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Dickstein on the '60s
Too Strait Are the Gates of Eden

GATES OF EDEN
American Culture in the Sixties
By Morris Dickstein
Basic Books. $11.95

That the '60s are at present discredited should come as no surprise to anyone with a sense of historical rhythm. Even if the accreditation procedure were not left up to a social group--intellectuals, in the broad sense that includes statusy journalists as well as academic bigdomes--whose tastes and interests were poorly served by the period, we would be on a reaction cycle right now. (After all, what are people going to think of 1977 in 1984?) But the reaction hasn't been as extreme as some hope and others fear. Misgivings and recriminations about the excesses of the past are not tantamount to cultural conservatism. It's one thing to blame a philosophical detour or a blown year or an old love affair or a dead friend on the '60s, another to take the position advocated most forcefully by Daniel Bell in his recent book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism--that in its pathological self-indulgence the culture of the '60s exemplified the American malaise rather than countering it.

For most people under 40 who care about culture at all the '60s were fun. Getting through them wasn't so very difficult or unpleasant, and it isn't only diehard hippie nostalgiacs who retain fond memories of the time. What's more, no matter what they may say about the '60s, there are few young cultural who do not continue to take advantage of passť ideas about liberation in their lives, from details of leisure and style to the structure of work and sexual relationships. For anyone honest enough to recognize this, to reject the '60s to reject oneself.

Morris Dickstein, a Columbia '61 graduate born in 1940 on the Lower East Side who now teaches English at Queens College and serves as an editor of Partisan Review, voices the judicious retrospective enthusiasm of such beneficiaries of the '60s in a widely reviewed new book called Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties. Although the text is not as millenarian in its concerns as the title would imply, Dickstein is happy enough to acknowledge that the '60s were good for him. They seem to have opened him up politically (although he is so vehemently anti-anticommunist that I suspect he was fledged elsewhere) and sexually. At the very least, they made it possible for him to mention these personal matters in the course of a piece of criticism, which for an academic is liberation aplenty. Given the formalism and presumed "objectivity" that once again dominates serious cultural discussion, Dickstein's need to bring his own experiences to bear on his analysis is a significantly '60s-ish impulse. Its effect is to bring what he has to say down to human scale; almost by definition, he does not pontificate or claim absolute validity, and that's gratifying.

Because Dickstein candidly accepts his own limitations--that is, his own identity--it is possible to dismiss some of his odder critical judgments ad hominem, a method as useful as it is taboo. Thus, his rather excessive distaste for Leslie Fiedler--a thinker just as valuable, in his flawed way, as the flawed Herbert Marcuse, whom Dickstein admires--is probably related to Fiedler's admittedly repugnant anticommunism. And his unmitigated preference for Maileresque, Voice-style, "confessional" new journalism over the quasi-fictional Tom Wolfe mode (in an uncharacteristically arrogant moment, Dickstein says of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: "stupefyingly boring--I got through only half of it") would seem to reflect his discovery of the personal in his own writing.

The payoff for such critical self-indulgence is several relatively brave and--in terms of Dickstein's milieu--idiosyncratic judgments. It takes some guts for an academic moving in highbrow circles to single out Catch-22 as "the best novel of the '60s" or to recall that Cat's Cradle remains a fine little book even though Vonnegut has since diddled his reputation away. It takes even more to put Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones in an equivalent context; as Dickstein observes, "many highbrow critics are still unable to acknowledge . . . that the line between high culture and popular culture gave way in the '60s and on some fronts was erased entirely." A final bonus: Dickstein's wonderful analysis of Paul Goodman's prose, which clearly grew out of personal inspiration.

But Dickstein's affable conviction that a critic must remain himself has far more serious consequences than a few judgments up or down--it slants his book so severely as to distort it altogether. For, like most English professors, Dickstein is in love with the written word. When Daniel Bell tries to dissect "the sensibility of the '60s," he deals with painting, sculpture, and theatre as well as fiction; even though (as James Wolcott remarked to me recently) Bell makes it seem as if he never went as far as to experience much of this work firsthand, he knows it would be obtuse to act as if sensually apprehended culture wasn't a key to his subject. But although Dickstein would deny it, that is an implicit message of Gates of Eden. His discussion of the music of "rock," notably halting and imprecise in a treatise rarely distinguished by vivid description, is his only venture into nonverbal aesthetics. By the end of the book, his frank "personal" admission at the outset--"I've slighted cultural phenomena for which I felt little affinity"--seems like nothing more than an easy way to forestall one obvious criticism.

