Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reading in one's retirement

In piece on NPR’s “All Things Considered” yesterday evening, the Romanian-American writer Andrei Codrescu offered some typically iconoclastic reflections on retiring from teaching in academia. The maverick commentator said that he had been looking forward to reading some of the books that he had always meant to tackle, but hadn't found the time. Yet now that he is a "gentleman of leisure," he has so many things to do that there is actually even less time available. So he just took the books to the Salvation Army.

My experience on retiring five years ago was a little different. I did read some major authors--Aristotle, Montaigne, Tocqueville, for example. I found that the real drawback of this plan is that it is not interactive enough. True, I did learn enough about Aristotle to have a heated argument with my late friend Stephen Heersink. And I sketched out a piece on Tocqueville and Algeria, a neglected topic in the career of that much-covered figure. But I was never able to get the hang of Montaigne’s Essais, with their maddening randomness. I wonder whether those who praise the French savant have actually gotten through that huge tome.

Reading these old books, with their often antiquated attitudes and concerns (so un-PC, you know) and rebarbative terminology is a challenge. Why do it: isn’t retirement a time for enjoyment? (At least as far as the limitations of bodily impairment permit.) The reason, ostensibly, is that reading the classics is ultimately more efficient than consuming the artifacts of popular culture. More efficient? By this I mean that they are richer in content and more thought-provoking than easily digestible pop works.

There is, however, a more cynical explanation that stems from the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu (1930-2002). His book La Distinction (English translation, 1984) purports to rely on empirical research conducted in France between 1963 and 1968 (that fateful year). Judgments of taste, according to Bourdieu, simply mirror power relations in society. More or less arbitrarily, the elites single out certain cultural icons, circulating them among themselves in a kind of closed-circuit system. They then flaunt these talismans to reinforce their dominance over the great unwashed. Social class, then, determines a person’s likes and interests--there is nothing objective about it.

It is all, apparently, a matter of waging the culture wars. Bourdieu holds that even when the subordinate classes may appear to have their own particular idea of 'good taste,' "[i]t must never be forgotten that the working-class 'aesthetic' is a dominated 'aesthetic' which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of the dominant aesthetics."

In this perspective, preference for the classics is a mere taste niche, a marker of the educated and well-to-do. In short it amounts to nothing more than snobbism and libido dominandi. All this is pretty shitty of Bourdieu.

But matters need not be taken so seriously. The taste-niche approach has been recycled in Christian Lander’s amusing website (and related books). This set of satirical pieces is not about the taste preferences of ALL white people, because rednecks are excluded. Instead, they skewer the habits of upscale, educated types who tend to be concentrated on the two coasts. The items targeted are fairly mundane, such as farmer’s markets, the Daily Show, the guerilla artist Banksy, Asian fusion food, and David Sedaris. Yet white people of this ilk, it seems, only pretend to like classical music, and their efforts to learn foreign languages never get very far. Still the message is not very different from that of Bourdieu. The preferences of these pampered folks reflect their desire to bond with one another and to feel superior to all those rubes in fly-over country who just aren’t up to it.

There may be something in this. However, isn’t it better to get fresh fruits and vegetables at a farmer’s market or to eat Asian fusion cuisine instead of the junk provender found at the fast food chains? And isn’t it better to try to learn a foreign language and only partially succeed than not to try at all?

Moreover, it takes real effort to understand Bach and Shakespeare in a way that accessing the Pet Boys and Jack Kerouac does not. I am not putting down the latter, just saying that the order of difficulty is greater. When one has accomplished a difficult task one needs to give oneself credit and not mourn because of some supposed indulgence in otiose elitism.

So where then did I get my love of the classics? My parents were both college educated, and we had serious books at home. Some were, to be sure, from the Book of the Month Club. But there was The Works of Rabelais (whom I initially mangled as “Rebellious”) and James Joyce’s Ulysses. As a four-eyes I wasn’t much good at sports (the rope climb was the only thing I excelled in during gym periods). So being a junior intellectual seemed the best choice.

In the 'fifties one was guided by “improving” magazines. My favorite for a time was the Saturday Review of Literature. Later, I learned that it was actually middle-brow and fairly light weight, having orchestrated a nasty campaign against the awarding of the Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound. There was, of course, the Great Books set, propagated under the auspices of the University of Chicago.

