September 6, 2012

The Education of Henry Adams

The American writer  Henry Adams (1838–1918) evaluated his own education, and wrote an autobiography full of sarcasm and self-critical humor. It was published after his death in 1918, and won the Pulitzer prize in 1919. Here is a quote from “The Education of Henry Adams” (p.460), still applicable today:

“A solitary man of sixty-five years or more, alone in a Gothic cathedral or a Paris apartment, need fret himself little about a few illusions more or less. He should have learned his lesson fifty years earlier, the times had long passed when a student could stop before chaos or order, he had no choice but to march with his world.

Nevertheless, he could not pretend that his mind felt flattered by this scientific outlook. Every fabulist has told how the human mind has always struggled like a frightened bird to escape the chaos which caged it, how —appearing suddenly and inexplicably out of some unknown and unimaginable void, passing half its known life in the mental chaos of sleep; victim even when awake, to its own ill-adjustment, to disease, to age, to external suggestion, to nature’s compulsion; doubting its sensations, and, in the last resort, trusting only to instruments and averages — after sixty or seventy, years of growing astonishment, the mind wakes to find itself looking blankly into the void of death. That it should profess itself pleased by this performance was all that the highest rules of good breeding could ask; but that it should actually be satisfied would prove that it existed only as idiocy.”

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English Literature

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