I've been reading a biography of John Henry Newman. I'm enjoying it for the same reason that it makes me feel rather sad. I'm not sure when it was written, and I don't have it to hand to check, but it reflects an idea of culture which seems to be lacking in our own era. Yes, there's always the danger of nostalgia and lamenting the past. But I honestly don't think I'm doing that here. I think this idea of culture existed (though it was in decline) up until perhaps the mid-twentieth century, and would have existed for centuries before that.
This is my definition of culture, in this sense; a mental landscape, shared by writer and reader, of facts, associations, atmospheres, ideas, connections, attitudes, and so forth.
The writer of the book assumes that the reader is already familiar with Newman, the Oxford Movement, English religious controversies, the concept of an English gentleman, and many other aspects of his subject. Not that you couldn't understand the book without knowing all this, but the author seems to assume it anyway. He writes as though the reader already has some ideas on all these subjects, and he often addresses those ideas. Importantly, this is not in the sense that he's writing for a special interest group, as an academic in a particular field might write for other academics. He's obviously addressing the general reader.
The thing is, this isn't just "cultural capital"-- it isn't just a matter of being "in the know". I do believe that culture in this sense exists in order to make the experience of life more navigable, to heighten it, to bring out its contours and colours and atmospheres. Culture is not principally about books or paintings or music, but about the world and the experience of life.
Of course, different writers (fiction and non-fiction) would be writing with very different perspectives, but I believe there was a common culture to an extent that is almost entirely absent today.
It's not that we don't have our own equivalent. We do. As well as whatever remains of literary culture,. we have pop culture. And I by no means despise pop culture in this sense. It's a lot better than nothing. In fact, I'm fascinated by this aspect of pop culture, and I've spent untold hours reading the website TV Tropes, which (although it wouldn't describe itself this way) looks at pop culture from just this vantage point; as a way of mapping the topography of life and the soul. There's obviously a continuum between pop culture and high culture; not only does pop culture often draw on what went before it, but somebody who has seen a lot of movies is more likely to have read a lot of books, particularly old books.
With the rise of the avant-garde, high culture and pop culture bifurcated, and high culture became even more irrelevant to the idea of a shared cultural landscape than did pop culture. What passes for high culture now exists only for a professional class of academics, arts professionals, and the few ordinary members of the public who feel they should know about it. It's a dead end.
As I say, pop culture is better than nothing. If you use the term "Spielbergian", most people would know it's a reference to the films Stephen Spielberg and that you're trying to evoke an atmosphere of wide-eyed wonder, of childhood innocence, of Americana, of liberal humanism. This isn't (isn't isn't isn't) just a matter of name-dropping or (to repeat) of "cultural capital", and it's important to insist on that. The films of Stephen Spielberg really do help us to appreciate a whole side to life, a whole way of looking at the world, once which was latent within us but which would never have been "brought out" quite so vividly or specifically. Such things enrich our experience of the human condition-- not only vicariously, but even when it comes to our own experience, because (for example) some experience in our own life might be "Spielbergian" and his movies might help us to fully appreciate-- either as it is happening or in retrospect. If we lack culture, we are in danger of falling into the situation described by T.S. Eliot: "We had the experience, but we missed the meaning".
And yet pop culture, on the whole, is significantly cruder and more stylized than pre-pop culture. Superhero movies just aren't the same as the writings of John Henry Newman, for instance. The band of human experience with which they are dealing is so much narrower.
Nor do I want to give the impression that culture is all about works of art. It's not. It's as much about history, theology, folklore, social debates, philosophy, and so forth.
Another impression I want to avoid is that I somehow feel myself exempt from this. By no means! To be honest, I think I might be slightly more "cultured" in this sense than the guy sitting next to me in the bus (though who knows?). But this only applies in some areas, in my case-- poetry, for example. If a writer throws off the phrase, "never glad confident morning again", I know it's a reference to Browning's "Lost Leader", and I know exactly the atmosphere and attitude he's trying to evoke. But then, when it comes to a reference to classical music, I'm lost. I have no appreciation of it whatsoever. There is a whole aspect to the human condition that I am going to die without ever having known, as lamentable as dying without ever having seen sunlight. To take an example, the Newman biography mentions that Cardinal Manning (I think) was converted to Catholicism by hearing Don Giovanni. This means nothing to me, and that makes me feel (sometimes) quite desolate.
Another example is the classic world, our Graeco-Roman heritage. My ignorance of this is not as absolute as my ignorance of classical music, and I could rectify it-- some day, perhaps, I will. But it would be a massive task.
One of the entries in my purple notebook is the simple sentence fragment: "Radio interview. Everyone when they're students." This refers to an interview I heard on radio (back at a time when I thought I'd blown my own chance to go to college) conducted with a composer of some kind. He was recalling his musical enthusiasms in college and said, "Everybody 's a fan of such-and-such when they're in college". I liked this very much; I liked the idea of a cultural heritage that was not only shared and public, but which even had particular landmarks associated with particular stages in your life.
When I really think about it, the principal advantage of culture is this: it assuages the loneliness at the heart of the human condition. I love the line in the movie Shadowlands; "We read to know that we are not alone." I think that, lacking culture, the loneliness and alienation of the human condition becomes much more painful. There is a famous book about the philosophy of theatre called The Empty Space. I love that title. But I don't like the idea of life and the world as an empty space. I don't find that liberating at all.