Every Latest Spasm

Christopher Hitchens

  • A Rebel in Defence of Tradition: The Life and ‘Politics’ of Dwight Macdonald by Michael Wreszin
    Basic Books, 590 pp, £17.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 465 01739 8

To have been lampooned once by Mary McCarthy might have been considered a misfortune, but to have been ridiculed by her three times must count as some sort of carelessness. In her ‘Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man’, she presented Jim Barnett, a likeable boy from a promising background who, in the devil’s decade of the Thirties, could nonetheless suit his own fancy:

From the very first, Jim was an independent in politics, siding now with the Communists, now with the Lovestoneites, now with the Trotskyists, now with the group of middle-class liberals he had known at college who were trying to build a Farmer-Labour party of their own. In anybody else, such behaviour would have been politically suspect: the man would have been damned as a careerist, on the one hand, or a dilettante on the other. Yet neither of these allegations was ever made against Jim. His heterodoxy was received by all factions with paternal indulgence. ‘Let the boy have his head’ was the feeling. ‘A wild oat or two won’t hurt him.’

In her 1949 novel The Oasis, Ms McCarthy had given us Macdougal Macdermott, who – with his lower-case ds – ‘had suffered all his life from a vague sense that he was somehow crass, that he did not belong by natural endowment to that world of the spirit which his intellect told him was the highest habitation of man.’ And to Hannah Arendt in 1962 (I owe this to Carol Brightman, the incisive McCarthy scholar) she chortled over the conceit that Dwight was a hoax, or a species of ambulant practical joke, on himself and others. ‘Quite a funny idea ...’ she wrote, ‘that Dwight is a kind of self-made invention or impersonation masquerading as himself.’

Well, it’s certainly true that Macdonald wore the aspect of a large and shaggy animal, not all that good at judging the master’s mood but nonetheless valued and patronised. Perhaps privately longing to be thought fierce or dangerous, he never quite brought off a convincing snarl. Yet he is remembered for certain qualities which appreciate over time. Michael Wreszin’s biography succeeds in spite of its invocation of the conservative revolutionary.

While a genuine radical like James Cameron could famously say of himself that he was ‘conservative about everything except politics’, and while it’s true that the Anglo-American political culture holds a special niche permanently vacant for those bookish old ranters (Michael Foot, Norman Thomas) who can qualify for that sort of affectionate obituary even while they are still alive, the paradox of the traditionalist rebel does not automatically connote charm or breadth of mind. In the Puritan revolutions of old, and the Islamic ones of today, those prepared to break images for the sake of the ancestral hearth and the immutable faith present a more forbidding aspect: censorious, single-minded and flinty.

Macdonald had nothing of this in his make-up, which was that of the chronic hedonist and lifelong practitioner of dissipation. Born to a family that was even more Yalie than McCarthy’s caricature (the Dwights for whom he was named had produced two presidents of that university), he had a preppie upbringing and adolescence, and seems to have been quite insufferable at the various Anglomaniac schools and colleges he attended. Dandyish in dress, affected in bearing, snobbish in choice of acquaintance, he was the sort of young person who admired H.L. Mencken for the wrong reasons. He seems also to have been interested in impressing a ghastly-sounding Mama, though she would have been less delighted to learn of his amateur homoerotics than of his easy resort to conventional anti-semitism.

It’s an observable fact, however, if not exactly a sociological truth, that Wasps like this, who decided to move to the left, were much less likely to end up as neo-conservatives than the tough-minded, plebeian Jews who, schooled to street-fights and picket lines and canonical disputations in their hot youth, found the lure of Yale less easy to resist than did those who’d always been able to take it for granted. Mocking though ‘Portrait of the Intellectual’ relentlessly is about its gently-bred subject, when Jim breaks up with the Stalinists he does so ‘from the happy centre of things, by a pure act of perception’ (as well as in the embarrassed hope of impressing a comely and spirited girl). Privileged to begin with, Macdonald had the additional huge advantage and distinction of beginning a radical life as a rebel against left orthodoxy – thus sparing himself the mendacity and eventual burn-out which consumed so many of his coevals.

