Friday, May 24, 2019

Dwight Macdonald
THE TRIUMPH OF THE FACT (1957)
Against the American Grain, (1962). My copy's a first edition, but not from my parents.

According to an old friend he was ridiculously anti-Semitic, which means in this case that he wouldn't shut up about the Jews, especially –or very possibly only– when talking to Jews, including his friends' 15 year old sons. "And all Dwight wanted to do was watch reruns of Taxi."

I began transcribing this in Jan 2017. Double-check if you want to quote it.

As with Kazin – “The President and Other Intellectuals”–  it's the kind of intelligence that was a given in my childhood, that now just draws a blank.
---
The Western world has paid a good deal of attention to data ever since some unrecorded genius had the original idea of finding out whether a live person weighs more, less, or the same as a dead person, not by speculating on the Vital Principle and the Intrinsic Substance of the Soul, as described in Aristotle and the Church Fathers, but by weighing a condemned criminal before and after execu-tion. The historical moment at which this unknown (and indeed fictitious) genius made his great intellectual leap might be called, had it existed, the end of the Middle Ages. But commonplace as this aspect of the scientific method has been for centuries throughout the West, it has achieved in the United States a unique importance. Our mass culture—and a good deal of our high, or serious, culture as well—is dominated by an emphasis on data and a corresponding lack of interest in theory, by a frank admiration of the factual and an uneasy contempt for imagination, sensibility, and speculation. We are obsessed with technique, hagridden by Facts, in love with information. Our popular novelists must tell us all about the historical and professional backgrounds of their puppets; our press lords make millions by giving us this day our daily Fact; our scholars—or, more accurately, our research administrators—erect pyramids of data to cover the corpse of a stillborn idea; our way of "following" a sport is to amass an extraordinary amount of data about batting averages, past performances, yards gained, etc., so that many Americans who can't read without moving their lips have a fund of sports scholar-ship that would stagger Lord Acton; our politicians are mostly for-mer lawyers, a profession where the manipulation of Facts is of first importance; we are brought up according to Spock, Gessell and the other Aristotles of child care; we make love according to the best man-uals of sexual technique; and before we die we brief our wives with Donald I. Rogers' Teach Your Wife to be a Widow (Holt, 1953, $2.).

Soon after he started sharing quarters in Baker Street with Sherlock Holmes, young Dr. Watson was shocked to find that his brainy friend was an ignoramus:
Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he ap-peared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be or what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican theory and of the composition of the solar system. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled around the sun appeared such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
    "You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."
Holmes then develops a rather bogus theory about the brain being like an attic with a fixed capacity. "Depend upon it," he concludes, "there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you for-get something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones." This is too much for the good doctor:
"But the solar system!" I protested. "What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently. "You say that we go around the sun. If we went around the moon, it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."
There is something magnificent about this carrying the principle of utility to its logical conclusion. And Holmes was right to insist that the only good reason for acquiring any knowledge, even of whether the earth goes around the sun or the moon, is its utility for the individual knower. But his idea of utility was too narrowly practical. Like Holmes, I know little about the physical sciences and am not curious to know more—pace Sir Charles Snow—but my lack of interest is due not just to their irrelevance to my professional needs but, more important, to my feeling that they aren't useful to me in a broader sense, one which Holmes's logic doesn't recognize—they don't appeal to my kind of mind and feelings. Others do find the physical sciences "useful" in this sense, as I myself find literature and history and philosophy "useful," and so they are rightly concerned to know that the earth goes around the sun rather than the moon. (I do happen to have picked up that particular bit of information somewhere, but in general, when the solar system is on the agenda, I feel like echoing, "What the deuce is it to me?")
    One of the nicest touches in the characterization of Sherlock Holmes is that he is not entirely consistent even here. Dr. Watson's well-known inventory of the great detective's knowledge put "Nil" opposite Literature, Philosophy and Astronomy, while Politics was "Feeble," Botany "Variable—well-up in belladonna, opium, and poi-sons; knows nothing of practical gardening," and Sensational Literature "Immense." This is all as one might expect, but there is one incongruous item: "Plays the violin well." Doyle realized that, to be a man and not a monster, even the folk hero of applied science had to have at least one nonutilitarian interest, one skill of importance to him only because it fed his sensibilities. Cocaine was for Holmes another method of transcending the brute, confining realm of the Practical.

