Book Review of
Letters from Lake Como:
Explorations in Technology and the Human Race
by Romano Guardini
by Anna Maria Borowska. B.Sc., M.D.
Lake Como evokes a distant memory from my childhood it the 1970's. After driving through misty, winding roads in the Alps on a camping holiday, we emerged on the south side to our first glimpse of Italy. Before us was a gorgeous open, sweeping valley with glittering lake, Lake Como herself, surrounded by beautiful villas, stone houses, and trees. In my modern child's eye, I was blind to any desecration of the landscape by technology. However, back in 1922, author Romano Guardini viewed Lake Como in a different fashion, as described in his book, Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race : "Its beauty filled me with sorrow" (p.4). Besides seeing the beautiful lake, he noticed: "Yet all at once, then, on the singing lines of a small town, I saw the great box of a factory. Look how in a landscape in which all the risings and fallings and measures and proportions came together in one clear melody, along with the lofty bell tower there was suddenly a smokestack, and everything fell apart........It was truly terrible" (pp. 6-7). Coming from the more industrialized Germany, Guardini observes: "Here in Italy I have seen the dividing point between the ages" (p. 24).
Guardini, born in 1885, was a respected 20th century Catholic academic theologian and priest. His special interest in liturgy was expressed in his best-selling book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. He was associated with "Quickborn", a Catholic youth movement, and the "Ressourcement" movement of Catholic thought. Although he was born in Italy, he and his family moved to Germany after his first year. His thinking in Letters is steeped in Germanic thought, style, culture, and pre-World War II idealism. There are frequent references to German philosophers, writers, and artists, such as Goethe and Wagner, and German treasures, such as Potsdam. His glorification of Germany is epitomized in his suggestion that the two groundbreaking events in European history were "the coming of the Christian soul" and "the Germanic essence entering" (p. 86). This unfortunately engenders feelings of cultural estrangement and Post World War II discomfort to the modern international reader.
The book consists of nine letters, from The Question to The Task, written from 1923-25, seemingly to a dear, long-term friend, whose identity is however not disclosed to us. The letters are followed by the final address, The Machine and Humanity, spoken to students at the Munich College of Technology many years later in 1959.
The major theme of the book is the ominous effect that technology has on humanity. The author is well-suited to describe this, having an intense, depressive-leaning, introverted personality. He laments: "I wish I did not feel these things so strongly" (p.63). His sincerity and passion aid as well: "A time that is sinking is always sad, but sorrow is especially profound for a life which is doomed to perish and which we feel belongs to us" (p.8).
Sub themes of the book follow in what seems to our modern, Powerpoint-primed eyes to be an old-fashioned, longwinded, and rambling fashion: "I will pursue my train of thought. Today, however, you will need a little patience. I cannot proceed without a little private philosophizing, and usually that is not very good in a letter" (p. 19). Tentative and vague conclusions seem to be almost hidden within the bulk of the writing. The content is highly intellectual and dense. Indeed, the author asks quite early in the book, "Am I boring you?" (p.9).
The mid-19th century is seen as the turning point of humanity. Guardini describes the former civilized world as "Urbanitas....a city atmosphere, yet one in which a nobly shaped humanity can flourish" (p. 6). He views the former existence of Lake Como as the quintessence of Urbanitas: "Everywhere it was an inhabited land, valleys and slopes dotted with hamlets and small towns. All nature had been given a new shape by us humans.....The lines of the roofs merged........or followed the windings of a valley. Integrated in so many ways, they finally reached a climax in the belfry.....All these things were caught up and encircled by the well-constructed mountain masses." (p. 5). He further refers to this as "natural culture" (p. 13), a union of nature and civilization.
The "Urbanitas" metaphor is a beautiful call to us to create cities which are harmonious with, and do not destroy, their surroundings. This is surely good for our esthetic sense, less damaging to nature, and ultimately more beneficial for cities. For Christians, we additionally view the call as our responsibility to God, the creator of the world.
In contrast to Urbanitas, Guardini describes the evolving "barbarian" (p. 17) "overartificiality of existence" (p. 10), in which nature and civilization are increasingly distant and independent, because of increased intellectual activity and technology. This creates a "sphere of substitutions" between nature and civilization, which reduces the "vital relation" between them. This new world has become "nonhuman". He gives the example of an ocean liner, which "presses through the sea regardless of wind or waves. It is so large that nature has no power over it; we can no longer see nature on it. People on board......live as if in houses and on city streets." (p. 13).
Guardini goes on to lament the increasing consciousness of peoples' lives through increased knowledge of geography, statistics, science, and psychology, via increased media. Although curious to us today, Guardini suggests that the major discoveries have already been made, that only their "inner relations" remain to be sorted out: "I sense in many areas of natural science a feeling that the most decisive things, laws, forces, and forms are already there to see" (pp. 38-39). He feels that excessive knowledge is destroying the magic and essence of our lives: "The root of life itself, what is innermost to it, is lit up. Can life sustain this? Can it become consciousness and at the same time remain alive?" (p. 32).
We can easily stretch the metaphor from the ocean liner to modern urban lives. The conveniences and excitement of knowledge and technology have to be carefully weighed against an increasing surrealilty of life, in which we lose touch with the magic feel of a blade of grass, perhaps lose touch with the real truth. For Christians, despite having a theoretical wealth of time to spend on godly matters, it can seem that God is more distant and less important. Human relationships, which are no longer necessary for basic survival, are easily discdarded for urban distractions.
