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.

Nick Drake’s ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ and Urban Melancholia

I discovered Nick Drake late, very late. Back in 2007, Scott Dexter and I were busy dealing with the release of our book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software; mainly, this involved engaging in some spirited discussions online with other folks interested in free software, the creative commons, free culture, and all of the rest. One of our interlocutors was a young man from–I think–Reading, UK. His name was–I think–Tom Chance. As is an internet voyeur’s wont, I moseyed on over to his webpage and spent some time poking around through his various links. One link led to a last.fm playlist. One track on that playlist was Nick Drake’s At the Chime of a City Clock.

I’m not sure why I played the track. But once I did,  and as the opening picks on the strings of Drake’s guitar floated out, accompanied by ‘A city freeze/Get on your knees/Pray for warmth and green paper/A city drought/You’re down and out/,’ I was hooked. Not as in ‘I played that track incessantly.’ ATCOACC isn’t really the kind of song that can be played again and again, at least, not at the same sitting. Rather I was hooked as in ‘it got under my skin,’ ‘spooked me out,’ ‘induced melancholia,’ ‘conjured up a rich panoply of images,’ ‘stirred up long-forgotten memories,’ ‘was strangely calming,’ ‘intrigued me with its orchestration,’ ‘haunted me,’ and so on. It was, and is, that kind of song, simultaneously simple and complex, one that almost immediately provokes in its listeners a curiosity about its provenance and meaning.

ATCOACC’s lyrics are alternately straightforward and cryptic, but they never stop being suggestive, leaving themselves open to the varied interpretations that its listeners might bring to it. (It has been suggested  that Drake’s lyrics in general show the influence of William BlakeWilliam Butler Yeats and Henry Vaughan, poets that he studied, and expressed an affinity for, during his days at Cambridge.) When I first listened to ATCOACC, New York was in the grip of a unseasonably cool summer day, gray and overcast, with faint leftover smatterings of the morning’s rain beating against my apartment windows; I felt I had discovered the perfect soundtrack to a day that is all-too familiar on the East Coast. And strangely enough, even though none of the lines in the song are explicitly about urban blight, I somehow felt that images of torn-down city blocks, sidewalks with grass poking up through them, deserted parking lots, and old grimy theaters were easily evoked by it. That was because of my particular history on the US East Coast and it spoke volumes of ATCOACC’s ability to reach into me.

If there is a miniscule weakness in ATCOACC’s lyrics it is that Drake mentions London in one line (Saddle up/Kick your feet/Ride the range of a London street/); they might have worked better without explicit mention of any particular city. And that is precisely because Drake’s melancholia should be familiar to anyone that has ever found themselves confronted with that particular irony of the modern life: to be frighteningly, devastatingly alone, in the middle of humanity’s most crowded spaces.