Sherlock Holmes's attitude was American—Ben Franklin would have approved—but old-fashioned American. It is, of course, still widespread. Our colleges are still full of what Ortega y Gasset calls "barbarians of specialization": historians who know all about medieval land tenure but never enter an art museum; economists who manipulate the tools of their trade with precision and refinement and get their non-economic ideas from The Reader's Digest; political "scientists"—the quotes are intentional—whose literary tastes don't differ from their butcher's (Marx read Aeschylus once a year); English professors who have devoted a lifetime's study to the Elizabethan sonnet and who haven't read Auden or Baudelaire.1 Our businessmen still are notorious for their lack of interest in arts and letters—they leave such kickshaws to their wives. Our politicians still are men of narrow culture; compare Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose antipathy to reading is well known, with such early presidents as Jefferson, Madison and the two Adamses. The liberal arts are still being displaced in our high schools and colleges by vocational courses: Teacher's College, Columbia University, notes with satisfaction that "driver-education is the fastest-growing program in the country's high schools," four out of ten of which now teach their pupils how to become "safer members of traffic society."
    But this aspect of the Triumph of the Fact is a holdover from the period, which ended roughly with the 1929 stock-market crash, when our capitalism was still in the stage of production. Here I am concerned with a kind of fact-fetishism that is characteristic of the age of consumption the economy has moved into. Compared to the straight-forward old utilitarian attitude toward Facts, this new approach is decadent, even a bit perverse. Instead of being interested only in useful information, we now tend to the opposite extreme, valuing Facts in themselves, collecting them as boys collect postage stamps, treating them, in short, as objects of consumption rather than as productive tools. This attitude, of course, is not wholly new, as Dr. Watson's horror at his friend's ignorance about the solar system shows; but we have carried it much further. A newspaper review, for example, of Cassell's Encyclopaedia of World Literature has this passage:
How useful it may be to have "Who's Who" information on Arabic, Cuban, Dalmatian, Flemish, Persian, Raeto-Romanisch, Sanskrit and Slovak writers is problematical. But that the information should be available somewhere seems like a good idea and here it is. 
We just like to have the little things around, like pets. Because the gathering of Facts is an important part of the scientific method, which with us has more prestige than the artistic, ethical, or philosophical modes of apprehending te ality, a confused but powerful notion has arisen that the mere accumulation of Facts is a sensible activity. The Well-informed Man is our Poet, our Sage, our Prophet.2
    Journalists like Walter Winchell and John Gunther have made careers out of exploiting the enormous American appetite for Facts. Every year a great range of books appear to soothe our itch for information: digests of ever thin anthropology to palm reading; popular encyclopedia'; and introductory guides to painting, music, philosophy, world history; manuals on birds, politics, economic theory, American history, baseball, polar exploration, what not. Such curiosity is not in itself bad, though often rather pointless, and the level of this kind of popularization is probably higher today than it has ever been before. What is bad is the devaluation of other modes of understanding if only because one hasn't time for everything. (The non-expandable attic isn't the brain, but rather time.) Books that are speculative rather than informative, that present their authors' own thinking and sensibility without any apparatus of scientific or journalistic research, sell badly in this country. There is a good market for the latest "Inside Russia" reportage, but when Knopf published Czeslaw Milosz' The Captive Mind, an original and brilliant analysis of the Communist mentality, it sold less than 3,000 copies. We want to know how, what, who, when, where, everything but why.
    Henry Luce has built a journalistic empire on this national weakness for being "well informed." Time attributes its present two-million circulation to a steady increase, since it first appeared in 1925, in what it calls "functional curiosity." Unlike the old-fashioned idle variety, this is "a kind of searching, hungry interest in what is happening, everywhere—born not of an idle desire to be entertained 0 or amused, but of a solid conviction that the news intimately and vitally affects the lives of everyone now, Functional curiosity grows as the number of educated people grows." The curiosity exists, but it is not functional since it doesn't help the individual function. A very small part of the mass of miscellaneous Facts offered in each week's issue of Time (or, for that matter, in the depressing quantity of newspapers and magazines visible on any large news-stand) is useful to the reader; they don't help him make more money, take some political or other action to advance his interests, or become a better person. About the only functional gain, (though the New York Times, in a recent advertising campaign proclaimed that reading it would help one to "be more interesting") the reader gets out of them is practice in reading. And even this is a doubtful advantage. Times's educated people read too many irrelevant words -irrelevant, that is to their personal interests, either narrow (practical) or broad (cultural). Imagine a similar person of, say the sixteenth century confronted with a copy of Time or the New York Times. He would take a whole day to master it, perhaps two, because he would be accustomed to take the time to think and even feel about what he read; and he could take the time because there was time, there being comparatively little to read in that golden age. (The very name of Luce's magazine is significant; Time, just because we don't have it.) Feeling a duty — or perhaps simply a compulsion- at least to glance over the printed matter that inundates us daily, we have developed of necessity a rapid, purely rational classifying habit of mind, something like the operations of a Mark IV calculating machine, making a great many small decisions every minute: read or not read? If read, then take in this, skim over that, and let the rest go by, This we do with the surface of our minds, since we "just don't have time" to bring the slow, cumbersome depths into play, to ruminate speculate, reflect, wonder, experience what the eye flits over. This gives a greatly extended coverage to our minds, but also makes them, compared to the kind of minds similar people had in past centuries, coarse, shallow, passive, and unoriginal. Such reading habits have produced a similar kind of reading matter, since, except for a few stubborn old-fashioned types the handcraftsmen who produce whatever is written today of quality, whether in poetry, fiction, scholarship or journalism—our writers produce work that is to be read quickly and then buried under the next day's spate of "news" or the next month's best seller; hastily slapped-together stuff which it would be foolish to waste much time or effort on either writing or reading. For those who, as readers or as writers, would get a little under the surface, the real problem of our day is how to escape being "well informed," how to resist the temptation to acquire too much information (never more seductive than when it appears in the chaste garb of duty), and how in general to elude the voracious demands on one's attention enough to think a little. The problem is as acute in the groves of Academe as in the profane world of journal-ism—one has only to consider the appalling mass of words available in any large college library on any topic of scholarly interest (that is, now that the "social sciences" have so proliferated, on any topic). The amount of verbal pomposity, elaboration of the obvious, repetition, trivia, low-grade statistics, tedious factification, drudging recapitulations of the half comprehended, and generally inane and laborious junk that one encounters suggests that the thinkers of earlier ages had one decisive advantage over those of today: they could draw on very little research.
    If the kind of curiosity Time exploits is not functional, neither is it exactly "idle" (which implies a kind of leisurely enjoyment). It is, rather, a nervous habit. As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren't using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren't thinking. This sort of mental indulgence—most of the daily papers should also be included—is considered a sensible use of time, as against "wasting" it on movies or detective stories. Only the honorific status of science can explain why the enjoyment of trivial and debased art products is looked down on while acquiring data in similarly trivial and debased forms is thought admirable.

A friend of mine complained to her eight-year-old child's teacher that fairy tales, myths, and other kinds of imaginative literature had been almost eliminated from the curriculum in favor of handbooks of information. "But children want to know how things work," she was told. "They aren't really satisfied by escape books." Similarly when I asked why my fourteen-year-old son and his classmates were learning a great deal about the natural resources of Latin America but nothing about ancient history or Greek literature, I was told that Latin America is "closer to them" than Homer. I venture to doubt both these explanations. The books I read in my childhood were, with the important exception of The Book of Knowledge (and even that had much art and literature in it), almost all works of the imagination, from Grimm's Fairy Tales to the Rover Boys. Today the informative genre is dominant. A recent very successful series, for example, is called "First Books" and presents a fact-crammed First Book on practically everything: ballet and bees, chess and electricity, puppets and presidents, space travel and snakes, trains, trees, trucks—even, God save us, a First Book of Negroes. There are three or four extremely popular series of biographies of famous Americans—and also of less famous ones, since the demand seems inexhaustible and there is a limit to rewrites on Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia. In one recent year, three different firms published children's biographies of a minor Indian chief named Cohees, doubtless on the theory that being (a) real and (b) American, Chief Cohees is "closer" to our children than Achilles or King Arthur.
    Speaking on "Mass Information or Mass Entertainment," Dr. George Gallup, a high priest of research, expressed a point of view common among serious-minded, public-spirited Americans:
One of the real threats to America's first place in the world is a citizenery which daily elects to be entertained and not in-formed ...The present lack of interest in the information-type show is shocking. The total number of hours devoted to just two shows, I Love Lucy and Show of Shows, is greater than the hours spent on all information or educational shows put to-gether ... In the entire history of radio, not one serious educational show has ever reached top rating, and most programs of this type have such small audiences that they are kept on the air solely for prestige ...3

