Interview with Lewis Mumford by Modern Visionary, 1973
Lewis and Sophia Mumford have spent much of their life together in the small village of Amenia, New York. Here they can walk and garden together, and continue the intellectual conversation that began with their marriage 52 years ago, when both were editors for a literary magazine. If it seems an ascetic life, far removed from the conflicts of this modern era, the appearance is misleading. This is home. Their laboratory is the world.
Lewis Mumford’s fame grew steadily over the years as his mind ranged from antiquity into the future, probing always for insights into the character and dilemma of modern man. His works reflect the belief that man can gain self-understanding and self-control, even in an age of disintegration and violence.
Some of his most successful books have been published since his 60th birthday. The latest, Interpretations and Forecasts, represents the whole range of his interests, from cities to the threat of nuclear war, from technology’s effects on society to the politics of democracy. It is, in fact, a kind of summing up of the thought of this incorrigible humanist.
In the thirties, you were in the forefront of the intellectual struggle against what you call the mass attack on democracy. You were fighting then to make democracy work. Are you disappointed in the outcome of democracy today?
LM: I was fighting for what was left of democracy in our society, because I saw that democracy is essentially an invention of small societies. It only can work in small communities. It can’t possibly work in a community of 100 million people. 100 million people can’t be governed on democratic principles. I know a teacher who had her pupils, her students in high school devise a system whereby there could be an electric communication, with a central organization, and a proposition could be put before the whole electorate, and everybody could respond “yes” or “no” by pressing a button. And she and the students had the delusion that this was a democracy. It isn’t. It was the worst kind of totalitarian tyranny that would be imposed by this system. Democracy depends on face-to-face relations, therefore upon small communities, which then become part of larger communities, which then have to be governed by a different set of principles. I defended democracy because this is basic. This is part of our American tradition. In that sense, I was a Jeffersonian. Jefferson believed, and if only the country had listened to him, that the political system should be based upon the small community, and that there should be an elected steward for that community who would carry the knowledge he needed for the larger community and would be the bearer of that. This is his Virginia version of the New England town community.
I think this is a profound insight on Jefferson’s part. And the weakness of our whole political system is that we have this fundamental unit. The small unit has never been part of our democracy. Instead, we invented the political party, which is an organization that can be manipulated. A real democracy can’t be manipulated, because it’s too various.
MV: What do we have today?
LM: Chaos. Chaos, on a large scale, colored by superorganization. A few newspapers, a few television stations. A few people in the White House and the Pentagon control our opinions and control the information we need to form opinions of our own. Therefore, we have no real opinions of our own, unless we are very sober and keep away from newspapers and television programs and radio programs long enough to think our own thoughts. We use them as instruments of thinking.
MV: You once warned against the arrival of great instruments of persuasion and intellectual bribery in this country. Has that prophecy been fulfilled?
LM: All too well fulfilled. In fact, they’re now, psychiatrists are saying the way to get rid of war and get rid of violence in our society is to just drug the drinking water with sedatives. And eventually they’ll add aphrodisiacs. But sedatives and anesthetics, which will calm down the population. And then people won’t make war. It’s purely an infantile notion.
MV: I get the feeling that a lot of people are willing to yield to the opinion-makers and to their leaders the decisions of this society in exchange for order, security, privacy, and affluence.
LM: Quite right. I’ve taken this up in the section of The Pentagon of Power in which I deal with the threat of parasitism, of each of us becoming a parasite. A parasite lives a glorious life in terms of an affluent society. He finds a host with whom he can live, and without any effort on his own part, he becomes increasingly bloated with the food supply by his host. The state is now the host, and the entire population is rapidly becoming parasites, absolutely dependent for their existence upon the prosperity of the state. No matter how ruinous policy may be, nevertheless, as long as it lasts, the parasite will be looked after.
MV: I get the impression as I travel the country that if people are not, at heart, happy; they are certainly not protesting the system. They’re living with the system. They’re content in their status as parasites. Is that a fair observation?
LM: From my point of view, it’s a very fair proposition. The danger of any totalitarian tyranny is that it requires much less effort than active self-government. Real organisms, real living organisms are autonomous. Even a rat wouldn’t accept the conditions you lay down for him if it doesn’t suit his rat-like character. Man, unfortunately, is a little too adaptable. He will accept any kind of tyranny or oppression as long as you feed him well and give him sufficient sexual stimulation to make him think he’s alive.
MV: But the oppression today is certainly not the oppression of the masses in the days of Pharaoh or in the Soviet Union as recently as 1930 and perhaps even today.
