The Surrender of Culture to Technology
Letters From Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race
By Romano Guardini
Review Author: Will Hoyt
At the turn of the century, Hilaire Belloc walked through a Europe that no longer exists, and wrote a book about his journey. Called The Path to Rome, the book stands for many of us as one of the few great windows onto a pre-technocratic, Christ-drenched culture that was truly, even gloriously, at home on earth. Canals with working tow paths, early morning woodsmoke, mountain huts, bread, oxcarts, wine. Perhaps because Belloc wrote so quickly (he wrote as fast as he walked and with the same reckless abandon), the book has an unstudied character that serves it well in its unintended role as a memorial. Yet the reader will look in vain should he turn to Belloc for a glimpse of Lake Como. Yes, Belloc passed through Como. And yes, he provides luminous details about life to the north and south. But of Lake Como itself he says nothing, and for the simple reason that it was too beautiful, too right, too integrated into the land that sustained it. Belloc calls the place “music,” says a quick prayer lest the region bewitch him, and then marches on toward Rome. I bring this up because Romano Guardini, writing 23 years later in the first of the letters gathered here, also calls the place music.
To the Italian-born but German-raised Guardini, the Lake Como region was “a landscape in which all the risings and failings and measures and proportions came together in one clear melody,” and, like Belloc, he found the sight of it overpowering: “Everywhere it was inhabited land…. All nature had been given a new shape by us humans. What culture means in its narrowest sense struck me with full force. The lines of the roofs merged from different directions. They went through the small town set on the hillside or followed the windings of the valley. Integrated in many ways, they finally reached a climax in the belfry with its deep-toned bell. All these things were caught up and encircled by the well-constructed mountain masses.”
Rather than simply crossing himself and moving on, however, Guardini stayed. Factories had appeared since Belloc was there, and Guardini, horrified, felt compelled to track down the implications. Hence these letters. “Here was nature indwelt by humanity,” he explains to his epistolary friend. “And now I saw it breaking apart…. The world of natural humanity, of nature in which humanity dwells, was perishing. I cannot tell you how sad this made me.”
Owing to the ascendancy of technology, we have heard a lot in recent years about the end of nature — by which people mean the great outdoors insofar as it has been untouched by man — and there has been a lot of public grieving on this score as if to say that the passing of this concept was something of moment. Certainly ecological devastation is of moment. But the idealization of untouched nature is merely a romanticism — the flipside, so to speak, of more frankly exploitative energies, for both phenomena are premised on the erroneous idea that humans are separate from nature and in some sense above it. In truth, there has never been any such thing as untouched nature; nature was changed the moment humans appeared on earth, and we for our part have always been, well, natural. The real issue, then, as even The Nature Conservancy now understands, is the loss of sustainable cultures, of place-ripened cultures in which both human and nonhuman nature flourish. This, at any rate, is the loss Guardini is trying to gauge in the letters from Lake Como. His name for the culture under siege is “Urbanitas,” which he defines as a mode of being in which “a rhythm soars over everything” and man’s creations blend harmoniously with the landscape into which they’re set. Another name for it might be “agriculture” — culture that is as much land-shaped as it is land-shaping. But whatever you call it, the culture in question is almost everywhere dead. Instead of craftsmen and farmers and healers, we now have technocrats; the very word “community” threatens to become drained of meaning, and therefore any and all analyses of what has happened are of importance.
Guardini’s analysis, it turns out, is of particular importance — first because he was situated right at the turning point and thus was able to look both ways, and second because he saw and he wrote so well. It is true that his conclusions are off. Indeed, they are very off. But they are still (by virtue of their very failure) instructive. In sum, this is a very rich book. Except for the last chapter, which is a transcript of an unremarkable talk Guardini delivered in 1959 at a conference on technology, Letters From Lake Como is a key, refreshingly Catholic contribution to a conversation already in heated session, courtesy (in North America at least) of people like Wendell Berry, Neil Postman, and Ivan Illich.
The book is arranged very simply — nine letters, circa 1923-1925, and the talk. The letters appear in their original form and order, and there is no commentary. They don’t need it, as the letters are held together by a strong sequential thread. I say “sequential.” In fact, the meaning in this book tends to grow according to cumulative, rather than serial logic. The overall effect is one of circling and re-circling. Guardini watches and waits and slowly builds up understanding by starting in each letter from the same point — namely, the appearance of a box-like factory on “the singing lines of a small town.” The last letter is a little different; there, he zooms off in a straight line and never looks back. But until that point Guardini proceeds by circling.
He begins, during his first two revolutions, by trying to define what is being lost. He notes the differences between artifacts like steamships and sailboats, and then shows how until the 19th century any given tool and indeed culture itself was in some literal sense an extension of nature in its most whole and balanced sense. Next, under headings like “consciousness,” “abstraction,” and “the masses,” Guardini tries to get a read on the order that is coming — an order that he prefers to think of as simultaneously un-cultural and unnatural. Guardini’s consideration of “abstraction,” in which he talks about the various degrees of withdrawal required to design and operate technology, seems a little thin to me, but his meditation on mass culture, despite a decidedly patrician bias, is strong. Indeed, in its treatment of the drive for standardization and monoculture, the cult of the instantaneous, and the commercialization of all societal relations, this meditation is on a par with Kierkegaard’s The Present Age. Like Kierkegaard, Guardini shows how in the world to come people will become individuals (read “persons”) solely to the extent that they leap over the blade of the leveler directly into the arms of God. There is also a strong section on the difference between the kind of knowing that has been abroad in the world since Bacon and the rise of utilitarianism (manipulative, extractive, coercive) and the kind of knowing whose aim is “to penetrate, move within, live with.” By noting how both kinds of knowing are kinds of desire, Guardini reminds the reader that the theory with the greatest explanatory power, when it comes to diagnosing the ills deriving from the rise of technology, is the Book of Genesis.
