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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

PROPHET WITHOUT HORROR

Up to Chapter 4, Beaty sedulously avoids saying much about Dr. W's critique of comic books in order to build up a fuller picture of Wertham's contributions as a psychiatrist and philosopher, as against the dominant comic-fan picture of W. as a blue-nosed busybody. I have to rather admire Beaty's ability to play devil's advocate for the long-deceased doctor, and to conjure forth all sorts of obscure items from W.'s now-little-read works and unpublished papers in order to buttress his argument. However, the argument-- that of W. as a prophet without honor in his own land, a lonely righteous soul seeking reform where others sought appeasement by "workin' for the Man"-- is always pretty transparently weighted, and thus fails as a whole.

The substance of Beaty's argument is that W. was one of the few voices within the sphere of what Beaty terms "the New York Intellectuals" who actually called for reform of inequities, and other Intellectuals in this sphere-- particularly those who wrote disparagingly of W., like Robert Warshow and Leslie Fiedler-- did so because they had been seduced by the elitist conservatism of their times. As one of his few citations of evidence for this view, Beaty asserts that W. was supportive toward Julius and Ethel Rosenberg-- testifying on behalf of the imprisoned Ethel to get her better treatment, giving psychological examinations to the Rosenberg children-- while both Fiedler and Warshow wrote "coldhearted and condemning" essays on the convicted traitors. (In modern times there's been some debate as to what *degree* of treason the Rosenbergs committed, but as of this writing the consensus is that they did conduct real espionage against their country, not merely "alleged espionage," as Beaty writes.) It's probably true that Wertham was, according to a claim made by the doctor and cited on page 85, unfairly pilloried by superpatriots for having said anything remotely favorable about the Rosenbergs during the time when they were blamed for selling atomic secrets. But this event does not mean that the negative essays of Fiedler and Warshow were informed by superpatriotism, nor that their differing views of the Rosenbergs suggests anything of substance about their negative appraisals of Wertham's approach to the comic-book medium. If Fielder and Warshow are to be deemed superpatriots because they felt the Rosenbergs deserved their punishment, then the same pronoucement should hold true of Wertham, who disapproved of seeing Ezra Pound pronounced incompetent and who wanted to see Pound tried for high treason.

(Sidenote: surely the funniest moment in this book is seeing Beaty try to portray Leslie Fiedler, noted for his radicalism even back in the 1950s, as a conservative highbrow a la Lionel Trilling. Ditto the implied notion by Beaty that Wertham was in any way a more formidable intellect than Fiedler, who, as all students of popular culture should know, could crush puny Wertham like little bitty bug.)

Beaty's cognitive dissonance in the matter of superpatriotism finds a similar echo in his pronouncements of the "Cold War hysteria" against the Communist menace. Not having begun Chapter 4 yet, I wonder whether or not Beaty will choose to see the anti-comics fervor that swept America as a similar "hysteria," or whether he will choose to view it as a "critique of mass culture." Will he at least see that both have a common cause, both having erupted as a result of a culture feeling its stable way of life endangered? I would certainly think that the anti-comics jihad would be more classifiable as a hysteria given the dubiousness of their harm to that culture, as opposed to the fear of Communism, which comes down to a fear of real soldiers with real guns and bombs.

But I feel almost sure that Beaty will not see it that way. Thus far it's been Beaty's practice to elide or smooth over the more absurd or attention-getting statements by Wertham, such as the one reported by David Hadju in TEN CENT PLAGUE, where W. took the stand in a 1934 murder trial and proceeded "to interject that he also believed that virtually all psychiatric testimony in criminal trials was specious" (p 98).

The most valuable sections of Beaty's early chapters are not those dealing with W.'s very real contributions to the fight against racism, or with the doctor's far less weighty pronouncements against other psychologies or philosophies than his own, but those dealing with W.'s ideas about violence in the media. For the question of the effects of violence on so-called impressionable minds is the historical cornerstone of W.'s impact upon the cultural scene of his time, rather than any good intentions that motivated or seemed to motivate his anti-comics crusade.

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