It is also true that those who have accomplished the most are not, by and large, history's humanitarians. Society esteems self-sacrifice, but the self-dedicated man is more apt to give the world the things of most lasting value. The creative man's achievements may benefit humanity, but this benefit is the by-product only, for it is the quest for a new beauty or truth that more often drives him—as he climbs upward to the farthest reaches of knowledge thus far attained. He climbs with his mind for the same reason as the man who scales mountains—because the problem is there and the challenge exists in conquering the unknown. He climbs until, at last, he stands alone on a dark plateau where no man has ever stood before—and then climbs on, pitting his intellect, ingenuity, and imagination against the bleak, uncertain rock, that holds the new truth or treasure that he seeks. Each generation a few great men reach these upper regions, where the fresh air is rarefied and pure, where no other mortal has ever breather the air before, and then climbs down again clutching some new bit of knowledge, a discovery, a piece of art or music, a formula, a view of man or molecules, of life or death, or time, or space—and the world is richer for it.
It is a lonely journey—this climb up the mountain of the unknown, but it can produce the fiercest kind of satisfaction—it can give man the meaning of what it is to be a man. And it is much the same in every worthwhile area of human endeavor in which the individual can find identity, purpose and a feeling of accomplishment.
The Fall of the Uncommon Man
Each generation produces its giants—those searchers after truth, creators of beauty, and doers of deeds, who stand out, head and shoulders above the rest. It is to such as these that we referred when we wrote, in an earlier issue, of the need to honor and esteem the uncommon men among us. We observed then that the legitimate concern over the plight of the common man during the years of the Great Depression had turned into a near deification of the common and the average, whereas, what is needed is a greater emphasis on the uncommon and the unusual.
The tendency to suspect unusual effort, to resent and demean the uncommon accomplishment, is in sharp contrast to the attitude of Americans during this nation's formative years, up to and including the Twenties. There was a time when men took pride in their work, truly honored intellectual pursuit, and made heroes of the men of greatest accomplishments—whether in science, arts and letters, sports, or adventuresome derring-do. But the Depression Thirties was not a time for heroes and most Americans were more than willing to believe that even their idols had feet of clay. As we have already noted, our two beloved Charleses of the Roaring Twenties—Lindbergh and Chaplin—suffered much the same reversal of public sympathy in the dismal decade that followed, as did still another Charles—King Charles I of England, at the hands of the Puritans in the middle of the 17th century—though the English monarch paid a somewhat heavier penalty for falling out of public favor, being sentenced to hanging until not quite dead, castration, disembowelment and decapitation.
The hanging, castration, disembowelment and decapitation of two of America's most popular heroes was only symbolic—we being more civilized and all—but the job was about as thorough as was done on the unfortunate English potentate. The public images of the Lone Eagle and the Little Tramp were trampled in the muck and mire, not so much for any misdemeanor on either of their parts, but because of the public's need to destroy its giants—to reduce all men to the level of the common denominator. Lindbergh and Chaplin were logical choices—they were the most popular—they had the furthest to fall. Besides, they both walked right into it.
Lindbergh was ostracized for expressing an unpopular prewar estimate of the strength of the German Luftwaffe; he also accepted a German medal for his air exploits of a decade before and advised against war, which added up to appeasement. Both public and press were properly horrified and the owners of the Lindbergh Beacon, a Chicago landmark, went looking for a new name for their light.
Chaplin produced a brilliant satirical indictment of the Nazis, The Great Dictator, at about the same time, but that wasn't enough to save his skin. He was vilified and savagely abused by the public, the press and the U.S. government for his sexual immorality, unpopular political views and the fact that he had never shown sufficient gratitude for this success here to bother applying for U.S citizenship.
Since the aspersions of his political attitudes appear to have been wholly unwarranted, and since America is not in the habit of attacking every member of the community who is not a citizen, sex appears to have been Chaplin's principle sin, and it is certainly the one that received the widest attention, in two highly publicized trials, involving an alleged violation of the Mann Act and a paternity suit—both brought about by the same spurned and vindictive woman. He was found not guilty in the first case and though conclusive scientific evidence proved him innocent in the second also, the court ruled the evidence inadmissible and convicted him anyway. The government persecution of the man, heralded the world over as the greatest comedian of modern times, included a temporary revocation of his passport as "an undesirable alien." Commenting on this phenomenon in his sympathetic personality piece, Chaplin (Playboy, March 1960), Charles Beaumont wrote: "High on the list of America's pet hates is a man who, over a 30-year period, gave this nation—and every other nation throughout the world—a gift valuable beyond price and beyond estimation, the most desirable and most difficult to receive: the imperishable gift of joy."
