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The Hell Of The American Arts
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 8:31 pm - The Hell Of The American Arts
Pandemonium is a city in Hell; many writers have wandered through the town enough to describe both its architecture and who lives there. Milton says it is darkness made visible, and calls its towers and palaces a vanity that in its mimicry of perfection is a subtle but deep parody of Heaven. Turning the famed epigram of Hillel upside down, Hell is a place where people do unto others as they do not want done unto themselves.
Dante says people live in Hell because they want to be there. Shelley claims, Hell is a city much like London. Sartre reports it is a closed room filled with human failure. The prophets call it a pit where the remains of the unredeemable are thrown into oblivion. Philosophers and Indian spiritual masters see it as a landscape of fools charmed by the senses and comely illusions. Illusion and reality is certainly the center of all these speculations. Spenser's Palace of Pride and his Duessa are diabolical manifestations of the power of Hell to mimic the felicities of Heaven.
One day when I was in a Latin American town I saw two hundred dogs quarreling over a small charred bone in the street. The dogs were all wizened, gaunt, desperate and loud in their battle. I said to myself, in America these would be Artists. Their Hell is of two kinds. They are really impoverished by their nature and calling; to survive they must appear as teachers, journalists, bureaucrats, critics, taxi drivers and waiters. Their poverty does not inspire them to charity. Most of them would injure and kill for a chance at a minor or trivial boon.
It is this lack of love for the mortal souls of their world that defines the morals of Hell. Yet these are the very shamans who claim an uncanny talent for redeeming the spirit, for inspiring compassion and good feeling in melancholies, the mediocre and foppish peacocks afflicted by vainglory.
But on the second level of hellishness, the aping of divinity while concealing a low, foul nature content with saurian hunger is equally the burden of these national avatars of magic. We have all been to the courts of these wizards, and most follow a cruel mandarin politics that would shame Turandot. The Duessas are everywhere and some of them are women. The Archimagos are usually critics and work like spayed saints in the colleges. What sort of holy redeemer can heal without charity?
Who can heal the soul without being initiated into the redemptive process? Artists go through initiation rites like primitive tribal adults, and their ceremonies have the radical use of terror and emptiness known to the old shamans. In America they have used the sea, the open road, or pilgrimages into alien lands as their desert.
One cannot hear the divine voice in Egypt; Moses could be angry and even violent at slavery in Egypt but to hear divine voices he had to repair to the sands of Midian. And even then the voice was quiet. Elijah and Jesus had the same experience, and Buddha only could listen to such spirits after a life of carnality had filled him with melancholy and torpor.
An MFA program rumbles with the bowel-music of Leviathan. It is not a good place to discover whether one has a muse and is an ambassador of Heaven.
A Marxian might note that artists are classical pets of the nobility, and we have an aristocracy that has replaced writers with poodles. In fact, what patronage has existed in America has come from mercantile money. Roughly like the middle classes of Holland and England, the old money of the East supported the Arts in cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia through the 1840s. The German emigration of 1848 produced patronage for the entire American music business from symphony orchestra to publishing houses like Schirmer. The German Jewish settlers a few decades later supported music and painting up until the middle of this century.
In the 1950s the third generation of new-money Rockefellers and Fords became large Arts and Intellect patrons. Though the American rich have produced a fine if small run of Artists themselves like Cooper, James, Elliot Carter and Louis Auchincloss, most of these gentry were not themselves aesthetes and had managers to run their structured generosity. In the 1950s Virgil Thomson, among other things a great journalist, did this for Ford and Rockefeller.
The patrons were there; they were always marginal people in the mythic reality of America. They were neither kings nor pioneers. A country of survivalists never found processing their inner life essential; they were too busy trying not to starve to death. Anything not connected with the mechanics of perpetuating one's life is foreign or suspect in this country. Even scientific theory is alien, and when the nation needs such people, it imports them like French Impressionist paintings.
