[This article appeared in the Conservative Review, September/October 1995, pp. 18-27.] 


Do the Constraints of a Free Society Suffocate Freedom?

A Two-Centuries Dilemma Raised (Once Again) by

The Bridges of Madison County  

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University

            Since Rousseau in the early eighteenth century, countless authors have challenged the forms of civilized society, and especially of a "bourgeois" free society, as incompatible with human freedom in the deepest sense. This view that "the conventions within a free society are suffocating" is an outlook that molds many people's lives even today and that has had untold consequences in the history of the past two centuries. It is central to the writings of such authors as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, Van Wyck Brooks, Jack Kerouac, Charles Reich, and Theodore Roszak, to name a few--and even underlay the radical anarchism of Jerry Rubin. It was fundamental to the worldview of the German Youth Movement before and after World War I and of the counterculture of the New Left in the United States. As a recent expression of this perspective, The Bridges of Madison County brings up once again issues that go to the very heart of freedom and of human society.


It is the Puritanic feeling of responsibility which has blighted our art and philosophy and has made us as a people unskilled in the art of enjoying life. 

                       Morris Cohen, "A Slacker's Apology," The New       Republic, December 3, 1919

            The Bridges of Madison County is familiar to Americans as a best-selling book by Robert James Waller which has recently been made into a film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.1 It tells the story of the passionate coming-together, for a timeless and yet ever-so-short four days, of Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer on assignment to photograph the picturesque covered bridges of rural Madison County, Iowa, and Francesca Johnson, a farm wife and mother, who as a young Italian woman had married an American soldier. The story is painted in pastel tones that emphasize the sensitivity and deep yearnings of the two people, who separate after the four days to continue their former lives. Each lives for several years more, carrying inside him and her the bittersweet knowledge of their love, which has given each of their lives an exalted, profoundly richer dimension. Thus, Bridges is a beautifully told love story. Both the book and the movie capture Waller's intended gentleness and poetry.

            It would be possible to end a discussion of it there. This is the level upon which many, perhaps most, who read or see it will accept it. I am speaking sincerely--out of respect for the fine people, including some of my good friends, who will want to hold onto the story as the thing of beauty that it so much seems to be --when I say that those who want to accept it, even to relish it, on that basis should stop reading now, since the discussion beyond this point serves very much as a "deconstruction." Bridges has a broad literary and philosophical meaning, and an analysis of it implies just that--becoming analytical. It also means not always being reverent toward the story; in fact, I am moved to be positively irreverent.

Issues Raised by Bridges

            The issue that is most apparent about the story and that understandably has provoked the most discussion comes from the adultery.

            If Francesca's being married were abstracted out and the story involved two unmarried people, we would see clearly the more generalized issue of "sexual liberation." Would there be in that case any conflict between what was and what ought to have been?

            These aren't the main issues I want to discuss, however, even though they are significant. They are talked about so much that they become cliched. They need to be discussed because they are important, but doing so takes on the aspect of a painful duty, like scolding a dog yet one more time in the final stages of house-breaking. My discussion of them will proceed out of a conviction that they must not be ignored, but all the while I'll be anxious to move on to a level that is probably far from obvious to most readers of Bridges, even though it involves issues that have been stressed in modern literature for at least as long as two and a half centuries.

            These issues will involve value-conflicts of a far broader nature. First, I want to revisit the critique that the dominant literary culture has long made of middle class life, including that on the farm, in a free society; and, most importantly, I want to come to grips with a belief that is deeply held by many people even today and that has been pressed upon us by much of the literature of the past two centuries. This is the belief that life within the conventions necessary to a civilization--even or most especially those necessary to a "free society" (which is spoken of disparagingly as "bourgeois")--is inherently stifling. Holders of this belief are convinced that there is an inescapable conflict between "freedom," in the sense of the deepest human fulfillment, and the manifold responsibilities that even a free society entails. The Bridges of Madison County is part of a long literary tradition that asserts that conflict.

The Adultery

            A novelist is free to pick materials as he wishes, and it is rarely possible to say about fiction that "that couldn't have happened." Waller describes a torrid, even though sensitive and gentle, sexual encounter that occurs while the woman's husband and two children are away at a state fair. He ascribes no destructive effects to it. The most that can be said along these lines is that the husband intimates some vague awareness of it in self-deprecating comments he makes before his death. A perceptive reader will notice a small thing, too: that Francesca made herself unavailable to her husband on the night of his return from the fair. But, otherwise, everyone appears to come away unscathed. There is intense pain, but it comes not from the adultery but from Francesca's decision to stay with her family. Thus, the pain is placed at the doorstep of her responsibilities there.

            Despite Waller's license as a novelist to select his materials as he wishes, we are justified in asking how honest he has been. He chose to make it a story of adultery; he could have made it about a widow who is constrained not to go with her lover because she is committed, say, to stay and take care of her elderly mother. As I will show later, Waller had reasons, cultural and ideological, to center the story on adultery. He clearly went beyond the search for dramatic material which is necessary for any writer who wants a story that will appeal to others. We see that, having chosen the adultery story for more far-reaching reasons, he neatly finesses the problems adultery poses -- or at least he seems to.

