One of the “big” issues today is the direction in which machine-age culture is headed—the heights or the depths? Clement Greenberg, in this two-part article, which takes off from an analysis of T. S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, tries to show that culture is moving today on a middle plane between the two, but argues that culture suffers under such a compromise, and must always direct itself towards the highest level. The problem, as he sees it, and which he thinks Eliot neglects, is to adapt our humanist tradition to the new industrial environment and, in doing so, reshape both.
T. S. Eliot’s most recent book on a non-literary subject, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, proceeds largely on the assumption, familiar by now, that our culture is in decline. The book, when it appeared in 1949, received an amount of attention proportionate to its author’s fame, but the quality of that attention did not match the importance of the problems raised. The assumption as to cultural decline was neither questioned nor explicitly rejected. Most of the regular reviewers scolded Notes Towards the Definition of Culture for its reactionary tendencies and left it at that, whereas the literary magazines, with even greater obtuseness, treated it as one more item to be placed in the temple of Eliot’s reputation. (William Barrett and Robert Gorham Davis, in Kenyan Review and Partisan Review, respectively, formed exceptions, as did also the contributors to a symposium in Scrutiny in England.)
True, the assertion that our culture was deteriorating was made without being argued, just as Eliot tended throughout to pontificate rather than consider evidence and draw conclusions from it, though professing in all earnestness to be writing as a responsible sociologist. And just as, too often in general, partial glimpses of partial truths were offered as complete answers, truisms as fresh contributions. Nevertheless, Eliot did pose a problem of enormous importance, state cogently some of the limits within which it would have to be solved, and remind us of our failure, so far, to have thought about it seriously enough.
In any case, his book would be important as an influence and a symptom. We cannot forget who Eliot is: one of the very greatest of all literary critics, a remarkable poet, and a writer whose prestige at the moment is probably larger than that enjoyed by any other English-speaking literary man during his own lifetime. Also, he has been a great reformer of sensibility, outside as well as inside literature, with consequences felt in areas of intellectual life seemingly remote from belles-lettres or art. Sensibility may not be identical with intelligence, but prepossessions of feeling can become premises of thought, and limitations of thought, limitations of emotion and experience.
Eliot has done as much as anyone in our time to expose the superficialities that have accompanied the popularization of the ideas of the Enlightenment, of Utilitarianism, and “scientism”—but by criticizing a kind of sensibility, not systems of ideas. Nor does his quarrel seem in the beginning to have been with the ideas of liberalism as such, or with any set of ideas, but with deadness of sensibility wherever he found it, on the right and left, in church and out; and if he found it more often on the left, it was not so much because he wanted, at first, to find it there. Only later, when he began to deal publicly with non-literary matters, did he fix on liberalism as the main enemy, and adopt a consciously “anti-modern” religious and political position. But it was then, too, that his own sensibility showed the first symptoms of the same ailment he had diagnosed. His cure turned out to be a variant of that malady, and he, too, became an ideologue, remaining fixed, with no further understanding, in his original disgust with “modernism.” And as he has gone on flogging the same tired horse—omitting in his criticism of the Enlightenment to distinguish between the root ideas and their vulgarization—he has become less and less able to distinguish between insight and banality in the notions he himself advances.
Nowhere in Eliot’s later writings do we find so much evidence of this inability as in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Its disconcerting mixture of sense and superficiality, penetration and obtuseness, makes it a treacherous springboard for further discussion, and I can understand why most reviewers should have drawn back from the plunge. For this very reason, however, and for others, it may be worth going a little further into the deficiencies of the Notes before considering independently some of the issues that it raises.
Eliot has obeyed that rule established in the 18th century according to which the eminent man of letters begins to feel in middle age that literature is not enough, and aspires to some larger power over public opinion. But like Thomas Mann, he has made the big mistake of offering himself as a head as well as conscience. Victor Hugo knew better; so, really, did Matthew Arnold, and even Carlyle: they lectured and admonished, confident of their instinct for moral issues, but, for all their obiter dicta, seldom tried to theorize consistently. Besides, literary men have a tendency to confuse aesthetic with social values (see, for example, Arnold on America). This, I think, has been particularly the case with Eliot. And he is also prone to adopt attitudes that, however honestly meant, are not honestly come by (whence sometimes a note of involuntary parody enters—as if seriousness, especially that with which he wishes to take himself, were a strain requiring comic relief).
