Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Romancing the Bourgoisie

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Sometimes I find this project absolutely fascinating.  I appreciate the efforts of so many of you, in comments and e-mail both, to assure me that if I will just look off the beaten track, I can find many examples of the kind of alternatives I’m talking about.  But I’m aware of that, really.   For one thing, I’m a living example of one. 

It’s the lack of such alternatives alive in the culture and available to everybody that bothers me.  I still say that, for all the newly highlighted differences of skin color and ethnicity we like to point to as an opening up of Anglophone societies over the last several years, diversity these days is largely superficial.  We may all look different, but we are all expected to think alike.

And I don’t mean we’re all expected to be liberals, either. 

Sometime last year I got into a lot of trouble on a Usenet newsgroup I post to sometimes because I disparaged a book put out by a group of rather geriatric “feminists” (the scare quotes are not only deliberate but eloquent) who wanted to let the world know that, in their sixties, they were not only still having sex, but having the best sex of their lives.

Actually, I wasn’t disparaging the book.  I was disparaging the attitude.   But it comes down to the same thing:  I wouldn’t have much respect for a man of that age whose first imperative was to have lots of good sex, and in the case of at least some men there is likely to be a biological and hormonal imperative.  Women past menopause seldom have such an imperative, and from the excerpts of this book  I’d read, these women weren’t some of them.  The point of their chasing sex at sixty-whatever was simple:  the only criteria they had for a good life was being young and being hot and having access to an endless stream of sex and sensation.  For these women–as for Hugh Heffner, as for generations of coarse-minded, foul-mouthed “male chauvinist pigs” before them–the worth of a woman was between her legs.

The worth of a man, too, by the way.  Hugh Heffner is no less pathetic than this group of women is, and no less pathetic than my students who think having enough money for a Porsche and a house with three Jacuzzis in it will make them happy.

Yesterday, I did my usual Sunday thing of getting my work done very early in the morning and then sitting down with something to read and something to listen to.  I went from a little Hildegarde to ssome Mozart, but what I read was an essay by Yvor Winters, actually the introduction to a book he wrote in 1937, collected in a volume of essays on the New Criticism called Praising It New. 

The date of the thing is interesting, because in this essay and at that time, he seems already to have understood what Hitler was.  But it’s not his comments about Hitler I want to quote here, it’s his comments about  Romanticism, not only in literature but in everything else.  Maybe Winters was so prescient about Hitler becuase he so hated Romanticism, and so it so clearly.  As somebody here pointed out, Hitler’s was a Romantic movement.   Indeed, it was. 

Anyway, Mr. Yvor Winters:

>>>The Romantic  Theory assumes that literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience, that man is naturally good, that man’s impulses are trustworthy, that the rational faculty is unreliable to the point of being dangerous or possibly evil.  The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely upon his impulses, he will achieve the good life.  Wen this notion is combined, as it frequently is, with a pantheistic philosophy or religion, it commonly teaches that through surrender to impulse man will not only achieve the good life but will achieve also a kind of mystical union with the Divinity…>>>

What follows is a comment on Emerson, who is definitely a Romantic by this definition.  In fact, most of American intellectual life between the  Revolution and the  Civil  War was Romantic by this definition.

What strikes me, however, was that we have gotten to the point that everything we are offered in public life is Romantic by this definition.  We get no counterexamples even just as examples, never mind something like a Fulton Sheen or a  Thomas Huxley to oppose it in a reasoned and systematic way.

It does no good to tell me that I’m looking in the wrong places for counterexamples, because my point is that the same places used to have such counterexamples.  We had Marilym Monroe but we also had Fulton Sheen.  We had Jayne Mansfield–and Norman Mailer–but we also had Lionel  Trilling.  Sitting right there in the “mass media,” in the public square, for anybody to see, were different kinds of people living different ways, different standards of value for what made a “good life.” 

Part of the stifling monoculture of the moment has to do with the fact that the mass media aren’t as mass as they used to be.   On the Monday after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, I asked each of my classes to write three paragraphs in fifteen minutes on “Mumbai–what is it, and why do I think you should know?”

Two thirds of my students claimed never to have heard the word before, and guessed that it had something to do with Africa, and that maybe it was a dance.   Of the other third, fully half claimed to have heard the word but not to be able to connect it to anything.  All of my students who didn’t know wrote sharp little complaints about how it wasn’t fair that I expected them to.   They didn’t watch the news because it was too depressing, and besides, what did it have to do with them anyway?

Back in the days when there were only three network television stations and no other options, the local news was on at five thirty, the national news was on at six, and you were stuck with it whether you liked it or not.  These days, it’s possible to simply avoid all that by turning to MTV or one of the vast number of radio stations that play the music of the moment 24/7 and offer no news at all.  Even during 9/11 there were television stations that went on playing nonstop soap operas, nonstop cartoons, and nonstop fifties television shows.  The “public square” these days sometimes looks more like one of those big bins of bubbles people roll around and get lost in. 