LM: Oh, I wouldn’t make that discrimination at all. I should say a large part of it is exactly of the same order. But in addition, there’s the more subtle kind of oppression. Instead of the Egyptian pharaohs and the great monarchs of Mesopotamia, who governed with a whip, governed with a truncheon. There was no nonsense about disobeying them. We found a better method. We give people sedatives and aphrodisiacs and make them forget that the chains are getting heavier every day. They think they are a new form of ornament that’s really rather nice, and doesn’t require any effort on their part. We’ll soon get to a point where science will provide us with effortless orgasms and then our society will have reached its ultimate consummation.
MV: Being bored is certainly not in the same class as being brutalized.
LM: Oh, it’s another form of brutalization. We don’t realize how we can be brutalized the way Odysseus’s followers were when they were the victims of Circe. And she turned them into animals. She turned them into pigs, snoutish pigs. And they were very contented. And Odysseus couldn’t get them to leave the island, they liked it so much under Circe’s ministrations. It’s the same thing. Don’t forget that Homer saw all these dangers long before you and I could.
MV: One of your favorite writers and poets, Whitman, wrote of a great bursting energy that was at the primitive heart of the American culture. And he in fact helped to release so many of these forces, at least in my judgment, and I think I’m reflecting your opinion. How do you think Whitman would feel today, in our society?
LM: I think he’d feel just the way he did when he beheld the society after the Civil War. In Democratic Vistas he gave a picture of our present society, which has only become magnified and confirmed by what has actually happened. Democratic Vistas is the most serious indictment of democracy that has ever been made. And nothing that I could say could be any harsher than what Whitman said in Democratic Vistas. Oh, he saw already everything that was coming.
MV: Such as?
LM: Our society. Sodom and Gomorrah.
MV: That’s a very blanket indictment.
LM: It was meant to be.
MV: I get the impression as I travel that people know of the bleak diagnosis but are anxious for solutions. How do we get to solutions?
LM: The solutions won’t come from outside us. First they have to come from inside. We have to look at ourselves and examine the kind of life we’re leading. We have to inspect ourselves as rigorously as if we were a criminal, asking ourselves “How did you commit this crime, that you are living the way you are living now?” I myself, again and again, go back to the story that Dostoyevski tells in The Brothers Karamazov, the picture of the really spiritual monk, the Father Zosima, who is giving advice to the people around him on his deathbed, more or less. And he says to them at one point, and I read this every year because it’s something that’s addressed to me as well as his own audience – “Every day and every hour and every minute, walk around yourself and look at yourself, and see that you present a seemly appearance.” If we did this, if we really examined our lives, and if each one of us regarded this as a personal mission – we ourselves, personally, have to contribute to the salvation of the whole world. Not by converting them, but by converting ourselves to what we mean.
MV: Self, conversion, salvation, those are the terms of religion.
LM: Yes. And I’m not afraid of that. I’m not ashamed of it. As a matter of fact, when I began preparing for The Condition of Man, I spent a whole winter reading into the annals of Christianity. I knew, superficially, the history of Rome and of the Christian religion. Now I began reading the early fathers. Augustine and Jerome, who I knew, but also Cyprian and Origen and Tertullian. The great fathers of the Christian Church. And I realized at that moment, and remember society wasn’t as safe as it is today, that they were talking about my society. They were talking about the evils and the corruptions and the sins that were committed every day in our advanced western civilization. And some of their answers, the answers that they gave of withdrawing, of looking inside yourself, of examining your own sins before you attempt to improve anybody else. But these answers, I think, are fundamental answers. They’re recognized, there are certain human obligations that we must fulfill for ourselves before we can help anybody else.
MV: You said that a great leader would know that the time has come to reinstate the essential human factor. Does the world have any great leaders at the moment?
LM: There are plenty of them, but we don’t know where they are. We don’t know our contemporaries, you see. We often don’t discover them until a couple hundred years after. Who, in Rome, in the year 100 A.D., knew that Christianity was going to wipe the Roman Empire off the map? What was Jesus Christ? He was a Jewish agitator who had been dealt with properly by authority as he deserved. Had no sense of what the real future was. The real leaders were hidden. I think the people who are now in the public eye aren’t by any means the real leaders. We may not recognize who they were for another 50 or 100 years. But I have faith that they’re there, because life is always surprising us with the unexpected. It’s unpredictable. Even good things can come.
MV: So I may get an optimistic statement out of you yet.
LM: Oh, I’m nothing but optimism. How would I keep alive without that? But also without the pessimism that tempers it, because both things are real. We have to deal with the reality, the realities of life.