Whether or not he got his first political notions from the late Charles Maurras, Eliot has been chronically susceptible (perhaps because early impressed by the high cultural level of French reaction) to the kind of thing Maurras expressed most consistently: that type of reaction, trimmed out with Catholicism, “tradition,” “classicism,” “hierarchism,” “authority,” ultra-nationalism, and anti-Semitism, which an eminent section of French literary, if not political, opinion has professed ever since de Maistre and de Bonald, in the first half of the 19th century, laid down a systematic basis for rejecting the French Revolution. The main trouble with this position is less that it is reactionary than that it is irrelevant, and their own half-suppressed realization of this has the effect of driving its adherents to but further extremes of irrelevance—as we saw when Maurras collaborated with the Germans under the Occupation (for which he sat in jail for six years). Eliot, repeating a number of the same ideas to an English-speaking public in books like After Strange Gods and The Idea of a Christian Society, has been, if anything, more irrelevant, and some of his published remarks on politics, made over the last two decades, belong together with many leftist expressions of the period in an anthology of political nonsense. That, as I have heard, he voted Labor in 1945 would only bear out the charge.
Like most inveterate aesthetes, Eliot appears to lack a sense of the urgent reality of politics as a matter of weal and woe, and to regard correct opinion as an end in itself. Nor does he seem to appreciate the multiplicity and variability of the factors that determine social reality. This is as much a deficiency of sensibility as of intelligence, and the fact that Eliot shows a real awareness of historical movement inside literature does not gainsay this, but only demonstrates, once again, how much better his mind functions—and how much more he respects his subject—where aesthetic ends are the decisive ones.
But in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture we will also find things chargeable to what has to be called mindlessness, not just want of sensibility. It is startling to come across sentences like “. . . it may be argued that complete equality means universal irresponsibility. . . .” Or: “A democracy in which everybody had an equal responsibility in everything would be oppressive for the conscientious and licentious for the rest.” Such statements are neither correct nor incorrect, but simply useless. The writer settles a very large and complicated question at a stroke by repeating an old saw sententiously, thus sparing himself further thought—which is exactly the function of cant. And when he apologizes, with that elephantine humor which can astound us again and again in Eliot, for a paragraph, otherwise full of good sense, that ends with the words “destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans,” by adding that this was but an “incidental flourish to relieve the feelings of the writer and perhaps a few of his more sympathetic readers,” we are far from sure that he himself realizes what a threadbare piece of journalism he has just repeated. Eliot can begin another paragraph with the sentence: “The colonization problem arises from migration.” And refer to “vast impersonal forces.” And “the oriental cast of the Russian mind.” American movies are called “that influential and inflammable article the celluloid film.” Something even worse than mindlessness is involved in: “I do not approve of the extermination of the enemy; the policy of exterminating or, as is barbarously said, liquidating enemies, is one of the most alarming developments of modern war and peace, from the point of view of those who desire the survival of culture. One needs the enemy.” (Who, in modern times, has needed what exterminated enemy?) Never was a humane sentiment expressed with such barbaric and fatuous humor. At this point one becomes alarmed for the author’s soul, not his mind. And, after all, Eliot is, or was, a great writer.
