The health of a marriage involves cruel revelations. When these turn up, the moral fiber of both parties is proved by their capacity to laugh. I had been married for a year when, returning to Chattanooga (the city where we met), my wife and I reunited with a friend. Like many literary types, this friend had obsessive journalistic habits, and on her laptop there is a Word document that catalogues all of her favorite conversations for at least the last ten years. We were drinking straight gin out of ceramic mugs and reliving the highlight reel. It was June and the windows were open to a hail of tree frogs and black-faced crickets.
I got up to relieve myself of some of the gin. When I came back, my wife and this friend—we’ll call her Annie—were shoulder to shoulder in front of the laptop, cycling through the tipsy one-liners and classroom embarrassments. They were enjoying themselves to the point of distraction, and they didn’t notice me arrive, and start to read over the tops of their heads. I saw my name. And there it was, a quotation of my wife’s from the first few weeks that we dated:
“Alex will be a great guy when he gets over his pompous ass phase.”
There was nothing about this circumstance that wasn’t funny, and I would’ve been a crummy husband to take offense. We laughed for minutes straight, because this was the true diagnosis. One thing I am certain of is that I am not yet over the pompous ass phase. To most of my friends and certainly to my wife, my disposition looks like a perpetual struggle for dominance between Bertram Wooster and the bone-dry teacher from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a combination of self-satisfied remarks and detailed, literary over-explanations about why I find Michael Crichton tiresome.
But there is a noteworthy issue implied by her remark that goes beyond my ability or inability to eat some humble pie: Is there a difference between aesthetic standards and snobbery? Is it the aggravating, can’t-leave-the-job-at-work college English teacher in me that needs to enforce taste on the world, or is our society, so full of slick iPad games and corporately-generated R&B one-hit-wonders, in need of some unabashed defense of that which is fine, and derision of that which is not, even to the point of losing temper? This is a nightmarishly inconvenient question to approach, because in my experience, almost any discussion of taste quickly becomes a discussion of personal character, and that is a non sequitur when you get down to it. We all need to put in our best efforts not to be a pompous ass about the things we care about (one trip to a bar frequented by Harvard students is enough to convince anyone of this—why do the experts always seem to forget that truly great ideas should humble us?), but we all also need the practiced discernment and good taste that enables us not to swallow art that is ultimately profit-driven without argument. The lack of this trait is costing us a generation of potentially good thinkers. Trust me about that. I teach them. Fewer and fewer are making it through without wounds of the mind that are probably unmendable. Attention spans are short. Tastes are confined to that which can be enjoyed without difficulty; a standard which rules out most things worth doing. But why not, in a mass-media culture, let the masses have their fun undisturbed?
The paradoxical truth is this: Ignorance is prouder than knowledge. As a well-read man once said, knowledge puffs us up. But ignorance skips over the puffing up and spends all of its time knocking everything around it down. We should pick the lesser of the two evils, and risk sounding like asses, if it means saving ourselves in the long run from an existence of being spoon-fed corruptive drivel that masquerades as art. Real art is worth far too much not to let ourselves occasionally get cranky over it. It contains the best of us. Defending it is therefore an act of self-defense.
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning towards the window, should say:
‘That is not it at all…’
So said T. S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. You would have to square up to the mountainous output of France’s own master aesthete, Marcel Proust, to find a challenger in any language, and even then you are dealing with a much more lacy and becoming character. Eliot cuts like a scalpel, and what he’s after is the beating heart of Western aesthetics. He wants to show it to us, bloody and worn out after surviving global war, and make the claim that a healthy knowledge of Shakespeare, Dante, Norse Mythology—in short, the canon—is the last refuge available to us. Homogeny, peace, meaningful discourse, everything that appeared to be provided by Nationalism and vaguely Judeo-Christian values (both, as he thought then, destroyed by the Great Wars) was now only available to us if we sat down and memorized some late-medieval Italian. This sounds like insanity on the front end. It sounded like blasphemy to Eliot’s fellow American poet, William Carlos Williams, who pegged him as an eternal enemy from the moment he laid eyes on Prufrock, because what Williams wanted was to burn the ships of cultural memory forever—to forget the past and write about soap dishes, teenage girls’ attractive legs, and the farmhands shuffling around his small-town doctor’s office in New Jersey. But he knew the second he read Eliot that his battle could not be won. The way had been closed. Tom Sterns had made an argument to the contrary so profound and beautiful that it seemed destined to obsesses us, which indeed it has.
It is important, more important than I can say, to note here that Williams died poisoned by jealous hatred for Eliot and pretty much every other writer in the game, and that Eliot put down his scalpel and died an Anglican. Many would argue that by becoming an Anglican, he had merely swapped the worship of canonized literature in general for the worship of the figure of Christ, as presented in the most canonical book of all: the Bible. This is not very problematic from the orthodox standpoint, though it irks those academics who love the “un-mystical purity” of Eliot’s formative years. Yet from beginning to end, his loyalty remained fixed on the value of great art, and its remembrance. The final realization of his life, which might be beside the point of this essay (though I doubt it), was that Christ’s story happened to be both fantastically literature and literally true. This discovery precipitated a sea change known as the Four Quartets.
It is enough for the issue at hand, though, to concentrate on his original point of departure: Great art is the saving grace of civilization. If by claiming this, Eliot was proving himself to be a cold poser with clean hands in wartime, an affected English accent, and his nose in a book, then society should get over its pompous ass phase and stop paying attention to what he said. But if it was true, than by losing the little Latin we learned in middle school, watching modernized DVDs of Shakespeare instead of slogging through the plays, and more or less continuing to prioritize the quick, passive entertainments that our incredible advancements in communication have made possible over forms of pleasure that have higher learning curves and less tangible payoffs, we are forking over the soul of our civilization for an hour’s worth of booty shorts and explosions. A society like that deserves to go the way of Rome, which, by the way, began to crumble at exactly the historical moment our own society is now reaching. The gladiatorial games fed the lowest instincts of the mob in order to distract them into spending more money than they would have in a more rational state of mind. The similarity of this strategy to that of corporations like Google (which is now well into the late stages of developing driverless cars, the sole rationale for the project being that if people don’t have to drive themselves to work, they can spend their whole commute on handheld internet devices viewing content provided by Google, and eventually spend their money on that content) is notable. It is also terrifying.
What is the difference between snobbery and good taste? In the wrong circumstances, and escaping the lips of the wrong personality, the difference is nothing. But in the right hands, good taste is a floatation device, or a weapon for self-preservation. Now, it isn’t for anyone to autocratically decide what good art is. I have done my best as a writer and a teacher to live by the mantra that a friend of mine laid out for me: Once you have gotten a very clear-cut idea of what is good art and what is bad, you have lost the point entirely. The luxury of holding a rap song or a Botticelli painting up to established criteria and deeming it great or not great is a deadly one. It is exactly this propensity to accept or dismiss what is being offered without thinking that good taste, real taste, prohibits in us. Taste forces us to take the time to consider, to search for beauty in the thing at hand, and hopefully makes us dismiss it loudly, with a “That is not it at all!” if we decide there is none in it. Real, enriching pleasure is a hard thing to come by. Yet it is the duty of everyone, not just herringbone-clad English professors, to root it out and not to settle for anything less. An English-speaking world that decides it has no time for this process of discernment will have lost my loyalty. It is only so long until it would find itself with the Visigoths at the door, asked why it deserves to survive but at a loss for the appropriate quotation.