Thursday, December 29, 2011

Midcult and the Intellectuals

The name of this blog (i.e., the "Etc." in the name) indicates that it is not solely restricted to discussions of Goethe. I have ranged pretty wide in some of the subjects I have treated, but the majority does focus on the milieu of the "Goethe period," which for me is what we in the discipline call the "long 18th century." It is the century in which the rise of the Enlightenment takes place and in which occur the incipient beginnings of Romanticism, often regarded as a reaction to the sterility and rationalism of the Enlightenment.

I have not yet discovered a specific connection between Goethe and my recent work and publication on the history of freedom of speech in the 18th century. That work was in a sense a detour for me, carried out in my role as chair of the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture. Still, my research on the subject certainly expanded my knowledge of the 18th century generally. In a negative way, the absence of reflection on Goethe's part concerning the rise of "the public" and of democratic institutions, all of which are essential to the development of freedom of speech, is evidence that Goethe is not quite the "modern" that, say, Benjamin Constant is. (See the chapter by Helena Rosenblatt on Constant in my book.) Still, Goethe had met Constant in Weimar and may have been aware of the trends that Constant so presciently discerned.

On this blog I also swing into current cultural issues, which in truth have their roots in 18th-century preoccupations. As I wrote in the conclusion of the free speech volume, all of the anxieties we have today concerning speech can be found in the writings of the great thinkers of the 18th century. While those great minds -- Voltaire, Rousseau, Condorcet, etc. -- were in favor of freedom of expression, if was for freedom for men like themselves. They considered the mass of people too stupid to have any sensible or valid opinions.

But it was in the 18th century that ordinary men and women began to participate in spheres of activity formerly reserved for the high and the mighty. This was the effect of the growth of commerce, which emancipated people from the bonds of tradition. Even in the arts, which continued to enjoy aristocratic patronage, writers and painters began to emerge who sold their wares as best they could. Goethe was one of these. In the non-artistic realm, others were quick to see the possibilities of transforming the new scientific discoveries into profitable and necessary inventions and manufactures.

As boundaries fell, so did the old standards. It was the beginning of "taste." People became more interested in goods, less in the Good. That process has simply rolled along, encompassing more and more people. It is not powered by ideas so much as by the progress of capitalism, which allows people to sell their labor, turn a profit, and live the life they prefer to lead. Some of them even aspire to the life of the mind. That is the class that Rick and I came from. We were privileged, only in the sense that we came of age in the U.S. on the cusp of the greatest prosperity the world has ever known, in the 1950s, enabling us to go to college and to follow intellectual pursuits. We were not out of the ordinary, as there were and still are lots of such ordinary Americans.

A habit I picked up in high school was listening to the live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the radio, not so much to the opera itself, beyond perhaps the overtures to ones like La Traviata. While kids my age in the New York suburbs were wandering to Washington Square Park to hear the Beats, I timed my ironing for the coming week to the Opera's intermission program. I knew that Americans could be "cultured": Van Cliburn's success had proved that. And panelists on "What's My Lines?" were certainly witty, as were Jack Paar and his guests. But my love of talk began here -- not with the Free Speech movement -- with the Opera's witty and cultured panelists, who could actually speak, extemporaneously it seemed, in full sentences on musical and literary subjects. Those programs were the start of an attempt to fit my own life within some large -- and less immediately personal -- conception of things.

In this connection, I was interested to read the recent review in The New Republic by Franklin Foer of the reissue of a book of essays by Dwight Macdonald. The most famous of these essays, published in 1960, was "Masscult and Midcult," which denigrated the marriage of commerce and high culture that was such an inspiration for people like myself. According to the reviewer, Franklin Foer, Macdonald thereby imported "one of the ugliest tropes of the politics of the time into the analysis of culture, ... the enemy within, ... a pernicious new species of culture ... called midcult." The trope may have been new, but the diagnostician could have been Voltaire or Condorcet.

Foer writes that it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when "you could look down your nose" at the Museum of Modern Art as a gateway to rampant philistinism: "We should have such philistines"! He concludes that one cannot but be annoyed that "the greatest cultural critic of his era spent so much time and energy writing his hands about how the middle class was too eager to consume weightier forms of culture. ... What is so terrible, exactly, about broadcasting Don Giovanni into movie theaters around the country?"

Foer misses the larger point, however: Macdonald's destructive temperament was actually aimed at the temerity of the middle class for having aspirations at all, beyond their sphere. In this, he was like Rousseau, who was one of the few philosophes who seemed to recognize the future effects of commerce and the rise of democracy. Rousseau thus theorized a way to contain the masses with his "general will." Such vitriol as Macdonald's is alive and well today in liberal political and cultural opinion, which, in my view, is not liberal at all, but postmodern. Anyone who reads the editorial pages of The New York Times today cannot deny that the middle class remains under assault by the intellectual class, in the "overwhelmingly nullifying" manner of Macdonald. The assault is no longer on the grounds of culture, but rather on the resistance of ordinary people to the impositions of government and elite opinion.

This posting is in tribute to my darling husband. Anyone who has read this blog over time knows that Rick and I were both of a conservative bent, grateful for having grown up in America when we did. We realize its limitations, but, principally, its capacity for good. We have been most sorry to see what the destructiveness of "intellectuals" like Macdonald has done. May the country start to get its feed back on the ground in 2012.

Picture credit: Amazon UK

1 comment:

Vlad Brezina said...

Dear Elizabeth,

Happy New Year! We nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award—you can read about it, and why we picked you, here:

Warm regards,

Vlad and Johna