“A utopia is not a portrait of the real world, of the actual political or social order. It exists at no moment of time and at no point in space; it is “nowhere.” But just such a conception of a nowhere has stood the test and proved its strength in the development of the modern world. It follows from the nature and character of ethical thought that it can never condescend to accept the “given.” The ethical world is never given; it is forever in the making.”
In an interview, Saul Bellow was asked, “What is a writer? Who is a writer?” He responded, “It’s a person who lives by his imagination … who has appeared suddenly from where he doesn’t really know, for how long he doesn’t really know either. And although he tends to take the world for granted, and is not surprised by all of these wonderful, miraculous things that surround him, he has to pretend not to be surprised because at heart he is surprised, astonished, and delighted. And I think most people become blasé at an early age, and being blasé just means covering up this astonishment at having been born, being here.” In listening to this interview, I think of Bellow’s most famous, heroic, and superbly comic character Moses E. Herzog, who epitomizes the frustration of a middle-age, idealistic intellectual who witnesses his complex process of self-examination. He’s burdened by his failure, and he can’t seem to find any solutions to remedy it. As his personal life collapses, the world seems insane and chaotic. I also realized that 1964, the year the novel was published, happened to be the year America grieved John F. Kennedy’s assassination; the year Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act; the year when poverty, inequality, and war became part of the dialogue. 1964 was the year the American dream fell apart. Everything was being called into question, from the relationship between the government and its people to the ideas of freedom, general and individual.
It was also the same year that Herbert Marcuse’s classic book One-Dimensional Man was published, which everyone I know has read; the impact it has had on resistance to pervasive, one-dimensional thinking and the blasé, conformist tendencies cunningly supported by existing structures—those false needs manufactured by an advanced industrial society—is enormous. We’re reminded that false needs are a form of bureaucratic control, which can lead to excessively impersonal, dehumanizing effects on individual freedom, especially among the younger generation, simply because they’re considered the desirable target of consuming culture. David Foster Wallace said it beautifully in one interview:
“For young people in America, there are very mixed messages from the culture. There’s a streak of moralism in American life that extols the virtues of being grown-up, having a family, and being a responsible citizen, but there’s also the sense of do what you want, gratify your appetites; because when I’m a corporation appealing to the parts of you that are selfish, self-centered, and want to have fun all the time [it’s] the best way to sell you things … and the point that emerges from that is, I think, one more example of the American economic and cultural systems that work very well in terms of selling people products and keeping the economy thriving, [but] do not work as well when it comes to educating children or helping us help each other know how to live, and to be happy.”
The question remains what and how will we undertake efforts to generate and cultivate more pockets of counter-culture that represent the alternative, unorthodox, non-conformist, and dissenting voices of artistic bohemians, writers, artists, workers, however which way they manifest, be it a work of art, an essay, a poem, a play, a music or dance performance, or a free-publication such as the Brooklyn Rail, the Miami Rail, or the Third Rail? In spite of the increasing complexity of an ever-growing technological and social media landscape, which has immense powers of seduction, the resistance to globalization by the force of imagination is urgently critical. This is one of the chief reasons why the field of visual arts has reached its massive scale of universal popularity, and will continue to increase in proportion to the concurrent rise of technological dominance. Art, while understood by many as a commodity, also has the power to be a regenerative framework, to be subversive, and to alter meanings. And all artists—at least those I’ve encountered—seem to share one common goal: to make art as lucid and honest self-expression in order to stimulate response from others. No artist ever feels content with art solely as occupation, provider of economic comfort, and means of livelihood. No artist feels worthy of merit without critical and thoughtful responses about his or her work. How can the writing of art and of the humanities be nourished and supported so that the potentials of each field of discipline can be fully explored and blossom?
As I once gently joked to the late Robert Silvers at a party at The Century Club, “New York Review of Books should be called New York Review of Each Other’s Books.” He aptly responded, “If we don’t support each other, tell me son who will?” While I, too, recognize that academic specialization among writers, philosophers, and scientists etc. has engendered incoherent, awkward, or highly particular prose for an audience of peers, I also believe it’s our moral duty to write as clearly as possible as a tool to participate in public debate for a wider audience. All of our writers are committed to widening this ever-engaging, active living organism of multi-dimensional thought, namely the Rail—all of the Rails. With great anticipation of the collective growth of our counter-culture journals, we welcome all support from artist foundations, family foundations, individual donations, and above all, those who care about the arts and the humanities as a refuge for contemplation through reading, looking, feeling, and thinking, the senses that are unquestionably irreplaceable.
Onward, and happy summer my friends,
P.S. On behalf of the Rail, I’d like to send our birthday wishes to our good friends Joan Davidson, one of our city’s great gems, Thyrza Goodeve, our brilliant senior art editor, and Jarrett Earnest, our ever-popular contributing writer. May they thrive in fulfilling their imagination with tangible action, as they have done thus far in their lives.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.