On Being An Educated Philistine

I’m an uncultured bumpkin with little taste for the finer things in life. My list of failures is long and undistinguished. I do not like opera: God knows, I’ve tried; I’ve attended a few performances–thanks to some free tickets sent my way by discerning friends and culture consumers–but no dice, it didn’t catch. I cannot abide ballet: I’ve attended one performance, that of Don Quixote, right here in New York City at a beautiful recital hall, and despite admiring the athleticism of the performers found their choreographed pyrotechnics did not touch me emotionally; indeed, I do not like most dance, have never attended a modern dance recital, and have only briefly viewed a few performances of classical Indian variants like Kathak, Odissi, Bharatnatyam or Kathakali, and as a result never developed a taste for them, despite the fact that one of my paternal uncles was a distinguished choreographer in that tradition. My tastes in poetry are restricted to the usual suspects like Yeats, Bishop, Rilke, Auden (and some of the older romantics) et al–the stuff that almost any educated layperson can lay claim to. Like your true denuded post-colonial I have not developed any taste in Hindi poetry and have not read a  novel in Hindi since my high school days. I do not like reading reviews of poetry–indeed, I find these almost impossible to get through, despite gamely struggling with Helen Vendler‘s essays in the New York Review of Books. I’ve discovered recently that I do not like reading the standard literary review of a novel either. In fiction, I struggle to read short stories, and prefer novels when I can get to them.

Perhaps, most embarrassingly, I do not like spending time in museums–and oh, dear Lord, believe me, I’ve tried and tried to summon up enthusiasm for this excruciating social and cultural ritual but I’ve been found wanting. There are certainly times when I’ve played the part of a connoisseur of art reasonably well in these settings but it’s not an easy appearance to keep up. I’ve visited cities in foreign lands and dutifully trooped off to the Famous Museum Which Houses An Amazing Repository of Famous Art by Famous Artists, the one I’ve been told is a must-visit, but no dice. Most of it didn’t catch–perhaps because of the venue, as trooping around, popping my head into one room after another to gaze at art wrenched out of its context failed to do it for me.

I consider myself interested in art and music and culture and literature but my tastes have not developed or become more refined over the years; they seem to have become narrower despite my game attempts to push them further. Though this state of affairs has often caused me some embarrassment–especially because I’m an academic in the humanities–it has also started to offer me some reassurance. Life is short, time is limited; I will never read the all the books on my shelves (and in my digital stores); better to have fewer things to serve as diversions. More airily, I’ve come to know myself better; I’ve tried to like the things I was ‘supposed’ to, and I couldn’t. That’s me, for better and worse.

Note: In a future post, I will make note of the many philosophical and literary classics which I have not read and seem unlikely to read.

Epistolary Warfare in the Letters Section

Readers of the New York Review of Books are used to the sometimes intemperate, bordering-on-pedantic, yet-always-carefully-crafted display of bruised egos that takes up so much space toward the end of each issue. I am referring, of course, to the Letters section. Here the author, formerly delighted to find out his masterpiece was to be reviewed in the supposedly-essential resident of every serious American intellectual’s magazine rack, and finding instead to his horror that it has been subjected to a ‘scurrilous’ or ‘ignorant’ reading, has written in to complain.  The reviewer, seeing the cudgels on the floor, picks them up and joins the fray. The rest of us watch and wince.  Or go get a second helping of popcorn. (I’ve often wondered why the NYRB does not conduct online polls to see who ‘won;’ this would be a surefire crowd-pleaser and would spark many watercooler conversations aka tweetstorms.)

A confession: I often turn first to the Letters to see if any entertainment is forthcoming before settling down to browse. As a philosophy graduate student in New York in the late 1990s, I, along with some of my colleagues, found the debates between ‘senior’ academic philosophers hugely diverting: to see grown men slashing away at each other, hurt, offended, determined to set the balance right, philosophical sanguinity cast to the wind, was quite reassuring. We felt immature; it was good to know that getting a Ph.D and writing several books hadn’t helped our heroes either.

I have been reading the NYRB for a while now, so I think I’ve seen just about every variant of the angry author-versus-defiant reviewer template.  The author who sets out to reveal the reviewer’s hidden or not-so-hidden agenda; the author convinced the reviewer lacks essential reading comprehension skills; the reviewer who thinks the author is a shill or paid agent (of a variety of forces, whether political or corporate); the list goes on.

Still, there have been a couple of recent additions to this ouevre of literary jousting that are possibly noteworthy for having provided some interesting twists on well-established themes.

Exhibit Number 1: Daniel Mendelsohn reviews Allan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. Galen Strawson jumps in to defend Allan Hollinghurst. Some intemperate language, some artfully constructed phrases; well worth a read. Deviation from template? The author hasn’t managed to get in a word yet, in deference to a defender that has already jumped into the fray. Of course, Strawson isn’t just defending Hollinghurst. He’s defending a whole literary tradition.  Who wouldn’t cast one’s so-called neutrality aside with such high stakes?

Exhibit Number 2: Helen Vendler reviews Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Dove fires back a 1700 word defense. Deviation from template? Vendler’s response, which was described as ‘cheeky’ by Alexander Abad-Santos of the Atlantic Wire and as ‘professional’ by Cynthia Haven of the Book Haven is a one-liner: “I have written my review and I stand by it.” I think it’s neither. The review is written and in print; there appears to be no dispute about that. And as long as Vendler doesn’t issue explicit disavowals of it, it’s pretty clear she stands by it. So the need for the gratuitous one-liner is mysterious. (Incidentally, I’ve clearly been living under a rock for the past two months; I hadn’t realized the Vendler-Dove fracas was such a  cause célèbre.)