The Culture of Twentieth Century America

Sigmund Freud’s shadow hung over the Twentieth Century like a storm cloud (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ditzy heroines ca. 1920 were “hip to Freud”) , and it was Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays who invented the science of public relations which rules us today. During WWI he, along with Walter Lippmann and the Rockefeller press agent Ivy Lee (the two other founders) were in charge of America’s internal propaganda effort.

After the war Bernays worked to win the right to smoke cigarettes for the beaten-down and oppressed women of America, who had never been allowed to express themselves or have any fun,  while Ivy Lee worked for the Nazis.

Lippmann, the brains behind the New Republic tabloid, became an elder statesman of America’s Democratic Party and one of the founders of neoliberalism. After WWII, Ivy Lee’s nephew William Burroughs revolutionized American literature.

And that’s all you need to know right there. Various other Americans were once thought culturally important, but in the long haul none of them amounted to a hill of beans.

Lippmann and neoliberalism

Published in: on March 9, 2017 at 7:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thanks, Erich!

In 19th century Europe stalking was an accepted courtship method, not usually welcomed by the target but not shameful or illegal. (This is everywhere in the fiction: Kierkegaard, Gogol, everyone). When Alice James visited Paris she was astonished find that one of her French friends, a married woman, was reluctant ever to leave the house unaccompanied. The old word “streetwalker” was based on the assumption that all unaccompanied women were available.

The plot of James’s Daisy Miller turned on the fact that America was not like this. Why? Because Americans were sexually repressed Protestants, alienated from their bodies, and American guys didn’t feel obligated to fuck everything in sight.

And then Erich Fromm came along, and we got Norman Mailer. Thanks, Erich!

Published in: on March 9, 2017 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

The New York Intellectuals II

While the post-WWII leaders American intelligentsia were reading Kierkegaard and Heidegger and glumly accustoming themselves to a post-radical, post-humanist, establishmentarian  world of   diminished expectations and elite irony, the Americans who really counted were whooping it up as they devised new and better ways of crushing all opposition and founding their empire.

Published in: on March 6, 2017 at 7:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

I do not want the liberation of desire.

There is more to want than there is to get, and since democracy came along anybody can want anything they want to want, so nobody is happy. And on top of that, since Freud came along desire is an obligation, so we are filled with a desperate desire to desire. Dissatisfaction is structural, and satisfaction is merely the impossible dimensionless point separating hope and regret, anticipation and loss, and life is the Malthusian proliferation and decimation of swarms of hopes .

Published in: on March 6, 2017 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Edmund Wilson: “Flaubert’s Politics”

Flaubert was a gut-thinking right winger with a libertarian streak, a rentier worried about his nest egg first and last. I have never been able to figure out why he hated the bourgeoisie , but his hatred for socialists and the general population is unmysterious.

The contortions Wilson goes through to make Flaubert seem like anything other than what he was are highly amusing. To speak warmly of devoted house servants doesn’t make you a democrat. Feudal lords enormously admired their devoted house servants. Bill Buckley admired his devoted house servants.

This was a turning point for The New York Intellectuals (TM), when they decide that left politics was an entirely lost cause and they were going have to become something else. Pretending that apolitical and right wing writers were the REAL radicals was their halfway house on the way to becoming Cold War liberals.

 

Edmund Wilson: Flaubert’s Politics

Published in: on January 21, 2017 at 7:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Trip Down Memory Lane: Hello Laos!

5

The War Conspiracy
Peter Dale Scott

Souvanna Phouma was forced out of office on July 23, 1958.
Richard Dale Scott, The War Conspiracy, p. 69.
(DATE CORRECTED)

July 23, 1958, was my 12th birthday. The forced change of government in Laos was one of the first steps on the way to the Vietnam War which dominated my 20s and early 30s, and not just mine.