MV: The constant barrage of criticism of American society today is often producing a counter-result among the man in the street out there. He’s proud of his country. He wants to be proud of his country. I’ve often thought that one reason for that is that while only a few people know who John Doe is, John Doe achieves a kind of transcendental immortality when he says “I am an American.” And if you attack his country, you’re in effect attacking his identity. Isn’t that so?
LM: Well, it’s so, in a way. The fact is that his real life is dissatisfying. His real life doesn’t give him pride. He has to take pride in little things. His car, his latest television, these material things. This isn’t the real life. His country, as an idea and as an ideal, means something to him and we have every reason to expect that. There are things in American history we must all be proud of. And we must never lose that kind of self-confidence. At the same time, the man in the street, because he feels that the actual life he lives isn’t the best possible life, he won’t say so. He tries to convince himself that it’s all right. He’s full of illusions about his country. He thinks that it’s a good country no matter how much evil it does. That’s worse than an illusion. That’s a pathological state to be in, not to be able to recognize the difference between good and bad. To think that bad is something that can only be committed by your enemies when they oppose you. And whatever you do, no matter how inhuman, how bestial, is good. That’s the most disastrous of illusions.
MV: How do you explain the deep tolerance that exists in this country of brutality and violence, including that committed in the name of our ideals?
LM: We’ve gotten used to it. We have a long tradition of violence, and it’s seeped into our systems. We have a long tradition of corruption now. And we accept corruption as normal. A policeman caught in corruption doesn’t get embarrassed. He doesn’t even have to brazen it out. Everybody does this. Why should anybody pick on him for being corrupt, for taking bribes from a narcotics pusher? Gradually, if you take enough poison into your system, you don’t realize that it’s poison anymore. You don’t die from it, unfortunately. You go on living.
MV: Along with a tolerance for brutality, having been in the factory towns of America and the villages that are dying and the city canyons and caverns of the major metropolitan areas, I would say that we have a high tolerance for ugliness as well, and that must offend you, with your sense of aesthetic taste and concerns.
LM: Not merely ugliness, but inhuman conditions, unsanitary conditions. Dirt. All the things that attack the body. All the 200 cancer-producing substances that every industrial city vomits into the air. All these things offend me, not just the absence of beauty. I’d be perfectly happy to do without a little beauty if we had some of the realities of life. In fact, I’d like to quote the advice that Ruskin gave the manufacturers of Bradford, who were producing a large amount of pollution. They wanted a lecture from Ruskin on art. He said “Don’t ask me to talk to you about art. You’re not ready for it yet. Clean your streams and clear your air. Make this environment, the physical environment, fit to live in. Then maybe you’ll be ready to talk about art.”
MV: Mr. Mumford, as you’ve pointed out, we’re all outcast Europeans. And yet, even with that tradition behind us, we produce no Chartre, no Straussberg, no Cologne. Not even a Canterbury. Why is that?
LM: Well, in the first place, we haven’t had so much time. Medieval cathedrals weren’t built rapidly. It sometimes took centuries before they were finished, and even in the 19th century many of them were still unfinished. But the real reason is that they had a vision, a vision of the possibilities of life beyond eating and drinking and going to bed, daily necessary humdrum activities. And a vision of heaven, and they didn’t want to wait until they died to have that heaven. They brought it down to earth in the cathedral and gave all they had for it. Even the butchers of Chartre contributed to a whole section of the church. Instead of taking it out for their own private use, they felt a duty to support this great vision, and that’s why these buildings have got it done with a richness of material and labor that nobody would expend on it today.
MV: In our time, we’ve turned essentially to private pursuits than to social.
LM: To private pursuits and also to complex mechanisms that represent our particular kind of heaven. We think of a heaven in which everything will be done electronically or mechanically. Where power on an unheard of scale will be used, and that no human being will be in sight anywhere. You will be extruded from the whole organization. This is the ultimate heaven of our age.
MV: This is such a departure from the hope that existed when machines were first invented. Bacon, who you quote, said that he believed invention would tend to the relief of man. And yet, machines haven’t been that redemptive.
LM: Quite right. John Mills saw that in the middle of the 19th century, and essentially it’s true. Some of the burdens, the horrible burdens of servile labor, which demanded too much of the human body, have been removed. But other burdens, equally gross, have been imposed by the very use of the machine. So the net gains are far less than people imagine.
MV: I remember in one of your writings an account of a physics class in 1911, in which you said the teacher held up a pen and said “There is enough power in the atoms of this pen, that if we could unlock, would run the subways of New York.” Well, 62 years later the subways of New York are still running rather primitively, and the atom has been opened. Why hasn’t that power been turned to man’s relief?
