Meretricious

Here’s a passage from Jonathan Coe’s excellent 2004 novel, The Closed Circle.

“. . . the young couple, who had arrived just behind Paul in a white stretch limo were enjoying the attention of a crowd of journalists and photographers.  This couple, whom Paul had not recognized, had last year been two of the contestants on Britain’s most popular primetime reality TV show.  For weeks they had kept the public guessing as to whether or not they were going to have sex with each other on camera.  The tabloid papers had devoted hundreds of column inches to the subject.  Neither of them had talent, or wisdom, or education, or even much personality to speak of.  But they were young and good-looking, and they dressed well, and they had been on television, and that was enough.  And so the photographers kept taking pictures, and the journalists kept trying to make them say something quotable or amusing (which was difficult , because they had no wit, either).  Meanwhile, Doug could not help noticing, right next to them, waiting for his wife to emerge from the ladies’, the figure of Professor John Copland, Britain’s leading geneticist, one of its best-selling science authors, and regularly mentioned as potential Nobel prizewinner.  But no one was taking his photograph, or asking him to say anything.  He could have been a cab driver, waiting to drive one of the guests home, as far as anybody was concerned.  And for Doug this situation encapsulated so perfectly everything he wanted to say about Britain in 2002—the obscene weightlessness of its cultural life, the grotesque triumph of sheen over substance, all the clichés which were only clichés, as it happened, because they were true—that he was, perversely, pleased to be witnessing it” (275-76).

Not a good passage; usually Coe avoids editorializing like this in his novel.  But I wanted to comment on it because 1) I usually, by absenting myself completely from it, avoid “weightless” culture while 2) fighting shy of the clichéd lament about its “obscenity” (laments that echo through the two hundred plus years of despair over the mediocrity of bourgeois, democratic, non-noble mores).  It is interesting to see Coe feeling compelled to both make the clichéd complaint and to chide himself for making it in almost the same breath.  At some level, we elites are not allowed to sound like Flaubert anymore, not allowed to express our distaste—and, yes, our contempt—for what gets dished out on reality TV shows.  Perhaps Milan Kundera was the last fully self-righteous and completely un-self-aware critic of kitsch.  Even as his notion of weightlessness (“the unbearable lightness of being,” such a portentous but still fantastic title/phrase) winds up being little more than the fact that men find it unbearable to be faithful to just one woman.  Kundera’s petulance and (ultimately) silliness put the last stake through the heart of “high” culture’s contempt for low.

But, still.  I have seen Fox news only three or four times in my life; read People  magazine the same number of times, and have never seen a reality TV show.  When I do encounter such things, I am (I admit) flabbergasted as well as bored.  That such trash fills the channels of communication is a mystery as unfathomable to me as the idea that people buy $10,000 watches.  Who would do such a thing—and for what earthly reason?  I don’t even have a condescending explanation to offer.  Fascination/obsession with the British royal family fits into the same category for me.

Meanwhile—and I don’t think Coe sees this—his ignored professor is a “best-selling” author and likely to win a Noble prize–so hardly universally treated like a “cab driver.”  Yeats and W. B. Auden are just two among the great early 20th century poets who lived in fairly dire poverty.  Even the post World War II poets—Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz and the like—were spared that kind of poverty by having moved into sinecures in the beefed-up post-war universities.  Twenty-first century poets will complain bitterly about how few books they sell, but they are lionized within the tight confines of the “poetry world,” giving readings to robust audiences, and never threatened with the kind of poverty that Yeats took for granted.  We live in a world of niches now, so that no poet today can command a nation’s attention the way Yeats did (of course, he had the advantage of writing for a very small nation, about four million people strong, half the size of today’s New York City or London), even though no poet today can be as poor as Yeats.  The niches, in other words, reward well—have cultural capital in both its forms (financial and reputational) available for distribution.

All of this has to do, in very large part, with the ways that the post-war universities have become the patrons for the arts in our time.  Outside of the university it is very hard to make a living by the sweat of your pen.  The Grub St man of letters, writing his reviews for the papers and the weeklies, no longer exists—while no poet and very few novelists can make a living apart from teaching creative writing.  But the universities do provide a structure that insures rewards.

What everyone keeps lamenting these days (instead of lambasting the meretricious glob of TV and the tabloids) is the utter lack of contact between the niches.  The “culture” we teach in school is utterly divorced from the “culture” our students access outside of school.  They know nothing, and care less, for the material to which we introduce them—except for the very small minority we convert over to what by now should be called “school” culture, not “high” culture.

School culture does get a boost from all those middle to upper middle class parents who, for various reasons, see fit to give their children violin, ballet, singing, and (less frequently) art and acting lessons in lieu of (or in addition to) having them play little league or soccer or join a swim team.  The arts/athletics divide in American child rearing practices deserves sociological study.  Both for characterizing the parents who give their children different kinds of lessons—and in a longitudinal study of what effect those lessons have on later choices in life (chances of going to art museums or to the symphony; kinds of career paths taken).  And how does deep involvement in youth sports culture track to an obsession with celebrities or TV world?  Not any obvious connection there.

These schisms no doubt always existed in American culture.  But they didn’t used to track so directly to different political allegiances/views.  My colleague Jonathan Weiler thinks he can tell your political affiliating after asking only four questions, one of which is your emotional response to Priuses.  I have fear he is right.

And, as usual, most perplexing–and disheartening–to me is the deep hostility that such divides now generate.  Just as I really cannot understand why the uber-rich are so discontented, so determined to increase the financial insecurity of their employees, I cannot understand why our cultural warriors are out to destroy the universities.  Yes, its partly their war against all things public.  UNC is in the cross-hairs in a way that Duke will never be.  But it is more than that.  They have some leverage over UNC; they’d go after Duke as well if they could.  The need to punish one’s enemies as well as look to one’s own well-being is what I don’t get.  Peaceful co-existence of the various niches, the indifference of tolerance, is off the table it seems.  I keep referring back (in my mind) to a comment Gary Wills made years ago about the Republican nominating convention (of 1992 or 1996; I don’t remember what year).  He reported that over 30% of the delegates were millionaires, yet they seethed with discontent and rage.  What objective reason did they have to be so agitated? Life in the US had treated them damn well.  The same, of course, can be said of Donald Trump in spades.  What is the source of all his anger?  Pretty obviously the fact that he does not feel respected by the cultural elites.  So he wishes to destroy them, to cause them maximum pain.

A final question: does meretricious popular culture, all that weightless trash, always have this kind of aggression against dissenters to that culture packed within it?  In other words, I am back to thinking, yet again, about resentment–about its sources and about the cultural/societal locations in which it lurks.

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