Lowbrow, but I rock a little know-how

— Red Hot Chili Peppers

“Oh, my greed! There is no selflessness in my soul but only an all-coveting self that would like to appropriate many individuals as so many additional pairs of eyes and hands – a self that would like to bring back the whole past, too, and that will not lose anything that it could possibly possess. Oh, my greed is a flame! Oh, that I might be reborn in a hundred beings!” – Whoever does not know this sigh from firsthand experience does not know the passion of the search for knowledge.

— Nietzsche

From Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason:

Middlebrow culture, which began in organized fashion with the early nineteenth century lyceum movement – when no one thought of culture in terms of “brows” – and extended through the fat years of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the 1950s and early 1960s, was at heart a culture of aspiration. Its aim was not so much to vanquish the culture of the gutter, although that was part of the idea, as to offer a portal to something more elevated.

…We did indeed, as (Virginia) Woolf observed disgustedly, have “pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters” on our walls; my mother’s taste ran to Van Gogh, Renoir, and Degas, I can still see the Degas ballerinas who adorned my bedroom walls, and it would not surprise me if that early exposure to middlebrow reproductions had something to do with a passion for art that did not emerge until my mid-twenties.

…The distinctive feature of American middlebrow culture was its embodiment of the old civic credo that anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself. Many uneducated lowbrows, particularly immigrants, cherished middlebrow values: the millions of sets of encyclopedias sold door to door from the twenties through the fifties were often purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing. Remnants of earnest middlebrow striving survive today among various immigrant groups, but the larger edifice of middlebrow culture, which once encompassed Americans of many social classes as well as ethnic and racial backgrounds, has collapsed. The disintegration and denigration of the middlebrow are closely linked to the political and class polarization that distinguishes the current wave of anti-intellectualism from the popular suspicion of highbrows and eggheads that has always, to a greater or lesser degree, been a part of the American psyche. What has been lost is an alternative to mass popular culture, imbibed unconsciously and effortlessly through the audio and video portals that surround us all. What has been lost is the culture of effort.

…I look back on the middlebrow with affection, gratitude and regret rather than condescension not because the Book-of-the-Month club brought works of genius into my life but because the monthly pronouncements of its reviewers were one of the many sources that encouraged me to seek a wider world. In our current infotainment culture, in which every consumer’s opinion is supposed to be as good as any critic’s, it is absurd to imagine that a large commercial entity would attempt to use an objective concept of greatness as a selling point for anything. That people should aspire to read and think about great books, or even aspire to being thought of as the sort of person who reads great books, is not a bad thing for a society.

This is one of those rare, but always welcome, times when I find a swirling mass of inchoate thoughts in my own head suddenly expressed clearly and concisely by another writer.

I was busy entertaining dreams of a career in music in my late teens and early twenties, and despite the urgings of my parents, chose to spend my time and energy focusing on that in lieu of a college education (leaving aside a handful of courses at a community college mainly taken just for fun). Yet I had always been bookish and introspective from childhood, and a genuine interest in ideas for their own sake and a curiosity about the wider world was always part of me. Thus, the type of earnest, autodidactic striving Jacoby describes turned out to be my means of entry into a (more or less) intellectual life.

Serendipitously, it was one of those community college courses, Philosophy 101, that really set my mind on fire and gave me a serious passion for knowledge, and, perhaps more importantly, an inkling that there might actually be answers to the big questions that had always seemed too imposing and forbidding to approach before. Reading along with some of the greatest minds in history as they grappled with those questions, thrilling to each insight gained, seeing entirely new ways of looking at the world open up before my eyes – I’ll never forget how exhilarating that all was.

It was right about that same time that my passion for music was in full bloom as well, and, having been pretty introverted and distant from most of my peers, I was a relatively late arrival on the rock music scene. Having spent most of my childhood and adolescence listening to whatever my parents were listening to – oldies, light jazz, soul and pop – my exposure to rock and heavy metal was no less of a revelatory, earthshaking experience than philosophy would be a couple years later. Again, there was the feeling of being awestruck, just rapturously taking in this entire new universe that had somehow existed outside of my awareness.

Of course, much of that music and lots of those books seem silly to me now, almost two decades later. But, like Jacoby, I’ll always feel grateful and affectionate for them because they pointed the way towards more timeless works. Hearing a rock musician favorably refer to a classical composer or classic author meant more to me than hearing it from the expected authority figures – parents, teachers, etc. I suspect she might be more inclined to lump popular music in with “mass popular culture” than with middlebrow culture, but at any rate, that was the path I took.

I do understand what she means when she complains of the lack of an alternative to that popular culture, though. Personally speaking, I know far too many people who are intelligent enough, as far as that goes, but who nonetheless have zero interest in reading for pleasure, in being exposed to new ways of thinking, in just simply challenging themselves. Work at a meaningless job they hate and vegetate in front of the tv afterward. Gossip and drink. As much as it’s helped keep me from being “successful”, I’m glad I was questioning that way of living before I was even able to grow facial hair.

Ultimately, my own experience has led me to think that art is a two-way street; you can’t really say how a given piece is going to affect a reader or listener due to their own background and preconceptions. I think the border between the browlands is much more porous than people think, and as such, I feel less inclined to condemn and judge anything done from the heart, so to speak, as if all these false prophets are going to lead naive beginners astray if they’re not firmly put in their place.