I was reading at the Periodicals Room of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library the other day. The magazine I happened to pick up was called Soviet Literature, subtitled “A Monthly Journal of the Writers’ Union of the U.S.S.R. published in English, French, German, Spanish, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, and Slovak.” The issue, for March 1985, “marked the occasion,” as its editors put it, “of the 8th of March, the International Women’s Day,” and contained poems inspired by that famous holiday. I share with you several lines from the first poem:
Youth—a concept which I believe
Actual years do not really explain.
If you seek no idle repose and rest
Then your youth you still surely retain.
If you still believe that you can
Climb up any mountain crest
You are surely twenty years less
Than your document may profess.
It goes on like that for a bit.
Next to Soviet Literature, alphabetically, lay the current issue of the quarterly Southern Review, published by Louisiana State University (mercifully, I should say, in only one language, English, and with a net press run of only 2,968 copies). It, too, contained poetry by and about women. I’ll share several lines from the first poem:
Here on the prison lawns, a veil
of sunlight weights the grass.
I walk here, while my brother
is visiting the warden who is his friend.
I am never to understand why my brother
wants to bring his troupe of actors.
The mesmerist who leads them into
the lives of fictions, and leaves them there.
This goes on for six pages.
The experience of trying to decide which of the two “randomly” chosen poems, the Soviet or the American, is actually more terrible, and why, has animated what I have to say on the subject of moral—or cultural—equivalence.
I’ll begin with a passage from a biography of Benjamin West, the 18th-century American painter:
“But what do you intend to be, Benjamin?” West answered that he had not thought at all on the subject, but that he should like to be a painter. “A painter!” exclaimed the boy, “what sort of a trade is a painter? I never heard of such a thing.” “A painter,” said West, “is a companion for kings and emperors.” “Surely you are mad,” replied the boy, “for there are no such people in America.”
It may seem to some of us, particularly in moments of despair, that if American culture had a tomb, the above passage from John Gait’s Life and Studies of Benjamin West would doubtless make a suitable epitaph. We despair, of course, not because little Benjamin grew up to be a companion of George III, while the best the artists we know can hope for is to share a beach house with Bianca Jagger; rather, we feel that somewhere along the road to liberty, fraternity, and equality, more than decorous titles were left by the dusty and flowerless wayside.
A personal antidote to such feeling is the recollection that Soviet guides conducting tours of the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula, explain to visitors that while in the old days there was but one writer—Count Lev Tolstoy—today there are hundreds of writers in the Tula region. The recollection acts as an antidote because it reminds one that the political opposites of a free society are not only lacking in its blessings, but have all of its shortcomings in a monstrously magnified form. In other words, the Soviet equivalent of George III, speaking symbolically, is also a Bianca Jagger, except that there she probably heads the Ministry of Culture and holds the rank of Colonel in the state security apparatus. Likewise, if for Tolstoy style was a private, or personal, matter, for every one of his Tula region brethren today the least stylistic frivolity may put an unambiguous end to the privileges of electricity and hot water.
I hasten to point to my swift recovery from the nostalgia induced by the West anecdote because I fear that my reading of American culture may be confounded with the grumbling that is the hallmark of critics of democracy on both the “left” and the “right,” from California’s Herbert Marcuse to Vermont’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In particular, Solzhenitsyn’s God-of-our-fathers brand of cultural criticism seems to have put our enlightened intelligentsia on the defensive. “Our Will Endures,” Archibald MacLeish proclaimed in a hurried rebuttal of the Harvard speech.
Of course, all that fuss was not about our will or any other rhetorical appurtenances of contemporary Spengleriana. The scourge of Harvard had made some rather opaque pronouncements in that famous high-pitched voice of his; but indistinct and ante-Tocquevillian though these were, they made the larger audience realize, for the first time in modern American history it seems, that there existed the Problems of Culture; and that, unlike any of the problems with which the audience was familiar, this one simply did not have a political solution.
