"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press

Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)


O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.


The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)




Modernism in the Streets

by Perry Meisel

Morris Dickstein's affectionate portrait of the 1960s and its achievements, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties, is an attempt to dramatize and explore what Dickstein calls the "moral landscape" of the age. In search of the "assumptions and feelings that link the individual to the wider public realities of his time," Dickstein draws on the combined resources of literary criticism, politics, intellectual history, and - in perfect 1960s' fashion - autobiography. What emerges is a remarkable array of chapters that provides less a narrative of what actually happened than a series of sustained encounters with the arts and manners of the day.
Despite the autobiographical accent, however, Dickstein is very much the formal critic whether his subject is rock-and-roll, Pynchon or the New Journalism, although it should be said that his examination of popular culture here is confined almost entirely to music and the press. "Unlike those historians who try to catalogue everything," he says, "I've slighted cultural phenomena for which I felt little affinity." Even the book's personal epilogue has for its theme the anxiety of Lionel Trilling's influence, an influence which accounts for Dickstein's belief that literature should be socially significant and politically aware, but which shows even more that autobiography here really means the life of books and ideas. This makes Dickstein's 1960s a very different time from the one experienced by the swarm of hippies pictured on the book's flyleaf, and makes the book itself a rather different one from earlier chronicles of the period.
Although Dickstein contends that the period was not, as many have suggested, an anti-intellectual one, for those of us who were students then, it was downright unrespectable - and, in a curious way, disrespectful - to be an intellectual. Of course, books themselves weren't so much out of fashion as the act of criticism itself. Analysis was the real villain in the moral struggle between spontaneity and reflection. As a result, Dickstein's emphasis on the literary and the philosophical is a welcome relief. His commitment to ideas goes at least as far back as 1967 and is due in large part to his membership in what he calls the "in between" generation which was already well established in its habits and values compared to those of us who were going through our undergraduate years then in a state of contradiction and uncertainty.
What Dickstein's study shows, however, is that the period was surprisingly unified after all, and that the work of writers like Barthelme and rock stars like Dylan was strikingly similar in theme, style, and intent. Both the hip and the square shared a commitment to what Dickstein calls "the search for authentic selfhood" and "the demystification of authority" and "both art and politics became instruments of personal fulfillment."
The self, in other words, was paramount, even though Dickstein owes his own fascination with the period to its attempt to combine "the search for personal authenticity" with "the quest for social justice." The Utopian urge was contagious in personal life and politics alike, and Dickstein sees the way "the sixties translated the Edenic impulse . . . into political terms" as an historical outgrowth of the same secular theology by which "Hegel and Marx [had] turned Christian eschatology" into "theories of social change." Thus the Zionism that had secularized Dickstein's own roots in Jewish orthodoxy becomes an implicit part of the story, too, and even mirrors the varieties of black meliorism that he examines in his fine chapter on black literature and politics.
Although these arguments are not altogether new in themselves, Gates of Eden is likely to become the official history of the 1960s because it organizes what is already familiar into a sustained critical vision that finds recurrent designs in everything it engages. Like the "primitive satisfactions" of a conventional style of personal life, says Dickstein, "the primitive satisfactions of narrative in fiction, representation in paintings, melody or harmony in music - like clear-cut positions in politics - were highly suspect."
One reason for the suspicions, Dickstein argues, was that objectivity and its conventions came to be recognized as fictions. Here the theme of the self is sounded again, this time in the name of an epistemological revolution that valued subjectivity as the only trustworthy mode of perception. Doubtless the New Journalism was central here, and it put into practice the conviction that the observer was himself a part of the events he witnessed. Thus writers like Richard Goldstein would explain a rock concert by means of his own libidinal fantasies, while Tom Wolfe would deconstruct custom-car racing by drawing on his knowledge of classical painting and aesthetics. Nevertheless, Dickstein finally dismisses Wolfe as "too genteel to let go or to get involved," a judgment that explains why those of us who admired him in the 1960s still wondered whose side he was on. Hence the journalistic Mailer - the Mailer of Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago - becomes the real hero of the decade and of Dickstein's book, even though Trilling was, for Dickstein personally, the more decisive figure.