            Was there nothing sensitive or deep about Francesca's life with a man she had met as a young soldier, had committed herself to a life of marriage with, had traveled to another country with, had shared a bed with, had joined in years of productive toil with, had mothered two children with, and had experienced daily life as a family with, including its multiple moments of laughter and sorrow, over a span of several years? To say no to this is to deny the reality of those years. Her husband isn't described as a bad man, just an ordinary one. If she derived no meaning from those thousands of days that constituted the heart of her life, she would have to have been pathologically inert, which Waller doesn't describe her as being. The problem, then, is with Waller. He as an author has failed to see the meaning; and he has substituted a caricature of the husband and the children and of life on an Iowa farm, making them near-empty forms. The irony is that he does this while in effect singing a hymn to sensitivity and deeper awareness.

            One of the more delightful essays in any language is William James' "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings." James illustrates how often we fail to see the meaning that other people give to their lives. He could ride in a carriage through a countryside that looked hideous because of its irregularly planted corn amid stumps of cut-off trees, only to find that the settlers who had cut them felt a sense of triumph in having cleared the land in time to plant a crop. James quotes from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson about boys who hid candles under their coats down by the river on a dark London night, being the only persons to know that there was a light underneath, and becoming "pillars of darkness in the dark." Stevenson's point was that there was intimate meaning there even though others knew nothing of it.

            In Bridges, Waller is determined to make us empathetic participants in the intensity of meaning that Francesca and Robert's love had for them. He has no comparable concern about the larger human context, involving other people, in which that takes place. He does not put himself or us inside the husband, or even inside Francesca in what must have been her relation with her husband and children, when more sensitively understood. I can't speak for others, but for me this perceptual one-sidedness does much to destroy the beauty of the story. What are we to make of his message of sensitivity in light of it?

            One reason Waller can finesse the issue of adultery by portraying it as free of destructive effects is that he has failed to infuse anything sacramental or mystical into Francesca's marriage and motherhood. Continuing his odd bifurcation, he makes Francesca's love with Kincaid sacramental and mystical, but not her marriage. Waller fails to impute any lasting meaning to the vows that Francesca and her husband, Richard, no doubt took a few years earlier, when almost certainly she stood in a white dress and spoke with him the words "until death do us part." If Waller had seen fit to, or had had the imagination to, infuse this with meaning, he would have seen that Francesca, with Robert Kincaid's collaboration, breached a sacred trust. And it would have seemed to Waller that that breach, even if it had never come to be even partly sensed by her husband, shattered something priceless. Could there, spiritually and poetically, be any worse injury? We can't deny, after reading the book, that Robert James Waller is genuinely poetic. Why, then, can he not have seen the vital spiritual importance of the sacrament and experience of marriage? He has Francesca write to her children that "it never took away from anything I felt for the two of you or your father." Does he really believe that?

            Like a physician's assistant wiping an operating table clean with antiseptic, Waller has cleansed the story of all the overt damage done by adultery--but we can't let him off the hook for that. Even though the book is written about a love affair between just two people, the point is given a broader spin. In the movie, the children become positively delighted to learn shortly after their mother's death that she had had so wonderful a love. The then-grown children's approval is more muted in the book, but the whole thrust of the story is one of celebration, not disapproval.

            If an act of adultery is to be celebrated, are we to understand that Waller intends that it is just one in a million adulteries--one so finessed, so cut off from overtly damaging consequences--that is to be included in this celebration? Unless we are prepared to think so, we had better bring to mind the consequences of adultery as they more normally occur. Here we confront the destruction of marriages and of families, with all the human wreckage that implies. Marriage and family life are based on trust. Without that trust, there is suspicion, jealousy, anger and despair. Today it is chic to decry "spousal abuse" and "child abuse" as virtually ubiquitous; apparently the poetic romanticism for which Waller speaks has no sense of the context in which such abuse occurs. The consequences flow out in an ever-widening arc. Not only is harm done to the marriages in which adultery occurs and to the people involved in them; the context is established for an undercutting of the simple faith in decency that should inform all family life and marital relations. Waller's message would have us shatter the culture of trust.

