Chrissie Amphlett and the Divinyls provided a decent chunk of the soundtrack to my young life; reports of her early death (aged 53) hit me in the childhood memories, hard, much like the arrest of Rolf Harris, or pictures of Berliners crawling over the remains of the Wall. I have, by saying those things, disclosed my past as a true child of the 80s. I was surprised, then, to find someone my age — and Australian to boot — asking, ‘but who’s Chrissie Amphlett?’
After I’d picked myself up off the floor, I was reminded that it is quite dangerous these days to assume common cultural knowledge, even among educated people. In the past this was not so, at least (adding the inevitable caveat) among educated people. That cultural knowledge took in a great deal of classics (Homer, Virgil, Ovid), the Book of Common Prayer (even for non-Anglicans, as Methodist Margaret Thatcher’s funeral disclosed), the Bible (KJV), a substantial body of literature, at least Mozart and Bach with a generous leavening (at least among Anglophone people) of Handel, a wide knowledge of art and art history. That seems a great deal, but I had all of it (thanks to a combination of background and schooling) by the time I was 14.
More adventurous types (I was one of these) added Russians and Americans; I spent quite a bit of my junior year (standard grade/GCSE/O-Level) reading Russians. I suppose you could say I got the depressing stuff out of the way early. I also watched very little television. This was partly an exigency enforced by circumstances: in much of rural Australia you needed a 90 ft aerial just to get the ABC, and that badly. I recall seeing most of the Tom Baker and Peter Davison Doctors Who, but don’t really remember any of the others. I saw the three Star Wars films on television, a long, long time after their cinema releases. I remember friends collecting Star Wars figurines, and marvelling that Yoda’s cloak was material, not plastic. I never got into Star Trek, perhaps because it was on a commercial station and we were an ABC family.
This means that much of the material that provides the ‘common knowledge’ presumed among ‘geeks’ (and I wish to problematise that word) was not part of my cultural armoury until I left high school. I read Lord of the Rings at university. I read Dune as a pupil barrister. I certainly read some science fiction at high school, but without any loyalty to a particular author: I recall Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K Dick. Of the three, I thought Le Guin by some margin the superior writer: she could turn a sentence like the best of the Modernists and evoke emotion like the Victorians. I found myself counting (and mentally correcting) Heinlein’s grammatical errors.
This can have amusing consequences, because among many people (including not a few of my friends), the ‘geek’ is often what passes for a person educated in literature and culture. I then turn up and lack entirely the ‘geek’s’ depth of knowledge when it comes to science fiction or fantasy, but get to explain to an audience of skeptics why Dickens’s portrait of the equitable jurisdiction in Bleak House contributed to urgently needed law reform between the years 1873 and 1875. Now, time was when the interminable court case of ‘Jarndyce v Jarndyce’ could be named without either its author or novel attached: no more. The world has changed.
This is why I was greatly amused when, last week, Liberty Fund’s Sarah Skwire (she blogs most famously here) sent me the graphic attached to this post (original location here). It is years since I have seen Star Wars, but I have done Latin translation recently (some last week) — and for £, too — including for the Reason Foundation. This meant that I had to retrieve the joke by means of the Latin, as well as explain to a fellow classicist that I think the full colon between ‘non’ and ‘ego’ is meant to work like a comma, so he’s saying ‘no, I am your father!’ or something to that effect. I then added this caveat:
[Please note, my knowledge of Latin is far more secure than my knowledge of Star Wars. I haven't seen the films since I was a child, and even then only on telly; I am literate and cultured, but not a geek.]
He, like me, approached the image via the Latin, not the popular culture reference.
The problem of equating ‘geek’ with ‘knowledgeable about literature and culture’ is not only that the arts are not a democracy: much popular culture is not, I’m afraid, very good, and what is good is not as a general rule comparable with high culture. Sorry, but there it is (I should note that Sarah cordially disagrees with me on this point).
The other (and more pressing) problem is a complete lack of understanding of what cultural literacy is supposed to achieve.
