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 Two - "THE OVERADJUSTED MAN: Stereotypes Against Archetypes"

"Adjustment for the sake of adjustment . . . the whole subject is as yet scarcely noticed in all its complexity in Europe, and even keen European observers still seem worried mainly about the outward standardization in the United States, which is merely a tangible symbol of the process. Much European fear of America is due to an unconscious feeling of the subtle psychological adjustment that has been carried so much further in the United States. It is a process deserving of more illumination and more serious discussion."--Elsa Gress, Copenhagen, Denmark, in a letter to CONFLUENCE Magazine, April, 1955

"'Equality,' as a certain factual increase in similarity, which merely finds expression in the theory of 'equal rights,' is an essential feature of decline. The plurality of types, the will to be oneself . . . the pathos of distance, that is characteristic of every strong age."--Nietzsche, 1889

Many liberals tend to assume, whether in Paris, Rome, or New York, that only the left in politics, only the avant-garde in literature are against conformity and philistia. Their bogeyman is a never-defined "conservative." Shuddering deliciously, they build him up into a kind of Abominable Strawman, forever devouring plump young nonconformists in some dank cave in darkest middlewest. Many liberal (and radical) writings use the word "nonconformist" with a special in-group tone that falls like music on Advanced Ears. Such ears twitch uncomfortably only at the more primitive grunts of conformity, whereas the Unadjusted Man rejects its more sophisticated whinnies likewise. Conservatism should never be confused with conformism; on the need for distinguishing between them, the unadjusted position coincides with the sort of new conservatism (unfortunately not the only sort) represented by Professor Thomas I. Cook of Johns Hopkins University:

"To the new conservative, not the least of the ills of our society is a tendency, as we wholesomely consolidate against Communism and outmoded Marxism, to become smugly uncritical and self-satisfied, content with orthodoxy, conformity, and national power. Thereby we may lose or suppress that fundamental ethical and philosophical radicalism so vital to the purification of our traditions."
Since the Republican victory of 1952, the primitive huckster conformist has been enjoying a full-flowered Indian summer, right alongside the sophisticated conformist (avant-garde, progressive). In an era so conformist on both these levels, the new conservative can only wish well, in the sense of the Cook quotation, to the current liberal and radical efforts to transcend what they rightly call "the age of conformity." But instead of giving us real dissent, most of these liberal and radical efforts result in platitudes just as stale and tame. They are not only platitudinous but irrelevant when their protests merely repeat, with the flourish of a new discovery, that intellectuals need to "dissent from conformity." The relevant question is: which standards merit dissent, which ones merit assent? In the irrelevant duel between primitive and sophisticated overadjustment-the one defending, the other attacking all conformity--both sides lack the standards for discriminating between what is conform-worthy and what isn't. Beyond conforming and nonconforming: the Unadjusted Man, just because he does conform to the values he deems lastingly good, has a deeper foundation than the rootless anti-traditionalist for resisting the bad conformities, whether the coercive ones of dictator and mob or the voluntary ones of the Overadjusted Man.

The currency of the actual word "nonconformist" has become so debased since Emerson's golden use of it that one is no longer surprised to read, in an Associated Press dispatch of October 3, 1955, this characterization of some typical movie star: "a nonconformist in the Marlon Brando tradition." Perhaps this abuse Of the word "tradition" is as painful to serious traditionalists as this abuse of "nonconformist:' is to Emerson's ghost. Another example: even such machines for overadjustment as the women's fashion magazines have put the imprimatur of chicte' on "difficult" southern avant-garde novelists. "I'm the screwball type"-so a healthy, conventional, terrifyingly efficient steno was remarking the other day while reading one of these magazines-'just a li'l ole individualist."

Nor are those lowbrow examples any worse than an intellectual quarterly remarking: "We unfortunately miss in this book that rich surrealistic obscurity which our modem taste has been led to expect." In all those examples, the point is the change in what the burgher has been "led to expect." Aggressive nonconformity in Emerson's day and surrealist obscurity in Joyce's day were a justified heroic revolt against philistine stereotypes. They were weapons of liberation in those days because they gave their public what it did not expect. But the battleline reversed itself as soon as the public of the Big Magazines did expect "nonconformists in the Brando tradition" and as soon as the more rarified public of the Little Magazines did expect surrealist obscurity. Thereupon avant-garde became one more rearguard: the arthritic somersaults of aging enfants terribles.