            Waller tells us that in Bridges the husband was unromantic and only wanted sex "every couple of months." I have a hard time giving this much weight as a fact to be taken into account in analyzing the book, because it is presented without elaboration as just part of the stereotype of rural Americans that has long appeared in our social-critical literature and that I will discuss later. If it were to be given full weight, it would mean that one of the spouses, in this case the husband, had himself seriously breached the bond of the marriage, and had done so first. The sexual commitment of husband and wife to each other is vastly significant and has to be taken seriously, if for no other reasons than that they are sexual beings and have pledged themselves to "forsake all others." (Of course, the mutual duty involved is only a duty in one of its dimensions; their sexual relation is hopefully, too, a treasure they share.) A material breach here turns it into what lawyers call "a hard case," since the question comes up as to how much the first wrong extenuates, or even excuses totally, the adultery. People will have differing opinions about that, but mine is that it shouldn't be considered by a spouse or by society as justifying infidelity. Why? Because that would mean that every married person, thinking himself seriously aggrieved from one cause or another, could then rationalize adultery on that ground. A second reason is that getting away from an absolute taboo against adultery would make the enforcement of the ethic through social pressures impossible. (Waller, in common with writers of his genre, sees the social enforcement as cultural narrowness and bigotry, but this is a misperception based on their desire to demolish "bourgeois" morality.) It seems to me better to have people hold to the absolute so long as the marriage exists. But again, we should notice that Waller has hardly built up the infrequency of sex as a key element in the story.

            Why should all of these moral considerations concern two solitary people dancing together in the kitchen of an Iowa farmhouse and about to go upstairs to consummate their love? What do consequences in general have to do with the facticity of their moment? I will leave the discussion of that until later, since it has to do with the great separation that has so long and so falsely been said to exist between fulfillment and responsibility.

            What I have said about the adultery does not mean that the subject should be ignored by literature. Adultery is one of the timeless themes of human experience and an apt subject for those discussing that experience. But those who broach it must, as on all subjects, stand ready to be critiqued about whether they treat it honestly and sensitively.

"Sexual Liberation"

            That Bridges presents a hymn to sexual liberation and not just to adultery can be seen from the fact that at no time do Francesca (who's the most sexually driven of the two) and Robert (a male who is quite ready to accept each gift as it is bestowed) feel moral hesitation about the sexuality per se between them. Such qualms as they feel relate to Francesca's decision to stay on the farm to meet her family responsibilities. Beyond that, there is no hint of conflict.            

            This issue is a more difficult one to address today. At one time the commonly held moral code in the United States caused each person to feel an indwelling sense of guilt (a matter of "conscience") about sex outside of marriage. Certainly this was, as Shakespeare said in another time, "much observed in the breach"; but, as hard as it is for many Americans to understand today, this conscience was for millions a reality. It formed a powerful part of what they understood by a moral life and by decency. (We can thank our lucky stars that a good many Americans still hold to it.)

            The New Left anarchist Jerry Rubin denounced this bitterly when he said that he had been raised in such a way that "I have your [his mother's] self-righteous right-wrong should-should not programming...with that stupid JUDGE inside me that I got from you." He declared war on this moral sense, even going so far as to commit the obscenity of celebrating his mother's death from cancer.2 

            The attack upon this morality has been ideological, but it has also come from many people's belief that "morality about sex is something that religion preaches." Since for one reason or another they don't feel themselves bound by religious imperatives, they perceive no reason for sexual morality.

            I discussed this in my recent Conservative Review article about homosexuality. Here, it is enough to say, in capsule form, that there are imperative secular reasons, founded in human well-being, for sexual morality. These are (a) that monogamous marriage serves vitally important functions in civilized life, and especially in a free society; and (b) that a sacramental sense that human sexuality should be expressed only within marriage is in turn a necessary underpinning of monogamous marriage.

            Those who are attracted to "sexual liberation," if they see themselves as conscientious people as no doubt most do, should reflect about the fact that it is precisely not the philosophers of a free society--those who have given the most serious attention to what it takes to have a life based on freedom--who champion it. Ayn Rand, who certainly can be counted among those philosophers, is an exception, since she ran counter to most of the thinking underlying a free society on the point of sexual morality. She held to what I call "an individuated morality" in which each person decides moral issues. She placed no value on social conventions and an acculturated moral sense. In this, I think she was very wrong, for reasons which I will give in my discussion later in this article of the role of a socially enforced moral code.           

            Today, most Americans will sense an immediate criticism of what I have said. They consider it extremely unrealistic to embrace an ethic that bars sex between unmarried people. They also feel that a strict moral prohibition would reflect a loss of proper proportion, since it would call upon people to sacrifice an important human value simply for morality's sake. Since many of us who see the value of a moral code relating to sex will agree with these criticisms, how are we to reconcile what appear to be opposites? The answer is that it does seem possible, and therefore within the realm of the realistic, to inculcate such a moral restriction into the young, at least in mainstream middle class society; where it becomes unrealistic is with people in their sexual maturity. Here, we come upon something that is seldom thought of today: the value to a moral system of "observing the proprieties." It isn't nearly so necessary that mature unmarried adults not have sex together (unless they make it a convenient substitute for marriage) as it is that they keep it private. As odd as it seems, certain expressions of what many would denounce as "hypocrisy," by scrupulously observing the outer forms of morality, actually play a valid role within the moral order itself. Because of that, the word "hypocrisy" doesn't appropriately apply.

