The Book Club

Is Your Dialectic Sufficiently Dialectical?

Dear Chris,

I’m intrigued, and halfway persuaded, by your diagnosis of the postwar malaise as being caused by the loss of social meaning. Forgive me for sounding like an old-school Oxford philosopher, but doesn’t a lot depend on what we mean by meaning? Or, to shift into (for me, at least) a more congenial idiom, I’m not sure that your dialectic is sufficiently dialectical.

The war and its aftermath, following the expansion of governmental authority during the New Deal, undoubtedly brought greater regimentation to American life. The standardization of experience by consumerism, the “scaling up” of corporations, the professional and geographical mobility fostered by the GI Bill and the Interstate highways imperiled older, smaller forms of solidarity based on extended family, local custom, ethnicity, etc. (Of course, this was less a singular historical event than an especially dramatic episode in the still unfinished epic of American capitalism.) There were certainly writers—right, left, and center—for whom the rise of what they sometimes called mass civilization in the United States appeared to be an unalloyed catastrophe. There were others—you mention Malamud and Kerouac, a wonderfully serendipitous pairing that would never have occurred to me before reading Leopards in the Temple, and that now seems, thanks to you and Dickstein, to make absolute intuitive sense—who looked back on the affective bonds of (in their cases immigrant Jewish and working-class Catholic) family life with desperate nostalgia.

But if races don’t write novels, then neither do implacable historical forces, and the careers of many of these writers tell a story as ambiguous—as dialectical—as the novels themselves. Why didn’t Kerouac stay in Lowell with his beloved mother and brothers? Because ambition—individual and familial—propelled him to prep school and then to Columbia. John Updike quit Shillington, Pa., for Harvard and The New Yorker. James Baldwin, on Sundays a star boy preacher in Harlem, was during the week a student at DeWitt Clinton High School, where he found the friends and teachers who would later propel him into the orbit of Commentary, Partisan Review, and the New Leader.

In other words, one of the things that alienated these writers—that uprooted them from the meaning-rich worlds of their childhoods—was their own ambition, an ambition that was moreover often sanctioned and fed within those very worlds. (This, in effect, is the predicament that has sustained Philip Roth through much of his career.) Yes, they experienced a loss of stability, of meaning, but they also experienced an intoxicating liberation. What are the first paragraphs of Augie March—a novel Dickstein stakes past, perhaps because it doesn’t conform to his thesis as well as the books that Bellow wrote before and after—but a fervid and entirely sincere, declaration of independence?

I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted: sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.My own parents were not much to me, though I cared for my mother.

The first sentence and the last are especially striking in this context. Augie is expunging a prior identity—the one inherited from his parents—and laying claim to a new one that is almost entirely abstract, a tissue of metaphors, boasts, and vague promises. The malaise that shadows this self-confidence is not alienation—the possibility that the door won’t open, or that you’ll find yourself in a strange, chilly room when it does—but anomie, that sense of drift and confusion that arises in a social order defined by unbounded possibility. The loss of meaning, in other words, is created not just by the exertion of impersonal controls (what you called regimentation) but by the perception of unlimited personal opportunities. It is because the promises of postwar American life are so great that their fulfillment inevitably brings a heavy burden of disappointment.

Read another way, Augie’s words signal the embrace by an exemplary outsider (a Hungarian Jew from the slums of Chicago) of the American individualist ideology whose discontents would become the great subject of postwar American fiction, Bellow’s included. In some ways, Bellow is the purest anatomist and most dedicated satirist of narcissistic anomie—”I want! I want! I want!” cries Henderson, in an expression of infinite desire both Freud and Veblen would understand—in part because his own narcissism has proved so fertile and various.

I don’t mean “narcissism” pejoratively (I was a little too dismissive yesterday in writing about “the romance of masculine self-pity”) but descriptively. When social meaning vanishes, the available source of meaning is the self, and in the ‘50s and ‘60s large collective matters—racial politics, urban life, the war itself—tend to be filtered through the screen of individual experience. Dickstein is excellent in tracking the influence of existentialism and psychoanalysis on the literature of the period without overstating it and in remarking on the depoliticization of American writing after the ‘30s without reflexively bemoaning it.

If the writers he brings together could be said to share a single concern, it may be with the problem of identity, not in the current political, collective sense of cultural, ethnic, or sexual identities, but in the sense articulated by the American followers of Weber, Freud, and the French existentialists—as the point of intersection between individuals and the world they inhabit. Who am I? Where do I belong? What can I expect? What will I become? Ellison’s invisible man asks these questions as surely as Herzog or Rabbit Angstrom, and in each case the questions are loaded with anxiety, moral danger, and a saving sense of the absurd. But they also seem, in those books—and maybe more because the books themselves are so rich in meaning than because their heroes discover any in the course of their adventures—to be open questions, full of tantalizing possibility.

All best,