Beaumont continued: "An anti-Chaplin campaign was begun, calculated by its emphases and omissions to present a single image of Chaplin, so hateful an image of Chaplin, so hateful an image that some European critics concluded that it was a classic admission of guilt conscience."
Beaumont noted that Errol Flynn had weathered a far nastier sex trial (involving the statutory rape of a teenager) at about the same time, without ever having the public turn against him (the phrase "In like Flynn" became, in fact, a popular sexual compliment of the day and Flynn wanted to call his best-selling autobiography In Like Me, but the publisher demurred and he had to settle for My Wicked, Wicked Ways). Beaumont observed: "Flynn, even when he was consorting with girls young enough to be his granddaughter, could do no wrong. Chaplin could do no right.... Perhaps," Beaumont suggested, "because he [Flynn] did not add to these [his affairs] the affront of genius." An understandably embittered Chaplin finally left America forever, to live out his days with his wife and family in Switzerland, where the remarkable gentleman is still siring children in his mid-seventies—a fact that would no doubt get him literally castrated and disemboweled by less potent and more irascible of the Geritol set, if he were still around where we could lay our hands on him.
The anti-intellectual syndrome in America is a part of our society's subconscious desire to elevate the mediocre and demean the uncommon in education and intellect. No one needs to be told that men of learning, and the acquisition of knowledge, should be esteemed far more highly than they are in the U.S.; and this is the only civilized country in which educators and education are given such lowly status.
Throughout the Thirties, Hollywood produced musicals and comedies that appealed to the popular prejudice that the typical U.S. college was a place of campus high jinks rather than a fount of learning. And the stereotype stuck: Mass media still represent the typical college boy as more interested in football and panty raids than an education; the cliché college professor is "absentminded." Everyone knows that "common sense" is superior to acquired knowledge. In the Forties, the press added a new word to the language—"Egghead"—a term of derision for the intellectual.
For many Americans to be cultured is to be considered effete. Classical music is played by "longhairs" and appreciated by "squares." The man or woman of learning or cultural accomplishments, the poet and opera singer—have long been stock comedy characters in movies. Modern art is still more apt to evoke a wisecrack in the popular press than sincere interest or critical comprehension.
Television has simply continued to make use of the clichés already established by movies, magazine and newspapers: Time magazine recently commented, "To watch TV tell it, the U.S. teacher has long been a simple sap like 'Mr. Peepers.'"
But times are changing. As we have previously observed, America is giving every evidence of entering into a cultural renaissance. The Time comment quoted above was the lead-in to a review of a new TV show, Mr. Novak, in which the teacher-hero projects a very different, more complimentary image. And television in general, with gentle prodding, is becoming increasingly concerned with matters educational and cultural, though there is still far too much attention paid to the rating systems instead of programming quality and variety.
American movies are now willing able to tackle adult themes in a grown-up manner unthinkable a generation ago and are, in general, better than they ever were in Hollywood's heyday. AM radio is, by and large, worse than ever—with its accent on "Top 40" rock 'n' roll, but there is the remarkable FM radio boom, with quality and culture galore. The same holds true for the recording industry; the single-record business, which is all we knew as a lad (spinning Miller, Ellington and Dorsey at 78 r.p.m), has been taken over by the screechers and howlers (on those tiny 45-r.p.m. records with the giant holes in the center—to match the ones in the heads of their listeners); but the postwar long-play album and hi-fi and stereo popularity have given us sounds we never knew in our teens.
Jazz is busting out in half-a-dozen different inventive directions and there is more interest in classical music, both recorded and live, than at any previous time in our history; interest in ballet and modern dance is on the increase, too. Since the war, American painters have taken the initiative away from the Europeans in modern art and produced the first really important are movement this country has ever known. U.S. literature is probing new levels of life and existence in a new and refreshingly honest way and important books previously suppressed, like Lady Chatterley's Lover by Lawrence and Lolita by Nabokov, are now being published here legally for the first time.