Commentary Magazine


The Herd of Independent Minds:
Has the Avant-Garde Its Own Mass Culture?

In Shakespeare’s England, a man waiting his turn in a barber shop would take a violin from the wall and entertain himself and his neighbors; in Louis B. Mayer’s America, millions of men (and their families) passively see the same movie or watch the same television program at the same time. For the intellectuals of our day, this mass culture has been a threat (which some have evaded by self-isolation) and a challenge (which some have answered by studying the wicked magic that makes mass culture so effective). Yet, as Harold Rosenberg here maintains, it is possible that the 20th-century intellectual, in his relations with the world of mass culture, has been himself unknowingly seduced and conquered just when he thought he was fighting the hardest.

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The basis of mass culture in all its forms is an experience recognized as common to many people. It is because millions are known to react in the same way to scenes of love or battle—because certain colors or certain kinds of music will call up certain moods—because assent or antagonism will inevitably be evoked by certain moral or political opinions—that popular novels, movies, radio programs, magazines, advertisements, ideologies can be contrived. The more exactly he grasps, whether by instinct or through study, the existing element of sameness in people, the more successful is the mass-culture maker. Indeed, so deeply is he committed to the concept that men are alike that he may even fancy that there exists a kind of human dead center in which everyone is identical with everyone else, and that if he can hit that psychic bull’s eye he can make all of mankind twitch at once. (The proposition, “All men are alike” replaces the proposition, “All men are equal” in the “democracy” of mass-culture institutions, thus making it possible for rich or politically powerful mass-culture leaders to enjoy their advantages while still regarding themselves as “men of the people.”)

On the other hand, the producer of mass culture has no use for experience, his own or another’s, which cannot be immediately shared. What is endured by one human being alone seems to him unreal, or even an effect of madness. The “alienation” of the artist, his characteristic neurosis, which we hear so much about today, is an essential axiom of mass-culture thinking: every departure from the common experience appears to be an abnormality requiring some form of explanation—medical, sociological, etc. Actually, the concept that the artist is “alienated from reality” has little to support it either in the psychology of artists or in any metaphysics of art. As Thomas Mann said recently, it depends on who gets sick; the sickness of a Nietszche may bring him much closer to the truth of the situation, and in that sense be much more “normal,” than the health of a thousand editorial writers.

The image of the “alienated individual” is usually derived by American contemporaries from Marx. Marx, however, sees alienation as the condition not of the artist but of the common man of industrial society; for him it is the factory worker, the business man, the professional, who is “alienated in his work” through being hurled into the fetish-world of the market. The artist is the only figure in this society who is able not to be alienated, because he works directly with the materials of his own experience and transforms them. Marx therefore conceives the artist as the model of the man of the future. But when current critics influenced by Marxist terminology talk of alienation they mean something directly contrary to Marx’s philosophical and revolutionary conception. They mean not the tragic separation of the human individual from himself, but the failure of certain sensitive spirits (themselves) to participate emotionally and intellectually in the fictions and conventions of mass culture. And this removal from popular hallucination and inertia they conceive as a form of pathos!

Nothing could be more vulgar, in the literal meaning of the term, than whining about separation from the mass. That being oneself and not others should be deplored as a condition of misery is the most unambiguous sign of the triumph in the individual of the ideology of mass culture over spiritual independence. It is a renunciation of everything that has been gained during the past centuries through the liberation of mankind from the authoritarian community.

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The opposition of mass-culture making to anything individual goes far beyond mere rejection or even social condemnation. It claims to assert a truth regarding the very nature of human reality: that the real situation of the individual is that in which he is aware of himself in mass terms. The most explicit and aggressive formulation of this metaphysical bias is to be found in the Soviet Union, where the mass-culture principle has been carried to its logical conclusion. There individual experience is denounced officially as an aberration from real life.

