Monday, January 5, 2009

Quiet Desperation and Excellence

David Frum seems at cross-purposes with himself when he puts all of these insights in the same brief commentary:

I cannot help fearing that these riches are sought by fewer and fewer. Literature is a declining presence in our modern society, increasingly an academic preoccupation. Intelligent young people read literature at university, and when they graduate, they stop. When they feel the need to feed the imagination, they turn to movies or television shows.
The masses pay little mind to literature, and this is a bad thing. Hold that thought and make way for this one:
Contemporary culture has scant room for arbiters of excellence, yet without them the obvious and easy will drive out the enduring and important. In any area of art – not only literature, but also music and the visual arts - the modern person reminds me of the first encounter of the modern child, raised on fried chicken strips, and an actual roast chicken: “This thing has bones!”
It seems to me he's gone a long way toward answering his own question, though not quite in the way he intends. He wants to pine for a day when "arbiters of excellence" not only had influence over public taste, but used that influence to thrust high culture before the masses. As Alan Jacobs notes, this day almost certainly never existed, and merely asserting its existence is no substitute for showing where and when it did.

There's a more interesting question. Is the problem -- if it is a problem -- really a lack of "arbiters of excellence," or is it a variable definition of "excellence"? Right now, somebody out there is sincerely committed to the view that ABC's prime-time lineup is excellent, and by excellent, they mean something like pleasantly diverting or broadly appealing or better than the garbage they have on NBC. We are awash in excellences and besieged by a cacophony of their arbiters speaking very insistently about what we, the masses, ought to value: one or another subdivision of the arts, science, religion/spirituality, travel, child-rearing, home improvement, style, health, education, career, personal finance, public policy, and so on.

There are cultural arbiters insisting on and promoting David Frum's version of excellence, and I am surprised that he is surprised that these tend to be academics. Does he honestly pine for a world in which people put in a full day's work at the paper mill or hair salon and spend their evening hours engrossed with works by Kafka, Dostoevsky, Moliere, Virgil, and similar luminaries? Not that it would be such a terrible world, but it's not a world any reasonable person should expect.

Henry David Thoreau pared his life down to the essentials and recorded the results in Walden. Those with the spare time will profit from reading that, and will do so long before anything as rash as trying the experiment themselves.


Aimée said...

“Intelligent young people read literature at university, and when they graduate, they stop” – Hey, that’s me! Well maybe not the “intelligent” part, but I certainly don’t find a lot of time to read. Though I do read more heavy literature than most people I know on a personal level, it isn’t something I turn to for escapism, and the persons I know that do read literature are usually English majors, college professors, or people who don’t have children. Honestly.

Dale said...

Aimee, agreed. It's easy enough to toss out a "the world is going to hell in a handbasket because people aren't putting enough time and energy into X" plaint, but it sounds like empty, preachy whining if it doesn't take some thoughtful account of how people are currently spending their time and the constraints in which they live.

Memo to David Frum: life is busy. People have to sort through what's important and less important long before they can get around to picking the "excellent" from the rest.