MSB brainstorming

22 July 2022

Leslie A. Fiedler “The Middle Against Both Ends”


Leslie Aaron Fiedler (March 8, 1917 – January 29, 2003) was one of the most important and insightful American literary critics, known for his interest in mythography and his championing of genre fiction. Fiedler's best-known work is the book Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). Several famous writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Camille Paglia and Ishmael Reed have paid homage to him and his works. The OED credits him with being the first person to apply the term “postmodernist” to literature. He was an outspoken vexation to many, a brash contrarian who, living at the peripheries of literary power, challenged conventional ideas and styles. After receiving his PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1941, he taught at the University of Montana from 1941 to 1965 before moving to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he taught until his death in 2003.

Fielder was one of the first serious intellectuals to defend genre literature and comics in particular, with a knowing eye. This essay, The Middle Against Both Ends” was first published in 1955, and still has a lot from which we could learn, concerning classism and middlebrow, conservative, dumbing down of culture, hatred of “high culture,” with the simultaneous middlebrow attempts to be snooty about genre, “lower,” culture. Even though some of the details are now dated, Fielder perceives how artists and literary authors, the “high”, tend to appreciate both complex artworks such as James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, but also so-called lower genre works like superheroes. Thus, the title. The dull, fuming middlebrows rage against and feel threatened by both the “high brows” and the “low brows.” This rings so true in our times right now with the Trumpist livid “middle” but also the self-satisfied middle-who-thinks-they-are high, the wannabe snooty artsy clan.

I have loved it for decades. I contacted Fiedler and had a short but wonderful series of emails with him --- where he was taking the time and energy to talk to me, while “lying on his death bed” as he put it. Indeed, at one point I heard no more from him, and a few months later his secretary contacted me to tell me of his passing. What a great man in so many ways. Enjoy.  


Leslie A. Fiedler
“The Middle Against Both Ends”

I AM surely one of the few people pre- tending to intellectual respectability who I can boast that he has read more comic books than attacks on comic books. I do not mean that I have consulted or studied the comics-I have read them, often with some pleasure. Nephews and nieces, my own children, and the children of neighbours have brought them to me to share their enjoyment. An old lady on a ferry boat in Puget Sound once dropped two in my lap in wordless sympathy: I was wearing, at the time, a sailor’s uniform.

I have somewhat more difficulty in getting through the books that attack them. I am put off, to begin with, by inaccuracies of fact. When Mr. Geoffrey Wagner in his Parade of Plaesure calls Superboy “Superman’s brother” (he is, of course, Superman himself as a child), I am made suspicious. Actually, Mr. Wagner’s book is one of the least painful on the subject; confused, to be sure, but quite lively and not in the least smug; though it propounds the preposterous theory that the whole of “popular literature” is a conspiracy on the part of the “plutos” to corrupt an innocent American people. Such easy melo- drama can only satisfy someone prepared to believe, as Mr. Wagner apparently does, that the young girls of Harlem are being led astray by the double-entendres of blues records !

Mr. Wagner’s notions are at least more varied and subtle than Mr. Gershom Legman’s, who cries out in his Love and Death that it is simply our sexual frustrations which breed a popular literature dedicated to violence. But Mr. Legman’s theory explains too much: not only comic books but Heming- way, war, Luce, Faulkner, the status of women-and, I should suppose, Mr. Leg- man’s own shrill hyperboles. At that, Mr. Legman seems more to the point in his search for some deeply underlying cause than Frederic Wertham, in Seduction of the Innocent, with his contention that the pulps and comics in themselves are schools for murder. That the undefined aggressiveness of disturbed children can be given a shape by comic books, I do not doubt; and one could make a good case for the contention that such literature standardises crime woefully or inhibits imagination in violence, but I find it hard to consider so obvious a symptom a prime cause of anything. Perhaps I am a little sensitive on this score, having heard the charge this week that the recent suicide of one of our college freshmen was caused by his having read (in a course of which I am in charge) Goethe, Dostoevsky, and Death of a Salesman. Damn it, he had read them, and he did kill himself !