The real patrons of what stands as a covert but real national Arts were the Left, the Socialists, the Reds, the populist agrarian myths and the city working class. They could not provide money directly like a king but they could tangentially since they were a market. American writers were Artists who like Poe, Hawthorne, and Whitman survived by journalism and hackwork.
Few including me have read Whitman's Temperance novel, or Hawthorne's campaign bio of Franklin Pierce. Poe's collected works are filled with such junk. If anybody put them together one would find the same hodgepodge in Irving, Freneau, and later, Hearn, Beirce, Hemingway, early Faulkner, Dreiser, Twain, Sandberg, Hecht, Fowler, Fearing, Runyon, Mailer, Irwin Shaw, and even Henry James. Journalists could cut the tie between themselves and patrons by writing for a populist market, and most writers in America after the Civil War began as newspapermen and never quite quit their mythic base or their source of income.
Mythically, it was logical that the country develop Art from journalists. Art and journalism were virtually interchangeable in the 19th century and was still alive in the a clef novel and the engage writers from Upton Sinclair to Irwin Shaw and Norman Mailer. Andre Malraux was such a master of a world that straddled Art and journalism; Hemingway was writing books in the 1930s that attempted to create a new form that included both physical truth and Art. Art was published in newspapers in America as they serialized Dickens in England.
From Henry James and his serialized novels in magazines to Isaac Singer in the l950s doing chapter by chapter of his novels for the Yiddish newspapers, Artists in the United States have combined the media. Singer wrote his slighter pieces for the newspapers under another name. But as Singer told me, writers for journals always felt close to their readers. They lived in the same world.
They had a social place, they worked with words in a moneymaking business, they were from the bottom and attuned to the wishes of the market for the physical, the sensational, the skeptical, the carnal, instead of being an Old World prelate imposed by fiat on the mob by a cunning king. That is precisely what Eliot and James were, not in their talent or Art, but in their political function in America for the academy and the oligarchy that Veblen noted runs colleges like a factory business.
The decline of journalism as a source of income in America in the middle and late 20th century parallels the falloff in the Arts. Without journalist worlds, Artists have been forced into the procrustean patronage of the universities or have become largely marginal eccentrics without a social base in the life of the nation.
In the early part of the 19th century Artists became journalists in the later part and through the next century they emerged from a larger body of hack journalists to become Artists. Similar upward movements in pulp magazines produced Hammett, Chandler, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Heinlen, Dick, Vonnegut, Asimov, and Jack Schaefer, to name a few of them who became generally famous. In the 1960s the path was still taken by Tom Wolfe, and the gonzo writers. The fearless, reckless, carnal, hard drinking seeker of violence and truth is a male American mythic image which describes many of these writers at least exoterically from Poe to Mailer.
The female reporter is a good pal, always ready for a beer or a tumble, and whatever one thinks of that covertly hermaphroditic image, journalism has been one of the first commercial areas in America where one could work because one was good, irrespective of gender. In the terminal gonzo style, the last journalists still making a living at popular writing often vomit over themselves, get into stupid street fights, or sit on a toilet stupefied in a motel listening to rock and roll.
Eliot and James never took up writing the great American Novel or poem, an illusory dragon when Poe mocked at the idea in the 1840s their vision like the one of the Academy was medieval and concerned with interior states, alienation from the vulgar mob, a wispy spirituality, and neurosis. It must be said that James had a large side of the journalist in him, and was also avidly curious about the vulgar.
James wrote the first literary description of the Yiddish theater, the first Lesbian novel, dropped sexual double entendres like Hemingway in his prose, ironically attacked about all organized religion, wrote his last novel on the corruption of American business. and complained that the statues of General Sherman were not ferocious and murderous enough. The Academy has no use for the side of James which is more like Stephen Crane or Hemingway and has forgotten it.
