"He doesn't dig poetry / He's so unhip / that when you say Dylan / he thinks you're talking about Dylan Thomas / whoever he was / the man ain't got no culture." Paul Simon, "A Simple Desultory Philippic"
Writing at The Weekly Standard (motto: No one gets it more wrong more often), Joseph Epstein laments the loss of high culture, by which he does not mean Grateful Dead albums or Peter Max cover art. It’s all very troubling to him: the loss not just of cultural standards but of authoritative gatekeepers to enforce them. Andy Warhol killed visual art, rock ‘n’ roll polished off classical music, modern American playwrights have all been propagandists of nihilism, and television and movies are, to quote one of Mr. Epstein’s cultured friends, “dog shit”’; as for literature, says Mr. Epstein, If there are any powerful novelists now at work, I do not know who they might be.
Well, that clinches the argument, doesn’t it? If Joseph Epstein has never heard of Cormac McCarthy or Daniel Woodrell or Stewart O’Nan or Jonathan Lethem or Marilynne Robinson, or if he has heard of them but doesn’t consider them to be “powerful” enough to be taken seriously: then I guess it’s the end of literature as we know it, or at least as Joseph Epstein defines it.
Epstein goes on to say:
For many years I taught an undergraduate course in prose style to would-be writers. At one point in the course I used to present my students with a list of 15 or so items that included such names and events as the Peloponnesian War, Leon Trotsky, Serge Diaghilev, the 1913 Armory Show, the Spanish Civil War, Nicolas Chamfort, Boris Chaliapin, C. P. Cavafy, the Dreyfus Affair, and a few others. I asked how many knew who or what these items were. A few among them knew one or two of the names and events listed. I said that, at 20 years old, I myself could not have done better than they. I then added that, if one wanted to pass oneself off as a cultured person one had to know such things and a great deal more. My sense is that these students were, as I hoped they would be, as I myself as an undergraduate was, properly cowed by their own ignorance.
I have to admit, I don’t know many of the names or events on Mr. Epstein’s list, and I don’t feel at all “cowed” by my own ignorance. But then, I’m old enough to have gotten used to my ignorance and to no longer be embarrassed by it; I’m even old enough not to equate “ignorance” with not knowing things that Joseph Epstein insists I should know.
More importantly, let’s pause for a moment to consider this revealing gem: “If one wanted to pass oneself off as a cultured person…” Is that what “high culture” is all about—the ability to “pass” in certain circles? Gosh, and here I thought it was about, as Epstein reverently quotes Matthew Arnold, "a disinterested endeavor to learn… the best that is known and thought in the world,” and in the process to become better acquainted with the human condition. It’s almost as if Epstein is inadvertently confirming the suspicion many of us have: that ostentatious flaunting of “high culture” is just a way of showing off.
In any case, Epstein finds it troubling that kids today aren’t so easily cowed by his pedigree or by his entirely arbitrary list:
I’m not sure that this same exercise would be of much avail today. Now students need merely pick up their smartphones and Google the names on my list. I’m less than sure that culture, and the notion of being a cultured person, has anything like the high standing it once had. Might most people today rather be well informed than cultured? What was once a high human aspiration—the possession of culture—may no longer be so.
Epstein also cites at length Mario Vargas Llosa on the “culture of spectacle” to which we have devolved. Epstein describes it thus:
In the culture of spectacle, the great figures are chefs and fashion designers, athletes and actors, television journalists. Intellectuals, whose chief interest was in ideas, have been replaced by so-called public intellectuals. These are men and women of no notable depth whose domains are the op-ed pages and the television news and talk shows. The culture of spectacle has no interest in ideas. Nor does television, its main medium, which makes all ideas banal.
Is it wrong of me to point out that such criticisms of television and of “the culture of spectacle” are themselves at this point banal? How many commentators have beaten both Mr. Vargas Llosa and Mr. Epstein to that particular punch? From Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” to Daniel Boorstin’s THE IMAGE to Neil Postman’s AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH, I’d say that horse has been thoroughly flogged and dragged off to the glue factory.
I’ll offer no brief for television as a medium of ideas, nor will I defend its plethora of pontificating pseudo-intellectuals; but such pontificators we will always have with us, TV or no TV. Surely the cultured Mr. Epstein knows there are alternatives to vulgarism on offer? And if most people prefer low or middlebrow culture, what of it? Has that not always been the case? Even if there were no worthy novels, plays, music or visual art being produced today (which is, of course, a ridiculous notion), those of the past are still accessible; in fact, they are more accessible to more people than ever before. What in the world is Epstein fussing about, aside from the tragic fact that “other people” (it’s always “other people” who are ruining the world) read, watch, listen to, and prefer things he doesn’t think they should?
Epstein concludes on a suitably elegiac note, customary for such essays:
Today it is not difficult to imagine a world devoid of high culture. In such a world museums will doubtless stay in business, to store what will come to seem the curiosities of earlier centuries; so, too, will a few symphony orchestras remain, while chamber music will seem quainter than Gregorian chant. Libraries, as has already been shown with bookstores, will no longer be required. The diminishing minority still interested in acquiring the benefits of high culture will have to search for it exclusively in the culture of the past.2 No longer a continuing enterprise, high culture itself will become dead-ended, a curiosity, little more, and thus over time likely to die out. Life will go on. Machines will grow smarter, human beings gradually dumber. Round the world the vast majority might possibly feel that something grand is missing, though they shan’t have a clue to what it might be.
Careful readers will notice that Epstein’s complaints about the disappearance of “high culture” are essentially identical to contemporary conservatives' fretting about “traditional religion”. You could in fact rewrite the above passage, substituting “religion” for “high culture,” “churches” for "museums," and so forth, and you would have—well, Rod Dreher. Mr. Epstein implicitly makes that connection when he cites Matthew Arnold as a promulgator of “the gospel of culture”. The only difference, in this regard, between Dreher and Epstein is that Dreher claims we are all becoming less genuinely spiritual, coarser and more vulgar, while Epstein says we’re getting dumber as well as less refined.3
In the jargon of the day--whatever. As an inveterate watcher of TV, reader of pulp fiction, listener to rock’n’roll, aficionado of movies, and Internet addict—yeah, I’m just what Epstein is complaining about, one more vulgarian inside the gates. And I have to admit, such highbrow complaints as his are music to my untrained ears: there’s nothing quite like offending one’s betters while pursuing one’s pleasures—as long as one doesn’t frighten the horses, of course.
2 Not to pick nits, but Mr. Epstein asserted, earlier in his essay, that “high culture” in fact was to be found “exclusively in the culture of the past”; he wrote approvingly of how “Oxford, as late as the 1930s, refused to teach writers later than the Romantics.” Since high culture as Epstein defines it is that which has (among other things) passed the test of time, nothing contemporary can qualify.
3 The late Steve Allen anticipated both these charges in his books DUMBTH and VULGARIANS AT THE GATE. On the other hand, the late Steve Allen was a television personality and therefore a contributor to the very trends he bemoaned.