Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Saturday, June 2, 2018

Next book: Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa

My next book is Notes on the Death of Culture:  Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa. It's a book about the ascendance of low-brow "culture" and the way it's crowding out high culture.  The problem is not that high culture is limited to a small group (that's always been the case), but rather that the natural constituency for high culture is abandoning it, partly because of the attractions of low-brow spectacle and partly because of a commitment to democracy (or at least the appearance thereof).  I'm part-way through the first chapter, and I lack the time to give a full analysis of what I've read thus far, but I want to quote two points from the intro and first chapter:

1) Page 3:
The naive idea that, through education, one can transmit culture to all of society is destroying 'higher culture', because the only way of achieving this universal democratization of culture is by impoverishing culture, making it ever more superficial.
It's not that Shakespeare and Homer and Gilgamesh will disappear--there will always be people who read them.  But when we democratize education, on the margin we erode the education given to the broad middle, with real effects on the 50th to 75th percentile (who will not be pushed as far as they might have been) and devastating effects on the 75th to 90th percentile (who will be pushed away from the heights they might have soared to).  Those above the 90th percentile will be fine, as they always were, and the more politically savvy among them will pat themselves on the back over what they did for those below the 50th percentile, but the good to great will be held back, to the detriment of all. Rather than pushing them to study Shakespeare more carefully than they otherwise might have, they will be encouraged to view the simpler fruits of pop culture as not merely good (because many of them are quite good) but as great and transcendent and equal to Gilgamesh. They'll be encouraged not to grapple with William F. Buckley (who was sharp, sophisticated, thoughtful, and often wrong) but to feel like they learned something after watching Colbert interview a politician.

(And, for the record, I think Colbert is a very smart and talented man.  I also think that something is lost when politicians are only interviewed by smart people in the setting of a comedy show.)

2)   On pages 32-33, Vargas Llosa notes that religion hasn't actually disappeared from the "educated" middle and upper-middle classes of the industrialized world.  Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, with educated clergy who have studied the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, have declined in popularity, but vulgar fundamentalist sects proliferate, as do "New Age" religions.  He describes upper-class Colombians who self-identify as atheist but attend ceremonies with shamans.  It used to be that the educated found their alternatives to faith in science and philosophy; now they consider it more liberal (in every sense) to take the democratic route of pop-religion with the masses.  Science and philosophy are hard, but consciousness-raising ceremonies with egalitarian roots (i.e. identification with indigenous culture) are easy, far less challenging.

For myself, I know on some level that religion is hard to defend.  At the same time, it is just built into me.  My mother and grandparents and Catholic grade school made me what I am, and the fact that I know how I was made does not change the fact that I was indeed made that way, and it is the core of me.  To walk away from that would mean that I would cease to be me.  I'd become somebody else.  It would be psychological suicide.  I am who I am, and I believe what I believe because it is built into me.  I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, and I can no more walk away from that than I can cease to love my wife or give up on doing math in my head compulsively.  That is how I understand whatever it is that is greater than humanity, and I cannot change that.  A life understood through the lens of the Gospels, and particularly the passion of the Lamb of God, that is a good life.  Christ's Passion may be seen as a fiction by some, but if it is fiction it is a profound drama offering us great insights, through the offering of bread, the betrayal, the challenges, the rejection by the mob, and the ultimate triumph in the face of a seeming end.

At the same time, I understand why others frame the problem of "What is greater?" quite differently. All that I can hope for them is that they find a hard answer and everything that it has to offer.  If that answer be science, or philosophy, or Sophia, or an uneasy embrace of nothingness, I hope it brings them something.

Of course, if we're going to speak of what is easy, never forget that what I am doing here is easy.  I am reading and opining, rather than reading exhaustively and analyzing deeply.  It's no different from the ascendancy of cable news punditry over investigative reporting.  Opinions are easy.  They can be important, they can be valid (if informed), they can be insightful, but they are still easier than investigation.  Never forget that.

Finally, lest I let my snobbery get the best of me, let me note that even the simple can be sublime.  Consider this song, which is largely the repetition of the same line over and over, but it is delivered with soul and depth.