But the best sections in Letters from Lake Como are the grounded ones, the sections where Guardini turns away from speculative talk and tries instead simply to register the topography — the culture-scape, if you will — that was right before his eyes. I think particularly of the eighth letter, in which he tries for the last time to take the measure of stone walls, vineyards, arbors, and rooftops so perfectly integrated into the land they define that, as a beholder, one’s only choice is to erase the imaginary line that divides land-based cultures from entities like deserts and oceans, and call the whole business Creation. “Every so often there are stairways, shallow steps with round stones, making it possible for donkeys with their burdens to climb the hill. How these paths climb and turn….” You’d expect, given the circumstances, that Guardini’s words here would be driven by pity, or nostalgia, or even just honest memorialization. But they aren’t. They are driven by wonder.
Then along comes the ninth letter and the book falls apart. “There is a yes to what is happening historically,” he says. And: “We must not oppose what is new and try to preserve a beautiful world that is perishing.” Fair enough, the reader is apt to say, even if he does get a little wary here. Certainly we can’t live in the past. A few lines later, though, there is this: “Nor is it true that what is taking place is not Christian…. Only those who had been influenced by the immediacy of the redeemed soul to God…could have broken free from the tie to nature.” Uh oh. At this point I began to ride Guardini’s prose like an unwilling surfer on a wave. I could sense the facile (therefore dangerous) punchline coming; I knew it was going to break with full force, yet I had no choice but to ride it out. Modern technology, Guardini now claims, is destructive not because it serves and abets our presumption to godlike status but because it is raw material that has not yet been tamed. “We have to become lords of the unleashed forces,” he proclaims, thereby surrendering to the very romanticism (and ecological philistinism) he earlier avoided. In letters one through eight Guardini spoke like a resistance fighter. Now, he invites everyone to follow “the inwardly foreshadowed path to the very end, the path of knowledge and growing awareness, of surveying and mastering and technologically transforming nature as it is immediately given.” What, the reader may justly ask, has happened?
What has happened is that prior to writing this last letter Guardini has returned to Germany. Despite his clear distaste for Wagner and Germanic nationalism, Guardini is now blowing in the wind of a manufactured, decidedly anti-pentecostal breeze. You can find proof, if you are so inclined, by turning to the last pages of the letter where Guardini talks of the German youth movement and works of art which, though they “no longer stand eye to eye with nature,” show another, “equally powerful” form. “Our blood,” he says, “responds to its force.” But you don’t really need these traces of Nazi Zeitgeist to tell you that Guardini is on German sod. All you need is the talk of mastery and the sudden acceptance of a technocratic world. For what are these but the flipside to that sentimentalization of nature epitomized by the folkish ideology of blood and soil and agrarian rootedness? That Guardini couldn’t see the relationship is but a further indication of the sheer power of the force that was (and is) overwhelming culture and enthroning technology in its stead.
This is why it is too bad that the book’s American editor chose to include the transcript of Guardini’s 1959 talk, “The Machine and Humanity.” The speech is safe and dull, and it suggests that Guardini’s views weren’t appreciably changed during the intervening years, that he wasn’t rocked by the Holocaust any more than was Heidegger. Maybe less! Heidegger at least renounced “mastery” in favor of watching, waiting, and an intellection of ear. Never mind that his kind of watching and waiting may have had more than a little to do with the watching and waiting of an arsonist who settles in to see what happens next. My point is that Heidegger’s post-1945 writing at least shows an awareness that the Holocaust was an event of enormous significance. That Guardini’s writing, on the evidence of his 1959 address, does not reflect this kind of awareness causes the reader to doubt the mind that produced the Lake Como letters and, by extension, the integrity of the letters themselves. Which is too bad, since Guardini clearly was shaken by the Holocaust. The letters deserve better.
I suggest that readers skip “The Machine and Humanity” and go straight to the third chapter of The End of the Modern World, a book Guardini penned three years earlier, in 1956. This text is as alive as the 1959 talk is dead. “The last decades have suggested what life without Christ really is,” he says at one point. “The last decades were only the beginning.” Needless to say, you wake right up. But I don’t recommend this piece simply because its author speaks with rare authority. I recommend it because it seems to be the piece for which the letters from Lake Como served as rough draft. “As far as being is nature or the non-personal creation,” he says in The End of the Modern World, “being belongs to God, Whose will is expressed in the laws by which this being, this nature, exists. As far as being is taken out of nature and into the sphere of human freedom, it belongs to man and man is responsible for it. If man fails in his responsibility and does not care for being as he should, it does not return to nature.” On the contrary, it “becomes the possession of something anonymous.” With that trenchant summary Guardini is off and moving, and he misses nothing. He acknowledges the Holocaust for the central event it is, points to the growing ecological crisis, anticipates the appearance of biotechnology, and predicts that the loss of reverence “toward the person qua person” will be the principal mark of the world to come. Moreover, he suggests how these phenomena and the death of Lake Como are related. All told, it’s a withering essay — frightening in its implications and therefore the perfect coda to Letters from Lake Como.
For there are no good things to be said about the death of Lake Como. You can’t prettify it. You can’t say, as critics are wont to say, that Guardini’s book is a triangulation point by which to orient ourselves as we rebuild. How do you rebuild something that grew over the course of 1,000 years? Only God builds on that scale. The death of Lake Como is a loss, pure and simple. If Guardini’s book has value — and it has enormous value — it is because it helps us to see the vastness of our present-day impoverishment.
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