The Human Agenda, Part II: A 1966 Letter to Rod


September 1st, 1966

Dear Rod,

As I see this machine is just about out of ink, it will have to be a somewhat shorter commentary on your very stimulating paper than I would otherwise like to make. Also I want to get it to you before you get on that plane to Spain. Much to talk about, etc. re ideas, speculations, implications, extensions of the thesis. This in itself should answer your major question--I think it will provide an excellent basis for The Human Agenda, Part II. I anticipate talking with you upon your rturn, so will keep it pretty close to the bone here, and as directly related to the text as possible—at the risk of some pedanticism that could, perhaps, in other circumstances, be obviated with a word. None­theless, this may prove most useful to you at the moment, and you can play fast and loose with my irrelevancies.

Abstract: Relationship between "abundance" and "abilities” is not really made clear in the paper (although it may well be in the larger thesis you mention, of course). Will the "abilities" as you say, "remain the best indices of mental health," even if they are NOT "organized..."? I mean, won't they nonetheless remain valid as indices of mental health even though this mental health itself may be encountered less frequently than gentler visions of the future desired? If not, then what might be­come the best NEW index, or indices, of mental health? And if we change our index of mental health, perhaps this necessitates changing other of our ideas about what constitutes the mentally healthy. On the other hand, if you mean (as I am predisposed to read it) that abilities to work and love are now, and are likely to remain, the best indices...etc., then it might be asked whether or not their superiority (or even validity) qua indices is necessarily linked to their being organized.,.etc. I am will­ing to follow your thesis; I even think I sense the urgency, in the face of which it would be silly to chop logic and split hairs. But I really don't know whether you mean, in the paper, to propose some necessary relationship between "abilities" and their future organization, or shift of their emphasis from the social to the psychological, on the grounds of reason and logic--or whether you are instead urging this on the grounds (compelling as they are) of human compassion. And further, in a future world that turns out to be not quite so abundant as we might now envisage--presumably then work and love would retain a certain valid­ity in being organized to fulfill social functions. Abundance, I take it you mean in the fullest of senses (including an abundance of sweet reason, scant as it appears to date) such that it will be able to make these social functions truly dispensable. The text does say "more dis­pensable," suggesting that you do not mean (or expect) that they may be dispensed with altogether. Mind you, I'm not defending here the sen­timental perpetuation of drudgery or the vestigial remnant of the cave­man family tradition. But there are a lot of people in the world with this broad Germanic streak (they do so love the idea of the family-- although not necessarily the people in it--and the idea of "hard work.)" Showing just how much more crucial, indispensable, and stimulating is the prospect of organizing our abilities to work and love to fulfill psychological functions, will, of course, be the task--however modest and tentative, albeit well-intentioned--of symposia such as The Human Agenda, Part II.

More generally, I found myself recalling Alfred North Whitehead, who discusses the criteria and validity of education in very much the sane sense as you regard two of education's more essential components especially in The Aims of Education. Also in the context of education, while dealing explicitly with work and love as well, is A. S. Neill's Summerhill, which you probably know very well already.

