Commentary Magazine


The Democratic Vista, by Richard Chase

Culture and Radicalism
The Democratic Vista.
by Richard Chase.
Doubleday. 180 pp. $3.95.

 

At a time when so many American intellectuals have been turning to conservatism, the literary critic Richard Chase has moved in the opposite direction. Invoking the tradition of Randolph Bourne and the early Van Wyck Brooks, The Democratic Vista is a call for the reassertion of radical values in American culture—perhaps also in American politics. It is a tentative and a groping book, almost ingenuous in the exposure of its weaknesses; but both as a statement and a sign it seems to me valuable.

The Democratic Vista has won praise from the very people it attacks: reviewers for middle-brow magazines, literary academicians and young critics who seem to feel that Maturity is a goddess sprung full-blown from the brow of Morningside Heights. Every author enjoys praise and Mr. Chase deserves his share; but this kind of praise ought to give him some uneasy moments. For if you write a polemic and the people who are its targets say they like it, something is wrong.

Partly the curious amiability with which Mr. Chase’s book has been received is due to the sponginess of American culture in the 50’s. Dissident criticism, instead of arousing anger and firm response, is often disarmed by a process of bland assimilation; distinctions of opinion are erased by rhetoric, good will, and apathy. But the trouble seems also to arise from the book itself. Mr. Chase first announced his themes in a series of articles that were specific and sharp; in the book these have been rewoven into a dialogue among several characters, the leading one, Ralph Headstrong, speaking for the author and his antagonist, George Middleby, sounding like a smug version of some of the people who have since come along to praise The Democratic Vista. Now the dialogue as a form has its pleasantly old-fashioned attractions, and there are genuine advantages to its use in this book, where no pretense is made at creating “real” characters and the voices come through with awkward yet charming bookishness. But I wonder whether the consequent blurring of polemical edge isn’t too great a price to pay.

At the same time, I feel uneasy about the harsh attacks to which the book has been subjected from the left, notably by Philip Green in the New Republic and Hilton Kramer in Dissent. Quick to catch out the obvious deficiencies of Mr. Chase’s argument, these reviewers have not troubled to consider the direction of his thought, or the possibility that its direction may be more significant than its momentary point of rest; they have failed to see that the book matters as one of the first serious efforts by an American intellectual to reorient himself after the collapse of cold war moods and ideologies.

Through his alter ego Ralph Headstrong, Mr. Chase begins with a sharp criticism of contemporary American culture. He is keen at observing the boredom and purposelessness that lie just beneath the surface of so much “activity,” the loss of zest and animation, the decline of culture into a sort of household convenience. And he asks the right questions: “Will it he possible to keep alive, in an atmosphere of growing conformity, a fruitful versatility of taste and opinion, or are all forms of expression and feelings, above the level of the mass media, being boiled down into a sort of middlebrow mush where all distinctions are lost? How are we to reconcile the American imagination as we find it in our literature—on the whole a literature of extremity, of brilliant fragments, of melodrama, humor, pastoral idyll and romance—with the mild, routine life of the new suburban America?”

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It is in response to such questions that Mr. Chase advances his plea for “cultural radicalism,” an attitude that would seem to include a continued loyalty to avant-garde experimentation, a willingness to think of human existence in extreme terms, an adherence to a radical democratic secularism, and a strong resistance to both mass culture and middlebrow kitsch. In the course of his argument Mr. Chase falls back upon the somewhat worn categories of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, acknowledging that it isn’t always clear whether these refer to styles of life, attitudes toward culture, kinds of occupation, or trivialities of manner. Still, I think he is right in saying that, for all their looseness, the “brow” terms cannot easily be avoided in a discussion of American culture. And by using them, Mr. Chase has reached a conclusion of the first importance: that our culture, as it recedes from high and lowbrow intransigence, is settling at “some sort of middle ground of taste and opinion, a general desire for passivity and rest . . . a fear of the turmoil of the mind, a longing to escape conflict, a longing to assuage all the vivid contradictions and anomalies that in the past have engaged the American mind.”

Some of the liveliest passages in the book occur when Ralph Headstrong elaborates on this view—passages about the changing nature of American anti-intellectualism (less strident, more insidious), about the way American universities are becoming indistinguishable from the surrounding social landscape, about the peculiar temptations that prosperity puts in the way of writers. Mr. Chase is also very good at explaining why some of the views of his mentor, Van Wyck Brooks, no longer hold. Forty-five years ago Brooks, finding himself troubled by the chasm between the intelligentsia and the masses, felt that the goal of a healthy democratic culture should be to bring together the standards of the cultivated minority and the vitality of the plebs. I think it would be a sad mistake if intellectuals were to abandon once and for all this idea of an “organic” culture; but as Mr. Chase explains, a more immediate and urgent need—if only to make possible a later realization of Brooks’s goal—is to preserve a sharp sense of cultural excellence such as the prevalent middlebrow mind in America can’t envisage, let alone encourage.

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As Mr. Chase’s argument unfolds, there is some amusing by-play between Headstrong and Middleby, but a by-play that reveals one of the more serious faults of the book. Too many of its references are those peculiar to an “in-group,” and to get all of them you probably have to be not only a reader of but also a contributor to Partisan Review. Otherwise, you might never guess that a good part of Mr. Chase’s polemic has for its target the conservative “moderation” of Lionel Trilling. Mr. Chase has dulled the force of his argument by engaging in anonymous polemics and by resorting occasionally to a Prufrockian archness of manner. Now anonymous polemic is always a dubious affair: it doesn’t give your opponent a fair chance to strike back and it leaves the outsider bewildered. But more important, Mr. Chase’s approach helps to perpetuate the very gentility and flabbiness he deplores. These days anyone who wants to advance radical ideas, be they in relation to culture or politics, has to risk being charged with bad manners.

