Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Critical Aside

From a discussion begun on another blog. . . .

WHEN SOMEONE STARTS talking about "middlebrow" writers, it means they're not thinking, but are regurgitating what was on the blackboard in English 545.

"Middlebrow" comes from 1950's critic Dwight MacDonald, who famously attacked author James Gould Cozzens in an essay called "By Cozzens Possessed." His is the received wisdom which you've been parroting. The Cozzens reputation was established at that time, hardened into concrete, allowing those who came later, such as yourselves, to not have to think. You can simply click to the "Received Wisdom" page, under "C."

Yep, there it is! "Cozzens." "Middlebrow." "By Love Possessed." Terrible writer! It says so, right there. There on the screen.

Under "R" we find the much praised innovative postmodernist "Robbe-Grillet." No mention of the stuff of literature about his work-- like striking characters, stories, insights-- because the stuff of literature is missing. He's a great writer because he is, that's why.

Could the Received Wisdom ever be wrong?

I mean, the professor, the blackboard at the university. He told me. . . .
I read Cozzens's Guard of Honor as long ago as when I read Robbe-Grillet. Yet I recall nothing of the latter's work-- not an incident-- while moments from Cozzen's great novel are planted in my memory. ("Great" meaning largeness of scope and mind.) A novel is ultimately about moments, and how we arrive at them. For "Guard" it's finally about the last moment, when brash-but-inept young General Beal and his mentor-sidekick Colonel Ross watch a large American bomber plane ascend into the sky. We feel everything which has transpired on all the many previous pages. The two men are satisfied because they've kept the whole shithouse of their very large Army Air Force base together for another day, despite incompetency and mishap, and mishap and incompetency.

For them, it's a triumph. For the reader it's a bigger moment. We're experiencing one of the great moments of American literature-- the first recognition of the birth of American Empire. The end of World War II was the point in time when the American civilization irrevocably changed. No writer other than Cozzens so well captured that transcendent birth-moment; for him and his two characters, a glorious moment. (For us, living under the George W. Bush regime, likely less glorious.)

In back of that moment, in the body of the novel, Cozzens has captured the American system's staggering venality and corruption, but also its unstoppable unthinking strength. America has been about business and organization. We've won wars not because we had braver soldiers, but because we had larger organizations. We've steamrolled the entire world by our energy, our products, our gift for organization: our mindless progress. As the novel shows, right and truth are subordinated to the needs of the organization. It's been the American way.

The happenings of later decades are prefigured in the happenings of Cozzens's story. You want the Sixties? You have the roots of the Sixties in the nascent rebellion by the black officers on base, and in the presence of two young white officers-- a liberal and a radical-- whose actions old Colonel Ross has to pre-empt if he's to save his dynamic but immature general. Society-- even the society of an army air force base; center of the Beast-- is a powder keg.

The amazing thing about the novel is that Cozzens, uber-conservative though he is, tackles questions of racism and class. He depicts the hierarchy of American society in a way no established novelist will even attempt to do today. (Though the hierarchy today is more pronounced; the gaps between classes greater than they were in his time.) The depiction is of a piece with the novelist's essential honesty.

Few American novels have been more ambitious-- or more successful in realizing that ambition. If "Guard" is not a great novel, then there are no great novels; there are no standards, no artistic values, and words like "great" have lost all meaning.

Given that a Robbe-Grillet is raised on a pedestal while Cozzens is demeaned, this is the situation of American criticism today-- a mindset which must be overturned if we're to begin our American literary Golden Age.

(Next: two more parts to this, including a discussion of Cozzens and Beethoven. Stay tuned.)


Anonymous said...

A few points:

1. Just because you found some precedence for an opinion doesn't mean that anyone who has that opinion is a parrot.

2. Robbe-Grillet is hardly on a pedestal. Go to a bookstore and you'll find him about as often as Cozzens.

3. The fact that you can remember incidents from the novel are not necessarily testaments to its greatness. I can quote Austin Powers more than Walt Whitman.

4. Ambition is not the hallmark of anything but itself. Dickens was ambitious; so was Hitler.

5. The reason you prefer Cozzens is because his prose was effective for you as you read it. Is it really impossible for you to imagine others being moved by Robbe-Grillet? Why are your experiences with literature presumed to be genuine, and mine presumed to be spoonfed?

--the wandering jew

Anonymous said...

Also, if you read Macdonald's piece on Cozzens, he gives lots and lots and lots and examples as to why he thinks the book is lousy. He was puzzled by Cozzens's prominence and adulation and sought to provide a few reasons for why he thought Cozzens was overrated. He succeeded wildly--the piece just about destroyed Cozzens's career. You might not like it, but that's called criticism. You also might try to write something reasoned and measured for why Macdonald was wrong. That would be called writing and argument. What you've got here are a bunch of non sequiturs and weakly put forth postulations about why you're right. Pardon me if I'm not convinced.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

You haven't convimced me that you're moved by Robbe-Grillet.
In fact, if you read his notes in "For a New Novel," you'll see that moving people was hardly his purpose. (Though one can never know where his ideas are concerned. As he said, "Perhaps. Perhaps not.")
It sure seems to me that R-B rejected communion, transcendence, and tragedy. Isn't that what he said?
Other points:
-The phrase "middlebrow" has become a cliche. Most people who use it are short-circuiting their thought.
It indicates someone who thinks in categories and boxes.
I'll grant, not everyone.
-If the young R-B found himself on a pedestal he'd be the first person to pull himself off.
-I'm not here to refute MacDonald. My point in referring to him was that, yes, his criticism of Cozzens destroyed the man's reputation. Which you agree with.
I have no disagreement with strong criticism-- today we don't see enough of it. I actually agree with many of the points MacDonald made about that particular book-- which I hope to address in an upcoming post.
The best way for me to present Cozzens is to explain WHY he's an author who deserves a second look. To do that I've explained his relevance to we the reader now.
I'll do more of this.
(There's great irony in lit-bloggers-- most who've been closed-minded toward the ULA and underground writers-- suddenly pleading for fairness.)

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

p.s. I believe Cozzens eventually DID respond to MacDonald. He was well able to stand up for himself-- as I recall, he handled MacDonald's arguments fairly well.
p.p.s. Don't think I have any bias toward Robbe-Grillet. Given my own temperament, I was more open to him at the beginning, moreso than to a rabid establishment apologist like Cozzens. I'm just unable to deny Cozzens's abilities as a novelist.