Commentary Magazine


Gates of Eden, by Morris Dickstein

Advance Man

Gates of Eden: American Culture in the 60′s.
by Morris Dickstein.
Basic Books. 300 pp. $11.95.

Is a disinterested view of the 60′s possible? At the distance of nearly a decade, it still seems unlikely. Instead, two distinct—and implacably opposed—views now prevail. The first holds that the 60′s were an Edenic time, when bonds burst loose, spontaneity routed repression, a spirit of healthy experiment was in the air, and love and hopefulness, for those prepared to splash in them, flooded the land. The second view holds that there was a flood, all right, but one that brought in its wake drugs, an idiot adoration of youth, and a devotion to the cultivation of the self that was at its heart anti-social; and that this flood, when it finally receded, left such residual effects as child pornography, pathetic self-help therapies and cults, and a political paranoia that has made the business of governing nearly impossible. What is especially interesting about these two views—the one holding that a great opportunity was lost, the other that a disaster was barely averted—is that they not only seem to be, but quite probably are, irreconcilable. A balanced view, in other words, may be impossible.

Morris Dickstein, a professor of English at Queens College, would seem to believe otherwise. His particular subject in Gates of Eden is what he construes to be the “new sensibility” of the 60′s. He considers this new sensibility in its various aspects: in literature, in journalism, in rock music, in black humor, in the fiction of black novelists, in student activism. If there was a common thread to all this, Dickstein thinks it was the utopian impulse, formed out of the emotions—anger, disgust, and mockery—which the various 60′s novelists, theorists, singers, and students he writes about bore toward life in America. In their art, as well as in their hearts, dissent from the general drift of American life was a necessity, “alienation and opposition the only honorable course.”

Dickstein’s intention is to see all this whole, to view it in an even-handed yet unblinkingly engagé manner. “One needn’t sign up in one camp or another,” he writes; “it’s possible to be neither swinger nor reactionary but merely what Matthew Arnold liked to call a disinterested critic.” How disinterested is Morris Dickstein? Although he does not do so excessively, Dickstein occasionally breaks into his text to supply an autobiographical note. Sometimes these notes are revelatory, and speak to the question of disinterestedness. Explaining his attraction to the doctrines of Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse when he first encountered them as an undergraduate, for example, he writes: “I was sexually starved, though I hardly knew it, and these men seemed to promise that good times were just around the corner.” From other of his autobiographical notes we learn that Morris Dickstein was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, was a most earnest student at Columbia (and, later, at Cambridge and Yale), and that now, at thirty-seven, feels his “formative experiences bridged both the 50′s and the 60′s.” One day in 1967 Dickstein finished his “thesis in the morning, went down-town to march against the war in the afternoon, and raced up to New Haven to deposit the manuscript in the evening.”

While the 60′s cannot be said to have radicalized Morris Dickstein exactly, the atmosphere and events of the decade were, as he acknowledges, “liberating” to him. He partook, to use the soft therapeutic lingo of the period, in the 60′s “search for authentic selfhood.” So while Gates of Eden is about American culture in the 60′s, as its subtitle says, Dickstein has a personal stake in the cultural history he has written. If Dickstein were to have found the period one of cultural aridity and fraudulence, then he might have had to conclude there was something arid and fraudulent about its “liberating” personal effects as well. But he finds nothing of the kind. Quite the reverse. For Dickstein, the 60′s represent a high period of advance, both in politics and in art.

In literature, Dickstein discovers the 60′s to have been the setting for “the second wave of modernism.” American fiction, especially, “joined the camp of modernism with a vengeance.” In politics, he finds the decade to have been a time “when politics became modernist.” For Dickstein, “modernist,” though he does not define it with any great care, is an esteemed badge. He is an avant-garde man who is hostage to an avant-garde theory. His theory has it that “every modern movement at first looks ugly and inartistic to the extent that it dislocates existing norms. Only later does it create its own norm, which gets established but eventually succumbs to imitation, self-caricature, a certain devolution of energy (which readies the scene for the next avant-garde).”

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Now, whatever one’s view about the politics of the 60′s, almost everyone before Morris Dickstein came along would seem to have been agreed that the 60′s were a particularly barren period for the arts. Not even the New York Review of Books, so ardent a cheerleader on the sidelines during race riots, draft-card burnings, and American military defeat, had many good words to say about the condition of the arts in this decade of the counter-culture. Dickstein, however, approving of the politics, approves of the art.