Perhaps the most important vehicle of my self-education was the series of Mentor Classics. It was important, I felt, to own books and not just take them out from the library. I couldn’t afford hardbacks, so the Mentors, which originally cost only 35 cents served me just fine. Besides they had catchy, modernistic looking covers. I could carry them around in high school as a badge of my intellectual aspirations. Usually, though, I was ignored by the mass of vulgarians (as I had learned to term them from another paperback, Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary--a book that ruined me forever).

The Mentor Books, published by the New American Library, had begun as an American offshoot of the British Penguins, which Sir Alan Lane had started in Britain in the late thirties. Penguin remains one of the top brand names in the fast-declining publishing industry. At all events, Mentor issued rather plain translations of the Odyssey and the Iliad (so that one could read Homer for the story line alone), as well as selections from Plutarch’s Lives, and Machiavelli’s Prince. There was also John Ciardi’s rendering of Dante’s Inferno. At the outset, the latter was quite a conundrum for me, an atheist at the time. I could see that Dante was quite intelligent (he would have had to be with that elaborate structure of the circles of Hell), and yet he seemed to subscribe to the most appalling Catholic dogmas. I decided that he really couldn’t believe in them, so the whole thing must a satire. Later, after I had accessed the comforts of historical relativism, I understood that what might be well-established truth in one period did not necessarily count as such in another one (our own, in this case).

Mentor also issued contemporary works. I enjoyed Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up, though after reading his novel Of Human Bondage I realized that the Englishman was something of a light weight. I particularly affected a book by Lancelot Law White, The Next Development in Man. I recently reread it and found it platitudinous. The next development (is it already here?) is the general adoption of something called Unitary Process Thinking. Golly.

At all events, my library of 14,000 volumes leans heavily to the classics--in Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish and English. I don’t think I will ever understand Plotinus, despite several tries, and reading all of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine represents too much of a time commitment. But just about everything is here: these books are not going to the Salvation Army.

POSTSCRIPT (Dec. 3). By chance I came across some comments of similar import by Michael Dirda in the Times Literary Supplement for Nov. 12. Since the piece ("Freelance") is firewalled, I cannot reproduce it here. For some years, Dirda's engaging book reviews graced the Washington Post. With the decline of that paper's
commitment to the fast-receding Gutenberg Galaxy, Dirda has branched out to other venues, including the TLS.

He starts out by saying that, growing up in a rather humdrum Middle Western environment, he chanced on a copy of Dumas's The Count of Montecristo, seeing in the cultural accomplishments of the unlettered sailor Edmond Dantes a parable for acquiring the essence of high culture by one-self, so to speak. Of course, Dirda was helped by being able to attend Oberlin, a liberal arts college. There he fell in love with classical music.

Back then, or a little earlier (this must have happened in the seventies) high culture seemed a towering edifice, to be scaled if one possibly could. Dirda also mentions the Great Books series, though he questions whether very many purchasers actually cracked these forbidding volumes.

Now all that has changed, as he ruefully remarks after having attended the Comic-Con jamboree in San Diego, with its 125,000 attendees. Comics and manga are the dernier cri. Moreover, instead of the Great Books, today's aspirants to culture are likely to have shelves of Blu-Ray disks, ready to be fired up in their powerful sound and visual systems.

So popular culture has defeated high culture--one positive focus superseding another. What Dirda does not mention is what he wisely eschews in his own criticism: the deadly virus of postmodernism, which slowly kills any enjoyment of literature and art as we have known them.



Blogger Stephen said...

Though skeptical of much in Bordieu, this quite oversimplifies his notion of cultural capital.

I also don't see why campaigning against the Bollingen Prize for someone who was either crazy or should have been hung for treason is evidence of being "lightweight."

2:26 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

To be sure, opposing the award of the Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound need not be evidence of being lightweight. After all, Saul Bellow, whom no one would accuse of being a trifler, was vehemently opposed to the award. However, the SRL campaign waged by Robert Hillyer, a minor poet-scholar, was particularly lame-brained. This shallowness was all-too-revealing of the middle-brow limitations of the Saturday Review. That "booboisie" ethos is what I wished to highlight.

In fact, Hillyer had a skeleton in his own cabinet. He was evidently a boy lover, as seen by his contribution to the anthology Men and Boys (1924). For many in those days (and even now) being a pederast far outranked broadcasting for Mussolini.

6:45 AM  

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