One can see why this present book of his is so difficult to deal with. Yet this does not make the issues he deals with any the less momentous; nor does this tendency to clown of which I have given examples prevent him from saying much that is arresting and true—if not exactly original.1
Eliot writes in his introductory chapter: “The most important question that we can ask, is whether there is any permanent standard, by which we can compare one civilization with another, and by which we can make some guess at the improvement or decline of our own. We have to admit, in comparing one civilization with another and in comparing the different stages of our own, that no one society and no one age of it realizes all the values of civilization. Not all of these values may be compatible with each other; what is at least certain is that in realizing some we lose the appreciation of others. Nevertheless, we can distinguish between higher and lower cultures; we can distinguish between advance and retrogression. We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.” Nowhere does Eliot even hint at the “permanent standard” of comparison that enables him to make this assertion with “some confidence”; he appears to assume, simply, that the reader’s own experience will confirm it, and leaves the question of the “permanent standard” itself—theoretically, a far more important one—wide open. If he had tried to close it, perhaps his book would have done more to stimulate a fruitful discussion.
At the same time his definition of culture is not (as the title of his book might indicate) worked “towards” but merely handed down. Culture, in Eliot’s view, is, as Marxists would say, entirely “superstructural”; it excludes political, social, religious, and economic institutions, which come, presumably, under the broader term of civilization. Culture “includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta . . . the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections . . . 19th century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.” There is the individual’s culture, which depends on that of his class and group, which derive in turn from the culture of the “whole society.” Obviously, much has to be investigated and weighed before one can assert with any confidence that every present aspect of culture, even under this definition—much less “every department of human activity”—bears evidence of a decline of cultural standards. Little in Eliot’s book testifies to such an investigation.
A reasonable question is whether enough evidence of cultural improvement might not be discovered in each “department of human activity” to balance the evidence of decline. I would agree with Eliot that decline predominates in most of the arts, in standards of taste, in some departments of learning, and many aspects of manners, but would hesitate to say this of all the arts, all areas of taste, all departments of learning, or manners on all social levels. Do the majority of people in England and America eat more poorly prepared food than fifty years ago? Have dress and décor declined since then? Has—particularly—architecture? The majority of people in the industrial countries of the West are certainly gentler in their relations with one another than they used to be, whatever the upper classes have lost in forma] grace. The poor remain the most numerous, and fifty years ago they were not only poorer, but, according to the mass of evidence, much more brutal and brutish. Culture has lost much on its higher levels, but may there not have been some compensation on those where the multitude find their “characteristic activities and interests”?
Such questions are not easy to answer, least of all with “confidence.” The problem is far more complicated than Eliot actually does acknowledge, however much he seems to do so. And in its complication may lie reasons for hope as well as despair. The reasons for the latter—the war, the exterminations, the oppression, the present tawdriness of our machine-made environment with its commercial culture and its leveling, etc.—are obvious, all too obvious. By seizing upon the obvious so confidently, Eliot, and others like him, collaborate with journalists in diverting attention from causes to effects, though they may think they are doing the opposite. The general readiness to cry woe, the crisis-mongering, may itself be the symptom of a decline of culture.
Granted, nevertheless, that our culture is in decline on its highest levels: what can be done about it? The weight of Eliot’s short book is placed on a description of three conditions he deems more or less indispensable to a recovery. He does not propose that we set about directly to establish or restore these, but hopes rather to clarify the problem by dissipating false hopes: we are to infer that certain social and political conditions now present will largely frustrate any ad hoc measures to remedy the plight of culture, and that these conditions must be changed first.
The first desirable condition is an “organic (not merely planned, but growing) structure, such as will foster the hereditary transmission of culture within a culture; and this requires the persistence of social classes. The second is the necessity that a culture should be analyzable, geographically, into local cultures: this raises the problem of ‘regionalism.’ The third is the balance of unity and diversity in religion—that is, universality of doctrine with particularity of cult and devotion.” But: “The reader must keep in mind that I am not pretending to account for all the necessary conditions for a flourishing culture; I discuss three which have especially struck my attention . . . so far as my observation goes, you are unlikely to have a high civilization where these conditions are absent.”2
Yet almost nothing is presented of the content of the “observation” that has led to this important conclusion; we can only surmise that Periclean Athens, the medieval West, Elizabethan England, Renaissance North Italy, 17th-century France, and so forth, are meant—the accepted golden ages of art and literature. It is implied that successful novelty in the social and political structures which support culture is by and large impossible: as culture developed in the past, so must it in the future.
