Overweening Generalist

Monday, August 20, 2012

Aldous Huxley, H.L. Mencken and My (Our?) Consumption of Trash

Recently my brilliant blogging colleague Eric Wagner answered a query I made about reading difficult books. At the end of his response he noted that both James Joyce and Ezra Pound lived through a period in which information doubled, and this may account, in part, for why both men wrote such crazy-difficult books, still avant in play with forms and a level of abstruseness. The idea of information doubling was taken from Robert Anton Wilson, who called the apparent logarithmic increase of information flow-through in a society the "Jumping Jesus Phenomenon."

                                   Aldous Huxley, my intellectual main squeeze until I 
                                   discovered Robert Anton Wilson. I still love Aldous.
                                   Aldous? I can't quit you, man!

When I read his response it reminded me of something Aldous Huxley wrote, in 1934. Aldous is still in his worried-angry-aristocratic-mandarin phase in the quote ahead, two years after publishing Brave New World, and vexed over humanity's prospects. A pacifist of astounding intellectual gifts, he navigated his way through two world wars almost clinically blind (yet publishing terrific art criticism!), writing an astonishing array of essays and novels of ideas, landing in Hollywood to avoid the bombing in Europe, and eventually becoming one of the most interesting mystics in history and an early experimenter in psychedelic drugs:

"Advances in technology have led...to vulgarity....Process reproduction and the rotary press have made possible the indefinite multiplication of writing and pictures. Universal education and relatively high wages have created an enormous public who know how to read and can afford to buy reading and pictorial matter. A great industry has been called into existence in order to supply these commodities. Now, artistic talent is a very rare phenomenon; whence it follows...that, at every epoch and in all countries, most art has been bad. But the proportion of trash in the total artistic output is greater now than at any other period. That it must be so is a matter of simple arithmetic. [I would call this part of Aldous's riff an analog to the Jumping Jesus Phenomenon. - OG] The population of Western Europe has a little more than doubled during the last century. But the amount of reading - and seeing - matter has increased, I should imagine, at least twenty and possibly fifty or even a hundred times. If there were n men of talent in a population of x millions, there will presumably be 2n men of talent among 2x millions. The situation may be summed up thus. For every page of print and pictures published a century ago, twenty or perhaps a hundred pages are published today. But for every man of talent then living, there are now only two men of talent. It may be of course that, thanks to universal education, many potential talents which in the past would have been stillborn are now enabled to realize themselves. Let us assume, then, that there are now three or even four men of talent to every one of earlier times. It still remains true to say that the consumption of reading - and seeing - matter has far outstripped the natural production of gifted writers and draughtsmen. It is the same with hearing-matter. Prosperity, the gramophone and the radio have created an audience of hearers who consume an amount of hearing-matter that has increased out of all proportion to the increase of population and the consequent natural increase in talented musicians. It follows from all this that in all the arts the output of trash is both absolutely and relatively greater than it was in the past; and that it must remain greater for just so long as the world continues to consume the present inordinate quantities of reading-matter, seeing-matter, and hearing-matter." - from Beyond the Mexique Bay: A Traveler's Journal, sourced by Walter Benjamin for his famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in his Illuminations.

Two things: Aldous is probably right: there's much, much more trash to be consumed, whatever "trash" is (I guess you know it when you see it?); and isn't it touching that Aldous cared so much about what that trash must be doing to us?

24 years later, in 1958, Theodore Sturgeon would formulate his (eventual) "law": 90% of everything is crap.

In this passage, Aldous reminds me of an Adorno or some other German Frankfurt Schooler who seeks to critique the "culture industry" and thereby save us from wallowing in mind-numbing Bad Art, which leads to fascism.

Who knows what Bad Art, or inferior radio/painting/writing does to us. I do think Aldous was being a tad snooty in 1934, but then I grew up watching Gilligan's Island...

I had previously blogged on Aldous way back HERE.

An interesting observation? In their days, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick were all writers not even considered as "important" by the official intellectuals; they were declasse; now they are at the top of the canon in their "genres": horror, detective fiction, and science fiction. As Marx quoted Shakespeare, all that is solid melts into air...and, I would add, often that which was "trash" turns to gold.

                               The Grand Vizier of Bad Taste, one of my faves, John Waters,
                               with his supporting players of geeks, hillbillies, rednecks,
                             sex perverts and dope addicts. Waters's books make me laugh out loud.

How do we know trash? Yes, you just know it when you see/hear it. But also: if we know well that which seems great and profound to us, perhaps the trash reveals itself by juxtaposition? Yes, but who's to say what is "great"? I say: your call. But keep expanding and exposing yourself.