The author's ensuing sentimental descriptions of the previous age of innocence, and criticism of the techno-evils of the 1920's seem comical to us in 2004. Indeed, we would likely view his era as part of some pre-computer age of innocence. Surely every generation has fallen into a similar stereotypical mode of thinking.
The author refers to the "oikumene" or "total space of the inhabited earth", which causes "frontier pressure" (pp. 34-35) as different areas expand toward each other, necessitating negotiation. This phenomenon has since escalated ominously from curious observation to critical situation. How close to depletion the earth is! How little wilderness is left! How much of creation have we ruined? I suspect that Guardini could well have been destroyed by a picture of the modern world.
Guardini goes on to describe the former and the evolving "ways of knowing" the world: "The one sinks into a thing and its context. The aim is to penetrate, to move within, to live with. The other, however, unpacks, tears apart, arranges in compartments, takes over and rules" (p. 43). These correspond with his former concepts of natural culture vs. overartificiality of existence.
He laments the loss of individuality and artistry with the rise of fast mass production of reliably identical items. For example, he describes the pre-mass production villas on the lake shore: "What riches! There at Bellagio was the Villa Melzi with its wonderfully beautiful garden. Not much farther along the Viale Giulio made its broad ascent to the villa with ancient cypresses on both sides. In this gloomy corner of the lake, very silent, is the Villa Pliniana, going back, I think, to the sixteenth century. Its loggia drops steeply to the water. Its mighty cypresses and the villa itself are full of the endless murmur of a spring, for this spring, once described by Pliny, is the true mistress of the house. Finely set in the lake and fully lit up by the sun is the Ponta del Balbianello" (p. 51). Post-mass production, "the objects of consumption are slowly being reduced to a few practical types, whether it be casks, automobiles, houses, clothes, words, schools, or, finally, people" (p. 58).
Interestingly, technology has since appeared to increase originality in our lives. At Starbucks alone, there are thousands of ways to order a cup of coffee. However, these are all repeatable choices within a huge matrix of possible permutations. In truth, no one cup is ever a delightful one-of-a-kind!
In the final letter, the author talks of dominating nature via technology in order to reduce our anxieties about what nature could do to us. This, however, creates a new situation in which we fear what the technology we have created can do to us: "We originally confronted the task of having to assert ourselves vis-a-vis nature, which then threatened on all sides because it had not been mastered by us and was thus a chaos for us. (But by) taking possession of the world......we have released new forces.....These forces have increased, and now they have unleashed a new chaos" (pp. 83-84). The fear of what technology could do to us has become particularly acute in the modern world, in which we dread weapons of mass destruction, or ponder the ominous effect on society of altering the human genome.
The final address, written post World War II, elaborates on "the negative element in the phenomenon of machines, the possibility they bring of endangerment and destruction" (p. 97). He makes an interesting differentiation among the "tool", the "contrivance" and the "machine". The first, for example a rock, is the only one to require direct human participation. The second, for example a watermill, uses natural forces to achieve its goal. The third is "present only when the function is scientifically understood and technically worked out so that the mode of operation can be accurately fixed." Machines "relieve us of direct work; we need only construct and supervise them" (pp. 98-100). His final conclusion is: "It would be a great favour of history if the clarity of awareness to which education, science, and technology have contributed so much were to prove capable of forestalling all that threatens us" (p. 113).
Though written by a Catholic theologian, there is little more than a passing allusion in the book to God. Granted, in the case of Guardini's final address, he was presumably dealing with a secular audience. However, he generally comes across as having an excessively humanistic viewpoint, hardly letting his thinking expand from the relationships among nature, civilization, and humans to their relationships to God. On close scrutiny, however, he does make the interesting suggestion that "it is Christianity that has made possible science and technology....Only those who had been influenced by the immediacy of the redeemed soul to God and the dignity of the regenerate, so that they were aware of being different from the world around them, could have broken free from the tie to nature in the way that his has been done in the age of technology" (p. 82). Close to the end of the book he refers to religion in general, but not specifically to Christianity: "The worldview which sees in the machine the symbol of fulfilled culture.......proceeds on the premise that science and technology are the only foundations of existence and that they demand such a level of empirical concentration that everything religious has to be harmful" (p. 111).
Guardini laments the effect of technology on people, yet does not consider how offensive excessive or ill-advised technology might be to God. Further, he does not consider our responsibility to creation in light of our responsibility to God, the creator. Instead, he mentions our responsibility toward the use of technology in merely an abstract sense: "We have seen that machines give us constantly increasing power....If we have power, we have to use it, and that involves conditions. We have to use it with responsibility, and that involves an ethical problem" (p. 106).
In addition, he comments little on how technology affects relationships among people, other than briefly mentioning: "Everything is becoming impersonal" (p. 20). This is perhaps a reflection of his intensely introverted personality, referred to earlier.
In summary, the book is a quaint, Germanocentric, historical curiosity, whose delivery is unfortunately impaired by a sentimental and poorly-accessible writing style. Though written by a respected theologian, there is surprisingly little reference to God. It raises some interesting concerns about the effect of technology on the world, which have since ominously escalated.
Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race (1981; first English ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 1994).