The battleline reversed itself when the weapons (intellectual, artistic, political) of anti-philistine liberation were no longer denounced but adopted by the philistine enemy himself. They became, in subtly changed form, his weapons, now turned against the creative camp of their origin. Thereby he mass-produces these once-personal creations; "packages" them more attractively" than before; commits adulteration. But many gallant old veterans of the creative camp, still nursing their honorable scars of the anti-burgher wars of the 1920's, fail to take that reversal into account. Hence, their sincere indignation when their own weapons, now mere stereotypes, are criticized (as being those of the enemy) by younger writers in their own anti-philistine camp. The old veterans retort in effect: "Traitors, you have abandoned liberalism in polities, avantgarde in literature. By criticizing the stereotyping of liberalism and avant-garde, you are guilty of that ultimate crime: playing into Wrong Hands." Heresy, loathsome enough to an open conformist, is ten times as loathsome to these nonconformists, except when it is one of their own official heresies.

The evidence for the reversed battleline is more obvious in literature than politics. In politics, revivals of the old antiphilistine battleline do admittedly become urgently necessary on certain occasions. Such an occasion was the hucksterdom that had its Indian summer after the Republican victory of 1952. But Indian summers don't stay; the future of American middlebrow tastes will not be with the real-estate salesmen but with their pretentious, chic-hungry sons, not with the George Babbitts but with what we have elsewhere called the Gaylord Babbitts. Those who begin by being ashamed to like the literature of Edgar Guest, will end up by being ashamed to like the Republican politics of the old inelegant hucksterdom. For "nature imitates art." And art imitates Protestant bourgeois self-haters who wish they could die young with open collars in Rome or at least sip an aperitif there.

The phrase "philistine enemy," when used so bluntly as in the preceding paragraphs, does admittedly lend itself to misuses, affectations. Nine out of ten who use the embarrassing word "philistine" are merely inventing a scapegoat for their frustrations or showing off their dandyism. And yet, and yet there is one experience you can only discover empirically and, once discovered, can never forget: stick around for a while in any petty-bourgeois, two-dimensional surface-world (the surface of the stereotype without the depth of the archetype), and you will find soon enough that the philistine enemy does really exist. That enemy is a spirit simultaneously canny and mean, an overadjusted spirit irreconcilably inimical to the creative imagination.

The enemy is a spirit, not a class; concepts like "petty-bourgeois" and "philistine" are a matter of general attitude, not of any specialized economic group or regional group. The qualities noted in the philistine enemy (anti-imaginative, overadjusted, simultaneously canny and mean) may occur as well among the snob-preciosities of academe as among the heartier shop-talk of Main Street. Conversely, Main Street may as readily incubate the creative imagination as did the Greenwich Village of the old days. Owing to cities like Cincinnati, the midwest is no longer (if ever it was) the habitat only of Sinclair Lewis' caricatures but of a new creativity in music, art, letters. Owing to the standards set by catalysts like Southwest Review, New Mexico Quarterly, and regional writers like Thomas Hornsby Ferril, the far west and southwest, especially Texas, have a finer artistic appreciation than most of their ill-informed detractors. In real educational merit, though not yet in terms of the usual time-lag in prestige-status, our great midwestern and western universities, including those of Chicago and Berkeley, are overtaking the Ivy League ones of the eastern seaboard.

These various promising western and also southern gains are tunneling, all over our nation, ever new burrows for the creative, the unadjusted. The traditional flight, from west and south to New York, still was essential for the creativity of a Hart Crane in the 1920's. Today such a flight to the east seems outdated. So does the western status-resentment against the east, still found among burghers and politicians but no longer among artists. Despite the outdated anti-western prejudice of Boston Brahmins, today philistia and anti-philistia are no longer regional (if ever they were) but evenly diffused over most of the continent, both of them too protean and intermingled for easy labeling. Philistia being so protean, it goes without saying that the current return to orthodoxy, values, religion, tradition (bestselling novelists, uplift lecturers, peace-of-mind sermons) is 90% toadies and opportunists, forever finding pretexts to reassure, a word usually meaning to sell out, lose nerve, grovel, adjust. Still, you cannot blame the periodic returns to orthodoxy for containing more racketeers than Dostoyevskys unless you equally blame the periodic returns to rebellion for containing more racketeers than Sheueys. The remnant, in both cases equally small, saveth.