            The many thousands of couples who are "living together" today without being married are good people, cut of the same cloth as their contemporaries. But their cohabitation is a product of the breaking down of past acculturation. They have developed little understanding of or appreciation for the value of observing the proprieties of monogamous marriage. Not only do they not feel the shame that used to accompany sex out of wedlock; they don't see or care about how much they are undermining the existence of the moral code that sustains marriage and family. In the truest sense, they are "consuming the moral capital of the past," since marriage continues as a major underpinning of our society (and even of their own lives, since most eventually marry) in spite of their actions that would undermine it. I don't hold to a deterministic view about people, and so I won't say that they are not responsible for what they are doing; but I will say that the fault is one that is shared broadly, not exclusively by the couples themselves.

The Literary Critique of Ordinary Life

            In the next section, we will notice the extent to which Waller expresses ideas that come from the countercultural critique that the Left has made over the past two centuries. First, though, we should review what that critique has been. (The review will necessarily be brief. I have gone into considerably more detail in the writings indicated in the footnote.)3

            To the culturally alienated intellectual since the early nineteenth century, it has seemed that virtually everyone in a middle class, commercial society (other than the intellectual himself) is hopelessly shallow and immersed in trivia. Although this complaint has been voiced tens of thousands of times during the past two centuries, it is almost certainly a reflection of the objection raised by intellectuals (referring to those who spend their lives dealing in words, symbols and abstract ideas) in virtually any human setting. The Roman historian Tacitus voiced it almost two thousand years ago when he complained about the "utter poverty of thought" around him. He lamented that "a liking for actors and a passion for gladiators and horses, are all but conceived in the mother's womb. When these occupy and possess the mind, how little room has it left for worthy attainments!"4 The eighteenth century English satirist Jonathan Swift wrote a biting commentary on human beings in his story about Gulliver's visit to the land of the Yahoos.

            While this may be the intellectuals' reaction in many times and places, it has most emphatically been their reaction during the burgeoning of average humanity into cultural predominance (as compared to earlier eras presided over by elites) during the past two centuries. A "bourgeois" (middle class) society is by its nature one that provides a framework for a vast corpus of life by "average" humanity. Such a society--as a "free society"--welcomes the autonomy of the individual, and makes family and voluntary associations the cornerstones of life within it. If people become preoccupied with business in such a voluntaristic setting, the intelligentsia don't like it; but neither do the intelligentsia like the life of average people anywhere else, such as in a rural setting!

            Not long after the American Revolution, Henry David Thoreau looked out upon Massachusetts life and wrote that "most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them." He asked, "What does our Concord culture amount to? There is in this town, with a very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books even in English literature... Our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins."5

            In An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser spoke of "that vast company of individuals who are born, pass through and die out of the world without every quite getting any one thing straight...A single, serious, intelligent or rightly informing book had never been read by any member of the family--not one. But they were nevertheless excellent, as conventions, morals and religions go...."6

            American literary figures repeated this critique many times during the years before and after World War I. In his The Discontent of the Intellectuals: A Problem of the Twenties, Henry May tells of three levels of cultural alienation in the 1920s: against the business culture; against "the small town and the village, the already defeated America of their own youth;" and against the values of the society as a whole. In Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis described his central character, the real estate broker George Babbitt, as a gregarious fool. George Bernard Show in England had a virtually identical character in his play Candida. Of urban life, May says, "it was precisely this prosperous society that they found dull and depressing. Its values were false; it produced incomplete human beings; it suppressed dissent; above all it thwarted artistic self-expression." Ezra Pound wrote about an Irish playwright that he was "despised by a...rabble of 'respectable' people more stupid and sodden than is to be found even in America."7

            Even though The Bridges of Madison County is placed in a rural setting, it makes all these same criticisms. About rural life itself, it is worth noting that seventy years ago H. L. Mencken wrote of "rustic ignoramuses" and spoke of a character as "only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things."8

            The critique continued in an unbroken line into the 1950-1970s writings of the New Left. Jack Kerouac, whose book idealizing the life of a drifter became a bible of the counterculture, spoke of the "absolute madness" of "millions hustling forever for a buck."9 The recent film Mr. and Mrs. Bridges repeats the cliche about George Babbitt, assigning pedestrian qualities to an allegedly stuff-shirted, stiff-backed lawyer who made an unfeeling husband. Examples are legion in books and movies.

            Has this contempt for the life of the average American been justified? Partly--but only partly. In England, John Stuart Mill, who was raised by his father James Mill to be well disposed toward a free society, became disgusted by "shopkeepers who speak only of shop." Seen from the point of view of someone who is vitally interested in ideas beyond the mundane, there is a significant sterility in much human life, and especially in the contacts that people have with each other, since the contacts often mask what is most meaningful to each person, resulting in a maddeningly trivial "extroverted outer flow."