Discussing “plays dealing with the situation arising from the return home of Russian soldiers,” Drew Middleton reports (New York Times, Feb. 11, 1948) that “the fidelity or infidelity of the soldier’s wife, his own amorous affairs at the front, were not considered essential problems of real life by the dramatic critics of the Kremlin” (my italics). Middleton then cites the list of situations with which Soviet art is bidden to concern itself: the victory in World War II, socialist reconstruction, etc. The list comprises only situations common to Soviet citizens, and the artist is directed to create an emotional and pictorial equivalent of this “real” experience. Needless to add, the recent attack on “formalism” in music means that too much individuality must not be allowed to sneak into even the manner in which the artist deals with the mass experience.

It may be argued that what is wrong with Soviet art is not that it restricts itself to the common experience but that its version of that experience is false; were it faithfully to reflect the true experience of the Soviet masses it might be valid art. But how can one speak of a common Soviet experience without taking into account that it itself is formed by Soviet mass culture? Mass—cultural statements are constantly in the process of making themselves true by causing people to experience their common lives in those terms. To illustrate: several years ago the WPA Writers’ Program interviewed old Negroes who had been slaves in the South before Emancipation. A large majority had an image of their own slavery identical with that of the romantic apologists of plantation life. One was left to assume either that the romantic picture is a true description of slavery, or that it became true to the ex-slaves by absorbing their actual experience into itself.

Thus we may take it for granted that the collective experience of the Russians resembles at any given moment the version of it presented by Soviet novels and movies to roughly the same degree that the common experience of Americans corresponds to the Hollywood or slick-magazine presentation of it. Each American knows that these smooth and understandable portraits are not faithful to him. But he does not know that they do not truly picture other Americans. In sum, mass-culture—making operates according to certain laws that cause it to be potentially “true” of the mass but inevitably false to each individual. It is not just Soviet mass culture that is false. What is “experientially” (moral and political values are something else) wrong with Soviet mass culture is simply that it is mass culture-and what is wrong with the Soviet Union is that it checks the creation of any other kind of culture. But we, too, have less of “the other kind” than we imagine, as I shall show later.

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Let me make it clear that the difference between mass culture and authentic art is not that the first deals with the community or mass while the second depicts only the single individual. There is a mass culture of “individuals” too, obviously—as in the myriad applications of the Boy Meets Girl formula. On the other hand, there is an authentic art, even in modern times, of masses and of crowds—e.g., the battle panoramas of Tolstoy, Zola, or Malraux, or the street movements of Romains.

What counts is not the number of people involved in the situation but the nature of the experience that goes into the work. The formulated common experiences which are the substance of mass culture must be distinguished from the common situations in which human beings find themselves. The common situation is precisely what the common experience with its mass-culture texture conceals, and is often intended to conceal. But the genuine work of art, going past the formulated common experience, may succeed in communicating the common situation—all too clearly from the point of view of the guardians of stasis. I doubt that those in authority would be so violently opposed to authentic art if, as they claim, it revealed only the private personality of the artist and had no further reference. On the contrary, I am inclined to believe that when art is condemned as “lacking broad meaning” or as “unrelated to real life” these accusations often disguise the fear that the exact opposite is true—that this deviation has too much meaning and bears too acute a relation to life to be reconciled with the common myth.

To penetrate through the common experience to the actual common situation requires a creative act—that is to say, an act that directly grasps the life of people during, say, the War or the Plan, that grasps the War from the inside, so to speak, as a situation with a human being in it. But the moment an artist, ignoring the War as an external fact known to all, approaches it as a possibility that must be endured over again in the imagination by anyone who would genuinely experience it, he puts the existing mass conception of it into question. Consequently, the result of such a creative act is to arouse not only hostility on the part of officials who have a stake in the perpetuation of some agreed-upon version of the War, but also a general distrust and uneasiness. For the work of art takes away from its audience its sense of knowing where it stands in relation to what has happened to it and suggests to it that its situation might be quite different than it has suspected, that it is jammed with elements not yet perceived and lies open to the unknown . . . .