We can quibble over the necessity or importance, even in the past, of the second and third conditions that Eliot lays down, but the indispensability, so far in history, of class differences to a high urban culture cannot be denied, since there is no record of any such culture without them. The big question is whether class divisions—or, to be exact, the traditional alignment of small upper class over against large lower class—will continue to be as necessary to high culture as in the past. Eliot’s answer in the affirmative provoked most of the hostile comment his book received (in their heat the reviewers overlooked his introductory statement that class divisions may not be essential to the achievement of other, perhaps higher, values than culture; though later on, it is true—on page 47—he does imply that a “graded” society is the best form of society in general).
Marx pointed out that productivity in even the most materially advanced societies of the past was always so low that the majority had to work full time to provide, in addition to their own necessities, the material surplus to support the leisure and ease of the relatively tiny minority that maintained high culture wherever it appeared. Marx’s prognosis of a socialist future was founded on the assumption that science and industrial technology would eventually make it possible for society to produce material goods in such plenty as to render social differences unnecessary and put the dignified leisure required for the pursuit of high culture within reach of everyone. Whether this expectation is Utopian or not, Marx did at least sense the big difference that industrialism would make as far as the structure of society was concerned. Eliot’s failure to give more than a passing glance to industrialism, on the implied assumption that it contains little but harm for culture, prevents his discussion of modern culture from advancing, in effect, beyond the point at which Spengler left it.
Like Spengler, Eliot gives one to infer that industrialism is but another of the time-bound phenomena that, along with skeptical rationalism and hugeness of cities, accompany the decline of any high civilization. But to judge from the past again, humanity, barring some unprecedented catastrophe, will no more forget industrial technology than it has, amid the rise and fall of civilizations, forgotten the use of metal tools, the wheel, domestic plants, or domestic animals. Technological progress has been irreversible by and large; that is, there has been a cumulative gain in our control of the material environment. As a rule, once a people learned to use bronze it never went back to stone, and once it learned to handle iron it never went back to bronze. There have been temporary retreats, especially in quality of workmanship, but the evidence shows that these have almost always been made good. (Franz Borkenau, in “Will Technology Destroy Civilization?” in Commentary of January 1951, quotes Alfred Weber, the German historian, to this effect.) That industrialism will remain with us in one form or another would seem to be the largest single circumstance to be taken into account in any discussion of the future prospects of our culture.
Radical changes in technology have in the past always transformed the inner, or cultural, as well as the outer, or social, structure of society. We have reason to expect that industrialism—to which, really, we are still new—will, in the long run, effect more radical and comprehensive changes in the fundamental scheme of culture and civilization (as Franz Borkenau pointed out in his Commentary article of January 1951) than anything that has happened since the Neolithic revolution which some eight or nine thousand years ago replaced the hunting and gathering economy of the Paleolithic Age with an agricultural and herding one. Hence many premises based on observation of the relatively recent past must be discarded, and the prospects of culture, now as well as in the hypothetical future, viewed within a new perspective—not altogether new, of course, but new enough to demand a re-examination of the assumptions that ideologues of “tradition,” like Eliot, proceed on.
At best one can reason from past experience only under the most general terms. The “Iron Age” civilizations of the past three millennia form in their aggregate only one part of the history of civilization as such, and at this point in time it is as hazardous to reason towards the future on their basis as it would have been, a thousand years before Jesus, to do so in terms of the material and cultural premises of the Bronze Age civilizations. Novelty has always to be allowed for, if not believed in. Spengler, Toynbee, et al., may still be right in seeing the present as a period of decline that will end relatively soon in the collapse or paralysis of Western civilization, in accordance with the pattern followed by all other high civilizations so far; nevertheless science and industrialism do, and will, make a great difference, and the future is likely to present a scheme, and possibilities, radically different from those of the expired or moribund civilizations we already know. Many of the conditions under which a flourishing culture again becomes possible will therefore be different from those that made one possible in the past.