Despite his withdrawal as the 1960s unfolded, it was Trilling, Dickstein reminds us, who characterized the student movement as "modernism in the streets." Dickstein's assertion that "the adversary ethos of modernism was becoming real" makes me recall - with no little embarrassment - the paper I wrote on Nietzsche's anticipation of the counterculture in The Birth of Tragedy. Whatever the status of such notions today, though, they were basic to the 1960s, and Dickstein is on familiar terrain when he elaborates this link between what was happening among hippies and what had already happened - or seemed to have happened - among our canonical writers.
Rock music, of course, was the cultural focus of the decade, and Dickstein examines some of its central figures in a chapter on Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones that argues for rock as a form of modernism too. "Like its forebears in the heyday of modernism and surrealism," says Dickstein, rock "was partly an assault on the audience." Even the lyrics of Dylan and John Lennon, he says, "seemed as surreal" in their own right "as any modernist text." But it is the novel, of course, that most absorbs Dickstein, and he finds in the writers of the 1960s still another version of modernism, "the second coming of modernism in American fiction." This "second coming" was itself divided in two, with the black humorists who emerged in the first part of the decade - Heller, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Southern - expressing by their very paranoia a connection to the social realities that would vanish with the appearance of more properly modernist writers in the late 1960s like Barthelme and Rudolph Wurlitzer, for whom "the sense of disconnection," says Dickstein, "is complete."
Dickstein's assertion that "form can be seen as a structure of perception" is a powerful enough insight to justify his admiration for Vonnegut and Heller alike ("up against a wall," he says, "I'd have to call Catch-22 the best novel of the sixties"), and he uses his formulation to distinguish the one-liner, gag strategy of what he calls "verbal" black humorists like Southern or Bruce Jay Friedman from the "over-articulated form" of "structural" black humorists like Vonnegut, Heller, and Pynchon. Indeed, such a notion of form also lies behind Dickstein's reading of The Crying of Lot 49 as an epistemological tract with conclusions about perception akin to those of the New Journalists.
If form is perception, however, the weary self-consciousness of late 1960s writing like John Barth's stories in Lost in the Funhouse suggests that an arid "escape from personality" threatens to be the backlash "to the fury of self-assertion" among writers earlier in the decade. Dickstein has no sympathy for purely nonreferential writing (hence his careful monitoring of the vicissitudes of Wurlitzer's career), and in "the contemporary wasteland" of experimental fiction from the late 1960s to the present he searches among Donald Barthelme's "fragments" or "miniatures" for the remnants of a connection between "form and feeling." Indeed, writers without such a connection do not even merit the designation "modernist" in Dickstein's aesthetics.
Dickstein understands modernism by way of Trilling's contention in the mid-1950s that the "intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement." From this point of view, of course, the 1960s' "search for authentic selfhood" really does derive from the liberal imagination's definition of modernism as "the self apart from culture," although to understand the full implications of such a position we have to turn to the excellent account of the 1950s with which Dickstein begins his book.
Social conformity and political repression during the Truman and Eisenhower years, he argues, found its cultural counterpart in the aggressive insularity of the postwar Jewish novel where the psychology of "the isolated self" supplants any real concern with society and, with some irony, allows the Jewish intellectual an easy route to assimilation. Indeed, the radical inwardness of this kind of literature - Dickstein offers a fine reading of Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man, to demonstrate his contention - was "an atonement for Jewish radicalism" in the 1930s. "The concept of alienation," he says, "lost its social content and took on an increasingly metaphysical cast."
But if psychology was a form of repression for writers like Malamud and Bellow, it was instead a form of insurgent liberation for sexual prophets like the Mailer of The White Negro and "The Time of Her Time." Dickstein ascribes this new sensibility to the discovery of a younger, less stoical Freud who becomes "the early prophet of sexual fulfillment." Add to this the discovery of the young, humanist Marx, and the climate was right for Marcuse to attempt his reconciliation of Marx and Freud together in Eros and Civilization.
