Thursday, 10 December 2015

Over My Head

Earlier this year I showed a friend some of my first efforts in photo-collage, when the theme of "angels" was prominent in my mind.  You may recall a couple of these making their way into this blog, for example here, and here.  His reaction was salutary, however.  A highly-intelligent, well-read and cultivated man – a classicist by training, a musician by vocation, and an IT specialist by trade – he replied, "I can see they're interesting, but art that makes me feel a bit thick tends not to get my vote".

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.
TLS, 4 Dec 2015, p.26
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.

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.


milldave said...

One of the reasons I come to this site (apart from your photography)is to be educated, as my upbringing (apart from music) has been along an increasingly narrow science-based path (I'm an engineer of sorts).
So don't worry about some of us not getting the references and having to look stuff up; that's a lot of the fun associated with reading your blog!!
Not the least because I live now in a vastly different cultural zone (North America), but because I value a link to my past as well as the new future you espouse in these pages.
Us duffers treasure your contributions, Mike; keep 'em coming!

Mike C. said...

Thank you, David, for that unsolicited testimonial! (did we agree US Dollars or Sterling?).

Seriously, though, folks... The problem is probably more the veiled allusion ("as divisive as a certain yeast extract") than the overt reference, though the divisions between youth and, ah, maturity are probably just as problematic as those between nations and languages (I find the Urban Dictionary an indispensible resource).



Carsten Schultz said...

Dear Mike,

Again I have only superficial things to add, but the Internet is also responsible for me, as a German, knowing of Marmite through the American Amanda Palmer's song about its Australian counterpart Vegemite,

Regarding Effie Briest, I have read that novel at school, but I do not remember any of it, except that sometimes something is a “weites Feld”.



Mike C. said...

Hi Carsten,

I and my school chums have some vivid memories of our German exchange partners' (from Ingelheim am Rhein) first encounters with Marmite! Some insisted on spreading it on toast like jam, and practically vomited...

Apparently Effi Briest is widely studied as a school text in Germany, but -- sadly, like most things not English or American -- no-one here has even heard of it. I think most of us are blissfully unaware that the internet happens in languages other than English...


amolitor said...

Brilliant observation on modern culture. Has global communication destroyed culture as we knew it? Is it now simply too big, too fragmented, to do its job as a shared basis for communication?

I think I speak for many of us when I say Fuuuuuck!

Mike C. said...

Fuuuck indeed! Two interesting footnotes:

The guy who writes XKCD, Randall Munroe, has published a book "Thing Explainer", which apparently uses only the 1000 most-used English words to explain some quite complex things.

A recent broadcast on BBC Radio 4, in attempting to explain ISL/ISIS, used the example of John of Leiden and the Anabapists of Munster!! ("Imagine my surprise, etc."). It seems I am the link between all cultures, a humbling responsibility.