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A Sad Heart at the Supermarket

Randall Jarrell, the Media, and the "Medium"

Randall Jarrell was not a great writer. That is what is so great about him. Reading him, one never feels in the presence of a sage, an oracle, a man delivering wisdom from a mountaintop. It’s like spending time with a warm, witty, well-read older brother or uncle whose opinions you trust. There is irony in this: Jarrell (1914-65) was no placid, avuncular figure. He had major episodes of mental illness; he tried to kill himself more than once; the question of whether his death in a traffic accident was or was not suicide remains open. But it is by their voices on the page that writers live, and Jarrell’s voice is one of the sanest I’ve ever read. It’s also wonderfully persuasive.

Jarrell wrote one droll comic novel about university life, Pictures from an Institution (1954), much poetry, and some of the best essays of any modern writer. “The Age of Criticism” (1955), about academic literary analysis, compares American “new criticism” – that symbol-hunting approach which informs the way poetry, in particular, is taught to this day – with old-style historical and textual scholarship. Jarrell predicts: “Criticism will soon have reached the state of scholarship, and the most obviously absurd theory – if it is maintained intensively, exhaustively, and professionally – will do the theorist no harm in the eyes of his colleagues.” He was right. (Cue structuralism, deconstruction, etc.) His oft-reprinted introduction to the 1965 US reissue of Christina Stead’s novel The Man Who Loved Children, originally published in 1940, placed before a new generation one of the neglected masterpieces of twentieth-century literature. Whether writing about Stead, Kipling, Robert Frost, or the great Russian writers he loved, Jarrell did what the best critics do: he made you see with a new depth of vision. He also wrote brilliantly about mid-twentieth century culture. A classic example is his essay “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket.” Picking up the essay again recently, I was struck by its prophetic force.

Writing in 1960, Jarrell notes the tendency, then becoming common, to refer collectively to forms of communication as “the media,” “mass media,” or simply “media.” “Media,” he points out, is the plural of “medium,” a term which means something in the middle, which lies between things, through which a force or act is transmitted. The name of our all-encompassing entertainment and information culture should be, in fact, the Medium: “For all these media – television, radio, movies, newspapers, magazines, and the rest – are a single medium, in whose depths we are all being cultivated. This Medium is of middle condition or degree, mediocre; it lies in the middle of everything, between a man and his neighbour, his wife, his child, his self; it, more than anything else, is the substance through which the forces of our society act upon us, and make us into what our society needs.”

And what, Jarrell asks, does our society need? The answer: “For us to need.” It is the purpose of the Medium (of which the Internet, of course, is the apotheosis) not only to sell things, but to promote the whole culture in which the buying of material things is seen as the acme of human experience. We know this: but Jarrell asks what the Medium does to culture as traditionally understood – literary culture, in particular: “Mass culture either corrupts or isolates the writer. His old feeling of oneness – of speaking naturally to an audience with essentially similar standards – is gone; and writers no longer have much of the consolatory feeling that took its place, the feeling of writing for the happy few, the kindred spirits whose standards are those of the future. (Today they feel: the future, should there be one, will be worse.)”

We might ask whether any writer nowadays believes, or can believe, that he or she is writing for the future. Our lack of any sure or confident sense of posterity – to which we can contribute meaning and value – is a loss from which we suffer: a vast loss, the principal loss which disfigures contemporary culture. Jarrell, writing over fifty years ago, saw this and saw it clearly. In an essay of twenty pages, he makes key points about “the Medium” and its attendant alienations which have only grown more relevant as decades have passed. To quote the “good bits” from the essay one would have to quote all of it, but here are three favourite passages of mine:

(1) “[The Medium] is, at bottom, the opposite of the world of the arts, where commercial and scientific progress do not exist; where the bone of Homer and Mozart and Donatello is there, always, under the mere blush of fashion; where the past – the remote past, even – is responsible for the way that we understand, value, and act in, the present. When one reads an abstract expressionist’s remark that Washington studios are ‘eighteen months behind’ those of his colleagues in New York, one realizes something of the terrible power of business and fashion over those most overtly hostile to them.”

This is a fundamental point: business and fashion values have completely taken over fields such as art and criticism. With much contemporary art we might wonder whether any distinctions between business, fashion, or art still exist.

(2) “Art lies to tell us the (sometimes disquieting) truth. The Medium tells us truths, facts in order to make us believe some reassuring or entertaining lie or half-truth. These actually existing celebrities, of universally admitted importance, about whom we are told directly authoritative facts – how can fictional characters compete with these? These are our fictional characters, our Lears and Clytemnestras.”

Again, this becomes more true with every year that passes. See any issue of Hello!, National Enquirer, etc. See reality television.

(3) “The Medium is half life and half art, and competes with both life and art. It spoils its audience for both; spoils both for its audience. For the People of the Medium life isn’t sufficiently a matter of success and glamour and celebrity, isn’t entertaining enough, distracting enough, mediated enough; and art is too difficult or individual or novel […] If a man has all his life been fed a combination of marzipan and ethyl alcohol – if eating, to him, is a matter of being knocked unconscious by an ice cream soda – can he, by taking thought, come to prefer a diet of bread and wine, apples and well-water?”

Critical writing must work, and must be judged by, the same standards as other writing. This passage succeeds because Jarrell tosses out, with seeming casualness, two wonderful and highly original metaphors: first, the effect of trash culture is like “being knocked unconscious by an ice cream soda”; second, art, as opposed to trash culture, is “bread and wine, apples and well-water.” This is so right, even down to the equation of types of culture with types of food: the ersatz, the emptily over-stimulating, the junk calories, as opposed to the good, the natural, the healthy. And so Jarrell, in defining art, produces it.

Damn it: I’m wrong. Maybe Randall Jarrell is a great writer after all.