In none of the books on comics I have looked into, and in none of the reports of ladies’ clubs, protests of legislators, or statements of moral indignation by pastors, have I come on any real attempt to understand comic books: to define the form, midway between icon and story; to distinguish the sub-types: animal, adolescent, crime, western, etc.; or even to separate out, from the dead- pan varieties, tongue-in-cheek sports like Pogo, frank satire like Mad, or semi-surrealist variations like Plastic Man. It would not take someone with the talents of an Aristotle, but merely with his method, to ask the rewarding questions about this kind of literature that he asked once about an equally popular and bloody genre: what are its causes and its natural form?

A cursory examination would show that the super-hero comic (Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, etc.) is the final form; it is statistically the most popular with the most avid readers, as well as providing the only new legendary material invented along with the form rather than adapted to it.

Next, one would have to abstract the most general pattern of the myth of the super-hero and deduce its significance: the urban setting, the threatened universal catastrophe, the hero who never uses arms, who returns to weak- ness and obscurity, who must keep his identity secret, who is impotent, etc. Not until then could one ask with any hope of an answer: what end do the comics serve? Why have they gained an immense body of readers precisely in the past fifteen or twenty years? Why must they be disguised as children’s literature though read by men and women of all ages? And having answered these, one could pose the most dangerous question of all: why the constant, virulent attacks on the comics, and, indeed, on the whole of popular culture of which they are especially flagrant examples?

ST R A T E G I c A L L Y, if not logically, the S last question should be asked first. Why the attacks? Such assaults by scientists and laymen are as characteristic of our age as puritanic diatribes against the stage of the Elizabethan Era, and pious protests against novel reading in the later 18th century. I suspect that a study of such conventional re- actions reveals at least as much about the nature of a period as an examination of the forms to which they respond. The most fascinating and suspicious aspect of the opposition to popular narrative is its unanimity; every- one from the members of the Montana State Legislature to the ladies of the Parent Teachers Association of Boston, Massachusetts, from British M.P.’s to the wilder post- Freudians of two continents agree on this, though they may agree on nothing else. What they have in common is, I am afraid, the sense that they are all, according to their lights, righteous. And their protests represent only one more example (though an unlikely one) of the notorious failure of righteousness in matters involving art.

Just what is it with which vulgar literature is charged by various guardians of morality or sanity? With everything: encouraging crime, destroying literacy, expressing sexual frustration, unleashing sadism, spreading anti-democratic ideas, and, of course, corrupting youth. To understand the grounds of such charges, their justification and their bias, we must understand something of the nature of the sub-art with which we are dealing.

Perhaps it is most illuminating to begin by saying that it is a peculiarly American phenomenon, an unexpected by-product of an attempt, not only to extend literacy universally, but to delegate taste to majority suffrage. I do not mean, of course, that it is found only in the United States, but that wherever it is found, it comes first from us, and is still to be discovered in fully developed form only among us. Our experience along these lines is, in this sense, a preview for the rest of the world of what must follow the inevitable dissolution of the older aristocratic cultures.

One has only to examine certain Continental imitations of picture magazines like Look or Life or Disney-inspired cartoon books to be aware at once of the debt to American examples and of the failure of the imitations. For a true “popular literature” demands a more than ordinary slickness, the sort of high finish possible only to a machine- produced commodity in an economy of maximum prosperity. Contemporary popular culture, which is a function of an industrialised society, is distinguished from older folk art by its refusal to be shabby or second- rate in appearance, by a refusal to know its place. It is a product of the same impulse which has made available the sort of ready- made clothing which aims at destroying the possibility of knowing a lady by her dress.

