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.

The Conformist Non-Conformist

In yesterday’s post I had quoted W. H. Auden‘s review of  David Luke‘s translation of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and Other Stories in responding to his acid assessment of a reductionist impulse in art criticism.  Today, I quote him again, on a topic that is of similarly perennial interest, the problem of conformism as a hallmark of non-conformity:

In all technologically ‘advanced countries, fashion has replaced tradition, so that involuntary membership in a society can no longer provide a feeling of community. (The family, perhaps, can still provide it, but families are temporary societies which dissolve when the children grow up.)

In consequence, the word ‘normal’ has ceased to have any meaning. Community still means what it always has, a group of persons united by a love of something other than themselves, be it racehorses and poetry, but today such a love has to be discovered by each person for himself; it cannot be acquired socially. Society can only teach conformity to the momentary fashion, either of the majority or of its mirror-image, the rebellious minority. To belong to either is to be a member, not of a community, but if a ‘public’ in the Kierkegaardian sense. Today, all visible and therefore social signs of agreement are suspect. What a pleasant surprise it would be to meet a crew-cut hippie or a company director with hair down to his shoulders.

Auden’s observations should ring true to us. We have now become accustomed to the sight of the rebellious, the fringe, the ‘outsiders’, all too often, dressing and behaving lock and step in conformity with their chosen cohort. This isn’t surprising: having placed ourselves outside one group, we quickly seek another. True exiles, the hermits of the social sphere, are exceedingly rare. And in the quest for membership in a new group, visible signs of identification are very useful . These are the secret handshakes by which we enter the inner councils and proclaim our bona-fides. (Incidentally, Auden’s latter demand would appear to have been taken care of by the phenomenon of, most recently, the Internet start-up, some of whose directors are indeed long-haired and considerably more unkempt than the standard businessman.) Once inside the group, we seek to avoid summary excommunication by speaking and behaving alike. A ‘local’ vernacular or colloquial mode is quickly picked up as are standard expressions and targets of approval and disapproval. The overt adoption of these is necessary to continue and sustain the distancing from the older ‘normal.’

Such wholesale adoption of the trappings of the new group–especially speech forms and ideological commitments– require too, constant maintenance. This is best facilitated by persistent, frequent and sometimes, in extreme cases, exclusive, contact with other members of the new group. These interactions facilitate the upkeep of the new garb; they enable an inspection of slight changes in fashion that may need urgent responding to if membership is to continue.

The problem then, as Auden highlights it, is that the rebel only learns how to reject and leave a group; he does not learn how to live outside of one.

The Laziness of Reductionist Analyses

In his review of David Luke‘s translation of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and Other Stories W. H. Auden wrote,

Polar opposites as in appearance they look, the two literary doctrines of Naturalism and Art-for-Art’s-Sake, as propounded by Zola and Mallarmé, are really both expressions of the same megalomania. The aesthete is, at least, frank about this. He says: “Art is the only true religion. Life has no value except as material for a beautiful artistic structure. The artist is the only authentic human being: all the rest, rich and poor alike, are canaille.”

The naturalist is more disingenuous. Officially, he says: “Down with all art that prettifies life. Let us describe human life and nature as they really are.” But his picture of life “as it really is” is a picture of human beings as animals, enslaved to necessity, who can only manifest behavior and are incapable of personal choice or deeds. But if human beings are really as the naturalist describes them, then they cannot be loved or admired. Who can be? Only the naturalist himself for his accurate clinical observations. Like all kinds of behaviorists, he does not apply his dogmas to himself. He does not say: “My books are examples of behavior, conditioned by blind reflexes.” The hidden link between the naturalist and the aesthete is revealed by the total absence in both of any sense of humor. [links added]

An absence of a ‘sense of humor’ it seems, is almost endemic to all reductive, ‘X is nothing-but or merely Y’ style analyses (as in the example of the naturalist above, who suggests that books are nothing but examples of conditioned behavior). They are also depressingly narrow-minded and lacking in imagination.

Wittgenstein once pointed out–in his critique of psychoanalysis–that a facile reduction of this sort was misguided for the most elementary of reasons: when it was over, you simply weren’t talking about the same thing any more. Boil a man down to flesh, blood and bones to show us that that was all he was, and what you’d have left was a bag of just that. You wouldn’t have a man any more.

All too often, reductionist analyses fail to answer the most basic questions about their enterprise: Why is one necessary? How would it be accomplished? What explanatory power or insight do we gain with the new language of description that is now afforded by these ‘nothing-but’ locutions that you provide us? What would we lose in its place? A reduction for reduction’s sake seems extremely unappealing.

This is not to discount the explanatory power that some reductionist analyses have afforded us, especially within the sciences. But even there, occasionally, as the misguided efforts to reduce biological explanations to exclusively physical and chemical ones shows, the seductive allure of the catch-all, explain-all impulse dies hard. That same urge fuels the intemperate extension of the reductive net to catch all manner of fish, be it literature, psychology, or the social sciences.

Auden is right: the reductionist is megalomaniacal and a bore. He fails to see that what makes inquiry interesting is the creation of meaning in rich and diverse forms; he’d rather channel that fundamental impulse into some narrowly circumscribed channel. And Auden is right too, about the lack of a sense of humor. The universe is laughing at you behind your back anyway; why not join in and crack a joke or two yourself?