I remember my dismay in 9th grade English when the first book we turned to was Mythology, Edith Hamilton’s collection of Greek myths. The paperback was black with a photo of a statue on the cover. A glance inside revealed strange little stories of fantastical monsters and characters with unpronounceable names. Almost instantly a sleepy malaise overtook me. Could anything, other possibly than the Bible, be more boring? Merely looking at the statue on the cover, I felt that awful museum feeling--as our teacher, Mrs. Whitlock, droned on about myths and their importance to Western civilization.
Needless to say, I feel differently now, grateful both to Dame Edith and to Mrs. Whitlock for stocking my mind with useful–indeed foundational--references, tales, predicaments and metaphors. Where would I be, who would I be, without having read the Odyssey and the Iliad--or Shakespeare, or Milton, or the Bible? Or the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, for that matter, or Whitman and Dickens and Hemingway and Frost?
These personal questions raise a larger, cultural one: what is it that we need to know–and need each other to know--by way of shared cultural and literary reference? And who is this “we,” exactly? I think about this when a copyeditor at the New York Times, where I write about restaurants, questions a reference I’ve made. One time I praised a restaurant’s excellent burger as “the Platonic ideal of the hamburger.” The editor struck the reference; readers, he said, “wouldn’t get it.” Now, I can see objecting to overkill in a writer’s invoking Plato to describe a hamburger. But to say that readers won’t even know what I’m referring to – that they won’t understand that “Platonic ideal” means the very essence of a thing, the perfect form of it?
These little snafus of reference unsettle me. Some months back I was reading a New Yorker article in which a German politician was described as alienating people with his “Panzer-like personality” – after which the writer (or more likely editor) felt required to add, “referring to the attack tanks deployed by the German army in World War II.” And I thought, really? Does the typical New Yorker reader not know what a Panzer was?
The writer and critic Joshua Cohen recently recounted a similar flummoxing moment in which, while writing an article on poetry for a newspaper, he referred to “some lines from Eliot” – and the editor amended it to “the Anglo-American poet, T.S. Eliot.” Cohen alluded to this exchange while reviewing Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture – a book that turns this kind of complaint into a broader indictment. Cohen glosses Vargas Llosa’s argument this way: “The subject... is ‘our’ lack: of common culture, or common context, common sets of referents and allusions, and a common understanding of who or what that pronoun ‘our’ might refer to anymore, now that even papers of record have capitulated to individually curated channels and algorithmicized feeds.”
This problem is nothing new, of course – well, the technology that amplifies it may be new, but not the underlying complaint. After Cohen’s review, John Williams in the Book Review offered a brief rundown of the “cultural anxiety” theme expressed over the decades by such books as Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcisissm, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies. “The subject of civilizational decline [is] a perennial favorite for many authors,” Williams notes. “Every few years, the death knell sounds.”
What’s challenging is knowing whether one’s inclination to sound that death knell merely represents the crotchetiness of advancing age, or whether something actually has changed in education and the transmission of culture. I think about the laments of a friend of mine, a writer and journalist who recently turned 60 and works in public media. He’s surrounded by bright and expensively educated young people, but he often finds his conversational references to history or literature drawing blank stares. “I never assume anyone knows anything any more,” he says.
He isn’t being hyperbolic. What should we be able to assume that other people know? How should we regard those literary-cultural assumptions and allusions that are woven into the way we talk, the way we think?
For instance. I sometimes use the phrase, “a Sisyphean task.” I find it a useful expression, one that compacts the ideas of struggle, punishment, frustration, hopelessness and perseverance, all within a concept that is both story and metaphor, and easily visualized as well. I’d dislike having to jettison “Sisyphean task.” But should I? How many of my fellow Americans know what I’m talking about when I use it? If the answer is “not too many,” then does using it ultimately constitute a form of snobbishness – a kind of literary status display – no matter what my intention? Or is “Sisyphean task” rather part of a core set of ideas – and currency of public conversation -- whose loss we would (and should) rue?
Here, haphazardly, is a roster of such concepts, maxims, references, quotations, and the like that I habitually return to, stray winged thoughts that I bagged in ten minutes of waving a net around in my mind: Sisyphean task; Herculean effort; the categorical imperative; the Golden Rule; But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep...; Edenic innocence; suffering like Job; Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers set forth on this nation a new continent...; Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil; I think, therefore I am; Socratic discourse; dialectical; the unconscious; the collective unconscious; crossing the Rubicon; on the seventh day he rested; Dickensian coincidence; a Pyrrhic victory; spare the rod, spoil the child; wearing a scarlet letter; forty acres and a mule; a veritable Tower of Babel; Cupid fired his arrow; the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper; it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; the Siren’s call; a house divided against itself cannot stand; mother’s milk to me; shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?; “the horror... the horror...”; cowards die many times before their deaths; beware a Trojan horse; from each according to his ability, to each according to his need; the road less taken; so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Are these references merely personal touchstones that map out a specific consciousness and sensibility – in this case, that of a middle-aged, expensively educated white man – with no larger significance or currency? Or do at least some of them belong to a set of texts, ideas, symbols, maxims, and metaphors that we rightly “privilege,” to use the current term, as having special, structural relevance to the project of transmitting a shared formal culture? A number of the references in my list are Biblical, and I am reminded of Peter Steinfels’ lament, in this space, that the past two years of New York Times’ Notable Nonfiction Books of the Year have yielded precisely one book about religion. Permit me a religion-tinged worry that we may be nearing the end days of such lists anyway, and their replacement by Notable Tweets of the Year.
I’m late to this cultural reference battle, I know -- and not at all sure I even want to fight. When the campus culture wars over revising the literary canon raged in the 80s and 90s, I was instinctively skeptical of any cultural-literary approach that seemed listy – any E.D. Hirsch-like suggestion that we needed to promote some compendium of civilizational Greatest Hits in order to keep the culture afloat. All I could see then were the manifold problems of, and objections to, anyone trying to assert such a list, especially in a society as radically pluralistic as ours.
Now, I’m not so sure. One longs for a common conversation, as the country grows ever more diverse and popular culture more fragmented, niched-out, and (to use Joshua Cohen’s daunting word) algorithmicized. We’re in a golden age of television, for instance, and yet it’s almost impossible for TV fans to find a common topic, a single show that everyone has seen. Amusing, to sit around a dinner table as people enthuse, seriatim, about shows that no one else has seen. The conversation founders. The cultural Tower of Babel looms.
If we can’t even follow each other’s TV references, what chance is there for shared reference at a higher cultural level? How might we ever secure -- or reestablish -- a literary frame of reference as robust as that provided by youtube and other social media? Now that would truly be a – well, about as difficult as pushing a rock up a hill over and over again.