Commentary Magazine


The Image Industries, by Fr. William Lynch, S.J.

Mass Culture and the Good Life
The Image Industries.
by Fr. William Lynch, S.J. Sheed and Ward.
159 pp. $3.50.

 

Reading books about mass entertainments is, in the long run, exceptionally depressing. Taken separately, they are often peculiarly fascinating—crammed with curious detail and illustration, and sometimes brilliantly perceptive in their individual observations. But as a body they leave one feeling further than ever from understanding what are, after all, the only important questions about mass entertainments: what do they tell us about ourselves, and about the tendencies of out societies? There are practically no commonly agreed points for literary-critical or social judgments, no tools and no frame. What we tend to get ranges between these two extremes: hair-raising exposés erected against a pasteboard background of trite moral assumptions, or witty and acute exercises within a philosophic vacuum. It’s by and large a world of unexamined assumptions or refusals to assume anything.

There are some kinds of assumption which don’t depress in this way, are comparatively easy to allow for, and can sometimes illuminate by contrast. For instance, it seems roughly true to say that there is a difference in the way people on opposite sides of the Atlantic tend to approach mass entertainments. On the whole, American writers begin with more sympathy for them than Europeans. Of course this doesn’t stop Americans from being highly critical and some of them even outdo the Europeans in their high bourgeois stance. But by and large Americans are less hostile initially to mass entertainments, readier to make allowances, less likely to work from behind some initially assumed class or cultural-minority barrier. Presumably this is connected with the differences between American and European attitudes to “the common man,” with the Americans’ confidence that people will work the dirt out of their own laundry, and their suspicion of the claims of any elite. The brisk air of most essays in, for instance, Mass Culture (Free Press, 1957) wouldn’t have been evident in a European anthology.

By contrast, a typical European writer on mass entertainments has something of the air of the boy with his finger in the dike, or of someone defending “Western values” against the new barbarian hordes. He tends to assume a hieratic, a culturally aristocratic posture. At the best we have Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses (and Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture is a remarkably cogent European-style book here). But the general attitude runs right into the hinterlands of opinion. The contrast shows even in lecture audiences on the two continents. In my experience an American audience at a talk on mass entertainments (especially from an Englishman) soon begins to seem uneasy, as though they suspect you are about to make a nasty snobbish attack on the nice guy next door. European audiences—especially teachers; I’ve felt this response from teachers in Stuttgart as in Manchester—seem to be silently inviting you to do your worst in describing the horrors of the pleasures of “the masses”; and sometimes in the discussion afterward they bear witness that they are, stoically but unexpectantly, doing their bit by insisting on teaching Latin in the Sixth Form, in spite of the “telly,” the Daily Mirror, and the technologists.

Americans will be able to say for themselves whether European assumptions illuminate parts of the subject for them. Certainly Europeans can learn a lot from the initial American sympathy. Our sense of separation often inhibits us from simply taking the trouble to get to know as much as most American writers about the sheer detail of mass entertainments, the immense variety of styles and standards within them. We approach them as if we’re looking for clinical specimens; and our samples are often simply accidental. More important, we judge them and their audiences from a position so far outside, imaginatively and emotionally, that we partly misjudge them. Worse, some of those Englishmen who do know a lot of the detail and insist that they are, in spirit, “one of the boys” are really showing only an unsavory form of intellectual’s low-browism.

But the really disconcerting quality in much of this writing (from both continents) is that lack of an adequate frame of reference, artistic or moral, which I mentioned earlier (naturally there are a few good exceptions). For I don’t see how you can discuss mass entertainments without trying to get, before or in the process, some notion of good critical standards and some notion (obviously it needn’t be made explicit in general assertive statements) of what you believe to be—yes—the good life.

What, in fact, do we usually find? Direct moralistic disquisitions which are heavy with unimaginative good intention but factually and artistically ill nourished. With these, The Robe is “wholesome” because it “promotes wholesome attitudes.” There is some good Catholic writing on general aesthetics; there is practically no good Christian or directly moralistic writing on mass entertainments.

Then there are those massively documented volumes, often by university professors of “communications”—who know every single one of the trees but reject any “evaluation” of the wood. They are not even old-fashioned direct moralists; they simply accept, and do the documentation for, whatever the businessmen or the bureaucrats have thrown up—20th-century Dr. Panglosses, oiling the big machines.

Then come the writers of intellectual horror comics, who cash in particularly on the American taste for harrowing exposures of the American plight. They have things both ways; they release floods of scarifying evidence and heart-warming righteous indignation, in manners which—they have learned from the mass entertainers themselves—make for quick but not lasting effects and large immediate sales. The Hidden Persuaders is one of this type. But the trickiest of all are those books which show considerable aesthetic insight and brilliantly sharp and witty individual perceptions, but whose authors are so anxious not to be caught short in a moralizing or rhetorical position that they adopt a manner so brittle, so crackling, so “knowing” that you soon feel as though you’ve stayed too long at a cocktail party eating savory little nothings until your stomach aches for a square meal. The last thing any of them are happy to be found doing is relating what they say, even by implication, to judgments of value about men and their relationships.

This is a long preamble to what set out to be a review, but I think justifiably long. For reasons which will now be clear I approached this book, since it is by a Jesuit priest and has a catchpenny title, with no great expectations. But I ended it with a feeling of considerable admiration.

Father Lynch sets out to do two main things. First, to show that creative artists, critics, and what he calls “speculative theologians” can work together in exploring mass entertainments, because they should have in common a sense of “the reality of man” (his variety and complexity, his freedom and responsibility, his splendors and miseries), and so a common concern with the imaginative life of society. In doing this he hammers at the inadequacies of his fellow theologians much more than at the inhibitions of the critics.

Second, he selects four major characteristics of mass entertainments, each of which he sees doing violence to the qualities named above: the blurring of reality with fantasy; the flattening out of feeling; the reduction of imaginative freedom, and gargantuanism (the spectacular and sensational). Incidentally, how aptly they all apply to, in particular, Disney and especially to his latest opus, The Sleeping Beauty. In separate chapters Father Lynch illustrates these qualities, in detail, from films and television programs most of us will know.

The book is deliberately short and in parts confessedly sketchy. Still, some sections ought to have been expanded or omitted: for example, those on regionalism, comedy and tragedy (all in one chapter): and elsewhere some necessary distinctions are not made (e.g. the reference to kitsch is misleading and so is the lumping of Mickey Spillane with horror comics). But on the themes and within the limits I’ve outlined above this is a convincing performance. I am not a philosopher, but the treatment of moral issues seems to me sensitive and relevant. Parenthetically, Father Lynch believes, like a good American, in the ordinary man; and argues for his belief like a good Catholic. His critical judgments are usually well based (see his valuable distinction between “virtue” and “virtuosity” in popular entertainment). In all this he points at the two major issues in discussion about mass entertainments: the artistic and the moral (and he sees their essential unity). Within this chosen compass his book makes some remarkably shrewd and pointed observations which could help us all, as he firmly says he hopes they will, to do rather better on the subject—theologians to think more pertinently and critics to give up their elegant fence-sitting.

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