[This review was published in the April 1973 issue of New Guard, the national publication of Young Americans for Freedom.] 


Book Review


Where the Wasteland Ends

Theodore Roszak

Doubleday & Company, 1972


Reviewed by Dwight D. Murphey


            The nihilism that swept American universities in the late sixties represented more than opposition to the Vietnam War.  With the war simply as a catalyst, the nihilism manifested the continuing hostility against bourgeois culture that has so overwhelmingly characterized the intellectual temper of the past century.

            But during those distraught years there was the additional question of whether the nihilism was to repudiate also the epistemology of modern rationality, science and technology.

            There were hints of this.  The Environmental Handbook [published for the first Earth Day in April 1970] spoke not merely of the “worms of capitalism,” but praised “romantic emotion” and urged a repudiation of the view that man should master nature.

            Since then, the fads of contemporary dissidence have brought the counter-culture emphatically into the occult.  “Yoga, Zen, Subdue, Sufism… a return to the Middle Ages” has caught the fancy of many of the alienated.

            It is within this context that Theodore Roszak has written Where the Wasteland Ends.  He urges a new prophetical, somehow ritualistic but not priestly, religion stressing a magical worldview, pagan animism, visionary consciousness and a “sacramental view of nature.”  Repeatedly he praises an “Old Gross” and “the mystical contingent… of oracles, seers, yogis, medicine men and shamans.”  Conversely, he deprecates science today as a harsh secularization that has led to a despairing, ugly humanity.  He speaks of scientific “single vision” that is unable to see the mystical sides of life.

            His present book is a sequel to his earlier The Making of a Counter Culture.  Both are representative of the Tran cultural social criticism that so characterizes the introspective intellectuality of the modern era; each, drawing heavily from long-standing intellectual traditions going back to the Romantics and to Rousseau, explores a rationale for denying virtually all assumptions upon which modern society (and particularly bourgeois society) rests. 

Style, Literacy and Exaggeration

            Both are excellently written—at least as to literacy and style.  But Roszak seems to have added nothing significant to his original exposition, and within this book the repetition quickly becomes tiresome.  One often wonders what would become of his rationale were he to forego the enormous exaggerations that are his stock-in-trade.

            Nevertheless it is essential that we appreciate what social critics such as Roszak are saying.  John Stuart Mill exemplified a needful generosity of mind when he recognized that both Bent ham and Coleridge had part of the truth to tell.  In our case, Roszak represents a school that indeed has a partial truth to teach us.  I have emphasized as a classical liberal that we ought not to be oblivious to the spiritual deficiencies in the middle class lifestyle to which the alienated intellectual has so long pointed, even though we would not adopt that intellectual’s proposed solutions.

            Despite my desire to be open to what he has to tell us, however, I must say that as I read this particular book I could find little merit beyond that part of the truth that others have so long articulated.  This is because Roszak himself adds so little: at no time does he leave such phrases as “sacramental nature” enough to define exactly what he proposes as an appropriate form of mysticism; he offers no assurances as to how this form of mysticism is to avoid the anti-civilization aspects of mysticism in general.

            Although he presents, though very inadequately, what is perhaps a part of the truth, there is much that is objectionable in Rosa’s philosophy.  He argues that he would not destroy science, but merely add new mystical dimensions to life; however, he never addresses himself to the central question of how an epistemology that demands criteria for knowledge can make its peace within the same mentality with an epistemology that denies the need for criteria.  Unless he can resolve this question—and, incredibly, he seems unaware of it—we must class him intellectually among the more thorough-going nihilists. 

The Exorcist

            A young man will soon be flying to Minnesota to have a brain tumor removed by a computerized laser beam; his alternatives are death or a conventional operation resulting in blindness.  In this we rightly see the crowning achievement of reason and empiricism.  But in India recently a villager cut off his six-year-old son’s head as part of a ritual, thinking he could put it back on again.  When, predictably, the ritual failed, he committed suicide.

            Roszak brushes aside those who in reviewing his work have observed that by placing himself on the side of mysticism he would have us return to the nightmarish realities of the primitive mind.  But we ought not to permit him to set aside such criticisms; the events in Minnesota and India are too great an extreme from each other; they represent the epistemologies, respectively, of civilization and of barbarism.

            Over and above the merits of this particular argument, there is a transcendent issue.  When are the intellectuals of modern civilization to return to a constructive relationship with the culture at large?  When are they, taken as a body, to quit this centuries-old cultural undercutting and get down to the serious work of implementing higher sensibilities within the real world?  Theodore Roszak is manifestly a brilliant man; civilization needs his constructive work.

            Might we not well say?: Come Home, Theodore Roszak.   [Note in 2006: This makes use of the Democratic Party slogan in the 1972 presidential election on behalf of Sen. George McGovern: “Come Home, America.”  Readers in 1973 had recently heard it repeated many times.]