Dissenting from the Orthodoxy of Dissent
Dwight Macdonald on . . . cancel culture
Long before some anonymous commenter came up with the pithy and impeccable cancel culture cancels culture, the author, editor, and critic Dwight Macdonald was making the case preemptively. In 1948, the Fellows in American Literature—a committee of twelve distinguished writers appointed by the Librarian of Congress—awarded that year’s Bollingen Prize for American poetry to Ezra Pound, who at the time was incarcerated in a Washington, D.C., mental hospital, waiting to stand trial on charges of treason for having broadcast odious, anti-Semitic, pro-Axis, and anti-American propaganda from Fascist Italy during the Second World War. He’d begun composing the award-winning collection, The Pisan Cantos, while locked in an outdoor cage in an American detention center in occupied Italy.
The Fellows, as mentioned above, were a distinguished bunch: Conrad Aiken, W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, T. S. Eliot, Paul Green, Robert Lowell, Katherine Anne Porter, Karl Shapiro, Theodore Spencer, Allen Tate, Willard Thorp, and Robert Penn Warren. But few individuals then living had made as significant a contribution to twentieth-century Anglophone culture as Pound, who—when not producing his own influential poetry—had mentored, edited, and ushered into publication such modernist titans as Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce. But if anyone was cancelable in the immediate postwar years, it was Ezra Pound.
In the months following the Bollingen announcement, he, the Fellows in American Literature, and even the Library of Congress came in for pointed criticism. Writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, the Pulitzer Prize–winning (and antimodernist) poet Robert Hillyer cited The Pisan Cantos’ “ruthless mockery of our Christian war dead.” Practicing some guilt by association while also foreshadowing today’s rhetorical gambit of likening words to culpable violence, Hillyer ominously added: “That fact may place the award, and the committee on the Bollingen prize, in an observable relationship to our dead.”
Pound himself was labeled a “moral degenerate” and a “moral leper” by Connecticut Congressman James T. Patterson, who observed that the award-winning collection contained “obscenities to an excessive degree” and that it further made “many derogatory references to Jews and Negroes.” Characterizing the work as nothing less than “literary slander,” he, along with New York Congressman Jacob K. Javits, called for an investigation into the Library of Congress itself, owing—as Javits said—to the apparent “infiltration of Fascist ideas” into the institution. “This would not be thought control,” Patterson felt the need to insist, “but rather a rational and pertinent investigation of a shameful act.” This, too, has echoes in today’s debates about cancel culture, whereby—at one and the same time—cancellation is said never to occur and is quickly justified on supposedly exceptional moral grounds every time it does.
In an editorial titled “Homage to Twelve Judges,” published in the Winter 1949 issue of his short-lived journal Politics, Dwight Macdonald by contrast called the Bollingen committee’s honoring of Pound not only not shameful but “the brightest political act in a dark period.” He was quick to admit that “Pound’s situation is disreputable and hopeless to a dramatic degree,” and even made sure to acknowledge that the poetry collection for which Pound had just been honored was not “by any means free of its author’s detestable social and racial prejudices.”
But political, personal, or social disrepute, Macdonald argued, should not be a consideration when deciding who merits a poetry prize, or when deciding the merits of any other creative or intellectual endeavor. He cited with great praise the committee’s own wording justifying its selection of Pound for the prize: “To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.”
In other words, the committee would not let Pound the fascist, Pound the racist, Pound the anti-Semite, and Pound the barking-mad crank distract it from its task of judging Pound (and other finalists for the prize) on strictly poetic grounds. Macdonald noted that “one of the most repellent aspects” of both Soviet communism and the Italian fascism of Ezra Pound’s heart was that there was no possibility of discerning objective value under such systems. He argued further that in order to preserve any hope of objectivity, it is vital that “no one sphere of human activity [be] exalted over the rest” and that “clear distinctions be maintained between the various spheres, so that the value of an artist’s work or a scientist’s researches is not confused with the value of their politics.” The woeful alternative, he noted, is “the obliteration of the boundary lines between the various aspects of culture—or better, the imperialist conquest of all the rest by politics.”
Macdonald and the committee were not alone in defending the principle of objectivity. Some even invoked the judgment of future generations in justifying why temporal political passions (and fashions) should never be allowed to influence one’s appraisal of artistic or intellectual achievement. According to an editorial in the New York Herald Tribune, the Bollingen committee, by emphasizing its objective approach, had “acted in the only way that is open to men who are sensitive to a later verdict of history.” And in an ambivalent review of The Pisan Cantos for the Quarterly Review of Literature, the poet Richard Eberhart wrote:
An approach to the work as poetry is necessary and more rewarding, at least to me, than reading the Cantos as political, economic, or sociological manifestoes. Fifty years will remove the politics and leave the poetry. The Cantos can be read disinterestedly, which is only to pay them their due as art.
