In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay since 2015 for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz. The readership for each site seems to have little overlap, and so, I thought if I might repost some of the Spirit essays on my own blog, it might achieve a wider readership. This one, originally from May 1, 2021, is now updated and slightly rewritten.
My house is filled with books, and so many that I will never live long enough to read them all. It is a personal version of a universal problem: So much has been written over the past 4500 years that no one can ingest more than a wee fraction of the total. That’s four and a half millennia of culture. So, what counts, these days, as being cultured, or well-read?
No work of literature or art exists in a vacuum. Even the newest book has a past. Culture is an accumulation: Each new work builds on the past, and requires a shared understanding of that past with its audience. Just as you have to learn vocabulary in order to read, so you need some handle on the past to fully understand what is written now. But, there is too much for any one person to absorb, and no way for any author to assume his readers will recognize and vibrate to what is there, subliminally, in the works. That past is there even in best-sellers by Diana Gabaldon or Dean Koontz.
There used to be an agreed upon canon of literature that any well-educated person was assumed to be familiar with. But, as the world shrank through communication advances and progress in transportation, the canon looked increasingly provincial. It was almost wholly white, male, and European. What of Asia and Africa? Why were there not more women included? Perhaps, too, that white European bias was the root evil of colonialism.
I can’t answer all these questions, but it is important to raise them as we begin to lose the common cultural inheritance that the canon used to provide. Acres of writers over the past centuries have quoted or riffed upon the words of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. It was assumed that anyone with a decent education (even a decent high-school education) would understand the references. When Abraham Lincoln wrote “Fourscore and seven years ago…” his listeners would have tacitly resonated to the biblical “three score and ten” years allotted to a human life. He could have just said, “Eighty-seven years ago,” but he didn’t. The force of the Bible gave his words a tidal power that made his rhetoric memorable.
Ernest Hemingway used the past, and expected his readers to know. Papa’s novels drip with the power of allusion. The Sun Also Rises comes from Ecclesiastes 1:5. For Whom The Bell Tolls rings from John Donne. A Farewell to Arms has Vergil’s Aeneid buried in it.
T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is a midden of such buried cultural memes. Some are explicated in the notes at the end of the poem (should poetry require footnotes?), but most are just there to be felt or be vaguely familiar. The poet expected his readers to share his erudition and quietly appreciate the roots that sprouted the verse. He explicated his position in the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. In his Wasteland notes, he tells us that line 23 (“And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief”) is a gloss on Ecclesiastes 12:5 (“the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden”), which seems a bit of a stretch, but he doesn’t feel it necessary to point out that the opening line of the poem (“April is the cruelest month”) is an ironic reversal of Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprille with its shoures soute…”). He thought that too obvious to mention. What in today’s world can be considered too obvious to mention?
Eliot’s poetry, itself, is now the cause of allusion (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas…” Ask Woody Allen).
There are at least two problems with such allusions. The first is epitomized by Ezra Pound, who so completely built his Cantos on fragments from obscure writers and historical figures that no one without the same erudition as himself could have any clear idea what he was talking about. If the main point of your reference is the reference, the main point is also pointless. And Pound’s reading was so idiosyncratic and esoteric that no reasonable human should be expected to share it.
The second problem is best displayed in the work of John Milton. There is no doubt of Milton’s greatness as a poet: He is the second-most quoted author after Shakespeare. Bartlett’s is stuffed with him. But Milton was so casually familiar with the Bible and Classical writers that you often now need a gloss to know what he means when he writes of his muse that intends to ”soar Above th’ Aonian mount” which his educated readers would have known was Mount Helicon, where the Greek muses lived by the Hippocrene spring, a spring created by the hoof-stamp of Pegasus, the winged horse that symbolized poetic inspiration because he could fly to the top of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. Any self-respecting gentleman of the time, with any degree of education, could read Ovid in Latin and would be familiar with all the gods, godlets and nymphs and fauns mentioned in The Metamorphoses, a foundational work of Western literature and thus slide past them knowingly while reading Paradise Lost. Few of our contemporaries read Ovid and hence the need for footnotes. The Norton Critical Edition of the poem, often used in college courses, is as much gloss as verse.
Now you can go through 12 years of public school and four years of university and never getting any closer to Ovid than a NASCAR fan to the ballet.
When novelist William Styron wrote about his battle with depression, he named the book Darkness Visible, referencing Milton. Milton also shows up in Philip Pullman’s science-fiction classic, His Dark Materials. There was a Playstation video game named Pandemonium. For someone so seldom read, Milton gets around.
We should expect that cultural reference comes and goes, it blossoms and then fades with time. Once, Milton was one everyone’s tongue, now he is for doctoral candidates. Once the Bible was lingua franca, now, it seems, those who know the book at all only know the parts they like and ignore the rest. (“Who’s the greatest contortionist in the Bible?” “Balaam, because the Bible says he tied his ass to a tree and walked away.”) The best-known of Shakespeare is still recognizable, but I venture few would remember to context to “Put out the light, then, put out the light” or “All that glisters is not gold.” “To be or not to be” is too familiar, but even those who can quote the first six words of the soliloquy probably don’t know that the rest of it contemplates suicide, or where it comes in the Hamlet story — or why.
It has always been the habit of the educated — the initiates in the cultural legacy — to lament the loss of that inheritance, and condemn the ignorance of the younger generations. I have been guilty of that myself, because I have spent so much time imbibing my cultural past and fear the loss of meaning that evaporates with the loss of memory of past culture. I, who know Gilgamesh and Beowulf, who reads the Iliad annually, who have ingested my Ovid and Livy, my Melville and Faulkner, weep for those bereft of such treasures. But I need to recognize the evanescence of such knowledge. One set of cultural touchstones is inevitably replaced by a new set, piece by piece, like the original wood of the Argo.
I doubt we can do without a cultural gravity pulling us toward a center, but it needn’t be the one that worked in the past. Just watch a Quentin Tarantino film and see how the cinematic past enriches the Pulp Fiction present, how he uses the styles of Hong Kong in Kill Bill, or the tropes of Western movies in The Hateful Eight. Inglourious Basterds is built, not on a knowledge of history so much as on the digested habits of World War II movies — and in much the same way as Paradise Lost is rooted in Ovid and the Bible. Just as Milton expected his readers to be familiar with Ovid, so Tarantino expects his audience to be familiar with Johnnie To and William Wyler.
I have recognized that my own cultural memory is mine and must let the younger generation have theirs. But I nevertheless worry about this difference: that mine subsumes four millennia of accumulation building on itself, while what I see in the coming cultural horizon barely extends back a hundred years. When I see an online list of “greatest films of all times,” I am appalled that almost no films listed are more than 30 years old. Have none of these movie fans seen Metropolis, Battle of Algiers, or Rules of the Game? Surely their lives would be richer if they had something to draw on psychically and emotionally other than American Pie or Fast and Furious.
My twin granddaughters do stunningly well at school — now at university — but neither knows any Bible stories. This is not picking on them: No one who is secular in their generation does. How much of their cultural patrimony is blank? Nor does their generation soak up Sophocles, Dante, Hawthorne or Yeats. They have their touchstones, but I cannot but worry that their inner lives are undernourished for it, l’eau sans gaz.
But I am also humbled by my own ignorance. Is my inner life starving because I cannot read Latin? French? Russian? Chinese? I think of all the books I haven’t read. The list seems nearly infinite. My own bookshelves shame me. I own the books that populate them, but I haven’t gotten around to reading everything waiting there, inviting me in. There isn’t time.