Exactly in so far as he touches the common situation of man in the 20th century, Kafka goes against the common experience; he undermines its self-confidence, which rests on a whole system of assumptions as “false to reality” as the formulas of behavior in a best seller; and for this reassuring common experience he substitutes only the tension of an individual struggling for self-knowledge, a cloudy and painful seeing and not-seeing. Along this rocky road to the actual it is only possible to go Indian file, one at a time. It means breaking up the crowd—not “reflecting” its experience.

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If the essential assumption of mass-culture-making is that only the experience recognized as common is real, the failure to be conscious that this assumption is being made leads only to confusion. In the Soviet Union there is no confusion on this score. Non-mass art is outlawed and any expression of non-mass experience dangerous. Here in the United States the principle of the common experience operates more or less in disguise to produce different levels of mass culture, including a specifically anti-mass-culture mass culture. From “significant” novels, through “highbrow” radio programs, to “little” magazine articles and stories, a variety of mass-culture forms pits the mass culture of small groups against the mass culture of the masses. The result is not the creation of an artistic culture but of a pyramid of “masses” of different sizes, each with expressions of its own common experience.

Now the interesting thing about this pyramid is that the farther each level gets above the mass base of the multi-millions the closer it is presumed to get to genuine art. Thus even radio and Hollywood have their Norman Corwin and Orson Welles, who by the scale of the mass-culture structure are true artists because they appeal to “small” audiences. And magazines designed for college professors and writers are assumed to be more culturally pertinent than those whose audience are housewives or prurient bon vivants.

Yet a single conviction falls like a plumbline through all the levels of the pyramid, from its apex to its base: the conviction that the artist ought to communicate the common experience of his level, and that if he fails to do this it is because he is an egotist and “irresponsible.” Each level of mass culture on the basis of this same conviction holds the level above it to be filled with “nuts,” that is, with artists and an audience “cut off from the people,” snobs who insist on “expressing themselves” and thus shirk the true labors of art and enlightenment. Thus an editor of Look once disclosed to me his mingled awe and contempt for the esoteric highbrows who write for the tiny audience of the Atlantic Monthly, and the same feeling prevails in the advertising agencies toward Corwin as a writer of “sustainers.”

The irresponsible-artist, or artist-nut, formula, based on audience scale, works both ways: on the one hand, anybody who has a “small” audience (from a million in radio to five in poetry) is automatically suspected of being a genuine artist; on the other, any artist whose experience seals him off from the mass, big or small, is regarded as a megalo-maniac. A literary agent said the other day of a writer appearing in little magazines: “Oh, he writes for posterity. An even worse egotist than the rest.”

It is amusing, however, to trace this same artist-egotist formula into an anti-mass-culture organ like Partisan Review. In issues closely following one another, Partisan reviewers meted out the following judgments: that Dostoevsky and Kafka were neurotics; that there was little in Thomas Mann’s Essays of Three Decades that had meaning beyond the author’s literary exhibitionism—“In the end,” said the review (entitled “The Sufferings and Greatness of Self-Love”), “[Mann] continues to love only himself . . . . “; that Paul Valéry failed “to convey any substantial doctrine beyond the existence of the particular man and writer” and therefore fell down both as artist and thinker; that “in the Journal Gide’s self-analysis too often begins and ends with Gide,” so that André Gide too had been destroyed by self-interestedness.

Each of these artists, according to Partisan Review’s intellectual captains of thousands, is an egotist lost in himself, “alienated” from others, incapable of a valid formulation of the common experience of the modern intellectual and of a “substantial doctrine” for him, and to that extent a failure as an artist. In the phrase once popular in radical circles, it is “no accident” that these estimates of Dostoevsky, Kafka, Mann, Gide, and Valéry are shared with Partisan Review by Soviet criticism. Mass culture, whether of the flat plain of the One Big Mass or of the pyramid of the Many Small Masses, must deny the validity of the single human being’s effort to arrive at a consciousness of himself and of his situation, and must be blind to his practice of a distinctive method of giving form to his experience. The insight of the “particular man” must be crushed by the “substantial doctrine,” even when, unhappily, one happens to be without such a doctrine.

