Just when did criticism cease to be an influence? Of course more stylistic analyses of Hemingway, Faulkner, Stevens, Yeats, Joyce, Lawrence, and other acceptable modern classics are published every year. Explication de texte has become so mandatory that college freshmen have to learn how to read The Catcher in the Rye. Textbook publishers never put out a new edition of The Heart of Darkness or The Red Badge of Courage without adding professional analyses of these works by critics, Freudians, Marxists, anthropologists, social historians. There are collections of critical essays on each of the acceptable modern classics, ever more anthologies of the most available short novels glossed by the most helpful—and available—commentary. Critical opinion has settled on each English department in the land like mud. And meanwhile publications which could once be depended on to be unfailingly square blossom out with the same brightly insolent opinions that once bound the readers of Partisan Review into an elite. The New York Times Book Review, Life, Playboy, Book World, Newsweek, Esquire—these true and tried organs of American commercialism publish in each issue reviews wholly subversive, written from the point of view that Lionel Trilling called the “adversary culture.” And the majority culture goes on as usual.
This is an age of many critics, but significantly, the young ones have little influence. When Randall Jarrell complained years ago that we had fallen into an “age of criticism,” he meant that critical ideas were too influential and that critical practice by certain names was more esteemed than imaginative writing—especially by unknowns. Once an editor of Partisan Review was heard asking another—“Anything interesting come in today?” “No,” was the reply, “just some short stories.” That was the age of criticism—which came in after the war, in order to explain and to justify the avant-garde that, as we knew only later, had just died. The age of criticism was the last group action in behalf of traditional literary values. It was the period when many an intellectual not only took his opinions from Brooks and Warren, Tate and Blackmur, Ransom and Burke, Trilling and Wilson, but believed in nobody else. Jarrell said of this period that certain critics had the influence on intellectual couples that liberal clergymen used to have. How quaint it is now to remember that Allen Tate and his fellow agrarians opposed big cities, industrialism, science, secularism, socialism—all in the name of literature! Literature, Tate said many times, was the highest way of knowing reality and perhaps even the only way. During the age of criticism Southern poets and critics stood out against Leviathan, defended the Confederacy as a classical Greek republic, excused slavery on the ground that it had made possible “high culture.” So the age of criticism was still one of a faith in spirit and culture made possible by literature. If many an imitator with no desire for ideas of his own reproduced the idiosyncratic style of Blackmur in pursuit of Melville’s so-called heresies, the telegraphic logic of Kenneth Burke, Yvor Winters’s marvellous impersonation of a hanging judge as he condemned Frost and Stevens as “hedonists,” the elegantly anguished debates between Lionel Trilling the professor and Lionel Trilling the Freudian radical, it was because these extraordinarily interesting writers were our thinkers, our moralists, our leaders. They knew literature as no specialist in the history of criticism now knows it. Literature was their life, and at once the way of logic and the way of beauty.
There are many excellent critics, but the age of criticism has been over for some time. No matter how many bright new insights into the structural patterns of The Great Gatsby by academics, how devastatingly bold about Nixon or sex mores the current reviews in Life: you do not have an age of criticism when literature does not occupy a central place in the personal culture of many people, when it is not a principal article of faith. Gertrude Stein said that remarks are not literature. They are not criticism, even when, by our modish standards now, they are “correct” as all hell. Reviewing in the mass media is especially bright today because so many old-fashioned expectations of propriety and conformism no longer hold. The values of the early 20th-century modernist revolution have been absorbed by every young middle-class intellectual. But intellectual has really come to mean “professional.” There has been an obvious emancipation from the honest and/or rhetorical self-righteousness that once held American Protestantism together. The young are more and more a majority and a fashion. The facility with which students, so long as they are still young, strike revolutionary attitudes is like the facility with which, under modern means of communication and the diffusion of cultural goods, a whole generation of young have become consumers of culture—spectators—by way of those reproductions and reprintings that Malraux called the museum without walls—now also the concert hall and movie screen in the bedroom.
Sophistication once meant personal separateness from moralism as the unifying force. But from the time that technology got its unprecedented chance in World War II and helped to establish American society as the richest, most powerful, most promising and interesting, the only truly modern society, Americans brought back with this image of themselves abroad a cultural confidence that had never really existed here before. Sophistication now meant the unlimited consumption of cultural products rendered available by the new machinery. The emancipated young people who became specialists and experts, especially in the pervasive mass communications—advertising, television, publishing, in the new pseudo-sciences of market research, general “psychology,” computers—equated their expertise with the creation of styles. They mocked the squares because the latter, being older, were not so quick to learn the technical codes that made the money that made you free of everything about the middle class except the money. But at the same time the subversions in this new professional mass were honestly felt, even if they were not very decisive. And as happens in all advanced societies—Russian intellectuals (not the old primary “intelligentsia”) are now boiling over with this—the contrast between elite skills and mass delusions, between the real cadres and the politicians, helped to make the discontent that makes an eager audience for the kind of sophisticated reviewing now natural to mass magazines.
