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What Killed Cultural Aspiration

On a vanished stereotype.

I have fond memories of my first books: the Dell Yearling editions of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, for example, which had once belonged to my mother; later an ancient Doubleday Pride and Prejudice that I began reading on the school bus the day before Thanksgiving break in 2002 and a poorly typeset Works of John Keats (to which the suitably upmarket phrase “Cambridge Edition” had been appended) that I carried in a walking swoon for the better part of a year.

Still, looking back I find that many of my most vivid impressions are not of physical objects, but of a website. It was on Project Gutenberg, an online repository of H.T.M.L. and plain-text versions of authors in the public domain, that I first encountered Joyce and Proust, courtesy of a painfully slow dial-up internet connection. What Evelyn Waugh once felt for the old Everyman’s Library “embellished by the fine endpapers now unhappily abandoned,” I experience now when I pull up a .txt file of Swann’s Way.

In our small Michigan town the public library did not have copies of Remembrance of Things Past or even of Paradise Lost. It was an hour’s drive to the nearest bookstore, where the occasional Conrad was crowded out by long-forgotten bestsellers by Al Franken and Michael Moore. Fortuitously, with each acquisition feeling like the next clue in some great mystery, I managed to secure the objects of my heart’s desire through a combination of interlibrary loan, (which took checks in those days), solicitous grandparents, and (in the case of music) serial violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act: Gravity’s Rainbow, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (the title of which perfectly captured my feeling that I had embarked on a kind of treasure hunt), recordings by Bill Evans and George Solti. Thrift stores were my friends, too: to this day most of my classical LPs—immaculate sets of Klemperer and Karajan—come from Goodwill and Salvation Army.

Bliss it was in that pre-social media dawn to be alive. By January 2008, I had earned a G.E.D. and half-reluctantly abandoned my romantic vision of working construction while writing a novel that never progressed beyond the initial paragraph about leaves to study English literature at Northern Michigan University. Sympathetic professors informed me that middlebrow appreciations by Anthony Burgess and the aforementioned Campbell were not the last word in Joyce studies. My increasingly detailed opinions about F.R. Leavis were a big hit at parties, as you can imagine.

To paraphrase a writer I did not admire much in those days, while I hate to advocate Wordsworth, Samson Agonistes, Bruckner, or Frank Kermode to anyone, they’ve always worked for me. Is it absurd for me to wonder whether that prescription is now hopelessly out of date? What exactly do pretentious teenagers care about these days? Does being painfully highbrow have a future?

As the old Magic 8-Ball used to say: Outlook not so good. Young people who set themselves apart from their peers with a real or (even an affected) interest in literature and classical music and a disdain for television, celebrity gossip, and what we now quaintly refer to as “Top Forty” seem to have gone the way of Rockefeller Republicans. A whole mental atmosphere that rejected crassness and commercialism, and whose inhabitants loomed over the culture as a definite archetype, has given way to something like what cultural critics call “poptimism,” which extends beyond popular music to “prestige” television, so-called graphic novels and their cinematic adaptations and even to video games.

In recent years a kind of shrill dismissiveness has taken over even in the vanishingly small space still afforded to literary criticism, and the idea of difficulty in literature is dismissed and (oddly for any admirer of Virginia Woolf or Marianne Moore) reflexively male. An entire subgenre is dedicated to repudiations of David Foster Wallace, whose besetting literary sin seems to be that he is enjoyed by people who do not also share a consuming interest in the outfits worn at this year’s V.M.A.s or have views about “W.A.P.” and other mysterious acronyms.

Why did highbrow recede? One is tempted to say that the cultural conditions that made possible the sustained attention to demanding texts and the almost priestly devotion to high modernist literature in particular enjoined by the old-fashioned critics I grew up admiring have disappeared. Certainly the violence done to our attention spans by digital technology and the gradual disappearance of boundaries between work and leisure time have not made it any easier to enjoy The Pisan Cantos with one’s feet on the fender.

But such explanations go only so far. After all, the same arguments about social media and the death of concentration could in theory be evinced to account for the destruction of hobbyist cultures—e.g., baking, handicrafts—which is not in fact taking place. (If there is one area of American life which is not broadly susceptible to narratives of decline, it is the standard of cooking, which in my lifetime has noticeably increased among those who have the leisure time for it, even in the rural Midwest.)

Instead, one gets the sense that highbrow aspiration is itself somehow suspect. In my experience of life among educated would-be bohemians in their twenties and thirties in New York and Washington, D.C., there is almost nothing more gauche than accidentally betraying (say) one’s familiarity with Huysmans or Satie. At best this kind of thing is likely to elicit questions about where—not whether—one is studying for a Ph.D., which is at least socially acceptable if not financially advisable. At worst it is a serious faux pas. In 2020 I confessed to an acquaintance whose background might twenty years ago have betokened at least some affinity for classical music that I was disappointed at the cancelation of the Bayreuth Festival. The response would not have been out of place if I had mentioned that, but for the lockdowns, I had been looking forward to attending a Donald Trump rally.

