15 thoughts on “For your Partial Consideration…

  1. “If the Lost Generation dissipated itself in alcohol, their drug is screens.”

    People have been saying that since the television was invented. Hell, they’ve been saying it since books were invented. The Great Literary Art we revere today was the cheapest of gutter trash in its time, as though we were to travel forward two hundred years and find “Pretty Little Liars” held up as a shining example of television’s best efforts. Shakespeare was the Michael Bay of his day.

    I know it’s frightening to look around and see so many people tapping at their phones, and think “my God, none of these people are thinking about any of the people around them!” But, y’know…they never were. Most of the people on the train (who weren’t reading a book, magazine, or newpaper) were avoiding eye contact and thinking about supper.

    “They have yet to make clear language and articulation a priority…if I could offer a critique of this generation, it’s that they are entirely too nice.”

    You do accurately point out that this stems from a strong suspicion that if you don’t stay in the good graces of authority, then you’re cast off the good-life train and will never get a chance to climb back on.

    “The Lost Generation’s great gamble was in this conviction that the truth will burn through the lies.”

    You have some faith that you know what the truth is. What if these kids stood up and told you that they’d found their own truth?

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    • I don’t fully buy the Shakespeare=Michael Bay of the Tudor Age comparison. He did have a lot of dirty jokes and action for the Groundlings but the poetry that we see was also seen by people in his time. This is true even if the University Playwrights disliked him. Bear Baiting was probably the Michael Bay esque entertainment of the Tudor Age.

      I also don’t think you are completely right in how the literature was seen. Ulysses was seen as obscene and pornography but there were also important and well-respected literary critics who realized that Joyce was doing very important work in the novel and recognized Joyce as a great writer. Hemmingway and Fitzgerald were also popular and respected. Hemmingway was not the Tom Clancy of the 1920s.

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      • The problem is with the idea that the Great Literature we revere today was the gutter trash of its day. The vast majority of popular literature from any era is in fact truly awful, and is quickly and rightfully forgotten once its moment is passed. When we look at Shakespeare and Dickens we are looking at the exceptional authors who managed to produce Great Literature while working within the conventions of the popular literature of the day. The Shakespeare analog is not Michael Bay. Or at least probably not. Predicting is hard, especially about the future, but I doubt that Bay will age well. Martin Scorsese is a different matter. But that’s cheating!, I hear, because Scorsese is so obviously great. Yeah, but they said the same thing about Shakespeare back in the day. And both managed to pack ’em in.

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        • I will concede the point on Shakespeare and Dickens and you are right that predicting is hard. The truth of the matter is that a lot of people were seriously talking about Joyce when he was alive as a truly revolutionary artist. The same is true for Picasso and other modern artists. They always had critical respect even if many also dismissed them or thought it was obscene and pornography. ee cummings was well-respected during the 1920s, people knew Gertrude Stein was onto something.

          There were a lot of people defending Joyce early on including a young Samuel Beckett who became his secretary briefly and had an unfortunate fling with Joyce’s daughter.

          But there might be a difference in that avant-garde artists were rejected by the mainstream and always sought after by bohemians and wealthy collectors. At least the lucky ones were.

          I think you can say a major trend of the 20th and 21st century art markets is that the wealthy collectors have always gone on to collect things that the vast majority of the public thought of as not-art. Lots of people dislike Richard Price but the art market does not care. Richard Price’s value might be helped because the hoi polloi think he is a thief interestingly.

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  2. I always thought that the WWI generation was “lost” because so many young men were killed in battle, not because of economic prospects.

    The current generation (of which I might be one) seem lost because of technological displacement and not being able to gain a footing in the job/career path because technological advancement is making companies more and more efficient. According to an article I read today, AT and T was worth 270 billion in 1964 and employed nearly 800,000 people. Google is worth 370 billion and employees 55,000 people.

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    • Nope, neither really. Stein was talking about the American generation that came back from the war and had no particular sense of direction and Hemingway used it for a book about the ones who, instead, pissed their lives away in the cafes and bars, which isn’t a terrible way to be lost really.

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      • They were lost because they asked Gertrude Stein for directions.

        “How do you get to the post office?”

        “Walk until you see pigeons on the grass, alas.”

        “Umm, OK. But what’s the best way to get there?”

        “There is no there there.”