The little magazine now exists only as an organ for one or another tiny band of poets. The cultural reviews are now almost all supported by one university or another. Even Partisan Review, founded inside the Communist party in the 1930’s and during and after the war vital to radical intellectuals, now has to take articles by professors. The New York Review of Books, founded during the newspaper strike of 1963, has had an amazing success. This has probably little to do with the many fine English critics who appear in it. The New York Review stands out because it can still make people mad. It bristles with long and severe articles, brilliant caricatures and insurrectionary attitudes—like diagraming a Molotov cocktail on the cover—that are pleasing to those who are pleased and even more pleasing to them because it is displeasing to many more. A good cultural review should divide people, outrage them today with opinions they will accept tomorrow, snub them into admiring what the literary maitre d’hôtel in charge thinks is good for them. The Smart Set of Mencken and Nathan said on its cover that it was not for the boneheads, the New Yorker, at least in 1925, was not for the old lady from Dubuque, and the New York Review is in fact not for a lot of the people who take it only because it is more disturbing than other magazines.
Yet the most significant thing about the New York Review is that it is an intellectual, not a literary, review. It pleases the intellectuals for the same reason that a critical essay seems easier to take than a short story. The New York Review has been sustained not by interest in new novelists or poets but by very early tapping the opposition to the Vietnam war and also, very presciently, to the New Deal-New Frontier faith in unlimited American expansion and benevolent statism. The analogy with aristocratically radical English weeklies is striking: it is an intellectual caste and its political noblesse oblige that speaks here. What has been most stimulating about the New York Review’s politics has indeed been its sophistication: to have Auden on your right and Paul Goodman on your left. It is to Auden (and to Stravinsky by way of Robert Craft) that it owes its intimacy with Olympians. It is to Goodman that the paper largely owes its opposition to the big state, the revival of interest in utopian and anarchist doctrines, the espousal of Negro rights not in the abstract but as community schemes, and its specific interest in and knowledge of the agony of public education in New York. But in the New York Review the mingled voices of Oxbridge and for Bedford-Stuyvesant trouble me less than the lack of new names, the lack of concern with new imaginative writing. You cannot say of the New York Review that it is anti-literary in the style of the New Left. But wherever action politics is a pressing ideal, not only to the young who have no other but to literary men who see it as the counter-weapon to political despair, then literature as a living thing, literature now, literature the ugly duckling, gets despised.
The true age of criticism, as opposed to both the safe commentary on accepted masterpieces and crisis politics, is always one of intense relatedness to contemporary literature. Criticism is significant only when its ideas prevail as creative power—when alternatives are not just talked about but are being practiced. Up to the 50’s and the Korean war, the influence of the New Critics—something very different from the canned pedagogy that has served to instruct college students in stale symbols—reflected a disbelief in political progress, an obstinate faith in the possibility of Americans remaining different from each other. But the real influence of these traditionalist critics—a kind of magnificent last stand against the tyranny of megalopolis—is seen now not in the faded polemics but in the moral coloring of certain exquisite early pieces by Robert Lowell—deeply influenced by John Crowe Ransom—and the stories of Peter Taylor and Flannery O’Connor. The Southern critics, as critics, really backed an abstraction called Southern history. But as the novelists have shown, the real struggle in the South has been between the Faulkners and the Snopeses, the Robert Penn Warrens and the Willie Starks, the John Crowe Ransoms plus the C. Vann Woodwards against the George Wallaces. The Snopeses and Starks and Wallaces were not interested in the Southern past but in the typical American future of unlimited national expansion, power, and domination. Lyndon B. Johnson, a figure familiar in Southern fiction, described himself as “the leader of the free world.”
The only real challenge to the traditionalism of the Southern critics had come from the historical-minded critics of the Left—some of them Jews who had dreamed of their own emancipation as everyone’s emancipation from traditional forms holding people to the past. But as a result of the Nazi-Soviet alliance that unleashed the Second World War, the virtual destruction of Europe’s moral legacy, the ever-increasing oppression after 1945 against every dissident in Soviet-occupied territory, some old radical intellectuals supported McCarthyism and many the cold war precisely because they still looked to ideology even when they had lost all political interest in everything except their own disillusionment with the Russian Revolution. There was to be no relief, for the leaders of the Committee for Cultural Freedom, from the rigidity of their own virtuous Americanism. They became cultural leaders only when the great crusade of the 50’s could make use of their passionate anti-Communism.