His active public life had three intersecting aspects to it. He was, first and always, a figure in the bitchy, kaleidoscopic world of political people who belong to one-member parties; parties that are forever on the verge of a damaging split. He adored faction fights, improbable alliances and arcane dialectical jousts. Second, he was an omnivorous cultural critic, and a part of that free-floating population of self-starting intellectuals which, in rather the way that Melville compares whale migration to the seasonal patterns of the fashionable, convenes in Berlin or Dubrovnik one summer only to divide and reassemble in Capri or San Francisco the next. (The peripatetic paradigm is Sir Stephen Spender, but Macdonald made an effort to run him close.) Third, he was an adopter of causes and had a pronounced tendency to look for the orphaned ones. If a thing was already sayable, he would be that much less interested in defending its right to be said.

Excised from the New Republic’s review of Macdonald’s collected essays, published in 1957 under the asking-for-it title of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, was a paragraph which put the case very deftly (the reviewer was Ian Watt, author of The Rise of the Novel):

Macdonald has genuine analytic power, but he is perhaps best as a satirist; with his quick allergy to cant he in many ways resembles Mencken, and has traces of the latter’s tendency to view the spectacle of human inadequacy with disquieting relish. I would guess, though, that the bitterness of Macdonald’s scornful and anarchic laughter springs from a foundered idealism, and that his closest analogue is the later Mark Twain. In any case his primary commitment to the Arnoldian role of being the disinterested critic of modern culture is surely what has saved him from collapsing into silence or obscurantism like so many of his politically-oriented contemporaries: his passionate concern for truth, allied to his considerable satiric gift, has armed him to face the accumulating disasters of the century with the pugnacious resilience of a Donald Duck.

The image of the Holy Fool of dissent makes a serviceable fit, here, with the popular anti-imperialism of Mark Twain, who with William James and others had organised the ‘Moratorium’ protest against America’s bullying conquest of the Philippine Islands in 1898. Twain detested the process by which America was being turned from a democratic republic, however corrupt and crude, into a plutocratic superpower from which corruption and crudity would also not be absent. From his tradition, which goes back to Thoreau and Whitman in one direction, there is a line of characteristically American but internationalist descent that takes in Randolph Bourne (who wrote that ‘war is the health of the state’ in 1916, and who saw the annexation of Columbia University by the militarists and super-patriots) and that issues in our own day in the work of Edward Said, Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky. In that chain, Macdonald forms an important link. And he was enabled by his reading and experience to draw, not just on the native tradition of philosophical anarchism, but also on the more tensile analyses of the Moloch state, based on sexual repression and projected hatred, that were offered by the Frankfurt School and (I would guess) by Nikolai Bukharin.

Macdonald’s own brief but vivid engagement with Trotsky and with the Left Opposition arose from his willingness to make common cause with any foe of the ‘totalitarian’ juggernaut. But here, too, his moral sense and his personally chaotic style made him a virtually useless joiner or member. ‘Every man has a right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.’ This untraceable observation of Trotsky’s was widely credited, even if it may have originated with Macdonald himself. Again, one finds the permanent clown and misfit peeping out from behind the staunch campaigner.

Reconsidering Macdonald’s contributions to Partisan Review and to his own small mag Politics (clue to the italic hommage in Wreszin’s title) in the era of Hitler and Stalin and total war, one can be fascinated to see how he teetered on the verge of silliness and irresponsibility while never quite failing to redeem himself at the last moment. He registered every latest spasm of the crisis, and was constitutionally incapable of adopting a wait-and-see position when the alternative was an instant polemic. Indeed, he seems never to have had an unpublished thought. Thus: Fascism was qualitatively new and the Left was too stupid to see it as other than the final agony of capitalism (true). Without revolution from below, therefore, the Western capitalist powers would either capitulate to Hitlerism or emulate its methods (false). The Second World War would soon disclose itself as a classic imperialist war (half-true). Lynching in the American South was more indicative of popular racism than was the Final Solution (loopy). The war against German civilians was abhorrent (hard to dispute). The incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a horror that opened a new epoch of horror (undeniable).

