The Immediate Experience
by Robert Warshow
Robert Warshow died in 1955, aged 37, taking with him a serious mind and a valuable disrespect for acceptances. A number of his essays and reviews, mostly from Commentary and Partisan Review, have now been published under the title The Immediate Experience, and the collection underscores the pathos of his early death.
Warshow was one of the best of a school of literary, theater, and film critics that has risen in this country since the thirties. A composite member of this school might be described thus: his liberal arts education has had a strong salting of applied psychology and the social sciences. His political views, if he still has any, are post-collectivist (he is through with Socialism and/or Communism). He is agnostic, yearning towards atheism. He spends much of his professional time attacking pap and by now is faintly tired of the sound of his own voice. His chief occupational hazard (of which he is well aware) is boredom.
The vast increase in collegiate education in the first third of this century produced a new class of unemployed: intellectuals looking for occupations. Whether or not they found acadernic or other posts to support them, they needed fields of their own for intellectual activity. Some of them found still further crevices to fill in the literary monuments to James, Melville, Eliot. Others of them noted that most serious criticism of the theater had been feverishly esthetic or nostalgically sentimental; as for films, American serious criticism before 1930 was minute. Their literary-sociological kits slung on their shoulders, they descended. They had found their jobs.
The theater attracted principally those whose bent was more literary than social. The others pressed on, naturally enough, to films which seemed designed for them by providence plentiful, popular, influential. The new critics could even start with the disarming, manly admission that they were not "above" films, that they had enjoyed them since they were children, including the bad ones. (Warshow: "I have seen a great many very bad movies, and I know when a movie is bad, but I have very rarely been bored at the movies.") Here was the perfect medium to match their educations and temperaments, a lode of sociological meanings waiting to be mined.
Warshow shared the group's heaviness: the preponderant use of scientific and literary disciplines to evaluate a non-literary art; the conscientious response to humor (the more slapstick the more revealing, of course); the compulsion to invent seeming perceptions even when the critic perceived nothing. He shared their virtues: vigor of mind, hatred of fake and sentimentality, lively antennae fixed to considerable cultivation in the past. He had, too, some qualities less common in the group: genuine humor (as distinct from sarcasm) and some sense of shortcomings. Very possibly (we'll never know), the ability to grow.
The juxtaposition of social essays and art reviews in this book highlights his strengths and lack of them. We soon see that, not only is he on surer ground with social matters, but that when he writes of art he seems not to have changed subjects. Obviously two essays by the same author must reflect him, whatever the subjects; but no one can go (for example) from To the Finland Station to The Wound and the Dow without finding a different Edmund Wilson.
Warshow's essay on the Rosenbergs' letters is an adroit, scathing exposition of the interior of the Communist Party mind, with every iron plate riveted in place and the whole chamber ringing with metallic echoes. His piece on Dr. Wertham and comic books neatly skins the obstreperous concern of those psychiatrists who find a battle horse on which to ride to headlines. His essay on E. B. White and The New Yorker is a useful corrective. (He says: "The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it." For examples of this distinction, compare Richard Rovere's "Letter from Washington" in that magazine with his articles in the London Spectator. The former provides knowledgeable dinner-table chat; the latter are fine political surgery.)
But when Warshow moves into art criticism, he begins to weave and stumble, even in literature, which is relatively close to him. Comparing Lionel Trilling's novel with Forster's novels, he becomes cumbersomely involved. "Mr. Trilling might have come closer to the 'essence' of the experience he describes if he had been more willing to see it is as the experience of particular human beings in a specific situation; perhaps this means: if he had been more willing to face his own relation to it." Further: "Mr. Trilling has not yet solved the problem of being a novelist at all." The comparison ponderously discovers something that many of us knew: Forster is a novelistic genius. Trilling is not.
With plays and films Warshow is progressively less comfortable. His general essays on cultural aspects of certain film forms are enlightening. "The Gangster as Tragic Hero" is acute; his related essay, "The Westerner," is the best I have read on that much-munched subject. But when he criticizes specific plays and films, Warshow is simply inadequate. He is blind without his sociological glasses and, in turn, is blinded by them when he looks at art as such. His divination of artistic purpose is dubious, his familiarity with artistic process is slight, his knowledge of directing and acting (hardly irrelevancies in this field) is non-existent. He criticizes Death of a Salesman (as have others) for Miller's glibly assumed "liberal" response by the audience. His criticism of the play as such consists only of impatient rhetoric and poor jokes. His comparison of the film with the play fumbles the real reason for the film's failure: the fact that this play is its form--it cannot be successfully adapted to another medium.
