The Anatomy of “Playboy”
At first glance, the magazines—Gent, Dude, Nugget, Playboy, and the rest—seem about as remarkable as bananas in a fruit store.
The widely publicized key feature is a foldout naked babe. The conception, that of a hundred successful publications beginning with the Spectator and Sam Richardson’s model Letters, calls for an editorial voice functioning as a guide for the innocent, a tutor in manners and desires. The finish is standard, high-gloss Formica-American. The lust for respectability (which translates to: eagerness for acceptance by media men in the big agencies) appears identical with that of old Holidays and new Posts (which means that the magazines are hospitable to what are called Name Writers). The career of the man who launched or re-launched the Form is itself pure convention—one more Lucky Larry tale, as it were, to be added to the annals of entrepreneurial ascent. Yet even after these and other reservations have been gravely meditated, the new girlie books remain hard to write off. They swim, all sleazy Bikini voluptuousness, with fewer hake in their wake, to be sure, than most of the great whales of mass entertainment now wallowing in commentators’ kens. But when placed in the context of recent publishing history, their emergence ranks as a major popcultural event.
If the case were otherwise, Playboy, Gent, and Dude would still retain some power to fascinate. For the conventions that mark the inner and outer story of these magazines, however familiar, are charged with a kind of transfiguring intensity—as though clichés hitherto shaped only in snow or Neoprene were at last being cast in brass. Consider for example the career of the founder of Playboy. A nineteen-year-old Chicagoan named Hugh Hefner comes out of the Army in 1946, studies psychology at the University of Illinois and Northwestern, sings with a student band, draws cartoons for the humor magazine, marries his high-school sweetheart, has two children, fails as a cartoonist, fails as a copywriter at Esquire, is divorced and flat on his hunkers by 1952—whereupon he has The Idea. He buys one-shot rights to a photograph of beauty bare (Marilyn Monroe), dummies up some pages of jokes and reprint material as a background for the display, sells ten thousand dollars worth of stock in the “magazine” thus contrived. The production first appears in the winter of 1953, swiftly finds its audience (a million subscribers and two million dollars in advertising revenue by 1960)—and even as it is doing so the publisher Branches Out. He establishes big-city key clubs at which readers and non-readers are permitted, on payment of dues ranging from twenty-five to fifty dollars, to be served at tables (beneath photomurals of beauties bare) by waitresses called Bunnies: carefully chosen girls who wear plastic horns, satin diapers, heavy breasts, and monkey tails. These ventures prosper in turn (over four and a half million dollars in receipts in 1961; one hundred thousand members in Chicago alone), the publisher builds himself a palace on the Near North Side to house sweet life parties, watches unperturbed as imitators appear, reads about Hefner the “publishing giant” in the Saturday Evening Post, and gazes back at his lean past with the serene, public-service eye of the Success who not only has it made, but who has, in fact, introduced a heightening element—early diversification—into a worn-out old conte of up-from-knavery.
Or, for another example of cliché irradiated, consider the girlie books’ manner of playing their roles as guides to the naive. Other publications teach, but—suspecting that mass audiences are phenomena begot by editorial flattery upon illiterate pride—do not openly declare themselves as teachers. Their gestures imply that all of us are all of you (Dr. Spock yields to his distinguished colleague, Mom). The girlie books, severer masters, yield to nobody. “Our philosophy,” says the publisher of Playboy in his penthouse, “is that you [not we ourselves: we have arrived] should strive to get into the sophisticated upper crust. . . .” Moreover his letter columns (they may of course be house-written) are filled with remarks in which the Playboy audience defines itself as doltish. (A voice from Bellingham, Washington, congratulating the editors for a TV symposium, begins by saying: “This boob from the provinces was much intrigued . . . by your Panel.”) And the letter columns of the magazine’s competitors are if anything even more direct in their attempt to freeze readers in the attitudes of postulants—witness this characteristic letter to Gent:
I joined the service at the tender young age of 18. Now let’s face it, for the most part, a guy up until he’s 18 or so doesn’t do much supper clubbing or any extensive dinner dating. . . . I’ve suddenly discovered I know next to nothing. . . . It pains me deeply that I should be considered a ‘boob’ when once again I join the ranks of Joe Civilian. . . . Frankly I need help.
