Betterment and the brothers, William and Henry James

–In the first decade of the 20th century, sculptor Hendrik Anderson and architect Ernest Hébrard conceived of a World City unprecedented in scale and purpose. They promised a far better way to solve what was wrong with humankind and their designs and plans were eventually published as Creation of a World Centre of Communication. In the final stages of preparing the volume, Anderson wrote his friend, novelist Henry James, seeking the latter’s help in reviewing and improving the work. James was appalled by the enormity of the project:

. . .[W]hen you write me that you are now lavishing time and money on a colossal ready-made City, I simply cover my head with my mantle and turn my face to the wall, and there, dearest Hendrik, just bitterly weep for you. . .I have practically said these things to you before—though perhaps never in so dreadfully straight and sore a form as today, when this culmination of your madness, to the tune of five hundred millions of tons of weight, simply squeezes it out of me. For that, dearest boy, is the dread Delusion to warn you against—what is called in Medical Science Megalomania (look it up in the dictionary). . .What I am trying to say to you, gentle and dearest Hendrik. . .[is] that you are extemporizing a World-City from top to toe, and employing forty architects to see you through with it. . .Cities are living organisms, that grow from within and by experience and piece by piece. . .and to attempt to plant one down. . .is to—well it’s to go forth into the deadly Desert and talk to the winds.

The language may not be yours, but the point remains all ours: Cities work only beyond design. More, they work because of their complexity. Betterment, if you will, works where blueprints for progress and economic growth don’t.

Henry James also provides what may be the first glimpse of the importance Americans were to give to “high reliability” as the apogee of what can be achieved beyond design. He writes in the third person about his experience at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria early in the 20th century,

The amazing hotel-world quickly closes around him; with the process of transition reduced to its minimum he is transported to conditions of extraordinary complexity and brilliancy, operating—and with the proportionate perfection—by laws of their own and expressing after their fashion a complete scheme of life….a synonym for civilization. . .[O]ne is verily tempted to ask if the hotel-spirit may not just be the American spirit most seeking and finding itself.

–His brother, William James, American psychologist and philosopher, had a different take on what made him better off, but resonating with his brother’s letter to Anderson. For William James, “hotel-spirit” went too far:

A few summers ago I spent a happy week at the famous Assembly Grounds on the borders of Chautauqua Lake…Here you have a town of many thousands of inhabitants, beautifully laid out in the forest and drained, and equipped with means of satisfying all the necessary lower and most of the superfluous higher wants of man. . .You have, in short, a foretaste of what human society might be, were it all in the light, with no suffering and dark corners….And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: “Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage. . .to set the balance straight again.”

I’d like to think that somewhere just ahead of William James’s “set the balance straight” and just before Henry James’s hotel-spirit of “extraordinary complexity and brilliancy” is where you find betterment as good enough.

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