The newspaper itself has had to make concessions. Within the last two decades, the number of comic strips printed daily and Sunday has increased by many times, and . . . more adults read the most popular comics on a given clay than read the most important news story on the first page .. . In a recent study of metropolitan newspapers, it was found that the average reader spends less than four minutes a day on the important news. He spends ten times as much on sports, local gossips, and the service and entertainment features.
Although we have the highest level of formal education in the world, fewer people buy and read books in this nation than in any other modern democracy. The typical Englishman with far less education reads nearly three times as many books; if he leaves school at fourteen, he reads as many books per year as our college graduates.
Public-spirited, serious-minded—yes—this indictment, delivered at a peculiarly American Ritual of The Fact: the ceremonies at the University of Iowa several years ago, incident to the burying of a "time capsule," a big metal container packed with typical books, newspapers, and other artifacts of our culture, so that future archaeologists will have no trouble assembling The Facts about American twentieth-century civilization. But there are subtleties to the question of Information and Entertainment that are perhaps not dreamed of in the Gallup Poll. That almost all the Entertainment on radio and TV is of poor quality is true, but is the Information much better? Are the dynamic "news commentators" superior to the hopped-up comedians? Are the interviews with senators, the panel discussions that worry some vast problem for twenty-five minutes, the once-over-lightly travelogues-cum-statistics on The Communist Problem in Asia—are these really more "serious" and "cultural" than the "Ed Sullivan Show"? Furthermore, there is, though Dr. Gallup forgets to note it, good Entertainment as well as the cheap kind. The works of Homer, Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are Entertainment, in the Doctor's categorizing —they are certainly not Information. The fault would seem to lie not in the predominance of one genre over the other, but in the low level of both. Finally, may there not be a compensatory relation between In-formation and Entertainment as practiced in our mass culture, the former being so aridly factual, the latter so tropical, lush, unrestrained? Kitsch and Know-How, soap opera and quiz show—neither of these polar extremes provides the temperate climate in which mind and feelings can flourish; one extreme is the craved antidote to the other, each calls its opposite number into being. As the frontiers-man escapes from the excessive factuality of his life, preoccupied with food and shelter, by occasional debauches of raw alcohol, raw sex, raw sentiment (the tear-jerking ballad about Home and Mother being a cultural bender), so we shuttle from extreme practicality to extreme frivolity, from the hard glare of the prosaic to the inchoate mists of daydreaming, either obsessing ourselves with Facts or compulsively escaping from them.

One explanation of our passion for sports, as contrasted with our apathy toward arts and letters, may be that the quality of performance in sports can be determined statistically. It was a Fact, at the moment this essay was written, that Mickey Mantle of the Yankees had a higher batting average than Ken Boyer of the Cardinals—one that could easily have been proved by turning to the figures, which were .388 and .343 respectively—but it is impossible to prove that William Faulkner has a higher batting average than, say, J. P. Marquand. An umpire, like a scientist, deals with measurable phenomena according to generally accepted rules, but the critic works with standards peculiar to himself, although they somehow correspond to standards each of his readers has individually developed. From the purely factual-scientific point of view, the wonder is not that there is so much disagreement in aesthetic matters but that there should be any agreement at all. Agreement is possible, however, be-cause, while Faulkner's superiority over Marquand cannot be proved, it can be demonstrated. This is a different operation involving an appeal—by reason, analysis, illustration, and rhetoric—to cultural values which critic and reader have in common, values no more susceptible of scientific statement than are the moral values-in-common to which Jesus appealed but which, for all that, exist as vividly and definitely as do mercy, humility, and love.

In short, arguments about sports performances can be settled à l'Ariméricaine by an appeal to The Facts, since quality can be measured by quantity. This is very reassuring and explains why we take sports seriously, art not. Although, as I have already observed, any stock boy—or any vice-president-in-charge-of-production—knows the batting averages of dozens of ballplayers, half our high-school graduates and a quarter of our college graduates did not read a single book in 1955. And 39 per cent of the college graduates, asked to name the authors of twelve famous works—Leaves of Grass, Gulliver's Travels, The Origin of Species, etc.—could not name more than three. (Time, May 7, 5956, reporting a Gallup poll). For sophisticated literary criticism one must go to the "little" magazines, but for the same thing in sports one merely opens up the daily paper, or turns to the Luce weekly Sports Illustrated, whose savants analyze Ben Hogan's technique with the scholarship (is he in the Jones tradition? the Hagen canon? or was he influenced by the Sarazen school?) and the subtle discriminations (his backswing is perhaps excessive but his putting is classically restrained) of R. P. Blackmur on Henry Adams.4 These speculations are reinforced by the kind of interest Americans have in sports. Not only are we, as has often been noted, spectators rather than participants, but most of the time we aren't even spectators. Every morning we "follow" sports in the newspapers, scanning the reports—and statistiCs—on games we have not seen with the nervous avidity of a stockbroker reading the ticker. But while the broker's interest in The Facts is personal and practical. since his living depends on them. the sports mania is an abstraCt passion. unrelated to personal interest and exercised for the most part not even as a spectator. but as a reader. My youngest son. at eleven. on some minor clash at the breakfast table. suddenly and mysteriously burst into tears: I found later that he had just read in the morning paper that the New York Rangers had lost a crucial hockey game.

It is their respect for 'The Facts that makes most Americans so touchingly willing to give information to anyone who asks them for it. \V’e take easily to being profiled. galluped. kinseyed, luced, and other-wise made the object of journalistic or scientific curiosity. With amazing docility, we tell the voice on the phone what TV program we are looking at (so that advertisers can plan their strategy for extracting $53 from us). answer impertinent questions from reporters (whose papers then sell the answers back to us), co-operate on elaborate and boring questionnaires administered by sociologists (so they can get their. not our. associate professorships). and voluntarily appear as stooges on broadcast shows which bare the most intimate details of. our lives or—if we miss out on a Fact question—put us through stunts as if we were laboratory animals in the grip of a mad scientist. In the last instance there is, of course, “something in it" for us. but the prizes seem not worth the humiliation. and I suspect are often more of an excuse than a motive; i.e.. that the participant thinks of himself objectively—as an object, a Fact—and not subjectively—in value-terms like pride. honor. or even vanity—and so either welcomes or doesn't mind the public exposure of his Factuality; but that he senses there is something monstrous in this detachment and is glad to conceal it by affecting greed. a base motive but at least a subjective one.
    In the thirty years I have been asking people questions as a journalist, I have often wondered why almost no one refuses to give an interview, even though, in many cases, there is more to be lost than gained by so doing. There are some obvious reasons for this—vanity, the American illusion that publicity is always in some vague way to one’s advantage, and the pleasure most people take in hearing themselves talk, especially when the listener is professionally sympathetic and informed. A less obvious reason perhaps is that the gathering of data by journalists has come to be accepted as a normal and indeed praiseworthy practice, and people seem to feel it their duty to “co-operate.” If the story is about themselves, they take the line they “have nothing to hide,” they “stand on the record,” and insist they “just want to give you the facts and let you decide.” In reality, they often have plenty to hide, but it would be a cynical and untypical American who would admit this even to himself.
    These assumptions—that it is virtuous to give information and somehow disreputable to refuse to—would arise only in a highly scientized culture. Commenting on David Riesman’s complaint about the difficulty of “drawing a portrait of the autonomous man in a society dependent on other-direction,” Paul Goodman has acutely observed: “It does not strike Professor Riesman that his scientific difficulty might lie in the questionnaire form he employs. For why would a free self-regulating person choose to submit to the impertinent questions of a mere theorist, rather than laugh at him, or pat his head, or be Socratically ignorant and turn the questioning the other way, or maybe weep like Heraclitus? If the sociologist seriously has need, on some practical issue, of the opinions and assistance of a free man, then obviously he must come, himself committed to an active position, and argue, reason, implore; risking getting rejected, getting a black eye, or getting more involved than he bargained for.” (Resistance, December 1949.) The great majority of Americans, of course, are “other-directed” and so give Riesman no trouble; answering questionnaires is a ritual they delight to perform.
    Naturally, our government agencies go in for questionnaires, and on a scale which amazes Europeans, used though they are to bureaucracy. One of the biggest post-Hitler best sellers in Germany was Ernst von Salomon’s Der Fragebogen (The Questionnaire), an autobiography written in the form of answers to the stupefyingly complex set of questions by which the American authorities tried—and failed—to decide who had “really” been a Nazi. Refugees wishing to flee to the land of liberty must be able to supply an enormous mass of personal data, including every address they have had for the past twenty-five years. The inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty should be revised: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, provided they have satisfactorily filled out forms 3584-A through 3597-Q.”