It would be wiser, accordingly, not to speculate so exclusively on the basis of past precedent. Rather we ought to examine more closely the situation of culture here and now, and try to ascertain its inherent tendencies and drift, to see what in the situation is so new that it cannot be understood in terms of anything we know from the past.
As has been observed, culture in the urban, industrial West is now stratified on three main levels. First, there is commercialized, “mass,” “popular,” “jukebox,” or “lowbrow” culture; then there is “middlebrow” culture; and finally—and traditionally—high or “highbrow” culture.3 All three belong to the city; rural, folk, or peasant culture is now, for the first time since it appeared thousands of years ago, practically extinct over much of the countryside in the Western world. This in itself amounts to a very radical piece of novelty. What, however, is almost equally novel is that the stratification of culture no longer coincides as uniformly as before with class lines. Whereas in the past the culture of the highest level usually received the greatest social as well as economic support, today the greatest economic support is given to the bottom level, and the greatest social support to the middle. Yet the uppermost level still carries the main history of culture, and exerts the most influence on the other levels.
The culture of the majority of the rich in a country like ours has by now become definitely middlebrow, with only a small minority directly supporting highbrow culture. The middle classes furnish more customers in absolute numbers for lowbrow than middlebrow culture, yet still make up the bulk of the audience for the latter. Everybody with a high school education gets at least a taste of middlebrow culture, and almost everybody in American society comes in daily contact with the lowbrow variety. Only among the poorest classes, who can be presumed to belong altogether to the lowbrow audience, does social level seem to determine cultural level as consistently as it used to do.
The middle, for a variety of reasons, has become the crucial level as far as social power is concerned, and deserves special attention. At the same time it is the most difficult level to define. “Middlebrow” is no longer a term with which to “relieve one’s feelings,” but means a very large if disorderly piece of reality. Eliot remarks in his book on the desirability of “a structure of society in which there will be, from ‘top’ to ‘bottom,’ a continuous gradation of cultural levels. . . .” This is not as lacking in an advanced industrial country like our own as he seems to imply. There is a vast distance between high culture and lowbrow—vaster, perhaps, than anything similar in the past—but it is covered without apparent break by the infinite shadings and gradings of middlebrow culture, which is defined roughly by the fact that, though its audience shrinks from the trials of highbrow culture, it nonetheless refuses to let its culture be simply a matter of entertainment and diversion on the lowbrow order. Middlebrow culture has to do in one way or another with self-improvement, and is born almost always out of the desire and effort of newly ascended social classes to rise culturally as well.
Something like middlebrow culture . emerged in Western Europe in the 17th century—say, with Bunyan and Defoe in England—but did not quite establish a separate identity, and so remained for a time more or less tributary to aristocratic and patrician high culture. It was during the 19th century, as industrialism raised newer, rawer, and larger middle classes out of petty bourgeois or proletarian obscurity, and these tried to turn high culture to their own purposes, that middlebrow culture began really to differentiate itself. However, these new classes, for all their buying power, did not yet form a large enough proportion of society to upset the old balance between huge sweating majority and small leisured minority upon which traditional high culture had depended so far; they could still be assimilated, or at least controlled, by the old educated classes. Therefore middlebrow culture remained an ambiguous thing, largely subservient to high culture in social prestige if not economic power. Only within the last decades, and chiefly in this country, has this relation changed, and middlebrow culture acquired a positive identity and become an unmistakable force.
The revolutionary cultural phenomenon of the recent past has been not so much the spread of “mass” or lowbrow culture—which was already here a hundred years ago—as the rapid expansion of the middlebrow kind and the multiplication of its degrees and shades. This is owing to the appearance, for the first time, of a middle class large enough to amount to a mass, if not a majority—a mass that is now, thanks to industrial prosperity, in the material position at least to aspire to the kind of culture that used to be the exclusive prerogative of a small minority. This position does not automatically produce aspirations towards higher culture—in the 1920’s the newest, and largest, American middle class did not feel them—yet material ease does in the long run tend to awaken them if only because culture, and cultivation, assert social status.