Dwight Macdonald, it should be stressed, was not hiding any secret sympathy for Ezra Pound’s politics in his praise for the Bollingen committee’s selection. Macdonald was a consistent opponent of totalitarianism and authoritarianism wherever he found them, whether in Stalinism or in Italian fascism. Like Pound, Macdonald did object to aspects of America’s involvement in the Second World War, but Macdonald’s objections were lucid and specific. (For instance, he was aghast at the Allies’ embrace of full-scale aerial bombardment of civilian centers.) He went on to play an almost inadvertent but germinal role in America’s War on Poverty, and was actively opposed to the country’s involvement in Vietnam. His liberal bona fides were solid.
Hence this lament from “Homage to Twelve Judges”:
It is ironical that it is precisely those who are misnamed “liberals” . . . who seem to be least enthusiastic about the Pound award. What bothers them is the very thing that is healthiest, politically, about it: the fact that Pound’s treason and fascism were not taken into account in honoring him as a poet.
Macdonald, like his friend George Orwell and like Lionel Trilling, was an independent-minded man of the left who was also at times critical of the left. Given his “Homage to Twelve Judges,” one suspects that were he alive today he would regret the degree to which American liberalism has embraced the illiberalism of cancel culture, and that he would especially regret that it has done so as a form of political opposition to societal factors it seeks to eradicate through social and cultural erasure. But perhaps his regret, like (arguably) his enthusiasm for the Bollingen committee’s justifications, would be rooted in a false dichotomy of the sort the poet Peter Viereck thoughtfully addressed in a 1951 issue of Commentary magazine:
The famous New Criticism’s method of analysis tends to treat a poem by itself, like a self-created airtight-sealed object, outside cause and effect. By discarding a poem’s irrelevant historical, psychological, and “moralizing” encrustations, the “new critics” have splendidly taught us to read the text itself. But by also discarding the relevant historical, psychological, and ethical aspects, they are often misreading the text itself.
A reader’s response to a poem is a total response, a Gestalt in which aesthetic as well as ethical, psychological, and historical factors are inseparably fused together. It is a self-deception to try to separate them and to discover some alchemistical quintessence of isolated “pure” aesthetics, to be judged only by certified “pure” mandarins of criticism. It may be argued that this inextricability of form and content is undesirable; in any case, that it exists is undeniable, with the Pisan Cantos only one example among many. This inextricability prompted Paul Valéry’s wise warning: “To construct a poem that contains only poetry is impossible. If a piece contains only poetry, it is not constructed; it is not a poem.”
In other words, one can—objectively and in good faith—dispute the precise substance and contours of objectivity itself. Objectivity, after all, is an ideal to be pursued, not a matter of rhetorical exactitude that can be invoked peremptorily. That said, since the critical premise of aesthetics being separate and pure has of late given way to “the imperialist conquest of all the rest by politics,” it is still fair to suppose that Macdonald—for sound and objective reasons—would dissent from today’s orthodoxy of dissent (to paraphrase Lionel Trilling) and would denounce cancel culture as vigorously as he did its mere potential more than seventy years ago.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been tantamount to canceling Ezra Pound had the Bollingen committee simply awarded the prize that year to a different poet. However, if the committee had done so in objection to Pound’s political infamy and not because it had deemed his poetry aesthetically less than best, the act genuinely would have represented the first stirrings of a totalitarian impulse, one by which all other aspects of existence—personal, creative, professional, social, cultural, intellectual—are taken over by a crude and fervent politics. “The horror of Soviet communism,” Macdonald noted, “is that it reduces the individual to one aspect, the political.” He then asked, “Is not the literal meaning of ‘totalitarianism’ just this pretension of the political power to control the totality of human life?”
What’s perhaps even worse, and more pertinent to our present concerns, is that this crude and fervent brand of politics operates (per Congressman Patterson’s talk of shame and moral degeneracy) as a kind of ruthless moral code, one that is without grace or forgiveness, one from which those found in violation are summarily and permanently cast out, to serve as living reminders to others of the consequences of deviating from the code. This amounts not just to depriving respective individuals of their standing (those hastily judged to be moral/political deviants). It amounts to peremptorily depriving the rest of us of the creative and/or intellectual contributions those individuals might otherwise still have made, perhaps even ones they already have made. Succumbing to such punitive moral hysteria thus degrades our culture and society overall.