Sunday, November 20, 2016

Another from the first years of the 60s.

Alfred Kazin, Contemporaries,
The Village Today: or The Music the Money Makes
Saloon Society, by Bill Manville; photographs by David Attie, design by
Alexey Brodovitch. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce.

Bill Manville, who writes a column for the Village Voice, is an acute if perhaps too glibly rueful observer whose subject is New or Upper Bohemia. Whatever Greenwich Village may once have been or may now be supposed to have been, anyone who has recently strayed down MacDougal Street on a Saturday night knows that now it is a playground. What Coney Island was once to the honest workingman, Greenwich Village is now to the unmarried or ex-married young professional. The Village streets, pads, coffee houses, and bars are jammed with people who look a million times more sensitive, artistic, and "interesting" than William Faulkner or Igor Stravinsky, but who live by teaching economics, analyzing public opinion, writing advertising copy, practicing psychoanalysis, or "doing research" for political candidates. They are not intellectuals, but occasionally dream that they will be. That is their secret ambition. Meanwhile, being young and frisky, they are not yet the "managers" in our highly organized technical society. But they have the skills someday to become managers. Just now they don't want power any more than they want marriage. They want a good time, and a good time is what they go to the Village for, and a good time in the Village is what they get. The LeRoy Street Saloon, Chumley's, the San Remo, the White Horse Tavern, the Kettle, Minetta, O. Henry's, Louis's, the Riviera, Julius's, the Casa Allegra, El Faro. . . .

What I like most about Bill Manville's reports of conversations in these places is his honesty. He is aware of himself and his friends as the genuinely new fact the young always are, and he has the intelligence to notice what they want and what they miss. Maybe "honesty" in a writer is only a form that intelligence takes — perhaps this is why supposed rebels like the "beats" write so badly. But the vital difference is that the beat writers tend, on their own testimony, to be victims of mother and yearners after sex, and so write about sex as if it were the revolution. Manville's people are far more worldly than that. What the traveling salesman was once vis-a-vis the rural areas, these charming lechers and morning drinkers are now to all the humdrum and respectable marrieds in the suburbs.

The lines are carefully drawn: "Married and unmarried people should never mix. You can't be sentimental about these things; when your friends marry, you have to drop them, and they have to drop you." The same character says honestly, "God, I hate rent-payers, taxpayers, husbands, fathers, citizens, voters. I hate the New York Times, the Bronx, apple pie, motherhood, the forty-hour week, the Beat Generation, and Shirley Temple!" These are people who need just to support themselves and to pay the analyst, people (as Manville doesn't say) whose technical skills are automatic enough to leave them mentally free. They haven't moved to the Village because it's cheaper. But the blunt and concentrated pursuit of pleasure is still a vaguely subversive way of life in America. It is this that gives Manville's people their gallantry, charm, sauciness — and that touch of tristesse which Manville exploits like a musician sneaking in a few bars of Brahms.


But first things first. Manville has caught the delicious, the delirious, the whirligig music that money makes for so many people in New York just now. Here, at last, is a paean to good living by Greenwich Village as she is, not as she was when Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joe Gould burned their manuscripts to keep warm. "The cocktails came, so cold the gin smoked off the ice. Salad and steak, asparagus tender as love itself. Two kinds of wine cooled beside the table in silver ice buckets." On the wings of such food, sex follows swiftly. A young man named Phil confesses, "Wherever I go, I see magnificent women hurrying into saloons, stores, hotels, theaters, women so wonderful, so beautiful, so radiant and distant in their brilliance, they make me want to yell: 'Stop, stop, I don't
want to lose you!' "

That is downtown today, and even when it laughs at uptown in the person of a brazenly cynical millionaire out of a play by Bert Brecht or a movie by René Clair, it's hard to see what the difference is. Maybe it's that downtown always has uptown to laugh at. Here is a Villager describing the millionaire who arrives "a. little late, more than a little loaded. He has the standard uptown animal with him — taller than him, blonde of course, a certain dead-head serenity, a mink tent, and a Southern accent. Vanner himself is wearing an apricot-colored shirt and a tie that instantly lowers real-estate values for two blocks around. He glitters and winks with sharp metallic lights, and in fact he's encrusted all over with little bits of metal; gold cuff links, gold ring on the finger, a gold pin at the collar, another on the tie. . . , He's the kind of man who laughs a lot, you hip?"

Manville has a sure sense of style in his own writing. Sometimes, to be sure, he introduces names that remind you of Damon Runyon —George Gam, Lou the Ladies' Man, Perlman Pace, Maggie Singleton, and Big Mary; occasionally his interjected meditations on the world at large have the sentimental bitterness that reminds you of the pompous Broadway columnist. The very showiness and anxious cleverness of his obiter dicta tell you just how bourgeois and unintellectual the world of modern professionals really is. And this, I sadly discovered, is not a book to be read twice; it is journalism, not literature. But it has the great virtue of journalism — it brings news, it really informs us. And what makes these clever yet sometimes merely wistful conversations come alive is the fanaticism of people today trying to make a world entirely out of pleasure.

The "normal" world, the armed, busy, and political world, impinges so heavily that one has to blot it out to get a little privacy. But privacy is not enjoyable any more if it's experienced alone; hence the party in our age of the party — the party that starts Saturday morning ("Don't tell me about early in the morning, we'll pull the shades. We'll wear dark glasses") and that ends, really, never. Everything builds up and builds up all the time. The only question is the one Lou Manx discovered in his own mind when he fell ecstatically in love, and was ecstatically happy. "Then I thought: 'Is
this all I will ever feel in my life? Is there nothing left now but the long, slow, peaceful walk, hand in hand, to the grave?' So I broke up with her. Love is not enough."

I'm resisting the urge to highlight what I think should be obvious.

A new tag for criticism. There's lots of overlap. As always I did word searches to find old posts that fit, but I'm sure I missed a few. And since technocrats and academics qua academics, as "experts" now see themselves as critics, and as intellectuals, and since times are changing, there's a lot of overlap with the tag for The Discovery of Experience.

Kazin's is the sort of imagination I grew up with, a faded version of something much older.
Even reading earlier into the century, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, and Edmund Wilson, something bothers me about the American reportorial style; an artlessness that leaves me suspect even when I want to agree with its arguments. “The triumph of the fact,” as Macdonald called it, came early. C. Wright Mills, writing in the mid 1950s, was a man in the grey flannel suit, rebelling against himself. Read The Power Elite for its language and you’ll sense it’s more symptom than critique. The description itself is flat: a jeremiad written as an end of year report. Without the historical awareness of what he was or what he came from, he was unable to describe his surroundings or himself as anything more than another example of the American pendulum, swinging from rationalism to irrationalism, from Puritan to drunk, and back again. The true genius of American art is only evident in the art of drunkenness, when the artist knows intuitively that the poetry of drunkenness needs to be the description of drunkenness: the rational description of irrational action. This is where critics would have an equal role: in the reciprocal relation of artist and critic, participant and observer, actor and historian. But they would only have this role if they threw away any pretense at a universal knowledge of value, and saw only its description in the relations among people. In democracy philosophy is parasitic.
Pankaj Mishra on Edmund Wilson.

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