Theoretically, cultural life under the conditions of economic and political freedom should have a lushness, and a splendor, beyond a poet laureate’s most sycophantic, or egotistical, dreams. Sure there is neither court nor academy; sure there is no one “sacred canopy”; sure there is only an empty shrine. But there are myriad enclaves, each with a separate system of values, each with a poet, a king, and perhaps a god of its own choosing, all joined together in a paean to liberty. “Theoretically” is the key word here.
Instead, in reality, a well-dressed man named Leo Castelli is quoted, in an issue of a magazine on the cover of which he appears, as saying, “I read Freud,” adding by way of explanation: “I wanted to be a Renaissance man.” Instead, we get “poetry by and about women.”
Conversely, the cultural climate of a nation whose writers may get their hot water shut off because of a disagreement over syntax must indeed be chilling. And yet, the sense that the poem you are reading in manuscript may be the poet’s last creates a remarkable subterranean atmosphere. Poets want to be loved; and what is a greater showing of love, paying ten bucks for a book of verse or risking your life by reading it?
It takes the patient labor of generations to cast the cliches of history (though sometimes but a few moments of genius to turn them back into lumps of lead). The merging of notions like “freedom” and “culture” into one concept has given the world a cliche as enduring as “national character,” and all the other old favorites. Now that the relevant stereotypes have been dismantled, the women of our time no longer tremble at the approach of a lecherous Frenchman, and few men are affected by the plight of a captured trout—unless, of course, they are members of the Sierra Club. (Real men, however, don’t belong to the Sierra Club, so that doesn’t count.)
But we are still not content to think that the Declaration of Independence, combined with the freedom of speech, municipal zoning laws, Monday garbage collection, and the nonprofit corporations act, has given us the relative paradise in which we actually dwell. We want to think that because it’s a paradise it will be known to posterity as a Schubert’s Vienna—rather than the Norman Mailer New York which it actually is. And when we are asked why, we blink and answer in all earnestness: “Because there is cultural freedom.”
I will admit that under certain extreme conditions, the “absolute zero” of political freedom, such as existed in China in the 20th century A.D., under Mao, or in the 3rd century B.C., under a man named Ch’in, the forbidden walls separating the official culture from the subterranean are blasted away, and all independent intellectual activity ends. But in what can be described as merely a harsh political climate—Schubert’s Vienna, as Sir Ernst Gombrich reminded us in a recent issue of The Yale Literary Magazine, was also Metternich’s Austria—culture has been known to blossom like Connecticut laurel after a summer rain.
The problem of culture, a problem of whose existence America was accidentally reminded by a Russian eccentric, has not a political, but a cultural solution. The moving forces of culture, as I said, are fueled by love; and while a free, commercial society is not moved by the love that makes martyrs, books of verse need not cost a paltry $10, either. After all, paintings do not, nor does a box at the Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps we will live to see a slim, simply produced volume of a friend’s verse priced at $1,000 a copy. And then, I believe, we will know that the free society’s approximation, or equivalent, of the underground reader’s love has been found, and that America’s cultural problem has at last been solved.
The assertion that the problem of culture has a cultural solution is not as reassuring, however, as a promise that this solution will soon be found. Much depends on destiny, and destiny often takes political forms. You remember the speech about Caesar that Cassius makes in Julius Caesar:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Cassius, of course, is the bad guy, and we know from what happens in the play that he is wrong, and that the Lord works in mysterious ways. It is interesting that in the very next line Cassius incites Brutus by setting up one of the earliest examples of moral equivalence in the history of demagoguery: “Brutus,” he says, “and Caesar.”
What should be in that Caesar?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name.
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well.
Weigh them, it is as heavy.
The demagogue in Shakespeare stresses equivalence and self-reliance. Not wishing to follow his example, I shall conclude, without promises or predictions, by merely expressing my hope that this free society solves its cultural problem—and in so doing masters its cultural, and there fore political, fate.