Ironically, though, such ideological heterodoxy was possible because the 1950s had, as Dickstein makes abundantly clear, announced "the end of ideology." A tool of conformity and repression on the one hand, "the end of ideology" was a tool of liberation on the other, since it allowed revisionists in both Marxism and psychoanalysis to reread their respective canons and produce less deterministic, more humanistic thinkers than orthodox interpretation had previously allowed. Both the young Marx and the early Freud were taken to be prophets of the self rather than society, of the individual rather than the structures - whether psychological or economic - that determined him. Thoroughly Americanized, the self was now under its own control. It was, in short, beyond culture, and would soon claim to be entirely self-generated.
Hence the conviction of the student movement in the 1960s that our perceptions, beliefs, and demands were unique. Despite the American traditions the 1960s revived and extended, few of us knew or felt that an old Left had existed before us, or that our psychedelic music had emerged from now-obvious roots in rhythm and blues. Indeed, the 1960s' version of identity in all spheres of life denied the existence of parentage altogether. His frequent disclaimers notwithstanding, Dickstein himself still seems to believe in the inherent value of the new in a passage like the following: "Whatever the results (and I intend to stress their current limitations), [the techniques of experimental fiction] remain inherently superior to a return to the old stringent molds, which conservative pundits are always ready to reimpose."
Indeed, the 1960s' faith that the new is just as fresh as it seems to be persists throughout many of Dickstein's arguments, and it is difficult to square with the constant pressure of history and tradition that he brings to bear on everything he discusses. As it turns out, our 1960s writers had made their revolt against authority in the name, alas, of new authorities, Joyce, Kafka and Borges in particular; and our musical heroes, whether they were Joplin, Hendrix or Coltrane, were equally indebted to rich traditions even in their departures from them. (Dickstein is clearly aware of what he calls these "vertical" traditions of influence that cut across the horizontal line of history proper, although they do not appear to cause him any anxiety about his insistence, for example, on modernism's newness even in its "second" American incarnation.) Indeed, this same tension was also present in 1960s' notions about selfhood and society, since our belief in the autonomy of the self tended to clash with our conviction that people - as the young Marx had argued - were essentially social creatures.
It is precisely the belief that there can be a self without society that Trilling himself, as Dickstein points out, had to renounce late in his career, and it is this renunciation above all else that lies at the center of the adjustments we have had to make in the 1970s. As long as the self was autonomous - as long as its essence lay outside culture, in nature or transcendence - we could maintain a belief in the immanent Eden of something pristine, primordial, something alinguistic and asocial. Such a belief, however, was in direct contradiction to our Marxist notion of essence, and it was also in contradiction to the authority of modernism as a tradition. "Modernity," says Paul de Man, "invests its trust in the power of the present moment as an origin, but discovers that, in severing itself from the past, it has at the same time severed itself from the present."
Of course, such a belief in the self beyond culture meshed perfectly with Trilling's initial position, and what all this finally suggests is that our adversary or counterculture was no counterculture at all, since it was itself continuous with the theological humanism from which it had devolved. Trilling's ultimate withdrawal from a belief in the self beyond culture only illuminated this continuity, and was emblematic of the way in which the modernist imagination of dislocation and discontinuity was replaced by a new style of imagination - a 1970s' style - located instead in continuity itself.
Dickstein's book is an expression of this 1970s' spirit, too, despite its lingering faith in the ideals of the 1960s. Although Gates of Eden bears witness to the uniqueness of the 1960s, it is finally a testament to the continuity of American intellectual life since World War II. Indeed, much of the book's warmth and excitement derives from the dense texture of reference in which its meanings inhere, and its most affecting moments - Dickstein's portrait of Delmore Schwartz in particular - are often fervent expressions of feeling for the tradition of Jewish-American letters. Dickstein's own models are Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe, even though his prose bears some resemblance to Mailer and to rock journalists like Robert Christgau.
Moreover, in spite of Dickstein's overt dislike for post-structuralist criticism, what he refers to as its "intersubjectivity" effectively describes the categories that his own critical language generates not only on the level of style, but also in its use of recurrent figures like "matrix" or "strand" to signify the relations of which cultural discourse is composed. Nostalgia for the garden has been replaced by nostalgia for legacies and traditions instead. Indeed, our world view has been subject to so deep a change since the 1960s that we can now see a field of connections where we once saw only a wasteland.

Originally published in The Nation, April 23, 1977