Which is why this little essay in the Washington Post, whose author prides himself on his radicalism and chides current college students for their quietism, fails.

He, a product of the sixties, still “care[s] about literature,” while today’s “narcotized” students read “inferior literature.”

The problem lies in the writer’s conflation of radical writing and superior literature. While some of the writers he admires – Ginsberg, Lessing – are indeed both artistically impressive and politically radical, others — Plath, Nin — are not political. Yet others – Mary Daly, Robert Pirsig, Jerry Rubin, Eldridge Cleaver, Germaine Greer – write broadsides and not literature; and while some of these people (Greer, for instance) are powerful prose stylists, others (Daly) are almost unreadably bad.

The category confusion in the essay, its facile generalities — “The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment.” — and its willingness to overlook the importance of writers like David Foster Wallace and Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo to this generation of college readers, makes the piece more emotive than polemical, the expression of a certain contentment with one’s own cherished forms of radicality. Note that the writer doesn’t even have time for the wildly popular Chuck Palahniuk, whose work is without much literary merit, but has the exact same transgressive thing going (he’s best known for Fight Club) as many of the not-well-written works the author of the Post piece cites.

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4 Responses to “There’s nothing more reactionary than mental confusion.”

  1. RJO Says:

    Last season’s fruit is eaten
    And the full-fed beast shall kick the empty pail.

    Ron Charles just doesn’t realize he’s the empty pail.

  2. Dave Stone Says:

    Well said. Plus, note that the evidence of what everybody was reading in the 1960s amounts to "what my friend now says everybody SHE knew was reading."

    Looking at the NYTimes best-seller list for the golden age of radicalism doesn’t exactly overwhelm you with subversive literature of epochal quality: Airport, Love Story, The Godfather, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Sure, there’s some good stuff in there as well (Portnoy’s Complaint, French Lieutenant’s Woman), but most times most places most people are NOT reading radical literature.

  3. University Diaries » “I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of where poetry comes from and how it arrives, but I do know it is the highest calling of a cerebral, emotional, aesthetic existence.” Says:

    […] I think superficial readers of poetry (like the writer I talk about in a recent post titled Nothing’s More Reactionary than Mental Confusion) are getting excited about a […]

  4. theprofessor Says:

    Nothing is more pathetic than these latter-day lefty Nestors bewailing the young’uns.

    Resume of Nestor Charles:

    1964: The University of California at Berkeley. Called cop a "mofo pig" from behind curtain of 4th floor dorm window.

    1965: The University of California at Berkeley. After Malcolm’s assassination, formed white auxiliary of Black Muslims; respectfully disbanded after learning they didn’t need help from a bunch of Yakub’s devils.

    1966: Princeton University. Burned draft card. (despite what you hear, Father’s campaign contributions had nothing to do with 4-F rating)

    1967: Princeton University. Occupied dean’s office; demanded that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead replace Iliad in freshman reading list. 27-hour hunger strike ended after fascist administration fails to cave.

    1968: Chicago, Illinois. Discovered that lower-income Democratic policeman in future home of godlet do not appreciate being called "mofo pig." Bailed out by Father.

    1969: Woodstock, New York. Bought killer weed from local on Aug. 1; heard about concert later in month.

    1970: Cambridge, Massachusetts. Millett’s Sexual Politics sensitizes me to The Patriarchy and provides new avenues to get into the pants of confused and semi-radicalized undergraduate chicks.

    1971: Boston, Massachusetts. Read Steal This Book. Attempt to practice anticipatory communism thwarted by reactionaries in Southie. Father’s attorney beat shoplifting rap.

    1972: Boston, Massachusetts. Heard stunning new theory of parthenogenesis by Mary Daly; unfortunately, then-girlfriend not persuaded this was the cause of her missed periods. Father paid for medical procedure.

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