Ideology: Round 3
To the Editor:
Daniel Bell should mind his facts when he says that I and people I respect are “happily playing the heretic in the fields of official clover” [“Ideology—A Debate,” Oct. '64]. So far as I, at least, have come into any contact with the official organs of our society, I am frustrated, morally suffocated, and often physically frightened. It would give me some happiness to see our streets livable and our rivers clean, the bombs banned, our politicians and corporate executives behaving with some rudiments of honor, our young being educated instead of regimented, initiative and good ideas getting to first base instead of being stifled by irrelevancies, mass-communications occasionally ringing true. I am throwing away my life for these rather concrete purposes. Perhaps I do not work at them as rationally as I could, but I would appreciate from Mr. Bell some suggestions as to how to work more practically, instead of being told I am enjoying myself.
I am not a heretic, and I am amazed that he says, “Goodman is almost in the academy.” I have assumed that, as a humanist, I have always been in the academy. The Institute for Policy Studies, where I am now a fellow, is engaged in the classical academic job of analysis, criticism according to ideal standards, hammering out ideas. What clear and distinct idea does Mr. Bell have of what he is talking about? He seems to be saying that there is an “Establishment” and that we who dissent from it are nevertheless in it. But there is no Establishment, for our powers-that-be have no justification—they are morally and intellectually bankrupt.
Indeed, my guess is that people like Rosenberg, Mailer, Macdonald, myself, etc. are given a forum in the rich magazines and on TV simply because these institutions have to have some genuine voices in order not to die of total inanition. And we, in turn, write for them in order to reach the general public, access to whom they have monopolized.
By “fields of clover,” I suppose Mr. Bell means money. Speaking for myself, the facts are that for more than a generation I worked for less than I needed to support myself and family, and now I am paid more than I need. But it makes little difference either way. What I wanted, and want, are tangible improvements in the physical and moral environment. I do not see them. And the only important effect of becoming older and more “accepted” is that I get more impatient, short-winded, and indignant.
I am bemused by Mr. Bell’s strategy. When an honest writer is not “accepted,” he can—by Mr. Bell—be disregarded or patronized as an odd-ball. If by dint of sticking to his guns for thirty years the writer gets to be “accepted,” he can—by Mr. Bell—be slandered as a kept sheep. In neither case does Mr. Bell need to pay attention to what the writer says.
Institute for Policy Studies
To the Editor:
Daniel Bell’s ideas have never been very interesting but he has usually had the merit of staying fairly close to the facts. To state, however, that “Harold Rosenberg attacked F. R. Leavis as a cultural fascist” is both tiresome and false.
New York City
To the Editor:
Mr. Bell claims optimistically that “Today our entire society is committed to change, and in a direction which was first pointed out by the Left.” This will come as a bit of a shock to those who control the power structure of America. I can see no change from the past, where the status quo has always been maintained until some form of extreme pressure, such as the Negro civil rights demonstrations, forces minor concessions.
Mr. Bell then applies his theory to the area of culture, claiming that the “cultural Left” has now been absorbed by the academy. “Everyone is happily playing the heretic in the fields of official clover and busily exposing the nakedness of everyone else.”
As one of his prime examples of absorption by the academy, he cites Seymour Krim’s editing of Nugget, undoubtedly an academic publication. When I questioned Mr. Krim as to the accuracy of this charge, he replied: “The only nakedness I am interested in exposing in Nugget is that of good-looking girls.”
(Mrs.) Constance H. Poster
New York City
Mr. Bell writes:
I have sometimes found Mr. Rosenberg’s writings interesting, but not often valid, for he has usually been more concerned with being modish than right. Since he disputes my characterization of his essay, the only recourse is to the text.
In the March 14, 1964 issue of the New Yorker, Mr. Rosenberg undertook a sixteen-column logomachic review of the recent reprint of Scrutiny, which in the 1930′s and 1940′s was edited by F. R. Leavis. Mr. Rosenberg wanted to examine Scrutiny as a cultural phenomenon and to locate its editor in the political spectrum of those days, despite Leavis’s own insistence against such formulations. Rosenberg wrote:
It was plain from the start that Scrutiny had set itself against progress, democracy, and political liberalism, and that it occupied a sector in the battle line of anti-modernism established by L’Action Française, the New Humanism, the classical-royalism-Catholicism formula of T. S. Eliot, the literary agrarianism of the Old South, and the cultural Fascism of Ezra Pound. In the radical mood of the thirties, to be thus “placed” (one of the magazine’s favorite words) was enough to give Scrutiny a heavily reactionary cast, despite Leavis’s consistent refusal to define his political position.
. . . too conscious of his plebeian origin to be deluded about the benefits of aristocratic orders [he] has stood not for social restoration but for a new secular order. . . . Leavis hates the modern world, but he wants to ride it and dominate its direction. His new order, though promulgated through literary criticism and not Storm Troopers, has the ominous overtones of a revolution aimed at all existing values, institutions and personages.
Mr. Rosenberg then identifies the sector of the battle line more concretely:
The identification of modern literary merit with a specific social vision (continual decline) was the revolutionary tangent by which Leavis set the course for Scrutiny. By a single stroke, it introduced into criticism a dogma of subject matter as rigid as those of totalitarian ideologies. In the face of the mandatory optimism of Soviet Socialist Realism or Nazi Strength Through Joy, Scrutiny evolved as the standard at the root of its “strictly literary standards” the writer’s degree of comprehension of the increasing desolation of spirit in the present-day city, the heartlessness of contemporary human relations, the emptiness and frustration of modern work. . . . It enabled them to downgrade on aesthetic grounds any literature and art that did not conform to Leavis’s disguised politics.