This conflation is perhaps not as indefensible as it might sound. While I am enormously grateful to the broadly neoconservative critics whose bestsellers did a great deal to encourage serious reading in the 1990s, it is difficult now to avoid the conclusion that they won no lasting victories. (Harold Bloom’s slightly more idiosyncratic attempt to promote literature as an anagogic secular priesthood of sorts was perhaps even less successful.) Meanwhile the frequently ill-chosen “Great Books” curriculums common at many conservative-leaning liberal arts colleges have turned so-called canonical texts into fetish objects, totems in the direction of which at least two generations of undergraduates have been taught to gesture with a kind of holy awe. This has meant, among other things, an almost total leveling off of their most arresting formal qualities and thus their ability to defamiliarize human experience. My conversations with dozens of former Great Books students leave me with the impression that these texts are understood as an undifferentiated word-mass that exists to be stripmined for ideas (or worse, enlisted in unedifying culture war skirmishes without having been read). I for one shudder to think of what I would have made of Paradise Lost as a maladjusted Marxist teenager if I had been told that by reading it I was shoring up the prospects for George W. Bush’s America rather than blowing off my civics homework.

This popular identification of highbrow culture with the incoherent prerogatives of the conservative movement in some circles amounts to a coding of any form of cultural aspiration as suspiciously right-wing, like the parody of rococo at Mar-a-Lago. One unfortunate consequence of this half-conscious association is the scorn now heaped upon an older form of middlebrow cultural aspiration that was once all but ubiquitous among the middle and working classes. The first few decades of the postwar era increasingly look like a vanished golden age, when ordinary Americans purchased sets of the Harvard Classics and the Encyclopædia Britannica, and the same Midwestern ingenuity that gave us Fisher Body produced bestselling LPs by Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. A jobbing man of letters like Robert Payne could write books about Troy and the fathers of the Eastern Church in a pastiche of Gibbon’s stately periods that became Book-of-the-Month Club selections. Lionel Trilling was a popular TV talk show guest.

There were giants in the earth in those days. Now, far more so than in the early Sixties, when critics such as Dwight Macdonald bemoaned the supposed triumph of “midcult,” Americans with unsophisticated views about the transcendent value of Shakespeare and Beethoven are greeted with derision. Presumably it is better to have a thorough grasp of The Masked Singer or the Star Wars universe than to embarrass yourself by asking what that thing is that goes “Hmm-hmm-hmm-hmmmmm” and why you know it without ever having taken a music class. (I myself have been on both sides of this conversation at a remove of some twenty-five years.)

Which brings me to what I suspect is really behind the decline of both forms of cultural aspiration: the disappearance of any form of criticism that is not premised upon facile mastery. It is much easier to say something interesting about Midnight Mass on Netflix than it is Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit pour Noel. Besides, in sticking with popular culture the critic enjoys the distinct advantage of being somehow superior not only to the majority of his or her comparatively undiscriminating fellows in the audience but to the material itself.

I will never be superior to Bach or Haydn, if using that word is not a kind of category mistake, but after two decades of dedicated listening, I find that I have opinions that I am not embarrassed to share about, for example, the now-forgotten but delightful orchestral transcriptions of the former by Leopold Stokowski. But even now in my own writing I am more likely to follow the example of Kingsley Amis, a devoted hi-fi fan with no musical training whose criticism is full of sentences like “What man in my position would dare to try to say anything remotely new about Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony?”

This kind of aesthetic humility is, I think, a tough sell for readers. So too is autodidacticism, of which I have begun to detect an almost visceral horror. The cleverest young people are the most likely to recognize that the gulf between what they are taught even at selective colleges and universities and the knowledge required to write the sort of literary essay of which Christopher Hitchens was the acknowledged master a decade ago is yawningly wide. Rather than risk the sort of embarrassment I feel even now at recalling the first time I pronounced the word “allegorical” (with a soft G), they retreat to the familiar territory of the algorithm and gussy up their ignorance with ready-made political objections. Philistinism thus becomes another form of the general aversion to risk which is the most distinctive feature of our professional classes. (If only they knew that, like other put-upon hobbyists, the people you meet for a matinee performance of Die Walküre at Lincoln Center are just glad you’re there.)

Sooner or later one imagines that widespread antipathy to highbrow aspiration will have serious consequences for cultural engagement at any level. It may even have done so already. A reticence about being negative manifests itself in the familiar calls for a supposedly “objective” criticism that would in practice amount to something like advertising copy.

Our greatest critics have always known better. A well-formed sensibility can be brought to bear upon anything. T.S. Eliot, who defined criticism as the “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste” and famously trashed Hamlet, is represented in the Oxford Book of Essays not by one of his representative pieces on Shakespeare or the Metaphysical poets but by his obituary notice of Marie Lloyd, an English music hall star who would otherwise be almost entirely forgotten except by musicologists. Meanwhile, the most interesting classical recording I have heard in a long time is a version of the Prisoners’ Chorus from Fidelio sung by seventy incarcerated performers, who received classical training and enough linguistic instruction to sing these beautiful words in German: “We shall with all our faith / Trust in the help of God! / Hope whispers softly in my ears! / We shall be free, we shall find peace.”

I challenge anyone to listen to their impassioned engagement with Beethoven’s sublime monument to the transcendental dignity of our species and come away with the impression that they should have stuck to Doja Cat.