Further piquancies stem from the awkwardness of the girlie books’ effort at manufacturing high style. Most mass magazines, as everyone knows, are correctly viewed not merely as teachers but as glamor factories. The function of the glossy-coated page, as of the images impressed upon it—rubies in refrigerators, diamonds on hubcaps, mink on mustard—is to chicify the homely object, lift it to the levels of elegance defined elsewhere in the magazine. Playboy’s account of the upper levels is, naturally, conventional. Mercedes Benz is the cartoon car; the addresses of the “Clubs” are quite swell; many ads celebrate standard swank (Witty Bros.; Beefeater); the gourmet talk is all curried crab, and bearded frogs legs; the travel sections tell of smart doings in Vila Franca de Xira. But a number of the homely objects that the glamor machine seeks to buff to the radiance of those just mentioned are very homely indeed, and the machine in consequence often labors under extreme strain. It brushes downward from Miss Rheingold and Chesterfields (normal cutoff points for magazines like the New Yorker) to Half and Half smoking tobacco and a men’s cologne called Sweat. And the reader who is flung in a page from East Side tailors and English gin into this advertising netherworld can at least say for himself that he has had an amusing experience of marketing chaos.
For the cultural observer, though, the special interest of the periodicals in question depends not at all upon these samplings of chaos or pedagogical forth-rightness or mid-century Algerism. The world of mass entertainment, like other worlds, has both an habitual life and cruces or highpoints; and although for a time the popculturist was uncertain how to distinguish the one from the other—how, that is, to separate mere occurrences (a season of Ben Casey, a mound of McCall’s) from significant developments—criteria are beginning to emerge. The surest of these criteria appears to be that which defines a major popcultural event as success in a declining medium, or vice versa. And the girlie books plainly qualify as events when judged by this standard. The past decade, as is well known, was catastrophic for mass magazines. Between 1950 and 1960 thirty-two of the country’s 250 largest publications quit the game—or merged. And, as Woodrow Wirsig, editor of Printer’s Ink points out in Harper’s, “of the magazines reporting their profit and loss statements in 1960, 39 percent showed losses.” Aware of these statistics, no one can shuffle away the success of the girlie books into an easy generalization about rising literacy rates or normal patterns of production and consumption. Vulgar or dull, shy or brash, U or non-U, these magazines stand as counterthrusts to current reading trends, manifestations of a free impulse of public taste. And it is for this reason that their claim to regard, as puzzles worth more than a moment’s effort to solve, cannot be dismissed out of hand.
As might be guessed, the key to the puzzle lies in the nature of the magazines’ simplification of experience. The Playboy world is first and last an achievement in abstraction: history, politics, art, ordinary social relations, religion, families, nature, vanity, love, a thousand other items that presumably complicate both the inward and outward lives of human beings—all have been emptied from it. In place of the citizen with a vote to cast or a job to do or a book to study or a god to worship, the editors offer a vision of the whole man reduced to his private parts. Out of the center of this being spring the only substantial realities—sexual need and sexual deprivation.
From one point of view this particular reduction appears an accomplishment requiring little ingenuity. It is known that, just as great fear (in a fox hole) overwhelms the forces that divert people from Faith, so great heat (in a period of rut) overwhelms the forces that divert people from sexual absorption. And from this it follows that to simplify both people and situations you have only to induce heat—an easy task for any photographer or writer. There is, however, one strong locus of resistance to the idea of experience as pure fornication (actual or potential). Alone in his chambers a reader may believe that the world is his erection, but on the thoroughfare or in the office or in a back seat he has encountered conflicting testimony—someone’s obliviousness to his need, a moment of rebuff, suffusion of shame. Between the hand on the paper Playmate and total acceptance of fornication as the World-Soul falls, in fine, the shadow of memory. And it is to the struggle against this shadow, the effort to block out the collective memory of incompleted passes, that the girlie books summon their full resources of deviousness.
