The purple decades a r.., p.38
The Purple Decades - a Reader, p.38Tom Wolfe
Suddenly I heard myself blurting out over my microphone: “My God, what are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a … Happiness Explosion!”
That merely sounded idiotic. The kid up in the balcony did the crying baby. The kid down below did the raccoon … Krakatoa, East of Java … I disappeared in a tidal wave of rude sounds … Back to the goon squads, search-and-seize and roust-a-daddy …
Support came from a quarter I hadn’t counted on. It was Grass, speaking in English.
“For the past hour I have my eyes fixed on the doors here,” he said. “You talk about fascism and police repression. In Germany when I was a student, they come through those doors long ago. Here they must be very slow.”
Grass was enjoying himself for the first time all evening. He was not simply saying, “You really don’t have so much to worry about.” He was indulging his sense of the absurd. He was saying: “You American intellectuals—you want so desperately to feel besieged and persecuted!”
He sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.
Not very nice, Günter! Not very nice, Jean-François! A bit supercilious, wouldn’t you say!
In fact, during the 1960’s American intellectuals seldom seemed to realize just how patronizing their European brethren were being. To the Europeans, American intellectuals were struggling so hard (yet once again) to be correct in ideology and in attitude … and they were being correct … impeccable, even—which was precisely what prompted the sniggers and the knowing looks. European intellectuals looked upon American intellectuals much the way English colonial officials used to look upon the swarthy locals who came forward with their Calcutta Toff Oxford accents or their Lagos Mayfair tailored clothes. It was so touching (then why are you laughing?) to see the natives try to do it right.
I happened to have been in a room in Washington in 1961 when a member of Nigeria’s first Cabinet (after independence) went into a long lament about the insidious and seductive techniques the British had used over the years to domesticate his people.
“Just look at me!” he said, looking down at his own torso and flipping his hands toward his chest. “Look at this suit! A worsted suit on an African—and a double-breasted waistcoat!”
He said “double-breasted waistcoat” with the most shriveling self-contempt you can imagine.
“This is what they’ve done to me,” he said softly. “I can’t even do the High Life any more.”
The High Life was a Low Rent Nigerian dance. He continued to stare down at the offending waistcoat, wondering where he’d left his soul, or his Soul, in any event.
Perhaps someday, if Mr. Bob Silvers’s Confessions are published, we will read something similar. Silvers is co-editor of The New York Review of Books. His accent arrived mysteriously one day in a box from London. Intrigued, he slapped it into his mouth like a set of teeth. It seemed … right. He began signing up so many English dons to write for The New York Review of Books that wags began calling it The London Review of Bores and Don & Grub Street. He seemed to take this good-naturedly. But perhaps someday we will learn that Mr. Bob Silvers, too, suffered blue moods of the soul and stood in front of a mirror wiggling his knees, trying to jiggle his roots, wondering if his feet could ever renegotiate the Lindy or the Fish or the Hokey-Pokey.
4. Hell’s Angels
O how faithfully our native intelligentsia has tried to … do it right! The model has not always been England. Not at all. Just as frequently it has been Germany or France or Italy or even (on the religious fringe) the Orient. In the old days—seventy-five-or-so years ago—the well-brought-up young intellectual was likely to be treated to a tour of Europe … we find Jane Addams recuperating from her malaise in London and Dresden … Lincoln Steffens going to college in Heidelberg and Munich … Mabel Dodge setting up house in Florence … Randolph Bourne discovering Germany’s “charming villages” and returning to Bloomfield, New Jersey—Bloomfield, New Jersey?—which now “seemed almost too grotesquely squalid and frowsy to be true.” The business of being an intellectual and the urge to set oneself apart from provincial life began to be indistinguishable. In July 1921 Harold Stearns completed his anthology called Civilization in the United States—a contradiction in terms, he hastened to note—and set sail for Europe. The “Lost Generation” adventure began. But what was the Lost Generation really? It was a post-Great War discount tour in which middle-class Americans, too, not just Bournes and Steffenses, could learn how to become European intellectuals; preferably French.
The European intellectual! What a marvelous figure! A brilliant cynic, dazzling, in fact, set like one of those Gustave Miklos Art Deco sculptures of polished bronze and gold against the smoking rubble of Europe after the Great War. The American intellectual did the best he could. He could position himself against a backdrop of … well, not exactly rubble … but of the booboisie, the Herd State, the United States of Puritanism, Philistinism, Boosterism, Greed, and the great Hog Wallow. It was certainly a psychological wasteland. For the next fifty years, from that time to this, with ever-increasing skill, the American intellectual would perform this difficult feat, which might be described as the Adjectival Catch Up. The European intellectuals have a real wasteland? Well, we have a psychological wasteland. They have real fascism? Well, we have social fascism (a favorite phrase of the 1930’s, amended to “liberal fascism” in the 1960’s). They have real poverty? Well, we have relative poverty (Michael Harrington’s great Adjectival Catch Up of 1963). They have real genocide? Well, we have cultural genocide (i.e., what universities were guilty of in the late 1960’s if they didn’t have open-admissions policies for minority groups).