I found this quote in a book by the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman:
"Edmund Wilson quotes H.L. Mencken as saying that he even enjoys the prospectuses put out by bond houses, because everything written is an attempt to express the aspirations of some human being. Burke's concepts of 'symbolic action' and 'rhetoric' result in a similar embracing of trash of every description..." The Burke here being Kenneth. (Hyman's book: p.386, The Armed Vision)

I receive catalogs in the mail, for a small press distributor, and often find myself reading these things, knowing I'll probably never buy any of the books, or maybe never read any of them either. (Although I will find little gems of ideas and author's names I'll follow up on...) I look at the layouts, the way the copy is written, maybe the unconscious aspects of the arrangements of things. I read catalogs for Dover publications, an entire 40-page extravaganza of books that I would never understand, like - I'm looking at one now - An Introduction to Orthogonal Polynomials, or Nash's and Sen's Topology and Geometry for Physicists. I end up daydreaming about the sort of person who really gets into this stuff. (Lately it's been a woman, but I digress...) How much different a mental life someone has who finds fascination in titles like Kernal Functions and Elliptic Differential Equations in Mathematical Physics, by Stefan Bergman and Menahem Schiffer! Do they apply this stuff right away? On what? And do they follow up by taking to bed with them Tensors, Differential Forms, and Variational Principles, by Rund and Lovelock? Not that any of this might constitute "trash," it's just that...because I buy books on history, mythology, poetry, linguistics and sociology from Dover, they send me their math catalogs too. And it may as well be "trash" to me, although on another level I know that these maths built the modern world. I cannot understand it. I do marvel that others do. They seem to marvel that I (seem to) understand Ulysses and The Wasteland, so there's some mutual respect radiating across the bow of the Two Cultures.

                                      Mencken, sage of Baltimore, also where John Waters
                                        is from.

I also read the health tips sent by insurance companies, the utility bills, a magazine called Beer Advocate my brother bought for me, which is about 80% ads. I'll pick up disparate magazines from the community-donated FREE rack at my local library, and just look a the worlds depicted and implied there. I do this in the sense of Mencken reading bond house prospectuses. I'll "read" Vogue and Highlights and Field and Stream. 

If Aldous was basically "right" in 1934, we all swim in trash, but like fish, we don't know it, for it pervades every space in our lives. It's as if we swim in and amongst the Great Pacific Trash Vortex, and we're almost totally oblivious.

Or Aldous's esthetics were too much hung over from someone like 19th century Matthew Arnold's - who happened to be related to Aldous on his mother's side.

Because I accept "trash" so willingly, and often enthusiastically (it used to be - 1967 to 1995 - that you were required to name drop Susan Sontag and her "Notes On Camp" right about now, but I refuse to), I think this brings both wonderful "trash" and extraordinarily luminous works of genius into a bold relief, and I will truncate yet another far-too-long spew by quoting from a fragment of Heraclitus:

"It is by disease that health is pleasant, by evil that good is pleasant, by hunger satiety, by weariness rest." (frag. #111, found p.77 of The Presocratics, ed. Wheelwright.)

                                Simon has written a gem here. He manages to link soap 
                                operas with classic literature, Seinfeld with British comedies 
                                of manners, etc. An underrated Lit Crit book, in my opinion.


Eric Wagner said...

I love Huxley's essay "The Best Picture" on Piero della Francesca.

Following Crowley, I suspect all of us have talents and potentials unguessed at. What strikes one person as trash might strike me as genius, as you comment in your blog.

Please note that for all the attention Lovecraft, Chandler and Dick have received, I don't see them in any textbooks at any schools I teach at (except for the Maybe Logic Academy).

Your fine blog (and thanks for the shout out) makes me think once again of Paul Schrader's essay on the film canon - http://paulschrader.org/articles/pdf/2006-FilmComment_Schrader.pdf - and the recent responses to the Sight and Sound Greatest Films poll - http://explore.bfi.org.uk/sightandsoundpolls/2012 . I read a comment about John Waters last night.

michael said...

I have Aldous's essay "Best Picture" in _Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist_.

I think maybe textbooks are one thing, while remaining in print, being anthologized, having Hollywood make films from your work, and generating scholarship is another?

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


The bit about Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft was my favorite in your post.

What do you suppose out of today's trash will be revered as great art by future aesthetes? Do you suppose that rap music of the thug school and Top 40 singles by "pop tart" female singers will attract the same sort of critical attention in the 22nd Century as Beethoven and Bach do today? It seems unlikely to me, but who know?

michael said...

Thanks, Tom.

re: whether today's artists will be revered as Great Art someday? I've wondered about that since punk rock. As the years have gone by, I've been surprised over and over when seeing some artists I thought "great" sort of disappear, while others I thought not all that good at all become huge. The more time goes on, the less I understand this sort of thing. Even in areas I know a lot about - rock guitar players, for example - I'm amazed at who is HUGE and who I think ought to be huge, but seem to be less-known every year.

I'm with you: it seems unlikely that Bieber will be like the Beatles, but who knows?

I just hope there IS a "humanity" in the 22nd century.

Funny: earlier today I drove to San Francisco Airport to pick up a friend. I was cruising down the freeway, listening the radio, and when a commercial comes on, I simply find something else. I landed on "oldies radio" and heard Grand Funk Railroad's "Some Kind of Wonderful," which sold a lot in the 70s, but was universally panned by critics. I remember the tune well from my childhood and never was all that crazy about it. But I listened to it anew - a sort of hard rock version of gospel music - and I thought, "This seems so much BETTER than almost all the stuff that's in the Top 10 these days!" But then, I guess I'm olde.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


Perhaps those rock critics were unimpressed by title of the album the song came from, "All the Girls of the World Beware!!!"

I would argue -- and maybe it's because I am old -- that rock and pop music is mostly terrible these days, and that your aesthetic judgment is correct. Rock music hit its high point in the 1960s, and at this point the decline cannot be denied.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Years ago, when a crummy rock band would inexplicably become successful, I used to assume that the record company had succeeded in getting the band airplay through the application of ad dollars, cash payments to the "right" radio executives or DJs, etc. In the 1980s, no doubt getting MTV to play your song on TV helped. I'm not sure what the mechanism for success would be now.