A Time to Hear and Answer
The final words of Robert Penn Warren’s essay, “The Use of the Past,” sum up the challenge of the American Bicentennial. “We, too,” Warren writes, “even in our flicker of time, can earn a place in the story.” We can earn that place, he says, “by creating the future.” Warren’s challenge, made after rigorous, even pitiless examination of what confronted the United States on the eve of its two-hundredth anniversary, goes beyond the rhetoric of “do-or-die,” mindless perseverence. His central concern seems to arise from steady observation, as critic, poet, and fiction writer, of the “difficult task of civilizing our human nature.”
Warren sees man’s fate as “double, an outer and an inner fate, the world that the self is in, and the self that is a world.” Further, he points to the indissoluble link between those worlds and the errors of treating them separately. Ultimately, Warren’s line of thought leads him to judge that the value of history resides in its ability to provide contexts for understanding issues and for understanding ourselves.
In a very real sense, that is the value of books like this one. None of the essays provides answers to be applied directly to the problems of the day. The scientists represented here admit their lack of ready-made answers as freely as do the humanists. But not one of the writers thereby suggests that there are no answers, or that the search for fundamental and theoretical answers should be abandoned any more than the day-by-day search for practical solutions to social, political, and economic difficulties.
A Time To Hear and Answer is full of challenges. O. B. Hardison, Jr., challenges the present to admit that, sometime between 1968 and 1972, the frontier died. He says that Walter Prescott Webb wrote the obituary notice in The Great Frontier (1952) and that Don McLean’s song American Pie (1971) serves as a fitting funeral elegy. The challenge, as Hardison states it, is “to come to terms, sooner or later, with the limits that surround us.”
Limits—not the limitless frontier of yesteryear. Limits leap out at the reader in all these essays, but they are not the kinds of limits set up by dispirited academics resigned to loss. They are the realistic limits recognized by thoughtful analysts of the American—and international—situation in the final third of the twentieth century.
In “Man’s View of the Cosmos in America, 1776-1976,” John Archibald Wheeler faces even more terrifying limits than the environmental and economic ones Warren and Hardison suggest. For in pursuing his special interest in gravitational collapse—the so-called “black holes”—Wheeler forsees not only the collapse of the universe, but the eradication of what may properly be spoken of as “physics.” What remains, Wheeler says, is a single law—“the law of mutability: there is nothing that does not change.”
Wheeler’s essay is perhaps the most broadly philosophic and lyric of all in the collection. His concern to understand the origin of the earth and the universe may involve his acceptance of the belief that the expanding universe will eventually contract into gravitational collapse, but his thoughts lead toward transcendence. He states the “greatest issue of all” in simple terms: “What role, if any, does any future requirement for life and mind play in the structure of the universe?” He arrives at this question through examination of the quantum, “where the observer and the observed turned out to have a tight and totally unexpected linkage.” The lesson of the quantum, says Wheeler, is that man participates in the drama of the universe: “We give meaning to existence by interacting with our surroundings and by communicating our findings to our fellows.”
Out of his belief that the universe will end with a great bang like the one with which it began, Wheeler derives renewed faith in life and intelligence. Indeed, he finds “the central mystery of the universe even stranger and more wonderful than one . . . imagined at the beginning.”
Marshall Laird’s topic, despite an exotic title, seems calculated to bring the reader solidly back to earth after exploring, with Wheeler, the universe’s central mystery. With occasional acerbity and constant wit, biologist Laird lays before his readers another scientific view of the limits and the expanse of human knowledge. He focuses on the attempt to solve devastating health problems in West Africa’s Volta River Basin. Genuinely interdisciplinary, Laird’s essay pursues the historical and cultural, as well as biological and economic, implications of the plight of an “underdeveloped” nation. Meantime, as a specialist in biological control of disease-bearing parasites, he speaks eloquently for responsible use of chemical controls in order to alleviate some part of human suffering. He describes that suffering, and it is clear that he is angry and pained by the suffering in villages along the Volta.
Laird has not “toured” West Africa as an observer. He has worked with organizations attempting to control various parasites, including the worms that cause onchocerciasis (river blindness). His anger and acerbity come out when he deals with what he regards as the “amateurism” of zealous environmentalists, who use “that detestable cant phrase currently so beloved of politicians, ’quality of life’” and do not recognize the differences between North American standards and those in most other parts of the world. He cites symposium topics for a national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which, he says, “have little to do with . . . the . . . pressing realities . . . facing the great mass of mankind.” The topics he lists grow in absurdity as he returns to them in the context of misery spread among West Africans by the bite of blackflies.
Laird’s title is “Osiris, Asklepios, and the Harpies: The Development of an African River Basin.” The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is symbolized by Osiris, the “god anciently credited with bringing the blessings of agriculture to the Nile.” Asklepios stands for the World Health Organization, which, with FAO, conducts the Onchocerciasis Control Program. The Harpies are the blackflies. Laird’s comparison between Bunker Hill and the Upper Volta Basin, though apt enough, is not needed to justify his essay’s...
(The entire section is 2658 words.)