Friday, March 24, 2017

`Culture Is Continuity with the Past'

The cover story in the March 20 issue of The Weekly Standard is “The Cultured Life,” in which Joseph Epstein writes:

“Does all this talk of high culture have a ring of snobbery? If so, I have badly misrepresented it. There is nothing snobbish about seeking out the best that has been thought and said. What it is, as noted earlier, is elitist, a word in our egalitarian age in even worse odor, perhaps, than snobbery.”

With predictable regularity I receive comments and emails in which readers deploy one or both of the damning adjectives cited by Epstein – snobbish and elitist. As Epstein makes clear, the words are not synonyms. All of us are snobs, pro or con, about something, whether spaghetti carbonara or Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. Pure democrats of taste are unicorns. Elitist cultural values today are rare and best kept prudently unexpressed. Culture makes demands of time and cognitive effort, and fewer than ever are up to the task. But it never occurs to some of us to bemoan the odious labor of reading, gazing and listening. The works of high culture call us to attention, and their strictures can be difficult, flattering and sweet. Recently, an anonymous reader wanted to know how I could “endure” the prose and verse of Yvor Winters. With great pleasure, I said. What others choose to read is none of my business. A big part of my job is sharing my pleasures.   

Those who haven’t read Tennyson or Proust but are intimidated by the prospect of doing so (public schools get most of the credit for this dereliction) are another story. I empathize with some of them. In my job as science writer for the engineering school of a university, I speak daily with engineers, scientists and mathematicians. I’m always out of my league. I have a B.A. in English (earned when I was fifty), a degree that has become the ready-made punchline of a joke, but I don’t accuse the STEM-types of snobbery or elitism. I read what I can about their research and ask a lot of humbling questions. It’s called continuing education. Epstein continues:  

“Cultural elitists, as do connoisseurs generally, like only the best and seek it out. But how do they determine what is best? From tradition, from the tastes of their culturally elitist forebears, from their own refined aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. Along with Longinus, they identify as high culture those works of art and intellect that elevate the soul, stay in the memory, and appeal across different cultures. Elitist the cultural ideal certainly is, but with the difference, as noted by Matthew Arnold, that it is open to anyone who wishes to make the effort to attain that ideal.”

No one willing to do the mandatory work is excluded. In this sense, nothing is so democratic as high culture. (I watch a lot of crap movies but never fool myself about their worth. Innocent escape is perfectly acceptable but not as an exclusive diet.) As usual, Epstein makes numerous, seemingly self-evident observations that would never have occurred to me. Please read all of “The Cultured Life,” but here is an Epstein Sampler:

“Culture is continuity with the past: A cultureless person knows only about, and lives exclusively in, the present. Few things are as pleasing—thrilling, really—as reading a classical author and discovering that he has had thoughts and emotions akin to your own. So I have felt, at times, reading Horace, Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and others who departed the planet centuries before my entrance upon it.”

“My candidate for the most cultured American novelist of the past century is Willa Cather.”

“Poetry, once central to high culture, has become degraded to an intramural sport. Although the audience for poetry in America was never large, today even that audience has diminished, and the only people who seem to read contemporary poetry are those who write it or write about it.”

“High culture, even though it often traveled under the banner of the avant-garde, was always about tradition. A cultured person has a standard, a recollection, through literature and history and philosophy—if not necessarily through personal experience—of greatness. Without such a recollection, rising above mediocrity is difficult, if not impossible.”

1 comment:

Dick Cornflour said...

I'm about to turn sixty-five, so maybe my perspective is that of an old man, but I've become so used to my own contempt for the self-appointed cultural elite, that the word "elite" has come to mean little more than a designation for a caste of poseurs.

For welders, doctors, carpenters, and lawyers, their work is what makes them elite. For writers, that sense of the word has been lost. In fact, the wholesale corruption of words has been the most extraordinary achievement of the contemporary cultural elite. Oddly enough, if I had to guess, these are the very people who've complained to you about your elitism.