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Reading: The Power of Negative Thinking



Criticism in the mass media in recent years has become little more than an adjunct to the capitalist culture of consumption: the critic (of films, books, music, theater, or whatever) serves primarily as a consumer advocate, a guide to the bewildering variety of consumer choices. And Beavis and Butt-head are not the only ones to have reduced criticism to simple binary oppositions--cool stuff and stuff that sucks. Our two most influential critics, Siskel and Ebert, years ago reduced their own criticism to the positioning of their thumbs. People magazine crams its reviews into a section called simply "Picks and Pans." The creators of the animated show The Critic (recently but briefly seen on ABC) didn't even equip their central character, a movie critic named Jay Sherman, with complex reactions: he simply lashed out at a film he didn't like with the cry "It stinks!"

Because people turn to critics for straightforward consumer advice, no one is more routinely denounced than the critic with odd tastes, whose preferences for problematic works seem to readers or viewers a kind of disguised sadism: Why did he send me to this film? Only a few critics--recently retired film critic Pauline Kael of the New Yorker comes to mind--have been admired more for the vigor of their writing than for the reliability of their opinions.

The more interesting critics quickly grow bored with the limitations of their role. H.L. Mencken once noted that the more lively critic "is always being swallowed up by the creative artist." Instead of dutifully sorting through and labeling the current crop of cultural products, these critics wander off on tangents of their own and, when particularly inspired, forget almost entirely the task at hand. "Every critic who is worth reading falls inevitably into the same habit," Mencken commented. "He cannot stick to his ostensible task: what is before him is always infinitely less interesting to him than what is within him." What starts as a review becomes, as Mencken puts it, "a fresh work of art, and only indirectly related to the one that suggested it."

The best critics are, in a word, unreliable: allergic to formula, at the mercy of their gut reactions, unable and unwilling to obey the demands of political and commercial expediency--or even of simple politeness. Dwight Macdonald, perhaps the most provocative and engaging cultural critic in postwar America, revelled in his own haphazard style of thought. His kind of criticism, Michael Wreszin suggests in A Rebel in Defense of Tradition, a new biography of Macdonald, followed in "the tradition of the rebel who resists and says no to the intolerable absurdities of life, and by doing so makes an affirmative statement."

Not that Macdonald was inevitably right. He often spouted off on subjects about which he knew little, and fell victim to frequent and sometimes embarrassing lapses of judgment. "On occasion Dwight played the holy fool," Wreszin writes, "appearing at best unreasonably naive and at worst ridiculous. Dwight was the first to recognize his mistakes, his absurd judgments, and he took pleasure in exposing them in carefully documented footnotes. But despite the bad calls, Dwight Macdonald took risks, was invariably honest, embarrassingly candid, more so than many of his contemporaries. He did not calculate his career opportunities or cut corners to "make it.' He did not sell out, and he needed the dough."

The writer Paul Goodman--who found himself more than once on the receiving end of Macdonald's barbs--accused him of thinking with his typewriter. In his last collection of essays, Macdonald quoted Goodman's remark almost with pride, noting that "every writer's thought has to start somewhere and that's where mine does. It's in the actual process of composition that I discover, gradually, by trial and error, hit or miss, what I really think about the subject."

His life too was a story of trial and error. He took up and dropped enthusiasms with an astonishing haste; his political trajectory defies easy categorization--indeed, an explanation of almost any kind. Over the course of his career he was by turn an elitist aesthete, a writer for Fortune magazine during the Great Depression, a revolutionary socialist of the Trotskyist stripe, an editor of Partisan Review, an anarchist-pacifist of the ex-Trotskyist stripe, a leftist critic of Stalinists and their fellow travelers, a New York intellectual, the founder of and driving force behind the journal Politics, a writer of profiles and cultural criticism for the New Yorker, an elitist aesthete (again), a movie critic who hated most movies, and a self-proclaimed "conservative anarchist" who provided inspiration and support for the New Left. During his last decade, stymied by a case of writer's block so pronounced that his once-prolific output dwindled to less than an article a year, Macdonald was a dedicated (if itinerant) college teacher, up until his death in 1982.

Macdonald's lack of consistency may have bothered some of his critics, but it was an essential part of his charm. In an engaging essay on what he called "amateur journalism," Macdonald once tried to explain what it was that made British journalism so much more lively than the American variety--and in doing so provided a revealing explanation of his own philosophy of writing. British publications, Macdonald explained, put much less emphasis on maintaining a homogeneous sheen than their American counterparts. "Americans write as professionals," he concluded, "either as scholars concerned with academic advancement (whence the barbarous jargon, the cramped, cautious specialization of the academic quarterlies) or as professional journalists--and, more important, editors--concerned with attracting as wide and profitable an audience as possible (whence the hard, sleek superficiality of the nonacademic press)."