Our popular fiction is curiously affected by our mania for information. We are fascinated by the lingo, the folkways, the techniques peculiar to a profession or a social group, and we want to get the inside dope on the way of life of a telephone linesman, a Renaissance nobleman, a professional game hunter in Africa. The charms of many a best-selling historical novel are not all to be found inside the heroine’s bodice. The late Samuel Shellabarger, for example, who made a small fortune turning out this kind of merchandise, had no success until he spent three years “getting up” the background for a heavily documented piece of nonsense called Captain from Castile. This was followed by three more erudite best sellers entitled Prince of Foxes (the author’s clever name for Machiavelli), The King’s Cavalier, and Lord Vanity; and Dr. Shellabarger—he was, fittingly, a professor of English—was at work writing, or rather researching, a fifth when he died in 1954. An obituary noted that he “did painstaking background research for his historical swashbucklers, studying the literature, the customs, and the other externals of the period. ‘I suppose I am a fool,’ he once said, ‘but if I have a character going from one side of the city to another, I want to know what he sees and hears.’” What he thinks and feels might also have been interesting, though probably not in this particular instance.
    In the art workshops of the Renaissance, the figures in the foreground were done by the master, while the apprentices filled in the background, a sensible division of labor which has been inverted by the fiction hacks of today, who work up the background with great care and botch in a few lay figures to carry the story. The same process may be observed in the evolution of The New Yorker profiles, which began thirty years ago as brief studies in personality and have grown steadily more encumbered with documentation, until often the reader feels he has learned everything about the subject except what kind of a person he is. Or in the Luce magazines’ obsession with factual trivia—a huge and expensive research department produces a weekly warehouseful of certified, pasteurized, 100 per cent double-checked Facts, and everything is accurate about any given article except its main points. Or in Hollywood, which gives us miracles in “authenticity” of costume and furniture, all verified by experts, but doesn’t bother about the authenticity of the human beings who wear the costumes and sit on the period chairs, reversing Marianne Moore’s famous description of the poet as one who creates “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” (In Hollywood, the gardens are real but the toads are synthetic and all of them are named Natalie Wood.)
    A case in point is the best-selling novel, Andersonville, a sprawling compost heap of historical research piled up by MacKinlay Kantor, one of our most diligent and successful literary artisans. Or cf., the typical Saturday Evening Post story. In one specimen, two lovers converse as follows:

“Pop won’t admit it,” said Maggie, “but he’s going to lose his shirt. He was low bidder on a job of building a concrete flume across Arroyo Diablo. That’s on the desert, about a hundred miles east of here.”
    “Pop’s been low bidder on every job he’s built,” Dugan said. “That’s how contractors get work…”
    “The bolts at the corners of the timber collars that locked the forms together sheared in two,” Maggie said.
    “That’s important,” Dugan declared. “A bolt that size wouldn’t shear under a pressure of less than 1000 pounds. The timbers would have split first.” [to which Maggie, in love’s eternal duet:] “Only these bolts didn’t get sheared in a materials-testing lab. The real collar bolts were removed and the sheared ones hammered back in place top and bottom.”
After seven thousand words of this, one has learned a good deal about the contracting business and about the tensile qualities of timber bolts but not much about Maggie and Dugan. This is reasonable (if not sensible), since the lovers are only stooges for the timber bolts. Another idyll, “No Room for Love,” turns on the echt-American theme, should a boy marry his girl or his car, and produces yards of dialogue like:
“What do you do when the head bolts are frozen?”
    “You tap them easy with a hammer. You don’t want to crack the head. Then you put a long-handled wrench…”
    “You got rust on your cylinder block. Face it.”
    “For Pete’s sake, listen, will you? Krucek’s got a used ’41 block in there, never been rebored.”
    “You got a ’39 car. It’ll mean new pistons, and you got a pitted camshaft.”
Fairness compels me to note that this dialogue is not between the lovers, and also that the car loses out: “For once in his life, Charlie was more interested in a girl than a motor.”