One great virtue of all these critics, Old and New, had been their sense of being outsiders, whether as Southerners or as New York intellectuals. The better world they carried in their heads, whether it was the fiction of the old South as a Greek republic or the new Russia as a humane culture, had given a moral design to their studies. Criticism, as T. S. Eliot said to Paul Elmer More, describes the world as it ought to be; poetry, as it is. Soon the Southern critics were in Northern universities because there was, in their terms, no South to go back to. Their South existed now in Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren, in C. Vann Woodward’s exemplary histories of the South as the great exception to American success. As for the radical critics, who can doubt that F. O. Matthiessen was at least in part moved to destroy himself because he had pinned so much hope in his lonely life on the Communists who constantly used him and lied to him? That so imaginative a writer as Lionel Trilling has often silenced himself in these last few years because it is impossible to work oneself out of the post-radical dilemma by critical argument alone? Delmore Schwartz, in many respects the most gifted of the old Partisan Review group, at least still wrote poetry for the health of his soul when his mind was riddled with the new orthodoxy of the 50’s. But Leslie Fiedler, the bad boy so necessary to the academy, showed in 1955, in a book published under the auspices of the Committee for Cultural Freedom, what was to be so dispiriting about radical disillusionment even in the title of the book, An End to Innocence. There he denounced a whole generation of radicals under the guise of attacking Alger Hiss for “substituting sentimentality for intelligence. . . . American liberalism has been reluctant to leave the garden of its illusion; but it can delay no longer; the age of innocence is dead.”
The contrary of what Fiedler called “innocence” is not wisdom but knowingness. And with knowingness alone one does not write The Great Gatsby or In Our Time or The Sound and the Fury. The mistake in Fiedler’s presumption was its presumption. Position-taking has never been of the slightest use to art. Whatever was good in such rare creative works of the 1930’s as Light in August and Call It Sleep came from talent solidified in isolation—whether in Mississippi or on the Lower East Side. This created countries of the imagination in symbols that remain truly parts of man’s unconscious past and of the dreamlike sense of fulfillment which the logic of art makes possible. F. R. Leavis will deceive himself forever that a department of English built around him makes science and art equally unnecessary. But Leavis, that ox of instruction, is never wiser than what Blake called the tigers of wrath—poets most useful just now in their anti-social “madness.” Conflicts remain at the heart of every achieved work of literature. They are resolved without being diminished, and in such a way that we gratefully re-experience the conflict. But such conflicts now became, in the characteristic American soul-engineering of the postwar period, for many a critic more foolish in his intellectual pride than Kafka was in his private torment, oddly enough something for the critic to expose. Fiedler showed up Huck and Jim as lovers too dumb to know it, Mark Twain as too innocent to know what he was writing. Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote in awe that Yvor Winters had found a possibly homosexual theme in a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Every work in American literature was soon getting psychoanalyzed according to one arbitrary system or another. And as seems to happen in psychoanalysis, the only person getting anything out of the experience was the psychoanalyst himself, who in this case was usually an English professor trying to put thirty-nine phallic bananas into a story by Salinger where only one banana fish had existed before.
One reason for all this unnecessary chatter was the vast number of unlettered people in the universities who gave courses in “critical reading” based on cultural authoritarianism. If criticism is in any sense to be taught, it cannot be indoctrinated. A whole generation of unwary students have learned only what their teacher could absorb from a few pundits more clearly teachable than all the rest. But a more basic reason for this mad proliferation of third-hand, trivial, and artifical distinctions was the inferiority that so many people trained only in modern literature felt before those exciting forms of knowing proceeding from analytical philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, and the new biology. The training in critical method based on a few selected works was now too often all one’s literary education. This parodied Eliot’s famous dictum that the great works exist in our consciousness as simultaneous order, that every important new work recomposes this past. It turned out that we stored up only those works that we could most readily “explain.”
