cultured life

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).

Literature as a fight against vertical barbarian invasions: Literature in the Polish mind

“Since the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, the Polish society has not had an aristocracy, or any other leading group with a particular moral authority. The kind of discussion in which each generation sorts out its moral and aesthetic values, personal and social manners, could not take place at court (as it did in Spain of Cervantes or in France of Louis XIV), nor in the salons of the title or ultra-rich elites. These discussions have moved in our case into the territory of literature. Hence comes the great significance and luminosity of Mickiewicz and Żeromski. This special quality our literature shares with several others: Russian, Ukrainian, etc. Thanks to it, our literatures possess that kind of duality typical of folk art, whereby the utilitarian is not separated from the artistic. This kind of utilitarian-artistic ambivalence is a profound quality of entire modern Polish literature.”

Stempowski’s words (from a 1937 letter to Dąbrowska) are a good clue to the special unction with which Polish intellectual elites treat the matters of literature: literature appears to them as a debate on things all-important, on ultimate values. Literature and its interpretation are serious business.


There are other aspects to the special place of literature in the Polish mind: during the entire period of partitions (1795-1918) literature was the only way to hang on to the national language (as national language was gradually being pushed out of schools by the occupying powers) — and this gave literature the air of a life-preserving activity, without which the nation would cease to exist. Literature became, literally, a matter of life and death.

In shaping the present-day role of literature in the Polish mind, communist occupation 1945-1989 has played perhaps the most important role. The party launched a vast program of literary patronage in order to buy support among the elites (expecting at least lukewarm public support in return for publication and promotion). The party explained this patronage as an essential part of the socialist project of creating the new man. On this theory, literature was supposed to help transform people’s aspirations and channel them towards the new life. Unsurprisingly, Polish literary figures were only too eager to embrace an ideology which ascribed them special consciousness-forming powers.

The ideology proved to have an unexpected consequence for the communists when the very people they had imagined they had bought began to publish in samizdat form books which the communists had banned (or merely refused to publish). The samizdat publishers published and circulated this literature because they had accepted the communist theory that literature was all important as a mind-shaping vehicle: being so important, it was too important to be subjected to political interference and had to be rescued. Political opposition in Poland was to a very large extent — literary.


Out of this engagement an odd ideology began to arise.

Just as the occupying power’s interference with polish language education during the partitions (1795-1918) was seen as an existential threat, so was the communist interference with literature during 1945-1989. While the former was an existential threat to the language, and therefore the nation as the speakers of it; communist control of literature was seen as a threat to something else, something ill-defined, sometimes described as “free-thinking” (which would have been correct), but more often as “spirit” or “culture”. Communist control began to be identified with Ortega y Gasset’s “verical barbarian invasions”: an attempt to stamp out the past (which to some extent it was) — and therefore national traditions (believed to be a foundational and fundamental to the nation). On this ideology, literature — good literature, correct literature — preserved national traditions and therefore the nation. Thus literature became, once again, a matter of national survival.

Readers of this and my other blogs will be struck by how closely this situation resembles what had happened in China where Chinese literature became identified with Chinese culture and Chinese culture with humanity — uncultured/unlettered humans being barbarians — not fully human. Preserving and cultivating literature became in China coterminous with preserving humanity and therefore, in a certain sense, life — “human life”.

This perception fit nicely with the American postwar ideology beamed into Poland via Radio Free Europe and western-printed samizdats and which promoted “Western values”. By these, Americans meant democracy, personal liberty, and capitalism — all good values of course, but none of them especially Western, certainly none of them very ancient in the West — but which Polish literati readily accepted adding to it — as could be expected of literary thinkers — Polish, Graeco-Roman, and French classics. Today, the American postulates — personal liberty, democracy, capitalism — have largely been attained in Poland but Polish literary figures continue to fight for culture and the classics and are puzzled why the release of political and economic liberty has not led to an explosion of interest in Martial, Horace, Rabelais, Voltaire and such like. Surrounded by aggressive pop-culture they once again feel in the midst of a vertical barbarian invasion and called upon to save the nation.

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.

Bernstein on American music, or misunderstanding the high and the low art

Bernstein’s NBC/ABC series of talks on classical music contains some observations on American music: he praises Jazz and American Comedy Musical because he thinks both are truly American, not just a poor copy European music; and, he adds less convincingly that both are a future art-music in embryonic form.

What is striking about these views is how incongruous they are with the man: by the time he gave these talks Leonard Bernstein was already internationally renowned as a leading interpreter of European classical music. In other words, he was a living example that an American can become an authentic practitioner of an European art – and living disproof of the view, so frequently expressed by American nationalist theoreticians, that Americans practicing European art can only be ridiculous – poor caricatures of European artists because the art is somehow not native to them.

The thorough and complete badness of the idea that an art not only can be, but indeed must be native to a people (Fichte?) is established beyond all doubt by the horrible quality of the output of all the nationalist schools of nineteenth century opera, which were all motivated by the same (American-style) chip on the shoulder: “until we have our own opera, we are not the equals of the Italians!” The idea is profoundly philistine — “Why do we consume Italian opera? We are Czechs!” — as if what mattered in Italian opera was Italian. The truth is opposite: Italian opera is great because it is good opera. Opera lovers love it because it is good opera. Good opera travels, it knows no boundaries, Japanese and Turks listen to it, because it is good opera, not because it is Italian. (By contrast, the totality of nineteenth century nationalist opera not only does not travel — it’s not even appreciated in its own milieu!)

Likewise, Bernstein’s pious prayer that out of the American pop music a great art music might one day evolve is silly: high brow art does not grow out of pop – yes, it can borrow the pop scales, or rhythmic structures, or a pop melody sometimes (Chopin did — twice) but these are NOT the reasons why the high brow art is great. A sine-qua-non condition for a great high brow art to arise is the artist’s decision to make a departure, a break away, a secession from pop art.

Upon analysis, it seems that the reason why Bernstein defended Jazz and the American Musical Comedy (backhand: by declaring them as potential future sources of great art) is that they were – American. He thought them somehow authentically native and therefore, as a good patriot, felt that they needed defending. Somehow, in his eyes, to condemn American pop art would be to condemn America. Ergo, in order to defend America, pop art must be defended.

This attitude – a kind of national cultural insecurity – is the source of the more recent theories of pop and high brow art emanating – again – from America, which insist that there is no difference between the two kinds of art except for the concept of gate-keeping (in brief, the theory is this: a gate-keeper – a figure of authority – a Louis XIV say – says “this is high brow, this is good, everything else is bad” and thereby establishes high brow, like paper currency, by fiat). You can clearly see the thinking: if pop is American, then America must be pop, and therefore it cannot be admitted that pop is bad.

This is all nonsense, and dangerous nonsense, too. The truth is that for people like myself – for us, the practitioners of the high brow – there is only one fatherland, and it is neither America, nor the Czech Republic, but — high brow art itself. Whether it speaks in Italian or twangs in Dixie does not matter a whit. To say that it does, in the name of some local tribalism, is not just false, it is dangerous in the same way in which a misdiagnosis of health and disease is dangerous: keep misdiagnosing the patient, and you will surely kill him.

Some reflections on the literary life as glimpsed through the Diaries

1.  Iwo’s life in the 50’s and 60’s is one of constant cultural stimulation.  He’s ceaselessly traveling across Europe to meet all sorts of people, mainly literary — authors, publishers, translators.  To a lesser extent he meets musicians, theater people, dancers.  To a far lesser extent — bureaucrats and politicians.  And — as far as I can tell, no one else. One scientist gets a mention — we don’t know his field and he is, at any rate, “stupid”.  Thus, though there are constant references — by Iwo and others — to writing for “the audience”, “the public” — literati, it is thought, have an important educational role to play: guiding the society at large, shaping public opinion — the truth is far more prosaic:  they write for each other and no one else enters the picture.  Or, we suspect, much cares.

2.  This ghetto-like isolation of the literati explains my youthful frustration with the pomo brigade at the university.  I was interested in literature, but my main subject of study was science, where one is trained to think rigorously, avoid cognitive bias, and write concisely, to the purpose, in a succession of falsifiable statements:  to a scientist, a claim which cannot be tested is a sin.  The style of discourse — perhaps I should say “level” — at the department of literature shocked me with its sheer emptiness.  If literature had any ambition to play a meaningful social role, her practitioners were in a bad need scientific training.  The cure?  Several courses in advanced calculus, symbolic logic, and perhaps something in inorganic chemistry, I thought.

3. It seems that Europe of forty years ago had a much more tightly knit cultural elite, despite the iron curtain which divided it.  People knew each other, visited each other, translated, published, read and commented each other’s works to an extent which today seems… fabulous.  Large role in this was played by emigres from Eastern Europe — very many of them Poles, and most of those — Polish Jews — who became scattered across the continent, but maintained contacts with each other, and thus provided the tendons of continental unity.  How things have changed:  their children have assimilated to their new societies, the old sense of supra-european cultural community seems gone.  Also, no doubt, business has flowed away from the traditional literary venture:  film, rock music, the advent of the commercial best-seller, and perhaps tourism, too, have eaten literature’s lunch and rendered her economically irrelevant.  There is not enough money in the business to finance constant travel and socializing.

4.  One of the concerns the literati of the Diaries have is with their legacy:  the question of what will remain of them.  And the book’s overwhelming impression is that of the hundreds upon hundreds of people mentioned in the Diaries — the footnotes give their abridged biographies, quoting thousands of books they have collectively written — hardly anyone is remembered today, hardly any title rings a bell.  Literature is like all art:  only the best three become immortal, everyone else vanishes without a trace.