Moral virtue is the quality of acting in the best way in relation to pleasures and pains, and vice is the opposite.
—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

We have witnessed what amounts to a cultural revolution, comparable to the one in China if not worse, and whereas the Chinese have to some extent overcome their cultural revolution, I see many signs that ours is getting worse all the time. . . . I do not know what the future will bring, and my expectations are rather grim not only for our education and scholarship, but also for our economic, legal, and political future.
—Paul Oskar Kristeller,“A Life of Learning” (1991)

A year or two ago, The New York Times reported in its science pages on the unhappy fate of one Phineas P. Gage, a foreman for the New England Railroad. In 1848, Gage was helping to lay track across Vermont. His job involved drilling holes in large rocks, into which he would pour blasting powder and lay down a fuse. He would then cover the explosives with sand, tamping it down with a long metal rod. One day, he inadvertently triggered an explosion. The metal rod went hurtling through his skull, entering just under his left eye and landing some yards away. Amazingly, Gage survived the assault. He was stunned but able to walk away. And although he lost an eye, he seemed otherwise to recover. It soon became clear, however, that Gage was a diminished man. His intellectual powers were apparently intact; but what the writer for the Times called his “moral center” had been destroyed. Phineas Gage had become a moral cripple, utterly unable to make ethical decisions.

Pondering the state of American cultural life today, I have often had occasion to recall the sad story of Phineas Gage. Like him, our culture seems to have suffered some ghastly accident that has left it afloat but rudderless, its “moral center” a shambles. The cause of this disaster was not an explosion of gunpowder, but the more protracted and spiritually convulsive detonation of what the eminent philosopher Paul Oskar Kristeller has rightly called America’s “cultural revolution.” As anyone familiar with the culture wars now raging throughout American society knows—and who can have entirely escaped the spectacle?—it is a revolution whose effects are still very much with us. In his reflections on the life of learning, Professor Kristeller was concerned primarily with the degradation of intellectual standards that this cultural revolution brought in its wake. “One sign of our situation,” he noted, “is the low level of our public and even of our academic discussion. The frequent disregard for facts or evidence, or rational discourse and arguments, and even of consistency, is appalling.” Who can disagree? 

“The frequent disregard for facts or evidence, or rational discourse and arguments, and even of consistency, is appalling.”

As Professor Kristeller suggests, however, the intellectual wreckage visited upon our educational institutions and traditions of scholarship is only part of the story. There are also social, political, and moral dimensions to America’s cultural revolution—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the spiritual deformations we have witnessed are global, and affect everything.

The movement for sexual “liberation” (not to say outright debauchery) occupies a prominent place in the etiology of this revolution, as does the mainstreaming of the drug culture and its attendant pathologies. Indeed, the two are related. Both are expressions of the narcissistic hedonism that was an important ingredient of the counterculture from its earliest beginnings in the 1950s. The salon Marxist Herbert Marcuse was not joking when, in Eros and Civilization (1955)—one of many inspirational tracts for the movement—he extolled the salvific properties of “primary narcissism” as an effective protest against the “repressive order of procreative sexuality.” “The images of Orpheus and Narcissus reconcile Eros and Thanatos,” Marcuse wrote. “They recall the experience of a world that is not to be mastered and controlled but to be liberated: . . . the redemption of pleasure, the halt of time, the absorption of death; silence, sleep, night, paradise—the Nirvana principle not as death but as life.” The succeeding decades showed beyond cavil that the infantilizing pursuit of sexual perversity that Marcuse advocated was really a form of death-in-life, not “liberation.” But of course this was something that neither this guru of liberation nor his many followers ever acknowledged or perhaps even recognized.

One of the most conspicuous, and conspicuously jejune, features of the culture wars has been the union of such hedonism with a species of radical (or radical chic) politics. This union fostered a situation in which, as the famous slogan put it, “the personal is the political.” The politics in question were seldom more than a congeries of radical clichés, serious only in that they helped to disrupt society and blight a good many lives. In that sense, to be sure, they proved to be very serious indeed. Apocalyptic rhetoric notwithstanding, the behavior of these “revolutionaries” consistently exhibited that most common of bourgeois passions, anti-bourgeois animus—expressed, as always, safely within the swaddling clothes of bourgeois security. As Allan Bloom remarked in The Closing of the American Mind, the cultural revolution proved to be so successful on college campuses partly because of “the bourgeois’ need to feel that he is not bourgeois, to have dangerous experiments with the unlimited. . . . Anti-bourgeois ire is the opiate of the Last Man.” It almost goes without saying that, like all narcotics, the opiate of anti-bourgeois ire was both addictive and debilitating.

The effect of these developments on cultural life has been incalculable.