Dickstein's admission that he has "chosen to exploit slippery ambiguities of the word culture" is equally suspect; for exploitation is all too unambiguously what has taken place. It's acceptable to treat works of art as paradigms of "the assumptions and mores of a whole society," and laudable (although not as adventurous as Dickstein seems to think) to relate the evolution of (literary) form to more general historical developments. For Dickstein, however, to concentrate on the intersection between art and society--on "culture"--is to submerge in convention; sometimes I felt as though he defined culture by remembering what the brightest and most au courant graduate students were reading back then.

So, on the one hand, Dickstein's sense of the Important Subject is completely predictable--there's no art for art's sake here, no indigestible weirdness. Is it because he believes off-the-wall tastes lead a narrow cultural life that he offers no surprises, or does he simply enjoy no such tastes? Except for '40s avatar Delmore Schwartz and the usual roll call of black novelists, he doesn't discuss a single nonstandard author. Whether the specific name turned out to be Grace Paley or Ross MacDonald (whom I admire), John Hawkes or Jacqueline Susann (whom I don't admire), or someone I'd barely recognize (whom I might admire), I would have valued a crotchet or two because crotchets are the mark of an inquisitive critical intelligence. Instead, Gates of Eden could double as a text in '60s Lit.

And on the other hand, Dickstein dares no real innovations of method. One thing that makes the word culture so slippery is that the concrete connections between a society's art and its people--how artworks actually affect "assumptions and mores"--are very difficult to figure out. But Dickstein, for all his readiness to allude to the goings-on in his own world--which in the '60s centered around Columbia--hardly makes a pass at such problems.

This omission glares because the '60s were uniquely, preeminently, and unprecedentedly a time of mass bohemianism--a time when millions of Americans of divergent class backgrounds aspired to a vaguely artistic (a/k/a "creative" or "self-expressive") life style. Popular-culture critics have proved best suited to think about the problematic intersections this phenomenon created--as in Greil Marcus's struggle with the art/audience nexus in the Randy Newman chapter of Mystery Train, or Michael Arlen's evocative analyses of TV news. But avant-gardists and modernists have also contributed--see the theatre criticism of Richard Schechner or John Lahr, the dance criticism of Jill Johnston or Kenneth King, or invaluable polemics like Harold Rosenberg's "Politics of Illusion." Up against such writing, Dickstein's modesty looks like timidity.

For finally this is a timid book. By sticking close to fiction, Dickstein neatly avoids all of the decade's more recondite avant-gardisms, and, fiction maven though he may be, also fails to mention two quintessentially '60s genres, science fiction and pornography, which is perhaps a clue to one totally incomprehensible omission: William S. Burroughs. Christopher Lasch (in a page-one review in the Times Book Review) and Walter Clemons (in a lead review in Newsweek) may conclude--in miraculously similar language--that Dickstein "distinguishes between good and bad rock music," but in fact he foregoes suggestive challenges--Jimi Hendrix, say, or the Velvet Underground, who once wrote a song for Delmore Schwartz--for an uninspired (if surprisingly adequate) account of the usual triumvirate; what's more, he has obviously failed to get what is generally considered (by critics) the Rolling Stones' greatest album, Exile on Main Street, which happened to appear in 1972 and which also happens to be by far their most difficult work. Again and again I got the feeling that Dickstein wasn't trying hard enough--that he hoped to make the decade acceptable by presenting it at its neatest and most received. There is no surer way to warm a culture critic's heart than to argue that a decade is summed up by its novels.

My initial judgment wasn't so harsh. There was something about the sweet reason of Dickstein's tone that I found attractive; he even got me to read Barthelme's City Life (which I liked, though not as much as Dickstein) and Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 (Dickstein should delve into Steely Dan, whose music provides a physical correlative that transforms the idea of California into something more than a hackneyed abstraction). The theoretical limitations of the book were offset, I thought, by its propaganda potential--it could begin the re-education of a cultural establishment that has rejected the decade whole. But as a respecter of the '60s I should have known better than to hedge my bets. Cultural philistines like Hilton Kramer, for whom any deprecation of the '50s smacks of Stalinism, fume at Dickstein as if he were Jerry Rubin, while anti-'60s moderates like Christopher Lasch find in Dickstein's "judicious sympathy" more sophisticated and efficient fuel for their own arguments.

Me, I enjoyed the '60s, and I profited from them, but that wasn't all: I cherished their promise. That promise included liberating new contexts for art, a political usefulness that did not diminish its pleasure or its truth, and even a redefinition of the senses. The promise is fainter now, but I haven't forgotten it. Dickstein seems to have given it up with a sigh of relief.

Village Voice, Apr. 25, 1977