Part of the reason for what’s happening is surely the imperatives of stockholder suits–the purpose of management, the courts tell us, is to maximize the value of the stock for the stockholders, and that means having a business plan targetted at capturing the most lucrative markets.  In the “mass media,” that market is made up of unmarried people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-six.   When everybody is chasing that demographic, a concentration on youth, sex, and sensation is almost inevitable.

I don’t watch a lot of television, so my observations here are necessarily limited, but from what I can see, the last alternative to the young-and-hot-is-everything scenario to make it on to a major network was Jessica  Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. There she was, middle-aged, bookish, and with no particular interest in snagging a boyfriend.  A much better image of such an alternative–the redoubtable Miss Jane Marple herself, as presented in the  BBC-A and E series–exists only on a niche channel and makes it into the wider public consciousness almost not at all. 

What I’m looking for is not  Christianity, but the public face of lives that are not this–not that Romantic sensiblity Yvor Winters was talking about above.  And up until fairly recently, those alternatives did exist in the “mass media,” and in the consciousness of alL of us. 

My problem with religion, at the moment, is that the public face of it–remember, the PUBLIC face of it–is now just as Romantic as Paris Hilton flashing the papparazzi as she walks down the red carpet.  It’s about what we feel and what we want and what we can get, about gobbling up “experiences,” and shutting our minds off while we do it.  The fact that religion offers “spirituality and stuff” instead of “sex and stuff” isn’t much of a difference.  

The fact that many secular organizations seem to be on a crusade to save the “embattled” Romantic ideal from the dark forces of anti-Romantic religion is just…well, a manifestation of cluelessness I find it hard to wrap m mind around. 

I’m going to go spend the day watching lots and lots of  Miss Jane Marple.

Written by janeh

December 29th, 2008 at 9:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Romancing the Bourgoisie'

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  1. Isn’t it inevitable that if you have a society in which there is no particular consensus that some particular kind of cultural expression is of value or should be protected, most of the culture of that society is going to be of the broadest, most appealing and most easily digestible kind? Especially among the commercial producers of said culture, who, as you point out, try to appeal to the most profitable demographic. And as I’ve said repeatedly (well, maybe not here or online), I’m not in it. I don’t think I ever was, since when I fit because of my age, I still seemed to have minority tastes in music, science, love of news, even sometimes books. Well, a lot of times books, but I read so many that I ended up reading some popular ones too.

    I have a vague memory of you saying online somewhere that we now have far more choices than ever before. And in a way, you were right. We do. I can go online and order CDs and books and other things that no store here would ever carry, at least until my money runs out. But for choice to be of any use, it has to be searched out and, er, chosen. Some people don’t want to bother. They’re happy enough with reality TV and whatever the currently popular type of music is. And without a consensus as to what is important – one which was once, as you point out, partly created by mass media – they are naturally going to see no reason to change. Curiosity might do it, but they don’t tend to be curious people.

    And some religious leaders, wanting to reach people where they are, resort to putting out what most people seem to want. Well, I suspect some of them do. Perhaps some of them are genuine charismatics.

    I don’t like the most recent Jane Marple with Geraldine McEwan because the makers changed the stories, which really threw me off. Some of the changes seemed particularly pointless – there was one in which the book’s clever fake alibi was completely torn apart, but the elements, most distractingly, remained. That series was like the horrible adaptations of Dick Francis.

    I’ve got Horatio Hornblower, some old X-Files and Malcolm in the Middle from the library DVD collection right now.


    29 Dec 08 at 10:21 am

  2. “And some religious leaders, wanting to reach people where they are, resort to putting out what most people seem to want. Well, I suspect some of them do. Perhaps some of them are genuine charismatics.”

    My poor little atheistic heart did a hop, skip and a wobble just the other day when, in response to the Pope’s statement about homosexuality (which I didn’t read myself, but merely heard about on the news), the local RC Bishop issued a press release criticising Il Papa for offending homosexuals.

    What next? Free condoms at the church door?


    29 Dec 08 at 5:29 pm

  3. I’d have said the old mass market had ceased to exist, but it’s much the same thing. My father always told me that “life is full of choices,” and it’s more true than ever. I remember the “mass market” but I was mostly outside it. My books were not best sellers and certainly not recommended by my teachers, my TV shows mostly died young and my music wasn’t much more popular. The choices were there, but if anything they’re more readily available now.

    My TV plays nothing but DVDs and my radio nothing but CDs. I only experience commercials if I eat lunch in the cafeteria. I have access to more books and music than were available to anyone in 1970–and to far more information and more sources of information as well.

    So do those kids. It’s raining soup, and how to get them to trade their forks for bowls I don’t know. It makes a lot of difference wheter they’ve really never bee exposed to anything else or they’ve seen the other worlds, pronounced them “boooring” and gone back to watching LIFESTYLES OF THE YOUNG, RICH AND SEXY. If they’ve chosen their niche–well, they’re pretty well adults, and freedom is making choices and living with consequences. If they’ve really never seen the alternatives, the possibilities are much better–but the bait will have to be chosen very carefully.


    29 Dec 08 at 5:36 pm

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