As trickled down to the undergraduate elements of the avant-garde at Yale College in the 1950s, questions about the uses of art (its place in society, its promise of a career) resolved into a “pandemonium” of words like those recorded by Roberto Bolaño and described by Stefan Zweig as a “collective, eager, competitive curiosity” translated into vivid statements of noble principle and passionate objection. Usually I found myself on the wrong side of the critique, in some quarters regarded as an obsolete romantic, in others as a trivial bourgeois. Introduced to the modernist doctrines of alienation and despair, I took the notes but didn’t learn the lesson. The Bauhaus architecture I thought better suited for a barracks or a penitentiary; in the paintings of Mondrian and Kandinsky I could recognize little else except the surface of a decorative design. Nor in the works of Berg and Shostakovich could I identify the sound that from the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century composers I’d learned to recognize as music. The apparatchiks in the English department employed the techniques remarked upon by Billy Collins—“tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it,” beat it with a hose “to find out what it really means.” I was less interested in what it really meant than in A. E. Housman’s definition of poetry as that which raises the hair on the chin while shaving. Despite four years of being told that art was somehow sacred, divorced from all sakes other than its own, I never learned to prefer the comprehension of the theory of the thing to a naive delight in the thing itself.
But in what was then the spirit of the times, the side of the argument on which anybody came down, against Haydn and for Stravinsky, with the early or the late Picasso, mattered less than the shared belief among all the voices in the room that it was art and literature that were to be looked to for the light on the far and fair horizon. The certainty was in line with the generous idealisms expressed in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights as well as with the intent to furnish the newly emergent American empire with the trophy of a civilization. America’s victories in World War II had established its military and economic predominance; in the 1950s it was thought that a determined courting of the lady in the veil would bring forth works of genius of a match with the arriviste hegemon’s spiritual and moral grace. Other empires had done so, most notably Periclean Athens, Elizabethan England, France during the reign of Louis XIV. Surely the United States could produce something equally impressive. Was not America richer than any other country known to history? Were not its weapons more terrible, its virtues more abundant? How then could its painting not be more luminous, its literature more profound, its music more sublime?