Monday, March 14, 2011

Middlebrow Surrender

This front in the struggle for the sort of mind I was to carry through the bulk of life was hopelessly lost a long time ago, but I have not conceded to a formal cessation of operations against the core truths of my natural abilities and inclinations until today.

This essay by Bret Easton Ellis on the significance of Charlie Sheen, though not by any means the decisive blow alerting me that I have been burrowing down the wrong path for the last 25 years, encapsulates the forces I have been up against nicely. This is not to say that I am as yet impressed with the thought process at work here, but the undeniable reality is that Bret Easton Ellis is cool, while I am lame, and as he would say, I don't 'get it', neither at one end nor the other. And it has always been thus.

Among the miscellaneous books that come into one's possession by various means during the period of the late teens and early twenties, I had one of those mid-century compendiums containing various intellectuals' frettings about the phenomena of mass culture and mass man, from the scourges of which however, the writers themselves, practically alone among living people, always seemed miraculously to feel themselves to have escaped. Heavily represented in this volume, and in my opinion easily its star contributor, was Theodor Adorno, the deadly serious emigre German philosopher-musicologist who to my knowledge never conceded a single positive development in civilization in the entirety of his life (I believe he is the guy who said that to write poetry after Auschwitz would be obscene). I was most struck of course by his absolute sense of his own mental superiority, however ultimately useless, to modern mass men, which included all Americans, and unrelenting contempt for the same. My favorite essay was his assessment of Elvis Presley's ascension onto the cultural landscape in 1956; taking a surprisingly eqananimous tone, the Frankfurt and Vienna-trained pianist and composer declared that at least it was impossible to imagine that any culture, even that of America, could sink any lower than this; that the bottom having clearly been reached, while there was no reason to expect regeneration towards an acceptable level of civilization within the lifetimes of our great-great-grandchildren, there was no conceivable further degradation of it that he could anticipate as capable of causing anguish. In this analysis he seems to have been correct. Such intact pre mass-society intellectuals as still remained after the mid-50s increasingly began to write off new cultural developments and the lives and minds of the human beings under the influence of them as insubstantialities devoid of any collective interest or meaning and in which nothing real was at stake whatsoever.

This mindset, perhaps unfortunately, though I remain wholly unconvinced of that as yet, was the dominant intellectual atmosphere that hovered over most of my formal, and subsequently, as I seem to lack the flexibility to adjust to alternative environments, informal education. Adorno of course was a product of the last, and in some senses the most perfectly realized, hurrah of European classical education. It was not simply the nature and extent of knowledge and the organization of mind that he and his like had but the circumstance that nearly everyone and every experience with which he came into contact in his formative years seemed to be restricted to this same high plane. In the same way that if one lives in a social universe where everyone is a doctor or some kind of Phd one tends to be able to attain to the same level in almost a matter of fact manner, if everyone one associates with has a thorough knowledge of Greek and other European languages, has had serious musical training, knows wide swathes of the literature of his own country and the major works of the other prominent national literatures practically by heart, and converses in a philosophical dialectic style as second nature, he will have no sense of these being unusual pursuits and habits, and such as over time, if cultivated with true thoroughness, seem to develop in one such a sensibility as can admit no pleasures, no seductions, no rationalizations, no diversions in study or thought beneath a standard that seems, and almost surely is, impossibly high to anybody who has come of age immersed in an European society probably since 1940 or so and in America even before that. This onslaught of mass low culture has affected nearly everyone now alive. Jacques Barzun, who is 103, may be the only remaining exception. Obviously there are still brilliant men, and dogged men, and the occasional lonely upholder of high standards scowling down at the sordidness of what passes for intellectual life in modern times; even the minds of these people, however, are of a very different quality from those I am talking about. Their brilliance usually does not somehow encompass the entire man and inform every aspect of their interactions with others; it is as a uniform they take on and off and which strangely fails to exert the same commanding, assured and assuring influence of the old school. It actually has long been my belief that once people were able to identify highbrow culture as a species of art or thought apart from the main channel of life the ability to possess it quickly died, probably because the ever-present dread of mediocrity became too great a distraction. People like Virginia Woolf and Adorno, who were able to possess themselves of the characteristics of high thought and sensibility before they became conscious of differentiating themselves from classes of intellect that were repulsive to them, were able to carry on relatively effectively, but they were not successful in passing their particular sensibilities to proteges of their own, as their mentors had done with them. And it is next to impossible to attain this thorough a level of cultivation from a state of consciousness of not having it. Then there are so many pratfalls the unsuspecting middlebrow inevitably falls into, myself not least among them--confusing the development of personality, which is ideally merely the expression of character, with the development of character itself; getting caught up in the collection of facts and information, and rarely any truly important facts and information, as opposed to cultivating a deep understanding of processes and relations and what constitutes substantiality in the same; the semi-paradox that one must form one's own taste and conclusions about books, music, etc, and not be slavish to authority, but yet must somehow come to more or less the same conclusions, or the same kind of conclusions, only in one's individual way, about the same. Perhaps 90% of the people who navigate this education with apparent success are merely posing--I know some are, and suspect others--but I have become convinced that there really is an elect who have attained such a degree of mastery of this system that the working of their minds must be at times a source of great pleasure to them to contemplate, as it is a wonder for others to contemplate them. This is what I have encountered in the course of my education and decided for whatever reason that this is the mind I want, though it is impossible I should ever attain it, and no one has yet been able to persuade me against it.

This above is an image of how people who follow this route, or any route with which they never attain a sense of fusion between the spirit and the pursuit, end up in middle age.

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