While many of the distortions in Dickstein’s history are the result of his politics, perhaps fully as many are the result of his desertion of common sense. Language leads him astray. Dickstein’s language is vastly overheated, the product of a mind perhaps made feverish by the consumption of too much bad literature. Allen Ginsberg, one of his few heroes from the 50′s, “seemed destined, like so many others in the gray 70′s, to learn the meaning of limbo.” Students attending Dickstein’s course on William Blake “came to get high [yet] stayed to sweat out the intricacies of the system.” A dream of absolute freedom is “the flip side of the coin of alienation.” Bob Dylan sang “as if the Hegelian Zeitgeist had for a space of time come to rest on his shoulders.” Students during the 60′s were “completely existential revolutionaries”; artists feel “the universal ache”; songs convey “a riveting expression of sexual need.” When it is not hyped-up, Dickstein’s style is merely undistinguished. But most of the time it is so hyped-up that he achieves a prose in which, as Mill remarked of Macaulay’s, it is simply not possible to tell the truth.

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As Dickstein’s language is inflated, so are many of his critical judgments. Norman Mailer, for example, in Armies of the Night wrote “great autobiography and great history.” “Our genius (in Irving Howe’s phrase),” Mailer (in Dickstein’s) “helped show the way.” To what?, one might ask. To “the metaphysics of sexuality and selfhood,” it turns out. He did this, it seems, by “confronting the confrontations of the period with his personal witness.” In the same loose way, Kurt Vonnegut is admired for providing “as full a helping of moral ambiguity as any modernist could want.” Yet again: “Like many other creative artists of the 60′s, Dylan’s genius is closely bound up with paranoia.” Dickstein’s taste runs to writers who apparently, no matter how muddled, above all reflect their times. If one were persuaded by the literary judgments in Gates of Eden, one would have to believe as well in the aphorism by Karl Kraus: “Today’s literature is prescriptions written by patients.”

But Dickstein also likes writers who reflect his own revisionist politics. Thus, Garry Wills, Yes; Tom Wolfe, No; Joseph Heller, Yes; Saul Bellow, No in Thunder! (Bellow’s novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, is a touchstone for testing opinions about the 60′s; Dickstein remarks on the book’s “rank, embittered pages.”) Dickstein refers to the novelists he admires as the “fiction radicals”; the New Journalism, another advent of the decade, he refers to as participatory journalism, “on the analogy of the New Left’s cherished ideal of ‘participatory democracy.’ ” If his favored novelists are the equivalent of political radicals, and if his favored journalists are the equivalent of the New Left’s ideal in action, what, by analogy, might Dickstein be? Perhaps Patty Hearst?

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One heritage of the 60′s, as Dickstein says, is that “the line between high culture and popular culture gave way . . . and on some fronts was erased entirely.” Surely he is right about this. But what is in question is the benefit to be derived from this elision. So far as one can make out, the victim has been popular culture, which has been made to submit to the language and style of analysis of the graduate seminar. The result is generally to strike a note of pomposity and unintentional comedy on the part of the academic getting up his popular-culture subject. Dickstein does not write at length about movies in the 60′s, but he does at one point remark that the movies of Woody Allen, those charming if frail vessels, “lack any architectonic imagination”—which sounds like nothing so much as a line from a Woody Allen movie.

Gates of Eden devotes an entire chapter to rock music. “Rock,” Dickstein notes, “was the original religion of the 60′s.” In the accepted graduate-school language, he offers an album-by-album exegesis of the works of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. It is an exegesis replete with false historical correspondences worthy of the young S.J. Perelman: “Dylan went electric at almost the very moment that Lyndon Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and escalating the war in the south.” After providing a long literary analysis of Dylan’s songs, Dickstein writes: “This is what makes so many of the more literary analyses of Dylan’s songs beside the point. . . .” The point, it turns out, is that to appreciate Dylan’s songs it is not sufficient to read the lyrics or even listen to the recordings; one has, on Dickstein’s word, to dance to them. One of the nice things about Shakespeare is that you can enjoy him sitting down.

But it is in his chapter on “Black Writing and Black Nationalism” that Dickstein gives the game away. The first hint is his admiring reference to “these resplendent and angry new blacks.” Then, in a sentence that really ought to have a slide shown with it, he writes: “In the dark night of the soul the melting pot was irrelevant; the deep and tangled roots of identity, once glimpsed, did not encourage assimilation.” Dickstein trots out the usual revisionist line on black writers, scolding James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for attempting to shake free of the influence of Richard Wright, and then, significantly, concludes: “The healthiest side of black separatism was the return not just to group solidarity but to that typical 60′s destination, one’s own head.”

That typical 60′s destination, one’s own head.” The 60′s were not a particularly good time for poor blacks, or for writers, or for the working classes, or even for the young (Dickstein’s chronicle scants the subject of drugs altogether). But in the heads of a certain segment of the middle class a great deal of excitement was going on, especially in the heads of young professors with psychological liberation to gain and very little to lose. In Morris Dickstein these particular 60′s have found the chronicler they most richly deserve.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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