            But, too, the sense of triviality is fed by the "blindness" to meaning that I spoke of earlier; the intellectual, though seeking meaning, fails to see the meaning that is there even when it burns intensely within the people whom he is far too superficially and contemptuously observing. And, too, the contempt is fed by an unbecoming elitism in which the "intellectual" credits only what he likes as valuable. How many "artists" funded recently by the National Endowment of the Arts, say, take time to see any value in the work of the countless unfunded artists around the country--out in Taos, say--, or in local exhibitions of "crafts," of "whittling," of "bluegrass music," or the like? Snobbery plays a major part.

            So do the "class interests" of the intelligentsia as a group. A more complete study of the subject shows that these interests have been pivotal to modern ideology and politics. It is here that we confront what is actually quite a vicious feature of Waller's book. From the point of view of the alienated intelligentsia, there is considerable pleasure to be had from a story that has an intellectual "screwing the wife of a prototypical American mediocrity." Are we straining to read that into it? Not if we take into account the intensity of the intellectual subculture's two-century hatred for the acting man within our society, and are aware of how much Waller shares the outlook of that intelligentsia.

How Does Bridges Exemplify This Critique?

            It may surprise many people who have enjoyed Bridges to know how fully Waller is a part of the countercultural literary tradition.

            Waller shows a clear awareness of the separation between the individual's inner life and the extroverted outer flow. "They were good friends, though they would never understand what lay inside her," he says early on. Near the end, he has Francesca, in the letter she left for her children, say "if you are to know who your mother was...," premised on their not having known the real her during the years they spent together.

            He speaks of "the trivia of small-town life she had silently rebelled against through the years," and a few pages later he says that "People in Madison County didn't talk this way, about these things. The talk was about weather and farm prices and new babies and funerals and government programs and athletic teams. Not about art and dreams." Francesca lived "a life of circumscribed behavior and hidden feelings demanded by a rural culture."

            Iowa farmers, he has Francesca say, "are nice, in certain ways. We all help each other out. If someone gets sick or hurt, the neighbors pitch in and pick corn or harvest oats or do whatever needs to be done. In town, you can leave your car unlocked and let your children run without worrying about them...But...it's not what I dreamed about as a girl." The men like "gravy and potatoes and red meat, three times a day for some of them," not the more refined "fruit and nuts and vegetables" that Robert Kincaid prefers. Hence, they are pot-bellied from "too much gravy over biscuits." (Waller assigns no poetry to biscuits and gravy.)

            Mentally, they are narrow-minded and pinched. Amusingly, Waller cites as evidence of this that Richard Johnson, the husband, shook his head "in disbelief" over the long hair of the Beetles! Gossip is the main medium among people: "He'd learned never to underestimate the telecommunicative flash of trivial news in small towns."

            Sexually, they are repressed. "Richard was afraid of change, any kind of change, in their marriage. Didn't want to talk about it in general. Didn't want to talk about sex in particular...But he wasn't alone and really wasn't to blame. What was the barrier to freedom that had been erected out here? Not just on their farm, but in the rural culture. Maybe urban culture, for that matter. Why the walls and the fences preventing open, natural relationships between men and women? Why the lack of intimacy, the absence of eroticism?" Francesca's husband, as the book's primary representative of this culture, was sexually minimal: "Richard was interested in sex only occasionally, every couple of months, but it was over fast, rudimentary and unmoving." His technique is described as a "hammering sameness."

            All of this is straight out of the literary genre from which I have quoted. Those who read Bridges as a stand-alone book, without seeing it as representative of that genre, will have missed the central meaning. Bridges is first and foremost a book of social commentary--and of very cliched social commentary at that.

            This is underscored when we recognize the extent to which Waller has woven into his story the ideas of major thinkers of the Left:

            Although Roszak is never mentioned, Waller is clearly influenced by Theodore Roszak's New Left tome Where the Wasteland Ends. Roszak attacked science and the industrial age based on it, wanting the world to reaffirm the mysticism of early-nineteenth century German romanticism. He spoke glowingly of "myth and occult tradition," of "a magical worldview," and of "visionaries, shamanlike geniuses" (my emphasis).

            This worldview infuses Bridges, often in fragments that are too ephemeral to quote. Waller speaks of "the way [Kincaid] approached his life. 'Analysis destroys wholes. Some things, magic things, are meant to stay whole...." Kincaid "seemed shamanlike." "Robert believed the world had become too rational, had stopped trusting in magic as much as it should."

            Jack Kerouac wrote that "I wanted to go and get Rita again...and really make love to her this time...I heard the Denver and Rio Grande locomotive howling off to the mountains. I wanted to pursue my star future."10 Compare what Waller says about Kincaid: "He bought a motorcycle in San Francisco, ran it south to Big Sur, made love on a beach with a cellist from Carmel, and turned north to explore Washington."

            In his essay A Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was perhaps the first modern thinker to stand outside civilized culture, negatively critiquing all aspects of it. He argued that man was noble and free in a state of nature, and had placed himself in chains by entering into civilized society. Rousseau's message shines through Waller's passage that speaks of "the old ways struggling against all that is learned, struggling against the propriety drummed in by centuries of culture, the hard rules of civilized man."