Behind the shrill and spectacular lowbrow culture that holds the foreground of American life, just such aspirations have begun lately to spread in ever widening circles as standards of living are consolidated and continue to rise. The fact is being remarked upon in many places. Whatever its immediate causes, the “culture boom” that started shortly before the recent war was due, fundamentally, to the settling in of the enormous new middle class created by the more rapid development of industrialism after 1914, and to the coming of age of its second generation. And the largest increment by far of this boom has to be booked to the account of our middlebrow culture.4
High culture, however—authentic, disinterested culture—has so far suffered more than it has gained in the process. Being, among other things, the expression of unconscious taste and habit, of assumptions that never get stated, of a way of life and an ingrained sense of proportion, it has as a rule to begin being acquired during childhood, from the immediate and everyday just as much as from books and works of art. The antecedents of the new middle classes do not lie in such childhoods; higher culture comes to them from the outside, in adolescence at most, and has to be acquired by conscious effort, therefore tends to remain somewhat external and artificial. According to everything we know so far, Eliot is right when he repeats that the family is still “by far the most important channel of transmission of culture.” Nor is this the whole story.
Other handicaps are imposed by the very scale and rapidity (both proportional and absolute) with which the new American middle classes have been expanding. Every generation since the Civil War, but especially since 1918, has brought a new mass of people to the social surface. And each new mass, being larger usually than the one before, yet quickly rising to the same social level, has acted as a drag, culturally, on its predecessors. The traditional structure of culture, which could assimilate these newcomers as long as they arrived in limited numbers and at sufficient intervals, cannot maintain itself when they come in such steady and huge throngs (the increase of the population in absolute figures alone is enough to unsettle the situation). By sheer demographic weight and buying power, the newcomers force all levels of the cultural market down to meet the lower standards they bring with them from their culturally inferior origins. The old upper classes become helpless in the matter. Nor, for that matter, do these classes enjoy the prestige in connection with culture that the old upper classes of, say, England do, and they are that much the less able to maintain the continuity of traditional standards—which are in their care if they are in anyone’s—with enough authority to tame parvenus.
At the same time lowbrow, “machine,” commercial culture is there everywhere to offer its relief to all those who find any sort of higher culture too much of an effort—lowbrow culture being powerful not only because it is “easy” and still suits the majority, but also because it has replaced folk culture as the culture of all childhood, and thereby become our “natural,” “autochthonous” culture. (And, unlike folk culture, lowbrow culture neither contributes—at least not fundamentally—to high culture nor effaces itself in its social presence.)
Armed with their new wealth, their optimism, and their political power, the new American middle classes have in this situation been able to ask with more confidence and success than any upstart class before them that high culture be delivered to them by a compromise, precisely, with their limitations. Hence, above all, middlebrow culture.
The liberal and fine arts of tradition, as well as its scholarship, have been “democratized”—simplified, streamlined, purged of whatever cannot be made easily accessible, and this in large measure by the same rationalizing, “processing,” and “packaging” methods by which industrialism has already made lowbrow culture a distinctive product of itself. Almost all types of knowledge and almost all forms of art are stripped, digested, synopsized, “surveyed,” or abridged. The result achieved in those who patronize this kind of capsulated culture is, perhaps, a respect for culture as such, and a kind of knowingness, but it has very little to do with higher culture as something lived.
The middlebrow in us wants the treasures of civilization for himself, but the desire is without appetite. He feels nostalgia for what he imagines the past to have been, and reads historical novels, but in the spirit of a tourist who enjoys the scenes he visits because of their lack of resemblance to those he has come from and will return to. A sense of continuity with the past, a continuity at least of truth, of enduring relevance, belongs to genuine culture almost by definition, but this is precisely what the middlebrow does not acquire (the fault is not entirely his own). He might be able to do so, eventually, by exerting humility and patience, but these he is somehow never able to muster in the face of culture. In his reading, no matter how much he wants to edify himself, he will balk at anything that sends him to the dictionary or a reference book more than once. (Curiosity without energy or tenacity is a middlebrow trait wherever and in whomever it appears.) Towards his entertainment, no matter how much he wants it to be “significant” and “worthwhile,” he will become recalcitrant if the “significance” is not labeled immediately and obviously, and if too many conditioned reflexes are left without appropriate stimuli. What the middlebrow, even more conspicuously than the lowbrow, wants most is to have his expectations filled exactly as he expects to have them filled.
