The Sensibility of the Sixties
EACH DECADE--we think now of decades or generations as the units of social time--has its hallmarks. That of the 1960s was a political and cultural radicalism. The two were yoked by a common impulse to rebellion, but political radicalism, au fond, is not merely rebellious but revolutionary, and seeks to install a new social order in place of the previous one. Cultural radicalism, apart from the formal revolutions in style and syntax, is largely rebellious only, since its impulses derive from rage; for that reason, one can see in the sensibility of the sixties, the exhaustion of a crucial aspect of cultural modernism. I take that decade, therefore, as a case study for my general argument.
In defining the sensibility of the 1960s, one can see it in two ways: as a reaction to the sensibility of the 1950s, and as a reversion to, yet also an extension of, an earlier sensibility which had reached its apogee in the modernism of the years before World War I.
The sensibility of the 1950s was largely a literary one. In the writings of such representative critics of the period as Lionel Trilling, Yvor Winters, and John Crowe Ransom, the emphasis was on complexity, irony, ambiguity, and paradox. These are properties peculiar to the mind. They foster a critical attitude, a detachment and distance which guard one against any overwhelming involvement, absorption, immolation in a creed or an experience. At worst a form of quietism, at best a mode of self-consciousness, this attitude is essentially moderate in tone. The sensibility of the 1960s