Monday, 7 December 2009

Quigley: The Destruction of the Middle-Class Outlook

From Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time (New York: Macmillan, 1966):

The chief external factor in the destruction of the middle-class out-


look has been the relentless attack upon it in literature and drama through most of the twentieth century. In fact, it is difficult to find works that defended this outlook or even assumed it to be true, as was frequent in the nineteenth century. Not that such works did not exist in recent years; they have existed in great numbers, and have been avidly welcomed by the petty bourgeoisie and by some middle-class housewives. Lending libraries and women's magazines of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s were full of them, but, by the 1950s they were largely restricted to television soap dramas. Even those writers who explicitly accepted the middle-class ideology, like Booth Tarkington, Ben Ames Williams, Sloan Wilson, or John O’Hara, tended to portray middle-class life as a horror of false values, hypocrisy, meaningless effort, and insecurity. In Alice Adams, for example, Tarkington portrayed a lower-middle-class girl, filled with hypocrisy and materialistic values, desperately seeking a husband who would provide her with the higher social status for which she yearned.

In the earlier period, even down to 1940, literature’s attack on the middle-class outlook was direct and brutal, from such works as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Frank Norris’s The Pit, both dealing with the total corruption of personal integrity in the meat-packing and wheat markets. These early assaults were aimed at the commercialization of life under bourgeois influence and were fundamentally reformist in outlook because they assumed that the evils of the system could somehow be removed, perhaps by state intervention. By the 1920s the attack was much more total, and saw the problem in moral terms so fundamental that no remedial action was possible. Only complete rejection of middle-class values could remove the corruption of human life seen by Sinclair Lewis in Babbitt or Main Street.

After 1940, writers tended less and less to attack the bourgeois way of life; that job had been done. Instead they described situations, characters, and actions that were simply non-bourgeois: violence, social irresponsibility, sexual laxity and perversion, miscegenation, human weakness in relation to alcohol, narcotics, or sex, or domestic and business relationships conducted along completely non-bourgeois lines. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, John Dos Passos, and a host of lesser writers, many of them embracing the cult of violence, showed the trend. A very popular work like The Lost Weekend could represent the whole group. A few, like Hemingway, found a new moral outlook to replace the middle-class ideology they had abandoned. In Hemingway’s case he shook the dust of upper-middle-class Oak Park, Illinois, off his feet and immersed himself in the tragic sense of life of Spain with its constant demand upon men to demonstrate their virility by incidental activity with women and unflinching courage in facing death. To Hemingway this could be achieved in the bullring, in African big-game hunting, in war or, in a more symbolic way, in prizefighting or crime. The significant point here


is that Hemingway’s embrace of the outlook of the Pakistani-Peruvian axis as a token of his rejection of his middle-class background was always recognized by him as a pretense, and, when his virility, in the crudest sense, was gone, he blew out his brains.

The literary assault on the bourgeois outlook was directed at all the aspects of it that we have mentioned, at future preference, at self-discipline, at the emphasis on materialistic acquisition, at status symbols. The attack on future preference appeared as a demonstration that the future is never reached. Its argument was that the individual who constantly postpones living from the present (with living taken to mean real personal relationships with individuals) to a hypothetical future eventually finds that the years have gone by, death is approaching, he has not yet lived, and is, in most cases, no longer able to do so. If the central figure in such a work has achieved his materialist ambitions, the implication is that these achievements, which looked so attractive from a distance, are but encumbrances to the real values of personal living when achieved. This theme, which goes back at least to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol or to George Eliot’s Silas Marner, continued to be presented into the twentieth century. It often took the form, in more recent times, of a rejection of a man’s whole life achievement by his sons, his wife, or himself.

The more recent form of this attack on future preference has appeared in the existentialist novel and the theater of the absurd. Existentialism, by its belief that reality and life consist only of the specific, concrete personal experience of a given place and moment, ignores the context of each event and thus isolates it. But an event without context has no cause, meaning, or consequence; it is absurd, as anything is which has no relationship to any context. And such an event, with neither past nor future, can have no connection with tradition or with future preference. This point of view came to saturate twentieth-century literature so that the original rejection of future preference was expanded into total rejection of time, which was portrayed as simply a mechanism for enslaving man and depriving him of the opportunity to experience life. The writings of Thomas Wolfe and, on a higher level, of the early Dos Passos, were devoted to this theme. The bourgeois time clock became a tomb or prison that alienated man from life and left him a cipher, like the appropriately named Mr. Zero in Elmer Rice’s play The Adding Machine (1923).

A similar attack was made on self-discipline. The philosophic basis for this attack was found in an oversimplified Freudianism that regarded all suppression of human impulse as leading to frustration and psychic distortions that made subsequent life unattainable. Thus novel after novel or play after play portrayed the wickedness of the suppression of good, healthy, natural impulse and the salutary consequences of self-indulgence, especially in sex. Adultery and other manifestations of undisciplined


sexuality were described in increasingly clinical detail and were generally associated with excessive drinking or other evasions of personal responsibility, as in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises or in John Steinbeck’s love affair with personal irresponsibility in Cannery Row or Tortilla Flat. The total rejection of middle-class values, including time, self-discipline, and material achievement, in favor of a cult of personal violence was to be found in a multitude of literary works from James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler to the more recent antics of James Bond. The result has been a total reversal of middle-class values by presenting as interesting or admirable simple negation of these values by aimless, shiftless, and totally irresponsible people.

A similar reversal of values has flooded the market with novels filled with pointless clinical descriptions, presented in obscene language and in fictional form, of swamps of perversions ranging from homosexuality, incest, sadism, and masochism, to cannibalism, necrophilia, and coprophagia. These performances, as the critic Edmund Fuller has said, represent not so much a loss of values as a loss of any conception of the nature of man. Instead of seeing man the way the tradition of the Greeks and of the West regarded him, as a creature midway between animal and God, ‘a little lower than the angels?’ and thus capable of an infinite variety of experience, these twentieth-century writers have completed the revolt against the middle classes by moving downward from the late nineteenth century’s view of man as simply a higher animal to their own view of man as lower than any animal would naturally descend. From this has emerged the Puritan view of man (but without the Puritan view of God) as a creature of total depravity in a deterministic universe without hope of any redemption.


1 comment:

MLJ said...

The results of the social experiment which we have seen unfold over the past 30 years (although I didn't realise what was happening until recently)would seem to confirm the most dismal view expressed - no redemption.It would appear, that after all, we do need structure and control in our lives.Chaos is cruel.