            Not just Rousseau and Roszak and Kerouac, but also Charles Reich's The Greening of America (1970) stands out when Waller has Kincaid say that "the world is getting organized, way too organized for me and some others...Rules and regulations and laws and social conventions. Hierarchies of authority, spans of control, long-range plans, and budgets. Corporate power...."

            In 1964, Marshall McLuhan made a sensation on American campuses by arguing that people in modern society had subjected themselves to "linear" ways of thinking and of organization, becoming rational and orderly instead of intuitive and free. Not surprisingly, Waller echoes this: "Robert Kincaid discarded all sense of anything linear and moved to a part of himself that dealt only with shape and sound and shadow." And again: "Euclid was not always right. He assumed parallelness, in constancy, right to the end of things; but a non-Euclidean way of being is also possible."

            There are shades of Chernyshevsky, one of the leading "nihilist" thinkers of late nineteenth century Russia, who had a highly developed theory of libertarian relations between men and women, when Francesca tells Robert "I love you so much that I cannot think of restraining you for a moment."

            We shouldn't be surprised that Waller echoes the main themes of the contemporary liberal-Left. One of these is the type of environmentalism that is profoundly anti-industrial: "Farmers also dominated the land with chemicals and bulldozers. But Robert Kincaid's way of changing nature was elastic and always left things in their original form when he finished." Kincaid tells Francesca that "Rachel Carson was right," and speaks of "the power to destroy nature the way we're doing."

            What comes through most stridently, as we might expect from an author so thoroughly immersed in all that is chic, is the feminist caricature of men.

            I have already quoted the passage in which Francesca's husband is described as only interested in sex "every couple of months," and then only as something that is "fast, rudimentary and unmoving." This is in line with the current fashion, evident in many of the commercials on television, of portraying a man as a clumsy (if unbelievably loveable) idiot, while the woman he is with is always snappy and bright. I thought of taking some time to read the current research in sexology to see what it has to say about how often if is, in fact, that the man in a marriage doesn't like sex, while the wife does. But I doubted that I could have confidence that the findings, even there, would be non-ideological. My "intuitive" sense (to follow the method Waller himself recommends) is that there are a lot more women who turn off the sex in a marriage than there are men. You would never know it from the truisms trumpeted by the prevailing feminist atmosphere.

            Bridges talks about how "the locker rooms and stag parties and pool halls and segregated gatherings of their [men's] lives defined a certain set of male characteristics in which poetry, or anything of subtlety, had no place." Elsewhere: "My contention is that male hormones are the ultimate cause of trouble on this planet."

            All of this is quite tiresome. Where is the originality in it? The sensitivity? The insight? It is a rehash of half-truths that have been repeated ad nauseam for generations.

Which Leads Us to a Crucial Issue for Civilized Society: Is Life Within the Conventions of a Free Society Suffocating?

            At the beginning of this article I set out a quote from Morris Cohen, writing in The New Republic in 1919 as "Philonous." The article was titled "A Slacker's Apology." The word "slacker" is curiously the same as the word that is applied today to those members of "Generation X" who, like the counterculturalists of the generation before them or like the denizens of the 1920s' Greenwich Village, have chosen to "opt out" of conventional life.

            "It is the Puritanic feeling of responsibility which has blighted our art and philosophy and has made us as a people unskilled in the art of enjoying life," Cohen wrote. He could just as well have been at Waller's elbow as Waller wrote The Bridges of Madison County.

            We instantly recognize this as part of the cultural critique I have discussed. It is necessary to realize, too, however, that that outlook is not primarily focused on criticism of a particular culture. The view of "responsibility" as incompatible with "enjoying life" speaks to the conventions and acculturations of civilization generally. It voices an anarchist's individualism; it seeks freedom and fulfillment without the fetters and commitments that come from a generalized system of society.

            This has been put forward by thinkers for thousands of years. The ancient ascetics sought the meaning of life in withdrawal from the things of this world; and so, too, did those who lived a monastic life, with vows of poverty and celibacy, in the Middle Ages. Early in the modern age, Rousseau, as we have seen, blamed civilization for the loss of man's pristine natural state. When Thoreau went off to live by himself near Walden Pond, he was partly withdrawing from the specifics of "Concord culture," but was mainly withdrawing from the encumbrances of life among his fellows.

            As odd as it may seem, this anarchic individualism has been an important contributor to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. The American New Left, full of hatred for "bourgeois" society and anxious to embrace Mao and Che, was one of these. In Germany in the late nineteenth century, a youth movement known as the Wandervogel arose -- and, interestingly enough, expressed its anti-middle class hatred mainly by backpacking and guitar playing! Unlike the New Left of the 1960s, which was thoroughly committed to the Left, its members scattered their ideological allegiances among a variety of anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois points of view. They went into World War I full of joy that there was at last something exciting occurring; and after the war they marched around with flags in quasi-military form.11 Hitler's National Socialism and Mussolini's black shirts were, at first, predominantly youth movements. In the early 1930s, Hitler melded the youth movement into his Hitler Youth.

