Robert Pogue Harrison, an intellectual steeped in the philosophical and literary traditions of the Western world, may be the single most significant writer in the humanities today. In three of his previous books--Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, The Dominion of the Dead, and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition—he developed a particular style of writing that takes readers on a journey through time, tracing a particular concept or trope as it manifests itself in a wide array of literary and philosophical works. In Forests, for example, Harrison argues that the fundamental institutions of religion, politics, jurisprudence, and even family were established in opposition to the forests. He traces this phenomenon by conducting an analysis of literary and philosophical works, from Gilgamesh and the Homeric Hymns, through works by Dante, Shakespeare, and Rousseau, to the writings of Wordsworth, Thoreau, Conrad, and Zanzotto. Similarly, in The Dominion of the Dead, he attempts to uncover the “humic foundations of the world” and shows that the power of the dead is what allows culture to perpetuate itself. His textual excavations take him to the works of Virgil, Homer, Melville, Pater, Joyce, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, even Abraham Lincoln, whose “Gettysburg Address” receives an illuminating analysis. In each of his books, Harrison demonstrates that responses to the most fundamental human questions often appear in the most unlikely places and that it takes a formidable intellect and an Auerbach-like memory to be able to discern a particular thread that runs through the tradition. To read Harrison, therefore, is to be reminded of texts that you may have read years ago, or the texts that you may be studying or even teaching at this time, only to discover that you have never carefully read them.
Imagine then the excitement one feels when Harrison announces in his current book that he will examine contemporary youth culture. In Juvenescence, Harrison tackles a deceptively simple question: “How old are we?” In posing this question, he explores a key paradox. We “may be the ‘youngest’ society in the history of human civilization,” he writes, but we are also the oldest, because the history that precedes us grows as we get older with the passing of every decade. As Harrison notes, humans possess “a biological, evolutionary, and geological age” as well as a cultural age “by virtue of the fact that they belong to a history that preceded their arrival in the world and will outlast their exit from it.”
What draws Harrison to this topic is something that has escaped no one’s notice; namely, adults in the first world are younger “in looks, behavior, mentality, lifestyles, and, above all, desires.” To address this phenomenon, Harrison considers “biological and evolutionary factors” as they relate to Western cultural history. His analysis articulates a theory of age which may be characterized as follows: at any given moment in time, we are positioned in an age that looks to the future in a very particular way while simultaneously reflecting and responding to all antecedent ages and their individual expressions of futurity. One might say that this dialectic between innovation and tradition is the hallmark of every age such that the past becomes rejuvenated through acts of synthesis which guarantee cultural continuity. What concerns Harrison is the possibility that this dynamic may be threatened by the very nature of the current age which has all but abandoned the rejuvenating power of the past in pursuit of ever changing newness.
To conduct his analysis, Harrison relies on two concepts: neoteny and heterochrony. The former term comes from the early twentieth-century work of Louis Bolk, and “refers to the persistence of fetal, larval, or juvenile features in adult organisms.” Stephen Jay Gould later rehabilitated Bolk’s concept and used it to argue that as a species, human neoteny accounts for the persistence of juvenile traits in adults such that prolonged fetal growth contributes to our intelligence, and prolonged infancy and childhood contributes to our capacities for socialization. In other words, delayed development relies on learning as opposed to instinct and this explains the child-like fascination we have towards phenomena inspired by wonder and love. This, according to evolutionary biologists, is the source of our genius and Harrison concurs, contending that as Homo sapiens sapiens we possess two forms of wisdom. The first is linked to our genius, that impulse to relentlessly explore and experiment and question and imagine, whereas the second is associated with what he terms senile wisdom (where senile refers to fully mature and not decrepit), something we may associate with the tradition.
To explain how this functions culturally as opposed to biologically, Harrison turns to Sophocles and Plato. Invoking the Ode on Man in Antigone, Harrison reminds us that the chorus declares, “Nothing surpasses man in strangeness,” and that “everywhere journeying, inexperienced and without issue, [man] comes to nothingness.” The words of the chorus reveal to Harrison that “if our genius derives from our reluctance to grow up, our wisdom derives in turn from our heightened awareness of death.” In other words, what makes us strange (the Greek is deinos, meaning strange, marvelous, and terrifying) is our reluctance to grow up, and our coming to nothingness makes us conscious of death.
Harrison takes this one step further in his analysis of Timaeus. In Plato’s dialogue, the Egyptian priest points out that the Greeks forget what is behind them; they remain young, whereas the Egyptians remain old, forever linked to their past. From the Timaeus, Harrison can cull the tropes of the volcano and the river. The former he associates with youth (the Greeks suffered catastrophes mentioned by Plato that led to loss of cultural memory) and the latter he links to the senility of Egyptian culture (the fluvial inundations Plato describes that characterize the rejuvenation of Egyptian culture). Harrison sees a description of modern-day science in the Egyptian Priest’s description of how the Greeks forget what lies behind them. He is correct to point out that science cultivates amnesia so that it can see things anew, and his characterization of us as “first-world children [who] are innocent when it comes to the instruments we operate” rings all too true.
At this point, Harrison makes a signature move: he turns to Vico. In the not too distant future, there will be a book written on the works of Robert Pogue Harrison, and that author will surely note that at the heart of Harrison’s critical consciousness one finds his careful reading and profound understanding of the philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Just as Vico’s New Science grounded Harrison’s understanding of the relation between civilization and nature in his book Forests, the eccentric Italian’s philosophy orients Harrison’s understanding of the youthful nature of our current world.
