An essay by Robert Lewis

The Pursuit of Culture: Pitfalls and Epiphanies
an essay by Robert Lewis

To the extent that we are all born into a particular climate that calls for particular adaptations, that we speak a mother tongue, respect and obey specific laws, customs and traditions, we are all “cultured.” Despite this definition, when we express the desire to become cultured, or speak admirably of someone who already is, we are referring to something quite above and beyond what is naturally acquired due to the circumstances of our birth and upbringing.

The dictionary defines a cultured person as one who takes an interest in and is acquainted with what is generally regarded as excellence in arts, letters, manners and scholarly pursuits. Since all of us early in life are quite naturally uncultured, we undertake the pursuit of culture as an act of faith, seeing in cultured persons the promise held for ourselves, as a believer in a God unseen and unheard might catch intimations of God in the exemplary life of a nun or priest. At the onset, we, the novitiates, will be severely tested in our faith because, best teachers and great works notwithstanding, no one can understand for us what we wish to understand ourselves. To become meaningfully engaged with what is excellent in a culture requires we enter into a vital relationship with a work of culture, (an arduous one-work-at-a-time task), so that what is essential and outstanding in the work can be revealed and integrated into our primary structures of consciousness.

Most of us have a pretty good idea what one must ‘first’ do to become cultured: go to art galleries, read the world’s great literature and listen to the world’s great music. And in proportion to our ability and persistence, the more effort we put in, the more cultured we become, a development that runs parallel to one’s life over a lifetime.

But we also know that it is human nature, the responses all cultures have in common, to circumvent difficult undertakings, or avoid the effort altogether. All of us, at some point in our lives, will have affected knowledge of an esteemed work of culture without having put in the necessary effort to lay authentic claim to it. In fact, we place such extraordinary importance in being regarded as cultured that, in order to effect the appearance, we routinely avail ourselves all sorts of ruses and short cuts (from Coles Notes, to watching a movie of a book we’re too lazy to read) at the risk of being discovered by our betters, whom we then conveniently confuse with ourselves.

For the record, every age has had its share of triflers and dilettantes, who in their transparency have created, as a reaction, the bloated category of skeptics mistrustful of culture, of those who have given culture a bad name. Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation, observes that a snob is someone who when reading Dostoyevsky is moved not by what he reads but by himself reading Dostoyevsky, referring to people for whom culture is like a currency whose accumulation is synonymous with power and status. And we all know of people (excluding ourselves, of course) who would rather be seen in prestigious art galleries than see what is prestigious in the art, or be seen attending the opera than attend to what is art in the opera. In other words, our great books and collections of classical music may reflect our pretensions and/or best intentions, or we may in fact be sufficiently serious to want to incorporate them into our vital labors.

The biological-microorganism sense of a culture is informative. We speak of growing a bacteria culture, or the product or growth resulting from such cultivation. If we begin to think of a work of culture as a seed we plant by taking an interest in it, and its germination and subsequent growth dependent on the labor and care we give it over a period of time, the conditions will be propitious for the ideas in the book we are reading, for example, to establish a permanent space for themselves in our thought structures. As we react to the book, which in turn informs our life’s choices, we preserve and renew its meaning and authority.

Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, from the play of the same title, becomes meaningful as a category when the destructive principle that operates in some people emerges consequent to our having reacted to Hedda in the conduct of her daily life. It is not enough to know what Hedda Gabler did in Act Two and whose lives she ruined in Act Four. She must rival and compete with the people we know who inform our choices and world-view. We will have already imagined being attracted to her energy, her enthusiasm, the quickness of her mind, her wit and charm, her superb company and abundant femininity, only to learn that the sum of these gifts was no match against her demons. We finally, reluctantly abandon Hedda, no longer able to bear witness to fits of passion that turn destructive when life doesn’t conform to her expectations, for whom malice and vindictiveness are their own rewards, and no act too base against life’s tedium. Hedda’s mediocrity weighs heavily on us, like a regret over something great left undone.

Through Ibsen, an essence, or category of understanding emerges so that we are able to recognize the Hedda Gablers of this world whenever we confront them. To the extent that we are familiar with at least one work in such a fashion, we can modestly lay claim to being cultured.

In endeavoring to understand the nature of evil, the eminent critic George Steiner found it incomprehensible that Hitler henchman, Göring, founder of the Gestapo, by all accounts a cultured man, could listen to and be moved to tears by the symphonies of Beethoven before attending to death-camp duties; facts which splinter the mind and render mute a wonderful mind such as Steiner’s. But was Göring ‘truly’ cultured if, however moved by the creative powers of the music, he wasn’t sufficiently moved to act on the humanity the music apparently unlocked? The answer has to be, no. Göring was not cultured; he was a barbarian, a butcher, and we can gather this from the historical record.

It is ‘only’ through the deeds we perform and the duties we assume that sufficient measure can be brought to bear on the question of whether or not we have become better human beings as a consequence of our engagement with what is excellent in arts and letters. Best said by French philosopher Merleau-Ponty: “A man is judged by neither intention nor fact, but by his success in making values become facts.”


©2000 Robert Lewis

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