Yet the articles of popular culture are made, not to be treasured, but to be thrown away; a paper-back book is like a disposable diaper or a paper milk-container. For all its competent finish, it cannot be preserved on dusty shelves like the calf-bound volumes of another day; indeed, its very mode of existence challenges the concept of a library, private or public. The sort of conspicuous waste once reserved for an elite is now available to anyone; and this is inconceivable without an absurdly high standard of living, just as it is unimaginable without a degree of mechanical efficiency that permits industry to replace nature, and invents-among other disposable synthetics---one for literature.

Just as the production of popular narrative demands industrial conditions most favourably developed in the United States, its distribution requires the peculiar conditions of our market places: the mass or democratised market. Sub-books and sub-arts are not dis- tributed primarily through the traditional institutions: museums, libraries, and schools, which remain firmly in the hands of those who deplore mass culture. It is in drugstores and supermarkets and airline terminals that this kind of literature mingles without con- descension with chocolate bars and soap- flakes. We have reached the end of a long process, begun, let us say, with Samuel Richardson, in which the work of art has approached closer and closer to the status of a commodity. Even the comic book is a last descendant of Pamela, the final consequence of letting the tastes (or more precisely, the buying power) of a class unpledged to maintaining the traditional genres determine literary success or failure.

T H O S E who cry out now that the work of a Mickey Spillane or The Adventures of Superman travesty the novel, forget that the novel was long accused of travestying literature. What seems to offend us most is not the further downgrading of literary standards so much as the fact that the medium, the very notion and shape of a book, is being parodied by the comics. Jazz or the movies, which are also popular urban arts, depending for their distribution and acceptance on developments in technology (for jazz the gramophone), really upset us much less.

It is the final, though camouflaged, rejection of literacy implicit in these new forms which is the most legitimate source of dis- tress; but all arts so universally consumed have been for illiterates, even stained glass windows and the plays of Shakespeare. What is new in our present situation, and hence especially upsetting, is that this is the first art for post-literates, i.e., for those who have refused the benefit for which they were presumed to have sighed in their long exclusion. Besides, modern popular narrative is dis- concertingly not oral; it will not surrender the benefits of the printing press as a machine, however indifferent it may be to that press as the perpetuator of techniques devised first for pen or quill. Everything that the press can provide-except matter to be really read-is demanded : picture, typography, even in many cases the illusion of reading along with the relaxed pleasure of illiteracy. Yet the new popular forms remain somehow prose narrative or pictographic substitutes for the novel; even the cognate form of the movies is notoriously more like a novel than a play in its handling of time, space and narrative progression.

From the folk literature of the past, which ever since the triumph of the machine we have been trying sentimentally to recapture, popular literature differs in its rejection of the picturesque. Rooted in prose rather than verse, secular rather than religious in origin, defining itself against the city rather than the world of outdoor nature, a by-product of the factory rather than agriculture, present-day popular literature defeats romantic expectations of peasants in their embroidered blouses chanting or plucking balalaikas for the approval of their betters. The haters of our own popular art love to condescend to the folk; and on records or in fashionable night- clubs in recent years, we have had entertainers who have earned enviable livings producing commercial imitations of folk songs. But contemporary vulgar culture is brutal and disturbing: the quasi-spontaneous expression of the uprooted and culturally dispossessed inhabitants of anonymous cities, contriving mythologies which reduce to manageable form the threat of science, the horror of unlimited war, the general spread of corruption in a world where the social bases of old loyalties and heroisms have long been destroyed. That such an art is exploited for profit in a commercial society, mass- produced by nameless collaborators, standardised and debased, is of secondary importance. It is the patented nightmare of us all, a packaged way of coming to terms with one’s environment sold for a dime to all those who have rejected the unasked-for gift of literacy.

