Far from Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art
by Daniel Oppenheimer.
University of Texas Press, 2021
Hardcover, 152 pages, $24.95.

Reviewed by Scott Beauchamp

“The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else.” —G. K. Chesterton

Any natural dreamer who works from home with a toddler and a two-month-old tag-teaming to get their attention understands the importance of occasionally slipping away into little pocket eternities of mental distraction, just to feel as if they’ve stockpiled enough diaphanous moments of reverie so that when the cry that someone has a “potty feeling” comes from the den, the parental response is mostly free of any discernible level of impatience. Esoteric Wikipedia pages work. “Unexplained Sounds” and “Inventors Killed by Their Own Inventions” are good. But for my money, poking around the “Unfinished creative work” page is the best way to recalibrate your internal chronometer. So many notable works—the second half of Gogol’s Dead Souls, Camus’s Le premier homme, even the Summa Theologica was abandoned in 1237 after St. Thomas Aquinas had a mystical experience during Mass—go unfinished, usually due to death or some other radical personal transformation, that it makes your own moment within the slipperiness of the present feel natural and right again. Donatello’s non finito method of intentionally leaving blocks of marble only partially sculpted feels a bit like a Western wabi-sabi technique, making a statement that can only find the full articulation of its voice in the suggestion of a half-hidden completeness. The inferred superstructure of the aphorism or koan oftentimes intimates through suggestion more than an entire novel can belch out in three hundred pages.

But wrapped up in all this cloying sensitivity to absence is a hunger for the vision of the full sculpture and the text in its entirety. Absence is erotic, in that what is hidden attracts us with fantasies of revelation. Unlisted on the Wikipedia page is my favorite unfinished book, Dave Hickey’s Pagan America. It maintains a spectral existence on Google Books with an ISBN and a page count and, presumably, exists in some shambolic form in the files of Dave Hickey himself and nowhere else. In the early 2000s it was listed in his bio. And then sometime around 2015 it disappeared. My own interest lies in what the book was meant to become, of course, but also in the reasons why Hickey gave up the ghost. As Daniel Oppenheimer explains in the introduction to Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art:

“The argument [of Pagan America] was this: America at its most distinctive wasn’t Judeo-Christian or capitalist or even democratic in a simple way. It was pagan. Not an earth spirit paganism of the moors and glens, but a polytheistic, commercial, cosmopolitical paganism of the bazaar and the agora. We invested objects, people, and performances with the power of our dreams and fears, and then we organized ourselves around those idols in ‘non-exclusive communities of desire,’ arguing about them, buying and selling pieces and images of them on the open market, trying to woo others into our camp and score points over rival camps. We were a democratic people … renewed … on a substratum of pagan devotions to movie stars, rock stars, oil paintings, charismatic political figures, football teams, ingenues, mystery novels, muscle cars, runway shows, action movies, and action painters.”

Take note of how Oppenheimer puts the classification of American culture as democratic in the past tense. Sometime around the new century Hickey, in an uncharacteristic mood of optimism, believed that the pagan society he worshiped in the temples of the art gallery and shopping mall was winning its war against the organizational institutions that coerce and control us. The “schools and museums, and the interpretive rigidities of the Academy.” And then, suddenly and shockingly, a decade and a half later, he “stopped believing it was so.” The sort of freedom that Dickey exalts was eventually hog tied and suppressed by, not just the usual reactionary suspects typically blamed for the demise of radical pleasure seeking, but “also from puritanical intellectuals and activists who would regulate culture in the name of justice, equity, and identity. The other guys are winning. The pagans are losing.” Welcome to the new, boring America.