Thus the reduced audience scope of a mass-culture undertaking, be it a radio program or a publisher’s book list, does not alter its mass-culture character; just as the popularity of a Durante or Chaplin does not prevent them from being genuine artists, regardless of the indifference of the little mass. True, the masses do not read Kafka or Henry James. But a literary magazine, no matter how “little,” does not escape being a mass-culture organ simply by interesting itself in these writers, when in discussing them it reduces their work to formulas of common experience. This reduction is the very method by which Hollywood or the Church or the Communist party appropriates the artist and his creation to its own uses whenever it can—e.g., the capture of Dostoevsky by Hollywood, Rimbaud by the Church, Van Gogh by the CP—under the pretext of “bringing culture to the people.” The peak of the mass-culture pyramid and its base are made of the same material.

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Intellectuals who set themselves against mass culture become contributors to it by shifting small-mass perspectives to previously neglected fields, as in the “novelization” of the Okies by Steinbeck or of the Chicago Irish by Farrell. This activity might be understood as part of the general expansion of mass culture, its imperialist dynamic, so to speak, by which humanity is increasingly converted into “the common man” through the discovery and penetration of new areas of experience in order to derive from them the raw materials of new cultural commodities.

The area which intellectuals have most recently staked out for themselves as belonging to culture par excellence is the common historical experience. While down below one still hears about love, crime, ambition, the top of the pyramid is reserved exclusively for the history-conscious small mass. There the talk is of “the experience of the 20′s” or of “the 30′s,” “the experience of the younger generation” or of “the depression generation,” “the epoch of the concentration camp,” etc. To be accepted by the intellectual mass, experience must come wrapped in a time package.

It is to the credit of a writer like Jean-Paul Sartre that when he makes contemporary historical experience his point of departure for literature he does so with full consciousness of what this means. Sartre knows that beginning with the common experience implies mass culture. Hence Sartre is in favor of reaching a big audience, of writing for the movies and for radio in order to inform and convert the popular mind. He rejects the individual as an object of literary interest and attacks Valéry and Gide on principled grounds. He insists on the “engagement” or participation of the artist in the social problems of his time and place and in political activity. In this respect his view corresponds to that of the Communists and the Gaullists against whom he is struggling.

American intellectuals are, however, reluctant to face the mass-culture consequences of their historical self-definitions. They retain a nostalgia for the personal and unique, for esoteric art, for small-group attitudes, even while they deplore the inadequacy of these standpoints. As individuals they see themselves in terms of what they have in common with others; in the mass they sense themselves despondently as individuals. Thus they cannot act creatively either for the individual or for the mass.

This spirit of mass-individual evasion is expressed poetically in the verse of Auden and Spender, which has had the widest and to my mind the most stupefying dead-end influence upon the so called younger generation. Here is an excellent example of the voice of this spirit, picked at random out of a review of Spender’s poems in the New York Times:

The shame of what I never was
That when I lived my life among these
    dead
I did not live enough—that when I loved
Among these dead I did not love enough—
That when I looked the murderers in
    their eyes
I did not die enough—
                                            I lacked
That which makes cities not to fall
The drop of agonizing sweat which changes
Into impenetrable crystal—
And every stone of the stone city
To moments held through time.