The campaign, to call it that, strikes in several directions, but its main force goes to an attack on the notion that, for women, reluctance is the norm and eagerness the exception. I burn, memory says, but perhaps they do not. The magazines say: nonsense, they are always burning, are mad for it, have got to have it, are wild wild wild to be snatch. The chief exhibit in substantiation of the claim is of course the foldout naked babe. Wherever she is (Oslo, Rome, Nassau, Rio), whatever her occupation (iceskating, skindiving, motorcycling, scratching her toes, aquaplaning, trapdrumming), her eyes say: Oh please please give it to me now. And these eyes, these begging burning empty hands, are not to be dismissed as exotica. In a dozen canny ways the magazines undertake to establish that the nude in Nassau and the stenotypist in Schenectady—the sexbomb and the “ordinary girl”—are actually one creature: Essential Woman. The correspondence columns are filled with relaxed expressions of interest or opinion from “working gals”—proof that the girlie books’ sense of experience appears sound to the Average Woman. Male correspondents apply the descriptive jargon of the magazines to their own experience (“Now that I have a Bunny of my own . . .”)—proof that the Playboy characterization of women nicely fits the facts of commonplace works and days. More important, the magazines are at pains to demonstrate that their artistes are figures chosen from “all walks of life,” not simply from burlesque runways (one form-shower, Miss Cynthia Maddox, is described as a receptionist; another, Miss Janet Pilgrim, is described as Playboy’s subscription manager and chief of “Reader Service”). Occasionally a breakdown occurs. The December ’61 issue of Gent carried a letter from “Mr. Erwin Fuchs” of Passaic, New Jersey inquiring whether the real name of an artiste featured in an earlier issue wasn’t “Jeanette Camille Swanson who used to be a stripper and appeared at Minsky’s in Newark . . . ?” (The editor in his answer evaded the question.) But queries of this sort are excluded from most issues, and the pretense is firmly kept up: the desperate gaze is the gaze of Every-woman; she, they, all are at one with you, reader, in need.
And how overpowering, how maddeningly intense is this need! In the joke columns the pressure is lightened a trifle; the lecherous woman is gently teased (“. . . the legal secretary who told her amorous boyfriend ‘Stop and/or I’ll slap your face’”; “Our Unabashed Dictionary defines assault as what every woman likes to be taken with a grain of”). And since the photographs speak for themselves, the cutlines beneath them venture little more than a suggestion, say, that the subject prefers copulation to conversation. (About bare-breasted “willowy Marya Carter,” for example, the patient editorial voice of Playboy observes only that she works hard at “thesping studies, relaxes with the many boat-swains who find her a ship shape date to remember [though quick to put the damper on overly opinionated types who talk at length, she gets along swimmingly with more considerate types]. . . .”) But the plain-text portions of the magazines are ridden page on page by the theme of female lust. Dozens of “ribald classics,” chosen for the force of their dramatization of the appetites of women, are dragged out of the past into the glossy pages. Gent offers paraphrases of Fanny Hill in support of a redefinition of female innocence as a condition of intense orgiastic expectation. Playboy serializes the sad, sex-ridden sagas of Françoise Sagan for the purpose of proving that the Litry Lady herself, the big-money-high-class-sports-car Intellectual, has “nothing else on her mind.” Even the casual spot drawing is placed in service of the effort to create the ferocious female Urge as supreme reality. The white space on a page of a recent Playboy was dressed with three sketches of a man shaving with an electric razor, in the company of a Miss Buxom clad in black stockings and gloves. In the first panel the girl studies the wallplug to which the razor is attached; the second shows her pulling the plug from the wall—the man still shaves, owing to the current she generates; in the third, the girl holds the razor cord in her hands and smiles down approvingly as the man touches the buzzing machine to her pleased nipple.
