A Corrupt Brightness Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-02-10 15:00:00 No comments

S. I. Hayakawa once wrote a little essay in which he compared and contrasted blues music with the "neurotic escapism" of Tin Pan Alley, as Dwight Macdonald put it in a review (entitled "A Corrupt Brightness") of the anthology in which the essay was included. Macdonald went on to cite one song that went: "I’d rather have a paper doll to call my own / Than a fickle-minded real live girl." "This is mass culture's theme song," he declared.

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Macdonald went on, later in the same discussion, to cite from Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy:

The strongest objection to the more trivial popular entertainments is not that they prevent their readers from becoming highbrow, but that they make it harder for people with an intellectual bent to become wise in their own way .... Most mass-entertainments are in the end what D. H. Lawrence described as "anti-life." They are full of a corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions .... These productions belong to a vicarious, spectators’ world; they offer nothing which can really grip the brain or heart. They assist a gradual drying-up of the more positive, the fuller, the more cooperative kinds of enjoyment, in which one gains much by giving much.

So much to mine from this.

The phrases "neurotic escapism" and "spectators' world" are, I think, at the heart of masscult at its worst. Escapism by itself isn't what's bad. It's when the escape is entirely about fleeing and not looking back, rather than the hero's journey of leaving and then returning again with new wisdom. Escapism that offers us nothing to bring back to our world is merely the huffing of stale air into a bag for a cheap high.

"Spectators' world" took a bit more work for me to parse, but its meaning came to me after thinking again about the implications of the first phrase. A spectator has no participation in what he sees. He's a mere onlooker, who paid for nothing more than the privilege to gawk and then go home and brag about having seen something. A culture that turns audiences into mere spectators is doomed to infantilize its own populace.

What's worst about the neurotic escapism of a spectator's world is, as Hoggart notes, how ultimately unsatisfying it is. One has to keep going back to the well. Maybe that's by design, for all I know: the last thing a world of commercial concern would want to do is sell its audience a product that it would only need to buy once. Someone reared on a diet of nothing but cheap cheer (or, worse, cheap nihilism masquerading as profundity) and corrupt brightness is going to have a hard time understanding why it's such an empty rush.

My original feeling was that masscult's corruption could only be avoided by rejecting it wholesale. I now no longer believe that's either possible or desirable. If we must have masscult -- and as long as there's buying and selling, then such a thing will also follow naturally -- then the least we can do is have masscult that is informed and enriched by better things than just the previous generation of masscult.

Tags: Dwight Macdonald culture fiction masscult writing