Cultural Politics and Literary Taste
A couple of items I have come across have gotten me to thinking about literary taste lately. A few weeks ago, one of the bloggers at First Things let out a cri de coeur over the awfulness of James Joyce’s novel Ulyssses. I must confess to never having read Ulysses, but the blogger in question voiced complaints common critics of Joyce’s novels: it was hard to read, there was no discernible plot, was filled with tedious indecencies pointless erudition. On BBC 4’s program In Our Time broadcast a program a few weeks ago (I’ve obviously got too much time on my hands for someone writing his dissertation) did a broadcast on the “Augustan Age” of Roman literature, which I find irresistably fascinating; at the end of the broadcast they were discussing Augustus and Ovid, and his reasons for exiling the poet, when right before the program ended the host Melvyn Bragg asked them (I think) who they thought was the greatest poet of the age, and all three guests, academics all, responded unanimously that Ovid was the greatest poet of that era.
Now I should explain a couple of things first, as to why I find these types of observations interesting. The blogger in question at FT is Joe Carter, who if memory serves me is a Southern Baptist (he once had a blog named Evangelical Outpost, I think). I mention this because his complaints about Ulysses, especially his assertion that a writer’s job is to “communicate” (which I take to mean that they should write in an easy to comprehend way) is something I tend to associate with Evangelicals, rightly or wrongly. I say this because it is mainly Evangelicals but by no means only them, as I have many Catholic friends who practically worship him, who espouse C.S. Lewis as a great literary artist. For my part, I have tried to read a couple of Lewis’ fiction works, and my reaction was that they were naive and simplistic, and never bothered to finish them. I have never had the urge to try again, I might add, which must make me some kind of heretic, at least in the circles I move in. (Though somewhere I have read that J.R.R. Tokein disliked his fiction as well, for similar reasons, though I’ve never read any of his works either, not having much use for fantasy.) Now I mention this partly because I am a Roman Catholic, and perhaps there is something in the way that Evangelicals (and some non-Evangelical Protestants) approach the bible as something that is supposedly simple to understand, as opposed to the more tradition laden way Catholics approach the bible, influences our literary tastes. But I don’t mean to suggest anything so specific as that, and what I am thinking of is our more general cultural responses and how they influence our reactions to works of art. The first real novel I ever read growing up (I was about 10 I think) were Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London and a slew of Stephen King novels. It wasn’t until high school that I got my first taste of Shakespeare, but only developed something like a consistent literary taste when I got to college, and as it happens it was literary modernism that left its imprint on me most forcefully, in particular that of T.S. Eliot, whose poem “The Wasteland” I was exposed to in several different classes before I was finally able to understand what was going on in the poem to any degree. In fact, my first reaction to reading it was rather like that of Carter’s to Ulysses: I thought it was nauseating, depressing and incomprehensible. But after I began to understand its genesis in Eliot’s belief in the breakdown of Western Civilization (and his own personal breakdown), the collapse of shared canons of literary taste as well, I began to appreciate it more, and soon became a devotee of the man’s work. I don’t really believe that he was the greatest English language poet of the twentieth century (I would give that laurel to Yeats I think) but it was my first mature attachment to a writer of any kind, and I think it has permanently left its mark on my tastes. Eliot’s raison d’etre for literary modernism was that, because the modern world was difficult, and complicated, literature should be difficult and complicated as well, and I have never been able to shake a belief that this idea has at least some validity, even though I no longer think the masterpieces of modernism really rank as the greatest works of art of all time. (In that sense, I agree with Carter: Ulysses is probably overrated, even if, as I suspect, I would still enjoy reading it.)
I mention all this because part of the reason why I took to Eliot is because at the time I was an atheist (or thought I was; I was a bit confused, but that’s a story for another time), and I thought that “modernist” lit was the kind of thing academic types had to learn to read, since I was planning on becoming one myself. This was also the reason I started listening to classical music, as most my teachers said that they did; happily, not even academics can listen to modern orchestral music, so that it was Romanticism which (at least initially) shaped my changing musical tastes. The upshot of all this that by this point in my life (I’m 31) I pretty much have an ingrained bias against writers that are too “simple” in their approach to the world, and hence my distaste for Lewis, someone who I believe is one of the finest writers of non-fiction prose that I have ever encountered. In fact, I went on from there to discover through Eliot’s influence the “Metaphysical Poets” of the seventeenth century, and gained a real appreciation of Shakespeare from a fine professor, and I would like to think in part these things helped prepare me to accept the reality of Christ, and affect my conversion in some small way. None the less, I still went on reading books by authors whom I thought I should read; I must have read four novels by Salman Rushdie, for example, all of which I know longer own, precisely for that reason, and I believe may have forced myself to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, whose writing I thought was pretty good but not great, as well as others whom I’ve forgotten at this point. I wouldn’t even think of reading them now, but I also have not picked up a novel by King in years either, so permanently has my taste been modified. Again, this was all because of what kind of social and cultural milieu with which I wanted to identify.
Now one other thing I must mention is that I am a culturally and socially conservative but not necessarily politically conservative person, though I was not then. Joe Carter is an evangelical, writes for FT, and is a political conservative; the academics in the broadcast might not be all politically on the left side of the spectrum, but they all certainly loved talking up the “moral legislation” of Augustus and the problems Ovid’s erotic poetry would have caused for him, and though I cannot say for sure, I’m guessing they are left leaning in cultural habits. My question then is this: is there a general connection between cultural affinity and literary taste? It might be possible for example to detest Ulysses not because it is poorly written as for what kind of cultural resonances are associated with cultural modernism? By “cultural resonances” I mean certain beliefs rightly or wrongly attached to a “modernist” literary style one might find objectionable—the idea that the world no longer has coherent meaning and so we have to make it ourselves (i.e., there is no plot in Ulysses, so you have to pick one out of it on your own), a certain cultural relativism with regards sexual morality, and the like. Similarly, why is Ovid any better of a poet than Virgil? I could be wrong about this, but I take it that for centuries it was Virgil who was considered the Augustan poet par excellence, but in age where sexual promiscuity is no longer seen as morally problematic (at least by academics), and where the certainties of Virgil and other writers would seem less solid to such academics, might this account at least in part for these academics choosing Ovid—a poet of playfulness, ambiguity, and subversiveness, at least in the Ars Amatoria and the Metamorphoses—so emphatically over the lofty but largely staid verse of Virgil? After all, eggheads like myself and the people on that program love ambiguity, wordplay, and the like, so something like Ulysses would naturally appeal to us, given our habits, since guessing what literary references he is making would be like a game to us, and for most academics, the novelty of his literary style would be appealing as well, since academics are as much slaves to fashion as any other profession, and would naturally take to something that pronounces its break with conventional narrative in such an open way. Non-academics, however, could care less about such things, and so a negative reaction to that type of work would not be surprising.
Such generalizations do not hold universally, as I have known self-identified “social progressives” who raved about Dostoevsky, among other, and it is of course entirely possible for an individual person to separate an author from his or her beliefs about a given subject. This questions intrigues me because I would like to believe that literary taste is not merely a name given to what are simpliciter irrational, gut responses. Maybe I just I am thinking too hard about this, I’m not sure. But I’m also thinking more specifically about modernism, because I go back and forth as to whether Carter’s response is right. When I first read his post, my reaction was that it was a species of mindless philistinism with which I immediately took umbrage perhaps because I did think he was merely reacting to the cultural resonances he associated with Ulysses—vulgarity, objectionable portrayals of sex, a vague cultural relativism, etc, and not the quality of its writing, its art? But if that was his reaction, was it necessarily wrong? I don’t think Joyce was a hack by any means, but if his writing was merely pretty good and one hated its cultural resonances, would one be wrong to disparage it? What I mean to say is, how good of a writer does one have to be to overcome the fact that the content of its “message” for lack of a better term, it otiose to the reader? To go back to my own experiences, I have read several novels by Thomas Hardy, most of which are so utterly depressing I have not had the stomach to go back and read any of them for years, because they presume a bleak, Godless, and utterly absurd and meaningless world, and it is very hard for me to read, even though I sympathize a great deal both with Hardy and his characters, given my background. And yet I would say he is one of the best novelists I have ever read, mainly because his writing style is simple and beautiful, and so for me transcends the objections I have to his beliefs. But if he had not been so great a writer, I would say his novels were a waste of time, given the cultural resonances they had for me. I’ve not read Ulysses, but I have read The Dubliners, which I thought was wonderful, but it could be that the former is merely Joyces’s experimental version of the latter, since they are both set in Dublin, and perhaps all of the useless erudition and pointless obscenity really is vacuous and a waste of one’s time, but I would like to find out for myself before I join the chorus of its detractors.
In any case, none of this really answers my question, but then I am only thinking out loud. Perhaps I’ll take up this topic again sometime. But until then, let my last words on the subject be this: I will probably get around to reading Ulysses eventually, though picking up my copy the other day made we want to read The Odyssey instead; but whichever I wind up reading, I am certain I will not be reaching for The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe any time soon.