LM: First of all, because it’s a double-edged power. It’s potentially very great. But in the present form of nuclear fission it’s very dangerous, too. You’d never solve the ordinary problems of pollution through using ordinary chemicals, which are in small quantities easily absorbed by the earth. We have no notion of having solved the problems of nuclear fission. Once the reactors are used up, we have an enormous amount of radioactive material we don’t know how to dispose of. If we dump them in the oceans, the oceans are polluted. If we put them in caves, the caves are polluted. Out in Colorado there was a danger that the whole community might suffer from nerve gasses that have been poured down into a cave. We’ve taken on these immense powers without any way of handling them physically, and still less any way of handling them morally. They present moral problems of the greatest difficulty, which we are so unused to facing. So deficient are we in elementary morality that we don’t even know that they exist.
MV: Is it reasonable to expect that we can control them? In days past, machines were created by basically a few people. Today’s machines are created by a multiplicity of people who only touch a part of the machine as it comes into existence. And society with its political processes takes over, and the man who made the machine is no longer responsible for its use. How can we correct that?
LM: Well, the trouble is that nobody feels responsible. I have a long term answer to that, and that is, one by one, many of the processes that we’ve turned over to the machine must be recaptured by the human organism. I write, for example, on a typewriter. I’ve written on typewriters ever since I was 16 years old. I wouldn’t give them up. But at one point in my life I realized I was the victim of the typewriter. If I didn’t have it at hand, I wouldn’t be able to write a long book, because my handwriting was illegible and I never felt at ease using the hand. And at that point I decided to learn the art of handwriting all over again. I studied the books on the Chancery script, the fine Italian hand that the bureaucrats used in the 16th century, and acquired a pleasant kind of handwriting that is entirely legible. I feel that a great gain. I’m not the victim of the typewriter. I could do without it. If all the typewriters in the world were destroyed, I could still go on writing books.
And this applies to other things. We’ve turned our memory and even our mind over to computers. I would have memory training brought back, as a fundamental study, beginning at the first age in school, so that by the time a student is out of college his memory would be as colossal, as capacious as that of a Greek poet who could recite every chapter in Homer without looking at a book.
MV: But what about B-52 bombers? After the Civil War, as you also have pointed out, the instruments of that war became the tools of progress for agriculture, factories, expansion west. What do we do with this machinery we’ve created now for war, which doesn’t seem to lend itself to becoming a tool for peace?
LM: We have to dismantle it, machine by machine. Some of it will be useful for scrap. Some of it might possibly be used for other purposes. The army jeep, for example, is very good for getting around rough country. This is a very happy contribution if you live in the rural regions. There are many things that needn’t be rejected altogether, but they must be put in their place. Now that we have ruled man out of the picture, and the machine has displaced man in our own imaginations, not merely in fact.
MV: And you don’t think it’s too late to turn it around?
LM: It’s never too late to mend, the old saying says.
MV: What about the fact that a lot of people enjoy these machines? Isn’t it possible to be too harsh on the automobile when many people want an automobile, want two, want three? Isn’t it possible to be too harsh on the release from drudgery, to overlook the release from drudgery that machines have made possible?
LM: I’ve never said a word against the automobile. What I’ve said about the automobile was to put it in its place, to have it part of a balanced system of transportation. To prevent it from being misused, and to keep it from destroying our cities, as it has already done. There’s no machine that isn’t welcome if it’s responsibly used by rational people, if it’s under their control. On the other hand, I am afraid of a wheelbarrow if it’s not under human control.
MV: You’ve written that American culture is deliberately indifferent to man’s proper interests. What are those proper interests?
LM: The proper interest is the perpetuation of human life in every possible depth, utilizing all its potentialities. Not merely one single side of the human personality, but everything that we arrive at, including subjective depths, which we now have contact with only in psychotic and deranged forms. There are possibilities inside the human personalities that haven’t yet been explored, only partly and tentatively explored by some of the religions and some of the mystic cults. We have thousands of years of labor to perform all over again, just as primitive man did when he invented symbols and learned how to use language. So we have an even greater exploration ahead, provided we realize that everything that goes on in the outer world must be under the control and under the direction and under the vision of an inner world, which is infinitely, which has no limits to its existence.
MV: What about the future, the vision of Lewis Mumford at 77?
LM: He’s quite content to die, as soon as – I would die very happily, as I used to say to my wife, if you could write as an epitaph on my tombstone “This man was an absolute fool. Everything that he predicted would come to pass, has not come to pass.” If that could be said, I’d know that the world was safe, and I would die a happy man.
MV: Well, on that note, and with a deep sense of gratitude for your letting us come here and for sharing your wisdom with us, thank you.