Mere assertions of female sexuality, like those just cited, announce the existence of a common need, imply that rebuff is the exceptional rather than the normal experience—but of course this in itself hardly suffices to quiet every misgiving. Granted that if my pass had been made at another girl, it might have succeeded, why did it fail on the occasion I remember? If fornication is all, whence came the resistance that embarrassed me? The threat to a closed sex-driven world implicit in such questions is evident. Belief in the primacy of the needs and interests of individual playboys and girls can be sustained only as long as no competing interests are defined; one touch of the superego, one breath of the common air, one allusion either to social disapproval of promiscuity or moral approval of procreation and the reader is thrown back from the beguiling simplicity of sex fantasy into the tearing thickets of ordinary life. Despite the challenge, however, despite the apparent impossibility of rationalizing resistance without alluding directly to the demands and interests of society, the girlie books manage to face up to the threatening questions without in any serious sense smutching their pure, constructed world.
The modes of address to these questions are two in number. In the first, resistance is treated lightly, understood as part of a game called Appearances and Proprieties. As is obvious, there is a measure of daring in the admission of these terms to print; in common usage both words imply a social will that exists outdoors, beyond the isolated self, in a garden dense with spiky symbols of restraint and domesticity—cops, ministers, house detectives, Mann Acts, actions for non-support, double ring ceremonies, dishwashing, PTA meetings, and the like. In the girlie books, however, none of these ominous suggestions appear. Appearances and Proprieties are defined—in stories, cartoons, even in layouts of bachelor quarters—as handmaids to delectation. They are no more to be condemned as evidence of Social Hypocrisy than are the statutes which prohibit catchers from dropping third strikes: they simply add touches of pleasurable intrigue to intimacy. The magazines acknowledge that styles of play vary in this game; they concede too that sticklers for rules may indeed look very uncooperative; and they take sober account of letters like the following (from “B. B.” of New York):
Recently I asked a young lady of my acquaintance if she would care to spend a weekend with me in Las Vegas. She seemed delighted at the idea, and replied that she would be more than happy to be my guest. Then, after I had bought a pair of plane tickets and was about to telegraph for a room reservation, she advised me that, of course, it was going to be separate quarters. I now regret having asked her—but I don’t know how to back out gracefully. What would be a suitable course of action in a situation such as this?
But in answering such letters the magazines do not even glance at the possibility that the weight of some impersonal law or convention may stand behind the young lady’s position. “Honor your word and go,” writes the “Playboy Advisor” to “B. B.,” restating the view that concern about proprieties amounts to proof of availability. “. . . Her acceptance of the invitation and her insistence on the proprieties of separate accommodations imply a desire to maintain appearances coupled with a tacit willingness to be persuaded once you’re on the scene.”
In the second mode of address to the question, How is a man to understand rebuff?, feminine reluctance is treated seriously—as sin. The argument here is quick-shifting and complex, to be sure. The magazines’ primary principles are those which maintain the equality of sexual need and the relative triviality of most girlish hesitation. But there are secondary principles, introduced both to accommodate the more stubborn doubts and to add dramatic tension to the constructed world (dullness conceivably could be the issue of a perpetual coincidence of rut and estrus). And these principles acknowledge the reality of individual crimes, individual constraint. The key word once again is individual. The workings of evil, as traceable in the psyche of the seriously reluctant girl, aren’t to be understood in light of social directives or institutions; they are rather to be seen as the consequence of personal failings: the girl has limited self-knowledge, or is sentimental, power-mad, or greedy. The latter motive, greed, is most often cited as the moral disease of which reluctance is the symptom. Sallies at the golddigger range from clumsy aphorisms (“Year in and year out . . . the most popular [color] among women remains long green”) to febrile, full-length stories. (A recent tale by a writer named Ken Purdy centers on a beautiful clairvoyant who uses her gifts to gull a wary millionaire into marriage. The girl has a vision of herself, shortly after the marriage, in the act of murdering her husband for being unfaithful to her. She describes the vision to her husband, and he responds with a proposal that they separate; the story ends with her answer, a fierce, dollar-crossed No.)
