Reading the Sunday Times

New_york_times_masthead The New York Times is beginning to look more and more like a badly tethered Macy’s parade float.  One more busted guy wire and it’s good night and good luck.

In the Times yesterday, James Wolcott offered a fond remembrance of Dwight Macdonald. 

Dwight Macdonald!  If there is a 20th century man of letters who earned his obscurity fair and square, it’s Dwight Macdonald. 

Macdonald bet heavily against popular culture.  He specialized in scorning it.  Here Wolcott remembers a debate between Macdonald and Stanley Kauffmann about filmmaking. 

Stanley Kauffmann [] said he didn’t  want to speak slightingly of "the popcorn crowd," which made Macdonald crack,  "Aw, go ahead."

Kauffmann: "No, no; Ingmar Bergman has remarked that those who go to see a Doris Day film […] may go to see one of his films the following week. Often in the same theater."

Macdonald: "They shouldn’t be allowed to."

[Finally] Kauffmann explained to the audience that Macdonald came from the Mencken generation, more comfortable responding to culture with a cynical No rather than an embracing Yes.

Macdonald pleaded guilty, but argued that experience had taught him the wisdom of heeding his inner veto power: "When I say no I’m always right, and when I say yes I’m almost always wrong."

But No was wrong and Yes was right.  Hollywood continues to make films that would horrify even Kauffmann, but popular culture got better.  In the language of Hargurchet Bhabra, popular culture became culture, the usual mixture of the good, the bad, the atrocious and the sublime.  And, quite suddenly, it ceased to be an easy target. 

Oh, damn.  Bad luck for the intellectuals!  It’s the 30s all over again.  A couple of soup kitchens sustain them.  One or two publications take them in.  A few simpletons continue to bang the drum, but, really, who cares?  (Ok, I do, evidently.  Consider this custodial work.  I am the man in a green twill jump suit, pushing confetti and stacking chairs in the hopes that stragglers will just go home.)

James Wood reviews a new book on Flaubert, and while this is less provocative, it remains a little, um, how shall I put this, oh, never mind.

Flaubert writes:

At the back of deserted cafes, women behind the bars yawned between their untouched bottles; the newspapers lay unopened on the reading-room tables; in the laundresses’ workshops the washing quivered in the warm draughts. Every now and then he stopped at a bookseller’s stall; an omnibus, coming down the street and grazing the pavement, made him turn round; and when he reached the Luxembourg he retraced his steps.

Wood comments:

This was published in 1869, but might have appeared in 1969; many, perhaps most, novelists still sound essentially the same.  Flaubert scans the streets indifferently, it seems, like a camera.  [W]hat he has selected is not of course casually scanned but quite savagely chosen, [] each detail is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness. How superb and magnificently isolate the details are – the women yawning, the unopened newspapers, the washing quivering in the warm air.

The flaneur exercised new liberties, noticing things not noticed, not noticeable, actually non negotiable, in the world of letters and polite society. 

But I think Flaubert acknowledges that his literary powers are always up against a limit, that some of the things in his gaze sit on the verge of comprehension.  And this makes him a friend of the blogger, anyone, in fact, who ambles through contemporary culture. 

I would be grateful if you would stop reading, for a moment, and go to your file.  Tell me:

1) who many items you’ve clipped,
2) how many items you’ve reread (since clipping),
3) how many items you actually remember clipping,
4) how many items are now mysterious (as in "why did I clip this again?") 

As contemporary flaneurs, sauntering through the virtual world, we are no longer choosing.  The gel of chosenness, as Wood calls it, has liquefied and run away.   We no longer file.  Some time ago, filing gave way to piling.  Piling gave way to binning, binning then to dumping.  Happily, we’re using a virtual land tip.  Still, we do we bother?

We bother because, before, we were trailed everywhere on the internet by the uneasy feeling that this was a random search out of which nothing recoverable could come.  I remember how thrilled I was by  Finally, a map, a record, a way to recover my investment of time and effort.  But I almost never go back.

Flaubert could retrace his steps.  But when we exercise his liberty, the world overwhelms us.  Much of what we see sits on the verge of comprehension, if only by weight and by volume.  What was a test for Flaubert is a trial for us.

This continuity might have been worthy observing in the Times, but then of course the Times still believes in a manageable world, they believe they are a source of order, that they are architects of the manageable world.  All the news that’s fit to print! 

Come on, fellas.  You are going to have to do better than Dwight Macdonald remembrances to make yourself useful. 


Wolcott, James.  2006.  Dwight Macdonald at 100.  The New York Times.  April 16, 2006. 

Wood, James.  2006.  The Man Behind Bovary.  The New York Times.  April 16, 2006. 

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