Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Idea of Culture

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.


  1. I was going to comment yesterday on your mention of the biblical Achaia.... There was surely SOMETHING important about The Greco-Roman world and about Europe from the very start of the Church's mission? The appearance of the Angel to Paul asking him to go to Macedonia, the mission journeys, the fact that Incarnation happened, through God 's own choice, when Palestine was under Rome, but at the same time, just as adherents to the faith of Israel(many of them very learned) existed, leaven-like throughout the known world East and West... Strange, wasn't it that it was ultimately the Hellenists that got Stephen stoned.? (Almost what happens when Western raised Muslims resort to the violence which sometimes their forebears left the Middle East because of their disapproval of.)
    But seeing that you find Mediterranean Europe second fiddle to WalMart and Target,I said nothing
    * hope you take that lightly*
    In a sense, perhaps , until recently, the greatest difference between high and pop culture was simply time? Just how many classical composers or artists were NOT the pop of their time? But a line surely has to be drawn in today's world. The chasm has never been greater. Hypothetically, assuming North Korea, for example, hasn't blown us all up, what in today's world will endure? Reminds me of that bizarre bit in AT-SWIM-TWO-BIRDS when the someone started rattling of a poem about "a pint of plain"

  2. I don't know anything but classical music, but I do know about poetry. And I know there are no equivalents of Tennyson or Housman or Yeats writing today-- or if they are, they are obscure. The difference is, in my view, real and not simply a matter of temporal perspective.

    As for the providential meeting of cultures at the birth of Christianity, of course I agree with this. The thing is, the Catholic Church is the UNIVERSAL Church. I get that you're joking about Target, but the reason I felt compelled to write that Europe and Me post is because I get a bit irked at the idea (which I think is fairly popular amongst Catholics) that for some reason I should be a Europhile just because I'm a Catholic. Well, I ain't. Another thing I liked in the book about Newman is how resolutely he was both ENGLISH and Catholic, even at a time when a lot of English people insisted Catholicism was un-English.

  3. Well any poets today would be obscure. It's hardly a money maker.
    But already we've seen Dylan hailed as a poet, even though he hasn't left the pop status. Who knows, in five generations, who else may become part of Western culture?
    Whenever I hear something played that came out during my teenage years(my 'career' of pop music and cinema was fairly short lived), usually in a supermarket ( or Target), it can suddenly strike you "I scarcely noticed that that song was actually a great piece of music" I've probably never said that when catching some music that I'd actually loved at the time. What would the retrospective be after 100 years? I agree totally with what you say in the post about modern sub-culture, this isn't a contradiction. But there is always another aspect.
    It's actually a saint that made me think about 80s bands recently.

  4. "
    the music is weaving /
    haunting notes /
    pizzicata strings/
    the rhythm is calling /
    alone in the night/
    as the daylight brings a cold empty silence/
    the warmth of your hand/
    and a cold grey sky/
    it fades to the distance"

  5. I'm fond of that one also.
    But I'm not about to start collecting retro cds, by any means.
    A few years ago when they beatified the young lady Chiara Badano,I remember reading (on some quite official material) that she was a normal girl, so-called, that she listened to pop etc. It took several years to seep into my head, but I thought : She was born only two years before me-another country, another language, of course- but in the same era as me... it makes one curious- just who did she listen to?-the same new wave stuff we were ' exposed to' in the English speaking world? Or Continental acts we weren't familiar with? Or more Christian music? Spandau Ballet? U2? Amy Grant?
    Just what are the standards of censorship that are expected of a BLESSED Chiara ?
    A lot of home school families,I know, have a blanket ban on any radio hit music; what do they make of that?

  6. On the whole I think it would be a good thing. The gain would outweigh the loss!