[Note, my wife and I will be attending the Humanist Conference in Washington, DC, so there will not be any more blogging till next week]
THE IMAGE: A GUIDE TO PSEUDO-EVENTS IN AMERICA, by Daniel J. Boorstin, 1961
It may seem odd to review a book this old, but it was so hilarious I couldn’t resist. And it certainly fits the optimism theme.
I picked this up at a used book sale, thinking Boorstin was a pretty good writer, and the title seemed intriguing. Turns out Boorstin thought just about everything in modern American culture was “pseudo.” But what really bugged him was that it was all so vulgarly democratic. This is the most arrogantly elitist book I ever read, and could have passed as a satiric parody of elitist snobbery.
Boorstin, for example, hates art museums—because, he says, they present the works divorced from their authentic, intended context. What he means by “authentic context” is the palaces and mansions where only select rich people could enjoy the art. Letting the masses enjoy the art is not something he cares for.
He hates movies—because they are, he says, inauthentic shadows of the books on which they are based. He actually acknowledges that movies are an art form different from books, and, indeed, they provide a more vivid and intense experience. But that very fact he decries, on the ground that it seduces people away from books. People like him read books; the vulgar masses go to films. So deplorable.
Tourism he hates with a special venom. Authentic travel, as in the 18th century, is supposed to be difficult, uncomfortable, time-consuming, dangerous, and, of course, expensive. Travel, apparently, should only be for the truly intrepid (and rich). The modern tourist industry makes travel easy, efficient, comfortable, safe, and cheap, so that the great unwashed can have a good time. Isn’t that just plain deplorable? Boorstin thinks so; to him it’s disgusting pseudo-travel.
And music. Yes, even music. He loathes recorded music. It’s not authentic and original. Real music should only be heard in a concert hall. Boorstin deplores that now you can buy a recording of Beethoven and listen to it over and over, to your heart’s content. What a terrible travesty! It’s just not genuine Beethoven, he says. Only the white tie and tails crowd should be entitled to enjoy music.
On every page, where Boorstin wagged his scolding finger, mocking the vulgarity and inauthenticity of modern culture, I was laughing, at what he couldn’t bring himself to see: how splendid it is that nowadays the many are able to enjoy the kinds of things that, in the past, were the exclusive province of the pampered rich. Of course they don’t enjoy them in exactly the same way. They enjoy Rembrandts in art museums rather than by attending dinner parties of the nobility. And maybe that isn’t quite the same thing. Yet nevertheless it’s a darn good thing. The point is that people do enjoy all the things that Boorstin deplores. The whole point of life is to get more enjoyment and less pain. Why is Boorstin so unwilling to countenance giving the peasantry some of life’s pleasures?
His book made me appreciate, all the more, how much American culture has been democratized, and how widely the good life is now enjoyed, compared to past epochs. This is the gigantic achievement of modern society.