A Diagnosis Of Our Time

"...life itself, for the ordinary man...has become less interesting and less significant: it is at best a mild slavery, and at its worst, the slavery is not mild. Why should anyone give to the day's work the efforts and sacrifices it demands? By his very success in inventing labor-saving devices, modern man has manufactured an abyss of boredom that only the privileged classes in earlier civilizations have ever fathomed: the small variations, the minor initiatives and choices, the opportunity for using one's wits, the slightest expression of fantasy, have disappeared progressively from the daily tasks of the common man, caught in big organizations that do his thinking for him. The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that, apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, it is not humanly interesting.

"...our mechanized culture has produced a pervasive sense of frustration. No one can possibly know more than a fragment of all that might be known, see more than a passing glimpse of all that might be seen, do more than a few random, fitful acts, of all that might, with the energies we now command, be done: there is a constant disproportion between our powers and our satisfactions. The typical role of the personality today is an insignificant one: non-commanding, unpurposeful. The walls of the outer shell of our life have thickened, and the creature within has diminished in size in order to accommodate himself to this inimical overgrowth.

"The contents of modern man's daydreams too closely resemble those of Bloom in Ulysses, filled with the dead tags of newspaper editorials, the undigested vomit of advertising slogans, greasy crumbs of irrelevant information, and the choking dust of purposeless activity. The duty to become part of this chaos, to keep up with it, to accept it internally, is the bitter duty of modern man...Unfortunately, the more busy the mental traffic, the emptier becomes the resultant life: therefore the more abjectly dependent the individual atom in this society becomes upon the very stimuli which -- though they have, in fact, caused his emptiness -- divert his attention from his plight."

-- From Lewis Mumford, The Conduct of Life (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951), pp. 14-15.


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