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  3. I read your essay last night, and I’m not entirely sure to what extent I agree. At one point, you express caution about judging entire generations by sampling only a few examples from it:

    Characterizing a generation is a bit like reading the oracle bones: writers closely pick over a few specimens in their immediate vicinity and apply what they find to the unseen millions born in the same general time and place.

    And yet, much of the essay is saying things like “they want trigger warnings” when it’s probably more the case that only some of them want trigger warnings, the pro-trigger-warning people just happening to be more vocal than the anti’s. My point is that it’s probably wrong to take certain people as spokespersons for others just because they have in common the year/half-decade/decade they were born. And frankly, most of your 10 observations about millenials could, with some modifications, be applied to the situation of people from other generations.

    I’m also not certain I share your interpretation of Sun Also Rises, or at least I don’t share it wholly:

    Hemingway’s novel is about a group of dissipated young wastrels drinking itself to destruction in Paris and Spain, but it was taken, as intended, to be emblematic of the young American generation that returned from the war disillusioned with the values of their elders, those Big Words, that now seemed like yellowed poster bills for events that left town long ago.

    I can’t speak to how it was taken, but I’m not sure it was necessarily intended to be emblematic of an entire generation. I’m not certain it wasn’t, mind, but the main characters are not only overindulged American (and English) ex-pats, but also pretty solidly middle-class or higher. It’s a critique of wastrels, but those wastrels have privileges that the masses in the US didn’t. They’re also antisemitic, as shown by the way they repeatedly abuse Cohn. They’re also lost because they’re, as one scholar I’ve read (I’ve forgotten who) said, they’re de-sexed by the war. Lady Brett has meaningless affairs with people who she doesn’t love, Mike is with a woman (Lady Brett) who doesn’t love him, and Jake can’t have sex.

    And even if he did intend the expats he describes to be emblematic of an entire generation, that generation passeth, and to be replaced by another one, perhaps represented Pedro Romero. But even there, the claim that this generation is peculiarly “lost” kind of falls short because every generation passeth, to be replaced by another. It’s the fate of generations. And a generation that feels itself peculiarly lost is perhaps being a bit too solipsistic. I don’t know much about Stein or Hemingway’s relationship with her, but is it possible that he’s critiquing her “lost generation” declaration? (Maybe not….I’m genuinely curious.)

    The Renoir quote is instructive: “Today, everyone lies. Pharmaceutical handbills, governments, the radio, the movies, the newspapers. So why shouldn’t simple people like us lie as well?” Not only does Renoir seem to be making the mistake that “today” people lie whereas before, people didn’t, or didn’t as much (or at least that’s what I take from the quote out of whatever context it was originally uttered), but he also seems to be claiming a false virtue–he and his generation are just “simple people,” and not people privileged by class or artistic talent or whatever.

    But whatever quibbles I have about your take on the novel, I can’t say you’re wrong about the novel. (Who can ever really be “right” about how to interpret literature? And you’re the Hemingway scholar, not I.) And maybe I’m wrong, or at least not right, to overly critique your critique of a generation. Novelists and artists, when they’re not speaking just to each other, might indeed reflect something that can be called a Zeitgeist or Generationgeist or whatever. It’s probably a mistake for me to discount the idea of a generational consciousness or a mentality that can be attributed to a given generation.

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        • Okay, so what I was doing was really just a caveat saying ‘take this with a very large grain of salt.’ The rest was speculative thinking aloud. I suppose it was more a thought experiment than anything else. I did have in mind coworkers, friends, and roommates, but I realize you take that much further and it’s like ‘here’s my friend Dave and I’m going to tell you about Generation Dave’. I also intended it to read more playfully than it might have.

          The Sun Also Rises was taken as describing the Lost Generation at the time, or at least my great-grandfather joked about Hemingway needing to tour the vaudeville circuit giving lectures on the Lost Generation and the novel. He had used it as an epigraph to the book, although it’s an interesting point that the novel does sort of show up what Gertrude Stein said. He might have meant it ironically. What she said was intended for the whole generation, but his characters are stronger than lost.

          The Renoir line comes in what I think is one of the greatest films ever, which starts as a sort of upper class farce about adultery, but ends as something much more profound, especially as it came later and much closer to the outbreak of WWII. I do think he’s overestimating the top-down nature of corruption quite a bit, but still highly recommend the film:
          http://www.criterion.com/films/295-the-rules-of-the-game

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