This essay by Fred Siegel makes a critique of Mencken I never thought I'd appreciate as I love Mencken:
[deriding the academic aspirations of the masses was] championed not only by leftists such as Cowley, but also by Nietzscheans such as H.L. Mencken, the critic and editor whom Walter Lippmann described in 1926 as “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people” who famously mocked the hapless “herd,” “the imbeciles,” the “booboisie,” all of whom he deemed the “peasantry” that blighted American cultural life...
Mencken and Huxley shared an aristocratic ideal based on an idyllic past. They romanticized a time before the age of machinery and mass production, when the lower orders lived in happy subordination and when intellectual eccentricity was encouraged among the elites. In this beautiful world, alienation was as unknownIntellectuals mocked the masses for trying to enjoy these things, and encouraged people to engage in the kitsch of popular culture as long as they did it with a superior and ironic attitude. This is stupid. As Goethe said, if you take man as he really is we make him worse, but if we take man as he should be we make him what he can be. Encouraging the rabble to higher culture is a good thing regardless of how ham-handed your average man is when dealing with such knowledge. In the 1950s the masses were interested in Shakespeare, classical music, long interviews with serious writers, and that made them better people than they otherwise would have been.
At least Mencken and Huxley recognized that our greatest cultural and artistic legacies deserved reverence and respect by SOMEONE. Their successors however ultimately decided to abandon traditional concepts of high culture because preserving their social status was a higher priority. It is amusing to note that today nothing is so fickle and herd-like as the tastes of America’s cultural elite (if such a term can be invoked with a straight face). Flip through the artsy-fartsy sections of the weekend WSJ or NYT and check out the kinds of prices absurd, high-concept works of junk are still commanding these days. Who’s the boob now?
It’s tough to feel superior when anyone can listen to Beethoven, read Shakespeare or hang a Da Vinci on the wall but by constantly redefining what “high culture” is and obscuring it with incomprehensible layers of seriousness, frivolousness and theory they can much more easily play at being high priests. Since style has triumphed over substance (something long espoused by the likes of Susan Sontag) almost all high and popular culture has devolved into utter crap. We’re now left with the worst of both worlds. And it's not so amusing to notice that the 9/11 memorial is literally water going down a drain.
Ahmet Ertegun always maintained that as long as his R&B recording artists tried, however ham-handedly, to emulate the high standards, styles and techniques of the musical pantheon, they generally achieved great things, even though their influences and aspirations were not always apparent. When they abandoned all that, the end results were very rarely great. I think this idea can applied more universally. Perhaps a first step towards recognizing this again is evidenced by the fact that so much film theatre and music just now are rehashed, remakes from other works long past.
I wonder how many other people watch ‘Mad Men’ and instead of thinking “How terrible! The 60’s couldn’t come fast enough!” instead think: “Wow, people were polite, didn’t dress like slobs, men bought soundtracks to Broadway shows and white people could dance!”
Mencken's disdain for the "common" (sic) people is not evident in his autobiography or in his early police reporting work. He came to despise ordinary Americans largely because they swallowed T.R. and Wilson's contempt for the largest minority in the country - German Americans. Anyone with an open mind who lived through WW I in America came to a similar opinion. As for the assertion that the common people in the 1950s were interested in Shakespeare, etc. what bunk. They were interested in comic books and large engines and God Bless them; those are the only artifacts from the 1950s that anyone will treasure a hundred years from now.
Interesting point about German-Americans but I’ll still stand by the assertion that 50’s popular culture was generally of a higher caliber than today’s by any number of measures. Although it’s great that today specialized knowledge is more widely distributed and accessible than ever before even as traditional concentrations of specialized knowledge (colleges and universities) have been infected by dubious mission creep and keep delivering less bang for the buck.
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