In the British tradition Macdonald saw a style of writing "with that pleasurable spontaneity (oddly combined . . . with a most impressive expertise) which comes when the writer is not trying to educate his readers or to overawe them or to appease them or to flatter them, but is treating them as equals." In Macdonald's mind the amateur had a decided advantage: "What he does know (which may be rather impressive) he knows as part of his own life and of our culture in general, instead of in the narrow way the specialist knows it."

The Brits, in short, cared about what they wrote, and so they were merciless in attacking what they saw as second-rate. Macdonald was the same. As a critic of both culture and politics he was most famous for his hatchet jobs: his savage assaults on middlebrow kitsch; his attacks on the sophistries of those both within and without the political establishment. From Variety he won the sobriquet "the film ripper." Throughout his career Macdonald consciously eschewed constructive criticism. "I've always specialized in negative criticism," he once explained, "because I've found so few contemporary products about which I could be "constructive' without hating myself in the morning."

His unrelenting negativism was simultaneously a strength and a weakness. Macdonald's targets usually deserved what they got. And unlike Jay ("It stinks!") Sherman, Macdonald showed some skill in the art of the insult, effectively enlisting the foolish words of his opponents against them. In his legendary 1960 essay, "Masscult and Midcult," a savagely witty attack on the cultural pretensions of middlebrow intellectuals, Macdonald quoted one egregiously hokey statement from Thornton Wilder's middlebrow classic Our Town: "There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being." To Macdonald, this 11-word sentence summed up, stylistically and intellectually, all that was wrong with middlebrow culture: its gushy sentimentalism, its idealization of the folkish wisdom of the common man, its pretense of profundity. "I agree with everything Mr. Wilder says," Macdonald wrote, "but I will fight to the death against his right to say it in this way."

At times his contrarian gestures achieved a certain Dada-esque grandeur. While a writer at Fortune magazine in the 30s, he began a damning profile of the U.S. Steel Company with a provocative quotation from Lenin on the degeneracy of monopoly capitalism. The editors--none too pleased to discover that one of their star reporters had succumbed to the radical virus--removed the quotation, and most of the criticism, from the article before publishing it. Shortly afterward Macdonald left the magazine.

But at times his attacks seemed merely cruel: Macdonald frequently let what one colleague called his "sneering nasty streak" get the better of him, launching tirades entirely out of proportion to his opponents' alleged offenses, kicking them when they were down. His most notoriously ill timed attacks were those directed against his communist fellow travelers in the opening days of the McCarthyite red scare. Macdonald pilloried the communist-supported Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, for example, in a 1947 two-part series in Politics, calling him a fraud and a phony, "an instrument of Russian Foreign Policy, really an agent of the enemy and thus all the more dangerous."

Indeed, it was in the political arena that Macdonald's contrarian instincts seemed the most irresponsible. He took up and abandoned positions with alarming speed; some saw this process, Macdonald once noted, "as indicating an open mind, others as evidence of levity." The quick turnabouts often left his political allies reeling. "Dwight invariably turned against the orthodoxies of his own causes," Wreszin writes, "usually shortly after enlisting in them." Indeed, Macdonald took a certain perverse pleasure in tormenting his ostensible allies, holding them to a standard of ideological (or aesthetic) purity that few could attain. Though his own politics always listed leftward, Macdonald spent a good portion of his career assailing the dogmatism and sophistry of the American left.

His brief fling with Trotskyism at the tail end of the Depression brought his warring instincts to a head. Disgusted by the duplicities of the Depression-era American communist party, Macdonald sought an outlet for his emerging radicalism in the Trotskyist movement, which was full of characters nearly as contrarian as he. But even then he found it impossible to behave, launching his brief career as Trotskyist foot soldier by penning a withering critique of Trotsky's intolerance. Wreszin writes that the article drew a (typically intolerant) response from none other than Trotsky himself, who reportedly told a colleague that "every man has a right to be stupid on occasion, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege."

Powered by a stubborn sense of duty, Macdonald attempted to stick it out in the Trotskyist movement despite his inauspicious start. Though a successful journalist and elegant writer, he diligently devoted himself to producing dogmatic little pamphlets in the debased language of sectarian certainty for impossible Trotskyist political campaigns--including one 1941 leaflet entitled "For a Socialist Defense Against Hitlerism!" designed to woo the "People of the Bronx!" to socialism. At the same time he produced massive documents, few of which ever saw print, critiquing the undemocratic tendencies of the Trotskyist movement.