Well—all right! They were difficult, these one-and-a-half gainers in logic. But they were worth it. What had become important above all was to be that polished figure amid the rubble, a vision of sweetness and light in the smoking tar pit of hell. The intellectual had become not so much an occupational type as a status type. He was like the medieval cleric, most of whose energies were devoted to separating himself from the mob—which in modern times, in Revel’s phrase, goes under the name of the middle class.
Did he want to analyze the world systematically? Did he want to add to the store of human knowledge? He not only didn’t want to, he belittled the notion, quoting Rosa Luxemburg’s statement that the “pot-bellied academics” and their interminable monographs and lectures, their intellectual nerve gas, were sophisticated extensions of police repression. Did he even want to change the world? Not particularly; it was much more elegant to back exotic, impossible causes such as the Black Panthers’. Moral indignation was the main thing; that, and a certain pattern of consumption. In fact, by the 1960’s it was no longer necessary to produce literature, scholarship, or art—or even to be involved in such matters, except as a consumer—in order to qualify as an intellectual. It was only necessary to live la vie intellectuelle . A little brown bread in the bread box, a lapsed pledge card to CORE, a stereo and a record rack full of Coltrane and all the Beatles albums from Revolver on, white walls, a huge Dracaena marginata plant, which is there because all the furniture is so clean-lined and spare that without this piece of frondose tropical Victoriana the room looks empty, a stack of unread New York Review of Books rising up in a surly mound of subscription guilt, the conviction that America is materialistic, repressive, bloated, and deadened by its Silent Majority, which resides in the heartland, three grocery boxes full of pop bottles wedged in behind the refrigerator and destined (one of these days) for the Recycling Center, a small, uncomfortable European car—that pretty well got the job done. By the late 1960’s it seemed as if American intellectuals had at last … Caught Up. There were riots on the campuses and in the slums. The war in Vietnam had developed into a full-sized hell. War! Revolution! Imperialism! Poverty! I can still remember the ghastly delight w
By 1967 Lyndon Johnson may have been the very generalissimo of American imperialism in Southeast Asia—but back here in the U.S. the citizens were enjoying freedom of expression and freedom of dissent to a rather astonishing degree. For example, the only major Western country that allowed public showings of MacBird—a play that had Lyndon Johnson murdering John F. Kennedy in order to become President—was the United States (Lyndon Johnson, President). The citizens of this fascist bastion, the United States, unaccountably had, and exercised, the most extraordinary political freedom and civil rights in all history. In fact, the government, under the same Johnson, had begun the novel experiment of sending organizers into the slums—in the Community Action phase of the poverty program—to mobilize minority groups to rise up against the government and demand a bigger slice of the pie. (They obliged.) Colored peoples were much farther along the road to equality—whether in the area of rights, jobs, income, or social acceptance—in the United States than were the North Africans, Portuguese, Senegalese, Pakistanis, and Jamaicans of Europe. In 1966 England congratulated herself over the appointment of her first colored policeman (a Pakistani in Coventry). Meanwhile, young people in the U.S.—in the form of the Psychedelic or Flower Generation—were helping themselves to wild times that were the envy of children all over the world.
In short, freedom was in the air like a flock of birds. Just how fascist could it be? This problem led to perhaps the greatest Adjectival Catch Up of all times: Herbert Marcuse’s doctrine of “repressive tolerance.” Other countries had real repression? Well, we had the obverse, repressive tolerance. This was an insidious system through which the government granted meaningless personal freedoms in order to narcotize the pain of class repression, which only socialism could cure. Beautiful! Well-nigh flawless!
Yet even at the moment of such exquisite refinements—things have a way of going wrong. Another troublesome fact has cropped up, gravely complicating the longtime dream of socialism. That troublesome fact may be best summed up in a name: Solzhenitsyn.
5. Blaming the messenger
With the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 it had become clear to Mannerist Marxists such as Sartre that the Soviet Union was now an embarrassment. The fault, however, as tout le monde knew, was not with socialism but with Stalinism. Stalin was a madman and had taken socialism on a wrong turn. (Mistakes happen.) Solzhenitsyn began speaking out as a dissident inside the Soviet Union in 1967. His complaints, his revelations, his struggles with Soviet authorities—they merely underscored just how wrong the Stalinist turn had been.
The publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973, however, was a wholly unexpected blow. No one was ready for the obscene horror and grotesque scale of what Solzhenitsyn called “Our Sewage Disposal System”—in which tens of millions were shipped in boxcars to concentration camps all over the country, in which tens of millions died, in which entire races and national groups were liquidated, insofar as they had existed in the Soviet Union. Moreover, said Solzhenitsyn, the system had not begun with Stalin but with Lenin, who had immediately exterminated non-Bolshevik opponents of the old regime and especially the student factions. It was impossible any longer to distinguish the Communist liquidation apparatus from the Nazi.
