Because there's more to life than mastery...
I suppose it’s strange, given the state of culture and politics in the United States, to be so wistful about middlebrow sensibilities when so many of our problems are caused by either a lack of available expertise or a collective refusal to empower experts where they are needed.
But The Middlebrow doesn’t stand apart from expertise. It celebrates it. It’s about reading A Brief History of Time and watching Errol Morris’ documentary about Stephen Hawking, and maybe reading the companion book to the documentary, all while accepting that as a non-specialist, you’ll be lucky to retain just the key concepts and likely unable to discern what parts of the scientific consensus have changed since the first edition of Hawking’s book in 1988.
The Middlebrow can’t read music or pick at a guitar, but appreciates Django Rheinhardt. The Middlebrow can’t sing, but enjoys opera. The Middlebrow appreciates a sort of dabbling sensibility when it turns up in other people’s art — like how probability and chaos mathematics drive Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, the Jungian motifs that gird the musical Into the Woods or lines like “Camus can do, but Sartre was smartre” in The Simpsons.
In 2013 a documentary called Salinger came out and a good friend, a literary person and a performance artist, called me to say that what amazed her most about it were not the sordid details of J.D. Salinger’s love and social lives but that there was a time in America, decades before either of us were born, when a Salinger short story dropping in The New Yorker was cause for people to rush to their telephones to call their friends. Imagine, she marveled, a country where appreciation of short fiction equaled or rivaled what in 2013 we reserved for prestige television.
Is The Middlebrow nostalgic? A bit. I’ve been nostalgic for my former career as a journalist ever since I left the profession in 2010. You kind of understand, when you make a move like that, that you’re giving up the ability to call any expert at a whim and to have a conversation, and to write about sugar prices in Brazil one week and the commercialization of Neil Gaiman the next. So, that is some personal nostalgia. Journalism is a profession (and this is good and bad) where a writer who is curious, fair and careful can explore many topics, including complex ones that require years of study to practice, but not necessarily to understand and explain.
Another aspect of the nostalgia is my childhood memories of my parents buying the Encyclopædia Britannica, with the three volume dictionary and the annual update books, based on changing world events. I loved spending hours with those big, stiff, brown, hardback… books. I probably could have written that differently. There are doubtless deficiencies with the enclypoedia version of history, or Will & Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization or even Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy but the ethos behind them all is sound — knowledge of art, culture and ideas belongs to everybody no matter what economic special purpose life has found for us. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness might not be for everybody. The Nausea or No Exit really are, though.
I think we’ve abandoned a lot of ideas that continue to have utility. I hear Sigmund Freud and to a lesser extent Carl Jung have been discredited by science. But not by the humanities — the themes and memes they’ve uncovered persist in art, even when their practitioners don’t intend them. I also see the Humanities in general losing relevance in a world where economic rewards for unfocused abstract thinking have waned and where policymakers worry often about producing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics professionals but never about producing informed creators and consumers of the liberal arts. The Middlebrow also believes that a well-rounded person should be able to carry an intellectual conversation without resorting to Googling facts on a smartphone.
The Middlebrow bridges high and low culture. It’s where professional wrestling and The Cannonball Run can share conversational space with John Cheever and Chinua Achebe. There’s even a post in these archives where I wonder if the pro wrestler Ole Anderson named himself after the protaganist of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story The Killers (the Middlebrow still doesn’t know).
What to expect here? Short essays about what I’m reading or seeing, and often how they relate to politics, society and the economy. The conceit is that the non-scholarly appreciation of literature, art, theatre (the Middlebrow always spells it “theatre”) movies and music can enhance the understanding of life, even if expertise is never achieved.
You’ve all seen Master of None, right?