Masscult and Midcult

By Dwight Macdonald

Yes, it’s an old gripe: standards are slipping, culture is dying, things were better back in the old days, before the masses, the great beast of Mencken’s booboisie, became the final arbiters in all matters of taste.

In the first part of the twentieth century there were a lot of people who thought and wrote this way, and Dwight Macdonald was a man of his time.

But there’s a reason this book (which is essentially his 1962 work Against the American Grain with a couple of later pieces attached) has been reissued long after the intellectual debates the essays it engaged in have disappeared. And it’s not just that Macdonald was a fine writer who penned some delightfully entertaining, well-executed and precise critical takedowns. Macdonald’s bill of complaint against James Gould Cozzen’s By Love Possessed is great fun, but it will mean nothing to contemporary readers. Nobody today cares about Cozzens or anything he wrote. But that’s not the point, and it wasn’t the point in 1958. Macdonald knew Cozzens wasn’t going to last. His target was the system that made Cozzens: all of those people who should have known better and exercised the role of cultural custodians more responsibly.

The requirements of the mass market explain a good deal of bad writing today. But Cozzens isn’t writing down, he is obviously giving it the works. By Love Possessed is his bid for immortality. It is Literature or it is nothing. Unfortunately none of the reviewers has seriously considered the second alternative. The book is not only a bestseller, it is a succès d’estime. Such reviews, such enthusiasm, such unanimity, such nonsense! . . . The reviewers almost to a man behaved as if they were possessed. This sincere enthusiasm for a mediocre work is more damaging to literary standards than any amount of cynical ballyhoo. One can guard against the Philistines outside the gates. It is when they get into the Ivory Tower that they are dangerous.

Now this is an issue that does have relevance today. Cozzens’ reputation has popped and dissolved like those bubbles the earth hath, but the system that momentarily blew him up goes on.

I feel I can relate. I have from time to time, for example, beat up on authors who are “obviously giving it the works” in the worst way, but this is very easy to do and it’s talking about writing that I’m not that interested in. Why do it then? That someone is a lousy writer makes no difference at all to me, but that he is lionized by many people who should know better does. It means the system isn’t properly functioning, and this has a pernicious effect on the wider culture, poisoning the entire literary ecosphere. Macdonald knew this effect, offspring of the unholy marriage of commerce and the mass market, and wanted to alert us to the fact that the barbarians weren’t at the gates but were already comfortably established inside, indeed in control of the citadel.

In other essays we can see Macdonald as equally relevant and prophetic. The label “parajournalism” never caught on, but as he defines it – a “bastard form” that seems to be journalism but is really a form of “entertainment rather than information” – it is clearly a forerunner of our own “infotainment.” The argument that our high culture is exhausted and we can only consume what has been done in the past without creating anything original ourselves prefigures the line taken by Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. Or take this piece from the essay “The Triumph of the Fact” (1957) and see how it anticipates The Shallows (et al) and indicts the Internet as destroyer of words and worlds (it’s worth quoting at some length just to show how familiar it all sounds):

Feeling a duty – or perhaps simply a compulsion – at least to glance over the printed matter that inundates us daily, we have developed of necessity a rapid, purely rational, classifying habit of mind, something like the operation of a Mark IV calculating machine, making a great many small decisions every minute: read or not read? If read, then take in this, skim over that, and let the rest go by. This we do with the surface of our minds, since we “just don’t have time” to bring the slow, cumbersome depths into play, to ruminate, speculate, reflect, wonder, experience what the eye flits over. This gives a greatly extended coverage to our minds, but also makes them, compared to the kind of minds similar people had in past centuries, coarse, shallow, passive, and unoriginal. Such reading habits have produced a similar kind of reading matter, since, except for a few stubborn old-fashioned types – the handcraftsmen who produce whatever is written today of quality, whether in poetry, fiction, scholarship or journalism – our writers produce work that is to be read quickly and then buried under the next day’s spate of “news” or the next month’s best seller; hastily slapped-together stuff which it would be foolish to waste much time or effort on either writing or reading. For those who, as readers or writers, would get a little under the surface, the real problem of our day is how to escape being “well informed,” how to resist the temptation to acquire too much information (never more seductive than when it appears in the chaste garb of duty), and how to elude the voracious demands on one’s attention enough to think a little.

What makes this especially interesting as well as uncanny is what it says about the direction things were heading long before the Internet came to be blamed for everything that has gone wrong. Perhaps the Net changed us less than we think.

Of course the Internet is the elephant in the room when it comes to any discussion of mass culture today. Macdonald’s “mass man” is basically “digital man” before the letter:

to become wholly a mass man would mean to have no private life, no personal desires, hobbies, aspirations, or aversions that are not shared by everybody else. One’s behavior would be entirely predictable, like a piece of coal, and the sociologists could at least make up their tables confidently.

Given all this, I don’t think Macdonald would be surprised by what has come to pass. He read McLuhan (sceptically), and openly mused about the end of print. A one-time Marxist, he knew something about the ineluctable forces that shape history. His consolation, that there may yet remain islands of high culture, fragments shored against ruins, isn’t very cheering. Yes, a handful of monk-like elites may survive the deluge, but who will care? They will no longer be part of a living culture.

But let us not repine! Criticism remains a moral necessity, even if its victories can be depressing. Asked by one letter-writer to do something more “constructive” with his time, Macdonald is stung to the quick by this challenge to “the raison d’être of my career”: “I’ve always specialized in negative criticism – literary, political, cinematic, cultural – because I’ve found so few contemporary products about which I could be ‘constructive’ without hating myself in the morning.”

Oh, Dwight.

Review first published online July 16, 2012.

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