Matthew Walther, the decidedly curious editor of the wonderful Catholic magazine The lampstill worth reading – and his recent essay, “What killed the cultural aspiration“, is no exception. In the midst of a cultural moment that tends to insist that video games are no less “art” than the paintings of Jasper Johns or Mark Rothko, Walther unapologetically celebrates the value of learned culture for itself.
And yet, Walther’s essay should not be read as an exercise in snobbery, but as a defense of the value of aspiration as a kind of “want-to-master-the-intellectual.” He observes that “[i]In recent years a kind of strident disdain has taken hold even in the infinitely small space still afforded to literary criticism, and the idea of difficulty in literature is dismissed and (strangely for any admirer of Virginia Woolf or Marianne Moore) reflexively masculine. But what do we lose when we lose the idea of literary difficulty as something valuable?
At least in my life, just struggling with difficult texts has proven to be a deeply rewarding exercise. New constellations of thought and experience appear when one reads a book like Shusaku Endo’s. the Samuraiby Sigrid Undset Kristin Lavransdatteror that of Marcel Proust Way of Swann, offering a deeper and more impressive understanding of the world and human life. And that’s just the fiction side of things; it took me weeks of painful struggle to get through Martin Heidegger’s book being and time, but with that behind me, whole galaxies of continental thought now feel comprehensible for the first time. Almost nothing brings me more joy than the kind of intellectual elongation it comes from working on a very difficult book and making it “mine”. As I see it, the depths of this created beauty are ultimately reflections of the depths of the uncreated God.
And when this kind of reading and study is abandoned, writing tends to suffer as well.
One of the most disturbing trends I’ve noticed in cultural writing over the past few years is that beyond really high-profile publications like the new yorker– much of it feels deeply decontextualized, stripped of any grounding in a larger context of art, literature and thought. One tends to ponder a lot about how a given work of art engages (or fails to engage) contemporary political conditions, or how it fits into the context of a particular creator’s body of work. , but not much about an intellectual work. influences dating back to about 1950 or so. (Seriously, just skip to rotten tomatoes and browse “Top Critics” reviews of any popular show or movie.)
This tendency towards uprooting really marked me a few months ago, when I realized for the first time that Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth is very clearly influenced by the ancient Gnostic “Hymn of the Pearl”. I guess it’s something I expected a top reviewer somewhere – probably with an Ivy League degree in hand – to have already picked up on. I am certainly not an expert on Gnosticism myself; this seems like the kind of connection anyone with a solid education in the western civilizational tradition could make. (I’d bet $50 that Walther himself would have noticed.)
At the lower end of the prestige spectrum, of course, there’s an endless stream of pop culture articles with headlines like “The End of ‘The Batman’ EXPLAINED.” This particular type of “movie analysis” always strikes me as directly downstream from the teaching method of a standard AP English course, which focuses primarily on tracing plot points like gears in a machine, and the resumption of symbolic allusions at hand. . The text under study, in this approach, is something to understood rather than internalized. Walther even remarks witheringly in his essay that “conversations with dozens of former students of the Great Books leave me with the impression that these texts are understood as a mass of undifferentiated words that exist to be stripped of ideas (or worse, enlisted in unedifying culture war skirmishes without being read). It is an invigorating observation and seems to me to be correct.
Anyway, the point is this: if we haven’t already reached it, I suspect we are on the verge of what might be called a “great forgetting”, or a Major decline of the subject’s familiarity with the substance of our literary, artistic and philosophical tradition. For years, many commentators have sharp outside the problem of growing biblical illiteracy – a deficiency which itself renders much of Western literature only semi-intelligible. But I guess we’ll soon come to a point where a whole generation or two of writers and critics, many of whom were educated in top institutions, just won’t have much any“knowledge base” on which to draw. Offhand references to Captain Ahab chasing his white whale, or the slyness of Uriah Heep, will be met with general incomprehension.
What would it take to reverse this? Deep down I think Walther is right that it’s time to rediscover aspiration as a real good, to rediscover a sense of the intrinsic value of struggling with (and therefore learning from) a dense book or symphony and “smart”. Not all reading time is created equal: I read disposable thrillers here and there, but I try not to make it my whole diet.
From an academic point of view, it should be emphasized that even if “critical thinking skills” are obviously important, they must be complementary to the actual acquisition of knowledge in the subject. Tools are no good apart from some materials to work on. That said, I’m not particularly optimistic about the ability of colleges to instill the “virtue of intellectual struggle” as such. At least for me, in college I was so focused on maintaining a solid GPA and building a dense resume with extracurricular activities that I just didn’t have time to marinate in valuable books. Maybe it’s the fault of the meritocratic system, or maybe it’s mine.
But insofar as it is in my power today, I want to resist as much as possible the creep of this “Great Forgetting”. Now that I am a dad, I want to pass on to my son the Great illustrated classics volumes that were my entry point into the “Great Conversation” in the first place. I want to read it to him Beginner’s Bible. And I want us to talk about all this together.