But some attention is also paid to other moral ailments—with the incidental result of a gain in literary variety. An essay by Alfred Kazin abusing “The Cult of Love” is admitted to Playboy—because the essayist’s critique of people who believe in the possibility of a perpetually loving connection between two human beings has the effect of putting down the Bad Woman who cannot bear to confront her essential animality. A forum on the “galloping womanization” of America featuring intelligent praise of the second sex by Ashley Montagu and others is tolerated—because the voice of the editor has the first and last word, a speech against marriage (“the source of an aggressively domineering womanhood”).
As these examples indicate, the effort to equate reluctance with individual sin sometimes leads the girlie books in the direction of misogyny. There are occasional stories in which fornication is treated as a chore. (One story tells of a rich, indulgent father who helps his son win the girl of his choice in face of the disapproval of the girl’s detestably ugly mother; the service performed by the father is that of fornicating with the prospective mother-in-law, in order to persuade her to think well of him and therefore of his son, her daughter’s suitor.) And adumbrations of the theme of the holy marriage of males are not infrequent. But these themes rarely dominate a whole issue of any of the magazines. They amount only to a kind of epicycle, as it were, a corrective adjustment insuring the perfect rounding off of the greater argument. The latter can be summarized as follows: The world is a collection of individual human beings each burning with sexual need. Evil exists—in the form of personal, pathological motives that lead certain individuals to face away from the truth of their need. But Good also exists—free copulation undertaken in accordance with Appearances and Proprieties, rules which (properly considered) increase the pleasure of the act rather in the way that nets on tennis courts increase the pleasure of tennis players. And, in the grand reckoning of experience, the victories of Good greatly outnumber the victories of Evil.
For the popculturist not the least interesting aspect of this version of experience is its point of connection with the versions developed in some notable magazine successes of recent times. The girlie books, in contriving a closed, abstract world driven by inward heat, banish a number of traditional Ideals or Values—as for example, belief in the possibility that love is not a racket, or in the theory of fidelity as a virtue, or in a relationship between femininity and goodness (the good woman is an animal in heat, like the good man); they free their readers from an old burden—nagging intuitions of consecration, forced acknowledgments of a higher, sanctified object. And precisely the same observation can be made about such periodicals as the New Yorker and the Luce string, which themselves are, at bottom, enormously successful enterprises at reduction. For all the pleasant rural pathos of its covers, the shy egalitarian gentleness of its tone, and the passionate sentimentality of its embrace of Down East “natives,” the New Yorker is an anti-pastoral; as it separates the slicker from the rube by touring Elmira and Dubuque for the pure comedy of Upstate or the Midlands, shrugging off the “country” and national solidarity, it releases its audience from the wearing piety of a democratic ideal. And for all its “firm conservatism,” Time is uninterruptedly engaged in promoting disbelief in the different man, the larger talent, the holy genius. It seems reasonable to conclude from these examples, together with that of Playboy, that an important desideratum for a fresh magazine success in the present age is a sharply focused, infinitely manipulable hostility to some enervated piety: nothing less than this can simultaneously simplify modern experience while offering readers absolute assurances of their modernity.
But an evening with the girlie books not only leads to speculation about the elements governing the success or failure of mass magazines, it confirms certain guesses concerning popular understanding of modernity itself. Why, to ask the inevitable question, is the present moment marked by extreme susceptibility to the Playboy fantasy—a societyless world in which ordinary ideals and standards are neither attacked nor mocked but simply “treated” as nonexistent? The stock answer would speak of the “decay of values.” The significant deficiency of the answer—as can be deduced from Playboy itself—is that the idea of decay does not accord with popular notions about the relation between Then and Now. The use of the word implies a present that is worn-out, beaten by natural processes (erosion, mutability), too weak to believe as older generations believed. Whereas the sense of the present implicit in Playboy is fresh and liberated: people who share it might date the beginning of real knowledge close to the opening years of this century; probably tend to think of themselves as tough, clear-eyed, even heroically new; and doubtless are convinced that old orders are currently being rejected not because men are under-muscled but because men are impatient with the fatuity and superstition of ages past.
