Commentary Magazine


Metaphysics of the Movies

To the Editor:

Although I welcome David T. Bazelon’s review of my book, Magic and Myth of the Movies, in the August COMMENTARY, both for its seriousness and the praise it contained, I feel that I should take up so important an issue as that raised by his emphatically unfavorable observations.

A reviewer so well aware of those limitations of Hollywood explored and reprojected by this book and its predecessor should also be aware that it is imprecise and inadequate to assume that I “accept the purposeless dream and invite a cloud of meaninglessness to settle over actuality.” First, Mr. Bazelon’s position that “actuality” cannot be conceived apart from “purpose” raises the teleological problem and puts us in the midst of philosophy. If pursued to its uttermost, this critical position would insist that any work of analytic criticism, to justify an attribute of purpose, must be equipped with a full-grown ethics—if not with a complete philosophy.

In his far-sighted estimate of my book, Mr. Bazelon slips up by overlooking that a naive application of Freudianism, which he attributes to me, would not account for my viewpoint any more than if (as I have not) I had taken a straight sociological or aesthetic viewpoint. To label my method “psychoanalytic-surrealist,” while it may explain (to quote him directly) the “huge dividends” of “poetry and inspiration” in my previous book, does not per se explain the relevance of such dividends to my project as a whole: the understanding of Hollywood as a myth factory. As the great American myth factory, Hollywood is an objective phenemenon and cannot as such be conceived apart from its function (i.e., “purpose”), which is to create mass-metaphysics of an automatist variety. Is such a metaphysics not a dominating “purpose”? How else should Hollywood’s purpose be expressed than by an accurate portrait of its phenomenology?

It is not a question of seriously evaluating Hollywood’s purpose as “good” or “bad.” No literate being may take such an ethics of purpose seriously except to implicitly assume its vitiated primitiveness and to oppose it—politically. After all, Mr. Bazelon would not claim that Hollywood constitutes an ontology; hence it would be absurd to equate it with “actuality” rather than with its own dream-metaphysics. Here I may invoke the assistance of Paul Goodman who, reviewing my book in the New Leader, wrote: “Tyler is peculiarly and surprisingly free from the absurdity of making serious sociological analysis and critiques of such material, in the manner of Macdonald’s ‘Popular Culture’ essays or Farrell’s application of Marxism or my own socio-psychoanalytic lucubrations.” If, with his evocation of “actuality,” Mr. Bazelon is calling for such analysis, I may suitably take sides on this point with Mr. Goodman.

Moreover, in terming my analysis of The Grapes of Wrath “shockingly bad” and in asserting that I am “off the mark to a fantastic degree” when I use “the motive” of “a desire on the part of the underprivileged principals for cleanliness and modern plumbing . . . as a key to the whole movie,” and that thus my “cynicism is not even amusing,” Mr. Bazelon, I submit, is guilty of a most superficial and careless (if not a “shockingly bad”) reading of what I actually wrote about this film. The following passage from my book proves, I think, that I conceive the desires of the underprivileged principals of this movie as existing in a sphere which Mr. Bazelon should not be slow in identifying as that of “actuality”:

. . . as I have said, The Grapes of Wrath . . . makes deliberate feints at taking the economico-political dilemma by its horns. With this in mind we must deny the possible implication that economic unhappiness, of which the Okies are so convincing and eloquent a symbol, can be psychoanalyzed out of existence by devices of a type like the New Deal reform program of lending a helping hand in major crises. Yes, Tommy Joad goes out to fight the workers’ fight, but we have no guarantee that he can understand the true principles in this fight any better than his mother can understand the nature of poetic metaphors. In these very metaphors one gets a whiff of the most unfortunate sort of mass-metaphysics, a metaphysics that can exist so easily on paper—for instance, in our own Constitution or in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—and with so much difficulty in material fact.

Parker Tyler
New York City

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To the Editor:

In his first “business” paragraph, Mr. Tyler accuses me of an ambitious relation to “philosophy.” I can only bow my head and answer, weakly, “yes.” I assumed that he was a critic of the highest order, no matter what order of subject-matter he might be dealing with; that is, that he always wrote in view of an image and understanding of the human being and his values.

It was exactly this that I attempted to criticize, since I believe it to be basic to all critical work, and I wanted to get to the heart of Mr. Tyler’s writing. Moreover, it was not I who burdened Mr. Tyler with “philosophy”; after all, he did include in his book a definition of meaning. And, rightly or wrongly, I found this definition profoundly helpful in illuminating his entire method and the huge discrepancy (that I found) between his two books.

Mr. Tyler’s next paragraph is not very clear to me. I referred to the “purpose” of human beings and Mr. Tyler’s conception of this, not primarily to the purpose of Hollywood. That Hollywood is a myth factory is a very interesting idea. I do not quarrel with such a notion, I simply observe its elaboration. To state my primary criticism in relation to this assertion and its development in Mr. Tyler’s book, I would say that he has not satisfied me, as a hopeful reader, in showing the connections of the products of this Hollywood factory to the actual life lived in this country. And he should have done so. In the beautiful concluding chapter to his first book, he did exactly that.

It should be clear now that “Mr. Bazelon would not claim that Hollywood constitutes an ontology” and that I do not “equate” Hollywood with “actuality.” I am only saying that it should not be taken so much in its own terms as Mr. Tyler takes it. The issue of the criticism of popular culture on which Mr. Tyler “may suitably take sides . . . with Mr. Goodman” against me is too long and complicated to discuss here.

Mr. Tyler has written a “shockingly bad” analysis of The Grapes of Wrath, and I have read this in a “shockingly bad” manner—but also Mr. Tyler offers a “shockingly bad” interpretation of my use of “actuality.” I did not accuse him of never dealing with actuality in his book. I have re-read his analysis of The Grapes of Wrath, and perhaps this note will allow him to re-interpret my use of terms; then he has only to rewrite his chapter on the Okie picture and everything will be in order for the appearance of his next book, which, I hope, will employ the movie phenomenon as the bridge that it is to the facts and truths of American industrial existence.

David T. Bazelon
New York City

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