Lately I’ve been working on a chapter on what I’d call “Act 1” in Nz’s life, in which he attempted to bring about a “cultural revolution” of sorts. To motivate the question, I felt I had to begin by examining culture more intuitively, before seeing the heavy burden Nz was to place upon it. Here is what I wrote:
“Many of us see culture as a high level of entertainment. Low level entertainment includes cheap novels, television, pop music, stock car racing, and pizza. High level entertainment, or so-called culture, includes novels that are hard to read, foreign films, string quartets, modern dance, and haute cuisine. Whether one goes for low entertainment or high entertainment is supposed to be correlated roughly with the level of one’s education. There is no law saying this must be the case, and it often is not, but anyone can appreciate how surprising, charming, or even funny it is to imagine a busboy who loves Verdi, or a philosopher who loves demolition derbies. As unprincipled and silly as it may be, we do distinguish lowbrow from highbrow, and we usually associate “culture” with the highest brows of all.
“Now this is totally wrong, and not because demolition derbies are inherently just as valuable as opera. It is wrong because culture has nothing to do with entertainment. Culture is the means by which a society connects itself with the problems of being human. We already know what some of those problems are – death, loneliness, and insignificance. These are problems that everyone has, of course, regardless of income or educational status. The only choice we have is whether we want to try to face them or ignore them. If we choose to confront them, explore them, and possibly reconcile ourselves to them, then we make culture. If we choose to change the subject, then we make entertainment. A cheap novel, a string quartet, a television show, and a modern dance may all be culture, or they may not. It depends on what they are aiming at. Are they trying to entertain us, or are they trying to open us up to the a richer inner world of struggle and doubt? Do they take aim at our surface, or at our core?
“How does a work take aim at our core? To employ a formula: it has to grab the impersonal part of us in a very personal way. The impersonal part of us is the part we have just in virtue of being human, confronting the sorts of things any human will have to confront: love, war, fear, triumph, illness, death, jealousy, trust, risk, community, loneliness, children, beauty, boredom, doubt, disappointment, revelation, insight, sex, hope, power, helplessness, obligation, delight, frustration … and so on. It is not the part of us that occupies a starring role in most of our attention in daily activities, like visiting the dentist, maintaining a minimum balance in a checking account, and finding the car keys. It is not the part of us that is addressed in works of psychology, if those works target specific kinds of people or syndromes or conditions which need one sort or another of clinical attention. It is the part of us we can see in others, no matter when or where they live, as we all go through the business of living and dying. It is impersonal in the sense that it is no more mine than yours, no more specific to one person than another.
“But the successful work of culture targets this impersonal part of us in a personal way. Through drama, images, music, and metaphors we are coaxed into shedding the outer facts of our lives, losing ourselves in the works, and confronting elements of human reality without concerning ourselves with the specific ways they crop up in our own lives. When we experience Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy, for instance, we are not moved to worry so much about his own situation (dead father, murderous uncle), nor about our own specific situation (fill in the blank), but about the general situation we all share: would it be better not to live than to live at the mercy of misfortune? If the work really works, this is not a dry academic question. It is a question that feels urgent to us, as a personal question does, but it addresses us no more than it does any other human being.”