The Triumph of the Fact in modern fiction is, of course, by no means limited either to America or to mass culture. It is one of the things that distinguish the nineteenth-century novel, and is obviously connected with the industrial revolution and the rising prestige of science. Balzac and Zola aspired to nothing less than to re-create, in all their minute factual details, the different occupational and class worlds of their times; the former succeeded better than the latter precisely because he relied on inventive passion rather than scientific method—as Joyce succeeded in Ulysses, for the same reason. Flaubert was an especially interesting case, from this point of view, split as he was between naturalism and symbolism, science and art-for-art’s-sake. In Madame Bovary the conflicting drives are harmonized into a masterpiece, but the synthesis breaks down in Salammbô and Bouvard and Pécuchet. Flaubert could escape the prosaic nineteenth century by turning to ancient Carthage, but the naturalistic technique, which he could not escape, produces a dead, cold, and—in the scenes of battle and torture—even repulsive effect. Bouvard and Pécuchet, which is meant to satirize the bourgeois mania for accumulation and for technical knowledge, becomes itself a monstrous example of the thing he is attacking, because of the author’s own obsession with technique (style) and accumulation (naturalistic detail).
    The same strain runs through our own literature. It appears in Poe’s fascination with solving cryptograms and perpetrating hoaxes, his invention of the detective story—the only literary genre whose point is the discovery, by scientific method, of a Fact (whodunit?)—and especially in his preoccupation with technique. His celebrated account, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” of how he wrote The Raven reads like a cookbook:
Holding in view that a poem should be short enough to be read in one session as well as have that degree of excitement which I deem not above the popular, while not below the critical taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem—a length of about 100 lines. It is, in fact, 108…Regarding, then, Beauty as my province [he has given a page of reasons] my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation—and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness…The length, the province, and the tone being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a keynote in the construction of the poem. [He decides on a refrain whose application should be continually varied, and which therefore must be brief, ideally one word.] The question now arose as to the character of the word which was to form the close of each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt; and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant…It would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word, “Nevermore…” The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of this one word…etc.
Whether Poe actually used this recipe in composing The Raven is doubtful—I’m inclined to agree with Marie Bonaparte that he didn’t, though for common-sense rather than Freudian reasons—but only a nineteenth-century writer would have gone in for this particular kind of mystification.

In their descriptions of the techniques of whaling and of river piloting, large sections of Moby-Dick and of Life on the Mississippi read like Fortune articles written by geniuses, if this may be conceived. (It almost happened with James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) The whole middle section of Moby-Dick is a strange mixture of story and encyclopedia, with chapters on such topics as “The Line” (what kind is used, how it is coiled in the tubs, etc.), “The Crotch” (“a notched stick of a peculiar form, some two feet in length, which is perpendicularly inserted into the starboard gunwhale near the bow, for the purpose of furnishing a rest for the wooden extremity of the harpoon”), “The Blanket” (all about the whale’s skin), “The Head,” “The Tail,” and “Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton.” Even in the climactic last chapters, when the quarry is at last engaged, Melville adds a typical footnote: “This motion is peculiar to the sperm whale. It receives its designation (pitchpoling) from its being likened to that preliminary up and down poise of the whale-lance….” Moby-Dick is a happy Triumph of the Fact: from an intense concern with the exact “way it is,” a concentration on the minutiae of whaling that reminds one of a mystic centering his whole consciousness on one object, Melville draws a noble poetry. Whitman also draws poetry, of a less noble kind, from Facts; a good deal of Leaves of Grass reads like, in Emerson’s phrase “an auctioneer’s inventory of a warehouse”:
The paving-man leans on his two-handed rammer, the reporter’s lead flies swiftly over the note-book, the sign-painter is lettering with blue and gold… 
The house-builder at work in the cities or anywhere,
The preparatory jointing, squaring, sawing, mortising,
The hoist-up of beams, the push of them in their places, laying them regular,
Setting the studs by their tenons in the mortises according as they were prepared…
Many of his poems, as Salut au Monde, try magically to swallow the world by naming everything in it; to incorporate it all in Walt, democratically embracing everything and everybody, repeatedly proclaiming that one Fact is just as good as another Fact, that it is justified by merely existing (in Walt’s cosmic, omnivorous belly).
I do not call one greater and one smaller,
That which fills its period and its place is equal to any. 
I am large, I contain multitudes.
Even the corpse is on his visiting list:
I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me.
Where Melville contemplated his Facts singly, turning each over in his mind until it had yielded up both its own concrete quality and its meaning as symbol, Whitman was too often the greedy child, grabbing Facts in double handfuls and dropping them quickly to pick up bright new ones:
Beginning my studies, the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact consciousness…
I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs
The quality that all these celebrations of the Fact, from the Satevepost to Moby-Dick, have in common is knowingness. “This is the way it is.” One could add The Red Badge of Courage, a tour de force of the Knowing (“You think a battle is a planned, orderly affair, but it’s really like this”) which has been overrated; Stendhal and Tolstoy did it first—and better, raising the knowing to the higher plane of understanding. There is Hemingway: “This is how you go about shooting water buffalo. You take a .44 Borley-Thompson express rifle with supercharger and you…” Or Fitzgerald: “Let me tell you just what it is like to be very rich in the United States in 1924.” Or their epigone, John O’Hara, who, lacking their passion and their sense of literary form, depends wholly on verisimilitude, which he gets by a magisterial “placing” of each character at his or her precise social level by means of carefully discriminated details, so that in O’Hara’s world (though possibly not in the real one) a Yale man gets drunk in a wholly different way from a Penn State man. Knowingness was the stock-in-trade of Rudyard Kipling, the only widely popular writer since Dickens who can be called a genius (though of course a much lesser one). The note is struck in the opening sentences of most of his Plain Tales from the Hills, as:
Far back in the seventies, before they built any public offices at Simla and the broad road round Jakko lived in a pigeon-hole in the P.W.D. hovels, her parents made Miss Gaurey marry Colonel Schreiderling.
Or:
There are more ways of running a horse to suit your book than pulling his head off in the straight. Some men forget this. Understand clearly that all racing is rotten—as everything connected with losing money must be. In India, in addition to its inherent rottenness, it has the merit of being two-thirds sham…Every one knows every one else far too well for business purposes. How on earth can you rack and harry and post a man for his losings, when you are fond of his wife, and live in the same Station with him?…If a man wants your money he ought to ask for it…instead of juggling about the country with an Australian larrikin, a “brumby,” with as much breed as the boy, a brace of chumars in gold-laced caps, three or four ekka-ponies with hogged manes, and a switch-tailed demirep of a mare called Arab because she has a kink in her flag. Racing lead to the shroff quicker than anything else.
Being Kitsch—though of the highest grade—Kipling’s Plain Tales exploit the realistic method rather than use it. His is a bright, dramatic, easily assimilated kind of naturalism, so entertaining that it brings out more clearly than more serious works could one reason for our thirst for the Facts: namely, that the modern world being vast, abstract, and hard to understand, there is something reassuring about a hard, definite Fact. Because we can understand the parts—the Facts—we have the comforting illusion that we understand the whole. And Kipling enhances the appeal of his Facts by limiting them to a very small world. All the folklore, the customs, the gossip, the social color and feel of British India in the late nineteenth century are there, handled with the affection and the untroubled mastery of the village historian. He invites us right inside, and we feel at home, as we cannot in the uncomfortably complex real world. The peculiar charm of Kipling’s India, like Gatsby’s Long Island or D’Artagnan’s France or Dickens’ London, lies partly in the knowingness with which it is presented.