Alright, but who is Dave Hickey? Born in Fort Worth in 1940 to a jazz musician father and painter mother, Hickey grew up peripatetically, attending various schools and bouncing around Texas and Southern California. After his father committed suicide when he was fifteen, Hickey was adopted, in a way, by the postwar ambient culture. It was a heady brew of rock ’n’ roll, basketball, surfing, California car culture, Bob Dylan, and, as the viscera holding all of that together, an abiding belief in the mercantile culture that makes possible the sort of Epicurean freedom Hickey loves. Like the narrator says in The Big Lebowski, “sometimes there’s a man … I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man … and, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”

Hickey fit right in there. He was listening to Dylan before anyone else in Austin, pioneered the art scene there, moved to New York and fell in with Andy Warhol, read the French poststructuralists before they were stuffed and hung on the walls of a thousand faculty lounges, moved to Nashville and started writing country music when the Outlaw scene popped off, suffered the obligatory boomer Big Chill denouement of the early eighties, and made Las Vegas his hometown and living metaphor for American desire in the nineties. He was always right where he needed to be, and in the process, he ended up writing some of the most profound and seductive essays of the late twentieth century.

That Hickey is not a household name is a fact flavored with the sort of complex moral irony of which Dickey himself is a keen observer. His reputation, largely unknown outside of the art world and almost completely undiscovered by the new young online barbarians, was stymied by the very cultural dynamics that he himself championed. Sure, Hickey himself is literate, a champion of Flaubert and a serious student of art history. But in being so eager to push back against the very “paternalistic” forces of order and continuity through which the best of the past is transmitted to the future, Hickey basically painted himself into a corner. That’s probably an oversimplification, and Hickey himself would take issue with the idea that longevity is the criterion of great art, but there it is. In a kind of kunst und kultur version of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, the exuberance that Hickey promoted in American culture was, among other things, a victim of its own broad successes. Hickey helped to midwife a god that consumes its own past.

Which does not mean that Hickey is not relevant or worth reading. He is, and this is exactly what Far From Respectable works to prove. Oppenheimer, an accomplished writer with an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia, does three things with his slender but finely crafted and brilliantly sensitive book: gives us something about Hickey’s life, explains Hickey’s battles and interests, and tells a bit about Oppenheimer’s own experiences bringing his family to visit with Hickey in New Mexico. He accomplishes all three. Along the way Oppenheimer is forced to confront the issue of Hickey’s relevance and, in a sense, defend it, which is not an easy task. As he writes, “[The question of Hickey’s relevance] is harder to answer. It requires both a diagnosis of a problem in our common life and an argument for why Hickey’s writing isn’t just wonderful but also meliorative or bracing in the context of this problem.” The case is not made by Oppenheimer directly, but he instead “takes for granted that there’s been a gradual attenuation in the imaginative life of this country since the 1960s that is detrimental both to the creation of art and to our shared democratic project. The realm of possibility has contracted.”

Reading Hickey’s exuberant, almost sumptuous, essays is evidence enough of the veracity of Oppenheimer’s assumption. The beauty (more on that soon) of his voice and mind speak to the possibility of an alternate America in which the Puritan institutions that Hickey blames for the demise of American spirit lost all the major battles and scuttled off into the shadows of an otherwise blissful dawn. In this sense, the unfinished Pagan America exists less “an argument but as a vision of what could be.”

With Hickey, everything eventually winds back around to beauty. His 1993 classic The Invisible Dragon is premised like a detective story, wondering who murdered beauty in the arts and culture more broadly:

“In the great mystery of the disappeared beauty, the whodunnit that fueled The Invisible Dragon, it turned out that it was the therapeutic institution that dunnit. It had squirted so many trillions of gallons of obfuscating ink into the ocean over so many decades that beauty, and the delicate social ecosystem that fostered its coalescence, could barely aspirate. Why the therapeutic institution did this, for Hickey, was simple. Power. Control. Fear of freedom and pleasure and undisciplined feeling. It was the eternally recurring revenge of the dour old Patriarch who had been haunting our dreams since we came up from the desert with his schemas of logic, strength, autonomy, and abstraction, asserting control against the wiles and seductions of the feminine and her emanations of care, vulnerability, delicacy, dependence, joy, and decoration. It was the expression of God’s anger in the Garden of Eden when Eve and Adam defied Him to bite from the juicy apple knowledge and freedom.”