What kept Macdonald going, and provided the version of drunkard’s luck that kept saving him, was his absorption in the question of manipulation and gullibility. Why were the masses so easily led? Why were the intellectuals so cheaply bought? Why did the educated and the uneducated, for example, so swiftly conclude that Hiroshima was OK because it shortened the war and saved lives? (Incidentally, all the most recent scholarly work on Truman’s decision to go nuclear with Japan, especially the writing of Stewart Udall and Gar Alperovitz, bears out Macdonald’s intuition that a great, premeditated crime was committed with the aid of a contemptibly flimsy and wishful cover story.) His writings on mass culture and the degradation of scientific innovation, and his participation in intellectual symposia, were always a kind of engagement with the masochistic willingness of audiences and of eggheads to accept what they were given. But here again, the old flaw played its part and robbed him of some of his due as homme sérieux.

Signed up as an editor and contributor for Encounter, in the relatively tranquil Fifties when his own middle age was impending, Macdonald would hear no ill of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) even though it was an open secret that here was an ‘operation’ being run by the CIA, and even though it was his own work that accidentally drew attention to the fact. Neither the suspicions of his wife, nor the involvement of gullibles like Spender with hard-boiled opportunists like Irving Kristol and Melvin Lasky, were enough to unpersuade him. The fact was that he liked London, needed the money, adored the British social and intellectual milieu and could indulge a little of his repressed youthful Anglophilia at the expense of American philistinism. His essays contrasting the sophistication of London with the hustling and mercenary atmosphere of Manhattan were not his strongest. But they were precisely what was not wanted by the Cultural Freedom commissars, who had after all to sell American culture in the greatest Kulturkampf of all. Pressure to cut or kill Macdonald’s ‘America, America’ was exactly what brought the Mr Xs of the CCF out of their unspoken roles as ‘so and so of our Paris office’ and into the open as case officers and apparatchiks. (I had this first from Frank Kermode, and Wreszin amplifies the story admirably.) Still, Macdonald declined to see what was in front of his nose, and waited years to write the garrulously satiric piece for Esquire in which he ‘confessed’ to having been a CIA cultural agent all along.

Meanwhile, he had been refining his ‘Masscult and Midcult’ thesis through regular movie criticism, and had spent some quality time trying to get the wrapping off the consumer society. Rereading this stuff, as I did recently, is an enjoyable and rather confirming experience. The ‘Mass & Mid’ essay is most often remembered as an assault on the idea that media moguls ‘only give the people what they want’, and is indeed a witty demolition of that reactionary populist fallacy. (The media mogul, of course, gives them what he wants to give them. Also, he evidently wants it himself.) But the piece is not over-fastidious or anti-modernist. Macdonald was prescient about the latent possibilities of cable TV, and about the idea that discrete tastes and select audiences might be identified and served by subscription-only ‘narrowcasting’. He sought to locate the means by which the individual or the unconventional might survive in the crevices of massified and conscripted culture and society. I think Wreszin is too uncritical of T.S. Eliot’s 1956 letter claiming that Macdonald’s ‘form of radicalism’ had most in common with Eliot’s ‘own form of conservatism’. Macdonald’s attacks, written for the New Yorker, on the vulgarisation of Webster’s Dictionary and on the phoney popularisation of the Bible, were still composed with a strong interest in democracy. His self-description as ‘conservative anarchist’ was itself part-parodic. He didn’t take the reserved, one-dimensional line of an Eliot in defence of a presumably authentic liturgical or linguistic prescriptivism.

His companionable attitude towards Eliot and other reactionaries, however, helped to pump up the ridiculous fuss about Macdonald’s film essays, which were widely denounced as anti-semitic. Even after digesting Wreszin’s biographical sketch of Macdonald’s early and mindless attitude to the Jews, I find it impossible to read his notice of Ben Hur and the other Biblical pseudo-epics as the outcome of bigotry. (Ought there to be such a term as ‘Jew-teasing’? It would meet this case, though it might get one into trouble.) At any rate, and despite the use of slightly cheap terms such as ‘fall-goy’ to describe the stilted Pontius Pilates of these laughable soap-operas, Macdonald was making a sound point when he accused the producers of pussyfooting with the Christkiller stuff (‘we only killed him for a couple of days,’ as a friend of mine in New York is fond of saying) and made an even sounder one when he observed:

All the Romans are portrayed by English – or at least by British Commonwealth – actors, while all the Hebrews except Miss Harareet of Israel are Americans. MGM attributes this to ‘Mr Wyler’s determination not to have a clash of accents’, but I suggest that MGM, in a most tactful gesture, gave the colonial parts to the country that is now acquiring an empire and the imperial parts to the country that has recently lost one.

