Quentin Anderson’s The Imperial Self is the kind of idiosyncratic literary criticism by white men trying to say something about America that flourished in the post-WWII period. I had never heard of it until I read Jonathan Sturgeon’s Baffler salvo Divine Indigestion: the endlessly fabulized American self. The overview Sturgeon provides in that piece interested me enough to seek out the book. I’m not sure it’s worth seeking out even if I found it thought-provoking.
It did have the salutary effect of curing me of whatever vestiges of intellectual goodwill I had left for Emerson (and the vestiges were already small).
I also have to admit that I have been sitting on these quotes since I finished the book back in late summer. Now seems like an even less good time to post them than back then was. Or maybe it’s an even better time. I don’t know. On the one hand, these seem like an indictment of the entire fictional enterprise of modern western SF&F. On the other hand: look who is doing the indicting. And: when I think of the works that have spoken to me most over the past few years, they’re works which circumvent or, more often, short-circuit what Anderson describes below. Which grasp the cultural tools at hand but use them in strange, beautiful, angry, hope-generating ways.
Please note that Anderson was an idiosyncratic curmudgeon who took many of his cues from Lionel Trilling, which means his political stance is, for lack of a better term, complicated. Moderate but cranky? Classically liberal? Neoconservative? Maybe somewhere in between those three. It’s hard to say and that’s just as much a function of the platforms and tactics of the two U.S. political parties over the past half century as it is slipperiness on the part of Trilling (and Anderson–but Trilling was the larger figure so there have been more attempts by others to claim him/pin him down). I mean, Anderson was a Columbia professor during the 1960s, which led to this wonderfully euphemistic sentence from his official CU obit: “He chaired the Joint Committee of Disciplinary Affairs, following campus disturbances in the spring of 1968.”
It’s also not fair to present these quotes without the context of the book, especially Anderson’s argument about Emerson’s effect on the American imagination, and specifically the way communities and their social ties were redefined and weakened by the elevation of the individual self and the self constituting the world itself aka the imperializing the world (the extreme logical extension of which can be found in modern techno-libertarian fantasies where the self extends it ability to be an imperial self through technological augmentation).
Also: the world has changed a lot since these words were written.
So with all those caveats:
A part of the rather grim comedy of the period of the 1940’s and 1950’s is that we were in the habit of asking ourselves anxiously why we no longer had political imaginations, political concerns. If we had seen the meaning of our subscription to an iconography of imagination, we need not have asked these questions. In such art the world has been moved into the self, as in Blake, and the plurality, the inconsequence, the muddiness of existence have been replaced by internalized antinomies. These playlands of the imagination were great fun to explore, but they altogether lacked what a form such as tragedy provides, a recognition that life is actually open-ended. When we came to understand how this cultural shift came about, we will have to admit that while our theory of art ruled out art as a cause, or art as having cognitive value, the theory served simply to protect us from a knowledge of what was happening to our imaginations. As usual in historical matters, we can’t tell whether our responsiveness to certain kinds of art was a primary cause, but it is plain that our art and our cultural disposition were after all bound up with one another.
The notion of the impersonality of art became the refuge of the infantile demand to rule the whole world. And with reason. Here after all was a human power one could actually exercise, actually experience. Is there a greater imaginable human power than the power to control the way others apprehend the world? (202-203)
Without pretending to explore the significance of the most recent impulses of youthful disaffiliation, we may find in the groundswell of enthusiasms over the last ten years a number of particular instances. The need for the young to feel for a total translation of experience, a fresh ground for experience or a new umwelt for their sensations, has led to the immersion in Tolkien, science fiction, or the substitute world of Blake’s prophetic books. (204)
Both excerpts are from The Imperial Self by Quentin Anderson, 1971, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
P.S. Perhaps the best recommendation for the book is Harold Bloom’s condescending misreading of it in a July 1971 review for Commentary Magazine.