Other People’s Nerve

“Other People's Nerve” (as William Ferry), Enquiry, May 1943.


The January-February and March-April issues of  Partisan Review have featured a discussion of the “New Failure of Nerve.”  It has been interesting, provocative reading, as could have been expected given such substantial contributors as Sidney Hook, John Dewey, have missed Ernest Nagel, Ruth Benedict, and others. Yet it seems to me to the mark somewhat, and in the case of  Sidney Hook’s polemic against the failure of the Left to have committed gross and significant errors.

The trend under criticism is identified with “a rise of ascetism,  of mysticism, in a sense, of pessimism; a loss of self-confidence. of  hope in this life and faith in normal human efforts …”   It signifies a disillusionment with the method of science as a curative for human ills, and a reversion  to principles of social organization and individual attitude that have usually been considered “religious” –  the principles of myth, dogma, and prayer. This movement seems to have had a decided influence in academic circles, and in so far as it has been weakened by the Partisan Review counter-attack all is to the good. The pietistic revival among the professors is too loudly colored with Catholic prejudices and absolutes not to have reactionary political consequences. But the deviation  that is witnessed in the cases of men like Eliseo Vivas and Charles W. Morris is not amenable to such simple denunciation. And it is here that the mark is missed, for Messrs Hook and Nagel seem  to possess their own version of  “original sin,” the locus of which is the willful perversity of intellectuals who recalcitrantly gravitate toward nonscientific philosophies. The facile explanation, that the origin lies in the current disorganization of beliefs and institutions, contains a truth but explains nothing. Why this turning to religion by these people, who have in the past been associated with progressive ideas and movements, at this time?