The Left doesn't like ambivalence; it's too complex for it. They are content to vilify James when obviously they haven't read him. Eliot is the basilisk they should have been after; Eliot consciously defined the beliefs of the American college system to fit his Vedanta medievalism,. And thus our poor country has an educational system one has to recover from if one is lucky.
An MFA program in the middle of such a realm is almost presumptively doomed by the sort of false prophets the university system attracts, and the hellish illusions of what is moral, divine, and proper that the large world of the colleges takes on faith.
The major internal conflict in American life since the Civil War has been the battle between the industrial oligarchs on one hand, and the factory and agrarian working classes on the other. The oligarchs, largely from the Midwest, have allied themselves with High Protestant clergy, Anglophiles, Tories, and the schools and clubs of the old Eastern mercantile bourgeoisie. Their enemies have embraced worldwide socialist movements, low Protestant clergy, populism, Thomas Jefferson, rightwing libertarianism, and new diets.
There is no way to make sense or find consistency on either side, and nobody has made anything but babble from this farrago of unlikely miscegenations. But one can say in a general way that the Left has produced whatever we can call a national Art and the Right has controlled the colleges, literary journals, and venues of legitimacy to conceal this. Journalism always wrote for the working classes, and Artists who rose from journalism- nearly everybody- were carnal skeptics with an eye for physical reality, a distrust of all governments and clergy and a feel for the vision of their markets and sources of income: the low and powerless.
Few of them had been to Eastern schools and had old boy connections; when Ford and Rockefeller worked with Virgil Thomson they were lucky to run across a journalist and Artist who had an unlikely foot in both worlds, and was fair to either side. Such dialogue between business and the workers has been rare in America and one wonders why. Both had the same general interests. Both wanted to perpetuate the same situation. The workers were not going back to the old country where they had been even worse off.
When they made a sort of temporary peace in the l950s one wondered what the rich had lost by giving more of a slice of the pie to the poor; they had the same life style and they gained stability by turning enemies to allies. American politics can only be explained by stupidity. But the reality has been that the colleges, in which the MFA programs flourish, push a false view of American artistic history, and that the Arts here have come out of all the populist realms that the corporate world has vilified and persecuted as Red since the Civil War.
The Arts in America have not been largely the torturous inner testimony of post-medieval eccentrics. They have been skeptical and physical, not Christian and Manichean. Poe, Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Dreiser, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Twain and James were not Christians. Hawthorne was ambivalent about even a personal and vague Christianity and talked of Providence. This is not an accident or the work of an eccentric. Educated classes in America in the 19th century were moving toward Unitarianism. Even Abraham Lincoln was not a Christian, and like Hawthorne, talked of Providence. Melville produced two of the greatest anti-evangelical Christian novels ever written, Typee and Omoo, and struggled to rescue what he could of a remnant of his faith in Clarel.
Even Eliot"s faith if one looks at it is Vedanta teaching he calls for his own purposes Anglo-Catholicism. The 20th century is only more of the same. The whole body of journalistic Art in America inevitably given its makers and market represents a central achievement of skeptics, carnal thinkers, materialists and mostly leftwing social philosophers.
Communism had a general central effect on 20th century American writers. John Dos Passos wrote the Great American Novel, the trilogy USA, while he was a communist. Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Fearing, Dreiser, Hammett were Reds, and nearly any American author flourishing between 1910 and 1940 flirted with communists, or was attuned to a populist market fed by socialist ideas. Whitman spent his last years among philosophic Socialists, but even Ernest Hemingway in the 1930s worked with communists in active political causes. The decline of the American Left is totally tied to the degeneration of the American Arts.
The Right has had its revenge on the Left for its fecundity. Many of the masterpieces of journalists are out of print. One cannot get many novels of Dreiser, Hecht, Fowler and the science- fiction engineer radicals of the 1940s. Kenneth Fearing has never had his poems collected. Gene Fowler and Ben Hecht are out of print. None of these writers has enjoyed the analytic light of Academic criticism. A career in our universities is not made by being an expert on journalists and leftwingers.