In this respect the scholarship of certain European exiles—particularly marked in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, the reflections on literature in Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future, Erich Heller’s The Disinherited Mind—are a constant reproach to the intellectual servility of our literary education. Mimesis was written by a German refugee in Turkey, without the aid of those secondary works that, as Auerbach said, would have endlessly delayed him. It is also a work of politics—as a tribute to what in the European spirit could not be obliterated by Hitler. Mimesis incorporates the true spirit of the civilization from which the humanist was ejected by the Nazi. In the inclusiveness of its structure, in the perfection of its details, in the very patience of its method, Mimesis shows that what Erich Auerbach carried in his head, as a refugee’s only baggage, was the divina commedia of European literature. It is typical of Auerbach’s sense of the wholeness of tradition which was his subject that some later essays could be brought out under the title From the Drama of European Literature. As one who was also in exile, he made real, as a scholar, Dante’s ideal of a book as an allegory of perfection. Mimesis will live as the most heroic idea of order in civilization created by a contemporary literary scholar.
Such a sense of history always presumes that one’s own greatest effort in a book is to carry out a design. In this view literature changes but can never improve, for at its best it returns to its deepest sources. And this involves a sense that literature is conservative by nature, that the relatively late art of writing is as deeply rooted in us as those language patterns that Noam Chomsky has found in the earliest self. Literature has in fact been a continuous record of man’s repetitive expression of his natural destiny. But now the wars, the mass killings, so much political fanaticism, oppression, and terror, the awareness of so much unrelieved suffering that has led Sartre to denounce the cherishing of literature in favor of a new revolutionary puritanism—all have combined with the still incalculable thrust of science into the future, its frightening power for mutation, to create the discontinuity of our generation from the past. Surely Norman Mailer was right when he said in The White Negro:
Perhaps we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atomic bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. For the first time in civilized history, perhaps the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the most minor projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth would be counted, and our death itself would be unknown, unhonored, and unremarked, a death which could not follow with dignity as a possible consequence to serious actions we had chosen, but rather a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or radioactive city; and so if in the midst of civilization . . . our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, time deprived of time and effect had come to a stop.
And surely the new biology is equally right when, as I note in a recent letter from the Salk Institute inviting collaboration with humanists, it asks us to study substantial genetic and other biological engineering as the way in which man increasingly tampers with the basic evolutionary process; the role of society in early learning and other “decision-makers which affect both individual freedom and democratic institutions; personality and mind-control; the revolution in our knowledge of learning, memory, the creative progress and aging; the chemical and biological bases of violence; human replication (which has already been done in other forms); the inadequacies of ethical and legal concepts to govern burgeoning biological-medical practices, including choices and definitions of life and death and abortion; the interaction of environment factors with biological and mental processes, including aesthetic considerations and the quality of life; the moral and ethical dilemmas involved in the development and use of biological and other human manipulative devices for warfare among and within nations. . . .”
It is often said in discussion of tragedy that great literature deals with the unchanging elements in human nature. For some time now modern writers have acknowledged the truth of this by humbling themselves before the great human images in literature in order to stress the power of environment. Let Homer keep Ulysses and Tolstoy Anna Karenina; we—so ran the litany from Zola down—would imitate scientific objectivity and precision by sacrificing pure personality to the forces molding it. But naturalism, like all literary ideas, turned out to be only just as good as the people using it; as the power of language rather than of concepts to create forms. Zola, Maupassant, Dreiser created better than they knew—better than their theories promised. The naturalist yielded to—his doctrine was “proved” by—himself as an artist.
At this moment we in literature are more than ever humbled by ideas of change, of utterly new proportions. We are challenged by the enormous vigor and directness of current painting, which presents many poets particularly with a working ideal of seemingly unlimited spontaneity and naturalness. These may be easier to achieve in colors and shapes than in words, for words already have so many associations that a literary construction based on design (either of sight, as in concrete poetry, or of sound, as in the declamation popular in coffee houses) is as vacuous as so-called pure poetry always has been. But admittedly, the abandon and even the savagery of some current painting have usefully loosened up the poets who follow painting as a model and have probably made prose narrative less rigid and solemn. We in literature are challenged by the new music. John Cage recently created at the University of Illinois the stupendous HPSCHD (computer symbols for the harpsichord) as one of the artistic “environments” of the decade. Cage said: “I used to think of five as the most things we could perceive at once; but the way things are going recently, it may be in a sense of quantity, rather than quality, that we have our hope. ‘Chaos’ means that there is no chaos, because everything is equally related—there is an extremely complex interpenetration of an unknown number of centers.”
