The Confusion of Realms
In most of the fourteen essays collected in this book Mr. Richard Gilman comes on as the compleat “with it” critic, pushing to the limit his (perhaps) belated conversion to extreme trendiness. A literary journalist and theater reviewer in background, and lately a professor of drama at Yale, Mr. Gilman has shown through the years an almost immodest taste for conversions; and at present he is evidently straining at the leash to launch himself into the role of a leading exponent of the New—of the New at all costs at that—and as a Now prophet of the arts. Thus craving as he does optimal participation in the cult of Now, inevitably for him not ripeness but timeliness is all.
That there is no significant difference between being time-obsessed and being time-bound is one of the many disagreeable facts that Mr. Gilman, so prone to confuse novelty with originality, prefers not to acknowledge. As a critic he is not merely attentive to the Zeitgeist, he is positively enslaved by it, to the point of being unaware that he has the option of opposing its more erratic or jejune expressions. True, he questions John Updike’s reputation as a novelist and attacks MacBird! and Rechy’s City of Night. But these are small game indeed, and Rechy’s trashy novel, a typical Grove Press concoction, is hardly worth serious attention. Only in the essay on the Living Theatre, in which its ostentatious claims to revolutionary probity and efficacy are denied outright, does Mr. Gilman wake up from his dream of an apocalypse of artistic innovation. For the rest, he pursues the fata morgana of avant-gardism and engages in a good deal of aesthetic theorizing, at once schematic and fancy, about iconoclastic models of new fiction and drama.
Still, it will not do to dismiss Mr. Gilman as just another swinger. He moralizes too much to fit that simple category, even if his moralizing takes the form of an all-too-solemn and over-strenuous insistence on new-fangled aesthetic imperatives, mostly of his own contriving. No, his is a case, in my view, of severe moral insecurity. Hence the terrible fear of being left behind, of missing the boat. And the result is a collapse into trendiness.
No wonder Mr. Gilman is so entranced by Susan Sontag, of whom he says that there is no critic “more interesting or more relevant” today. Yet if we read his remarks on Miss Sontag carefully enough we soon realize that, though voicing his disagreements with truly extraordinary discretion, specifically he does not really agree with her about anything of consequence. It is plain that what he chiefly admires in Miss Sontag is the hypertrophic image she seems to have acquired—that of the siren of eroticized aestheticism and of the so-called “new sensibility.” The total up-to-dateness of her public posture appeals to him; what matters is not her detailed argument but the trend she appears to embody. But I for one am not at all certain that …
Useful Critic July 2, 1970