Readers who recall Bryan F. Griffin's savage attack on the literary establishment, "Panic Among the Philistines," no doubt will be surprised to learn that this deflator of balloons and wrecker of reputations turns out to be, upon closer inspection, a mere pussycat. Yes, this is true. Griffin has expanded his Harper's magazine articles into a book, and in so doing he reveals that there is a soft heart behind all that growling and snarling.
This is too bad. Genuine curmudgeons are rare articles these days, and when one chances along he is to be treasured. Griffin appeared to be the real article when he first popped into public view a couple of years ago, with a pair of articles in Harper's that set literary teeth grinding from Big Sur to Provincetown. But offered the opportunity to expand "Panic Among the Philistines" into a book (Regnery Gateway, $12.95), he seems to have felt it incumbent upon him to metamorphose into Mr. Nice Guy.
Thus, after a couple of hundred pages of whooping and hollering, Griffin suddenly slams on the brakes and turns inspirational. In his concluding chapter, which he titles "Prophecy," Griffin lapses into quasi-Biblical prose and calls upon lovers of "high art" to fight the good fight against the cultural barbarians. Sounding for all the world as though he had just dashed off a couple of new stanzas for "Onward, Christian Soldiers," he closes the book with this call to arms:
"Let us therefore have some thunder in our anger, and let us finally clear the sullen advocates of the night from our path, so that we may yet live again as men and women were meant to live: as companions of the sun, as keepers of the light, as lovers of a larger fire. It is so simple: let us be still and listen to our souls again, and all will be well."
No, I don't know what all that means, either--although, as Li'l Abner might put it, it sure do sound purty. The truth is that Griffin does not wear the preacher's robes gracefully. The man was made to fulminate, not to inspire, and he sounds more than a little silly as he intones chapter and verse. But his admirers will be pleased and relieved to learn that sweetness and light take up a relatively small part of "Panic Among the Philistines"; except for those last pages Griffin is in characteristically vituperative form, and reading him is great fun.
To be sure, Griffin has not significantly moderated his prose style, which is often teeth-rattling, and after a time his eagerness to shock becomes just the teensiest bit irritating. But I find myself more and more willing to put up with Griffin's eccentricities and mannerisms, for the simple reason that on too many important matters the man is simply right. If anything, the case he makes against the dominant literary crowd is even more penetrating in book form than it was in magazine articles; it is more closely argued, supported with greater detail, and couched in considerable wit.
It is Griffin's contention that this is an age of literary sham, "the age of Capote and Warhol and Updike and Pollock masquerading as the age of Pericles," and of "unchecked obsession" with matters sexual. The goal is not true art, but mere sensation:
" . . . By 1980 the sea lanes were clogged with painted soup cans and Nonfiction Novels, with Theaters of the Absurd and muddy streams of consciousness, with 'Erotic Epics' and 'experimental prose' and horrid chunks of leftover cubism, with yesterday's avant-garde and tomorrow's Literary Events, with dead and dying Moderns and Post Moderns and Reductionists and Body Artists and Expressionists and Post Expressionists and Progressives and Beats and Ops and Pops, with all the sorry debris of a civilization lost at sea."
Hyperbole? I think not. Look about you, and you'll see ample evidence of what Griffin calls "the mad pursuit of barbarity." Could there be anything more vulgar--not to mention preposterous--than a culture that accepts as "art" the work of a self-publicist whose most recent endeavor was to litter the waters of Biscayne Bay with gigantic lily pads? Is it legitimate to take seriously a literary establishment that takes Kurt Vonnegut seriously? Or, to use Griffin's example: "Esquire magazine, which had once featured the work of Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Mann, suddenly whirled completely out of control and came crashing to the floor with an eight-page analysis of--what else--masturbatory devices for ladies."
This "unchecked obsession" with the erotic and pornographic is, in Griffin's judgment, "a sickness." To be sure, he often seems at least as fixated on the subject as those whom he attacks, and it's not always easy to tell whether he's being analytical or merely prudish, but what matters is that his is an intelligent voice raised against the excesses into which "sexual liberation" has led American culture and, by extension, American society. This isn't the voice of Jerry Falwell, thumping the tub of religious fundamentalism and moral oversimplification, but that of a thoughtful, literate person who objects to the fashion for sexual display on simple grounds of taste, and who finds that it provides unflattering commentary on those who indulge themselves in it:
" . . . In a secure intellectual climate, people will not do in print what they might do at home. Just as a public snicker from an otherwise civilized soul is often a sign of social embarrassment, a verbal and spiritual vulgarity that flourishes in the midst of . . . refinement and erudition is usually a symptom--and a source--of intellectual fear and moral uncertainty . . . By the same token, habitual vulgarity--in an individual or a literary establishment or a people--is extraordinarily unhealthy, because it mocks the things of the spirit, and slowly squeezes out all serious thought, all fruitful discourse, and all genuine sentiment."
Here, as in other instances, Griffin overstates the case and threatens to reduce his argument to mere melodrama, but at the core of it he is correct: There is too much vulgarity and showiness in what passes for American literature these days, too little substance and--forgive the introduction of an old-fashioned word, an old-fashioned virtue--reticence. Though there are more contemporary writers of praiseworthy accomplishment than Griffin cares to acknowledge, and though in listing his favorite "modern" authors he does betray a decidedly fuddy-duddyish taste, he knows whereof he speaks: "A society that represents the culmination of 2,500 years of Western culture should have been able to feed its children on something better than Norman Mailer." That is not a fashionable thing to say, and it will win Griffin automatic, predictable scorn in certain quarters, but it is true.