According to the Times Spender here “rises to magnificence and responsibility” (my italics). To me this poem is pure cant. It brings in “these dead” to bestow significance upon the poet’s feelings, which had nothing to do with them and which are not described—thus avoiding the individual experience through giving the impression of solidarity with mass experience and then it claims for this nonexistent individual a fantastic power over the destiny of others, by his passion to “make cities not to fall.” Such a combination of avoidance of responsibility for individual experience with avoidance of responsibility for social thinking is now known as “responsible” poety. And, of course, every truly independent mind must believe in “responsible literature,” as well as “alienation,” the “failure” of radicalism, the obsolescence of the individual, etc.

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In the December 1947 issue of Commentary Robert Warshow, writing of “The Legacy of the 30′s,” expresses an antagonism to mass culture per se. Unlike the French Existentialists, Warshow feels not only hemmed in but internally invaded by the intellectual commodities of contemporary society. Mass culture for him is the alien within the gate, the slot on the altar, the Trojan horse that brings the ready-made into the halls of the original. “Its mere existence—” he says, “this climate in which one had to live—was a standing threat to one’s personality, was in a sense a deep personal humiliation.” Warshow correctly notes the presence of a “mass culture of the educated classes” and recognizes in its surface seriousness a further obstacle to individual experience.

Yet despite his horror of mass culture, Warshow’s entire approach is an “us” approach, that is to say, a mass-culture approach—though his “us” is not the masses but the small mass of the intellectuals. “For most American intellectuals,” he begins his article, “the Communist movement of the 1930′s was a crucial experience.” He is referring, obviously, to the fact that American writers, artists, students, had various relations with Marxist parties and Marxist ideas. I don’t know, and neither does Warshow, what this contact has meant to each of these people in terms of the total structure of his consciousness—that is, we cannot say whether for any individual his “Communist experience” was crucial or not. Perhaps it was crucial for certain men who went to Spain and got killed. But even then, in the instances I happen to be familiar with, other experiences played at least as important a part in such decisions as “the experience of Communism.”

Warshow is able to state flatly that this was “crucial” only because he is discussing “the” Communist experience as a mass event. Yet from this point of view, it seems that Marxism in the United States became a renunciation or negation of experience, a plunging of the individual into mass inertia, precisely because he yielded himself up to the general intellectual “climate.” There wasn’t any significant group experience of Communism in America except in the negative sense, and this is one of the main reasons why people ran away from it. Then why talk about it as “crucial”? Or, better still, why not talk about some other kind of experience? Because since it happened to an historical “us” it seems to Warshow most significant: “It is for us what the First World War and the experience of expatriation were for an earlier generation. If our intellectual life is stunted and full of frustration,1 this is in large part because we have refused to assimilate that experience . . . never trying to understand what it means as part of our lives.” (My italics.)

Warshow then goes on to measure the success of Edmund Wilson’s and Lionel Trilling’s “assimilation” and expression of “that experience” as efforts in an essential task that lies before the modern intelligence.

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Now I was alive in the 30′s too and also underwent the intellectual impact of the Marxist movement, as well as popular-front novels and movies, the New Deal, peculiarities of the erotic in the urban human being, and a good portion of other contemporaneous phenomena. Yet I find that there is very little that is of interest to me in my thoughts and my feelings that is dealt with by either Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling. Yes, what they describe sounds familiar, one had heard about it, even run into it personally.

But somehow the experience of these men does not communicate with mine nor seem very pertinent to it—to think it important I should have to impose upon my reactions some external literary or historical or social “value.” Maybe this is because Warshow is right, and Wilson and Trilling are dealing with “that experience,” that is, with something common in the 30′s, but not with any significant experience or hypothesis of their own. Now perhaps the faintness of my response to this historical souvenir only proves that my experience lacks universality or is even out of date. All right, then I confess—the tension of my experience never belongs to the right time or place. Besides my experience of “the 30′s,” it contains all sorts of anachronisms and culture fragments: the Old Testament and the Gospels, Plato, 18th-century music, the no ion of freedom as taught in the New York City school system, the fantastic emotional residues of the Jewish family. If one extended and deepened this compendium, one would get to a kind of tiny Finnegan’s Wake, which, incidentally, in contrast to Memoirs of Hecate County, 1 do find very communicative.

