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.
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.
Monthly Archives: September 2008
A new survey of the USA’s religious beliefs and practices finds 55% of all adults — including one in five of those who say they have no religion — believe they have been protected from harm by a guardian angel.
I believe it was the philosopher George Carlin who said:
What is all this nonsense about angels? Do you realize three out of four Americans now believe in angels? What are they, fuckin’ stupid? Has everybody lost their goddamn minds? Angels, my ass! You know what I think it is? I think it’s a massive, collective chemical flashback from all the drugs smoked, swallowed, snorted and shot up by all Americans from 1960 to 2000. Forty years of unadulterated street drugs will get you some fuckin’ angels, my friend! Angels, shit. What about goblins? Doesn’t anybody believe in goblins? And zombies, where the fuck are all the zombies? I say if you’re gonna buy that angel bullshit, you might as well go for the goblin/zombie package as well.
I have an idea for a tv show, starring myself. A godless materialist will go around confronting people about their religious/spiritual beliefs, mercilessly skewering the narcissistic delusions and metaphysical absurdities that underlie them, teaching them to courageously confront life as it is while still deriving meaning and purpose from it. I’m thinking about calling it Touched by an A-hole.
This is a few weeks old, but I’m lazy, so I’m just getting around to commenting on it.
“Mrs. Palin needs to be reminded that Jesus Christ was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor.”
I know it’s a fait accompli, but I’ve always been annoyed at the way both Republicans and Democrats try to pretend that Jesus would be voting their way if he were around today. I’m not a fan of arguments from authority in any event, especially when the authority in question is the equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot. Quelle surprise! These people don’t seem to be too impressed with all that turn-the-other-cheek stuff! And oh my stars and garters, popular conceptions of him have changed repeatedly to reflect contemporary hopes and fears!
I know, I know: the Beatitudes! Rich man, camel, eye of a needle! How can you deny that he was the ur-Marx, the original righteous dudemeister who just wanted us all to hold hands and sing? I’ve heard all that, but there’s a few others that don’t seem to get the same attention, for some strange reason:
Mark 16:16 – Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
2 Corinthians 6:14 – Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?
Mark 3:29 – But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.
Matthew 12:30 – He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.
Matthew 10:33 – But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.
Matthew 10:34 – Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Luke 14:26 – If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.
Dude, you’re harshing my mellow! And that’s the stuff that made the final cut; some parts that ended up on the cutting room floor make him look even worse. In the non-canonical Apocalypse of Peter, he takes Pete on a guided tour, Dante-style, of heaven and hell, where he shows him the torments awaiting sinners, such as:
Children who disobeyed their parents being torn apart by savage birds of prey
Slaves who disobeyed their masters being forced to gnaw their own tongues
Blasphemers being hung by their tongues
Rich people being tossed onto a “razor-sharp” pillar of fire
Women who braided their hair to look attractive to men being hung by it
Men who were attracted to it being hung by their genitals
I’m always amused by the way people quote passages verbatim when they agree with the supposed message, but when passages like those above seem to be out of harmony with the overarching theme, we have to interpret them symbolically or figuratively until we make them mean what we want them to mean. Funny how that works.
Anyway, leaving aside all the problems with ancient texts that have been misinterpreted both accidentally and willfully over the course of two millennia, and leaving aside the fact that the Gospels were intended as propaganda, not a detached, neutral, objective, factual description of historical events so that people twenty centuries later would know exactly who said what and why, it seems clear that if – and I am saying if – Jesus actually existed, he was an apocalypticist who really, truly, literally expected the world to end any minute.
Mark 9:1 – And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Mark 13:30 – I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Mark 14:62 – “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Suddenly his exhortations to give no thought to the morrow make sense; passages like Luke 14:26 seem to portray the mentality of a typical cult leader. He wasn’t trying to create a blueprint for a peaceful, tolerant society for future generations to enjoy; he didn’t think there would be any future generations. Maybe the people who best represent his message today are the guys walking around with sandwich boards telling you to repent.
A friend loaned me the movie Into the Wild recently. I found it to be trite, typical romanticist nature worship, with a thoroughly unlikable protagonist – a spoiled college kid who thinks his parents are just, like, so shallow and materialistic, man, so he runs off on a two-year journey to the Alaskan wilderness where he starves to death, but not before arriving at the stunning conclusion that there’s nothing particularly moral or impressive about living a narcissistic life removed from all human contact. Most of us manage to figure that out without leaving our family to agonize for years over our well-being, until they finally get news of the discovery of our corpse, but apparently I was supposed to be impressed by his determination to find authenticity. I was more struck by the way he didn’t bother to tell his younger, adoring sister goodbye, nor contact her during his absence. In fact, several wiser people throughout the film attempt to make themselves available to him, but his head is too full of idealistic clichés (and too far up his own ass) to take notice.
In light of the fact that the above review is so inexplicably positive, I thought I’d dig up one written more than a hundred years before McCandless ever picked up a Jack London novel, but which nonetheless is far more penetrating:
You want to live “according to nature”? Oh you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration, without mercy and fairness, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power—how could you live according to this indifference? Living—is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative “live according to nature” meant at bottom as much as “live according to life”—how could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be?— In truth, the matter is altogether different: while you pretend rapturously to read the canon of your law in nature, you want something opposite, you strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to impose and incorporate your morality, your ideal onto nature, even onto nature, you demand that it be nature “according to the Stoa,” and you would like all existence to exist only after your own image—as an immense eternal glorification and universalization of Stoicism!
Today marks the day that I am the exact same age that Mozart was when he died.
So, I have until tonight to write 41 symphonies and a few hundred sonatas, concertos, operas, arias and overtures, or I have to conclude that my life has been a wretched failure.