Oddly, this was not one of those “Little did they know!” stories. I was a nerdy and precocious kid,  already afflicted with the fascination with politics which has been the bane of my existence, and if I didn’t notice what happened at that very moment, within a year I became familiar with names which I will never forget: Boun Oum, Souphanavong, Nguyen Khanh…..

While I was still in high school I went to a summer school for the talented and gifted. To all intents and purposes it was a neocon recruiting ground, even though the neocons didn’t exist yet, and while I washed out I did have the privilege of meeting Paul Wolfowitz, Abe Shulsky, and several others who became neocon big shots.

As for Vietnam….. 60-70% of the guys served in the military during that period, if you included the National Guards (whom the real veterans named “No Good and Not Going”). The best athlete the school ever had was all shot up. After a dozen reconstructive surgeries and a life of pain he died at age 59. As for me, I went to jail as a war resister and ended up living outside the law for a few more years. When I went back there for a few years when I was 59 several of the Vietnam Vets went out of their way to be friendly to me.

One of my college teachers ended up publishing an early expose of American Vietnam policy which ended up being eclipsed by Daniel Ellsburg’s revelation. I liked his class but not him, nor did he like me, and I’ve been told that he ended up going off the deep end.

Years later my son had a Lao best friend in school, Sithapou. Lao are tall and Sithapou was all-city in Portland the same year as Damon Stoudamire, who went on to a pro career. At about that time I was teaching Hmong kids in the Portland Public schools, with their memories of opium growing and domestic elephants. A couple years later when I lived in Taiwan, on my way to work at the LTTC I walked past the headquarters of the World Anti-Communist League, which (under the name “Asian Anti-Communist League”) had been involved in the Lao drug trade in an earlier period. A little earlier I had been a very active opponent of the US policy in Central America, where the WACL had been supporting the rightwing governments. And by sheer coincidence, the teacher I worked for in the public schools had had a “counter-terrorist” boyfriend who had worked in Central America,  and told me that one of the janitors at the school was a Salvadoran (presumably rightwing) who was cooling off in the US.

So what’s the point? Well, all those “political things” that people sometimes claim are distant and unreal kept on showing up in my life. In the case of the summer school and my involvement in anti-war activity, perhaps it was something about me, but the other things could have happened to anyone. It was right there if someone wanted to see it. But mostly people don’t want to think about things like that, or talk about them. Not polite.

Peter Dale Scott? Yes, he’s a conspiracy theorist, the best of the bunch. And I’m down the rabbit hole.

I

Published in: on January 19, 2017 at 7:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

Prodigal Sons by Alexander Bloom

Prodigal Sons
Alexander Bloom,
Oxford 1986

 

I’ve been reading about the prehistory of the Cold War university world I entered  in 1964 as a college freshman, and it has been utterly depressing. The message I get is that  international politics and war trump domestic politics, and above all that they trump attempts at radical change or even reform. Great-power slush funds overwhelm everything else.

This book tells the story of the trajectory of the New York Intellectuals (Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent, Public Interest) from their beginnings as very poor working-class radical  Jews with literary interests through Stalinism and anti-Stalinist radicalism to anti-Communist liberalism and  influential positions in American culture and the American university.

Citing Diana Trilling and Leslie Fiedler, Bloom notes that some of the intensity of the New York Intellectuals’ post-WWII anti-Communism may have been a result of the simple fear (or even guilt) felt by people who had dirty hands themselves — with the Rosenbergs serving as an expiatory burnt offering. The ferocious anti-Communist Sidney Hook had been a ferocious Communist during the Thirties, for example, and most of the New York Intellectuals had been isolationists right up until Pearl Harbor.

 

At times liberal anti-Communism just looks like a factional vendetta, where the prosecutions of the pro-Soviet Communists work as revenge for the Smith Act prosecutions of the anti-war Trotskyists. (Bloom doesn’t underline the fact, but many of the anti-Stalinist radicals redefined themselves as anti-Communist liberals without any previous history of liberalism, and the first thing they did was to attack existing civil-libertarian and anti-anti-Communist liberals of long standing).