Thought of in this light, the comic books with their legends of the eternally threatened metropolis eternally protected by immaculate and modest heroes (who shrink back after each exploit into the image of the crippled newsboy, the impotent and cowardly re- porter) are seen as inheritors, for all their superficial differences, of the inner impulses of traditional folk art. Their gross drawing, their poverty of language cannot disguise their heritage of aboriginal violence, their exploitation of the ancient conflict of black magic and white. Beneath their journalistic commentary on A-bomb and Communism, they touch archetypal material: those shared figures of our lower minds more like the patterns of dream than fact. In a world where men threaten to dissolve into their most superficial and mechanical techniques, to be- come their borrowed newspaper platitudes, they remain close to the impulsive, subliminal life. They are our not quite machine-subdued Grimm, though the Black Forest has become, as it must, the City; the Wizard, the Scientist; and Simple Hans, Captain Marvel. In a society which thinks of itself as ‘‘scientific” -and of the Marvelous as childish-such a literature must seem primarily children’s literature, though, of course, it is read by people of all ages.

WE   A R E now in a position to begin to answer the question: what do the righteous really have against comic books? In some parts of the world, simply the fact that they are American is sufficient, and certain homegrown self-contemners follow this line even in the United States. But it is really a minor argument, lent a certain temporary importance by passing political exigencies. To declare oneself against “the Americanisation of culture” is meaningless unless one is set resolutely against industrialisation and mass education.

More to the point is the attack on mass culture for its betrayal of literacy itself. In a very few cases, this charge is made seriously and with full realisation of its import; but most often it amounts to nothing but an accusation of “bad grammar” or “slang” on the part of some school marm to whom the spread of “different than” seems to threaten the future of civilised discourse. What should set us on guard in this case is that it is not the fully literate, the intellectuals and serious writers, who lead the attack, but the insecure semi-literate. In America, there is something a little absurd about the indignant delegation from the Parent Teachers Association (themselves clutching the latest issue of Life) crying out in defence of literature. Asked for suggestions, such critics are likely to propose The Readers Digest as required reading in high school-or to urge more comic book versions of the “classics”: emasculated Melville, expurgated Hawthorne, or a child’s version of something “uplifting” like “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In other countries, corresponding counterparts are not hard to find.

As a matter of fact, this charge is scarcely ever urged with much conviction. It is really the portrayal of crime and horror (and less usually sex) that the enlightened censors deplore. It has been charged against vulgar art that it is sadistic, fetishistic, brutal, full of terror; that it pictures women with exaggeratedly full breasts and rumps, portrays death on the printed page, is often covertly homosexual, etc., etc. About these charges, there are two obvious things to say. First, by and large, they are true. Second, they are also true about much of the most serious art of our time, especially that produced in America.

There is no count of sadism and brutality which could not be equally proved against Hemingway or Faulkner or Paul Bowles- or, for that matter, Edgar Allan Poe. There are certain more literate critics who are victims of their own confusion in this regard; and who will condemn a Class B movie for its images of flagellation or bloodshed only to praise in the next breath such an orgy of highminded sadism as Le Salaire de la Peur. The politics of the French picture may be preferable, or its photography; but this cannot redeem the scene in which a mud- and oil-soaked truckdriver crawls from a pit of sludge to reveal the protruding white bones of a multiple fracture of the thigh. This is as much horror-pornography as Scarface or Little Caesar. You cannot condemn Superman for the exploitation of violence, and praise the existentialist-homosexual-sadist shockers of Paul Bowles. It is possible to murmur by way of explanation something vague about art or catharsis; but no one is ready to advocate the suppression of anything merely because it is aesthetically bad. In this age of conflicting standards, we would all soon suppress each other.

A N  OC C A S I O N A L  Savonarola is, of course, ready to make the total rejection; and secretly or openly, the run-of-the- mill condemner of mass culture does condemn, on precisely the same grounds, most contemporary literature of distinction. Historically, one can make quite a convincing case to prove that our highest and lowest arts come from a common anti-bourgeois source. Edgar Allen Poe, who lived the image of the dandy that has been haunting high art ever since, also, one remembers, invented the popular detective story; and there is a direct line from Hemingway to O’Hara to Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler to Mickey Spillane.

