills, synthetic souls? This development is particularly exasperating for artists, writers, educators. It forces us into a ceaseless lover's-quarrel with America. As James Baldwin says in his wise Notes of a Native Son, 1955: "I love America more than any other country in the world; and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

In the novel and in the poem, the most corrupting development of all is the substitution of technique for art. What once resulted from the inspired audacity of a heartbreakingly lonely craftsman is now mass-produced in painless, safe, and uninspired capsules. This process is taking over every category of education and literature. The stream of consciousness for which James Joyce wrestled in loneliness with language, the ironic perspective toward society which Proust attained not as entertainment but as tragedy, the quick, slashing insights for which a Virginia Woolf or a Katherine Mansfield bled out her heart, all these intimate personal achievements are today the standard props of a hundred hack imitators, mechanically vending what is called "the New Yorker-type story." Don't underestimate that type of story; though an imitation job, it is imitation with all the magnificent technical skill of America's best-edited weekly. And think of the advantages: no pain any -more, no risk any more, no more nonsense of inspiration. Most modern readers are not even bothered by the difference between such an efficient but bloodless machine job and the living product of individual heart's anguish.

What, then, is the test for telling the real inspiration from the almost-real, the just-as-good?

The test is pain. Not mere physical pain but the exultant, transcending pain of selfless sacrifice. The test is that holy pain, that brotherhood of sacrifice, that aristocracy of creative suffering of which Baudelaire wrote: "je sals que la douleur est runique noblesse."


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 31

Contents/Main Page


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Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:35 EDT