The point of moment here perhaps seems a shade more obvious than it is. Everyone knows that a recurrent gesture, or myth, in human history has been the myth of the fresh start: we here and now strip ourselves of old nonsense, here and now we make It new—both the individual (the American Adam) and the nation. And there is a connection between these gestures and the whole tone of the girlie books. But in earlier ages such gestures were complicated either by the desire to escape from history into the archetype, as Mircea Eliade explained, or by nostalgia—the feeling that, by scraping away the accumulated muck of certain periods of history, a man might put himself in contact with a favored, earlier epoch distinguished for its clarity and swiftness of perception. What is noteworthy about the popular modern gesture is that nothing complicates it: the substance of the past is understood as stupidity and self-deceit—murk dissipated, as it were, by a single giant (and undescribed) firestorm of the mind which, at an unspecified but recent date, had the effect of canceling every claim offered on behalf of previous rationalizations of society and value. The mind represented or created by Playboy, in short, locates decay in the past and understands the present as the first moment of intelligence for humankind.
Lectures on the limitations of this view are needless here. It is plain enough that the notion is science-ridden. Belief in cataclysms of the brain that smash every standing edifice can be justified where knowledge is considered to be a structure Out There (a sum of learning to be mastered), where the act of Finding Out is thought to involve the replacement of one model by another, where inquiry is undertaken with full expectation of rapid obsolescence in the results. (Whitehead once remarked that before a discipline can become a science it must first lose its memory.) But humanistic knowledge, the goal of which is an alteration of inward being rather than mastery of outward fact, can only be thought of in these terms if the thinker accepts an excessively tendentious reading of the past.1
The sound reason for remarking the girlie books’ dogma of modernity is simply that it stands as a convenient notation of the present state of relations between upper and lower culture. The tendency to consider old human conventions, vocabularies, and knowledge as matter to be scrapped hardly originated in mass magazines. For at least a century upper culture has been disposed to believe that any language which casts a light of ideal illumination or traditional moral significance over human relations, the connection of men and women, is a language no man of sense should allow to violate his tongue. The literary modes of adjustment to this conviction include the treatment of themes inexpressible in the rejected language—divorce in place of courtship, abortion in place of fruition, psychosis in place of initiation into social complexity. The novelist time and time again passes himself off as a thinker by offering lists of concepts—patriotism and courage, for example—which, like the phlogiston theory or the physiology of humors, have been “shown up” by the revolutionary new thought. The contemporary critic begins (as often as not) with a casual allusion to the probability that the thinking of the past on important subjects consists largely of lies (“There are four things that people have habitually lied about: war, money, sex, and themselves,” says Professor John Raleigh in a current Partisan Review, and he goes on to propose that Inexpressibles, a time in which “. . . war, money and sex can now be talked about with some degree of honesty. . . .”) The painful philistine complaint that the new themes and assumptions of upper culture are mere morbidity and chic fails to acknowledge the original goal of the inventors—an infusion of life and vibrancy into debilitated moral imaginations. And in pursuing this goal upper culture has for the most part avoided Wellsian crudities: it no longer asserts straight out that before the modern age people knew nothing worth knowing; it shies away from loud proclamations that “traditional values” have been supported only by stupidity (superstition, mariolatry, absurd heroic romance), or by economic interest, or by stoicism (the Stoical Freudianism, for instance, that is incapable of taking in a Marcuse or Norman O. Brown). But on occasion its hesitancy about making such proclamations seems a mere tic of manners. And for unsubtle readers—people to whom the significance of tics is necessarily obscure: i.e., the makers of lower culture—the oracular temptation to shock is irresistible.
Could the temptation have been indulged in the lower culture of the past? Certainly not, and here is one nub of the significant issue. The makers of lower culture until very recently congratulated themselves not for helping to realize the revolution against traditional values, but for helping to keep the old language up: they talked love, talked parental affection and obligation, talked the satisfactions of the good provider, talked the heroism of self-sacrifice in motherhood. Their language was debased, needless to say; disingenuousness alone can claim that the themes of forbearance treated in George Eliot have any direct connection with the lectures of Dr. Z. (in women’s magazines) on problems of patience at the premenstrual turn of time.2 And there is little virtue in the common insinuation that American upper culture was able to amuse itself (safely) with apocalyptic visions simply because public culture continued to celebrate old orders. But when these concessions are made, the truism remains: the world of culture was once sharply divided, high against low, in its sense of the worth of the moral inheritance.
