How pop culture canned the Canon

In “Narcissus Regards a Book” (The Chronicle Review, January 30, 2011) Mark Edmundson laments the lack of taste of “common readers,” that majority of the population who read for pleasure without conscious regard for illumination. It’s a familiar screed, but there’s always someone like Edmundson out there, willing to give it one more go.

Edmundson presents quite a decent version of the difference between reading to reinforce an image of oneself (hence the title of the article) and reading to create a vision for oneself. Had he kept to this distinction, his article would have been both more unified and more effective. Unfortunately, he indulges the temptation to heap disdain on popular culture, to mourn the gap between refined and discerning people like himself and the unwashed mass of ordinary citizenry — his choice of the phrase “common reader” clearly serves less as a measurement of frequency than as a judgment of worth.

Edmundson blames the decline of interest in the literary canon on the abdication of the university professor as curator of culture, an abdication which he cites as the cause of the tasteless taste of contemporary opinion-makers, who, to his chagrin, elevate The Simpsons and Stephen King beyond their proper lowbrow status. When the new Philistines marched by chanting  Hey hey, ho ho — Western Culture’s got to go!, Edmundson charges, liberal arts profs everywhere failed them:

What was this thing called Western culture? Who created it? Who sanctioned it? Most important: What was so valuable about it? Why did it matter to study a poem by Blake, or ponder a Picasso, or comprehend the poetry latent in the religions of the world? I’m not sure that teachers and scholars ever offered a good answer. The conservatives, protected by tenure, immersed in the minutiae of their fields, slammed the windows closed when the parade passed by. They went on with what they were doing. Those who concurred with the students bought mikes and drums and joined the march.

There’s a remarkable and self-important insularity in the idea that the canon could have been “saved” by a greater professorial diligence on the part of Edmundson’s fallen colleagues. It would be tempting to consider his argument an exercise in self-satire, were it not for the tone of real despair in his lament. Speaking of today’s media leaders, the former students whom his negligent scholar confreres failed, Edmundson writes:

They may sense that Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience are in some manner more valuable, more worth pondering, more worth preserving than The Simpsons. They may sense as much. But they do not have the terminology to explain why. They never heard the arguments. The professors who should have been providing the arguments when the No More Western Culture marches were going on never made a significant peep.

The result, Edmundson charges, is a culture-class with no idea of what real culture is, one that panders to the ego-driven delusions of quality of lowest common denominator “art”:

Even the most august publications and broadcasts no longer attempt to shape taste. They merely seek to reflect it. They hold the cultural mirror up to the reader—what the reader likes, the writer and the editor like. They hold the mirror up and the reader and—what else can he do?—the reader falls in love. The common reader today is someone who has fallen in love, with himself.

Considering the authority, moral as well as cultural, with which Edmundson wishes to endow himself and like-minded guardians of civilization, it’s easy to accept his credentials as an expert on self-love.

But don’t I, too, attack the shallowness of popular culture? Shouldn’t I be agreeing with Edmundson?

Well, yes, I do. And no, I shouldn’t.

Much of popular culture is spectacularly superficial and irremediably banal. I’m not entertained by it. I don’t read it, watch it, or listen to it. I do think that there are greater satisfactions to be gained from life than being up to date on celebrity gossip and reality TV. But I don’t think that my taste is therefore the only possible taste, that my favourite writers are the only ones others should be reading. And I certainly don’t believe that we need self-appointed specialists with overly-ingrown educations to help us decide what we want to read.

Although I taught canonical literature for more than thirty years, and despite my love of many works by many dead writers, Edmundson’s brand of faculty club elitism is thoroughly unconvincing — is Western Civilization really in terminal decline because few people have read, or want to read, all — and only — those books on Harold Bloom’s “Western Canon” list? How is our culture really diminished because no one not writing an English Lit thesis will ever again read Otway’s  Venice Preserv’d?

(For Bloom’s list, look here)

Certainly there is a lot to appreciate in Blake’s Songs. The poems address issues that still matter to us, and they do so in a unique and often compelling way. Blake’s vision of moral evil in an industrializing society influenced generations of later writers and thinkers. I love some of the poems, and I would hate to have never read them. But if someone else has no interest in them, if many “common” people have never heard of William Blake, the walls won’t tumble down. No longer caring about the evils Blake addressed may condemn us; no longer reading Blake’s poetry about those issues, will not.