In part because American foreign policy temporarily needed non-reactionary American anti-Communists to front for their European operations (The Politics of Apolitical Culture, Giles Scott-Smith) , and in part because the U.S. was moving in an authoritarian direction domestically, anti-Communist quasi-liberalism proved to be the road to success, though often enough  it was merely a half-way house to full-blown Strauss-Schmitt-Hayek anti-liberalism.

As I said above, war and foreign policy trump everything else.  Little as I admire the New York Intellectuals’ 1950s position, I am not sure that there was a better one available to be taken. If they had acted in a way more to my liking, I suspect that they would have retuirned to obscurity while someone else was found to get the job done. The post-WWII Eurasia / Eastasia switch, rather like an earthquake, destroyed all earlier political positions and severely limited post-earthquake possibilities. At least members of the losing faction weren’t subject to the death of a thousand cuts, as they might have been in the Chinese or the Byzantine empire.

All of the New York Intellectuals were very, very serious — Elliot Cohen, the first editor of Commentary, called them humorless. More evidence for my conviction that ambitious players without a capacity for fundamental unseriousness run the risk of becoming apparatchiks.

P.S. Yes, this is a worst-case reading. Caveat emptor and YMMV. This has been a sore point for me for years.

Published in: on January 9, 2017 at 9:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Major Themes and Key Words in Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise”.

(The below is a supplement to my longer article
but for someone familiar with the book
I think it can stand on its own).

Some aspects of This Side of Paradise can best be shown simply by tracking certain themes or even just certain key words or groups of key words through the text: impiety, staginess, “imagination”, “people”, “success”, “mirror”, “generation”,  “bourgeois”, “philistine”, “Pharisee”, “odor” “stink”, “scent”, alien” and  “immigrant”.

1.
Impiety, the devil, sex,  marriage, and evil

Amory’s fear of the dark and of ghosts, his vision of the real presence of the devil, and his final belief that beautiful women are evil do not fit with his image as a rebellious young Jazz Age libertine, though do they fit in perfectly with Catholic decadence. What was new about Fitzgerald was not advocacy, but merely a frank description of the scandalous ways of his generation — a naturalist writing about the conceited and spoiled rich rather than about slum dwellers.  His archaic superstitions and moral doubts did not hurt him with his youthful  audience, probably because many of them had the same doubts as he did.

For Amory, sex is identified with the devil and with the impiety of putting the beloved in the place of God. Sex and marriage also trap a  man in life and turn him into an object — a “people”. His mentor Darcy is grooming him to become a priest, and that may be what he mother also wants. But in the end he has lost his faith, and after implausibly considering a life as a socialist or a progressive reformer, he finds his new calling: Writing, which was always already there. And writing requires him to submit himself to the terrors of sex, love, and marriage even though being a writer unfits him for love.

One of the most clearly stated messages of This Side of Paradise is straight from Savonarola: women, beauty, and sex are evil. Oddly, the Jazz Age did not pick up on this message. Did the readers of This Side of Paradise simply ignore this message,  or were they, too, like Fitzgerald and Amory, severely conflicted and only one doubtful step removed from Puritanism or Catholic sex guilt?

 Zelda’s the only God I have left now.

 Fitzgerald, February 26, 1919. (more…)

Published in: on December 26, 2016 at 8:28 pm  Comments (1)  

A New Reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise”

John Emerson

This highly original reading of Fitzgerald’s book is in my opinion valid and important. (Readers should understand that most of the idiosyncratic and irregular aspects of  my presentation are deliberate).

Comments welcome below or at emerson j at g mail dot com

Word version of this article

Major Themes and Key Words: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise”:
Additional evidence for my argument


I.

