essays

Feb 1, 1978

Something is Happening Here

“Cultural criticism seeks to formulate…new mores, bad cultural criticism in facile generalities, good cultural criticism by elaborating new formal intuitions.”

GATES OF EDEN: AMERICAN CULTURE IN THE SIXTIES, by Morris Dickstein. Basic Books, 300 pp., $11.95.

 

“Where modernist or experimental art seems unstructured, incoherent, anarchic, even nihilistic,” Morris Dickstein writes in the closing pages of this, his second book, “it usually means that we have not yet recognized the new norm, the new principle of coherence or mode of awareness that the artist has invented. Often enough though, we sense that it is there, for our instinct is sounder than our aesthetic, which is still grounded in the idées recues of the past. The function of criticism is to interrogate that feeling, to turn it into new categories, a new aesthetic. Bad criticism spins clever theories; good criticism justifies unexpected intuitions.”

So it is too with contemporary culture. Where it seems incoherent or nihilistic, it is usually because we have not yet recognized the new mores which a people is inventing and adopting. Cultural criticism seeks to formulate these new mores, bad cultural criticism in facile generalities, good cultural criticism by elaborating new formal intuitions.

But there is a third kind of criticism, whether of literature or of cultures: mediocre criticism. This is the criticism typically written by the savants Gore Vidal calls “the hacks of academe”; it typically offers, in place of new categories, the slack, intellectually untidy categories of conventional institutional scholarship. Thus Dickstein announces, repetitiously, that “The spirit of the fifties was neo-classical, formal; the sixties were expressive, romantic, free form.” Or, “In literary terms, the sixties were a ‘romantic’ phase, when the intensities of individual vision melt down the traditional barriers between ‘classical’ genres.” Thus Dickstein writes of the literature published between 1949 and 1960: “The fifties were less a distinct cultural period than the last phase, the decadent academic phase, of the modernist sensibility of the twenties,” and proceeds in the following five pages to refer to “the aestheticism of the fifties,” “the traditionalist fifties” and “the Victorian literary pruderies of the fifties.”

It will be noticed, I hope, that in this rush of prepositional phrases, mutually exclusive categories are being forced to contain the formless abstraction “the fifties.” One (one artist or one culture) cannot simultaneously be modernist, traditionalist, bluenosed and devoted to art for art’s sake. But such logical inconsistency is all too common in Dickstein. Tom Wolfe, he writes, “has no sense of what makes society work, what greases the wheels, what makes it run. Only the color and splash of fashion, the social surface, engages him. It’s not that he’s anti-radical: politics of any sort passes him by, except as spectacle. Inevitably, Wolfe’s distortion of the New Journalism is rooted in his misreading of the sixties, when politics truly came to the fore. To Wolfe the real history of the sixties had to do with changes in ‘manners and morals’ rather than ‘the war in Vietnam or … space exploration or … political assassination.’ It was, he says, ‘the decade when manners and morals, styles of living, attitudes toward the world changed the country more crucially than any political events.’” Yet Dickstein himself has already stipulated that “the sixties survives in our minds most vividly as spectacle,” and that “the great changes of the war’s decade were ones of sensibility, awareness, and attitude, not of institutions… . The political changes of the sixties—as opposed to shifts of rhetoric and mood—were nothing if not gradual and melioristic.”

Dickstein’s ideas about the sixties amount to little more than the bromides of a college English department.

Not only do Dickstein’s ideas about the sixties amount to little more than the self-contradictory bromides and slogans of a university department of English; these “ideas” are, moreover, applied by him to a list of particular writers and works which is, arguably, not representative of “American culture in the sixties.” He spends considerable space on Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman and Norman O. Brown, but fails even to mention Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand or Timothy Leary. He devotes more than a score of numbing pages to the novels and stories of Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22 he calls “the best novel of the sixties”) and someone named Rudolph Wurlitzer. Yet he expends not a word on Richard Brautigan, J.R.R. Tolkien or Hermann Hesse (whose revival among young readers was one of the major literary events of the decade), and dismisses Ken Kesey as “offensive and overrated as a writer and even less interesting as a sixties guru.” To his credit, though, Dickstein makes no bones about his standard for including writers and works in his study: “I’ve slighted cultural phenomena for which I felt little affinity,” he notes, adding that “The sixties coincided with my own coming of age; I cannot depersonalize them, I cannot extricate them, try as I might.”

Gates of Eden, then, is to be read as a work of impressionistic criticism—a mode which has had a variety of distinguished practitioners (Walter Pater and James Gibbons Huneker spring immediately to mind) and able defenders. (“Impersonal criticism,” George Jean Nathan says somewhere, “is like an impersonal fist fight or an impersonal marriage, and as successful.”) But the effective impressionist of cultural criticism is a writer whose preferences, however idiosyncratic and personally important, do not obscure his conception of the cultural whole to which they contribute—a writer like Tom Wolfe.

Take the seventies, with which Dickstein ends his book—the decade in which marijuana has begun to be decriminalized, the film version of Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has become an enormous popular success, and the Libertarian candidate for president of the United States has won support in the Electoral College; the decade of est, of utopian science fiction and of libertarian novels like Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father and Joan Samson’s The Auctioneer. Dickstein looks at all this and writes, “It can scarcely be said that the seventies have yet shown a cultural accent of their own, but there are a few straws in the wind that seem to confirm this decline of interest in the individual self.” (Emphasis added.)

Give me Tom Wolfe—especially his essays on the seventies in his recently published collection, Mauve Gloves and MadmenClutter and Vine. He doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.


Jeff Riggenbach is a frequent contributor to Libertarian Review. His essay “Libertarianism and the Media” appeared in our November 1977 issue.