Quick and dirty rules of thumb for more efficient cultural life

Cultured life entails many risks. The chief risk is – waste of time. The amount of culture available for consumption compared to one’s limited days on earth is practically limitless and the vast majority of it is garbage.

Because time lost is never found, every hour wasted is an irreparable loss. (And sometimes it is worse: reading an indifferent book is only a waste of time while one is reading it; but reading a bad book about which one subsequently thinks with revulsion or disgust ruins more than the time spent reading it).

How to avoid expending one’s precious, dwindling resource — time — on stuff that does not deserve it?

This is tricky business because so many works attempt to deceive us as to their quality: they pretend to be original or high brow or ambitious. (They put on names such as “symphony” or “ode” or “novel”; they adopt the style of masters; quote or make references; pretend to be a meaningful response to great works; etc. etc. etc).

One must develop quick guidelines – “rules of thumb” – to allow one to detect-and-neutralize garbage before the damage is done. Some such rules are extremely efficient: e.g. some require that you do not go near certain category of works at all (e.g. biopic, music fusion); others can deliver a verdict within minutes (last night I aborted a movie after 4 minutes).

As new forms of deception are constantly invented, new defensive rules of thumb must be constantly developed and adopted. Here are two new rules I adopted this week:

1. Avoid books with clever titles (e.g. How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer or How To Be A Great Artist On The Example Of Thomas Mann).  A clever title betrays an effort expended on the cover and great books don’t need catchy covers. (Vide “Doktor Faustus”).

2.  Avoid concept books (Jarosław Mikołajewski, Rzymska Komedia, attempts to be a series of essays about Rome using the Divine Comedy as a guide: this makes no sense, I can’t believe I let myself be so easily duped).

That it is perfectly possible to be rich and idle and do nothing cultural for five minutes

(Nothing vaguely cultural going on there for five minutes)

[We interrupt our interrupted programing again [programmus interruptus is our specialty] to bring you this newsflash]

I have been planning to write an essay on Jerzy Stempowski — in my book, the literatus par excellence — the only man I have ever read whose writing style matches that of Russell – not a single spare, wasted word; a prose so stripped of fluff — so full of meaning — as to appear skeletal (burgeoning); the argument races so fast through the text, one has to read slowly, for fear of falling behind — and meaning to begin the essay with the observation that he was a kind of fruit typical of his climatic zone — Podolia.

Like Korzeniowski (“Conrad”), Szymanowski, Lechon, Iwaszkiewicz, Neuhaus — the A list — the B list is an arm long — he grew up on a largish property whose owners, idle and isolated as they were from the rest of the world, were want to beat the blahs with… culture. Multilingual (Polish, Russian, French, German), classically trained (Greek and Latin), they read voraciously, wrote extensively (mainly letters and memoirs, but also manuals, chronicles, genealogies, dramas in the Greek style, novels in the French), composed and performed music (piano played well enough to handle Chopin and Beethoven was de rigeur, amateur opera performances with neighbors not an unusual pastime), and spoke and thought of the world in a manner reflecting their deep reading: off the cuff quotes from Marcialis, or Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy — not meant to impress but a natural turn of mind — the way some of you might refer to Saturday Night Live (or whatever else you refer to). (They had no television in Podolia). They were also well traveled — mainly in the Romance South — between which and Podolia they often divided the year; and they imagined themselves a Mediterranean people accidentally cast in the North of the continent (ego Romanus sum, wrote their sixteenth century ancestors). Sicilia and Podolia are much alike, wrote one of them, meaning great geographical beauty, fabulous fertility, long history, changing political fortunes, layers of historical influences, a baffling (and fertile) mix of languages and religions (in Podolia: Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Armenians, Russians, Greeks, Karaites, Tartars, Germans).

Which is why Wyspa Montresor, a book about Montrésor, a Polish feudal fief in France (Indre-et-Loire) is such a profound surprise: it is a kind of collage of voices of three-dozen different people — mostly family members — associated with the property, documenting the life of its half-Podolian owners in the 19th and 20th centuries. That life is colorful (the family was related by marriage to both Hohenzollerns and the House of Savoy, lived east and west, participated in French politics as well as Polish, etc.); tragic (it is hard not to see the twentieth century as a plot to eradicate them — everyone robs them — Russian revolutionaries, Ukraininan freedom fighters, German conquerors, their own domestics, the Soviet regime, the Polish People’s Republic, even Giscard d’Estaing’s farm policies); but above all — shocking: the family — in the 19th century among the richest in Russia, certainly among the most landed in Europe — appear to have been… cultural idiots: there is not a single mention of any book, any opera, any museum, any painting. It’s all about hunting — and mostly of the dumb French variety in which the beaters drive the animals towards stationary shooters who spend the whole day shooting — thousands of animals — without the least expenditure of energy or brain-power (but develop a pretty strong forefinger).

Why is it a shock?

