An encounter with one of the great Sixties "muses of asperity"by Jonathan Derbyshire / August 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
Sam Tanenhaus has written a piece for the September issue of Prospect (out on Thursday) about Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003), whom he describes as having been “for half a century the most vibrant, at times it seemed the only, genuine intellectual in American politics.” The piece is, among other things, an anatomy of the “curious mix of passivity and agitation” that characterises politics in the US—Moynihan, Tanenhaus says, “towers before us [as] a vanished, much-missed type,” a visionary of a distinctively American kind. Today, neither of America’s “two damaged parties,” he argues, is capable of “marshalling a sustained idea, in its programmes and policies and in its arguments or rhetoric, of what might constitute a better or more just society…”
As for the press corps that covers those parties, they’re guilty, in Tanenhaus’s view, of gussying up reporting as melodrama. He quotes the historian Richard Hofstadter’s description of politics in the media age as “an arena into which private emotions and personal problems can be readily projected.” The only difference between today and 1954, when Hofstadter was writing, is that now “the principal dynamic is no longer the familiar one of leader and led. It is the voyeuristic bond that unites ‘content provider’ and ‘user’.”
Tanenhaus doesn’t say in this piece who he thinks the journalistic equivalent of Moynihan might have been, the “much-missed type” whose example throws a decidedly unflattering light on the work of the reporters toiling away on Capitol Hill today. But as it happens, I had an exchange with him on Twitter a couple of months ago (after he’d written this exemplary profile of Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio for Prospect) in which we discussed just that question. “Where is Norman Mailer when we need him,” Tanenhaus tweeted. “His ‘Miami/Siege of Chicago’ (68 conventions) still the best.”
I told him I shared his admiration for Mailer’s feverishly expansive accounts of the coronation of Richard Nixon and the police riot at the 1968 Democratic convention, and that I’d also been reading After the Tall Timber, the recently published collected essays of Renata Adler, who, like Mailer, had chronicled the violent convulsions of American politics in the late Sixties and early Seventies. “Needed,” Tanenhaus tweeted back, “essay on the three great 60s muses of asperity: [Joan] Didion, Adler, [Arlene] Croce. Unmatched then and now.”
“Asperity” seemed to me a good word for the quality of exacting rigour that marks out Adler’s best pieces from that period—a 1966 report on a black power march in Mississipi, for example, or “Radicalism in Debacle,” her account for the New Yorker of a calamitously fissiparous gathering of the American New Left in 1967. (One of the highlights of the latter is an exhaustive typology-cum-anthropology of the New Left’s many and varied tribes—the “moral revolutionaries,” the “therapeutic-activity revolutionaries,” the “aesthetic-analogy revolutionaries” and the “historical, after-them-us syllogist revolutionaries”; not to mention the “local criminals” who went about their business expropriating the property of radicals who’d mistaken them for agents of revolutionary change.) Shortly after that exchange with Tanenhaus, I spoke to Adler on the phone from her home in Connecticut. I asked her if “asperity” was a quality she recognised in her work or one that she prized.
“I’ve been thinking [recently] of Ivy-Compton Burnett,” Adler said. “When I first came to the New Yorker, I was given a book of hers to review… I hadn’t realised all these years that she really had a… great effect on me. If by asperity one means it’s as tight as that… She won’t stray.”
Adler herself has never strayed from a certain ideal of truthfulness—she told me she didn’t like the “New Journalism” of Tom Wolfe et al because “there didn’t seem to be much truth in it”—which was closely related to a highly evolved sense of writerly decorum. A good example of that is to be found in “House Critic,” her celebrated dismantling of the reputation of the film critic Pauline Kael (not a “takedown” or hatchet-job, she insisted; “a hatchet-job is something different—you’re misrepresenting what’s there”). It’s the “redundant, unfunny naughtiness” of Kael’s prose that Adler seems to have found especially alienating. She writes in that piece that Kael “embodies something appalling and widespread in the culture.” What had she meant, exactly? Glibness? Superficiality? A sort of spurious vitality?
“Yes, it’s to do with what constitutes vitality and honesty. You get fake vitality. You get fake honesty. You get fake frankness. It makes conversation impossible. It makes it almost irrelevant what a fact is. Or what is an argument or is not an argument. You fling these words that seem powerful to people… You fling them around and it doesn’t illuminate anything.”
This is echt-Adler. In his preface to After the Tall Timber, the journalist Michael Wolff writes that her “politics, to the extent that she has any proscribed [sic] position, has to do with language,” which I think gets at something important. Take the way she describes the “travesty of radical politics” that she saw at work at the National New Politics Convention in 1967, the seductions of the New Left’s “apocalyptic vision”: “When words are used so cheaply,” she writes, “experience becomes unhinged from consequences and all sense of personal responsibility.”
Adler is also clear-eyed enough to know that faced with a choice between the politics of marginal gains—the “strong and slow boring of hard boards,” as Max Weber put it—and politics as a “violence-enamoured form of play,” people will more often than not choose the latter. In the closing paragraph of “Radicalism in Debacle” she writes: “There just may be no romance in moving forward at the pace that keeping two ideas in one’s head at the same time implies.” Some British readers may conclude that the current political scene in this country rather confirms the truth of that remark.
Renata Adler’s “After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction” is published by New York Review Books (£20)