This playfulness earned him a few enemies, and led him to write some early anti-PC stuff about the need to avoid ‘offending’ certain minorities and the tiresomeness of the stipulation. Nobody who spent as long as Macdonald did among the New York intellectual crowd could have been in any meaningful sense anti-semitic, and though Macdonald did like to provoke fights with relatively obvious remarks about the Palestinians, I think that his consciousness of being a non-Jew was most important in the very sense identified by Mary McCarthy: it caused him sometimes to feel excluded from the sodality of moral and spiritual outsiders, and tempted him to give way to occasional crassness and buffoonery.

When Evelyn Waugh’s Guy Crouchback learns of the Hitler-Stalin pact, all his doubts dissolve as he sees the hideous visage of ‘the modern age in arms’. Macdonald’s Trotskyist friends referred to the identical episode as ‘the midnight of the century’. But it was really the war in Vietnam that summoned Macdonald’s finest hour. All the old faction fights and culture wars had been but a preparation. For one thing, it had never been possible for him to make the least difference to any of the contests of the Thirties. But now, well-stricken in years and with a certain standing as a writer, he could intervene. And he did, risking great ridicule as an ancient bohemian sucking up to the young. This trope of absurdity was the one favoured by all his enemies from Diana Trilling to Irving Howe. But Wreszin’s account makes clear that for his subject, the Indo-China war and its domestic analogues were decisive. There was the hated war-machine to be confronted, with its attendants in the military-intellectual complex. There was the use of police tactics against dissent. There was the parallel side-tracking and repression of the burgeoning black civil rights movement, which had always been close to Macdonald’s heart. From the very earliest days of the conflict, he pushed his increasingly Falstaffian form into the front rank of opposition and was more than ready to face trial and imprisonment as well as slander and mockery.

His decision to go beyond formal opposition to the war, and to involve himself with the people who were actually trying to sabotage it struck the respectable classes as a rare piece of promiscuity. He took the side of those who rebelled against Columbia (which had as an institution disgraced itself much as in Randolph Bourne’s day, when the curriculum was supposed to turn out ‘thinking bayonets’). He supported draft-resisters and mutineers. He cut quite a figure even in Norman Mailer’s bestiary, related in The Armies of the Night. But as Wreszin points out with some care, he was not an uncritical or unthinking militant. He urged the Columbia students to revere the idea of the university even in the face of its betrayal by the authorities. He spoke against illusions in the politics of Ho Chi Minh. And he tussled with the Panther cult, whether adopted by despairing blacks or sinister whites. Many survivors of those days will tell you that the example of this experienced geezer helped save them from nihilism. On the whole, he was true to his early essay ‘On the Responsibility of Peoples’, which held that the prime duty of a free citizen is to oppose the atrocities and lies of his or her ‘own’ side. There is, by corollary, no obligation to euphemise or minimise the crimes of the ‘Other’, which one will have acquired the right to mention with a clear conscience. This simple point has since been obscured by many critics who ought to be ashamed of how little they did to stop a perfectly preventable and criminal war.

It was true at the end, as Mary McCarthy had suggested at the onset, that Macdonald suffered from the feeling of having done very little. No really serious book, no imperishable academic monument, no lasting reputation as much more than a gadfly. A bit too tired, a bit too fat and a bit too drunk. He once told his son that he couldn’t imagine learning a new language in order to write a book, as Edmund Wilson had done. The achievement of this biography is to have restored ‘Dwight’, as Wreszin calls him, to his proper place as the guardian and transmitter of a noble lineage of dissent, as the author of some essays that will be read for longer than their author ever suspected, and as a moral tutor to some students he never met. How well white hairs may become a fool and jester.