Yet Solzhenitsyn went still further. He said that not only Stalinism, not only Leninism, not only Communism—but socialism itself led to the concentration camps; and not only socialism, but Marxism; and not only Marxism but any ideology that sought to reorganize morality on an a priori basis. Sadder still, it was impossible to say that Soviet socialism was not “real socialism.” On the contrary—it was socialism done by experts!
Intellectuals in Europe and America were willing to forgive Solzhenitsyn a great deal. After all, he had been born and raised in the Soviet Union as a Marxist, he had fought in combat for his country, he was a great novelist, he had been in the camps for eight years, he had suffered. But for his insistence that the isms themselves led to the death camps—for this he was not likely to be forgiven soon. And in fact the campaign of antisepsis began soon after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974. (“He suffered too much—he’s crazy.” “He’s a Christian zealot with a Christ complex.” “He’s an agrarian reactionary.” “He’s an egotist and a publicity junkie.”)
Solzhenitsyn’s tour of the United States in 1975 was like an enormous funeral procession that no one wanted to see. The White House wanted no part of him. The New York Times sought to bury his two major speeches, and only the moral pressure of a lone Times writer, Hilton Kramer, brought them any appreciable coverage at all. The major television networks declined to run the Solzhenitsyn interview that created such a stir in England earlier this year (it ran on some of the educational channels).
And the literary world in general ignored him completely. In the huge unseen coffin that Solzhenitsyn towed behind him were not only the souls of the zeks who died in the Archipelago. No, the heartless bastard had also chucked in one of the last great visions: the intellectual as the Stainless Steel Socialist glistening against the bone heap of capitalism in its final, brutal, fascist phase. There was a bone heap, all right, and it was grisly beyond belief, but socialism had created it.
In 1974, in one of his last speeches, the late Lionel Trilling, who was probably the most prestigious literary critic in the country and had been a professor of English at Columbia for thirty-five years, made what falls under the heading of “a modest proposal.” He suggested that the liberal-arts curriculum in the universities be abandoned for one generation.
His argument ran as follows: Children come to the university today, and they register, and they get the student-activity card and the map of the campus and the university health booklet, and just about as automatically they get a packet of cultural and political attitudes. That these attitudes are negative or cynical didn’t seem to be what worried Trilling. It was more that they are dispensed and accepted with such an air of conformity and inevitability. The student emerges from the university with a set of ready-mades, intact, untouched by direct experience. What was the solution? Well—why not turn off the packaging apparatus for a while? In time there might develop a generation of intelligent people who had experienced American life directly and “earned” their opinions.
Whether his proposal was serious or not, I couldn’t say. But somehow he made me think once more of the Lost Lad of the Great Plains, the Candide in Reverse,
Who asked how old you had to be
Before the O’Hare curse
Coldcocked you like the freight train
Tell me, are you willing,
Lost Lad, to pick yourself some
Intelligent lost coed Cunégonde
And head out shank-to-flank in Trilling’s
Will you hector tout le monde?
Will you sermonize
On how perceiving
The heresy of your own eyes?
“A sniper? The media coverage is good—but when it’s over, they throw you in the nuthouse, and that’s that. Me, I want to go to Europe and kidnap industrialists for the Revolution and write a book about it and make a lot of money.”
MAUVE GLOVES & MADMEN, CLUTTER & VINE
The well-known American writer … but perhaps it’s best not to say exactly which well-known American writer … they’re a sensitive breed! The most ordinary comments they take personally! And why would the gentleman we’re about to surprise be any exception? He’s in his apartment, a seven-room apartment on Riverside Drive, on the West Side of Manhattan, in his study, seated at his desk. As we approach from the rear, we notice a bald spot on the crown of his he
Meeting his sideburns at mid-jowl is the neck of his turtleneck sweater, an authentic Navy turtleneck, and the sweater tucks into his Levi’s, which are the authentic Original XX Levi’s, the original straight stovepipes made for wearing over boots. He got them in a bona fide cowhand’s store in La Porte, Texas, during his trip to Houston to be the keynote speaker in a lecture series on “The American Dream: Myth and Reality.” No small part of the latter was a fee of two thousand dollars plus expenses. This outfit, the Navy turtleneck and the double-X Levi’s, means work & discipline. Discipline! as he says to himself every day. When he puts on these clothes, it means that he intends to write, and do nothing else, for at least four hours. Discipline, Mr. Wonderful!
From Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine. First published in Esquire, December 1975.
But on the desk in front of him—that’s not a manuscript or even the beginnings of one … that’s last month’s bank statement, which just arrived in the mail. And those are his canceled checks in a pile on top of it. In that big ledger-style checkbook there (the old-fashioned kind, serious-looking, with no crazy Peter Max designs on the checks) are his check stubs. And those slips of paper in the promiscuous heap are all unpaid bills, and he’s taking the nylon cover off his Texas Instruments desk calculator, and he is about to measure the flow, the tide, the mad sluice, the crazy current of the money that pours through his fingers every month and which is now running against him in the most catastrophic manner, like an undertow, a riptide, pulling him under—
The Purple Decades - a Reader by Tom Wolfe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes