I Take the Low Road About High Culture: A Rebuttal

Dear Anya, wherever you may be, Please allow me to express my sincere sympathies for your appearance in this Open Letters Monthly piece by Stephen Akey (via DoNotLink). You had the misfortune of encountering a man who believes that birdwatching in a cemetery is a perfectly cromulent first date -- which admittedly it may be, for some people. It certainly seemed to work for Mr. Akey and his now-ex-wife: birdwatching in this very same cemetery was their first date two decades ago, as our author informs us without a trace of self-awareness. I cannot adequately express my horror at someone who deals with the emotional fallout of an ended marriage by attempting to recreate the outward forms of the relationship with a new and unwitting victim -- I mean, date.

And then, on this bizarre replica date, our author offers you an unprompted lecture on the semi-obscure architect who designed the cemetery gates. Your response:

“Really? How fascinating! Stephen, how can you know so much?” Such were the words Anya did not speak.

Oh, Anya, of course you didn't say that. If you're anything like me, you would rather chew off your own hand than say anything so abjectly fawning -- even if you were interested in 19th-century American architecture. I don't know if you are, you see, because Mr. Akey never sees fit to tell us what your interests are -- or what work you do -- or anything you may be passionate about. He is too distracted by your "luscious" figure and his own sense of wounded self-superiority.

She didn’t say anything, and didn’t need to. I could read her thoughts all too clearly in the pained silence that followed. And what she thought was this: How could any human being possibly be so boring?

Anya -- you may well have thought that. Lord knows I did.

Our author then presents us with Himself, as representative of an earlier generation bastioned by a common body of knowledge and learning, and you, Anya, as representative of a lost generation "educated to believe that everything I held dear was rot." He then suggests he would have made a self-deprecating remark about resembling George Eliot's classic pedant Casaubon, but he did not believe you would have recognized the reference.

Anya, I think he was completely wrong about that.

Because Middlemarch has been damn near everywhere lately. That hip young website and cutting-edge font of misandry The Toast hosted a Middlemarch read-through this year, as well as a follow-up read-through of Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch. That's six solid months of discussion! Romance author and certified brilliant person Cecilia Grant is often seen mentioning George Eliot's influence on her own life and work on Twitter -- along with other romance writers, readers, and scholars. Our author wants to make a hilarious Casaubon reference? Many young women will totally be here for that.

At this point, Anya, you disappear from our author's narrative -- you were clearly only an introductory gimmick, a straw Young Millennial on which Mr. Akey could hang his broad and unwarranted generalizations. He devotes one much-welcome paragraph to the idea that "the urge to create endures" -- a rather lovely phrase, to give credit where credit is due -- but then returns to this imagined division between High Culture and Low Culture. The temptation to pull all the fatuous quotes from this section is irresistible, but I will restrain myself to this one:

Still, no amount of wishful thinking – nor any amount of coolly ironic pop art or postmodern appropriation — can ever overcome basic distinctions of high and low. If you think those distinctions are stuffy Victorian relics, you probably haven’t done jury duty lately. When I last served a few years ago, I learned a lot about Beyoncé, Dancing with the Stars, and Vin Diesel movies. My fellow jurors did not care to discuss that season’s offerings at the Museum of Modern Art or the contents of the latest New York Review of Books

Imagine, Anya -- a group pulled from their lives and jobs for a day of often-tedious citizen service did not treat the experience like a literary salon! Our author here has made a fundamental mistake: he has assumed that the importance of High Culture as High means it must be made welcome in any social situation. This is the same mistake he made on your date, in fact. A date is a social outing meant to explore a possible romantic and personal connection between two people; this is not the same thing as an opportunity for one of those two to show off his pet lecture topic and be childishly praised for his ability to memorize trivia. He reports the words he wished you'd said and none of the words you actually said: I would gently suggest that this particular romance may be a non-starter.

Mr. Akey never actually defines what he means by these "basic distinctions of high and low." He knows what it means, and he guesses we all do as well. But as a critic and feminist, I am inordinately suspicious of anything that is assumed to not need speaking about. Such concepts tend to come with assumptions built-in. For instance, when we use the phrase "high culture," we could mean any or all of the following:

  • expensive to experience or enjoy
  • enjoyed by rich people, who are by implication smarter/better/more cultured/have better taste
  • a medium or art form that has a lengthy historical tradition
  • enjoyed by white Western people -- opera, ballet, and classical music are high art, as opposed to wu-xia films, Bollywood musicals, and K-dramas.
  • concerned with a fundamental or universal aspect of human existence: death, love, war, family, the self, etc.
  • has a great deal of social cachet, but does not tend to make or produce money for itself or its audience/creators; is not "commercial"
  • requires hard work or years of training to appreciate

The idea that High Culture requires years of training -- an idea that appears repeatedly throughout Mr. Akey's piece -- means it is necessarily more limited in audience than something that one can engage immediately. Vin Diesel movies, for instance, are a much more likely conversation topic for a jury duty pool not because juries are essentially anti-intellectual, but because there is a greater chance of that being a common experience between jurors than a stroll through MoMA's current exhibition. Indeed, Mr. Akey reveals he eagerly joined in the Vin Diesel discussion as well.

Despite this populist frosting, our author believes that "basic distinctions of high and low" align perfectly with "basic distinctions of class." He allies himself specifically with "the slim minority of [the middle] class that genuinely prefers challenging modernist fiction to cookbooks."

Anya, I admit I frowned at that word, "prefer." Cookbooks -- like dates, or jury duty -- have a purpose: they present recipes and techniques so humans can make tasty food. They are in no way competing with challenging modernist fiction, and there's a whiff of women-in-the-kitchen sexism to imply those categories are mutually exclusive. If I pick up Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home it does not cancel out the parts of my master's thesis that involved Joyce's Ulysses.

Having established his anti-populist credentials, Mr. Akey lulls us into somnolence with some more architecture trivia before contradicting himself: architecture "bridges high and low," you see, because people live in buildings. Therefore architecture is important. Honestly, the less said about this section the better: it is brain-foggingly self-indulgent and tangential. Something something Fallingwater, something something Louis Kahn. A brief reflection on Mr. Akey's imperfect memory, which puts him firmly in the category "human." How he is ignorant, because there are subjects he has not mastered. To be frank, Anya, I was starting to skim at this point, because there did not appear to be any larger point to any of these discussions.

I perked up briefly with alarm at the mention of Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, because suddenly it occurred to me that one could, if one was inclined, use this book as a how-to for the kind of mansplaining that makes my life and the lives of other women occasionally and vividly unbearable. (Honorable mention here for the gentleman at a recent party who told me he didn't know anything about feminism, then proceeded to tell me all about feminism.) And indeed, our author finds this kind of un-expertise a laudable trait in himself: "I find that I can talk to almost anyone about almost anything because I generally know just enough about any topic (theology, linguistics, the life cycle of the horseshoe crab, you name it) to be able to bullshit convincingly..." It does not occur to him that "able to bullshit convincingly" may not be the most desirable quality in one's conversational partner. Especially since what he wanted from you, Anya, was undiluted admiration, not a well-faked false erudition.

And then, my dear Anya, we get your male counterpart: Alistair. A friend of Mr. Akey's who was decidedly and determinedly lowbrow -- and who appears to have led an unsatisfactory life. According to Mr. Akey, that is. This is, we hear, because he does not have access to the high culture that sustains our author:

No stranger to loneliness or depression myself, I at least had the consolation when times got hard of knowing that the world didn’t begin and end with my sorrows. Culture is a river that binds me to the living and the dead. Yes, I’d rather have a beautiful woman to dally with, but in the meantime there are some Jane Austen novels I’d love to reread. When Alistair needed to escape from himself, he had nowhere to go.  In terms of emotional damage suffered or caused, we were just about neck and neck, but he had one monster to wrestle with that I didn’t: He was bored. I wasn’t.

Culture is a river that binds me to the living and the dead. Again -- such a well-turned phrase! But you know what else binds Mr. Akey to the living? Being alive. Being present, in the same place, in the same moment. As with you, Anya, Mr. Akey tells us what he and Alistair did not talk about -- "Johannes Vermeer or Willa Cather or the Mughal Empire" -- and glosses over what they did discuss. (Rock music, one presumes? Alistair liked Guns N' Roses, our author is a fan of ZZ Top. But one has to arrive at this conclusion on one's own.) Faced with a friend who was apparently restless, lonely, and dissatisfied, Mr. Akey appears not to have offered help or sympathy or anything else; instead, he seems to have retreated into self-satisfaction that he himself would never be so bereft. Alistair, meanwhile, falls prey to ... nothing. We don't know what happens to Alistair. We can presume it's bad, because he has no Culture to rescue him, but Mr. Akey verbally wanders away before he can finish the anecdote. This fails rather spectacularly to demonstrate the consequences of a Life Without High Culture.

Our author cannot grasp the idea that people can participate simultaneously in so-called high and low culture, even as he gives himself free license to do so. This is allowed, presumably, because he does so while knowing that High Culture is superior. When in fact, most people I know alternate between so-called high and so-called low culture, fitting the medium to the mood. Thrillers in the summer, art films in the fall; cartoons when we're sick, opera when we're feeling fancy. As an author of commercial romance who also does her own Latin translations for fun, I have a vested interest in high-versus-low culture debates. I could no more choose between low and high than I could choose between my right and left hands.

What Mr. Akey has built instead is a wall between Culture on the one hand, and People on the other. Culture is where you go when People disappoint you -- when they misunderstand you, when they ignore you, when they decline to allow you to do sex with them. Yet if you pointed out the basic escapism of this, Mr. Akey would probably be affronted. He envisions himself as an absorber of Culture -- but the problem with the culture-as-river metaphor, despite the prettiness, is this: unlike a river, culture is not unidirectional. Culture informs people, but people also inform culture. Mr. Akey has proven that he can take in the elements of the culture he admires, but his treatment of Alistair and Anya -- his inability to connect with them on a human level, not simply an intellectual one -- shows that he is not turning this cultural education to any emotional or spiritual purpose. Mr. Akey's deeper mistake is this: he mistakes learning for thought, and facts for feelings.

From a feminist and intersectional standpoint, I must point out that our author does briefly acknowledge that the traditional high culture he so admires has a habit of erasing groups traditionally considered less-than. For instance, he mentions Zora Neale Hurston as missing from all his college syllabi. He enjoys Zora Neale Hurston, and regrets she was left out.

Yep, that's it. That's the sum total of his thoughts on systemic racial prejudice in 'high' art and literature: a recognition that he could have been reading Zora Neale Hurston earlier, if only he'd known. Notice how that thought immediately circles back to focus on Mr. Akey -- as did his discussions of Anya and Alistair before.

Even on the internet, which sometimes feels like a machine created specifically to increase the world supply of self-indulgence, this kind of overbearing smugness stands out. Our author closes his opus with this rallying cry: "Plenty of people think I’m pretentious. I don’t mind. I know how to think, I know how to talk, and I’m not bored." As though the lasting achievements of human art and creativity are nothing more than great ways to while away the time before death. As though "how to think" and "how to talk" are the sum of potential human connection and contribution. 

Mr. Akey is welcome to his High Culture: it sounds terribly lonely to me.

Regards,

Olivia

This post brought to you entirely by Open Letters Monthly's breathtaking condescension to me on Twitter, both under my pen name ...

Link to a condescending tweet.

... and under my day name:

Link to a snarky tweet.

In the interest of complete disclosure, I should mention that I once pitched something to Open Letters Monthly and was rejected. It was many years ago, before I was published. Like many authors, I have been rejected by the best and brightest: Harlequin, The Stranger, Tor, Entangled, Carina Press, McSweeney's. Rejection of a submission is part of the business; archly questioning my reading acumen on social media, however, deserves a sharp rebuttal.