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October 25, 2004

L'Amerique Inattendue - Andre Maurois

Posted by Anthony Daniels

L'Amerique Inattendue
by Andre Maurois
Pp187. Paris, 1931

Anthony Daniels finds a book - Andre Maurois' L'Amerique Inattendue - published in 1931 which discusses the consequences of the 1929 Stock Market Crash on the psyche of the American people. It leaves him with deep foreboding of what the consequences of a major economic downturn today might be.

Many, perhaps most, books are forgotten not because they are bad or uninteresting, but because so many are written that they overwhelm our capacity to remember. It is seldom, indeed, that nothing of value can be extracted, albeit negatively, even from very bad books. Therefore there can hardly be a second-hand bookshop in the world that is not an education in itself.

Recently in such a bookshop I picked up a book by Andre Maurois, published in 1931, called L'Amerique Inattendue. "It's a first edition", trilled the bookshop owner, skating over the question as to whether there had ever been another edition than the first (as far as I am aware, there hasn't). It would have been more accurate to say, "It's an only edition".

Still, it was an attractive book, printed on good thick cream paper, so I bought it. You can't judge a book by its cover, of course, but you can make some kind of guess about it. I thought it would be interesting to read this book at the present time, 73 years after its publication, and so it proved.

When Maurois told a friend that he was taking up a temporary post to teach French literature at Princeton, his friend who had never been to the United States advised him against this course of action. His friends advice was:

Don't do it. You won't come back alive. You don't know what America is. It is a country so frenetic that you will not have a moment's peace; a country where the noise is so constant that will not be able to sleep, nor even rest; a country where men die of overwork at the age of forty, and where the women leave their houses in the morning to join in the universal frenzy. Wit and intelligence are not valued at all there. Liberty of thought does not exist. Human beings have no soul there. You will hear of nothing except money. Since childhood, you have known the pleasure of a spiritual civilisation; there, you will find a civilisation of bathrooms, central heating and fridges.
In essence, of course, this has been the European charge against America ever since (a charge with which Maurois disagrees): that its abundance has been bought at the expense of depth of character and culture. The assumption is that we Europeans have foregone American prosperity voluntarily, for the sake of our souls, rather than because we have not have the wit (and perhaps certain natural advanatages) to produce it for ourselves. Those who fall behind materially almost always console themselves about the superiority of their inner lives.

I am not myself much of a materialist, in the sense that I do not believe that the consumption of ever more goods constitutes the best that life has to offer, yet I cannot disguise from myself that few people resist this as the main aim of life, at least when it is possible for them, and I myself am disinclined to make efforts except for money. This is not to say that I would do anything whatever for money, or that I could not have made more money if I had chosen another path in life that was within my capabilities. It is just that my motives have not been so very different from those of most people.

Maurois had the opportunity to observe that character of the American people both before and after the Great Crash of 1929. He appears to have preferred the character of the Americans in adversity to that in triumphal materialistic optimism. He thought adversity matured them and gave them a better understanding of the inherent, existential limitations of human life. To that extent, he seemed to support the view that a constant upward trend in consumption does actually conduce to shallowness of character.

His reflections on the psychological state of the population before and after the crash gives us pause. Are we sure we have learnt thoroughly the lessons of the Great Depression? In succeeding chapters, dealing with before and after the Wall Street Crash, Maurois italicises the following statements:

When a whole human horde feels optimistic, the isolated member of the horde who tries to combat that optimism is considered as a traitor.
Then:
When a whole human horde feels pessimistic, the isolated member of the horse who displays his happiness is considered as a traitor.
Or again:
Politicians who are lucky enough to be in power [when everything is going well] enjoy the popularity that always attaches to success.
But:
Politicians who are unlucky enough to be in power at a time of crisis are made responsible for all public misfortunes.
What is more, people regard saving during times of prosperity as an attack on their optimism. It is taking thought for the morrow, which suggests that the morrow might not be as prosperous as today and therefore their optimism is unjustified. During times of slump, however, people regard spending as being irresponsible, even when they can afford it, as mere improvidence, precisely because it takes no thought for the morrow, thereby selfishly building up further trouble for the future. Even sexual behaviour varies in times of optimism and pessimism, Maurois suggests: slump favouring sexual prudence, boom favouring licence.

I felt distinctly uncomfortable while reading Maurois. I am no economist and am not qualified to opine on economic affairs. Yet we seem to me to have been conducting ourselves in Britain as if the present economic climate will continue for ever, regardless of what we do, as if there were no tomorrow, or at least no tomorrow that might be very different from today. On the one hand, our boom requires that we spend, or it comes to an end; on the other, we shall have nothing for our old age if we do.

Our public life is frivolous, but frivolous without gaiety. It is also earnest without being serious. The Chancellor, Mr Brown, warned us recently of the threat that China and India posed to our prosperity. We cannot compete with those countries in cost of labour, of course; but their success is based not just on cheap labour, but on a powerful combination of cheap labour and an educational system that is far more serious than ours. While we that is to say, the government of which Mr Brown is a prominent member - are so obsessed with supposed social justice that we are prepared to tolerate any degree of mediocrity, India and China foster talent in a very Darwinian fashion, in the hope and expectation that everyone will benefit in the long run. Before long, there will be nothing that we can do better than they.

At the same time, we have destroyed, or at least undermined, all forms of social solidarity other than handouts from the state. If ever there should be a serious downturn in our economic fortunes, which would not be unprecedented in history after all, we would find ourselves with an atomised society in which no one felt he had any duty to anyone else. Widespread social, or rather antisocial, disturbances might very well result.

By the time I had finished Maurois's forgotten but suggestive little book, I was almost trembling with fear.

Anthony Daniels is a doctor and writer.


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