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The Clueless Stumbling Over The Obvious, In Astonishment

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There’s a blog title for you.

Before I start, though, I’d like to point out something that is obvious in itself:  listening to Beethoven’s 9th first thing in the morning will really wake you up.

Anyway, having done that and drunk enough long-steeped tea to turn me into a little buzzing center of nervous energy, I come to the following.

A few posts ago, I gave the link to an article about how intellectuals destroyed high culture from Commentary magazine.

In that article, there was reference to a book of essays put out in 1957, with emphasis on the extent to which it resorted to intellectual snobbery and just plain snobbery, as one more piece of evidence that intellectuals spent so much time sneering at an American public attempting to acquire knowledge of the high arts that the American public gave up and took up with Liberace instead.

As an analysis of the American public in the Fifties, it’s probably half right.  But what occurred to me as I read this article was this:  I own that book.

It’s called Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America and it’s by Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White, and it was the kind of thing I’d pick off the shelves of the Yale Co-Op when I was in high school, flush with money, and could get somebody to drive me to New Haven.

I also bought the yellow paperback study volumes of Aristotle, Locke and the rest of the boys, but I was desperate to find a way in to the world of people who Talked About Books, and so I bought things like this.

The first thing I need to say is this–I do not remember, even a little bit, what I thought about this book when I first bought and read it. 

Somewhere around what must have been the same time, I also bought and read the paperback of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, and that I remember quite well.  It’s also one of those books that I have kept, not so much because I deliberately wanted to keep it, as that it just seems to follow me from place to place.  The same is true of a thick paperback copy of Gone With The Wind with a sort of bluish cover, released to coincide with a theatrical rerelease of the movie, and priced at a staggering $1.25.

So here I was, sure that I had not only once owned this book, but that it had made it here to Connecticut with me in one of the various moves.   I thought I had about a 1 in 10 chance of being able to find it, and then there it was, right out there in an upstairs bookshelf. 

I really do try to maintain the upstairs bookshelves for stuff I read a lot, but I’m not quite organized enough to make that stick, and the boys aren’t organized at all.

So I found the book, and then I sat down to read it. 

It is a collection of essays, meant for classes studying “mass culture,” whatever that meant in that time and place.  It includes a selection from Tocqueville, which everything seems required to have, whenever the subject is “America.”  I think that explains why I’ve never read Tocqueville’s book from beginning to end.

It also includes Edmund Wilson’s piece called “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd,” which means that I put a friend of mine to a lot of trouble sending me a book with that essay in it, because I thought I’d never read it before.

All I can say is that I didn’t remember having read it.  Maybe the reality is that my 15 or 16 year old self had more sense in some areas than I give it credit for.  I was a passionate lover of detective novels at the time, maybe even  more than I am  now.  I probably knew when somebody was spewing nonsense.

And, of course, there are the essays that the writer of the Commentary article was so annoyed with:  pieces by Dwight McDonald and others about how awful all popular culture is, how awful the tastes of the Philistine masses are, and all the rest of it.

But the real interest of this book, now that I’m reading it again, comes in another set of essays altogether–the ones by professional “social scientists” trying to “explain” “mass culture,” the “mass mind,” and why anybody bothers with all this awful stuff.

And, quite frankly, these are interesting because they’re hysterical.

In one article, about why people read comic strips–comic strips, now.  Things like Charlie Brown and Little Orphan Annie–the writer finds himself endlessly astonished that the readers of comic strips tend to identify with the characters and become absorbed in the problems and follow the storylines as if these were events the the lives of real people.

This, he is convinced, is some kind of pathology, presaging the development of many dire psychological consequences–except that the readers often just get tired of the strips after a while, or get too absorbed in their own lives, and stop reading.

These findings are so inexplicable, the writer literally has no idea what to make of them. 

Which brings us all to a very good question: has this person ever read any kind of fiction at all?  Short stories?  Novels?  Anything?  Does he know anybody who reads fiction? 

In an era when college distribution requirements should have ensured that he had at least some acquaintance with imaginative literature, he seems to have escaped the experience without ever having figured out how most people who respond to fiction actually respond to it.

If this man had been the only one to be this thoroughly divorced from the experience of reading, watching and responding to fiction, I’d have put him down as an idiot.

But his essay was by no means the only one to exhibit this astonishment at actually becoming interested in the events in the lives of fictional characters!

All the sociological essays in this volume seem to display the same cluelessness, each convinced that this strange phenomenon must be the symptom of some kind of psychological disorder, or maybe the hallmark of an intellectual and emotional immaturity, or the harbinger of a sudden turn of US culture to fascism–or something.

This is not, mind you, the tack of the snobs.  The snobs also think mass culture heralds the coming of American fascism, but they think so because they think that the ordinary American is both stupid and vicious.

The serious sociologists here seem to think that identifying with the characters in fiction without actually deluding yourself into thinking they’re really real is some kind of abberation that does  not occur in “normal” people, and that obvious has never occurred in them.

I have, of course, known in my life people who were completely tone deaf to fiction.  My mother was one of them.

The impression I get here, though, is that an entire generation of sociologists was this way–and no, there’s nothing to indicate that they’d find what I’d think of as a normal response to a novel or a comic strip to be normal if it was directed at, say, Henry James.

They would be just as appalled at such “identifying” with characters in the readers of James as they are in the readers of anything else. 

That’s how we end up with Superman as a “psychopathic deviant” and Mike Hammer (who may actually be a psychopathic deviant) as one of those harbingers of the coming American fascism.  Maybe.  Unless it’s…I don’t know.

I don’t read a lot of sociology, but if this is the kind of thing they do–I mean, really. 

It’s not just that it’s not science. It’s that it all seems to be written by people who have no idea how to read anything but other sociology papers.

Anyway, I’m going to go off and identify with some characters, thereby proving myself to be either deviant or immature.

I’d like to warn you guys that I’ve been having that odd problem with the WordPress site today, so you may not be able to commment directly.

Just post comments to other posts and we can go from there.

Or, knock wood, maybe it didn’t mess up this time, and you’ll be able to post here.

Written by janeh

May 8th, 2012 at 9:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'The Clueless Stumbling Over The Obvious, In Astonishment'

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  1. Hmm, comments seem to be working.

    The social significance of comic strips leaves me wondering if “publish or perish” was true in the 1950s.

    Are there any sociology studies of Travis McGee or James Bond?


    8 May 12 at 4:55 pm

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