Arthur Krystal writes in Chronical Review:
When, in 1942, Lionel Trilling remarked, "What gods were to the ancients at war, ideas are to us," he suggested a great deal in a dozen words. Ideas were not only higher forms of existence, they, like the gods, could be invoked and brandished in one’s cause. And, like the gods, they could mess with us. In the last century, Marxism, Freudianism, alienation, symbolism, modernism, existentialism, nihilism, deconstruction, and postcolonialism enflamed the very air that bookish people breathed. To one degree or another, they lit up, as Trilling put it, "the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet."
Trilling belonged to a culture dominated by New York Intellectuals, French writers, and British critics and philosophers, most of whom had been marked by the Second World War and the charged political atmosphere of the burgeoning Cold War. Nothing seemed more crucial than weighing the importance of individual freedom against the importance of the collective good, or of deciding which books best reflected the social consciousness of an age when intellectual choices could mean life or death. And because of this overarching concern, the interpretation of poetry, fiction, history, and philosophy wasn’t just an exercise in analysis but testified to one’s moral view of the world.
"It was as if we didn’t know where we ended and books began," Anatole Broyard wrote about living in Greenwich Village around midcentury. "Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn’t simply read books; we became them." Although Broyard doesn’t specify which books, it’s a good bet that he was referring mainly to novels, for in those days to read a novel by Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Lawrence, Mann, Kafka, Gide, Orwell, or Camus was to be reminded that ideas ruled both our emotions and our destinies.
Ideas mattered—not because they were interesting but because they had power. Hegel, at Jena, looked at Napoleon at the head of his troops and saw "an idea on horseback"; and just as Hegel mattered to Marx, so Kant had mattered to Coleridge. Indeed, ideas about man, society, and religion suffused the works of many 19th-century writers. Schopenhauer mattered to Tolstoy, and Tolstoy mattered to readers in a way that our best novelists can no longer hope to duplicate. If philosophy, in Goethe’s words, underpinned eras of great cultural accomplishment ("Epoche der forcierten Talente entsprang aus der Philosophischen"), one has to wonder which philosophical ideas inspire the current crop of artists and writers. Or is that too much to ask? Unless I am very much mistaken, the last philosopher to exert wide-ranging influence was Wittgenstein. Although Wittgenstein certainly mattered to every person interested in ideas around midcentury, in the end he was co-opted by portentous art critics of the 1970s and 80s who thought the Tractatus could prop up feeble paintings and shallow conceptual installations.
That Wittgenstein could have been so casually diluted by the art world was a sign that the intellectual weather had changed—perhaps for good. A new set of ideas had begun to assert itself, one that tended to lower the temperature of those grand philosophic and aesthetic credos that for decades had captivated writers and scholars. The new precepts and axioms began their peregrinations in the 20s and 30s when language philosophers were unmooring metaphysics from philosophy, and two French historians, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, were altering approaches to historical thinking. Instead of world-historical individuals bestriding events, as Hegel and Emerson had suggested, the Annales School stipulated that unique configurations of economic, social, and geographic factors determined the customs and behaviors—indeed, the fate—of regional people. Popes and princes may have fomented wars, revolutions, and religious schisms, but subtler, more far-reaching forces were also at work, which could be extrapolated from the quantifiable data found in everything from hospital records to ships’ manifests.
This focus on the endemic components of society soon found its analogue in deconstruction, which elevated the social-semiotic conditions of language over the authors who modulated and teased it into literary art. Whatever the differences among the various poststructuralist schools of thought, the art of inversion, the transferring of significance from the exalted to the unappreciated, was a common feature. To read Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, and Kristeva was to realize that everything that was formerly beneath our notice now required a phenomenologically informed second glance. And for theorists of a certain stripe on both sides of the Atlantic, this created a de-familiarized zone of symbols and referents whose meaning lay not below the surface of things, but out in the open. Say what you want about the French, they made us look at what was in front of our noses. Warhol’s soup can didn’t just fall out of the sky; it had begun to take shape in Paris in the 30s; Warhol simply brought the obvious to the attention of museumgoers.
Art and literature survived the onslaught of critical theory, but not without a major derailment. The banal, the ordinary, the popular became both the focus and the conduit of aesthetic expression. This may be something of an exaggeration, but it’s hard not to view the work of John Cage, Andy Warhol, and Alain Robbe-Grillet as compositions less interested in art than in the conceit that anything could be art. And while this attempt to validate the ordinary may have been in step with the intellectual tempo, it also summoned from the academy an exegesis so abstruse, so pumped up with ersatz hermeneutics that, in reality, it showcased the aesthetic void it so desperately attempted to disguise. And this absence was nothing less than the expulsion of those ideas that were formerly part of the humanistic charter to create meaning in verbal, plastic, and aural mediums.
Not that this bothered postmodern theorists whose unabashed mission was to expose Western civilization’s hidden agenda: the doctrinal attitudes and assumptions about art, sex, and race embedded in our linguistic and social codes. For many critics in the 1970s and 80s, the Enlightenment had been responsible for generating ideas about the world that were simply innocent of their own implications. Accordingly, bold new ideas were required that recognized the ideological framework of ideas in general. So Barthes gave us "The Death of the Author," and Foucault concluded that man is nothing more than an Enlightenment invention, while Paul de Man argued that insofar as language is concerned there is "in a very radical sense no such thing as the human."
All of which made for lively, unruly times in the humanities. It also made for the end of ideas as Trilling conceived them. For implicit in the idea that culture embodies physiological and psychological codes is the idea that everything can be reduced to a logocentric perspective, in which case all schools of thought become in the end variant expressions of the mind’s tendencies, and the principles they affirm become less significant than the fact that the mind is constituted to think and signify in particular ways. This may be the reason that there are no more schools of thought in the humanities as we once understood them. Obviously one can still learn about the tenets of the Frankfurt School and Prague School in courses across the country, just as one can study the works of Marxist and psychoanalytic critics (Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Lyotard, Marcuse, Norman O. Brown) and the deconstructionist writings of Derrida and de Man—but the frisson is gone, the intellectual energy dissipated as historical memory. Ironically, the last great surge of ideas in the humanities was essentially antihumanist. And because the academy eagerly embraced and paraded these ideas, the humanities themselves began to shrink. For when literature professors began to apply critical theory to the teaching of books they were, in effect, committing suicide by theory.
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a j head
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