It was popular back in those mists of time when the silent generation was keeping its collective head down to regard Proust`s Remembrance of Things Past and Hart Crane`s The Bridge, both masterpieces, as impenetrable. Ernest Hemingway, with his purifying language, was all the rage, and William Faulkner would have been consigned to the same dust bin with Proust (inset) and Crane had it not been for a diehard claque of admirers in which I included myself.
We didn`t know it then, but the age of instant gratification and horse-race criticism was aborning. From there on fiction would be adjudged by whether it was a page-turner or a beach read. The best-seller list would reflect not literary quality but marketing expertise. It would be assumed that adventure took place not in the writer`s or reader`s mind but in someone else`s bedroom. It would be assumed that the kind of Elizabethan intellectual and verbal compaction found in Crane was an insult to a reader rather than a challenge, and it would be assumed that the challenges posed by Proust and Crane, for starters, were not worth undertaking.
Clarity and forward motion would become buzz words for an underlying unwillingness to embark on the adventure that Proust`s marvelous powers of observation posed, just as the Republican Southern Strategy of the 1960s was actually a buzz term for license to keep on hating and oppressing. It was assumed that Crane had tied a mass of knots that were not worth untying, whereas in fact he had pressed the language into service for a voyage, much like fitting a spaceship. The critics were licensing the public to dumb down. The marketers were supplanting the editors. Such a society was bound sooner or later to accept a George W. Bush or Dick Cheney as leaders, because it had given up its intellectual future without a whimper.
Where the critics could have pointed out that Proust was inviting his readers to observe their own lives as incomparable quests, if only they would employ their vestigial senses, they instead insisted that readers live cheapened vicarious lives in the contexts of often atrocious writing that had a kind of video-game hyperactivity. The result is a dissociative culture in which we do not live our own lives but rather the lives of people whose lives in fact are hardly worth living at all. We have allowed our own experience to be degraded because we refuse to sharpen our minds in order to rise to the challenge of difficult " writers like Proust and Crane.
In fact, there is nothing difficult at all in either writer. They are simply pushing into uncharted terrain, using words and observations in unusual ways to prize open doors that have remained bolted. What is going on in our culture is not the difficulty of fathoming writers like Proust but rather the unwillingness to think for ourselves. In a period when charlatan politicians can bypass the traditional media and go directly to the people with their cockamamie and simpleminded notions and their buzz words for hatred and divisiveness, this is an inherently dangerous circumstance.
We have allowed taste-making apparatchiks to turn literature into a horse race in which someone has to win and someone has to lose, a fundamentally silly idea. The winners of course will be the worst books, the worst minds, and, it goes without saying, the most venal.