Perhaps the best parts of the book are those in which Mr. Chase tries to relate his desire for cultural radicalism with his views on the central tradition of American literature. He is entirely committed to the idea that the central impulse of American literature has been democratic, secular, radical, extremist, and “dialectical” (a term he uses to suggest a mixture of romantic and speculative views which, together, make for an “open” culture). The trouble, however, is that Mr. Chase’s argument becomes, in the narrow sense, too literary: he tends to treat social and personal problems not in their own right but as they provide touchstones for the literary tradition. At times (to be just a little unfair) his radicalism seems to be asserted primarily as a means of preserving a close relationship to writers like Melville, Whitman, and Emerson. Were George Middleby a bit quicker on his feet, he might tell Headstrong to put these great men aside for a moment and to justify his views in strictly contemporary terms.

But the main difficulty in Mr. Chase’s book—a difficulty we all have to face—concerns the relation in our day between politics and culture. At some points Mr. Chase writes as if “cultural radicalism” a self-sufficient attitude quite compatible with the politics of “the liberal virtues—moderation, compromise, countervailing forces, the vital center, the mixed economy.” Which is to say: radicalism in culture, the ADA in politics. If this is a fair deduction from Mr. Chase’s argument, it seems necessary to ask: what content is a “cultural radicalism” divorced from radical politics to have?

The defense of standards, the assault upon middlebrow complacence, the willingness to look at life in tragic perspective—all excellent; but there is surely no reason to assume that these are confined to radicals. When men like Bourne and the early Brooks asserted a need for cultural radicalism, they were writing as socialists or near-socialists who believed that the need of the moment was to bring politics and culture into a closer relationship, not to pull them apart.

Now I can see one circumstance in which a “cultural radicalism” without an accompanying radical politics might be valid. Intellectuals may feel that they are living in a good and healthy society, one which deserves their basic loyalties, but that it is nevertheless their task to keep prodding it toward a higher level of cultural awareness. This would seem to be the way many American intellectuals now explain, or rationalize, their relationship to our society. Part of the time Mr. Chase writes in this spirit too, as when he tells us that “At present, in its immediate applications, radicalism is not political or economic. . . . For the moment, American politics and economics, on the domestic scene, appear impenetrable, mysterious and roughly successful.” If this is true, then “cultural radicalism” has a consistent rationale; but I think it is very far from being true, and so, in his less relaxed moments, does Mr. Chase. At one point he suddenly drops his professorial pose and bursts out with a rush of feeling: “It is time to ask ourselves if a fruitful and humane life will be possible at all in an America full of the flashy and insolent wealth of a permanent war economy, brutalized slums, rampant and dehumanizing Levittowns, race hatred, cynical exploitation, and waste of natural resources, government by pressure groups . . . vulgarization and perhaps destruction of our schools, not to mention the sporadic flash and fallout of ‘nuclear devices.’ Here are enemies enough. Here is the seedbed of new ideologies.”

This is well said, and Mr. Chase’s list of questions could be extended for pages. But if such questions are to the point, are not the “virtues” of “moderation, compromise, etc.” seriously called into doubt? Do our politics and economy seem quite so mysteriously “successful” in mid-1959 as American intellectuals were saying a few years ago? May there not be possible, tomorrow if not today, a new American radicalism which will push beyond the conventional liberal assumptions, yet will not compromise itself with the corruptions and fantasies of the 30’s?

Mr. Chase is aware that he is in difficulties here and he even has George Middleby ask, for once, an intelligent question: “I don’t see how you can force such a gap between what is, or should be, organic—between politics and culture. Isn’t this just an academic stratagem to get yourself off the hook—to allow you, that is, to be radical in merely literary and cultural matters without mingling in the dangerous realities of politics?” To which Mr. Chase, through Headstrong, pointedly replies: “The forcer of the gap . . . is not I but history.”

It is here that Mr. Chase’s critics from the left ought to show a bit more modesty than they have, since it is here that he puts us on the spot. Denying in effect that there is any significant radical politics in America today (he is right), Mr. Chase would then add, I imagine, that the efforts of those intellectuals involved in a venture like Dissent are still essentially “literary.” This is true enough, and there is no point in disputing it. All that can be said in turn to Mr. Chase is that the “literary” nature of intellectual radicalism is an undesired limitation under which we chafe and which we hope eventually to remove.

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Mr. Chase’s reviewers have noticed other difficulties in his book: an all-too-easy assumption that there exists a natural alliance between the literary avant-garde and political radicalism; an equally questionable assumption that the avant-garde is a “permanent movement” in modern culture (I think, to the contrary, that it has reached a point of at least temporary exhaustion). But it would be captious to end on a negative note. Mr. Chase’s book seems to me an important sign of a certain shift in sentiment and opinion, still modest in its proportions, that is beginning to take place among American intellectuals. The worst of the cold war fanaticism has died out. The more vulgar varieties of anti-Communism have lost their appeal (indeed, a new danger is that of a sophisticated reconciliation with Communist power). The jeering scorn to which radicals have been subjected these past fifteen years has begun to soften a little. Faint beginnings can be discerned of a new worry, a new uneasiness. Mr. Chase’s book provides a possible way for transforming these responses into ideas; and if some of us feel that it is not strong enough here or clear enough there, we ought to be grateful to him for raising the problem of radicalism once again, and in circles where it has become the fashion to dismiss it. We might also remember the old Jewish saying that there is more than one way of getting into paradise.

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