The effect of these developments on cultural life has been incalculable. One of the most far-reaching and destructive effects has been the simultaneous glorification and degradation of popular culture. Even as the most ephemeral and intellectually vacuous products of pop culture—rock videos, comic books, television sit-coms—are enlisted as fit subjects for the college curriculum, so, too, has the character of popular culture itself become ever more vulgar, vicious, and degrading. A watershed moment came with the apotheosis of The Beatles in the mid-1960s. The literary critic Richard Poirier wasn’t the only academic to make a fool of himself slobbering over the Fab Four; but his observation that “sometimes they are like Monteverdi and sometimes their songs are even better than Schumann’s” in the Partisan Review in 1967 did establish a standard of fatuity that has rarely been bettered. Unfortunately, the more popular culture has been raised up— the more vigorously it has been championed by the cultural elite—the lower popular culture has sunk. In comparison with the pop music of today, The Beatles almost do seem like Monteverdi. Almost. At the same time, though—and this is one of the most insidious effects of the whole process—the integrity of high culture itself has been severely compromised by the mindless elevation of pop culture. The academic enfranchisement of popular culture has meant not only that trash has been mistaken as great art, but also that great art has been treated as if it were trash. When Allen Ginsberg (for example) is taught beside Shakespeare as a “great poet,” the very idea of greatness is rendered unintelligible and high art ceases to function as an ideal.

Although their causes are complex, there is one sense, anyway, in which this triumph of vulgarity has helped to pave the way for the success of the twin banes of political correctness and radical multiculturalism. The abandonment of intrinsic standards of achievement is an invitation to filter everything through the reductive sieve of politics and the ideology of victimhood. Thus it is that vanguard opinion champions the idea of “art” as a realm of morally unassailable privilege even as it undermines the realities of artistic achievement: technique, beauty, tradition. Art retains its status as a source of spiritual uplift, however dubious, yet also functions as an exercise of politics by other means. Hence Robert Mapplethorpe’s brutal and disgusting photographs of the sado-masochistic underground are beyond criticism because they are “art,” while at the same time they are held up as important “challenges” to the repressive, bourgeois regime of “mandatory heterosexuality” and the like.

In comparison with the pop music of today, The Beatles almost do seem like Monteverdi. Almost.

For anyone interested in seeing how this concoction of forces first coalesced, the Whitney Museum of American Art recently obliged with an exhibition called “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965.”1 Considered as an art exhibition, this mélange of some two hundred objects hardly exists. In more ways than one, walking through the exhibition is like touring a junk shop. Fifth-rate paintings, tenth-rate sculptures and films, innumerable books, photographs, magazines, and other literary detritus, all scattered about the Whitney’s exhibition spaces while the drug-inspired jazz of Miles Davis drones on in the background: that is what “Beat Culture and the New America” has to offer. The two or three objects of even minimal aesthetic accomplishment on view—some paintings by Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline—are not products of the Beat sensibility at all but merely happened to be created at the same time that the Beats got going.

Although aesthetically nugatory, “Beat Culture and the New America” is an exhibition of some significance—though not, alas, in quite the way that Lisa Phillips, its curator, intended. Casting a retrospective glance at the sordid world of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other Beat icons, the exhibition furnishes a kind of pathologist’s report on one of the most toxic cultural movements in American history. In this sense, at least, we owe the Whitney a debt of gratitude. The romance that has surrounded the Beat generation since the mid-Sixties has acted as a kind of sentimental glaze, obscuring its fundamentally nihilistic impulse under a heap of bogus rhetoric about liberation, spontaneity, and higher consciousness. The Beats were not cuddly iconoclasts. They were drug-abusing sexual predators and infantile narcissists whose shamelessness helped con a confused and gullible public into believing that their ravings were works of genius. We must thank Lisa Phillips and the Whitney for reminding us of this with such vividness. If nothing else, “Beat Culture and the New America” shows that the Beats were not simply artistic charlatans of prodigious accomplishment: they were—and, in the case of those who are still with us, they remain—moral simpletons whose destructive influence helped fuel the cultural catastrophe with which we are now living.

Not, of course, that the folks at the Whitney see it quite this way. But then the Whitney is itself a splendid example of cultural breakdown. In his foreword to the catalogue, the Whitney’s director David Ross complains that the “depth and seriousness of Beat culture” was insufficiently appreciated by many postwar journalists whose “reactionary” response led them to dismiss the Beats as “loony beret-wearing weirdos, conspiratorial communists, amoral homosexuals, filthy drug-addicted hipsters, or merely pathetic wannabe artists.” Well, it is true that many Beats went around without berets or indeed hats of any kind.