Art may very well enter the picture (so to speak!) in providing models upon which the organization of work and love to fulfill psychological functions may be based. This raises the fascinating question of whether Art follows Life, or vice versa. There are, of course, somewhat more specialized problems concerned with the organization of love based upon the models provided by works of art such as Hollywood movies, New England novels, or daytime television. But on a more meaningful level, the aesthetic experience is an excellent and rather neat example of a zestful, self-authenticating experience. We can think of both the active and the passive aspects of the aesthetic experience: creation of the work of art (in the more conventional senses of formulating and then forming it), and perception of the work of art (which may be conceived as an interdependent aspect of creativity). In either or both of these ways, "the confirmation of the existence and worth of the self" can be experienced as fully as in most other human endeavors. Indeed, both work and love, as a respectful conjecture, could even be thought of as subsumed under the aesthetic experience; in any case, they both have their aesthetic effects. How else do we distinguish between our (psychologically functioning) work and our more (socially functioning) job, save by some kind of aesthetic judgement? Just what kind, and how it is to be (if it is to be) distinguished from other aesthetic judgments, warrants investigation. And how (not "why") do we manage to pick the women we do to love? But turning this back around to follow up the original idea, a model for organizing the ability to work might be provided by either the passive or the active sense of creating the work of art, with emphasis upon this creative act as process. The model for love, provided by the intricate and not-too-well-understood, but sometimes intense and certainly important relationship we have with works of art. Here it is worth pointing out that there are strong argu­ments against reification—that the so-called "work of art" is best conceived not so much as a thing, but as a process as well. But this would not seem to matter so much in the immediate context, because of the emphasis on "psychic intimacy” as primarily a reflexive, or feedback process. With these qualifications in mind, however, we can set up the following schematization:

Work involves psychic intimacy with activities and processes.
Love involves psychic intimacy with people.
Art involves psychic intimacy with things and their interrelationships.

With each instance, the concern in terms of psychological function, is directed toward the subject, the individual human being first given. Cor­respondingly, in terms of social function this concern would shift to the more external effects; to the activities, the people, and the things affected by the subject. This helps explain the apparent paradox of why society, although at great peril to its own very existence, doesn't give much more than a tinker's damn for mental health.

There are a great may other trains of thought you initiate but I shall mention just one or two more here. Love, I think, you give short shrift to-or perhaps it is simply that the brilliance of some observations on work just make it seem that way. In any case, I am still wondering about the coexistence of love and work. Do you purposely utilize a compound infinitive in the Abstract, i.e. "Abilities to love and work," or do you really mean " love and to work"? Or would you argue that it doesn't make any difference. I don't know. Perhaps it doesn't. But then, how do love and work relate to each other: are they separate, or do they overlap? Do they (can they, should they) exist in approximately equal measure in the mentally healthy human being? Are they inversely proportional, or perhaps directly proportional? Which is to ask, the more we love, should we expect our psychic intimacy with work (or with art) to increase or to decrease—since psychic intimacy surely requires some expenditure of human resources, (not to mention mere time, etc.) This leads to a question of whether our capacity for psychic intimacy is in some way fixed or not—alternatively developing in the mentally more healthy individual as a total capacity, which is strengthened by its (mutually stimulating) fulfillment in any or all of the various basic human activities.

A problem of transience/permanence might also appear at several points. How long, say, does a relationship with another person have to be sustained before we can generally begin to speak of psychic intimacy? What difference of kind is introduced when there is a succession of more or less satisfactory relationships? Or a rapid-fire succession of less satisfactory ones. Or rapid-fire, but, even MORE satisfactory? Related problems are also encountered in different patterns of interest-shift in work. Or in art, how long do we have to keep liking something before it really begins to move us? In themselves these may seem carping or anyway puerile questions; but I also think that the problems are there.

I really must say something about the Fun ethic. I can't help feeling more than a little defensive. The problem may indeed lie in semantics alone, but fun for me is a noble concept--with, however, fewer pretensions than most noble concepts. Maybe it would be worthwhile introducing a concept of "entertainment" here, for example, which for me has always implied something that was not capable of providing an experience moving enough to effect in one way or another a "confirmation of the existence and worth of the self." In itself, this would mean simply that it had failed as art, but the real distinction between bad art and entertainment (which may of course be "good" entertainment) is that the latter doesn't attempt any such function. Entertainment may even be anti-aesthetic in that it seeks to pass time, rather than making any particular time memorable. Hence the pastimes we so unfairly con­found with art; for passing time, like anything else, can be done poorly or well.

I hope you feel no particular need to labor over these notes—and you are certainly wise enough to avoid letting them take any time from what should be a marvelous trip. I will look forward to seeing you when you get back. Best of luck, and congratulations on a fine and provocative piece of work.

Kurt von Meier