Of both lines of descent from Poe, one can say that they tell a black and distressing truth (we are creatures of dark impulse in a threatened and guilty world), and that they challenge the more genteel versions of “good taste.” Behind the opposition to vulgar literature, there is at work the same fear of the archetypal and the unconscious itself that motivated similar attacks on Elizabethan drama and on the 18th century novel. We always judge Gosson a fool in terms of Shakespeare; but this is not the point-he was just as wrong in his attack on the worst written, the most outrageously bloody and bawdy plays of his time. I should hate my argument to be understood as a defence of what is banal and mechanical and dull (there is, of course, a great deal!) in mass culture; it is merely a counter-attack against those who are aiming through that banality and dullness at what moves all literature of worth. Anyone at all sensitive to the life of the imagination would surely prefer his kids to read the coarsest fables of Black and White contending for the City of Man, rather than have them spell out, “Oh, see, Jane. Funny, funny Jane,” or read to themselves hygienic accounts of the operation of supermarkets or manureless farms. Yet most schoolboard members are on the side of mental hygiene; and it is they who lead the charge against mass culture.

Anyone old enough to have seen, say, Rain is on guard against those who in the guise of wanting to destroy savagery and ignorance wage war on spontaneity and richness. But we are likely to think of such possibilities purely in sexual terms; the new righteous themselves have been touched lightly by Freud and are firm believers in frankness and “sex education.” But in the very midst of their self-congratulation at their emancipation, they have become victims of a new and ferocious prudery. One who would be ashamed to lecture his masturbating son on the dangers of insanity, is quite prepared (especially if he has been reading Wertham) to predict the electric chair for the young scoundrel caught with a bootlegged comic. Superman is our Sadie Thompson. We live in an age when the child who is exposed to the “facts of life” is protected from “the facts of death.” In the United States, for instance, a certain Doctor Spock has produced an enlightened guide to childcare for modern mothers---a paper-back book which sold, I would guess, millions of copies. Tell the child all about sex, the good doctor advises, but on the subject of death-hush!

By more “advanced” consultants, the taboo is advanced further toward absurdity: no bloodsoaked Grimm, no terrifying Andersen, no childhood verses about cradles that fall- for fear breeds insecurity; insecurity, aggression; aggression, war. There is even a “happy,” that is to say, expurgated, Mother Goose in which the three blind mice have become “kind mice”-and the farmer’s wife no longer hacks off their tails, but “cuts them some cheese with a carving knife.” Everywhere the fear of fear is endemic, the fear of the very names of fear; those who have most ardently desired to end warfare and personal cruelty in the world around them, and are therefore most frustrated by their persistence, conspire to stamp out violence on the nursery bookshelf. This much they can do anyhow. If they can’t hold up the weather, at least they can break the bloody glass.

T H I S same fear of the instinctual and the T dark, this denial of death and guilt by the enlightened genteel, motivates their dis- trust of serious literature, too. Faulkner is snubbed and the comic books are banned, not in the interests of the classics or even of Robert Louis Stevenson, as the attackers claim, but in the name of a literature of the middle ground which finds its fictitious vision of a kindly and congenial world attacked from above and below. I speak now not of the few intellectual converts to the cause of censorship, but of the main body of genteel book-banners, whose idol is Lloyd Douglas or even A. J. Cronin. When a critic like Mr. Wagner is led to applaud what he sees as a “trend” toward making doctors, lawyers, etc. the heroes of certain magazine stories, he has fallen into the trap of regarding middling fiction as a transmission belt from the vulgar to the high. There is no question, however, of a slow climb from the level of literature which celebrates newspaper reporters, news- boys, radio commentators (who are also super-heroes in tight-fitting uniforms with insignia), through one which centres around prosperous professionals, to the heights of serious literature, whose protagonists are suicides full of incestuous longings, lady lushes with clipped hair, bootleggers, gangsters, and broken-down pugs. To try to state the progression is to reveal its absurdity.

