Are Books from the Past Better than Today’s Pop Culture?
In my last post, I mentioned Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and raised the question whether an acquaintance with great books of the past can liberate us from the cave of popular culture.
While I think there is definitely something to that thought, it is also possible to have a wrong idea of those great books from the past. Shakespeare’s plays were originally staged in the disreputable southern side of London, essentially the red-light district. As a common laborer in Elizabethan London, you might work, watch a bear fight, and then buy a cheap ticket to go see a play by that Shakespeare dude, munching away on snacks during the performance and loudly voicing the emotional effect it has on you.
In a similar vein, the great Russian American novelist Nabokov did not at first manage to get his novel Lolita published with anything but a trashy pornographic publisher. Can you imagine a professor of literature being caught with it at the time? It would have been embarrassing. Today, any professor of literature can proudly hold up his Vintage edition of Lolita, showing what fine works he is reading. And if you look at the lives of the great composers, many of them lived as much like a rock star as their often limited finances would allow.
Frequently, the classics of today were yesterday’s pop culture, and what is taken up into (or drops out of) the canon of great literature changes over time. Literary sainthood is a fickle club.
Personally, I am not fond of an overly sharp distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, between real literature and mere entertainment. Not only were many highbrow works in the current canon originally anything but highbrow, but I think the implied supposition that “literary” works are somehow always more profound than popular works is false. Sure, Joyce’s Ulysses is a unique work and a great experiment of what you can do with language, and its many references and puzzles furnish literary classes with much to talk about, but in terms of the content, is it really more profound than popular works? For my money, I find The Lord of the Rings more profound than Ulysses, even though Tolkien is clearly part of popular culture.
Now Allan Bloom contests that the Great Books have a richness that is missing in popular culture. While I do not completely disagree, I find some of his examples rather badly chosen. He says that “students today have nothing like Dickens who gave so many of us the unforgettable Pecksniffs, Micawbers, Pips, with which we sharpened our vision, allowing us some subtlety in our distinction of human types. It is a complex set of experiences that enables one to say so simply, ‘He is a Scrooge.’ Without literature, no such observations are possible and the fine art of comparison lost. The psychological obtuseness of our students is appalling, because they have only pop psychology to tell them what people are like …”
Really? We have no equivalents of Dickens’ characters in current pop culture? Dickens was an extremely popular writer in his time, not someone whose readership was limited to those with a highly developed literary taste. So, for some reason, Bloom seems to suggest, popular writers have become much less perceptive in their portrayal of human characters since the golden age of Charles Dickens. Pardon me, Professor Bloom, but I don’t think so. I have read many popular novels where I was impressed by the perceptive portrayals of human character, even in novels that are clearly meant to thrill rather than educate us, such as those of Stephen King.
To take the issue beyond the written word, is the statement “He is a Scrooge” really such a more profound statement than, say, “He is a Mr. Burns” (from the Simpsons)? Many people today might not be familiar with Pecksniff, Micawber and Pip anymore, but they have the unforgettable Snape, Dumbledore and Harry Potter. Even though it is a children’s book series, Harry Potter deals with many important issues. As does Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, to name but two of the most popular book series of current popular culture.
Nevertheless, I think Bloom has a point that often, what we find in popular culture are dumbed-down and falsified concepts from earlier thinkers. “The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.”
As he says in another passage, “somehow the goods got damaged in transit.” Again talking about Marcuse, Bloom says that he “began in Germany in the twenties by being something of a serious Hegel scholar. He ended up here [in America] writing trashy culture criticism with a heavy sex interest in One Dimensional Man and other well-known books. In the Soviet Union, instead of the philosopher-king they got the ideological tyrant; in the United Sates the culture critic became the voice of Woodstock.”
When it comes to fiction, I am not convinced that books of the limited highbrow canon are always better than those excluded from the canon. But when it comes to non-fiction, particularly philosophy, I would agree with Bloom that there have been a certain amount of thinkers who continue to influence us, and knowing them helps us evaluate the popularized and often falsified versions of their thoughts.
For instance, Obama said during his recent address to the United Nations that “freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values.” That’s quite a big claim, and I think knowing the Great Books helps evaluate such a claim. It helps us know where such a sentiment comes from.
Bloom is right to point out what has been pointed out by others before: that one can indeed be chained to the shadow puppetry of contemporary popularism, especially in our age of mass production, and that a knowledge of the Great Books can help turn our heads away from the shadows at least long enough to gain a better understanding of what is really going on. Or, to change the picture, they can pull us up from among the throng of mass culture at least long enough to get a picture of some its direction, separating us from the throng long enough to gain a bit of individuality—to gain a mind not completely controlled by the dictates of mass consumption.
Entry filed under: Books/Book Reviews, Harry Potter, Shakespeare, Sociology. Tags: Allan Bloom, classics, Closing of the American Mind, culture, Dickens, freedom, great books, Harry Potter, highbrow, Lolita, lowbrow, Marcuse, mass culture, media, Mr. Burns, Obama, Plato's cave, pop culture, Scrooge, Shakespeare, Stephen King, The Lord of the Rings, The Simpsons, Tolkien, Ulysses.