Nor does one really know what to do with life as such. Instead of filling it with inwardness, one consumes it through constantly being in motion, continually going from one thing to another and splitting time into small fragments. This makes for an atmosphere of restlessness which finds expression in the phrases: ”Let’s get going!” or ”Let’s go somewhere!” There are, of course, exceptions to be found here as well. In certain circles of earnestly seeking people, I have experienced discussions which sometimes lasted hour after hour, and that was in large gatherings which were of such depth and intense interest as can seldom be found in Europe.
The American in general attempts to banish death, as well as the process of growing older, from his thoughts entirely, by a sort of repression. He feels young and wants to stay young. The man with gray hair clothes himself youthfully and with care, and greets his friends with the words: ”Hello, boys.” Unmarried women, however old they may be, remain ‘girls’. And although cosmetics are now widely used in. Europe, America takes the lead by far. Beauty parlors are numerous, but even more numerous are the many miniature beauty parlor installations with all their paraphernalia which the American housewife has put into her bathroom.
Whereas death is inevitable, one does one’s best to ignore its presence as much as possible. The make-up often applied to the dead is a last convulsive attempt to carry the fresh, rosy picture of the living over the threshold of death. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh is a blatant caricature of this attitude, but it can scarcely be called a caricature when one compares it with the California original which served as its inspiration. Forest Lawn, the burial-place of film stars and the well-to-do located on the outskirts of Los Angeles, is organized in such a manner that one can hardly believe that one is standing in a cemetery. Extensive lawns have been laid out over the gentle slopes of the area, while small metal plates, scarcely perceptible in the grass, mark the spot of the grave underneath. The luxuriant vegetation and the many fragrant tropical flowers make the place intoxicatingly beautiful. Here and there, one finds copies of old English churches, surrounded by intimate little gardens, for those who may wish to meditate in silence. Large marble sculptures have been placed throughout the landscape, the largest of which depicts the ‘eternal source of life’ to which ‘the loved one’ has returned. Wide, smooth roads criss-cross this enormous park. Now and then, one sees a sign at the side of the road: ”maximum speed 15 miles per hour, sacred grounds!”
California is, of course, the breeding place par excellence of such extremes, although one finds a tendency in this direction wherever one goes in the United States. As has been previously noted, one can never generalize in discussing the character of a people, but instead must attempt to find and describe the qualities which are more or less typically characteristic for the people as a whole. Further, one must keep the existence of a certain law in mind which also retains its validity for the psychology of the individual, namely, the fact that every existent quality of the soul also possesses a counter-image. In designating the character of a people, one is constantly able to point out ‘the other side of the coin’. The previously mentioned magnanimity is without a doubt a typical positive characteristic of the average American. Its negative counterpart is the pettiness, the narrow-mindedness, the hide-bound mentality of the bourgeoisie of small towns and villages, where people are pretty much thrown upon each other’s company. One of the unforgettable experiences of one of my stays in America is a train trip which I took with a young neurologist and his wife, who regaled me for hours with witty tales of life in their town, describing almost incredible examples of the narrow-mindedness of the bourgeois class.
Even the liberal mentality, which makes room for every conviction imaginable and any trend or creed conceivable, no matter how strange, has its counterpart in the extremely severe, rejective, puritanical religiosity which one finds among certain segments of the population.
Thus one finds, in contrast with the courage, the pioneering spirit and the spirit of enterprise, symptoms of fear and uneasiness which are beginning to play an ever greater part in American society.
We began by characterizing the effect which the environment has had upon the people of this country, mentioning in particular the influence of the earth itself and the sub-earthly forces connected with it. We then attempted to describe certain psychological qualities belonging to this people. The question of the spiritual factors which have presented themselves in the course of the history of the country still remains to be considered.
Can one speak in terms of a genius of the American people? Can one find definite motives, definite ideological mainsprings, which have had a formative, or better yet, a decisive effect upon this people? The answer is definitely ”yes.”
”It is the peculiar destiny of America to be the one great nation founded wholly upon ideas,” writes Dorothy Thompson11 and practically every American will be inclined to agree with her heartily. Here, one finds the big difference between this and other peoples, such as the English, the Germans and many others—with the exception of the Swiss—all of which, in the course of the centuries, have crystallized out of certain racial, tribal and family ties. America came into existence because people from all of those other countries broke away from their former national ties in order to build up a new society in a new world. Theoretically, this can be described by the inherent life-impulse belonging to the American. One must, of course, keep in mind that the American people is still in the process of development. All in all, it is only about five generations old. The feeling of ‘being an American’ referred to here is not to be found to the same degree among all generations, but certainly by the third generation, and sometimes already by the second.
I once had a talk with an American woman in New York who belonged to one of the old American families, the name of which is known to every European. She had traveled widely throughout Europe, spoke a number of languages almost without accent, and had received her doctor’s degree in Europe. We conversed for hours in a most lively manner about philosophy, psychology and anthroposophy. The gist of her parting words to me was as follows:
”It is a great joy to be able to talk with a European about all these matters. I can’t do that in my own circles.” When I had nodded a comprehending ”yes,” she proceeded, ”But I don’t think that I feel closer to the European mentality than to the American one. On the contrary, when I meet the building superintendent and say ‘Hello’ to him, and really don’t have much more to say to him than just that, I still feel closer to him than to the most cultured European; after all, he is rooted in America in the same way that I am.” And then she used almost the same words which have been quoted above: ”America is the only great nation founded upon ideas.”
The European has the tendency to call this a chauvinistic attitude, but in reality it is something quite different. It is the expression of a feeling that is difficult to describe because it is still so young and unshaped, but which is something both sacred and unassailable to the American because he experiences something of his innermost self in it.
America and Americanism