Friday, September 18, 2009

Highbrow and lowbrow

Everybody knows that the terms and the distinction between them were introduced by Van Wyck Brooks, but what is not so widely appreciated is that he introduced them in the service of the Left. The “lyrical Left,” to be specific; America’s first Left, according to the historian John Patrick Diggins. Its intellectual spokesman was Randolph Bourne, creator of the American antiwar movement; its political leader, Eugene V. Debs. Brooks was an undependable Leftist for whom organized politics was secondary, although he pioneered the attitude that was summarized in the later Leftist slogan the Personal Is Political:

The only serious approach to society is the personal approach; and what I have called the quickening realism of contemporary social thought is at bottom simply a restatement for the mass of commercialized men, and in relation to issues which directly concern the mass of men as a whole, of those personal instincts that have been the essence of art, religion, literature—the essence of personality itself—since the beginning of the world. It will remain of the least importance to patch up politics, to become infected with social consciousness, or to do any of the other easy popular contemporary things unless, in some way, personality can be made to release itself on a middle plane between vaporous idealism and self-interested practicality; unless, in short, self-fulfillment as an ideal can be substituted for self-assertion as an ideal. On the economic plane that implies socialism; on every other plane it implies something which a majority of Americans in our day certainly do not possess—an object in living.By the ’sixties, the substitution of ideals that Brooks called for had been attained. The “middle plane between vaporous idealism and self-interested practicality” had become the primary residence of American culture.

For Brooks, that middle was situated between highbrow and lowbrow culture, an antithesis (or what would now be called a binary opposition) that he saw as uniquely American:What side of American life is not touched by this antithesis? What explanation of American life is more central or more illuminating? In everything one finds this frank acceptance of twin values which are not expected to have anything in common: on the one hand a quite unclouded, quite unhypocritical assumption of transcendent theory (“high ideals”); on the other a simultaneous acceptance of catchpenny realities. Between university ethics and business ethics, between American culture and American humor, between Good Government and Tammany, between academic pedantry and pavement slang, there is no community, no genial middle ground.[1]Ever since the “lyrical years” before this country’s entry into World War I, the American Left has sought to cultivate that middle ground. Highbrow and lowbrow were adopted as terms of scorn. Highbrow culture was scorned as the private entertainment of the literate upper class; lowbrow culture was scorned as the commercialized products of modern mass entertainment, which entail the destruction of authentic folk art. If the political purpose of high culture is to train a ruling elite in common values, which are reinforced by repeated allusion to the same art, music, and literature, the political purpose of low culture—popular culture, mass culture—is to reconcile the working classes to their economic conditions. (Think of the popular songs in Nineteen Eighty-Four that are produced “for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator.”)

But the middle culture, when it finally emerged, was not exactly what had been dreamed of by the lyrical Left. It was instead what Dwight Macdonald called a “middlebrow compromise,” a “peculiar hybrid” that resulted from mass culture’s “unnatural intercourse” with high culture:A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form—let us call it Midcult—has the essential qualities of Masscult—the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity—but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. In Masscult the trick is plain—to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.[2]As examples of Midcult fiction, Macdonald named Steinback, J. P. Marquand, Pearl Buck, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, and John Hersey; forty years later the obvious examples would be John Irving, Jonathan Franzen, Pat Conroy, John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, David Wroblewski, and Lev Grossman.

But a large portion of “serious” contemporary fiction is also written out of the middlebrown compromise. Much of what passes for “genre-bending and stylistic play,” to adopt Michael Chabon’s phrase for it, is little more than the attempt to be simultaneously ordinary and refined. In Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, for example, a sensibility and technique that were once considered avant garde are placed in the service of the vaguely Leftist project of unmasking the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals:Was it possible, that at every gathering—concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever—those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?As Macdonald quips, I may agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death your right to say it like that. American literary culture will not be revived by making the “boundaries” of “genres” more “porous.” There is far more literary freedom to be had in the traditional genres, because a firm adherence to formal requirements enables a writer to expand or contract his subject as needed.

How, then? Macdonald found promise in the very fragmentation of the literary marketplace to which I drew attention the other day. After the Second World War, he pointed out, it was discovered thatthere is not One Big Audience but rather a number of smaller more specialized audiences that may still be commercially profitable. (I take it for granted that the less differentiated the audience, the less chance there is of something original and lively creeping in, since the principle of the lowest common denominator applies.) . . . The mass audience is divisible, we have discovered—and the more it is divided, the better. (pp. 73–74)As long as the highest standards are maintained in each division of the market, I might add. And this is one thing that could possibly be meant by establishing the limits of literature.

[1] Van Wyck Brooks, “Highbrow and Lowbrow,” Forum 53 (April 1915): 481–92.

[2] Dwight Macdonald, “Masscult and Midcult,” in Against the American Grain (New York: Random House, 1962), p. 37. Subsequent reference in parentheses.