One nice thing about Mr. Ross is his predictability. On the subject of Beat culture, one knows in advance that he will deplore McCarthyism and the Fifties generally, and that he will then trot out a number of current clichés about gender-race-class-sexuality, ending with a flourish about the importance of Federal funding for the arts. And right on cue he tells us that the Beats suffered from “politicians looking for convenient scapegoats,” that they “opened up a closed-down culture,” and that later “artists struggling with their emerging sexual identities found the Beat world a nurturing place, where desire could be freely expressed and pleasure openly extolled.” Finally, he registers his relief that he can “still cite the National Endowment for the Arts as a public champion of important exhibitions such as this one.”

Miss Phillips sings a similar song, but waxes even more lyrical. In “Beat Culture: America Revisioned,” her essay for the catalogue, Miss Phillips speaks of the “enduring achievement” and “now legendary literary accomplishments” of the Beats, whose “vanguard and antimaterialist” stance set them against the “conformity and consensus of official culture” and the “smug optimism of the Eisenhower years.” I believe she forgot to mention how that great anti-materialist spirit, Allen Ginsberg, received a million dollars for his papers from Stanford University, but no matter: Miss Phillips is only too aware of how far Beat culture has come. In one remarkable passage, she explains how

   during the Cold War, in the aftermath of World War II, a new generation emerged in America, known as the Beat generation. Disillusioned with the progress of science and Western technocracy, the Beats embarked on a quest for a new set of values out of which to build a new faith, [and] a new tribal ethic was born. Although once rejected by mainstream society as outlaws, rebels, and morally dangerous, today the Beats are recognized as icons of America’s counterculture and as one of the most influential cultural movements of the century. Their literary works, which aroused great controversy and academic disdain when first published in the fifties, are now part of the canon of American literature taught in universities around the country. Their archives are selling for vast sums, . . . and first editions of their books are highly sought after. Perhaps most important, the Beats continue to inspire younger generations of artists with their directness, courage, and intensity of vision.   

There is a great deal one could say about this remarkable paragraph, beginning with that supposed disillusionment about “the progress of science and Western technocracy”—as if anything like the Beats could exist in a society lacking the fruits of modern science and technology. But there is one frighteningly accurate statement in Miss Phillips’s inventory: namely, that the Beats “are now part of the canon of American literature taught in universities around the country.” As she later observes, “the Beat rebellion gave form to an invisible turning point in American culture at mid-century.” David Ross and Lisa Phillips celebrate this development as a giant step forward for freedom and creativity. In fact, the institutionalization of the Beat ethic has been a moral, aesthetic, and intellectual disaster of the first order. (It has also been a disaster for fashion and manners, but that is a separate subject.) We owe to the 1960s the ultimate institutionalization of radicalism: of drugs, pseudo-spirituality, promiscuous sex, virulent anti-Americanism, hypocritical anti-capitalism, and the precipitous decline of artistic and intellectual standards. But the 1960s and 1970s only codified and extended into the middle class the radical spirit of the Beats.

Mr. Ross and Miss Phillips purr over the literary achievements of the Beats. What literary achievement? Jack Kerouac, who has the dubious distinction of popularizing the phrase “the Beat Generation” in his novel On the Road, is nearly always cited as one of the chief artistic (as well as existential) inspirations for the Beats. Allen Ginsberg, in particular, has again and again paid homage to this master, singling out in particular Kerouac’s “essay” entitled “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” as a fount of wisdom. Here is a representative passage from that effusion: “LAG IN PROCEDURE: No pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatological buildup till satisfaction is gained, which will turn out to be a great appending rhythm to a thought and be in accordance with Great Law of timing.” As Truman Capote famously remarked apropos the Beats, “It isn’t writing at all—it’s typing.”

What about William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and other Beat classics?

What about William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and other Beat classics? Everyone from Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy has hailed Burroughs as a genius. Jack Kerouac wrote that Burroughs was “the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift.” (The Beats specialized in plumping one another’s work.) Unfortunately, no representative passage of Burroughs’s work can be quoted here, but suffice it to say that all his novels consist of a demotic stream-of-consciousness narrative where scenes of sodomy, torture, and drug abuse recur with mind-numbing repetitiveness.

And Allen Ginsberg? David Ross confidently refers to him as a “great American poet.” Much of his work, too, resists citation outside the pages of pornography, but it is possible to provide readers with at least a soupçon of Ginsberg’s poetic achievement. There is “Howl” (1955–56), of course, Ginsberg’s most famous poem: “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” Of course, they weren’t the “best minds” of his generation, not by a long shot. But the bloated, quasi-Whitmanesque rhetoric is echt Ginsberg, as is the celebration of drugs and, later, the adolescent anti-Americanism and infatuation with dirty words. What, I wonder, would a teacher of high-school creative writing say about this, a fragment from Ginsberg’s “Capitol Air” (1980)?