May not much of Senator McCarthy’s puzzling success—how did he get so far on so little?—be laid to the mingled boredom and fear the American feels vis-à-vis world politics, the boredom being caused by inability to understand and the fear by inability to act. Like Kipling, McCarthy created a small, neat, understandable world—cops and robbers, to be continued in our next headlines—in which the issues were reduced to personalities, the shadings eliminated in favor of melodramatic black and white. It was a world the newspaper reader could understand and where he could see Results. That it was also as fictional a world as Kipling’s—more so, in fact, since Kipling knew a lot about British India while McCarthy never bothered to find out anything about American Communism—was irrelevant. The Senator was a good enough dramaturge to persuade the public to believe in his provincial little world, and his daily revelations had the same interest that village gossip does. After all, since when did gossip have to be true to be interesting?
    In other ways, also, McCarthy’s years of power—surely one of the strangest episodes in our political history, which suffers from no paucity of the cockeyed—represented a melancholy Triumph of the Fact.
    For half a century, what Theodore Roosevelt contemptuously dubbed “muckraking”—after Bunyan’s Man with a Muck-Rake—was a monopoly of the liberals. The reformers’ ritual began, and often successfully ended, with Getting The Facts. Popular magazines flourished on the formula, notably McClure’s with series like Lincoln Steffens’ “The Shame of the Cities” and Ida Tarbell’s “History of the Standard Oil Company.” Brandeis invented the “sociological brief,” which substituted socio-economic data for legal reasoning—in a ratio of 50 to 1 in his famous 1907 brief in defense of the Oregon Ten-Hour Law. “There is no logic that is properly applicable to these laws except the logic of facts,” he explained, echoing Tom Paine’s “Facts are more powerful than arguments.” But the reformers’ chief instrument was the legislative investigating committee, from the Hughes insurance investigation (1905) and the Pujo Committee’s hearings on the “Money Trust” (1913) through the Nye munitions investigation (1933)[5] to the LaFollette civil-liberties hearings (1937) and the massive economic researches of the Senate’s “Monopoly Committee” (1938–40). The assumption was that The Facts would favor civic virtue, and indeed they generally did. Malefactors trembled when Al Smith, the reform governor of New York, rasped “Let’s look at the record!”
    The junior Senator from Wisconsin turned Let’s-Get-the-Facts in the opposite direction. He was not the first to try, of course. In the ’twenties and ’thirties, the Lusk and Fish committees of the New York legislature, and the “Dies Committee” (on Un-American Activities) of Congress, among others, investigated Communism; but their chairmen lacked McCarthy’s flair for melodrama. More important, the times were not ripe: it was not until the late ’forties, when Soviet Russia first emerged as a powerful and dangerous enemy, that the national temper grew edgy enough for the rise of a McCarthy.
    The puzzling thing about McCarthy was that he had no ideology, no program, not even any prejudices. He was not anti-labor, anti-Negro, anti-Semitic, anti-Wall Street, or anti-Catholic, to name the phobias most exploited by previous demagogues. He never went in for patriotic spellbinding, or indeed for oratory at all, his style being low-keyed and legalistic. Although he was often called a fascist and compared to Hitler, the parallel applied only to his methods. Not only was the historical situation hopeless for a radical change like fascism, the country being unprecedentedly prosperous, but McCarthy never showed any interest in reshaping society. Half confidence man, half ward politician, he was simply out for his own power and profit, and he took advantage of the nervousness about communism to gain these modest perquisites. The same opportunism which made him dangerous in a small way prevented him from being a more serious threat, since for such large historical operations as the subversion of a social order there is required—as the examples of Lenin and Hitler showed—a fanaticism which doesn’t shrink from commitment to programs which are often inopportune.
    The contrast in demagogic styles between Hitler and McCarthy is related to national traits—and foibles. Hitler exploited the German weakness for theory, for vast perspectives of world history, for extremely large and excessively general ideas; McCarthy flourished on the opposite weakness in Americans, their respect for the Facts. A Hitler speech began: “The revolution of the twentieth century will purge the Jewish taint from the cultural bloodstream of Europe!” A McCarthy speech began: “I hold in my hand a letter dated…” He was a district attorney, not a messiah.
    Each of the bold forays which put the Wisconsin condottiere on the front pages between 1949 and 1954 began with factual charges and collapsed when the facts did: the long guerilla campaign against the State Department; the denunciation of General Marshall as a traitor working for the Kremlin (set forth in a 60,000 word speech in the Senate, bursting with Facts, none of them relevant to the charge); the Voice of America circus; the Lattimore fiasco; and the final suicidal Pickett’s charge against the Army and the President. That the letter dated such-and-such almost always turned out to have slight connection with the point he was making (on one occasion it was a blank sheet of paper), that the Facts about the Communist conspiracy he presented with such drama invariably proved to be, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, simple lies—this cramped McCarthy’s style very little.[6] He had working for him our fact-fetishism, which means in practice that a boldly asserted lie or half-truth has the same effect on our minds as if it were true, since few of us have the knowledge, the critical faculties or even the mere time to discriminate between fact and fantasy.
    Furthermore, our press, in its typical American effort to avoid “editorializing”—that is, evaluating the news, or The Facts, in terms of some general criterion—considers any dramatic statement by a prominent person to be important “news” and, by journalistic reflex, puts it on the front page. (If it later turns out that the original Fact was untrue, this new Fact is also duly recorded, but on an inside page, so that the correction never has the force of the original non-Fact. Such are the complications of “just giving the news” without any un-American generalizing or evaluating; in real life, unfortunately, almost nothing is simple, not even The Facts.) A classic instance was the front-paging, several years ago, of a series of charges against Governor Warren of California, who was up before the Senate for confirmation as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The charges were serious indeed, but the following day they were exposed as the fabrications of a recent inmate of a mental hospital; despite their prima facie absurdity, they had been automatically treated as major news because the notoriously irresponsible Senator Langer had given them to the press over his name.
    In the case of McCarthy, the tragicomic situation prevailed for years that although The New York Times and most of the country’s other influential newspapers were editorially opposed to him, they played his game and, in the sacred name of reporting The Facts, gave him the front-page publicity on which his power fattened. (Thus when he “investigated” the scientists at Fort Monmouth, the Times solemnly printed his charges day after day on page one, and then, some weeks later, printed a series of feature articles of its own, demonstrating that the charges were without substance; a little checking in the first place might have evaluated the Monmouth “investigation” more realistically and relegated it to an inside page; but this, of course, would have been “editorializing.”) When McCarthy’s charisma evaporated after the TV public had had a chance to see him in action during the army hearings and after the Watkins Committee had reported unfavorably on his senatorial conduct, the press began running his exposés on the inside pages and he disappeared like a comic-opera Mephisto dropping through a trap door.