It is a shock because, in my generosity, I have always imagined the present (apparent) decline in cultural interest among the higher echelons to the disappearance of the economic class who in the past embodied cultural life: by which I meant the economic class with 1) the free time to engage in culture and 2) the financial resources to pay for it — in short, Veblen’s “leisure class”: land aristocracy, the agrarian rentier class. (Stempowski himself, in his bibliophilic La Terre Bernoise, makes a similar claim regarding the cultural lives of Swiss peasants who used to engage in folk art until, suddenly, cities began to grow thus creating a demand for village products, and thereby robbing the peasant of his free time).

I am now made to realize that for a cultured class to arise a third element must be present: an interest. Without it, it turns out, it is perfectly possible to be rich and idle and do nothing cultural for five minutes; a free, rich person can remain a cultural idiot all one’s life.


Scissors not included

An actual walk in the park

Though it has been some years since, I still vividly recall the terror Ecco’s In search of a perfect language had struck in me: similar in some ways to Guns of August in documenting human mental malfunction, unlike Guns of August, it was not funny: not a record of bumbling fools but a cool, clinical description of madmen.

For days afterwards I felt not just depressed, but terrified: this was the world I lived in, these were the people who surrounded me; the notion that on numerous occasions my life would depend on the decisions and value judgments of such men and that there was no way I could insulate myself perfectly against that danger scared the living daylights out of me. Groping for safety, I changed my mobile number again, suspended another blog, broke off a few more iffy acquaintances.

Last night, Six walks in the fictional wood, picked up in a moment of desperation after several other books of literary criticism have disappointed (do they ever not), suddenly put Search in a new, alarming light: the madmen of Search were actually Ecco’s heroes; the Search failed to make fun of them not, as I had imagined, so as to profile their madness more starkly — as a dispassionate, clinical text might — but because Ecco was taking the book’s heroes at face value.

Yes, he was, I realized abruptly as I read Six walks‘ first chapter and my heart skipped a beat: the chapter features elaborate diagrams showing the relationship between E. A. Poe and the various roles which Ecco ascribes to his Pym — “fictional character as narrator”, “narrator as real person”, etc. Ecco does not cut them out, pin, and rotate them as Raymond Lull may have done — at least not as far as we can tell — but it is easy to imagine his readers — a few of those people who sat through these lectures, or some of those who rank the book 5 stars on Amazon, doing just that.

And to think that to most mortal men a stroll in the wood seems a perfectly harmless thing!

Why I do not read contemporary literature

Why I do not read contemporary literature was actually explained a few years before my birth by a Polish literatus in exile, Jerzy Stempowski:

One hot summer when I was still a very young boy I read, one after the other, all of Shakespeare’s plays.  This incident had a decisive influence on all my subsequent reading, indeed, perhaps on many other later choices and decisions:  “Take this rod and measure the Temple and all  those who pray within it”, says the Apocalypse and the rod was now in my hands.  From now I rejected without mercy all books which seemed to me worse than Troilus and Cressida.  I was thus adopting, perhaps somewhat too naively, one of the oldest criteria used by those who care for their reading:  something quite similar can be found in a letter of Horace to Pisones:  “What does not reach for the summit, falls into the abyss”.

This is not difficult.  With a bit of practice one can learn to tell almost immediately, and mostly unerringly, whether a given book can possibly contain even one page of Shakespeare’s class.  For my personal needs this was entirely sufficient.  I have read many books which almost no one knows, but I have to admit that — having stubbornly resisted almost all writers of my time — I remain an ignoramus in the matters of literature.  (…)  It is clear that my method cannot play any role in today’s literary life.

What Stempowski means is that today’s literary life — meaning authors, critics, publishers and readers — do not apply the Troilus Test and are happy to contend themselves with less.  The really important standard is activity:  what sells, what is read, what is discussed.  Literary life is a kind of group activity wherein the activity itself is valued because it takes place, not because it is in any way good or useful or interesting or wise, but because it involves the group.  It happens to concern books, but, one gets the impression that it might equally concern bum-rapping or spitting and catching or whatever else it is that everyone agreed to do at the same time:  people will go over and join in simply because others already have.

This is well captured by a rejection letter from editor received some time ago by Michael Hoffman

“[Yours] is a well-written, good novel, but unfortunately it falls into that now defunct category, mid-list.”  She concluded with this advice:  “Please, please write for the market, and that means you must read, read, read current successful novels.”

No wonder Michael has decided to self-publish:  if my job required me to read the work of contemporary successful novels, I would have to quit because, well, there is no way in hell anyone can compel me to read more than three pages of Iris Murdoch.


What is not the absolutely best, is without value.  Nagai says something similar in his diaries somewhere:  by the 1930’s he’d stopped reading his contemporaries entirely, devoting himself to the rereading of the classics instead, judging justly that there isn’t much point reading a new thing by Iris Murdoch when one can re-read Troilus and Cressida.

