Marshall Berman

all that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity

Faust yearned to tap the sources of all creativity; now he finds himself face to face with the power of destruction instead. The paradoxes go even deeper: he won't be able to create anything unless he's prepared to let everything go, to accept the fact that all that has been created up to now—and, indeed, all that he may create in the future—must be destroyed to pave the way for more creation. This is the dialectic that modern men must embrace in order to move and life; and it is the dialectic that will soon envelop and move the modern economy, state and society as a whole. (48)

Faust's voyeuristic idyll is almost unbearably uncomfortable for us because we know—in ways that at this point he cannot know—that his very homage to her room (read: her body, her life) is part of a design on it, the first step in a process that is bound to destroy it. And not out of any malice on his part: it is only by shattering her peaceable kingdom that he will be able to win her love or express his own. (53)

Faust has been pretending not only to others but to himself that he could create a new world with clean hands; he is still not ready to accept responsibility for the human suffering and death that clear the way. First he contracted out all the dirty work of development; now he washes his hands of the job, and disavows the jobber once the work is done. It appears that the very process of development, even as it transforms a wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside the developer himself. This is how the tragedy of development works. (68)

"All that is solid"—from the clothes on our backs to the looms and mills that weave them, to the men and women who work the machines, to the houses and neighborhoods the workers live in, to the firms and corporations that exploit the workers, to the towns and cities and whole regions and even nations that embrace them all—all these are made to be broken tomorrow, smashed or shredded or pulverized or dissolved, so they can be recycled or replaced next week, and the whole process can go on again and again, hopefully forever, in ever more profitable forms.

The pathos of all bourgeois monuments is that their material strength and solidity actually count for nothing and carry no weight at all, that they are blown away like frail reeds by the very forces of capitalist development that they celebrate. Even the most beautiful and impressive bourgeois buildings and public works are disposable, capitalized for fast depreciation and planned to be obsolete, closer in their social functions to tends and encampments than to "Egyptian pyramids, Roman aquaeducts, Gothic cathedrals." (99)

If we look behind the sober scenes that the members of our bourgeoisie create, and see the way they really work and act, we see that these solid citizens would tear down the world if it paid. Even as they frighten everyone with fantasies of proletarian rapacity and revenge, they themselves, through their inexhaustible dealing and developing, hurtle masses of men, materials and money up and down the earth, and erode or explode the foundations of everyone's lives as they go. Their secret—a secret they have managed to keep even from themselves—is that, behind their facades, they are the most violently destructive ruling class in history. All the anarchic, measureless, explosive drives that a later generation will baptize by the name of "nihilism"—drives that Nietzsche and his followers will ascribe to such cosmic traumas as the Death of God—are located by Marx in the seemingly banal every day working of the market economy. He unveils the modern bourgeois as consummate nihilists on a far vaster scale than modern intellectuals can conceive. But these bourgeois have alienated themselves from their own creativity because they cannot bear to look into the moral, social and psychic abyss that their creativity opens up. (100-101)

Marx's imagery projects, here as ever, a sense of wonder over the modern world: its vital powers are dazzling, overwhelming, beyond anything the bourgeoisie could have imagined, let alone calculated or planned. But Marx's images also express what must accompany any genuine sense of wonder: a sense of dread. For this miraculous and magical world is also demonic and terrifying, swinging wildly out of control, menacing and destroying blindly as it moves. The members of the bourgeoisie repress both wonder and dread at what they have made: these possessors don't want to know how deeply they are possessed. They learn only at moments of personal and general ruin—only, that is, when it is too late. (101)

Marx's bourgeoisie moves within this tragic orbit. He places its underworld in a worldly context and shows how, in a million factories and mills, banks and exchanges, dark powers work in broad daylight, social forces are driven in dreadful directions by relentless market imperatives that not even the most powerful bourgeois can control. (102)

Goethe's Faust gave us the archetype of a modern intellectual forced to "sell himself" in order to make a difference in the world. Faust also embodied a complex of needs endemic to intellectuals: they are driven not only by a need to live, which they share with all men, but by a desire to communicate, to engage in dialogue with their fellow men. But the cultural commodity market offers the only media in which dialogue on a public scale can take place: no idea can reach or change moderns unless it can be marketed and sold to them. Hence they turn out to be dependent on the market not for bread alone but for spiritual sustenance—a sustenance they know the market cannot be counted on to provide. (118)

Now, if Marx's vision of bourgeois society is at all accurate, there is every reason to think it will generate a market for radical ideas. This system requires constant revolutionizing, disturbance, agitation; it needs to be perpetually pushed and pressed in order to maintain its elasticity and resilience, to appropriate and assimilate new energies, to drive itself to new heights of activity and growth. This means, however, that men and movements that proclaim their enmity to capitalism may be just the sort of stimulants capitalism needs. Bourgeois society, through its insatiable drive for destruction and development, and its need to satisfy the insatiable needs it creates, inevitably produces radical ideas and movements that aim to destroy it. But its very capacity for development enables it to negate its own inner negations: to nourish itself and thrive on opposition, to become stronger amid pressure and crisis than it could ever be in peace, to transform enmity into intimacy and attackers into inadvertent allies. (118-119)

