Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Yglesias

The Bollingen Library and the future of media

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The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

About a year ago, I began to notice that many of the books in my home library came from the same place. It all started when I realized that Kenneth Clark’s The Nude and E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion—two of the most striking art books of the century—had originally been delivered as part of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Art and published by the Bollingen Library. Looking more closely, I found that the Bollingen Foundation, whatever that was, had been responsible for countless other titles that have played important roles in my life and those of other readers: Vladimir Nabokov’s massive translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin, the Richard Wilhelm edition of the I Ching, D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, Jacques Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Huntington Cairns’s extraordinary anthology The Limits of Art, and, perhaps most famously, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Intrigued, I sought out more books from the Bollingen imprint, looking for used copies online and purchasing them sight unseen. So far, I’ve acquired tomes like The Survival of the Pagan Gods, The Eternal Present, The Gothic Cathedral, and The Demands of Art. Along with a shared concern with the humanities and their role in modern life, they’re all physically beautiful volumes, a delight to hold and browse through, and I hope to acquire more for as long as I can.

Which, when you think about it, is highly unusual. Most of us don’t pay much attention to the publishers of the books we buy: we may subconsciously sense that, say, the Knopf imprint is a mark of quality, but we don’t pick up a novel solely because of the borzoi logo on the spine. (The one big exception may be Taschen, which has built up a reputation for large, indecently attractive coffee table books.) Publishers would love it if we did, of course, just as television networks and movie studios would be happy if we automatically took their brands as a seal of approval. That’s rare in any medium: HBO and Disney have managed it, but not many more. So it’s worth taking a closer look at Bollingen to see how, exactly, it caught my eye. And what we discover is that Bollingen was a philanthropic enterprise, essentially an academic press without the university. It was founded in 1945 by Paul Mellon, heir to the Andrew W. Mellon fortune, as a tribute to his late wife, a devotee of Carl Jung, and while it initially focused on Jungian studies—it was named after Jung’s famous tower and country home in Switzerland—it gradually expanded into a grander project centered on the interconnectedness and relevance of art, history, literature, and psychology. As names like Gombrich and Clark indicate, it arose out of much the same circle as the Warburg Institute in London, which was recently the subject of a loving profile by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, but with far greater resources, patronage, and financial support.

The Nude by Kenneth Clark

In the end, after publishing hundreds of books, sponsoring lectures, and awarding generous stipends to the likes of Marianne Moore and Alexis Leger, the foundation discontinued operations in 1968, noting that the generation it had served was yielding to another set of concerns. And while it may not seem to have much relevance to the problem of media brands today, it offers some surprising lessons. Bollingen started as an act of philanthropy, without any expectation of profit, and arose out of a highly focused, idiosyncratic vision: these were simply books that Mellon and his editors wanted to see, and they trusted that they would find an appreciative audience over time. Which, in many respects, is still how meaningful brands are created or sustained. Matthew Yglesias once referred to Amazon as “a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers,” and although he was being facetious, he had a point. It’s easy to make fun of startup companies that are obsessed with eyeballs, rather than sustainable profits, as venture capitalist Chris Sacca put it on Alex Blumberg’s Startup podcast:

That’s usually a bad move for an early-stage company—to get cash-flow positive. I have strong opinions about that. Everyone I know who pushes for cash-flow positivity that early stops growing at the rate they should be growing, and gets so anchored by this idea that “we need to keep making money.”

Sacca concludes that you don’t want a “lifestyle business”—that is, a business growing at a pace where you get to take vacations—and that growth for its own sake should be pursued at all costs. And it’s a philosophy that has resulted, infamously, in countless “hot” tech companies that are years, if not a lifetime, away from profitability.

But I think Sacca is half right, and despite the obvious disparity in ideals, he all but circles back around to the impulse behind Bollingen. Venture investors don’t have any desire to run a charitable enterprise, but they end up doing so anyway, at least for the years in which a company is growing, because that’s how brands are made. Someone’s money has to be sacrificed to lay the foundations for anything lasting, both because of the timelines involved and because it’s the only way to avoid the kind of premature compromise that can turn off potential users or readers. We’re living in an age when such investments are more likely to take the form of startup capital than charitable largess, but the principle is fundamentally the same. It’s the kind of approach that can’t survive a short-term obsession with advertisers or page views, and it requires patrons with deep pockets, a tolerance for idiosyncrasy, an eye for quality, and a modicum of patience. (In journalism, the result might look a lot like The Distance, a publication in whose success I have a considerable personal stake.) More realistically, it may take the form of a prestigious but money-losing division within a larger company, like Buzzfeed’s investigative pieces or most of the major movie studios. The reward, as Yglesias puts it, is a claim on “a mighty engine of consumer surplus”—and if we replace “consumer” with “cultural,” we get something very much like the Bollingen Foundation. Bollingen wasn’t interested in growth in itself, but in influencing the entire culture, and in at least one book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, it went viral to an extent that makes even the most widely shared article seem lame. Like Jung’s tower, it was made for its own sake. And its legacy still endures.

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