At any rate, the rhythm of my experience is broken and complicated by all sorts of time-lags, symbolic substitutions, decayed absolutes, experimental hypotheses. Because I am so peculiarly (and also not so peculiarly) mixed up, I confess, too, that it doesn’t matter to me much whether I belong to Wilson’s and Trilling’s generation or to Warshow’s. There was a journalism of Americans in the First World War and an even wider journalism perhaps of American expatriation. Yet adding up the “assimilations” of all these literary epochs and generations that take me back to the cradle, for some reason they seem to have communicated less to me about my situation, to have less deeply penetrated my experience, and to have contributed less to my verbal and intellectual resources than, say, Poe, Rimbaud, Dostoevsky, Gide, Miró, Klee, and a lot of other people who didn’t participate in this American experience of “ours,” or William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens, whose poetry contains scarcely a word about their “generation,” or E. E. Cummings, who said some very private things about his.

What I am getting at is that when someone says, as Warshow does, of some one common experience that “that experience is the most important experience of our time,” such a statement can have only a mass-culture meaning. And once you’ve taken this position, to call for a writer to communicate that experience “as it really is, as it really feels,” is simply to ask for a better” mass culture, in the way that Hollywood or some Soviet writers’ union periodically calls for a more real and more passionate and even a more original and inspired rendering of The Most Epic Event Of Our Times. If Warshow, having properly rejected Trilling’s novel for dealing with modern life as if it were entirely a question of which opinions to hold, is really interested in “making it possible for the writer himself to have a meaningful experience in the first place,” he should stop trying to decide in advance what is meaningful to everybody and concentrate on what is meaningful to him. For individual experience it is necessary to begin with the individual. Maybe there is no individual in the old sense of the term. This cannot be gone into here. But whatever there is, one will not arrive at it by reflecting oneself in a “we.”

No one will deny that common situations exist. It may be, too, that the most profound, or even the most ephemeral, individual experiences are, or may prove to be after they have been authentically set down, in essential respects duplicated in many men and sometimes perhaps in all men. In fact “most profound” may ultimately turn out to be the same as “most common.” The question is not of uniqueness as a goal, of the artist as a lone wolf programmatically dissociating himself from society and the pathos of human life; it is a question of where to begin and toward what kind of communication to move.

Acceptance of the mass-culture dogma that the artist must become the medium of a common experience will result in the same contrived and unseeing art, whether the assignment is made by a movie producer, a party cultural official, or by the artist himself as a theoretician of social relevance. That genuine art can be created to order in modern times has never been demonstrated. Apologists for popular art are fond of referring to Egypt, Greece, medieval or Renaissance Europe, where the artist-as-craftsman was the creator of a high art, officially commissioned, and more or less immediately accessible to its intended audience. But these apologists neglect the fundamental differences between the sources and content of inspiration in the authentic communities of the past, on the one hand, and within the relations that exist in modern industrial society, on the other.2 Under present conditions a true work of art may accidentally attract a large audience, but more and more elements in it tend to overlap the audience’s responses. Even works once popular become increasingly esoteric by comparison with, and under the pressure of, the mass consumption of manufactured novels, movies, radio programs, etc. For instance, Somerset Maugham recently argued in the New York Times in favor of abridging The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, and other world classics, on the ground that nobody read them in their entirety any more anyway, or had to.