The great critics of the first half of the century largely flourished in leftwing magazines. Mencken, Bourne, Wilson, Cowley, Brooks, men of large ideas and fearless idiosyncratic thought, were protected from trouble in the Academy by the nature of their income: they worked for journals. Even a Vernon Parrington would be suspect in the universities now. Large ideas are hardly the stuff of Phd dissertations.
Unless they are honing the party line of some gender or ethnic nationalism, ideas of any kind among these moguls are a sign of a tainted mind. They might offend someone important in the administration or rock some sunken boat. The critics in the colleges cannot afford much honesty, and thus the nation is deprived of courageous intellectual leaders, probably without missing them too much.
But the rise of a kind of immutable Byzantium in the colleges was matched by the sunset of the Left as a creative and political force after World War Two. The Left from the civil War on, mostly in the economic breadbaskets of their journalism, connected millions of Americans with a language that could describe and illuminate their own physical world. Almost anyone educated in a formal way in America before 1960 or so remembers the first time he came across writing that destroyed the abyss formal education had put between his soul and the world around him.
For me it was the novels of James T. Farrell. It could have been Henry Miller but he was banned: too physical. Miller actually used the oral language of Americans, and his work was passed around every college campus. To read him was to realize that one could make Art out of materials that were not pure artifice. One felt like Giotto in the Renaissance. And the colleges had that Cimaabue dark age flavor.
A writer like Norman Mailer still gets his presumptions out of that revelation. His journalistic aim in his highest Art is to discover the truth in Nature. Journalism is pantheistic. The decay of the left and of journalism occurred because the masses themselves were losing contact with Nature. Watching television does not help one to care much about anything, much less Creation.
One can see the decadence of the Left from a sick rotting of its roots in the physical world by reading the seemingly radical writers in America of the l950s. Ginsberg, for example, attacks the corporate Moloch in the old way, but in the name of the best minds in America, not the best workers. Rereading Howl one notices how much of the complaints related to the sorrows of American White gay college dropouts. Rereading Kerouac, one is impressed by the similarity of his Buddhism to dark age and old world European Manichean Catholicism. He has a kind of implicit renunciation of the physical world at the core of his prose, rather in contradiction to the exoteric success of one who galvanized a whole nation by his ability to praise people and physical reality.
It is hard to think of any cause more likely to separate a national Artist from his country than Ginsberg's lifelong espousal of Buddhism: a cult that regards Nature as illusion, and thus is indifferent to either the theoretical science or the mechanics of the unreal. The most radical element of the Beatniks is their open homosexuality, and their connection of this taste to American writers like Melville, Whitman, James, and Hart Crane. Whatever the physical truth of these attributions, it is common for an emerging group from Feminists to Blacks, new ethnics, and homosexuals battling their way to legitimacy to promulgate theories of history suitable for their interests, and one should always take such notions cum guano salis.
The Beatniks praised drugs; the war over drugs has been going on in America long before Prohibition, and has usually focused on alcohol. The 60s took what it wanted from the Beatniks, and mostly what they got was shallow notions about love and a polymorphous perverse moral system, but the Buddhism tended to come and go like the other instant religions, and the homosexuality and drugs became for many a metaphor for alienation that enabled the books of men like William Burroughs to reach a large and general public.
The homosexual issue was a very serious one because it asks very intriguing questions about the need for the Arts to process parts of some male psyches whose existences are discomfiting to a survival culture. Certainly, classical music was dominated by homosexuals like Copland, Thomson, Cage and innumerable others; it seemed a heterosexual was an exception in that world.
Playwriting had a similar set of leaders in Tennessee Williams, Inge and Albee. Truman Capote, who attacked the Beatniks, was himself a flaming flag. Why homosexuals have been central in mid-20th century American Art is an intriguing subject. But Kerouac never admitted publicly he was gay. In his novels he seemed like a romantic heterosexual lover with a desire to experience Eastern philosophy in the bedroom.