The conception of such a “trend” is nothing more than the standard attitude of a standard kind of literature, the literature of slick-paper ladies’ magazines, which prefers the stereotype to the archetype, loves poetic justice, sentimentality, and gentility, and is peopled by characters who bathe frequently, live in the suburbs, and are professionals. Such literature circles mindlessly inside the trap of its two themes: unconsummated adultery and the consummated pure romance. There can be little doubt about which kind of persons and which sort of fables best typify our plight, which tell the truth-or better: a truth in the language of those to whom they speak.

In the last phrase, there is a rub. The notion that there is more than one language of art, or rather, that there is something not quite art, which performs art’s function for most men in our society, is disquieting enough for anyone, and completely unacceptable to the sentimental egalitarian, who had dreamed of universal literacy leading directly to a universal culture. It is here that we begin to see that there is a politics as well as a pathology involved in the bourgeois hostility to popular culture. I do not refer only to the explicit political ideas embodied in the comics or in the literature of the cultural élite; but certainly each of these arts has a characteristic attitude: populist-authoritarian on the one hand, and aristocratic-authoritarian on the other.

It is notorious how few of the eminent novelists or poets of our time have shared the political ideals we (most readers of this magazine and I) would agree are the most noble available to us. The flirtations of Yeats and Lawrence with fascism, Pound’s weird amalgam of Confucianism, Jeffersonianism, and social credit, the modified Dixiecrat principles of Faulkner-all make the point with terrible reiteration. Between the best art and poetry of our age and the critical liberal reader there can be no bond of shared belief; at best we have the ironic confrontation of the sceptical mind and the believing imagination. It is this division which has, I suppose, led us to define more and more narrowly the ‘‘aesthetic experience,” to attempt to isolate a quality of seeing and saying that has a moral value quite independent of what is seen or heard.

Time that with this strange excuse Pardoned Kipling and his views, And will pardon Paul Claudel, Pardons him for writing well.

But the genteel middling mind which turns to art for entertainment and uplift, finds this point of view reprehensible; and cries out in rage against those who give Ezra Pound a prize and who claim that “to permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would . . . deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilised society must rest.” We live in the midst of a strange two- front class war: the readers of the slicks batt- ling the subscribers to the “little reviews” and the consumers of pulps; the sentimental- egalitarian conscience against the ironical- aristocratic sensibility on the one hand and the brutal-populist mentality on the other. The joke, of course, is that it is the “democratic” centre which calls here and now for suppression of its rivals; while the elite advocate a condescending tolerance, and the vulgar ask only to be let alone.

IT  I S  disconcerting to find cultural repression flourishing at the point where middling culture meets a kindly, if not vigorously thought-out, liberalism. The sort of right- thinking citizen who subsidises trips to America for Japanese girls scarred by the Hiroshima bombing, and deplores McCarthy in the public press, also deplores, and would censor, the comics. In one sense, this is fair enough; for beneath the veneer of slogans that “crime doesn’t pay” and the superficial praise of law and order, the comics do reflect that dark populist faith which Senator Mc- Carthy has exploited. There is a kind of “black socialism” of the American masses which underlies formal allegiances to one party or another: the sense that there is always a conspiracy at the centres of political and financial power; the notion that the official defenders of the commonwealth are “bought” more often than not; an impatience with moral scruples and a distrust of intelligence, especially in the expert and scientist; a willingness to identify the enemy, the dark projection of everything most feared in the self, on to some journalistically-defined political opponent of the moment.

This is not quite the “fascism” it is sometimes called. There is, for instance, no European anti-Semitism involved, despite the conventional hooked nose of the scientist- villain. (The inventors and chief producers of comic books have been, as it happens, Jews.) There is also no adulation of a dictator-figure on the model of Hitler or Stalin; though one of the archetypes of the Deliverer in the comics is called Superman, he is quite unlike the Nietzschean figure-it is the image of Cincinnatus which persists in him, an archetype that has possessed the American imagination since the time of Washington: the leader who enlists for the duration and retires unrewarded to obscurity.

