Joseph Epstein
Plausible Prejudices

As Rene Konig, in The Restless Image, a most interesting study of the phenomenon of fashion, puts it, the fashion snob 'must always be ahead of his timeā€”as a matter of principle.' Of clear distinctions, of questions of good and bad, of how things really are, the fashionable mind could hardly care less. It never asks of itself, what do I truly think, what do I really believe, but instead, what ought I to think, what can I get away with appearing to believe? Bryan Griffin is correct when he says that the reviewers and journalists who are the subject of his book believe in nothing. They may think they have politics, they may think they have opinions, but these, finally, are a good deal less important to them than the dread prospect of being out of harmony with their times. To quote Rene Konig again: 'The feeling of being in harmony gives a man a measure of security religion can never give him.'

Fashion has always been with us, but it only nourishes, indeed sometimes dominates, in times and conditions of insecurity and considerable status anxiety. The past two decades, with their great change, their social turmoil, have been such a time; and the meeting of the college-educated middle classes with culture and intellectual things creates such a condition. If one habitually thinks of fashion in connection with clothes, perhaps it is well to recall that ideas and opinions about culture tend to be the clothing of the intellectual life. The middle classes, who have now come to take them up, have been rather in the position of the nouveaux riches in their nervousness about getting things straight. Once culture became so thoroughly subject to fashion, the function of the reviewers and journalists of the popular press became to inform them, in the realm of culture, what to wear and how to wear it.

One cannot help noticing that the reviewers and journalists in Panic Among the Philistines share many likenesses with the fashion press. (In Paris even the Communist press sends reporters to cover the shows of the leading couturiers.) Like the fashion press, these reviewers and journalists are, in effect, with the show. They are part, and an important part, of the mechanics of promotion. The idea of independence among them has neither been encouraged nor found to be enticing. As the fashion reporter is unlikely to pan the new show of a famous couturier, so is the modern reviewer unlikely to pan the latest product of the major novelist. After all, if he does so too often, he will not be invited back, he will lose his place as part of the show, he will henceforth no longer be an insider. Yet the relation between reviewer and famous novelist, like that between fashion reporter and famous couturier, is not necessarily cynical. As Rene Konig says: 'Fashion not only makes the ordinary man giddy, it ultimately affects even the behavior of the critic and makes him its follower against his will.'

Observers of fashion talk about 'signal periods' and 'trend setters.' A signal period is the point that marks a new notion in fashion whose time has come; and a trend setter is someone who gives off the signal. I can think of no figure of our day to whose rise such terms better contribute understanding than Susan Sontag. What is of interest here, though, is how quickly the reviewers and journalists of the popular press pick up the signal, and consequently how drastically reduced is the time required for a new fashion in culture to take hold. Miss Sontag, for example, writes an essay on Camp in Partisan Review, and shortly thereafter Camp is discussed in Time and Newsweek, and not long after that on college campuses and in suburban homes. Of course, Miss Sontag has actually read Oscar Wilde and the other writers from whom she derived her notion of Camp, while the reviewers from Time and Newsweek have only read Susan Sontag, while the assistant professor or the suburban housewife has only read Jack Kroll of Newsweek or Frank Trippett of Time. Thus does a cultural notion diminish in substance as it heads toward bottom. Thus, too, does culture itself become thin and jittery.

It is the job of the reviewers and journalists on the cultural front to keep things jittery, which means to keep culture moving along at double time: to discover and popularize fresh notions regularly, to come up with new important writers, to give the impression that we are living in an exciting time for culture.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Through Eden took their solitary way.