His comrades were to remember him mainly as a pest--a clever but unreliable dilettante more interested in arguing than in "serious" political work. Macdonald of course had the last laugh: it was only by abandoning the straitjacket of Trotskyist dogmatism (which had never quite fit him in any case) that Macdonald was able to make whatever contributions he did to the world of politics--which were far more significant than those of his comrades, who were remembered, if at all, mainly for their arguing. He looked back on the experience--the endless, fruitless debates, the constant infighting--as an education of sorts. "It was all rather like engraving the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin," he later wrote. "But it was excellent training in political thinking. Marxism, like Latin, is good discipline for the mind."

Discipline was hardly the word for Macdonald's style of politics, however. He was always drawn to rebels, no matter how doomed their causes, and in his later years he was an enthusiastic member of the adult auxiliary of the New Left. (He took a great deal of flack in 1968 for joining the student rebels of Columbia University in their takeover of the school.) At the same time he looked with contempt on those faux rebels (like his former comrades among the Trotskyists, as well as several later generations of leftist fellow travelers) who simply replaced the cliches of conventional politics with new dogmas. He admitted to a "prejudice" against voting and cheered the "civic irresponsibility" of those who refused to go to the polls--a sign, he thought, not of apathy but of rudimentary resistance to the lack of a real choice. Some attributed such quixotic stances to the perversities of Macdonald's character. But in fact his political positions were based on a deep-seated moral opposition to dishonesty and cant. He appeared to be irresponsible simply because he was trying to bring moral standards into a realm where morality is generally a side issue at best.

Throughout his life, and particularly in his later years, Macdonald was haunted by his inability to complete a "real" book. Though he was able to pull together three memorable collections--including the classic Against the American Grain--he found it impossible, as he put it, to simply "write a book in cold blood."

It was not for want of trying. During his Trotskyist fling, he collected hundreds of pages of notes for what was intended to be a Marxist analysis of the steel industry; though he talked of the project for years, it came to naught. (Perhaps this was not such a loss: not even Dwight could have made that topic terribly lively.) During his days as a cultural critic in the 50s, he got a contract to write a book on mass culture and its discontents but found the temptations of more ephemeral journalism impossible to resist.

And so he found himself scrambling sometimes to preserve for posterity what he could of his scattered writings. His last collection, Discriminations, included much of the flotsam and jetsam of his career--not only essays reprinted from major magazines but published and unpublished letters to various editors on subjects ranging from his own alleged patriotism (he denied the charge) to whether or not a statue of Mary Poppins should be erected in Central Park (he was against it on the grounds that Poppins was a dreary old coot). Such an approach made for lively reading but hardly helped to increase his credibility as a Major Thinker.

In part because he had no solid body of work beyond his essays, Macdonald in his later years lamented that his life had been little more than "a succession of failures." Though he had been one of the most influential and respected critics in postwar America, he remained until his death uncertain of his own legacy. Once, in his declining years, after he had ceased to write and gave his time instead to teaching and drink, a young woman at a party asked him what he did for a living. He stammered a response: "Well, I, I, I was a writer, and editor of Partisan Review and Politics, wro . . . wrote for the New Yorker. . . . " Macdonald's confusion is understandable: he was a man impossible to sum up in a few words. But his self-doubt is troubling.

For no matter how often he contradicted himself, how often he went off half-cocked, there was to all of his writing a profound integrity. He was allergic to kitsch, dedicated to the maintenance of a certain dignity in both culture and politics: he was often negative simply because so little in the world lived up to his standards. The key lesson one could learn from Macdonald, Norman Mailer once remarked, was the primacy of gut feelings over political purity. To other writers, Mailer concluded, "Dwight had something fabulous to teach. It was to look to the feel of the phenomenon. Describe what you see as it impinges on the sum of your passions and your intellectual attainments. . . . And then write without looking over your shoulder for the literary police. . . . If something feels bad to you, it is bad."

It is a pity that such a lively character has inspired, in A Rebel in Defense of Tradition, such a dull biography. Wreszin's writing is plodding and pedantic; his book is too long by half, yet never quite captures the essence of its subject. (Wreszin would have done well to heed Macdonald's advice to a young biographer of poet Delmore Schwartz: "Be a literary man, not a research mouse.") Macdonald emerges from what is intended to be an admiring biography perversely diminished. Wreszin doesn't begin to explain the reasons behind Macdonald's various ideological and personal twists and turns, and he's utterly incapable of conveying the wit and verve of his writing. The most interesting thing about the book is a typo on page 345 that transforms the author of The Naked and the Dead into "Normal Mailer." Those who wish to understand Macdonald would do well--if I may offer a little consumer advice myself--to track down a copy of one of his collections in the back aisles of a used bookstore, and let him speak for himself.

A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald by Michael Wreszin, Basic Books, $30.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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