But these were not merely verbal battles, Mr. Rosenberg goes on to explain; they were a real effort to take over academic and publishing power:
The task [Leavis] set for literary criticism was—like the task set by the Marxists, whom Scrutiny opposed from the start—not only to interpret books and other cultural phenomena, but to change the conditions under which both would be produced. In order to act politically, Pound had to put aside poetry for means that culminated in his wartime broadcasts for the enemy. Leavis, by contrast, was not for a moment disposed to yield first place in procuring the results he sought to any medium but literature. . . .
Leavis’s equivalent [of Whitman's “gangs of cosmos”] might be dubbed “gangs of sensibility”; they were not poets but critics and readers. Their first objective would be to wreck the authority in both teaching and publishing of precisely that species of literary mind that passively and with smug self-satisfaction carried the germs of modern decadence.
Citing an essay by Mrs. Leavis, on how new specialists would be trained in literary criticism, Mr. Rosenberg points up the essay’s true significance:
This paean to infiltration indicates that the Scrutiny invasion was to capture the realm of learning. But its ultimate design was far grander. Scrutiny was, in short, an organ of social revolution. While most of its contributors may have wished for nothing more than to write judiciously about poems and novels, the “we” embodied in Scrutiny was occupied with nothing less than an attempt to gain control of British society. Unless this goal is kept in mind, neither the ideas of Leavis nor his style of disputation can be appreciated.
Mr. Rosenberg then proceeds to characterize the ideological tone of the movement:
From the start Scrutiny desiderated (to borrow again from its characteristic idiom) power; the word for it was “force.” . . . [Leavis] boasts of the discipline practiced by its members (“We were not using the word ‘discipline’ lightly”) and of their capacity to move outward and become the core of adjacent disciplines . . . he describes how through their twenty years of activity the actual Cambridge was overthrown and replaced by “the essential Cambridge” (as the Nazis replaced the actual Germany by the “real” Germany). . . .
Having thus unmasked the movement, Mr. Rosenberg delineates the leader:
Leavis conceived of the revolution of Scrutiny as an upheaval without a doctrine: the practitioners of sensibility were to owe allegiance to no ideology, philosophy or religion. They were to constitute, rather, a corps of free intelligences informed by firsthand literary experiences and acting toward a common purpose. . . . Leavis’s will to establish the authority of his collectivity caused it to take on the tension and totalitarian tenor of that extremist period. There arose in it an increasing pressure for adherence to “the permanent direction at the center.”
This, then, is the composite of Leavis that emerges: a plebeian, seeking to build a new secular order destructive of all existing values, hating Progress, democracy, and Modernism, imposing a stringent line, organizing for power in disciplined fashion as an authoritarian leader—what else is this but a description of a cultural fascist? With his disguised word-plays, such as the “corps of free intelligences” (to suggest the German Army Free Corps in the 20′s, a group of murderers), to the blatant parenthesis about the “essential” Cambridge and the “real Germany,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote a brutal polemic which (with its subsequent cute references to the Fifth Plenum of the Fourth Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea) was a caricature of criticism.
That is his privilege. But the point—and the quotations allow me to make it more tellingly—is that a kind of polemic which once was possible only in the pages of View or Politics or Partisan Review, Mr. Rosenberg’s habitats in the 1940′s, can now appear in the pages of the New Yorker (once scorned by these “little magazines”), while at the same time Leavis receives a more sympathetic hearing at the hands of a former student, Richard Poirier, in The New York Review of Books and a sympathetic review, too, by another former Leavisite, Professor Reuben Brower of Harvard in the pages of Partisan Review. Since Mr. Rosenberg, too, likes to “place” cultural phenomena, what does he make of this?
My statement that Mr. Goodman was “almost in the academy” reflected my own bemusement that in his two recent books on education, The Community of Scholars and Compulsory Mid-Education, he claims as a credential membership in the Columbia University Seminar in Hermeneutics and the Columbia University Seminar in the City. Mr. Goodman knows as well as I do that however worthy the Seminar program, it is a tangential aspect of the university with no formal qualification for membership. (We all trade, in part, on the prestige of the University.) I was intrigued by his self-labeling.
In speaking of “official clover” I did not mean to imply (and if this was taken as the imputation, I apologize) any notion of monetary gain. It was the first sentence of my paragraph that was the defining statement: “The point of all this is that the currently fashionable talk about Establishments and Anti-Establishments, of cultural radicalism and the official academy, is substantially meaningless.”
There is today a new set of Cultural Mandarins, and Mr. Rosenberg and Mr. Goodman are part of it. It is not only that Mr. Goodman receives a respectful hearing in Washington, which he does, and which is fine, but that he, as well as the radical writers of the 30′s and the 40′s, occupies a new, and in some ways a commanding, place in the culture, and doesn’t want to recognize that fact. The culture—the realms of serious and of modish discourse—and the academy are today the overwhelming strongholds of liberalism, in contrast to the situation of twenty and thirty years ago. Mr. Goodman’s gratuitous comment about being “slandered as a kept sheep” reflects the language of the 30′s. There was no slander and no such characterization intended on my part. It is simply that I see a discrepancy between Mr. Goodman’s self-image and his actual place in the culture.
Mrs. Poster has so garbled my argument that I find it difficult to discuss her remarks, other than to say that I did not cite Nugget as an academic publication and that I am glad to learn Mr. Krim is returning his girlie magazine to its basic function of titillating sophomores rather than printing pseudo-intellectual articles.