Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dwight Macdonald

It must have been around 1961 or 1962 when, as a young, would-be radical---probably in City Lights bookstore---I bought a copy of Dwight Macdonald's "Memoirs of a Revolutionist," a collection of essays reprinted in a later edition---the one I have now---with the bland "Politics Past" title.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft (The Times Literary Supplement, March 9, 2012) had a similar experience a few years later:

Loitering in a bookshop near the North Beach of San Francisco in the summer of 1965, I picked up a paperback called Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and was transfixed, or even transformed. In my youthful ignorance, I didn't recognize the author's name, let alone know that I had stumbled on the most original, entertaining and profound American essayist of his age.

In the summer of 1965, I was in Lompoc Federal Corrections Institution for refusing to report for the draft the previous year. Reading Macdonald and other New York intellectuals ultimately influenced me to become a draft resister because of US policy on Vietnam, and---more important at the time---Cuba. (The major US escalation in Vietnam began in 1965.)

Fortunately, I got a lot more than I bargained for when I bought that book. Like Wheatcroft I had never heard of Macdonald and knew little of the history of a previous generation's sectarian political battles.

Among other things, Macdonald's account of his experience in New York immunized me---not that I needed much discouraging---from joining one of the Marxist groups in San Francisco at the time. I had a nodding acquaintance with a few young guys who belonged to the Dubois club (pro-Russia) and the Progressive Labor Movement (pro-China) but never came close to joining either. I did buy a copy of Mao's Little Red Book at China Books in the Mission, but I found it unreadable. The Socialist Workers Party (Trotskyist) was around, too, but they were mostly a student movement on college campuses.

Wheatcroft is reviewing a new collection of Macdonald's literary essays (Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain), which are excellent, but it doesn't include the more important political material in "Memoirs of a Revolutionist"/"Politics Past." Wheatcroft rightly points out that "Another reissue is needed to introduce a new generation to the Dwight Macdonald of Politics, the American Orwell." Unlike Orwell, Macdonald never wrote any fiction---if you consider Animal Farm and 1984 fiction---but he did edit an anthology of parodies, and he showed some talent for parody himself in a review of a movie version of Finnegans Wake:

Howth to wake into silverscreaming cinequanonsense the doublin mage's perplixacated masetropiece? To lustify that seemworld? Obliviously by giving a fairful earing to the joyceous blooms of vherbal slanguage mythed up with etymologicalities---and accompliced by flimflamfilm eyeings as well. In sport, Mary Ellen Bute's 97 minutes of vagariations on seems from Finnegans Wake is both punny and movieing (Dwight Macdonald on Movies, 1969).

Macdonald was an excellent film critic and reviewed movies for Esquire Magazine for years.

After resigning as an editor of Partisan Review over its support for---and his opposition to---World War II, Macdonald started his own magazine, "politics" (the lower case "p" is deliberate) in 1944. Much of "Memoirs of a Revolutionist" was/is from that magazine, which had a distinguished number of contributors: Albert Camus, George Orwell, Victor Serge, C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, Richard Hofstadter, and Mary McCarthy, to name a few. Macdonald's magazine never had more than 5,000 subscribers, but its radical, democratic---with a small "d" and a small "p" for politics---perspective made it surprisingly influential, even unto succeeding generations as Wheatcroft's and my experience shows.

It's now common for writers and historians to question everything about World War II (see
this and this, for example)---the Good War fought by the Greatest Generation!---but reading Macdonald's great essay, The Responsibility of Peoples, was a useful shock to me, like Macdonald's citing a British article on the RAF's bombing of Dresden, an atrocity later featured in Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five":

The bombers dropped thousands of incendiaries as soon as they were over Dresden and followed these up with high explosives. As in earlier raids on German cities, the incendiaries started immense fires which created such an intense heat that shelterers were driven from shelter. They were still rushing through the streets looking for fresh shelter when the explosives fell. They and the thousands of others for whom there was no shelter accommodation and who were crouching in ship doorways were blown to pieces. After the raid many streets were carpeted with corpses and fragments of corpses. Dozens of people, their clothes blazing, jumped into the river which flows through the city---floating bodies filled the stream. Shattered bodies lay everywhere. Many, killed by the heat, had shrivelled up to half their normal size.

