To the Editor:
I’ve read Leo Lowenthal’s article, “Terror’s Atomization of Man,” in the January issue of COMMENTARY, and it interested me very much. . . . The need for cultural leveling in our society is bound up with a consequence of economic leveling, and of profit needs, etc., in the time of monopoly capitalism. And Hitler’s program is the extreme expression of this need. When he attacked intellectuals, for instance, he did it not on the basis of their weakness, but because of the good qualities they represented—the carriers of disinterested discrimination, curiosity, variety. One of the important aspects of the problem concerns the spiritual, the cultural preparation for this—the preparation which leads men to surrender in advance in their spirits. This is important to deal with now, and in doing it, one thing that must be watched, analyzed, pitilessly criticized is modern culture, modern mass culture of movies, radio, etc. This is one of the aspects of the problem which—at the present time—interests me.
But more important. I don’t want merely to be a critic who always objects. However, I don’t like the weakness of the ending of the article. I would say—it would be better merely to leave the article stand as an analysis of the problem from the standpoint it takes, and to draw direct conclusions which flow out of it, or else, to have an ending which is more comprehensible to the reader. The Lowenthal ending is neither. It is generalized, and it will not give a reader any perspective as to what he can do, even about protecting himself in advance from this atomization. And with this, the way it refers to the dreams of freedom and the role of reason permits everyone who wants to, to think he agrees with Mr. Lowenthal and Mr. Lowenthal with him. We must not say Western civilization. We must say capitalist society. And to apply the effort of reason, its theory and practice . . . this can be achieved only “if mankind can free itself from using human beings as commodities.” . . . Why could it not be said—only if mankind struggles and drives on to find the road to socialism? To say mankind uses human beings as commodities is to over-generalize. . . .
The author takes a very general position at the conclusion which offers hope on easy terms. This is dangerous in America where the ideals of democracy are so often put to such fraudulent use, and where people are given a cultural ticket—to use his phrase—that tells them they are free. So again—I think that the ending should have been either directly germane to the article, should have been more explicit so that a real connection could exist between it and the material of the article, or else, a frightening question should have been left. “Do you want this? Do you want to let this happen to you?”
I think that this article and Mr. Lowenthal’s investigation of anti-Semitism stress the need for clearly defining the political and economic use now being made of modern culture. But culture can help to make people consciously ripe for growth, for change. The effect achieved now is the opposite. Because of this, attention must be paid to it, and pitiless analysis and criticism must be made. This isn’t the direct problem but it is related to it.
James T. Farrell
New York City