Richard Kostelanetz described the performance for the New York Times. There was an “endless” number of slides from fifty-two projectors. In the middle of the circular sports arena were suspended several parallel sheets of semi-transparent material, each a hundred feet by forty. A three-hundred-forty-foot screen ran around a circular ceiling rim. “From a hidden point inside were projected slides with imagery as various as outer space scenes, pages of Mozart music, computer instruction, and nonrepresentational blotches. Beams of light were aimed across the undulated interior roof. In several upper locations mirrored balls were spinning, reflecting dots of light in all directions—a device reminiscent of a discotheque or planetarium. There was such an incredible abundance to see that the eye could scarcely focus on anything in particular; and no reporter [said the reporter] could possibly write everything down. The scene was bathed in a sea of various sounds with no distinct relation to each other—an atonal and structural chaos so continually in flux that one could make out nothing more specific than a few seconds of repetition. . . . In the audience each one registered a specific experience particularly his own. The sounds came from fifty-nine amplified channels, each with its own loudspeaker high in the auditorium. Fifty-two channels contained computer-generated music composed in octaves divided at every integer between five and fifty-six tones to the octave. . . . And since all these channels were all going at once . . . the result was a supremely microtonal chaos in which it was assured that no order can be perceived. . . .”
Cage himself describes HPSCHD as “a political art which is not about politics but political itself. As an anarchist, I aim to get rid of politics. I would prefer to drop the question of power. . . . Only by looking out the back window, as McLuhan says, do we concern ourselves with power. If we look forward, we see cooperation and things being made possible, to make the world work so that any kind of living can take place.”
The English critic John Holloway has said that Dickens’s innovation in the novel was his sense of simultaneity. Innovation in many arts today consists in a happy exploitation-combination of the materials. Dickens the Londoner had an instinct for the simultaneous happenings that used to be the joy and have become the torment of the modern urban environment. New compositions in sculpture, painting, music, audio-poetry—and especially in the post-Hollywood films—are these days often statements rather than achievements of the possibilities in new materials. Criticism, rendered superfluous by so much active experiment, becomes propaganda. The critic-exponent is forced to make clumsy explanations of the exaggerated claims for what has sufficiently established itself to our senses. These new arts are so disruptive in their effects that the critic-exponent too often sees them as philosophically more “radical” than they really are and praises them for living up to his own contemptuously gross definitions of society. There is a rhetorical, “apocalyptic” radicalism that is really not political in the least but tries to express the excitement now present in the non-literary arts. Thus a young critic, Richard Schickel, told us in the 1950’s that “Society is dead at its very center . . . and the real life of it—the very raw material of novels—is to be found in the unorganized fringes.” He quoted the novelist Ken Kesey, saying of his phrase, “The Neon Renaissance”: “It’s a name I hooked onto a thing I feel is happening nowadays. What this is I cannot say exactly, except that it’s a need to find a new way to look at the world, an attempt to locate a better reality, now that the old reality is riddled with radioactive poison. . . .” Schickel praises pop art and the mass media as the real sources of the new novels—he does not say which—and then admits: “I am deeply conscious of my inability to communicate the virtues of this work in terms which a literate audience can readily understand. I am deeply aware of the inadequacies of customary critical usage in communicating the pleasures and adventures of the new American novel. I ask only that we abandon our game of categories . . . an important first step toward a re-evaluating of all sorts of new writing forms, in which I include even journalistic sociology, picture books, cartoon books, and all the other ‘non-books’ now so easily disdained, and so infrequently grappled with, by our serious critics. . . .”
The praise here is really for popular culture, for the national values. As so often happens with those professional technicians who have been given intellectual status only by the mass media, who despite their sardonic inter-office memos limitlessly admire the mass media for their ability to hold and manipulate the “great audience,” praise of the post-literary arts is an argument in favor of existing power arrangements. Wherever literature is scorned as a classic form of argument in favor of more immediate—and forceful—forms of persuasion, you can understand the contempt for literature that is so marked in revolutionary societies, ours not least. Material progress as a form of national vanity becomes all, as with ourselves—with the important difference that in totalitarian states collective thinking, not just collective working, becomes the norm.
With us, as with Russia and China, the problem is one of the overweening national ego, the primacy of the national power and “image.” It is as George Kennan said—“Great countries are a menace to themselves and everyone else. People are not meant to live in such vast, impersonal political communities.” As the country in fact gets too powerful for its own good, the real problem of culture is to preserve those differences which have always helped to produce the writers, the books, the local color that later get to be honored as the speech of the whole tribe. The problem of the writer indeed becomes how to preserve himself—how to avoid the gross abstractions, the slogans, which are the language of national power and the language of the masses—not of the individual in the deepest recesses of that intuitive consciousness which is his knowledge, his familiarity and kinship with others. Our society is getting more and more to be precisely just what people have prayed for. So the problem just now would seem to be how not to become the fools of progress.