            The Generation X "slackers" of the mid-1990s will not recognize themselves in this--and to a significant extent, rightly so. While they yearn for a life free of middle class constraints and expectations, they have not, so far as I know them, developed a strong ideological connection with the literature and movements that are distinctly at war with the middle class. Right now, they are vaguely libertarian and non-ideological. They are very dear young people, and more than anything should be warned that they are only a short step away from something that is very serious and damaging.

            In what follows, though, I am not primarily interested in the outlook's theoretical or even historical expression. What I would have us appreciate and to confront is what this outlook means to the individuals to whom it seems so natural. Unless we come to grips with it with full understanding of its personal aspects, we will be talking on a different plane than they do.

            Not long ago, one young man of 25 met with an insurance agent who was also not much older than 25. The first told how he worked intermittently at jobs as a waiter or bartender (although on occasion working quite hard) and shared an apartment with friends, making possible time to go off frequently to distant cities to attend "Grateful Dead" concerts or to backpack along the Colorado Trail between Denver and Durango. The young fellow who, in coat and tie, was selling insurance heard this with genuine pain on his face. "Oh, what I would give to live like that," he said; and he meant it.

            Society would generally greet this with a different attitude. For a man of 25 to give himself over to an unencumbered enjoyment of simple pleasures, of youth, of nature, and of time unspoken for is not something that a "culture of responsibility" (a variation on my earlier term "culture of trust") encourages. With some exceptions, such as his work on the guitar, he has prepared himself for little, has cultivated an ability at little, has committed himself to nothing, and (unless he "snaps out of it," as everyone expects he will) will move into middle age with little foundation for serving family or community, for being productive, or even for being a contributing citizen. What organized society much prefers is that young people work hard, studying and preparing in the knowledge that the world will soon be theirs and they had better be ready.

            But the young man knows, with a conviction that can't be shaken by any sort of preaching, that to change his life to match what society expects will be to "give up his freedom" and to take on a vast assortment of shackles. It means, too, to subject himself to a lot of people he despises.

            Can we say that he is wrong? Not if we are honest. There are fetters of all sorts to a life of work and commitment. Such a life means getting up in the morning--and it gets worse from there. Marriage as a particularly apposite example in the context of Bridges. Imagine committing yourself sexually and in ten thousand other intimate ways to one other person for life! Among other things, it runs counter to the desire, mentioned by Edmund Kahn in the Yale Law Review several years ago, that "every man has to possess every woman."

            But once we've admitted this, where do we go from there? Is that all there is to it? The young man evidently thinks so. What is obvious to most of us is not obvious to him: that the conventions and forms attendant upon productive life in a free society serve both societal and personal needs.

            Could a society sustain itself as a civilization (and, if it is a "free society," as a center of freedom) if everyone believed and acted as the young man does? Those conversant with moral philosophy will recognize that this question is based on the point Immanuel Kant made with his "categorical imperative," which calls upon people to act in such a way that their behavior can be generalized into a principle for everybody. The question points up the fact that, even though he thinks he's purely on his own, the young man's life is essentially parasitical. How do I mean this? I mean that if everyone lived as he did, there would be no medicine, no science, no architecture, only the most rudimentary art, a lifespan both "brutish and short," no sanitation--and so on through the countless attributes of advanced civilization. If all lived as he did, the whole world would be a Lagos, Nigeria, except that there would be vastly fewer people alive (and he'd only coincidentally be one of them) because the very existence of five billion people in the world presupposes, and radically depends upon, advanced civilization.

            This is so important that it cannot, in fact, be left to the individual. The norms of morality and of responsibility are in most societies inculcated into the young from birth, and the expectations are socially enforced by precisely the sort of pressures among people that Waller dislikes so intensely among Iowans. It seems paradoxical to the extreme libertarian, but a free society depends upon this social enforcement as much, if not more so, than any other society. Why? Because it hopes the great flow of life can be so ordered that the compulsion of law and the state, with all its accompanying apparatus, won't be necessary. "Freedom" to it is freedom from that apparatus of compulsion; it is not an existential freedom "to do your own thing."

            The difficulty is that none of this means anything to someone who does not see himself as part of the whole. Earlier, I posed the question of why Francesca and Robert should care about the effects of adultery on marriage in general when they are caught up in the facticity of their moment together. It's a question to which there is no convincing answer unless the people involved are conditioned by upbringing, education, acculturation, or some special insight to look beyond themselves. In The Unheavenly City, the sociologist Edward Banfield identified in the chronically poor a foreshortening of the sense of time; they think, he said, only about today and hardly at all about next month or next year. We could equally extend this concept to a lack of "breadth perception." There is a whole world out there that they hardly realize exists.

            A society can only afford to have some of its members live this way if there is an elite that can be counted on to run things and thereby make it possible for some to live without responsibilities. But that is inconsistent with a free society. There is no elite that I know of that I have confidence in to take the place of a people caring for themselves. No one should be better prepared to appreciate this fact than those who hold to the outlook I've been discussing.

