Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Disconnect the Dots

Within evolutionary biological circles there was some controversy, decades ago, on the speed at which evolution and variation can occur. The late Stephen Jay Gould proposed his hypothesis of Punctuated Equilibrium, which said that in the Cambrian explosion (in a typical example), the sudden-seeming appearance in the fossil record of lifeforms considerably more complex than what came before, was the product of a sudden burst of evolutionary activity, as distinguished from the orthodoxy of evolutionary thinking that said evolution was ongoing and gradual. Rather than existing in a constant state of flux and branching off into new variants, Gould said, different species will remain stable for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, only to suddenly (geologically speaking) develop in new directions.

I bring this up in the context of Fred Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed due to the similarity in its thinking, as applied to developments in science, the arts, and politics more broadly in the last 50 years. As indicated by the subtitle, Kaplan believes 1959 was the pivotal year, the cultural crunch, that begot such innovations and changes as wide-ranging and varied as flash mobs, the Civil Rights movement, and New Journalism. He makes an engaging case, though not necessarily for this particular thesis.

It's not that Kaplan presents faulty evidence. The book is loaded with the goings-on of events more consequential than their obscurity would suggest. The early singles released by Berry Gordy's Tamla record label that would eventually become Motown Records shaped the early work of a Liverpool band originally called the Silver Beetles; John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me predicted a violent response by black Americans to their perennial underclass status anticipated the riots that followed the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. And so on.

The problem is that, for all the specificity suggested in pinning the year of change to 1959, the methodology employed is vague and loose. A chapter is given to the legal battle over publication of Lady Chatterly's Lover, which had been seized by the Post Office on grounds of obscenity. Kaplan presents the result, in favor of lifting the ban on the book, as "the beginning of the end" of bans on literature on the grounds of obscenity. Yet Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" had won a similar court victory just two years previous. Kaplan mentions it as background information, but doesn't elaborate on how the Lady Chatterly case is different, except perhaps in the latter book's more intentionally prurient nature.

Likewise, the chapter on "Howl" and the Beat Generation identifies Ginsberg's February 5 reading at Columbia University as a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the generational revolt of the 60s. The reading was sympathetically reviewed by for the Partisan Review by Diana Trilling, whose husband Lionel was emblematic of the stuffy, academic old guard about to be swept away by the insurgent beatniks. That her observation of the "unfathamable gap" between her experience at the reading and at home among her own social circle looks forward to the coming decade's generation gap is true. But does it outweigh in significance the publication and wild popularity of "Howl" or On the Road or any of the other moments that led to the Columbia reading?

To return to the talk on fossils and evolution--Kaplan is playing a half-hearted Gould, arguing basically:

Boring 1950s ------> 1959! ------> To the 60s, and beyond!!!

But his assessment doesn't quite live up to this. He can't just ignore precedents that would paint a more gradualist picture, only downplay them. But there they are, the dimmer stars in a night sky constellation, blotted by the light of 1959. It's isn't too damaging, as indeed the material is far too interesting to be neatly contained within the span of 365 days. The great use of the book is in illustrating the messy truth of history. Dividing it into various eras makes for a useful shorthand, but that is all. Human events rarely operate with fidelity to the rolling over a decade--indeed, this is the whole point of Kaplan's reaching further past the 60s into the supposedly drab 1950s to find the antecedents of many features of today's world. It is not surprising, then, that cultural change should not confine itself to a single year. That it goes further back than Kaplan wants to admit doesn't make him wrong, rather more right than he knows.

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