I finished Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. I think it’s got to be experienced to be understood, but the general idea is that it’s a study of the American novel. Specifically, it is a study of why the American novel as a form struggles to depict in ways both realistic and sufficiently complicated the relationships between men and women. One of Fiedler’s more provocative ideas is that the driving force of the American novel is violence but also a homoerotic tension between white men and colored men (who, in Fiedler’s construction, represent a weird Freudian projection of white men’s baser desires). I know it sounds chaotic and bad. But it’s actually a brilliant and incisive read of the American novel. It just felt true. It’s hard to sum up in a way that does the whole thing justice.
A couple weeks (months?) ago, I read and really loved Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, and picked up Fiedler at the suggestion of the critic Christian Lorentzen. It might seem strange that I am reading all of the midcentury white critics. I know I didn’t see it coming myself. But I wanted to learn how to read. I mean to really read. I started to feel, as I was working on an introduction to Percival Everett’s Erasure, that I didn’t really know anything about literature. I had feelings about books I read. I could detect the vapor of ideas that wafted off of books I read. I had a sense of the wind blowing in certain directions. But I had no real concrete language to talk about literature and about art. I had no perspective, no way of seeing into the context of a book, and when I did have access to a book’s context, I had no way of moving that knowledge into writing or into argument. In short, I couldn’t begin to think through the project of a critic because I had no way of speaking the critic’s language. The closest I came to feeling like I understood criticism was feeling something akin to accomplishment when I sort of recognized a title or a name in the daily reviews of the New York Times Book Review.
The shallowness in my own thinking and knowledge came into sharpest relief when I tweeted something about critics but meaning reviewers, and a swarm of white people who had read many dead Germans descended upon my mentions to beam their weird Latinate soliloquies at me. It’s how I always feel when my media friends start talking about bloggers from the mid-2000s or municipal New York politics. Which is to say, my brain goes smooth. It became clear to me when I read the responses to my tweet that these were people who operated in ways I couldn’t begin to understand. And honestly, I didn’t want to understand it. I mean, my interest in Marxism is sub-zero, and is it possible to be a literary critic today and not care about Marxism? No. The answer is no. I know less than nothing, but I do in fact know that Marxism is like Jesus in the contemporary South. Even atheists have a passing fluency. But I digress.
I didn’t start reading the midcentury white critics to get better at talking to white people on the internet. I didn’t do it so that I could better commune with Parul Sehgal’s criticism or because I’m a Merve Emre stan. Though both are true. I didn’t do it so I could nod knowingly when Tobi Haslett says something cutting and devastating or even so that I could dunk on Thomas Chatterton-Williams with a slightly more earned sense of knowing cool. Though. There are worse motivations for taking on this project.
The main reason I came to the mid-century critics was because I was tired of not knowing anything. I had stumbled into literature with no education and no foundation. I wanted my gestures to be rooted in something. In this tradition. In the tradition of American fiction. I wanted to better understand where my opinions were coming from. Where my art was coming from. I’ve always put a lot of stock in form and in tradition and in lineage and in knowing one’s idiom. Knowing the conversations into which you are putting your art. I’ve always felt it was a source of power. Knowing things about yourself and where you fit in the constellation of the culture.
There is probably a very smart argument and an equally smart counterargument for the idea that we’re no longer a culture where the sweeping gesture of summing things up can be anything other than a fool’s errand--if it ever was anything more than a fool’s errand to begin with. Almost every act of summing up--which used to be one of a critic’s main function, the divination and sorting of the herd--is met online with irritated resistance. Ironically, though we treat categorical statements with great skepticism, our main defense is to make...categorical statements about the kind of person we are and where we come from. It’s almost as if we’re all exiles wandering the vast, wide world, scattered members of the same tribe who mistake our personal idiosyncrasy for heredity.
The idea of a broad, sweeping common culture is offensive on its face even as it is kind of comforting, no? It’s like, I want to belong to something. I want to be a part of something. But also, do not tell me who I am and do not assume things about me. I feel that in some ways what I want most desperately is to be known but also I want to never be perceived because to be perceived is to be locked into definition, prescribed. What I would like is knowledge without perception.
But in Fiedler’s construction, such a thing is called sentimentality. And, funny enough, sentimentality is making a sneak come back. Because what is cringe if not an encounter with the very heart of sentimentality.
I have this argument that every TikToker and YouTuber is a Romantic. And I don’t mean in Sleepless in Seattle/You’ve Got Mail sort of way. Set aside the fact that TikTok is a capitalist emanation from the industrialized world that Romanticism was a challenge to. If you take the internet’s wild, wooly and endlessly renewable sweep for nature, then TikTok as a form and genre seeks to capture one’s experience moving through that landscape. TikTok is pure emotion, pure imaginative flight of fancy. It even has Romanticism’s weird nostalgic backward cast, and with its myriad filters and constantly revolving trends and modes and motifs, there is something kind of supernatural about it. Something strange, mercurial, changeful.
Plus, TikTok is where true cringe (and therefore sentiment) lives on the internet today. It is possible for me to browse Twitter and not feel the squirming reality of human perception. It’s possible for me to browse Instagram and experience nothing but aesthetic lift. The slick, grooved communion with the algorithm. But the human creature is in evidence in every TikTok. We see them in their home doing silly, mechanized actions for, what, love, for what, attention, for what, acceptance? One can’t help but notice how pitiful and therefore how beautiful humans are when one looks at TikTok. And that is perhaps the most Romantic part of it all. The revelation of human sublimity through nature. Or in the case, watching people slip and slide down frozen sidewalks or watching a woman spray Gorilla Glue in her hair to horrifying consequences.
Cringe is the new Sentimentality. TikTok is the new Romanticism. Although. It’s not new so much as the same. And the analogy breaks down if you stare at it too hard. For all the reasons that capitalism destroys everything. Because we can’t have nice things!
I’ve gone on long enough. Next week, I have an essay in The Cut and a short story in Joyland (it’s a chaotic story, and I am nervous about it. Pray for me). I’ll also have a review somewhere I cannot tell you about now. I’ll let you know when they’re up.