Every new philosophical, literary, or religious insight (emphatically including the new conservatism) soon finds itself adopted, adulterated by the Overadjusted Man. Often the adulteration takes the form of a metaphoric mimeographing, on the cultural mass-production market, of the style of one great writer. Thus the genuinely creative style of Ernest Hemingway gets mimeographed for the middlebrows in Robert Ruark's Something of Value, for the lowbrows in the books of Mickey Spillane. A similar cultural mimeographing took place in earlier centuries also. But today the process is faster, vaster than ever before, owing to a mechanization combining the highest technical competence with an incompetence in those realms of imaginativeness that lie beyond mere technique.

The philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr is one example of this adulteration occurring against the intentions of the originator himself-and then getting partly rectified by his farsighted counter-measures.' A second example is the appropriation by middlebrows (college-veneered) of David Riesman's anti-middlebrow terminology. Today the lonely crowd rushes to buy an abridged pocketbook of The Lonely Crowd or, easier still, to read the still more abridged abridgment that appeared in a popular weekly. Purpose: to sound knowing. Consequence: exaggerated attacks against Riesman, himself a liberal, by the liberal avant-garde. Their attacks should more justly have been directed against those who jargonized and popularized him, against his own intentions, into a tool of the forces of smugness. Unless a man is to be held responsible for even his absurdest misinterpreters, it seems unjust to blame writers like Riesman for those who devaluated their coinage.

It seems equally unjust to blame the new conservatism for being devaluated by the forces of smugness into a weapon of Old Guard Republicanism and sometimes even into a weapon of such a shabby fraud as America's recent fit of thought-controlling nationalism. Properly employed, the new conservatism is a weapon of anti-smugness, challenging the shallow complacency of American optimism-liberal and Old Guard Republican alike-about man and material progress. Insofar as it is political at all, the new conservatism is closer to the anti-huckster conservatism of John Adams or even to the Tory socialism of Disraeli than to the plutocratic hucksterism of government by automobile dealers.

Though more persuasive than the arguments of his neoradical detractors and though truly valuable in other contexts, nevertheless Riesman's contrast between "the autonomous man" and "other-directedness" is not helpfully relevant to the present point about creativity. Ultimately autonomy may mean rootlessness and lawlessness, in contrast with Goethe's truth that "law alone can give us liberty." Even short of that extreme, autonomy by itself is not necessarily either creativity or liberty, nor is other-directedness necessarily their opposite. All depends on what that "other" is; to conform to the Athens of Pericles is not the same as conforming to Middletown. It may be equally other-directed to conform with those who call two plus two four and those who call two plus two five, but the Unadjusted Man is delighted to commit the former kind of otherdirectedness and loses no liberty thereby. He is not self-analytically concerned about how autonomous his ego feels at any given moment. He is more concerned with what kind of roots, beyond the ego, his values and rival values are anchored in. The concepts "roots" and "archetypes" firmly distinguish the Unadjusted Man from the three otherwise extremely valuable classifications made by Riesman (other-directed, innerdirected, autonomous). The meaningful moral choice is not between conforming and nonconforming but between conforming to the ephemeral, stereotyped values of the moment and conforming to the ancient, lasting archetypal values shared by all creative cultures.

Archetypes have grown out of the soil of history: slowly, painfully, organically. Stereotypes have been manufactured out of the mechanical processes of mass production: quickly, painlessly, artificially. They have been synthesized in the labs of the entertainment industries and in the blueprints of the social engineers. The philistine conformist and the ostentatious professional nonconformist are alike in being rooted in nothing deeper than the thin topsoil of stereotypes: the stereotypes of Babbitt Senior and Babbitt junior respectively.

The traumatic uprooting of archetypes was the most important consequence of the world-wide industrial revolution. This moral wound, this cultural shock was even more important than the economic consequences of the industrial revolution. Liberty depends on a substratum of fixed archetypes, as opposed to the arbitrary shuffling about of laws and institutions. The distinction holds true whether the shuffling about be done by the a priori abstract rationalism of the eighteenth century or by the even more inhuman and metallic mass-production of the nineteenth century, producing new traumas and new uprootings every time some new mechanized stereotype replaces the preceding one. The contrast between institutions grown organically and those shuffled out of arbitrary rationalist liberalism was summed up by a British librarian on being asked for the French constitution: "Sorry, sir, but we don't keep periodicals."