Middlebrow culture, because of the way in which it is produced, consumed, and transmitted, reinforces everything else in our present civilization that promotes standardization and inhibits idiosyncrasy, temperament, and strong-mindedness; it functions as order and organization but without ordering or organizing. In principle, it cannot master and preserve fresh experience or express and form that which has not already been expressed and formed. Thus it fails, like lowbrow culture, to accomplish what is, perhaps, the most important task of culture for people who live in a changing, historical society: it cannot maintain continuity in the face of novelty, but must always forget and replace its own products.
But I said “in principle.” Like lowbrow, middlebrow culture is not all of a piece. The good and the bad are mixed, all the way from Class A movies and the Reader’s Digest through The Saturday Evening Post and South Pacific to the Times Book Review and Rouault. Middlebrow art, if not middlebrow learning or thought, is not wholly adulteration and dilution. Novelists like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and O’Hara can profit as well as lose by a certain middlebrow impatience with intellectual distinctions that enables them to make new distinctions in experience itself. And while the middlebrow’s respect for culture may be too pious and undifferentiated, it has worked to save the traditional facilities of culture—the printed word, the concert, lecture, museum, etc.—from that complete debauching which the movies, radio, and television have suffered under lowbrow and advertising culture. And it would be hard to deny that some sort of enlightenment does seem to be spread on the broader levels of the industrial city by middlebrow culture, and certain avenues of taste opened. Just as, in general, an authoritative part of the public has begun to show a greater sense of responsibility towards disinterested culture, and to censor its own philistine impulses.
But doesn’t the damage still outweigh the gains, and can any amount of improvement at the lower levels compensate for deterioration at the highest, where the most authentic manifestations still have their being, where the forms and values of every other level originate—no matter how perverted subsequently—and where our experience is still most significantly and enduringly preserved?
[Mr. Greenberg’s conclusion, to appear next month, argues that the problem of high culture under industrialism requires a solution that would modify industrialism itself.]
1 To be wholly fair to Eliot, a “note” on culture that he published in Partisan Review in 1944 should be taken into account. No part of this “note” has been retained in original form in the present book, although it says more in fewer, apter, and carefuller words than does any chapter in the latter.
2 Eliot’s discussion (pp. 27 to 32) of the relations between religion and culture, and more particularly, art, is, in my opinion, the most original part of his book. He is as cavalier here with the rules of discourse and evidence as elsewhere (of what use is it to say that culture is impossible without religion when we know of no society—not even the USSR—that has existed without religion?) but at least he seems to have experienced a good deal of what he talks about. And because he reveals more frankly, if unintentionally, the profound aestheticism that sways him in his religious convictions no less than in his political and social ones, he rings truer.
3 “Highbrow,” “middlebrow,” and “lowbrow” are terms of brutal simplification. Nor were they coined to denote types of culture so much as types of social personality, and all three in an invidious sense—as if any kind of personal culture were a foible, and all the more a legitimate object of ridicule because revealed in one’s physiognomy. But I am afraid that no other terms available fit the realities I am trying to deal with as well as these three. And the reader, I feel sure, will understand immediately what they mean, and at the same time realize that the distinctions they make are not hard and fast ones.
4 A similar boom started in England—and in Scandinavia, too-in the late 1930’s, and the causes were somewhat the same. However, the spread of higher living standards may have been less of an immediate factor abroad than the popularization of socialist ideas—which meant increased self-awareness on the part of lower classes and, with that, a desire for adult education and an interest in self-education in general. The most typical phenomena of the British culture boom are the BBC’s Third Program, with its magazine, The Listener, and the success of the Penguin books, whereas the emphasis in America is not so much on self-education as on gentility, correctness of taste, knowingness, “gracious living”—that is, emblems of status.