Vico’s theory of il corso delle nazioni (the course of nations) in which he posits that every civilization goes through a succession of three ages—the age of gods, heroes, and men—offers Harrison a key to making sense of the relation of time to age and what he terms the heterochrony of the current world in which we live. According to Harrison’s reading of Vico, the divine age is dominated by a poetic imagination whose social organization is best described as the family clan. In the heroic age, class distinctions emerge such that family patriarchs organize themselves as a “ruling aristocratic class.” In the age of men, during which time what Vico termed the “barbarism of reflection” predominates, humans pursue abstract thought and promote egalitarian institutions. As Harrison succinctly characterizes it, each age is associated with a particular type of language. The divine age is characterized by “poetic, ceremonial, and gestural language”; the heroic age by “symbolic, heraldic, and figurative language”; and the human age by “discursive, legal, and analytical language.” Unlike many Vico scholars, however, who argue that Vico’s three ages are progressive and distinct, Harrison contends that although the ages succeed one another, they also interpenetrate. In other words, the three types of language that Harrison attributes to each age exist concurrently. Harrison goes even further, claiming that we are heterochronic, steeped in different biological, psychological, historical, institutional, and cultural ages.
Invoking Vico allows Harrison to describe what he terms Neotenic Revolutions, ages in which genius and wisdom combine in ways that allow “older legacies [to] assume newer or younger forms.” The four neotenic revolutions Harrison chooses to discuss are the rise of Socratic philosophy, the triumph of Christianity, European Enlightenment, and the founding of the American Republic. These revolutions offer us a glimpse into the dynamics of genius and wisdom that Harrison sees as indispensable to the viability of a culture.
In the case of the rise of Socratic philosophy, Harrison shows how the new idea of Socratic dialectic sustained itself though mythos. As readers of Plato have long recognized, Plato turns to the suasive power of mythos at crucial moments in many of his dialogues. In the case of Christianity, Harrison argues that in response to the criticism of Roman scholars and writers who claimed that Christian theology had no foundation, the early Christians invoked the ancient Hebrews and claimed that Christianity was the fulfillment (or, in Harrison’s terms, the rejuvenation) of a religious tradition older than the pagan tradition of the Romans themselves. Similarly, when the founders of the American Republic articulated the new ideas of representative government reflected in the writings of the Enlightenment, they tempered their vision with a profound pessimism found in the thinking of the Puritans and writers such as Hume, Hobbes, and Machiavelli. This accounts for the distrust in democracy and the profound concern over checks and balances that one sees in the founding documents of the United States. Through these fascinating examples, Harrison shows us that there exists a condition of reciprocity between genius and wisdom such that “genius liberates the novelties of the future, [and] wisdom inherits the legacies of the past, renewing them in the process of handing them down.” During a neotenic revolution that which is truly new revitalizes the past, and as such, engages in something Harrison calls “projective retrieval.”
In his preface, Harrison writes that one of the central claims of his book is that “our youth-obsessed society in fact wages war against the youth it presumably worships.” In his final chapter, he examines the present world we inhabit today. Harrison wonders if we are living during another neotenic revolution, or if we are witnessing “mere juvenilization.” He prudently argues that we cannot answer that question. Nevertheless, he expresses serious anxieties. The current paradox appears to be that with increasing manifestations of rapid creative forces at play in the world we feel less at home in it. In the world of the cloud and the hive mind, there is little space or time for what Harrison believes to be the necessary conditions for identity formation and creative imagination, namely, “idleness, shelter, and solitude…spontaneity, wonder, and the freedom to fail.” Above all, the current age deprives youth of “continuity with the past, whose future they will soon be called on to forge.”
Invoking Benjamin, he points out that “the newness that constant change brings into the world does not replace the ruins, rather, . . . it merely adds to the rubble.” For Harrison, real education involves immersing students in history and allowing them to hear “the dead speak in their own untimely voices.” Such an education appears increasingly hard to come by. Harrison argues that our current age “has declared all-out war on the dark continent of inwardness, silence, and attention, of the self in its wholeness wholly attending.” Those devices that miniaturize the world on a screen and enthrall us actually inhibit our maturation, claims Harrison. “[F]or some reason,” he writes, “the age demands that we remain at all times connected to the Borg collective, that we join its hive and hear inside our heads not the call of world renewal but the incessant drone that fills the network of globalized interconnection.” Harrison’s observations here give us pause, especially any of us who work within the broad field of education.
Juvenescence, like other books by Harrison, offers an array of illuminating interpretations of a wide range of texts: the poetry of Yeats, Auden, T.S. Eliot, Poe, Rilke, Hopkins, Dante, Larkin, Wordsworth, Pound, Lawrence, Bonnefoy, Virgil, and Shakespeare, as well as the works of Heidegger, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Nabokov, and Beckett. As always, Harrison’s ingenuity and virtuosity do not disappoint. In Juvenescence, Harrison fashions himself as a type of philosophico-literary renouvelant, a young adherent to a long tradition, one who affirms his faith in the meaning-producing capacities of texts that are both all too familiar and long forgotten. In doing this, Harrison has written a book that enacts what it describes, one which boldly explores new ideas through revitalizing the past.
Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age. By Robert Pogue Harrison. University of Chicago Press, 2014.