Every overadjusted society swallows up the diversities of private bailiwicks, private eccentricities, private inner life, and the creativity inherent in concrete personal loyalties and in loving attachments to unique local roots and their rich historical accretions. Apropos the creative potential of local roots, let us recall not only Burke's words on the need for loyalty to one's own "little platoon" but also Synge's words, in the Ireland of 1907, on "the springtime of the local life," where the imagination of man is still "fiery and magnificent and tender." The creative imagination requires private elbow-room, free from the pressure of centralization and the pressure of adjustment to a mass average. This requirement holds true even when the centralization is benevolent and even when the mass average replaces sub-average diversities. Intolerable is the very concept of some busybody benevolence, whether economic, moral, or psychiatric, "curing" all diversity by making it average.

Admittedly certain kinds of diversity are perfectly dreadful; they threaten everything superior and desirable. But at some point the cure to these threats will endanger the superior and the desirable even more than do the threats themselves. The most vicious maladjustments, economic, moral, or psychiatric, will at some point become less dangerous the preceding sentences, the qualifying phrase is: "at some point." It is a clear gain, up to a point, to replace the sub-average; but past that margin of diminishing returns, the mass-average cannot replace the sub-average without replacing the above-average also.

Some American educators assume it is to the interests of "the greatest good of the greatest number" to let them rise up to an average level of education even in cases when the price of that desirable rise is the disappearance of the above-average along with the sub-average. But to preserve the above-average is also to the interest of the average and sub-average-is, therefore, justified not only by aristocratic principles but by the democratic principle of "the greatest good of the greatest number." The existence of the average, the existence of society as a whole, is parasitic upon-is doomed without-the moral, scientific, intellectual, and economic contributions of the unadjusted, above-average minority.

In earlier centuries, illiterate did not mean uncultured. The average product of modem mass-education does admittedly know how to read (what he reads, not books certainly, is notorious by now). Does his overprized literacy bring him as much culture and meaning as the medieval illiterate derived from the concrete local rhythms of his life? It was a life too brutal for us to idealize retroactively yet meaningful with an elaborate pattern of churchbells, festivals, fairs, unwritten traditions, significant rituals. Since then, the quantitative gain in mass literacy and higher schooling has been enormous. Not so the qualitative gain:

Education for all...leads to education for none...If school standards are geared to an almost invisibly low average there is not much real education available for anyone, even for the gifted...There is no use in priding ourselves on the operation of the democratic principle if education loses much of its meaning in the process...The great problem ...will be the preservation of minority culture against the many and insidious pressures of mass civilization....The rising flood of students is very much like the barbarian invasions of the early Middle Ages, and then the process of education took a thousand years. (Professor Douglas Bush in the New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1955.)
The solution is notif, McCarthyism in education. The stress of many liberals on teaching ephemeral civic needs instead of permanent classics gave the anti-liberal demagogues their opening for trying to terrorize education into propagandizing for "Americanism." What "progressive education" forgot was this: its word "citizenship" would often be defined in practice not by some lofty John Dewey but by some thought-controlling politician, interested in garnering not wisdom but votes.

Yet all these seemingly irresistible pressures of overadjustment can be triumphantly resisted, after all, if the Unadjusted Man makes full use of literary classics-provide it with more fertile soil than does "education for citizenship." The latter slogan has led to overadjustment in life, McCarthyism in education. The stress of many liberals on teaching ephemeral civic needs instead of permanent classics gave the anti-liberal demagogues their opening for trying to terrorize education into propagandizing for "Americanism." What "progressive education" forgot was this: its word "citizenship" would often be defined in practice not by some lofty John Dewey but by some thought-controlling politician, interested in garnering not wisdom but votes.

Yet all these seemingly irresistible pressures of overadjustment can be triumphantly resisted, after all, if the Unadjusted Man makes full use of his many available burrows. The very vastness of America's machinery of depersonalization makes it easier in America than in "old cultured Europe" to safeguard undisturbed the burrows of the creative imagination. They often occur where least expected: in the drabbest, most bustling metropolis. So does the sure-footed sandpiper (to vary the metaphor) trace his free patterns unscathed between the crushing huge waves.

To rely on burrows does not mean to become isolated, deracinated. Such sane-asylums for individuality, spreading contagious health amid mechanized conformity, need never degenerate into the inhuman aloofness of the formalist, ivorytower view of the artist. It is the strength of the Unadjusted Man, not his weakness, that a fraternal moral reaction binds him lovingly to the society he dodges even when most tempted towards isolation by a narrowly aesthetic reaction. A mere anarchic individualism, a mere bohemian nonconformity, means isolation from society; the conservative individualism of the Unadjusted Man means more elbow-room within a more organic belongingness. That distinction parallels the earlier one between maladjusted and unadjusted respectively.

