Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Henry Adams on the Death of Steve Jobs

The hinge chapter of the #1 book of the 20th century, The Education of Henry Adams is entitled "The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900)." I don't think it's excessive to suggest that Adams's description of the awe-inspiring electrical generator known as the Dynamo is similar to the way we relate to Apple today.
To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity... he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross... Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force... he could see only an absolute fiat in electricity as in faith.
Steve Jobs accomplished some amazing things, and this is certainly a time to celebrate them. But as Jobs meets his maker, it is also a time to remember that future generations will be as unimpressed and puzzled by "Mac" as we are by the word "Dynamo" that so evidently hypnotized Americans only a century ago.

Adams knew this, and in his poem, The Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres, he imagines the purveyor of a future technology that would relativize what overwhelmed the world of 1900.  Adams then puts such an individual in contact with the eternal.  The poem, it seems to me, could have been spoken by Steve Jobs himself:
The man who solves the Infinite, and needs
The force of solar systems for his play,
Will not need me, nor greatly care what deeds
Made me illustrious in the dawn of day.

He will send me, dethroned, to claim my rights,
Fossil survival of an age of stone,
Among the cave-men and the troglodytes
Who carved the mammoth on the mammoth’s bone.

He will forget my thought, my acts, my fame,
As we forget the shadows of the dusk,
Or catalogue the echo of a name
As we the scratches on the mammoth’s tusk.

But when, like me, he too has trod the track
Which leads him up to power above control,
He too will have no choice but wander back
And sink in helpless hopelessness of soul,

Before your majesty of grace and love,
The purity, the beauty and the faith...
So yes, rest in peace Steve Jobs - the peace that entails gaining just this kind of perspective.  I love my Mac as well, but those to come may view it as a scratch on a mammoth's tusk.  To paraphrase Adams, "All the Apples in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres."