I’m going to start a new category – Book Bytes. I’m one of those people who reads books with a highlighter or pen and I note passages that I find particularly meaningful/moving/well-written/enraging. I’m also one of those people who returns to books over and over, finding some bit of insight in them the 2nd or 3rd time that I missed the first, or reminding myself of a brilliant idea I’d seen the first time and forgotten. Sometimes the book bytes will be just isolated quotes, sometimes longer passages, and they will probably tend to come in groups, as I read or reread a book. Your comments are encouraged, as I hope they provoke as much thought in you as they obviously did in me if I saw fit to quote them.
The first book from which I will share some excerpts is Culture of Complaint, by Robert Hughes. Hughes is an Australian art critic and in this book he takes dead aim at what he calls America’s “twin fetishes of victimhood and redemption”. He takes equal delight in skewering Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson on the one hand, and Andrea Dworkin and the therapy cult on the other. This passage is from the book’s introductory chapter:
What Herod saw (Ed note: he is referring to a fictional Herod in a W.H. Auden piece) was America in the late 80s and early 90s. A polity obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics; skeptical of authority and prey to superstition; its political language corroded by fake pity and euphemism. Like late Rome, unlike the early republic, in its long imperial reach, in the corruption and verbosity of its senators, in its reliance on sacred geese (those feathered ancestors of our own pollsters and spin-doctors) and in its submission to senile, deified emperors controlled by astrologers and extravagant wives. A culture which has replaced gladiatorial games, as a means of pacifying the mob, with hi-tech wars on television that cause immense slaughter and yet leave the Mesopotamian satraps in full power over their wretched subjects.
Unlike Caligula, the emperor does not appoint his horse counsul; he puts him in charge of the environment, or appoints him to the Supreme Court. Mainly it is women who object, for due to the prevalance of mystery-religions the men are off in the woods, affirming their manhood by sniffing one another’s armpits and listening to third-rate poets rant about the moist, hairy satyr that lives inside each one of them. Those who crave the returns of the Delphic sibyl get Shirley MacLaine, and a 35,000-year-old Cro Magnon warrior named Ramtha takes up residence inside a blonde housewife on the West Coast, generating millions upon millions of cult dollars in seminars, tapes and books.
Meanwhile, artists vacillate between a largely self-indulgent expressiveness and a mainly impotent politicization, and the contest between education and TV – between argument and conviction by spectacle – has been won by television, a medium now more debased in America than ever before. Even its popular arts, once the wonder and delight of the world, have decayed; there was a time, within the memory of some of us, when American popular music was full of exaltation and pain and wit, and appealed to grown-ups. Today, instead of the raw intensity of Muddy Waters or the virile inventiveness of Duke Ellington, we have Michael Jackson, and from George Gershwin and Cole Porter we are down to illiterate spectaculars about cats or the fall of Saigon. The great American form of rock’n'roll has become over-technologized and run through the corporate grinder, until it is 95 percent synthetic…
And then, because the arts confront the sensitive citizen with the difference between good artists, mediocre ones and absolute duffers, and since there are always more of the last two than the first, the arts too must be politicized; so we cobble up critical systems to show that although we know what we meant by the quality of the environment, the idea of “quality” in aesthetic experience is little more than a paternalist fiction designed to make life hard for black, female and homosexual artists, who must henceforth be judged on their ethnicity, gender and medical condition rather than the merits of their work.
As a maudlin reaction against excellence spreads to the arts, the idea of aesthetic discrimination is tarred with the brush of racial or gender discrimination. Few take a stand on this, or point out that in matters of art “elitism” does not mean social injustice or even inaccessibility. The self is now the sacred cow of American culture, self-esteem is sacrosanct, and so we labor to turns arts education into a system in whch no-one can fail. In the same spirit, tennis could be shorn of its elitist overtones: you just get rid of the net.
Since our new-found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero, the white American males starts bawling for victim status too. Hence the rise of cult therapies which teach that we are all the victims of our parents: that whatever our folly, venality, or outright thuggishness, we are not to be blamed for it, since we come from “dysfunctional families” – and, as John Bradshaw, Melody Beattie and other gurus of the twelve-step program are quick to point out on no evidence whatsoever, 96 percent of American families are dysfunctional. We have been given improper role models, or starved of affection, or beaten, or perhaps subjected to the goatish lusts of Papa; and if we don’t think we have, it is only because we have repressed the memory and are therefore in even more urgent need of the quack’s latest book.
The number of Americans who were abused as children and hence absolved from all blame for anything they might now do is more or less equal to the number who, a few years ago, had once been Cleopatra or Henry VIII. Thus the ether is now jammed with confessional shows in which a parade of citizens and their role-models, from Latoya Jackson to Roseanne Barr, rise to denounce the sins of their parents, real or imagined. Not to be aware of a miserable childhood is prima facie evidence, in the eyes of Recovery, of “denial” – the assumption being that everyone had one, and is thus a potential source of revenue.The cult of the abused Inner Child has a very important use in modern America: it tells you that personal grievance transcends political utterance, and that th eupward production curve of maudlin narcissism need not intersect with the descending spiral of cultural triviality. Thus the pursuit of the Inner Child has taken over just at the moment when Americans ought to be figuring out where their Inner Adult is, and how that disregarded oldster got buried under the rubble of pop psychology and specious short-term gratification. We imagine a Tahiti inside ourselves, and seek its prelapsarian inhabitant: everyone his own Noble Savage.