When a mechanized society makes the individual part of the mass, it does not thereby increase his sense of organic belongingness but replaces it with two things: first, the mutually isolating cash-nexus; second, the synthetic, mechanical, inorganic belongingness of external stereotypes, mass-produced by the entertainment industry or by statist social engineers. It is a liberal oversimplification to see the contrast as the free individual versus the shackles of traditional unity. The real contrast is between an archetypal, organic unity of individuals and a stereotyped, mechanical unity of masses....

Nobody who has observed concretely the mobs of Long, Coughlin, or Peron will doubt that often "massman" does include millions of manual workers. But it is at least as likely to include petty-bourgeois businessmen on the make, above all in the case of the first and still basic unleashing of the massman in America: the Jacksonian revolution. This was a revolution of majority egalitarianism-but with middleclass, not worker psychology-against the aristocratic individualism and minority rights bequeathed by the two conservative foundations of American liberty: the Federalist heritage from New England, the Calhoun heritage from the south. The Jacksonian petty-middleclass massman, an intolerant conformist and keeper-up with the joneses, still remains the basic type of American overadjustedness in the big political arena (just as the very different Gaylord Babbitt type does in the small intellectual arena). That political type remains remarkably the same, whether in his left-wing revolutionary role of the western Populist days or in his right-wing, would-be conservative role of the prosperous and anti-communist 1950's. He is merely a "would-be" conservative because in reality he radically uproots the basic cultural and ethical archetypes by the very act' of coercively conserving his latest stereotypes as if they were eternal truths. Conversely, the trade-union movement in the English-speaking world (see pages 84-87) often represents not the massman or Overadjusted Man but an antimodern, unconsciously conservative protest against massman rootlessness and cash-nexus loneliness: a protest of an essentially medieval, organic spirit of community cooperation and its uncommercial human loyalties.

Psychological type cuts across economic class and seems the sounder basis of the two for classification. A white-collar burgher and a manual worker may both belong or neither belong to the overadjusted mass, depending on individual circumstance. Moreover, the burgher also "works," and the worker often also "burghers" or hopes his son will. As with "left" and "right," the partial discarding of such partly misleading phrases requires a rethinking that has only barely begun. For example, there needs to be a halt to an overinsistent contrast between capitalist materialism and Marxism. Although the former is by far the lesser evil of the two, they seem to warrant less contrast than comparison: two triumphs of mechanized quantity over personal quality, two triumphs against which Metternich's monarchic order had shielded Europe for half a century and against which the lingering spirit of the American Federalists had similarly shielded America during 1787-1828.

From the viewpoint of the cultural and psychological consequences of their quantitative, mass-production spirit, both European Marxism and American business materialism sometimes seem minor (though rival) variations of the same surrender to rootless stereotypes, to mass overadjustedness. Though the Unadjusted Man vastly prefers the American version of the two, he does so for an unflattering, negative reason: America's aforementioned burrows of creative individuality. These burrows will be increasingly rare in a Europe becoming more gadget-giddy, TV-avid, traffic-jammed, and "Americanized" than America ever was. These increasing crannies for unadjustedness in America refute the old-world cliche' ("You Americans with your speed, speed, speed and Frigidaires!") about our supposed surrender to soulless materialism. America's cultural burrows are often left intact not out Of appreciation but indifference; that fact does not reduce their value, their creativity.

The third alternative to the European-Marxist and American-bourgeois variations of the massman is the unadjusted yet traditional individualist, so radically independent of both Marxist and bourgeois overadjustment because so conservatively rooted. This third alternative has been better expressed in artistic symbols than in mere political ideologies; its American voices are Melville, Hawthorne, Henry Adams, Faulkner, Irving Babbitt, and sometimes Poe, Vachel Lindsay, Hart Crane; its European voices Coleridge, Goethe, Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Nietzsche, and sometimes Dostoyevsky and Donoso Cortes.

During 1848-1918 in Europe (after the crash of the Metternich system) and after the Jacksonian revolution of 1828 in America, well-meaning liberal egalitarians released 0rtega y Gasset's massman from the traditional spiritual and hierarchical restraints of centuries. Today they cannot educate him up to their own valuable liberal ideal of tolerant individualism; to release is easier than to redeem. So they are among the first to be swallowed up by the intolerance, the coercive stereotypes of the genie they themselves have released from the bottle. Whether as radical left or nationalist right (distinctions increasingly secondary), the Overadjusted Man is rapping at the door. Stop him who can.


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 31

Contents/Main Page


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