Marx's point in tearing the haloes from their heads is that nobody in bourgeois society can be so pure or safe or free. The networks and ambiguities of the market are such that everybody is caught up and entangled in them. Intellectuals must recognize the depths of their own dependence—spiritual as well as economic dependence—on the bourgeois world they despise. It will never be possible to overcome these contradictions unless we confront them directly and openly. This is what stripping away the haloes means. (119)

The lesson for Baudelaire, which we will unfold in the following sections of this essay, is that modern life has a distinctive and authentic beauty, which, however, is inseparable from its innate misery and anxiety, from the bills that modern man has to pay. (141)

The distinctive sign of the nineteenth-century urbanism was the boulevard, am medium for bringing explosive material and human forces together; the hallmark of twentieth-century urbanism has been the highway, a means for putting them asunder. We see a strange dialectic here, in which one mode of modernism both energizes and exhausts itself trying to annihilate another, all in modernism's name. (165)

Ten minutes on this road, an ordeal for anyone, is especially dreadful for people who remember the Bronx as it used to be: who remember these neighborhoods as they once lived and thrived, until this road itself cut through their heart and made the Bronx, above all, a place to get out of. For children of the Bronx like myself, this road bears a load of special irony: as we race through our childhood world, rushing to get out, relieved to see the end in sight, we are not merely spectators but active participants in the process of destruction that tears our hearts. We fight back the tears, and step on the gas. (291)

As I saw one of the loveliest of these buildings being wrecked for the road, I felt a grief that, I can see now, is endemic to modern life. So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of "traditional" and "pre-modern" institutions and environments but—and here is the real tragedy—of everything most vital and beautiful in the modern world itself. (295)

The motive forces in this reconstruction were the multibillion-dollar Federal Highway Program and the vast suburban housing initiatives of the Federal Housing Administration. This new order integrated the whole nation into a unified flow whose lifeblood was the automobile. It conceived of cities principally as obstructions to the flow of traffic, and as junkyards of substandard housing and decaying neighborhoods from which Americans should be given every chance to escape. Thousands of urban neighborhoods were obliterated by this new order; what happened to my Bronx was only the largest and most dramatic instance of something that was happening all over. (307)

Why did the futurologists's laughter make me want to cry? He was laughing off what struck me as one of the starkest facts of modern life: that the split in the minds and the wound in the hearts of the men and women on the move—like him, like me—were just as real and just as deep as the drives and dreams that made us go. His laughter carried all the easy confidence of our official culture, the civic faith that America could overcome its inner contradictions simply by driving away from them.

As I thought this over, it made me see more clearly what my friends and I were up to when we blocked traffic throughout the decade. We were trying to open up our society's inner wounds, to show that they were still there, sealed but never healed, that they were spreading and festering, that unless they were faced fast they would get worse. We knew that the glittering lives of the people in the fast lane were just as deeply maimed as the battered and buried lives of the people in the way. We knew, because we ourselves were just learning to live in that lane, and to love the pace. But this mean that our project was shot through with paradox from the start. We were working to help other people, and other peoples—blacks, Hispanics, poor whites, Vietnamese—to fight for their homes, even as we fled our own. We, who knew so well how it felt to pull up roots, were throwing ourselves against a state and a social system that seemed to be pulling up, or blowing up, the roots of the whole word. In blocking the way, we were blocking our own way. So long as we grasped our self-divisions, they infused the New Left with a deep sense of irony, a tragic irony that haunted all our spectacular productions of political comedy and melodrama and surreal farce. Our political theater aimed to force the audience to see that they, too, were participants in a developing American tragedy: all of us, all Americans, all moderns, were plunging forward on a thrilling but disastrous course. Individually and collectively, we needed to ask who we were and what we wanted to be, and where we were racing to, and at what human cost. But there was no way to think any of this through under pressure of the traffic that was driving us all on: hence the traffic had to be brought to a halt. (328)

Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere. Where, then, are we going? Always to our home. —Norvalis, Fragments (on p. 329 of Berman)

Many of us who demonstrated in those streets allowed ourselves to hope, even as the trucks and police bore down on us, that out of all these struggles a new synthesis might someday be born, a new mode of modernity through which we all could harmoniously move, in which we all could feel at home. That hope was one of the vital signs of the '60s. It did not last long. Even before the decade ended, it was clear that no dialectical synthesis was in the works, and that we should have to put all such hopes on "hold," a long hold, if we were going to get through the years ahead. (329-330)

Rumstick Road suggests that this is the kind of liberation and reconciliation that is possible for human beings in the world. For Gray, and for us insofar as we can identify ourselves with him, the liberation is never total; but it is real, and earned: he has not merely looked into the abyss but gone into it and brought its depths up into the light for us all. (336)

Many of these blocks are so comfortably ordinary that we can almost feel ourselves blending in, nearly lulled to sleep—till we turn a corner and the full nightmare of devastation—a block of black burnt-out hulks, a street of rubble and glass where no man goes—surges up in front of us and jars us awake. Then we may begin to understand what we saw on the street before. It has taken the most extraordinary labors to rescue these ordinary streets from death, to begin everyday life here again from the ground up. This collective work springs form a fusion of the government's money with the people's labor—"sweat equity," it is called—and spirit. It is a risky and precarious enterprise—we can feel the risks when we see the horror just around the corner—and it takes a Faustian vision, energy and courage to carry through. These are the people of Faust's new town, who know that they must win their life and freedom every day anew. (344)

To be modern, I said, is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one's world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one's own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows. (346)