I was exposed to this problem of critical–if not cultural–illiteracy this week. It involved the author Orson Scott Card, of whom I had heard only faintly. Apparently he wrote a famous book called Ender’s Game, which is generally highly rated among science fiction aficionados. However, in more recent times, Scott Card was commissioned to write a Superman story by the established comics publisher, DC Comics. However, Scott Card is a homophobe, a genuine one: not only is he opposed to same-sex marriage, he believes homosexual activity between consenting adults in private should be criminalised. He is also on the board of the National Organisation for Marriage, a body that has often fought its battles dishonestly (I know this, because I picked apart its amicus brief in my paper for the Reason Foundation).
This disclosure meant I asked my interlocutors if Scott Card’s personal views on gays had caused a drop-off in the quality of his work, to which I received the response that (a) they didn’t know and (b) they weren’t ever going to know, because they now refused to read any of his books, not even the famous Ender’s Game. I was then told about the campaign to have him removed from his Superman writing role for DC Comics. It would appear that his story may now never see the light of day: it has lost its illustrator (rather essential in the world of comics) and, one suspects, would be subject to a fan boycott if published, such has been the anger. I responded that it was entirely fair for a publisher to make a marketing decision like that: the world of publishing is precarious enough without losing a significant chunk of a given fan base thanks to consumer boycott. And it wouldn’t be the first time an author has alienated his or her readers: lots of people didn’t take to the posthumously published Northanger Abbey back in the day, while Ovid’s Metamorphoses marked a significant departure from his earlier erotic poetry.
Three things fell out of this series of conversations:
1. A large number of geeks do not get that the purpose of creative literature is not to make you feel good about yourself. If you want books that make you feel good about yourself, then ‘self help’ is the genre you’re after.
2. A large number of geeks seem to think that if they disagree with an author’s politics or other beliefs, that means they ought ipso facto to reject the author himself, along with all his works. I always thought conflating an author’s characters’ views with the author’s views was bad enough, but if widely adopted across the culture this more expansive rejection would decimate the Western Canon, let alone popular culture. I should not have to give you a roll call of the misanthropes, misogynists, kooks, racists, homophobes, bigots, and crooks that populate the arts–both canonical and not.
3. A large number of geeks do not get that a publishing company does not decide to pull a given publication because it necessarily agrees with that publication’s critics. It pulls the publication because it is worried about loss of marketshare. Publishing companies are not charities. I know this, I have worked for and with several of them.
I do not know where this idea of literature and the arts as providers of succour comes from, but it fascinates me. Maybe it comes from the common geek experience of being a reader at school, and as a result being treated horribly for having intellectual pursuits. Sympathetic writers and artists are then co-opted into a defence for a wounded individual, and cannot be allowed to stray too far from that individual’s experience of woundedness because they are needed for protection. This is just a guess, though. I don’t know. The inability to grasp how the free market works is commoner: indeed, it’s almost universal among my arts and humanities friends, and common among scientists, even when it comes to those in the throes of engaging a commercial lawyer to protect their IP or build the corporate structure for their start-up.
When one first encounters poetry, one is commonly enjoined to learn it ‘by heart, not rote’: indeed, rote learning has killed not a few of my friends’ enjoyment of literature generally and poetry in particular. I think rote learning is ill-advised as an educational technique, even though I admit it worked well for me as a child. ‘Heart’ has its origins in ‘love’: that is what makes for future generations of readers. However, it is unwise to allow love for a genre and the feelings it evokes to blind one’s critical sensibilities. If you don’t like a book [or film, or painting, or other cultural product] that’s fine, but remember that the author [illustrator, musician, other artist] is under no duty to tailor his work to your sensibilities. Keep a few critical rules of thumb in mind: good writers separate their work from their beliefs (this is what Ayn Rand famously failed to do, and what Tolstoy almost fails to do in the long essays scattered throughout War and Peace; still, both were Russians, and Russians do like to expound their beliefs). Remember that mediocre writers often haul a great deal out of the confessional and spill the result in front of the public: think, for example, of the ‘misery memoirs’ so popular in recent years. Above all, do not form a critical view of an author’s work unless you have read some of that work. More than anything else this bespeaks cultural illiteracy, ignorance, and intolerance. It is redolent of an age where women had to write under male pseudonyms because people would not read ‘silly books written by silly women’.
Oh yes, after exams I’ll be reading Ender’s Game. It’s been mentally added to the pile that sits beside this reader’s bed.