Significantly, the Communist issue in postwar America took the form not of a confrontation of principles or even of a propaganda battle, but rather of legalistic haggling over Facts. (McCarthy’s muckraking-in-reverse was simply the demagogue’s instinctive adaption to the Zeitgeist.) The Hiss trial, the Lattimore imbroglio, the prosecution under the Smith Act of the Communist Party leadership, all turned on questions of fact: Did Hiss turn over State Department documents to Chambers? Was Lattimore working with the comrades at the Institute of Pacific Relations? Were the Communist leaders conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the government by violence? In the simple old days, revolutionaries used the courts as forums: Trotsky’s ringing indictment of capitalism at his trial for leading the 1905 revolution, Debs’s similar courtroom behavior during the First World War. But Hiss and Lattimore insisted they had always been respectable to the point of tedium, and the Communist leaders, far from lecturing Judge Medina on the evils of capitalism, competed with the prosecution in avowals of devotion to Jeffersonian democracy. The post-Stalin degeneration of Communism into conspiratorial real-politik was in part responsible; cf., the widespread use of the Fifth Amendment to assert the right not to state one’s politics (the old-style radicals had insisted on the opposite right).[7] But there was also involved the American habit of reducing large issues to matters of Fact. What other nation would have spent so much time, money, and newsprint to arrive at definitive political biographies of so many of its citizens? (Consider one aspect of the federal government’s security checks alone: the amount of expensive man-hours devoted by earnest, clean-cut young FBI agents, all of them law-school graduates, to interviewing many thousands of citizens about the political and personal—sex and alcohol—pasts of many thousands of other citizens working for the government or aspiring to do so.) The evil effects of this obsession have been copiously exposed in the liberal press, and for the most part I agree, but there is also perhaps discernible a political virtue. Granted the criteria for “pro-Communism” were much too broad, still at least a serious attempt was made in each individual case to establish some kind of factual basis for judgment; whole classes of people were not condemned en masse.
    One of the most frightening aspects of the Moscow Trials was that both defendants and accusers seemed to have lost the ability to distinguish between a fact (the defendant committed this or that criminal act) and an inference (his political views were such that it was reasonable to suppose that he committed the act, or, if he didn’t, it was merely because he didn’t have a chance to, and so he was guilty because he was the sort of person from whose politics certain criminal acts “logically followed”). In Soviet Russia questions of fact are decided by appealing to general principles, just as it was in the Middle Ages—the wheel has come full circle again.
    I prefer our own naïve, unimaginative overvaluation of the Fact. It leads us, at least in form, to think of questions as having two sides. Thus a widely distributed monthly financed by a Texas millionaire of pronouncedly illiberal views is called Facts Forum and goes in for features like the one in the November, 1955, issue: “Who Is Right about the Fund for the Republic?” in which Commander Collins of the American Legion and President Robert M. Hutchins of the Fund for the Republic state their antithetical views at equal length. Or there is the example of Fulton Lewis, Jr., a virulently antiliberal radio commentator who used to attack the Fund for the Republic almost nightly. When the Fund bought time on the same network to ask listeners to write in for their annual report, Mr. Lewis commented (September 15, 1955): “Now this, I think, is a really excellent idea, and I want to co-operate with Mr. Hutchins in full. So let me urge you strongly to send for the annual report of the Fund for the Republic, 60 East Forty-second Street, New York City. In that way you can have before you this report and see the pretty words and grandiose language while I am explaining to you night by night what each item means and what is really going on.”
    Perhaps Mr. Lewis’ let’s-look-at-the-record, nothing-up-my-sleeves approach was hypocritical and demagogic. But hypocrisy is preferable to unashamed evil, if only because it puts some restraints on behavior; in the old saw about hypocrisy being the tribute that vice pays to virtue, everyone accents “vice”; but one might also emphasize “tribute.” As for demagogy, it seems to me good that we have a tradition that makes this kind of demagogy profitable. It is surely better to overvalue Facts than to deny their existence. There was something moving about Vice-President Nixon’s anguished cry to the Communist-led students in Lima when they stoned him during his 1958 Latin American tour: “Don’t you want to hear facts?” Attorney-General Kennedy took the same tack, more successfully, when he faced a noisy mob of Socialist students in Japan last winter.

Best of all, however, is to understand the nature of Facts and to treat them accordingly, neither with Russian contempt nor American awe. “A commodity,” Marx writes on the first page of Capital, “is a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” So is and does a Fact. The word comes from the Latin factum (a thing done, a deed) and is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony as opposed to what is merely inferred; a datum of experience as distinguished from the conclusions that may be based upon it.” Facts are thus the raw material from which general conclusions, or theories, may be inferred. But the process also runs the other way. The meaning of a Fact, indeed its very existence in a psychological sense, depends on the context in which it appears—depends, that is, on “the conclusions that may be based upon it.” A Fact by itself is useless, impotent, phantasmal, as weak and wavering as the shades of the dead that Ulysses met in the underworld. And as the shades became strong enough to speak only by drinking the blood from Ulysses’ sacrifices, so a Fact can acquire reality only by drinking the blood of theory, by becoming related to other Facts through some kind of assumption, hypothesis, generalization. Indeed, a Fact not thus fortified is usually too weak even to be perceived; as a rule, one pays attention only to data that fit into some general idea of things one already has.[8] “The facts speak for themselves,” we say, but this is just what they don’t do. Rather, they are like Swift’s Laputans who have to be roused to practical discourse by attendants touching their lips with inflated bladders. Here, the bladders are one’s assumptions.
    The meaninglessness of facts qua facts is shown in the opening scene of Dickens’ Hard Times where Mr. Gradgrind, the type of “hard-headed” Victorian bourgeois, tries to explain his doctrine to a classroom of children:
“Now,” says Mr. Gradgrind, “what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle upon which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!”
. . . . . 
Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind, “your definition of a horse.”
“Quadruped, Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth and twelve incisors. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
. . . . .
“Very well,” said this gentleman, briskly smiling, and folding his arms. “That’s a horse. Now let me ask you girls and boys, would you paper a room with representations of horses?”
After a pause, one half the children cried in chorus, “Yes, sir.”
Upon which the other half, seeing in the gentleman’s face that yes was wrong, cried out in a chorus, “No, sir!”—as the custom is, in these examinations.
“I’ll explain to you then,” said the gentleman after another and a dismal pause, “why you wouldn’t paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality? in fact? Do you?”
“Yes, sir!” from one half. “No, sir!” from the other.
“Of course No,” said the gentleman, with an indignant look at the wrong half. “Why, then, you are not to see anywhere what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste is only another name for Fact.”