And now the division is ending. The success of the girlie books is not the only item testifying to this turn of events (some notice could also be given to the sick western, the new humor, the abandonment of daytime soap opera, or even the announcement by the Ladies Home Journal of its eagerness to print aberration tales and domestic fiction that “ends tragically”). But it is striking evidence: these magazines are without qualification post-cataclysm, “through with all that,” utterly sure that no existing moral language is adequate to modern experience (“Honor your word and go” because girls—not pledges—are made to be kept). Their single unironicized clarity (I burn, you burn, she burns, they burn) stands simultaneously as a motto for an emergent masscult school of kitsch existentialism, and as the ground theme for a whole new age—an age of Multiple Inexpressibles, a time in which épater le bourgeois will have become the standard folk gesture.
The task of criticizing such an age, to face at last the root problem, may at length seem insuperable. To repeat: the moralist who decides that the Playboy world is a projection of the elite, a contrivance reflecting the secret will of upper culture, ought to be condemned as a baiter of mind—a man unresponsive to the original need for a revivification of moral understanding. But this does not change the fact that the one language suitable for a direct critique of the girlie books is a dead language, and that upper culture was brilliantly in on its kill. The critical resource that remains—the aesthetic vocabulary (it permits an observer to cry Vulgarity!)—is perhaps not to be despised. Old writers, the third Earl of Shaftesbury for one, once sought to create a morality for aristocrats (“the grown youth of the polite world”) out of it. But even in Shaftesbury’s day, neither the polite nor any other world was polite enough to be ruled by an ethic of moral symmetry or taste. And at present those who use this language, in criticism of mass culture, achieve only a sniffish, unreal tone which brings to mind an image of Faubourg dandies praying on an A train.
The question, in sum (can there not be another language of assessment?) sticks hard; the slumming reader is uncomfortable in the act of evading it. Surely, surely, he mumbles, surely there is something more (an aspiration, a mind delighted in its powers, a father in tears at the thought of his child’s pain, a wife in whose “tongue is kindness,” whose clothing is “strength and honor”); surely “life does not come down to this,” the coupling of beasts. There is something missing? . . . But where is it, what is it, how can it be fixed and known? Not through the agency of abstractions, says his Fineness of Response, his preference for the truth of drama as opposed to the truth of apothegm. Yet fineness, taste, adoration of tales instead of truthtellers, cannot possibly place the depravity of the stuff in hand: only the vocabulary of flat moral counters, which fineness scorns, can do that. The paradox implicit here may or may not serve as a fair, if indirect, measure of the vulnerabilities of an age of intense linguistic inhibition (about all plain terms save obscenities). But the chance is strong that hidden in its intricacies lies at least one of the stinking seeds that brought the girlie books to birth.
1 A tendentious reading in that it seeks only the human absurdities of other ages—Werther, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Victoria on piano limbs, Keats’s astonishment that women (perfect creatures) could “have cancers,” Tennyson’s engagement, etc. History developed in this fashion could make use of writers who claimed that fidelity was a virtue, and showed it forth unconsciously as a form of brutality or cloddish submission; it would ignore writers who in their recommendations of fidelity showed it forth as a mark of imagination (the imaginative apprehension of the pain one being can cause another by holding him or her lightly). It would preserve writers who understood love as a mighty transcendence of self; and omit all who understood love as a sum of gratitude to another for creating the conditions under which self-regard and self-acceptance become possible. Henry James’s strong subtle letter in praise of his mother and of maternal feeling as a value, Dr. Johnson’s remark that a man not married is only half a man—these and ten thousand other moments of unillusioned observation could be allowed no place.
2 It is equally disingenuous, though (and more academic), to claim, out of worship of the aphorism about the inseparability of meaning and style, that lower culture is too vulgar in tone ever to be spoken of as capable of defending a value.