Essays by Rosenberg

Essays by Rosenberg

THE TRADITION OF THE NEW, by Harold Rosenberg. Horizon, 1959.

By a quietly satisfactory law of nature, the brightest people write the best books, if you can get a book out of them. Now a publisher has had the good sense to get Harold Rosenberg to collect and arrange a plentiful volume of his essays; the best such book from an American in a long time, so bear with me while I praise it. The arrangement is excellent. In reading one essay, you come to question some basic idea of the author, and then in the next essay, which seems to be on a different theme, your question is answered. What Harold says is always the play of his mind on a particular subject; but he has a dialectical and integrating mind. In this review, let me try to trace the plot of this wide ranging collection.

Some of these essays are the kind of phony book-reviews that use a book as a springboard for the “reviewer’s” own ideas. Usually this genre is outrageous; it tells nothing to the author of the book and fails to perform the noble task of introducing a new work to its public. Harold employs it, however, as a necessity for his intellectual being; for his thinking is both historical and existential. He does not easily, like a poet, find his present by making it up as if out of nowhere and never, but he engages himself with the intellectual events that are actually trending, important modern books and movements of art. And in this engagement, his effort is not, finally, to be their notator and historian, but to fight toward his own identity, to find who he is in that which is. He fights gallantly and with a profusion of invention, but what is most admirable is how he fights honorably and never accepts “convenient” allies. Put intellectually, his problem is to distinguish between achieving authentic identity and assuming or being assigned a role; where by identity I do not mean, of course, individuality, but one’s own meaning in the scheme of things—find your meaning and you will know the scheme. My hunch is that Harold fancies himself a little as Father Jacob wrestling and dawning toward his true name Israel, but it’s still pretty dark. Put practically, in America 1930-1959, his problem has been to remain within fighting and dialogue range of the other writers without belonging to this “intellectual” swim or that “position-taking” magazine; luckily he has an assertive and sociable disposition, a kind of ram in ram’s clothing.

He is a lousy critic, for he does not concentrate his intelligence on the object before him. In this long book which could be superficially called a volume of critical essays, there is hardly a single art-work or poem made vivid for us, its structure laid bare, its beauty underlined, its flaw explained. (Without any doubt Harold loves these modern artworks and poems, but he applies his analysis elsewhere.) The result is that here the essays most directly on art,...