Illustration by Peter Bennett

NEAR THE END OF THE REAGAN ERA, I ONCE found myself at a cocktail party talking with Norman Mailer, who couldn't stop talking about his dislike of yuppie culture. “Do you know the worst thing about it?” he asked, rattling off words like a Brooklyn bookie. “It places its highest value on astuteness.”

Now, Mailer himself was never exactly what you'd call a sucker. By the early 1950s, he'd grasped that, in a society dominated by mass media, literary fame was less a matter of writing great books (though that did help) than making oneself a public personality. With no little canniness, he began creating advertisements for himself a full 40 years before Dave Eggers — with a wink displaying his own commercial acumen — declared his own staggering genius.

Still, over the years, I've come to think that Mailer got it pretty much right. If the '60s and early '70s were shot through with a sentimental, often dopey idealism, the last two decades have put a premium on a particular, and extremely narrow, idea of being smart — wised-up, pragmatic, detached. Our culture has made a fetish of knowingness: which tech stock is hot, which designer is about to break out, which movie is number one at the box office, which cable show is being spoofed on Saturday Night Live, which Internet site sells the cheapest everything. The flip side of all this knowing has been a loss of courage, a terror of appearing foolish if we champion lost causes, hang out at yesterday's hot club or (god help us) admit to tearing up at the uncle's death in Spider-Man. At times, it seems that American life — or at least that part of it portrayed in the media — has become a ghastly version of high school in which everyone is supposed to be one of the cool kids. Small wonder that the era's key signature has been a free-floating irony that allows almost anyone to be in on the joke, while remaining outside and beyond everything else.

For years, such cultivated knowingness felt inescapable. It was there in Seinfeld's smug dithering, David Letterman's pre­heart surgery cruelty to ordinary people and the Coen Brothers' snickers at almost everything. It inhabited Jeff Koons' meta-kitsch sculptures and Jenny Holtzer's desiccated truisms (no less banal for adorning museum walls). It stared out from Vanity Fair covers, desperate to be the first to announce the impending superstardom of Gretchen Mol (oops!), and from ESPN's wiseass anchors who clearly think their quips are more enjoyable than anything a mere athlete might do. It even prompted the vogue of Don DeLillo, whose dazzling-cold sentences have a disco-ball brilliance — all those memorable riffs on car crashes, football, Hitler — yet can't make you care what happens to a single one of his characters.

This worship of “smart” has had its analogue in the political world, most damagingly among liberals and leftists, who have long been drawn to elitist intellectual style (think Adlai Stevenson). They spent eight years calling Reagan “stupid” — as he steamrolled them — and, evidently learning nothing from the experience, have continued doing the same with George W. Bush, who skillfully masks his actual elitism with an affably folksy persona that is a construction (as we discover in The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, the new book by his ex-speechwriter, David Frum). People laughed at Bush's malaprops as he snatched the presidency from A-student Al Gore, and you still hear them calling him “dumb” as he completes a far more successful first two years than the promiscuously intelligent Bill Clinton.

Watching today's bloodless, pragmatic Democrats' feeble attempts to confront Bush always reminds me of CNN's original Crossfire back when raging bull Pat Buchanan was paired with sly, bespectacled Michael Kinsley. Buchanan would spout some conservative boilerplate aimed straight at the listener's gut, then Kinsley would make a wry, twinkly, debating-society response that may have had some imaginary Oxford audience shouting “Here, here,” but got him flattened in the rough-and-tumble of a TV talk show. You always wound up knowing what Buchanan thought about every subject, while wondering what exactly Kinsley believed in — other than his own ability to make smart arguments. Caught behind his frozen grin, he seemed unaware that knowing isn't everything.

Nor, for that matter, is knowingness. Well before 9/11 supposedly rang the death knell of irony (thank god Larry David slept through it), there were countless signs that the Age of Smart had begun to crumble from its own brittleness. Letterman was waxing positively avuncular, Eminem was exploding pomo playfulness with roaring emotion, and self-important Jonathan Franzen was stripping away some of his highfalutin intellectual armature to write his pointedly touching family novel The Corrections (although he did get all snooty about Oprah).

Of course, ingrained cultural habits die hard, and these days it's fascinating to watch our brainy artists struggling, not always successfully, to push beyond smart without sinking into the mindlessness, anti-intellectualism or cheap sentimentality that defines so much of mass culture. In recent movies alone, you can see this effort in Steven Soderbergh's heartfelt but chilly Solaris, Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, which finds pathos in satire, and Charlie Kaufman's script for Adaptation — a tug of war between narcissistic cleverness and human empathy that falls apart when Kaufman merely folds his solipsism into the film's last half-hour rather than trying to overcome it artistically. Perhaps the most revealing example of this is found in Todd Haynes' widely acclaimed Far From Heaven. Having studied semiotics at Brown, Haynes is a certified member of the Smart Generation, and his movie's conceit — re-conceiving Hollywood melodrama à la Douglas Sirk — makes it sound like the pinnacle of freeze-dried intellectualism. Yet ironically, the film's shortcoming is that its simplistic picture of the 1950s doesn't really challenge a contemporary audience; it flatters our prejudices rather than making us rethink them. In fact, the story's pull is almost purely emotional. Far From Heaven's power lies not in its period re-creation or notions of gender and race but in the traditional stuff of tearjerkers, such as the heartbreaking separation at the railway station of Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert (who play the scene with irresistible conviction). People aren't liking this movie because it's smart — it actually should be a lot smarter — but because it makes them cry. Haynes' flagrantly postmodern style once again makes weeping at the movies intellectually respectable. Which I, for one, think is a good thing.

This isn't to say that I'm hoping to be bombarded by Hollywood tearjerkers or feel contempt for those who dare flaunt their intelligence. Indeed, if you want to learn something about race in the American '50s, you'd be better skipping Far from Heaven and picking up The Time of Our Singing, the remarkable new novel by that full-fledged brainiac Richard Powers (no relation). Spanning six decades of post-Depression U.S. history, the book is a family epic about three half-Jewish, half-black kids, the Stroms — Jonah is a classical musical prodigy, Ruth becomes a Black Panther, and the narrator, Joey, gets caught in between. Powers' work is always formidably intellectual (even his touching Galatea 2.2 is about a man's love affair with an A.I. “woman”), and here he keeps us reading intently for 600-odd pages without ever quite achieving the full-blooded richness that most of us want from a work of this reach. You can sense Powers laboring to make us care deeply about the Strom family — he wants to engage our hearts as well as our heads — but the book's real interest lies less in its small moments of poignancy than its blizzard of ideas about race, music, history, physics and the boundless significance of time.

Deep into the novel, Joey Strom — who has always tried to remain a neutral mediator on every issue — comes to realize a simple truth: “Whatever you did or said or loved took sides.” And in his words, we find a reminder that what's always been most deadening about the Age of Smart is neither its reflexive irony (which can be awfully damned funny) nor its knowingness about such things as good restaurants (hey, I like eating well, too), but its air of passionless detachment. For all his intelligence, Powers is no disembodied brain, but an artist profoundly committed to fiction's power to take the world seriously, engage in its complexities and explore questions of love, freedom and justice. He's too smart to simply be smart.

LA Weekly