This parallel between a Polish political exile in Switzerland and a Japanese internal exile in Tokyo should not surprise:  both men belonged to a class best called dilettante erudite, who spent their lives traveling, learning, reading, thinking and debating — but debating always in ways careful to avoid academic punctiliousness.  This class has not survived WW2; but already between the wars it was in serious decline.  Now that they are gone for good, so are the kind of books they might write or deign to read.

Understanding Nagai Kafu

I have been reading Nagai Kafu’s diaries with the disconcerting sensation that I am reading myself:  every thought and reaction he describes I understand instantly and fully, and to most I subscribe with both hands.

Incredibly, most writings on Nagai Kafu suggest that no one else understands him — certainly no one who writes about him does.  How else to explain a dull, dull book like Snyder’s? He certainly did not read the diaries, for if he did, he would have known that Nagai read much French literature in the original and therefore did not need to “learn” French modernism from Ogai as he suggests.  But it’s hard to blame Snyder:  the diaries, unlike the novels, are written in bungo, an old sinicized form of Japanese — this can be hard to read; and they are long:  mine — an abridged version — comes to two thousand pages.  Scholars in a hurry to publish — “publish or perish” — don’t have that kind of time, do they?  So Snyder has not read the diaries — and therefore is unaware of the central fact about Nagai Kafu.

Let me try to explain what I think is the central fact about Nagai Kafu.

The central fact about Nagai Kafu is that he was a typical scion of an upper-class feudal household living in a rapidly modernizing world in which the old way of living was at first haltingly and then ever more decisively pushed aside.  He had grown up in a well-to do house, in a family with sufficient means to dedicate themselves to the task of living a beautiful life.  In modern times people rarely have the money (our middle classes are much poorer relative to the society than the middle classes of the nineteenth century were) and almost never have the time to dedicate themselves to beautiful living:  to house decoration (say, changing the house decor to correspond to changing seasons), to clothing (such as changing several times a day), to ceremonies (meaning both large and small ceremonies, including things like paying calls or receiving guests or sending new year’s post cards), to manners, to cultivating friends, to correspondence, to eating properly, to literature or music-making or art-appreciation; with their 50+ hour work-weeks plus three-hour daily commutes they find such a life not only impossible but mainly — unimaginable. 

Yet this is the kind of life Nagai was bred into.  That life is best described, in my opinion, as aesthetic; its goal is to produce a beautiful work of art which is the person living the life.  Nagai’s most important artwork — indeed, as he grew older, his only important work of art — was his character and his life.

Economic and political changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have meant that upper class men (and women) of the old feudal system, bred to beautiful living and attempting to continue to live it, discovered that the world around them was changing in ways which they found not merely incomprehensible but downright abrasive.  Nagai discovers with shock that he no longer wishes to participate in Japan’s literary life as it becomes dominated by writers who do not know the classics (never mind actually like them!) and whose principal motivation for writing is self-promotion; he describes how his neighbors’ estates are subdivided and developed to make room for uncouth, pushy new men from the provinces and their rude children; how the old refined Floating World — staffed by classically trained geisha — gradually gives ground to grubby prostitution.  When the Great Kanto Earthquake levels the city around him, he actually rejoices that it has driven his neighbors away and sadly reflects:  “probably not for long”.  When the war with America breaks out he comments that he understand why Americans hate modern Japan because he does, too, and expresses the hope that Americans might bomb Japan’s new ugliness and vulgarity into oblivion.

I am sensitive to Nagai’s experience for two reasons:  first because it was the experience of my own grandparents to whom I was very close as I grew up. My maternal grandmother, a daughter of a very rich landowning family in the Ukraine, was driven out by the Russian Revolution, rendered penniless and forced into a social milieu in which suddenly she met as her equals people she’d never even known existed before:  the mechanical classes; yet, despite her reduced financial circumstances she strove to live the old way, to maintain the old standards of politeness and gracious living, refusing to adopt the lowlife lifestyle which she was suddenly forced to notice all around her.  I grew up watching her efforts and found them touchingly noble.

I am also sensitive to Nagai’s experience because my own experience of the reality outside my door is quite similar to his:  I have taken early retirement from my professional career because I found the people I met in its course too disagreeable to bear; I have suspended my former (“successful”) blog because I discovered that I was largely put off by the sorts of reflections great art inspired in the majority of my readers.

This sensitivity has allowed me to see people of Nagai’s sort everywhere in the world — worldwide de-feudalization means that there are Nagais everywhere if you know what to look for.  Perhaps their lot was described to me best by an elderly grand dame in New Delhi about ten years ago:  “We’re not Indians, Gauvain”, she said referring to herself and her husband, “we’re pakka sahibs” (“proper masters”).  Her new country, the one in which she had grown up and lived all her life and whose passport she was carrying no longer seemed to her like her own.  She would not admit to having any part in it.

As feudalism recedes into the past, there are ever fewer Nagais to be seen; and the younger men who grow up with the new reality do not see it — in the same manner in which fish do not see the water they swim in.  They read Nagai and miss the most important fact about him and write some excrementum bovis on sex industry as a metaphor for capitalist exploitation or sexual love as metaphor for writing.