Before Bitzer gives his factual picture, Mr. Gradgrind has asked Sissy Jupe to define a horse. She is unable to satisfy him although her father is a horse trainer and she has ridden and worked with horses all her life. This, indeed, is precisely why she cannot conceive of a horse in the Gradgrind-Bitzer manner. If facts take on meaning only from experience, the converse is also true: experience makes it impossible to reduce the thing experienced to abstract factuality.
    The above passage also suggests the difference between the practical approach to facts and the aesthetic. Half the children see nothing wrong in horses walking up and down a wall, since theirs is the innocent eye of the artist rather than the sophisticated (using the word in its older sense of corrupted) eye of the fact-fetishist.

A hunter looks at a wood in one way, an artist in another. The latter’s eye takes in every twig, branch, trunk, shadow, color, highlight, etc. The former’s eye also records all this data, but his mind rejects everything except the particular Fact (brown fur, speckled feathers) it is looking for. The hunter knows what he will see (or rather, what he hopes he will see) before he looks. Since the artist’s aim is to render the wood in itself and as a whole (he may do it by three lines, as in a Chinese landscape, or by a Dutch proliferation of detail) his problem is how to be conscious of everything. The hunter’s problem is just the reverse: to be conscious of only what he has decided, in advance, to see. The same distinction could be made between the way a Wordsworth looks at a field and the way a farmer looks at it.
    We Americans are hunters rather than artists, a practical race, narrow in our perceptions, men of action rather than of thought or feeling. Our chief contribution to philosophy is pragmatism (pragma is Greek for factum); technique rather than theory distinguishes our science;[9] our homes, our cities, our landscapes are designed for profit or practicality but not generally for beauty; we think it odd that a man should devote his life to writing poems but natural that he should devote it to inducing children to breakfast on Crunchies instead of Krispies; our scholars are strong on research, weak on interpreting the masses of data they collect; we say “That’s just a fact” and we mean not “That’s merely a fact” but rather “Because that is a fact, there is nothing more to be said.”
    This tropism toward the Fact deforms our thinking and impoverishes our humanity. “Theory” (Greek theoria) is literally a “looking at” and thence “contemplation, reflection, speculation.” Children are told: “You may look but you mustn’t touch,” that is, “You mustn’t change what you look at.” This would be good discipline for Americans, just to look at things once in a while without touching them, using them, converting them into means to achieve power, profit, or some other practical end. The artist’s vision, not the hunter’s.

---


[1] The atrocious prose style of most of our academic historians, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and even literary scholars is a case in point—cf. that three-volume Literary History of the United States, edited by Spiller, Thorp, Johnson, and Canby. The late Richard Chase wrote a memorable review of it in the winter, 1950, Sewanee Review.

[2] “This smooth and easy assimilation of fact, this air of over-all sophistication, is what Americans have learned more and more to admire in journalism, in business, in conversation….It is our national style, intellect-wise. A recent article in a liberal weekly on ‘The Mind of John F. Kennedy’ turns out to be an entirely admiring study of Kennedy’s range as an administrator. This vocational or psychological use of the word ‘mind’ is so typical of our time and place that it probably never occurred to the author to extend the word to cover ‘beliefs.’ Instead we are told that Kennedy’s ‘marshaling of related considerations’ defines Kennedy’s mind ‘as political in the most all-encompassing sense. The whole of politics, in other words, is to such a mind a seamless fabric in which a handshaking session with a delegation of women is an exercise directly related to hearing a report from a task force on Laos.’ And this ability to assimilate on the jump necessary quantities of fact, to get statements of a problem that carry ‘action consequences’—this is what we have come to value as the quality of intellectual all-roundedness or savvy.”

So Alfred Kazin in a most perceptive article, “The President and Other Intellectuals,” reprinted in his recent collection, Contemporaries. Let me add that it is precisely Kennedy’s ability to treat a handshaking session on the same plane as a foreign-policy decision that bothers me most about his presidential style. The decision to invade Cuba by proxy was probably taken in the same spirit; the pragmatic failure has been copiously explored by the New Frontiersmen but I have seen no expression of awareness that there was also a moral issue involved. Morality is qualitative, after all, not quantitative, that is, not factual.

[3] Fact-fetishism is to some extent a class phenomenon, most pronounced among our college graduates, the white-collar “intellectariat” of which the solid core is Time’s two million readers. As Dr. Gallup’s figures here show, the mass audience, though as good Americans they love, honor, and obey The Facts, choose entertainment over information when it comes to making use of their leisure.

[4] Luce had the idea, ten years ago, of starting a highbrow cultural magazine, but after dropping a hundred thousand or so and drawing up, via his then advisor for the arts, Mr. William S. Schlamm, a list of “candidates for possibly sustained contact” that included Mr. Blackmur as well as Auden, Eliot, Orwell and Trilling, he gave it up. Perhaps he realized the hopeless insubstantiality of the field. Or perhaps he decided to merge the unborn magazine into Sports Illustrated, which has printed articles by James T. Farrell on baseball and William Faulkner on ice hockey and by now may well be negotiating with Mr. Auden for a few observations on Pancho Gonzales’ net style.

[5] Whose “merchants of death” theme was so infectious that even Fortune caught it, producing a muckraking feature of its own, “Arms and the Men,” 9,650 of whose 10,000 words were devoted to the infamies of foreign munition-makers, leaving just 350 for the DuPonts and other native sinners.

[6] Nor did it bother Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, two Hearst journalists who during the McCarthy Era turned out a series of sensational best sellers—New York Confidential, Chicago Confidential, U.S.A. Confidential, etc. These were fact-crammed guidebooks to the seamier side of American life which differed in two ways from the old exposés of the muckrakers: the Facts were marshaled against the underdog (Negro, radical, Jew, labor union) and—they were often not Facts.

[7] I do not mean to imply that all, or even most, of those who “took the Fifth” did so to avoid stating past or present Communist loyalties. Some sincerely believed that inquiries into political allegiances are contrary to democratic principles; more were reluctant to admit party membership in the past lest they be forced to tell on old friends or associates. One can sympathize with such motives and yet admire more the behavior of our pacifists—the heirs in this respect of Debs and Trotsky—who are willing, indeed eager to “bear witness” publicly to their dissident beliefs.

8] Cf., the Ames experiments, at Dartmouth, in visual perception. In one of the simpler demonstrations, a playing card of usual size is placed some distance in front of one twice as big. The spectator almost always sees the more distant card as the nearer one, since what he “sees” is determined by two assumptions based on past experience: that playing cards are always the same size (hence he assumes the bigger card to be this size) and that of two objects the same size, the one that appears to be smaller will be the more distant one. Thus his already-held theory about the size of playing cards prevents him from accepting the Fact reported by his optic nerve.

[9] “In the United States,” Dr. Theodore Von Karman, a leading authority on aerodynamics, recently told the press, “we concentrate on know-how. In Europe, we work on think-how.”

No comments: