High And Low

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-08-30 12:00:00 No comments

There's a story I've told before about one of the first times I remember buying books with my own money. I had, I think, a dollar-fifty in my pocket -- a staggering amount of dough for me at the time (I was, I think, nine?), and I bought three books from the fifty-cent paperback bin at the bookstore. One was a Star Wars novel and the other two were the first two books in Yukio Mishima's Sea Of Fertility tetraology. To this day I still don't know what drove me to do that, but there was something about them that made me want to read them, and it took me years to work up the skill to do it. But something about both of those things mattered, especially when I learned how to fuse them.

At first I wanted to describe my tastes in this respect as a dichotomy: the "high" stuff, and the "low" stuff. Then as I got older I realized the labels were more about intention than results, that if I read "low" stuff it wasn't a sign I was against "high" stuff or v.v. What mattered was what I could see in them and what I could do with them. Popular stuff gave me the form, and high stuff gave me the content. I saw no reason why I couldn't write stories that were adventurous and fun, and yet at the same time overlaid and undergirded with things that meant something to me.

Diana Trilling once said there is no such thing as a novel without ideas; there are just novels with good ideas and novels with bad ideas. A novel that aims to "merely" entertain, but is informed by good ideas about the world, has a fair chance of transcending its niche, of becoming art that outlasts its moment. It says something about us, and its status of a product of a moment in time becomes less a limitation and more like the notches on a doorjamb that depict a child's growth. 

But a novel that has pretenses of being more than entertainment, but is informed by bad ideas about the world, can do a great deal of damage, not least of all by setting a poor example for other creators. I wonder now if our cultural mechanisms for appreciation have biased us against the former, and unthinkingly favor the latter. Joyce's Ulysses went from being some object of technical study to a model to aspire to, and in following that lead at least one entire generation of high-minded novelists dashed themselves against a wall too high for them to vault over.

It helps to know why something like Don Quixote or The Iliad or Crime And Punishment or Seize The Day are venerated and passed on. It also helps to know what people see in things that are popular right now -- not out of condescension, not out of some chauvinistic need to help them out of their ignorance (even if ignorance is real and swampy), but from basic curiosity about human nature. "Look at a movie that a lot of people love," Roger Ebert wrote, "and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem. The real subjects of Wayne's World are innocence and friendship. That's what you get for your seven dollars." I don't know what we will think of The Hate U Give or Little Fires Everywhere in twenty years, but it's instructive to see why people care about them now. Not because we want to write something just like that, but to see the mechanisms at work of how the moment in time, big or small, becomes an entertainment or an art form.

About half of the work needed to make good on the promise of the humanities is the preservation, transmission, and living interpretation of the works that made us. The other half is the creation of new work that can only be made in the present moment, that draws on the lessons of the past but embodies it in a present-time context.

People who talk about The Matrix as being modern mythology have it right: not because it replaces previous mythologies, but extends on them for our current worldview. Man has never gone entirely without myth, only found cleverer ways to hide his hunger for it. But the hunger lives on, and it can be fed well or badly. We might as well come up with the best myths we can, mythologies that sustain and empower us moving forward instead of just urging our return to something that only exists as memory or history. And -- this being at least as important -- we must always be willing to say when our myths no longer serve us but now oppress us, and we must be willing to trade them in without denying that they are still worthy of respect. An old myth can always come roaring back, and not always for the good; contempt for it will not protect us from its abuse. If you seek monuments to this, look around you.

I always felt the best response to the sense that these new myths didn't work as well as the old ones was not to retreat back into the old ones. It was to create even better things as an answer in itself, to embody our critiques in the work we made. Somewhere along the line I took to heart what Jean-Luc Godard said: to critique a film, make another film. When I didn't see the kinds of books I wanted to read, I wrote them myself, and hoped there was at least one other person who dug them too. So far, there's about six. That's five more than I ever expected. I don't know whether anything I do is going to be of the slightest importance, but I do know it's worth trying to see what happens.

Tags: creativity culture popular culture