One can read T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with considerable impact without having read or even heard of Hesiod’s Works and Days (another of Bloom’s “eternal” classics), a long-dead work that is the source of the second line below:

There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;

And, despite what Edmundson fears, one can contemplate social death and isolation without ever having read Eliot, either. That reading Eliot, or Blake, or even Hesiod can bring elevated pleasure and personal insight is not the same thing as saying that the experience of pleasure and the revelations of insight themselves will disappear without these, specific works. Let’s get a grip here!

An interesting counterpoint to Edmundson’s lament is Neal Gabler’s “Everyone’s a Critic Now,” published by The Guardian on January 30, 2011. While Gabler’s main focus is on how the internet and social media are making the role of professional culture critic obsolete, he spends some time outlining what he sees as an overlooked root cause: the typically American disdain for elitism like Edmundson’s. Gabler describes the attitude of the  culture gurus:

Not surprisingly, the conventional take on American popular culture by intellectuals is that it was the product of ignorance and a deficiency of good taste among the mass of American citizens. They had to bowdlerise culture because they couldn’t appreciate the unadulterated thing.

Gabler argues instead that it was the same democratizing impulse that led Americans to reject European elitism that spurred the growth of a unique and democratic pop culture:

Though it is impossible to prove with any certainty, it is likely that American popular culture, which is arguably the most ubiquitous and powerful culture in the world today, arose from this contrarian impulse: ordinary Americans would consciously create a culture that was everything the elitists detested. They would not only welcome the elitists’ contempt; they would actively try to foment it. This was how America became engaged in its battle between high culture and low – not by accident but by design.

If this is true, Gabler writes, it wasn’t stupidity that created mass culture but mass culture that embraced stupidity. Anything, rather than be talked down to by some snooty snob.

Well, maybe. Gabler himself writes that many nineteenth century Americans embraced the kind of “highbrow” culture that their descendents now ignore. Opera, theatre, lectures by authors and scientists, and more were common and popular parts of cultural life from the big cities of the East Coast to the new towns of the Prairie. So what happened to change things? Not a “democratic impulse,” for that motivation had been present for a century before anything we can call “pop culture” emerged. In the end, I fear, Gabler is no more convincing than Edmundson.

If I were trying to tease out the reasons for pop culture’s growth, like most other analysts I’d look toward the increased working class leisure time afforded by industrialization (for the first time giving the majority of citizens a say in the entertainment marketplace) and at the steady growth in the availability and sophistication of affordable mass communication technologies, from the dime novel to the internet.

But then, I don’t have either U-prof Edmundson’s great disdain for the common reader or Walt Disney-biographer Gabler’s intense dislike of academic pronouncements. So I may be insufficiently biased to have a valid or useful opinion on this subject.

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This is the first of a series of three consecutive articles on reading, writing, and literary taste. The other two will be published on Wednesday the 23rd and Friday the 25th.

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4 thoughts on “How pop culture canned the Canon

  1. I think one of the main losses in the modern reader’s lack of interest in the “classics” is the gradual deterioraton of the language. Much of the pop-culture dialogue leaves a lot to be lamented. If one carries this new use of the language to it’s logical end, I think we will be left with a diminished capacity when expressing ourselves. Not visiting the ideas expressed in the writings of our past thinkers gives us fewer options with which to form our personal ideas of moral conduct.

  2. I agree that there is much to be gained from reading good writers, but the problem is how to make people read them. By the time many youngsters are old enough to do any serious reading, their interest has been captured by the flash-card shallow digital culture, which is all they have ever experienced — and, as a result, all they are capable of experiencing. We’re lucky that The Simpsons has a moral dimension, or we’d be in real trouble!

  3. I have to agree. I would also like to add that it is as much the fault of the parents and the home surroundings (larger bookcases smaller video racks would be a start) as the teachers that we have this dilemma. A child’s mind is pretty well directed by the time they are in school.
    I would suggest that we must lay part of the problem in the lap of our changing economics. Both parents working and juggling survival – less time to mold wee minds.

    • I wouldn’t blame the teachers at all. At the secondary level the number of specialist teachers of English (people with degrees in English) has dropped dramatically. This decline is partly a result of budget cuts (Social Studies and P.E. teachers with seniority being forced to teach a section or two of junior English, rather than hiring a young careerist English teacher at additional cost), and partly a result of more and more teachers with B.Ed. rather than B.A. degrees being trained. How does one teach Stevenson or Hemingway if one’s never read Stevenson or Hemingway?

      As for the parents, I think that it’s the parent’s attitude rather than her work status that matters. My stay-at-home mother is a Berkeley grad, yet she literally reads nothing. For her, serious music is Jerry Vale. Culture is TV Guide. Somehow, I managed to develop a love of reading anyway.

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