Preface

You don’t know about me unless you just read a book by the name of  This Side of Paradise that I wrote. There is things that I stretched, but  I told the truth, mainly.  People badmouth my book some, but at this point it wouldn’t be realistic to have a guy like Amory Blaine writing a smooth book. That comes later. And anyway, I probably let some things slip out that a smoother writer would have covered up, so you get that.

I’m a naturalist  like Dreiser and all those guys. I show my characters with all their flaws, non-judgmentally. If they seem precious and fake that’s because I show the gritty reality of their lives, pretense, even though maybe they don’t look so appealing that way. I just tell the truth, and I even show you the half-baked novelist himself (me) right there in the middle of his half-baked novel.

Sometimes I wonder where my friend Edmund got the nerve to say all those things, given that he can barely write his way out of a paper bag, if that. But then, I have a lot more nerve than he does, which is why I wrote a novel that people will  still be reading a century from now, and he didn’t.

Also, my book is a morality play, with a Virgin Mary (Clara) and two succubi (Axia and Elaine), and if you read the book carefully you will understand how women and the devil lead us into sin.  “I know myself, but that is all”. Ha.

II.

Introduction

Amory Blaine is F. Scott Fitzgerald, more or less. Blaine tells us various things he has noticed about the Midwest, Princeton University, the WWI generation, women, etc., and some of these things are very interesting, but the book is mostly about him.  He learns a lot about himself from the women he tries to love,  and these women also tell him what it’s like to be at the receiving end of fetishism.

A stranger in the world, Amory must manipulate and dominate his way through life, but doing so makes real human contact almost impossible. His aristocratic egotism, analytic reflex,  misogyny,  asceticism / Puritanism,  and decadent disdain for the world of his time separate him from the rest of humankind, making a life dedicated to the Church seem tempting. But the vocation he ends up choosing is writing, not the priesthood.

As a writer he needs experience, and for a committed  romantic like Amory (despite his Puritanism),  experience means love. But even love does not save him, and at the end of his book he is in utter confusion, overcome by cynicism, misogyny,  resentment, and a vaguely progressive nihilism, with has no other choice than to become a writer, which is what he had always wanted to do.

(more…)

Published in: on December 21, 2016 at 9:05 pm  Comments (3)  

New Directions and Ezra Pound

Greg Barnhisel
James Laughlin, New Directions Press, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound,
University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.

Barnhisel’s book is an interesting history of James Laughlin’s New Directions publishing house, and by extension a history of American literary publishing since 1920 or so, but the main thing I’ve taken away from it is the conviction that Ezra Pound was the most obnoxious American author of all time.

You have to start with Pound’s cutesy, ranting, incredibly annoying epistolary style, which is the written equivalent of jabbing you in the ribs and tugging at your shirt: “There is no mony fer me in having sheets embedded. I mean whazzer USE in Nude Erections importing what won’t keep papa? … I shd/ think Nude Erek/ cd. do something more active than merely Sheeting the Polecats.” Except from a damaged friend or relative for whom I felt responsibility, I would be disinclined to continue a correspondence that went like that.

     Then, there is his continual stream of insults accusing more or less everyone else in the world, including the person he was writing to, of stupidity and worse. Pound was tremendously proud of his own ideas, which were shabby and worthless — Social Credit, developed by a saner crank, was the good part.

And then the Fascist-Nazi thing, which went deep. When he noticed Jews in his audience he made a point of reading his most anti-Semitic Cantos. His puzzlement and indignation at the poor reception of his Nazi beliefs in the US makes you think that his insanity plea, which I used to think was just a polite fiction for saving his neck, may have been entirely valid.

Laughlin marketed Pound to the civilized world with a combination of an insanity plea and “art for art’s sake”. To Pound his political writings were the most important of all, but to his handlers and supporters these had nothing to do his poetry. You sort of have to wonder about Laughlin.

The strange and savage American Fifties, back when I was a boy. The past is a different country, they say, not to be judged by the standards of today.

Published in: on December 11, 2016 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment