Cultural Associations Do Not Add Up

In reviewing Jonathan Lethem‘s Dissident Gardens (“Leftists in Jeopardy“, New York Review of Books, April 2014), Michael Greenberg writes:

Lethem’s impulse to display his knowingness, his “vernacular” expertise, as he calls it, his belief that “were’ surrounded by signs [and] our imperative is to ignore none of them engenders a narrative noise that drowns out the novel’s subtler chords. His characters become the sum total  of their cultural associations,  creatures of the zeitgeist, a form of determinism, that as determinism does, leaves little or no room for spontaneity and nuance. We know them by their era, their affiliations, the music they listen to, and the products they boycott, or acquire.

Greenberg may be right that such ‘narrative noise…drowns out the novel’s subtler chords.’ But I do not know if the fundamental anxiety he expresses, that the characters subjected to such treatment become entirely relational–the “sum total of their cultural associations…with no room for spontaneity or nuance”–is all that worrisome or even perspicuous.

These associations and affiliations are expressions of taste, evidence of choices. These choices may display the very ‘spontaneity’ and ‘nuance’ whose absence Greenberg is bemoaning. We might know these characters by ‘their era, their affiliations, the music they listen to, and the products they boycott, or acquire’ but that does not mean the particular and peculiar way these are assembled by each individual may not be a ‘style’, a distinct signature, all its own.Greenberg seems to imagine such characters are entirely passive, merely bearing the impress of their cultures. But that would only be so if there is an assumption of, ironically enough, a certain ‘determinism’ on his part. These collections of ‘cultural associations,’ often very distinct from each other, present a different breeding ground for the various influences they subsequently encounter. Those interactions will often result in a quite unique character.

As but a trivial example, the temporal sequencing of these cultural adoptions may significantly affect the particular ‘sum total’; cultural choices and tastes do not follow some commutative law of addition. The teenager who discovers Slayer first, and then Black Sabbath later is very different from the one who listens to Black Sabbath first and finds Slayer later. The former finds his beloved thrashers have their provenance in classic heavy metal; the latter finds his beloved masters continue to live on in the homage paid them by contemporaries. The former may be tempted into an exploration of an older school of music; the latter may seek to find other bands’ expressions of a signature style. Their resultant journeys are likely to be very different. Or, if you prefer a more exalted example, those who read military histories of the Second World War first, and then later read those written by Herodotus, are likely to have a quite different reading experience from those who bring Herodotus to their reading of the Second World War histories.

Conformity is a genuine worry, but not quite in the way that Greenberg worries about it. The notion of a ‘sum total…of cultural associations’, in particular, strikes me as incoherent.

On Reading the Unreadable (or Persisting)

Michael Greenberg writes of Jorge Luis Borges:

He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame.

Good advice, but not easily followed.

Borges’ advice isn’t easy to follow because the decision to continue reading is just another instance of that most insuperable of dilemmas: Should I stay or should I go? Should I press on to the summit, risking life and limb, or should I turn back, foregoing glory and the chance to prove myself against the unforgiving elements? I was warned, after all, that I would experience many, many, moments of utter exhaustion, that I would have to dig deep into reserves that I didn’t know existed. Should I persist in this floundering relationship and attempt to rescue it from the doldrums in which it finds itself, thus investigating the depths of my emotional and romantic commitment, or should I cut my losses and run, seeking a better partner elsewhere? The romantic was always supposed to be our sternest test, wasn’t it?

The reading of a book poses this question in particularly vexed form. We have been urged to show a little backbone in our intellectual endeavors; we have been warned pleasures of the mind are not so easily earned; we accuse ourselves, relentlessly, of indolence in matters of edification. We are convinced we are distracted and flighty, flitting from one easily earned pleasure to the next; we are well aware the classics are often ‘difficult’ and require ‘sustained attention’. If a book ‘bores’ us, surely it is our fault, not the author’s, and we should press on regardless, trusting the difficulty journey ahead will bring its own rewards soon enough. Glory, we well know, comes only to those who persist; those who take the first exit on the highway to greatness are destined to only enjoy minor pleasures. So, this boredom that afflicts us, surely it is a reflection of our intellectual infirmity, an entirely ersatz disease. Can its reports really be trusted?

Matters, of course, are made worse in this day and age, as we suffer the ever-growing deluge of the written word, online and offline. We learn every day, with growing dismay, of the decay of the reading mind, the growth of the 140-character missive. Boredom by book seems like an exceedingly common disease, possibly even over-diagnosed.

If we could only trust our own inclinations, our own expressed desires, Borges’ advice would be far more tractable. But we do not. They have gotten us into trouble many times in the past; we know they will continue to torment us so in the future.

Fears of premature abandonment aren’t going away any time soon.

Note: In the past year, I have abandoned classics by Stendhal and Balzac; my guilt lasted for several days, and it was not assuaged when, on reporting these surrenders to a friend, he responded, “Really? I’m surprised. Those are great reads!” Borges can at least rest content his writing will never bore me.