How not to get gored

Edward Said

  • The Dangerous Summer by Ernest Hemingway
    Hamish Hamilton, 150 pp, £9.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 241 11521 3

Readers of American writing have been struck by the prevalence of what Dwight Macdonald once called ‘how-to-ism’. This is not simply a matter of guides to gadgetry, or to cooking, or to doing things like marrying wealth and achieving peace of mind, although writing on all these subjects is more plentiful in America than anywhere else. What I have in mind is the practical, instructional attitude which is to be found in a great many canonical works of high literature: Moby Dick, for instance, can be seen as a manual of what to do if you want to go whaling, as well as an encyclopedia of everything pertaining to ships and the sea. Cooper’s novels are full of practical hints about forest and Indian life, Twain is stuffed with South-Western and Mississippi River lore, as is Walden of New England nature and Faulkner of the South; in Henry James the tendency takes the form of connoisseurship. In all these cases the implication is that reality cannot stand on its own, but requires the services of an expert to convey or unlock its meaning. The converse of this is no less true, that Americans seem interested not so much in reality as in how to approach and master it, and for this expert guidance is necessary.

A useful way of understanding this peculiar structure of perception is to see it as a substitute for the feeling of historical depth and continuity. To foreground information and expertise is in many ways to say that what matters can be pushed up to the surface, and that history, insofar as it is out of easy reach, is better forgotten or, if it can’t be forgotten, ignored. Experience of the here-and-now – the relevant – is therefore given priority. To the extent that the writer is able to provide such experience, to that extent his or her claims are felt as important, urgent, impressive. As a result, in no other literature is the writer so much a performing self, as Richard Poirier has observed, and in no other literature is such a premium placed on raw data and its virtuoso delivery.

The American interest in ‘fact’ derives from the same complex of attitudes. One can see it not only in the regularly contemptuous dismissal of opinion and interpretation, but also in the much more interesting cult of ‘objectivity’ and expertise, the spread of consultancy as a profession, and the institutionalisation of the ‘news’, which in America, it is believed, has been definitively separated from the burden of subjectivity. By the late 20th century the commodification, packaging and merchandising of reality which constitute the knowledge industry have come to predominate almost to the exclusion of actual content. Note, for instance, that documentary films are not really popular in America (unless they are English) and are rarely made, whereas 24-hour news channels are increasing in number. The assumption underlying the worship of news is that a tight little product, billed as pure ‘information’ with all opinion removed and flashing across our vision for no longer than thirty seconds per item, is convincing beyond question. That this form of news is ‘fact’ few people will dispute: what gets excluded is the tremendously sophisticated process of selection and commodification which makes bits of information into unassailable ‘fact’.

The continued pressure of such attitudes on American literature and society makes for genuine eccentricity in both. The great American classics are not, I believe, comparable either to the French or the English, which are the product of stable, highly institutionalised and confident cultures. In its anxieties, its curious imbalances and deformations, its paranoid emphases and inflections, American literature is like its Russian counterpart, although it would be impossible to extend these analogies into matters of political style.

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