When Gore Vidal exposed Kerouac in a novel, Two Sisters, as a hypocrite in the closet who posed as a truthteller, there was a sadness in Vidal's condemnation. Some opportunity for honesty had been lost. Vidal claimed his bisexuality was common and even a general American phenomenon; Vidal was always a sort of national writer.
The rise of homosexual Art along with comparable movements from Southern Gothic to Feminism have all established a very different sort of Art that is not for the general populist public. It has been esoteric, exotic, parochial, specialized, tribal. Whether Vidal is right or not about the true sexuality of human beings, the kind of writing that Vidal represented was a new provincialism. Writers reached out for markets of the disenfranchised and marginal members of society who had no adhesive power to join with a reductive federalism, nor had any chance to attain the power to impose their tastes and beliefs on the nation.
The reasons for this fracturing of the writers' vision and the reading public are diverse, but most of all, it has to do with the change in the life style of the public itself. The old market for journalists was now broadly affluent, watching television, getting obese, and thinking of golf as a sport.
The children of these former working class populists were going to college whether they had any talent for study or not, and becoming a new generation of privilege without power. They didn't worry much about work. They were hated by the old working classes who were their parents, but they also had their covert approval.
After all, what does a hard worker want in his dream life of fulfillment, young promiscuous lovers everywhere, beauty and Art available on a pilgrimage through exotic climes, a perpetual vacation, easy money, and lots of hallucinogenic stimulants in the drinks while one is throwing an immortal party? But probes into the brain of an old 1930s Stalinist and you will find a Haight-Ashberry revel.
One might have expected from a generation which was the secret elevation of working class dreams into reality an expansion of the sort of study and respect for mechanical science that illuminated the love of books of the parents. Instead the children of the 60s turned away from the intellect and complex Arts out of choice.
Authors who were part of that instantly sybaritic world like myself expected to have more readers than anyone did in the past from these privileged young people. Instead, they heralded a future in which people would do the easy thing: watch television or go to movies instead of read books. An author without a patron or a public is a very desperate man. Most of our late 20th century writers are in that situation.
Just as the readership for books was collapsing the colleges turned out an army of MFA Artists that were like the educational system itself utterly disconnected from the world. Since universal education everybody thinks they can write a book. Since the MFA programs, anybody in them is convinced they can write a good one. But this is a hellish illusion. Voodoo masters look for some abnormality in the physique of those whom they hope to train as shamans. It is a sign the gods have chosen one as a vessel for messages from demons and angels. Something that sets one apart is what one uses to become such a spiritual ambassador.
One does not enter the bowels of Leviathan like Jonah to become a prophet; one goes there to escape one's talent. But even if they are blessed with divine gifts, the MFA crowd has no contract with the world to process its life and dreams. Their work exists in an absolute air bubble in which Art is either defined as an objective third-rate science, or used as a cheap whore by Deconstructionists in love with their own brains.
When they leave the colleges they have no place in life; they live in an Alexandrian illusion and they have nothing to say to those who live beyond their Byzantiums.
Most of the writers I know who function as Artists produce genre novels. It is what publishers know how to sell. The market is for a crowd on the train, at the beach, or on the toilet. it is sold as entertainment. Nobody in publishing believes they can market a book as good, important, great, redemptive or original. This forces the true Artist to the small presses where there is lousy distribution and inconsequential lucre, unless like Clive Barker, Bruce Sterling or Anne Rice one can slip through work of genius clothed as genre hackwork. The Latin American dogs are lucky. They know a charred bone is a bone. Writers these days in America think a winning lottery ticket will fall out of a window from an adoring and beautiful teenaged seņorita resplendent with red roses.