I don’t like the government where I live
I don’t like the dictatorship of the Rich
I don’t like bureaucrats telling me what to eat
I don’t like Police dogs sniffing round my feet 

Or this, from a “religious” poem of 1973

OM=the pride of perfumed money, music food from China, a place to sit quiet.
MA=How jealous! the million Pentagon myrmidons with dollar billions to spend on Rock & Roll, restaurant high throne in sky filled with Electric Bombers—Ah! how jealous they are of the thin stomached Vietnamese boy.
NI— Lust in the heart for the pink tender prick’d school-boy upstairs bedroom naked with his books, high school locker shower, stretching on the bed, the young guitar player’s ass.

No wonder Ginsberg, in an introduction he contributed to the exhibition catalogue, emphasizes the connection between “Beat” and “words like beatitude and beatific—the necessary beatness or darkness that precedes opening up to light, egolessness, giving room for religious illumination.”

In that same introduction Ginsberg enumerates what he regards as the “essential effects” of the Beat Generation: “spiritual liberation, sexual ‘revolution’ or ‘liberation,’ ” “the evolution of rhythm and blues into rock and roll as a high art form,” and “opposition to the military-industrial machine civilization.” A fair summary, so long as one remembers that what Ginsberg means by “liberation” is simply hedonistic self-indulgence, that rock music did not “evolve” into high art but merely made it more difficult to hear and appreciate art’s delicate sonorities, and that the “opposition” he speaks of is merely the hypocritical posturing of a pampered beneficiary of advanced capitalist society. But on the essential point Ginsberg was absolutely correct: the legacy of the Beat generation lies not in the literary or artistic realm; it is an instrument of moral indoctrination. That is to say, Beat was not primarily an art or literary movement but a form of life. As Lisa Phillips notes, for the Beats, “Art and life were inseparable.” The question is, was it a desirable or worthwhile form of life?

The question is, was it a desirable or worthwhile form of life?

In a curious way, this question is also raised by Wendy Steiner’s latest contribution to the culture wars, The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism.2 What makes the connection curious is that Miss Steiner, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English and chairman of the English department at the University of Pennsylvania, begins her short tract by declaring that she is out “to defend aesthetic pleasure, to insist that art is different from life, to champion freedom of speech and thought.” In the event, The Scandal of Pleasure defends the standard radical academic menu, from the sado-masochistic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe (a model of “fearlessness”) to the various critical deformations that have destroyed literary studies in the academy. (In one revealing passage, Miss Steiner observes that, for some reason, the New Critics “never referred to their approach as fetishism”: “It took figures like Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille,” she says, “to champion fetishism openly.”)

Miss Steiner assures readers that she wishes to reinvigorate the ideal of the “liberal” academy. In fact, what she advocates is a blueprint for the continued radicalization of education and culture. At the center of her argument is the distinction between academically enfranchised “experts,” such as herself, and the undiscerning public, whom she describes as the “laity.” The problem, as she sees it, is how the coterie of experts can best protect themselves from the obtuse criticism of the “laity.” This, of course, is the sheerest arrogance. And anyone who troubles to read through her blundering attempts to interpret Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”—to say nothing of her amazingly ill-informed notion of what constitutes aesthetic pleasure—will have plenty of reason to doubt her self-proclaimed status as an “expert.” Miss Steiner describes her book as “an argument for the subjectivity of aesthetic response.” Indeed. It is so subjective that Miss Steiner can give no better reason for preferring one poem to another than she could for preferring white wine to red. As Kant pointed out long ago, it is a peculiarity of aesthetic judgments to be both subjective and universal, which is one reason that he held that “taste makes possible the transition . . . from the charm of sense to habitual moral interest.” Miss Steiner holds up “pleasure” as her criterion of aesthetic delectation; but it is a coarse, wholly subjective pleasure that she advocates, which is why she can find no reason to repudiate the extravagances of someone like Robert Mapplethorpe. Unrestricted pleasure has always been the watchword of the counterculture; this is one of the many things that link it with barbarism. (Savages, Walter Bagehot once observed, prefer “short spasms of greedy pleasure to mild and equable enjoyment.”) Aristotle was right that moral virtue is the quality of acting in the best way in relation to pleasures and pains. But for the Beat sensibility, as for Miss Steiner, there is no “best way.” There is only more or less.

1 “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965” was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from November 9, 1995, through February 4, 1996. It will be seen at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, from June 2 through September 15, 1996, and at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, from October 5 through December 29, 1996. A catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Lisa Phillips, has been published by the Whitney and Flammarion (279 pages, $55; $35 paper). 

2 The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism, by Wendy Steiner; University of Chicago Press, 251 pages, $24.95. 

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 7, on page 8
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