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The present cultural situation seems to present to the writer the following alternative. Either accept the common experience as a point of beginning, embrace mass culture, start “enlightening” some public about itself, and forget about art and about experience “as it really is, as it really feels.” The writer who makes this choice will obtain from outside his work—from politics, from sociology, from religion, from “public opinion,” from the policy representative of some corporation or group—a set of “values” which he will endeavor, through such feelings, fancies, and “ideas” as he can muster to his subject, to communicate to a prefabricated audience of experience-comrades. Here communication means a formula, whether in the images of a work of art or in the rhetoric of opinions, by which the member of the audience learns from the author what he already knows, or could have found out—that together with others he is an ex-radical, or a Jew, or feels frustrated, or lives in a postwar world, or prefers freedom to tyranny. Repetition of these mass-cultural themes with all the resources of fancy may prove of practical value to humanity—as when a group of “bad” fictions, like anti-minority caricatures, are replaced with “good” fictions, images of men as equal—and to this service the writer may choose to dedicate himself.

Or the writer may choose to break through mass culture itself. In that case he will reject the time packages and sociology packages in which experience is delivered fresh every morning, and begin with the tension of what most agitates, and conceals itself from him. He will voluntarily enter into a kind of Socratic ignorance. For he will accept the fact that he cannot know, except through the lengthy unfolding of his art work itself, what will prove to be central to his experience. Creating his art is then part of his very experiencing; it is his way of revealing his existence to his consciousness and of bringing his consciousness into play upon his existence. And this art communicates itself as an experience to others, not because one man’s experience is the same as other men’s, but because each of those others, like the author, is unique to himself and can therefore recognize in his own experience the matchless experience of another human being and even perhaps the presence of some common situation and the operation of some hidden human principle. The authentic artist arrives at the common situation at the end of his effort—e.g., the emergence of decadent French society in Remembrance of Things Past—or rather he does not arrive at it, for no one can arrive at the whole, but by way of his own humanity he moves spontaneously towards the humanity of others.

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Only the individual can communicate experience, and only another individual can receive such a communication. The individual is in society—that goes without saying. He is also isolated and, like Ivan Ilyich, dies alone. I find it no more noble or picturesque to stress the isolation at the expense of involvement than to stress the sentiment for the social at the expense of isolation. Poses are a matter of taste, sometimes of achieving spiritual efficiency. I should like only to make sure that nobody is bullied by the abstract concept of social responsibility into becoming useless to himself and to his fellow men, or even a menace. Obviously, the isolation of an artist’s work, or his personal loneliness, if that happens to be his fate, does not deprive his accomplishment of social meaning. Nor in rejecting the “responsibility” of the representative of mass-thought for the sake of his concrete experience does he make himself an “irresponsible.” (It is humiliating to have to repeat these truisms and to mention such examples of artistic responsibility by way of concrete experiencing as Gide’s Trip to the Congo or Cummings’ The Enormous Room—but I here testify to my own social responsibility by acknowledging the power of vulgar antitheses and doing my bit about them.)

The mass-culture maker, who takes his start from the experience of others, is essentially a reflector of myths, and is without experience to communicate. To him man is an object seen from the outside. Indeed it could be demonstrated that the modern mass-culture élite, even when it trots around the globe in search of historical hotspots where every six months the destiny of man is decided, actually has less experience than the rest of humanity, less even than the consumers of its products. To the professional of mass culture, knowledge is the knowledge of what is going on in other people; he alone trades his experience for the experience of experience. Everyone has met those culture-conscious “responsibles” who think a book or movie or magazine wonderful not because it illuminates or pleases them but because it tells “the people” what they “ought to know.”

The makers of mass culture are its first and most complete victims. The anonymous human being to whom they bring their messages has at least the metaphysical advantage of being forced to deal daily with material things and real situations—tools, working conditions, personal passions. The fact that his experience has a body means that mass culture is to him like a distorting mirror in an amusement park; whereas the “enlighteners,” whose world is made up entirely of mental constructions, live inside the mirror.

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Footnotes

1 In my opinion, if someone’s intellectual life is “stunted and full of frustration” it may be because he belongs to a crowd but it is not because of something that happened to a crowd.

2 I have outlined this problem in “The Profession of Poetry and M. Maritain,” Partisan Review, September-October, 1942.

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