It’s great writing on Oppenheiemer’s part, it has a pulse, but it’s of course at least half warmed-over crap. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with Augusto Del Noce, Christopher Lasch, or Byung-Chul Han knows that sloppy and wild permissiveness was not defeated by stern paternalism. It was suffocated in the crib by certain kinds of permissiveness that can be more easily “monetized.” The joys of free love were not buried by Spartan-like devotion to structure and form. It mutated into hook up culture and online porn. Party drugs became study drugs and drugs to modulate emotions. Art became commodity and rock ’n’ roll became pop music.

To Oppenheimer’s credit, he does push back against Hickey once in a while. However, since he loves Hickey (he does not hide his feelings, they are worn on his sleeve) he lets other people push back against Hickey in their own voices. For Hickey, beauty was essentially pleasure and the freedom to enjoy more pleasure. Simple, if not a bit tautological. But the figure Oppenheimer has most expertly critique Hickey’s ouroborus of delight is philosopher Alexander Nehamas, who argued that “A beautiful thing only invites us further into itself. And the further we go into it, the further we need to go into everything else, for it is only by seeing how each thing is related to the rest of the world that we understand what it is … Beauty is a call to adventure, a symbol of risk.”

For Hickey, beauty is simple and transactional. A thing gives you a feeling of beauty and so that thing is beautiful. A muscle car revs and you tremble with joy and so the car is beautiful. It presumes that the search for beauty is almost hermetically sealed, perhaps a product of complex social forces, but never subservient to them and almost wholly autonomous in its own existence. But as Oppenheimer writes, the most cogent allegation “lobbed against Hickey was that in the end he wanted just as badly as everyone else to justify beauty by principles or values external to it. That in triangulating between leftists … who believed that beauty was too often an agent of injustice, and humanists … who saw beauty as an agent of justice, Hickey had failed to challenge their shared premise that it had to be an agent of something other than itself at all.” In other words, it isn’t the muscle car itself that’s beautiful, but beauty is the word we use to denote the muscle car’s invitation to explore the gratuitous heft of the world. My own suspicion is that Hickey and other strictly secular writers want to place beauty wholly within or wholly outside of the beautiful object because to permit a double vision, that an object is itself while simultaneously suggesting a mysterious vortex of extraneous and ultimately unknowable meaning, is to in some small way recognize the divine.

Ultimately, I think this is the rot buried deep in the center of Hickey’s ideas. In his fantasy of autonomous platoons organized around temporary and transitory desires, he was really advocating for the dissolution of the larger weltanschauung that makes joy possible and truth knowable. In his book on Plato, Eric Voegelin writes that “[When] the experience of participation in a universal order is lost, reality is reduced to the life of passions in the individual human being; hence the universality of order must be reconstructed out of the only elements that are experienced as real. If passion is the only reality, the order—which after a fashion exists even in a corrupt society—must be construed as the result of an agreement between the passionate individuals.” Voegelin categorizes this dénouement as “falling into a dream.” I’m not sure if there’s a better description of our slow collective plunge into isolation and illusion. Beauty wasn’t killed. Our hearts were just made comatose enough that we can no longer value or recognize it.

But that shouldn’t be the last word on Hickey or Oppenheimer. Far from Respectable is a wonderful book that provides the most eloquent explanation of Hickey you’ll ever have the pleasure to read. And if you want to understand the culture of the latter half of the twentieth century from the inside, you have to read Hickey. You should also read him for pleasure. Joy, even. But most importantly, you should read Hickey for providing that rare literary camaraderie that only the most accomplished writers are able to conjure from language. Reading him, you’ll have the pleasure of discovering the beauty of art alongside a charming and inimitable companion. A cowboy Virgil leading pilgrims through hell with a drink in hand and cigarette cherry burning like a red eye into the heavy darkness. 

Scott Beauchamp is a writer and infantry veteran whose previous work has appeared in the Paris Review, The American Conservative, and Bookforum, among other places. He lives in Maine.

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