And we were the good guys! In light of this history---and Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, the US in Vietnam, etc.---criticism of President Obama for authorizing the killing of one American-born terrorist seems almost quaint. If there's been any progress since Vietnam, it's the increased squeamishness by the US about deliberately targeting civilians. 

Even in Vietnam, the US bombing campaigns were rather shame-faced, and pictures of burning villages and napalmed children forced our government to cloak attacks on the Vietnamese with euphemistic talk of "free-fire zones"---where only the Viet Cong lived---and "resettlement" of peasants into "strategic hamlets" in an attempt to keep them from guerilla influence.

When I saw the movie "Patton" years later, I recognized the opening monologue from Macdonald's version in his World War II essay on Patton in Memoirs, "My Favorite General." There are different versions of Patton's speech, because he gave slightly different versions on different occasions, but I suspect that the screenwriters---Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North---used a sanitized version of the one that Macdonald had in that essay:

Men! This stuff we hear about Americans wanting to stay out this war---not wanting to fight---is a lot of bullshit. Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting of clash of battle. America loves a winner. America will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise a coward. Americans play to win. That's why America has never lost and never will lose a war, for the very thought of losing is hateful to an American.

You are not all going to die. Only 2% of you right here today will be killed in a major battle. Death must not be feared. Every man is frightened at first in battle. If any man says he isn't, he's a goddamned liar. But a real man will never let the fear of death overpower his honor, his sense of duty to his country and to his manhood.

All through your army career, you've bitched about what you call "this chicken-shit drilling." That drilling was for a purpose: instant obedience to orders and to create alertness. If not some sonofabitch of a German will sneak up behind him and beat him to death with a sock full of shit.

An army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats and fights as a team. This individual hero stuff is a lot of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don't know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about fucking.

Even if you are hit, you can still fight. That's not bullshit either. Every damn man has a job to do. Each man must think not only of himself but of his buddy fighting beside him. We don't want any yellow cowards in this army. They should be killed off like flies. If not, they will go back home and breed more cowards. We got to save the fucking for the fighting men. The brave man will breed mroe brave men.

Remember, men! You don't know I'm here. Let the first bastards to find out be the goddamn Germans. I want them German bastards to raise up on their hind legs and howl: "JESUS CHRIST! IT'S THE GODDAMNED THIRD ARMY AND THAT SONOFABITCH PATTON AGAIN!"

We want to get the hell over there and clean the goddman thing up. And then we'll have to take a little jaunt against the purple pissing Japs and clean them out before the Marines get all the credit.

There's one great thing you men will be able to say when you go home. You may all thank God that thirty years from now, when you are sitting at the fire with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the Great World War II, you won't have to say: "I shoveled shit in Louisiana."

Macdonald didn't approve: "At once flat and theatrical, brutal and hysterical, coarse and affected, violent and empty...the nature of World War Ii reveals itself: the maximum of physical devastation accompanied by the minimum of human meaning." All true, but reportedly the American soldiers Patton addressed loved it and always roared their approval.

As a young man, one of the things I liked most about Macdonald's writing, both the memoirs and his later essays for the New Yorker, was its implacable, bracing negativity:

They say it’s easy enough to be critical, or negative, or destructive, but it isn’t really. To stick to serious, negative, unconstructive criticism takes a lot of thought and effort. In this country today, the undertow pulling the critic into the dangerous waters of positive, responsible thinking seems to be getting stronger every year. (Dwight Macdonald On Movies, 1969)

Though he did a sympathetic New Yorker profile of the Catholic Worker’s Dorothy Day, he admits that he “never had any interest in religion, or God; much in Jesus, none in Christ.” And “Yet, although when I read Tolstoi and Gandhi I see the logical convenience of the God-hypothesis, it does not move me emotionally; nor do I feel a spiritual need for it.” (Letters of Dwight Macdonald) "Religion bores me even more than Marxism."

In the New York Times, Dwight Garner cites some of Macdonald's critics:

The late, great literary and social critic Dwight Macdonald (1906-82) was on the receiving end of some of the best literary insults of the 20th century. Gore Vidal said to him, “You have nothing to say, only to add.” Leon Trotsky reportedly declared, “Every man has a right to be stupid, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” Paul Goodman cracked, “Dwight thinks with his typewriter.”

Seems to me that Macdonald's writings are wearing a lot better than those of his three critics, especially Vidal, who has turned into a 9/11 "truther." 

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