Why were the agrarian-working class journalist Arts successful, and why is the current world seemingly affluent and sensitive to the caprices of leisure empty of much opportunity for serious Art? The journalists lived in a world that lasted almost one hundred years: 1864 to 1960. They had time to adapt and grow. They were functional, not alienated or specialized; they were disciplined in writing which had the same reductive utility as pizza. People who flourished in that world I have known like Irwin Shaw thought of themselves as men of resource, happy writing Dick Tracy or producing high Art.
They were never alienated or specialized. They were carnal and violent as the world they came from and wrote for. The working class fought a war for nearly a century, won it after many decades of defeats, and finally won national power under Roosevelt and Truman. In the 60s they were still strong enough to elect Kennedy and Johnson.
Woodrow Wilson tried to ban them or deport them in 1920; Coolidge was elected because he broke strikes. and General McArthur was remembered unfondly for shooting laborers out of a job, but the low and lower middle class people the journalists wrote for persevered and triumphed. In their victory the newly affluent workers gave birth to a dreamworld.
In the 60s when the fantasy world collapsed, the illusions of educational system that it could produced Artists and Art out of austere molds and lapidary skills took refuge in the Academic Pandemonium where because there is no truth there can be no charity, no divine collegium, no moral spirit that comes from a sense of true community.
As a survivor of the 60s who fought for equality, a tolerable physical life, and freedom of human action, I say with no relish that my generation failed utterly either to take up viable goals or to take power to inculcate them. We lasted eight years, we had no Roosevelt, the country has been voting not for Republicans but against us for a quarter of a century, and whenever some of the old causes take power they show they are not worthy of it.
I'm tired of being told by feminists that women are not a privileged class in a divorce, and that I and forty other million American fathers should have no legal right to parent their children or to control their property. Lacking charity, they think, better them than us. I understand that, but a cause is not moral and does not deserve the support of others when it is greedy, out for revenge, and only for itself. That describes most of today's causes. They are empty of charity. They get none back. The children of the Left are not capable of producing important Art or effective and ethical politics because they are selfish, spoiled, wimpy, stupidly contentious, largely content with vulgar lies, lazy and spiteful. Something is obviously wrong with American Black society beyond the racism of Whites. I loved sex, drugs and rock and roll, but they killed off an awful lot of people.
Peace is beautiful; there are middle grounds of organizing for moral ends, adversarial but not lethal to either side of the battle, in a civilized society that the country since the 60s has not taken up or cares to examine. They cannot because they are living in a diabolical illusion: the dreamworld of the working classes who tried to build a new Heaven but succeeded only in designing a kind a Hell of illusions.
Art heals; when it cannot heal because the patients so not know they are sick, it withers from neglect. When one lives in a dream designed by the torments of the Past, one does not need to be taken to one's primal nature by Art; one needs, if anything, a course in diplomacy, a lesson in endurance. Dreams are powerful illusions but in their shortlived circuses they have no moderation, diplomacy, flexibility or mature tolerance beneath gaudy and charming theatrics; they are primal and simple behind veiled iconic puppetry and incoherence.
Dreams made manifest are more dangerous than Nature, just as Hell is a kind of insanity. Plato says as much in The Symposium and the second book of The Republic. The working classes had a fantasy of a life that would not be tough, not be fraught with pain and desperation, not have the quality of a jail and a feeling of being trapped in defunct domesticities, not be wearing and pulverizing, and they merely trained their children to bury an adult life altogether. How does one write for people who remain infants? What sort of connection to a society can such a world offer an Artist?
Islamic fundamentalists would great the childishness and vulgarity of our causes with skepticism and measure. Does one run away and become a Tory? The Right is imbecilic, predatory and avaricious. Can one imagine being an Augustan poet under the current regime? Hell, says Father Zosima, is the inability to love, and the infernal character of most of our Artists reflects the loveless and merciless character of this fiery pit of a world.

Published by The Smith, June 23rd, 1992
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