            Instead of emphasizing society, we might try to persuade the young man that his own fulfillment, speaking just of him personally, will be richer if he takes on the fetters of work and commitment. In the same vein, perhaps we could try to convince Waller that fidelity, not adultery, stands in the service of human sexuality as best conceived. The problem is that we clearly can't persuade them of this if only a short-term view is taken. It is incontestable that in the short run Francesca's leading Robert upstairs to bed, or the young man's taking off on the hike to Durango, is more electrifying. The deep fulfillment that comes from work and accomplishment and commitment and fidelity takes time and effort. Again, the issue is partly a matter of time perspective. It is also one of imagination: can he feel, in the absence of its being apparent to him already, the joy and richness that a life based on such values can bring?

            At this juncture, it would be appropriate to launch into a paean of praise for the unseen satisfactions that artists, physicians, lawyers, engineers, electricians, plumbers, home builders, nurses' aides, and countless others obtain, day in and day out, year in and year out, from their work. The problem is how to do so convincingly. Let's try: Let's imagine a young journalist. It's a thrill for him to land a job at the local paper; there's a special significance for him when his first words appear in print; after a few months' work he's thrilled again when his name appears as a byline on a back page; then later there's deep satisfaction when his name appears above a story on the front page. But these are just the excitements of the beginner, and they may seem small. What needs to be appreciated is that long after the initial thrill of the first byline is gone, he continues to love the process he is engaged in and that drew him into journalism in the first place.

            But what of all the failure and disillusionment? Are we to believe that journalists continue to love and draw deep satisfaction from their work? The very question reveals the depths of cynicism that eat at our souls today. The truth is that for many journalists (and others working at other trades and professions) the work does provide that on-going richness of experience, despite days on which they'd gladly throw it all in. Most often, this is unheralded. There have been many times during my years as a professor that I have felt exalted by arriving at an idea or by completing a chapter--and this has been totally unknown to my family around me. William James' "blindness" obscures it to others.

           The point will flounder as essentially dishonest, though, if we don't reveal right away that we are fully aware that life among people, which is where most productive work has to be done, is often mediocre, vicious and petty. Those who yearn for something higher are often tempted, as they have been throughout history, to withdraw.

            The answer is that life clearly poses a challenge to those who want to experience high fulfillment and at the same time meet their responsibilities to civilized society. It depends primarily on the individual. "It is in ourselves, and not in our stars, that we are underlings," Cassius told Brutus. The deepest human fulfillments come not from inertia and passing commitments, but from a person's own efforts. The point of the final part of this discussion is that the results of that building are, in the long run, vastly richer than those that are attained without such effort.

            How does one do it? One needs to "suffer fools kindly" and to accept the many compartments of life, deriving value from each human contact on its own terms, and in the midst of it all to carry on ones own work, forever building. In Bridges, Francesca was caught in a life that didn't match her dreams; if she had had the imagination and energy, there were innumerable things she could have done either to improve that life directly or to develop highly rewarding sublimations. We live in an age of whiners, and Waller has done Francesca's whining for her. Her husband was only in small part the source of her emptiness; far more, the source lay within her.

            Much of the blame for several generations of young people's failure to see these things, and for their becoming whiners, must be placed squarely on the shoulders of the alienated intellectual subculture, which has let its rivalry with and hatred toward the middle class cause it to deny, in a vast literature, the very values that true intellectuality would otherwise cause it to embrace (which are the values of committed work). There has been a loss of acculturated values, for which we can largely thank Robert James Waller and his many forebears.


Dwight D. Murphey is, like Waller, a faculty member in a college of business (at Wichita State University rather than the University of Northern Iowa). He is, in addition, an associate editor of the Conservative Review. 

1. Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1992).

2. Jerry Rubin, Growing (Up) at 37 (New York: Warner Books, 1976), pp. 140-2.

3. For my analysis of the alienated cultural critique, see especially Chapters 9-12, inclusive, of my Understanding the Modern Predicament (Washington: University Press of America, 1982), and Chapter 7 of my Liberalism in Contemporary America (McLean, VA: Council for Social and Economic Studies, 1992).

4. Tacitus, The Complete Works of Tacitus (New York: Modern Library, 1942), p. 761.

5. Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Essay on Civil Disobedience (New York: Airmont Publishing Company, Inc., 1965).

6. Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy (New York: The Heritage Press, 1962), p. 166.

7. Henry May, The Discontent of the Intellectuals: A Problem of the Twenties (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1963), pp. 24, 30, 11.

8. May, Discontent, p. 27.

9. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: The Viking Press, 1955), p. 106.

10. Kerouac, On the Road, p. 57.

11. For the history of the Wandervogel, see especially Walter Z. Laqueur, Young Germany (New York: Basic Books Publishing Co., Inc., 1962) and Howard Becker, German Youth: Bond or Free (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946).