In his review of The Crucible, Warshow says that Miller's point is obscure and seems to be only a (admittedly strained) parallel with the McCarthy investigations. The central issue of the Salem witch trials, says Warshow, was that the accused "were upholding their own personal integrity against an insanely mistaken community." But surely that is the very point of Miller's play.
His remarks on acting are impoverished. In one place he calls Fredric March "a more commonplace actor" than Lee J. Cobb. March can be criticized on several scores, but they are all excesses--precisely part of the flavor that keeps him from being commonplace these days. (And in relation to Citizen Cobb, of all actors!) But Warshow's comments on acting reduce, generally, to one comment. Of March: "In the blankest moments ... one sees, if not Willy Loman, who is always more a concept than a human being, at least the actor Fredric March, brought so close and clear that his own material reality begins to assert itself outside the boundaries that are supposed to be set by his role." Of Chaplin: "Perhaps it could even be said that in some sense he has never been an artist at all--though he is full of arts--but always and only a presence." These statements exemplify this critical school's compulsive sagacity, hollow but high-sounding; and they demonstrate Warshow's stupefaction with the powerful juju of photography.
With the three Chaplin films he discusses, Warshow takes us through the social implications of the Tramp, and his changes into the Dictator and Verdoux and Calvero. Some of this is interesting; all of it conforms to the protocol of the ritual cultural essay on Chaplin. Compare these Chaplin pieces with Agee's three-part review of Monsieur Verdoux and you see how little Warshow has said about the films as films. One does not wish that Warshow had been Agee. There is plentiful room for more than one kind of critic, and social-intellectual attitudes are obviously a valid area of criticism. But Warshow's reviews remind us inescapably of the medical student who prepared for an exam by studying the stomach, was asked about the heart, and replied: "The heart lies near the stomach. The stomach is constructed of ... etc., etc."
Warshow seems to have had a growing awareness of a new dimension he wanted in his work. In a prospectus for a book he hoped to write on a Guggenheim grant, which prospectus serves as preface to this collection but does not really apply to it, he says that serious film criticism has tended to fall into two classes: the hyper-esthetic and the sociological, in which latter the film is one more social phenomenon, like low-priced cars. He wants to write a fuller kind of criticism. "A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man." Few have thought it necessary to write that "a man reads a book, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man"; but at least it indicates that Warshow was growing itchy with a compartmented approach, with making an artistic experience serve a narrowed, non-artistic purpose.
He says that he hopes his future work will help to "legitimize" movies. This ambition is conceivable only to those who are not bored by bad movies; who have been drugged by the film's incidental immense power for myth and sex-god creation, and are blind to the truth that it has always been an art, that all it has needed at any time is an executant’s artist. But at least Warshow had stopped being defensive about liking films. If he had lived, he might have helped lead out of the popcorn- and-psychology wilderness those who still go slumming in the balcony for combined juvenile, adolescent, and collegiate reasons. He might have helped to show them that the high proportion of bad films has no more relevance to the art itself than the high proportion of printed trash has to literature; that to relish sleazy gangster films and Kim Novak is much the same as relishing comics and girlie magazines. Warshow would not have tried to "legitimize" those magazines in order to "legitimize" Faulkner. He might have been the first in his group to see that De Sica and Bergman don't need "legitimization"--or at least that a good way to do it is to start being bored by bad movies, by maturing past the worship of mere photography and "presence" and myth-making power.
A word must be said about Lionel Trilling's reminiscent introduction. Puffed with pomposities throughout, it does Warshow small service by saying that his style demands praise "of the kind that used to be given to, say, Hazlitt,"and that certain Warshow pieces “establish themselves in the line of Hazlitt, a tradition in which I would place only one other writer of our time, George Orwell, with whose feeling for the language Warshow's had much in common." Warshow is as much a descendant of Hazlitt the Revolutionist (certainly not the drama critic) as are most republican non-dogmatists. But Trilling's admiration of this prose is harder to understand. Occasionally Warshow writes a beautiful line ("Jews, as Jews, are interchangeable; if even one man has been killed because he was a Jew, then we are all survivors"), and his threnody for his father is as moving as it is percipient; but much of his prose has ax-rks all over it to show how it was hewn. Warshow has indeed some of Orwell's brusque, wiry mode of thought, bt I think the author of Politics and the English Language would have squirmed at the writing in some passages that space does not permit me to quote. Warshow would be better off without Trilling's windy fanfare. His absurdly premature death was and is an occasion for sadness, not for sanctification.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann