What he meant was that the literary references I had spread onto the images like thickly-applied Marmite were not familiar to him, and this made him feel inadequate, as I suppose it would anybody. I had made the mistake of assuming that if someone like me knew something (having started out from "culture degree zero", as it were) then pretty much anybody else would know it, too. I mean, who wouldn't recognise the opening words of Dante's Inferno, even in Italian? Even if they'd never so much as opened it? Well, my well-read and cultivated friend, for one.
Looked at in its worst light, I was simply showing off. It is a weakness, admittedly, to which I am prone. What I thought I was doing, however, was to anchor my images within a broader, shared cultural framework. But, in an increasingly diverse and international world, there is clearly no longer any such thing. Yesterday's authorities and touchstones – Rilke, Dante, and all the rest of the various European first elevens – have become mere ballast, and been deep-sixed along with all that other "dead white male" deadweight.
It's not just "high" culture, either. It ... Just a minute, I'm hearing a voice from the audience...
"What is first eleven, please?"
Ah, sorry, footnote needed! And what about that mysterious "Marmite" referenced in a previous paragraph? A good proportion of the readership of this blog – perhaps 60% – will never have encountered that proverbially-divisive substance. Another footnote needed! Deep-sixed? Same! Hmm... This lack of shared reference points is a problem, because any meaningful culture has to be the local knowledge of a living community of shared experience, and not something you have to look up on Google.
Obviously, a large part of western culture – of all cultures, I imagine – depends on reference to other works within that culture, what is referred to in art-speak as "inter-textuality". Sometimes, it can seem that it consists of little else. Consider this extract from a review in last week's TLS of a new edition of a novel by Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest – of whom and of which you may well not have heard, but which was apparently regarded by Thomas Mann as one of his essential half-dozen European novels (does that make you feel better, or worse?):
The "Explanatory Notes" prove to be an uneven, sometimes indifferent guide to the "thousand filigreed details" that Fontane prided himself on working into the verbal texture of his novels. The confusion by Effi's callow cousin Dagobert of one popular Arnold Böcklin painting with another, one of several subtle adumbrations of the deaths to come, is compounded rather than explained. Effi's reference to an equally famous Giacomo Meyerbeer opera, Le Prophète, which associates Innstetten's sinister mystical bent with the fanatical Anabaptist John of Leiden, is passed over entirely even though it is regularly glossed in other editions and commentaries.Eh? My turn to feel thick... Don't you hate it when someone refers airily to a "famous" something-or-other you've never heard of, and which you know you would probably loathe, anyway? I'm sure I do it all the time on this blog; sorry about that. Now, I haven't read the novel in question myself, naturally – 19th century novels are really not my thing – but I did see Fassbinder's film of Effi Briest back in the 1970s, and nearly died of boredom. I left the cinema thinking, "I need a drink", not, "I must read that novel". Seriously: if getting all those implied references (and a thousand other "filigreed details") is important to "getting" the novel, then forget about it. It's too late – I'm 61! Besides, I really need to find out more about fanatical Shi'ite and Sunni militants far more urgently than researching fanatical 16th century Anabaptists. And, yes, I did have to look John of Leiden up in Google.
TLS, 4 Dec 2015, p.26
Suitably chastened by my friend's puzzlement, I found myself returning – a little ironically, you might justifiably think – to a favourite quotation from Rumi*, which I should get tattooed on myself, somewhere I can easily see it:
Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment.Which is where and why the crows came in. Crows are smart enough but not great readers, and are permanently bewildered at the quantity of edible stuff we casually toss away. Although that's probably not the sort of bewilderment Rumi had in mind.
Meet the Honey-Buzzards
* 13th century Persian Sufi poet and teacher – in this case do do yourself a favour and look him up. Wonderful stuff.