IMAGINE A SCIENCE FICTION fantasy in which one decade battles another, call it "The War Between the Dates," and you'll have a fair approximation of Morris Dickstein's Gates of Eden, an account of the shortlived triumphs of American culture in the '60s.
At Professor Dickstein's Deli, the tasty '60s come sandwiched between the "bland surface of the 50s" and the "sterile and catatonic" '70s. (Do mixed metaphors disturb you? They don't disturb Dickstein. He knows the '60s "liberated" us from all repressive and artificial conventions, including literary ones. Now we're free to write of forces that "fuel the dissidence" of intellectuals until that dissidence "breaks up on the rocks of its own frustration." Dissidence isn't a fire, you see - it's a supertanker.)
Where did the "new sensibility" of the '60s get its start? In the "dissident [literary] works of the late '50s," of course. But then again, "in retrospect it's remarkable how much the spirit of change, the revaluation of values in America in the '60s, took its cue from the conflict over race." If you're confused, remember that although "changes in the other arts reveal the '60s and expose its sensibility, rock [music] was the culture of '60s in a unique and special way." Back in the '50s, apparently, rock was only unique, not special, and the conflict over race cued no one but Governor Faubus of Arkansas.
But enough of the new sensibility's origins; how did it manifest itself? The "most striking" quality of '60s culture, Dickstein confides, was "the combination of political militancy and cultural bohemianism." This combination, you'll remember, was "Edenic" and "utopian," imbued with "bright hopes" for a society "to be molded to the shape of human possibility." Forget about the war, the riots, the assassinations. If you think the '60s were propelled by frustration or despair, or that American life was tinged with anguish, you evidently weren't part of the '60s culture.
Had you been part of that culture, you might better understand Dicksteins brand of literary criticism. Consider his discussion of novelist John Barth: "Greek mythology and the Arabian Nights are tough leagues to bat in, and Barth's three novellas manage few palpable hits. Caught between the simple integrity of traditional stories and the demystifying problematics of modernist self-consciousness. Barth realizes neither one nor the other." As Dickstein says of another writer, "This may be bullshit, but it's significant bullshit."
Gates of Eden contains enough autobiography to indicate that Dickstein personally felt liberated in the '60s, but that transformation may relfect the passage from adolescene to adulthood more than the era itself. Just as veterans of World War II often speak nostalgically of the Army, remembering youth and purpose while suppressing the horrors and regimentation, those who came of age in the '60s will always be wistful when the Beatles are played again. But this natural sentiment, when distilled into literature, best suits a memoir or a novel, not a jerry-built history of culture that relies on Hegelian dialectics.
Ironically, Dickstein himself provides the best standard for criticizing his incoherencies when, near the end, he turns his attention briefly to the field of dance. "Like everything else in the '60s," he says, dance music "was a siren song telling us to let go, to be ourselves, not to follow any formal steps. In the '70s, however, we have come to appreciate the grace and intelligence of discplined movement."
We have come to appreciate the grace ad intelligence of disciplined movement: not only on the stage, as Dickstein imagines, but on the printed page as well.