It would be absurd to ask the consumer of such art to admire in the place of images that project his own impotence and longing for civil peace some hero of middling culture--- say, the good boy of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, who, because he has studied hard in school, has become a lawyer who argues cases before the Supreme Court and has friends who own their own tennis courts. As absurd as to ask the general populace to worship Stephen Dedalus or Captain Ahab! But the high-minded petty-bourgeois cannot understand or forgive the rejection of his own dream, which he considers as nothing less than the final dream of humanity. The very existence of a kind of art based on allegiances and values other than his challenges an article of his political faith; and when such an art is “popular,” that is, more read, more liked, more bought than his own, he feels his raison d’ etre, his basic life-defence, imperilled. The failure of the petty-bourgeoisie to achieve cultural hegemony threatens their dream of a truly classless society; for they believe, with some justification, that such a society can afford only a single culture. And they see, in the persistence of a high art and a low art on either side of their average own, symptoms of the re-emergence of classes in a quarter where no one had troubled to stand guard.

T H E problem posed by popular culture is T finally, then, a problem of class distinction in a democratic society. What is at stake is the refusal of cultural equality by a large part of the population. It is misleading to think of popular culture as the product of a conspiracy of profiteers against the rest of us. This venerable notion of an eternally oppressed and deprived but innocent people is precisely what the rise of mass culture challenges. Much of what upper-class egalitarians dreamed for him, the ordinary man does not want-especially literacy. The situation is bewildering and complex, for the people have not rejected completely the notion of cultural equality; rather, they desire its symbol but not its fact. At the very moment when half of the population of the United States reads no hard-covered book in a year, more than half of all high-school graduates are entering universities and col- leges; in twenty-five years almost all Ameri- cans will at least begin a higher education. It is clear that what is demanded is a B.A. for everyone, with the stipulation that no one be forced to read to get it. And this the colleges, with “objective tests” and “visual aids,” are doing their reluctant best to satisfy.

One of the more exasperating aspects of the cultural defeat of the egalitarians is that it followed a seeming victory. For a while (in the Anglo-Saxon world at least) it appeared as if the spread of literacy, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the emergence of the novel as a reigning form would succeed in destroying both traditional folk art and an aristocratic literature still pledged to epic, ode, and verse tragedy. But the novel itself (in the hands of Lawrence, Proust, Kafka, etc.) soon passed beyond the comprehension of those for whom it was originally contrived; and the retrograde derivations from it---various steps in a retreat toward wordless narrative: digests, pulp fiction, movies, picture magazines---revealed that middling literature was not in fact the legitimate heir of either folk art or high art, much less the successor of both, but a tertium quid of uncertain status and value.

The middlebrow reacts with equal fury to an art that baffles his understanding and to one which refuses to aspire to his level. The first reminds him that he has not yet, after all, arrived (and, indeed, may never make it); the second suggests to him a condition to which he might easily relapse, one perhaps that might have made him happier with less effort (and here exacerbated puritanism is joined to baffled egalitarianism)-even suggests what his state may appear like to those a notch above. Since he cannot on his own terms explain to himself why anyone should choose any level but the highest (that is, his own), the failure of the vulgar seems to him the product of mere ignorance and laziness- a crime! And the rejection by the advanced artist of his canons strikes him as a finicking excess, a pointless and unforgivable snobbism. Both, that is, suggests the intolerable notion of a hierarchy of taste, a hierarchy of values, the possibility of cultural classes in a democratic state; and before this, puzzled and enraged, he can only call a cop. The fear of the vulgar is the obverse of the fear of excellence, and both are aspects of the fear of difference: symptoms of a drive for conformity on the level of the timid, sentimental, mindless-bodiless genteel.

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