Most of us know the game where a simple message is passed among a number of people to test how unrecognizably shredded it is when it reaches the last person.
The game teaches, or reminds us, of the vagaries of individual witness.
It’s curious, though, that what we experience about truth telling at the personal level, we invariably fail to apply to our wider culture.
True, we might mouth clichés such as “history is written by the victors.” We can observe that certain kinds of cultures – i.e. those we dislike – are adept at tangling the truth. Generally, though, “our” culture is perceived as filter that lets particles of fact pass through to solidify into unimpeachable statements of truth.
An example is the almost-creedal certainty currently circulating that we live in an era of rank dumbing down. We are said to be a train wreck of triviality. Ours is an age of superficiality über alles.
Addiction to ephemera, the cult of celebrity, and the politics of catering to every imaginable individual idiocy have reduced us, the truth-tellers say, to the status of culprit-victims. What we willfully indulge makes us powerless against the likes of Donald Trump et al.
The Internet, movies, video games, mass media, the grotesque deformation of the educational system up to and including our finest universities, have created Generation Brain Dead, a populace content to babble on about nothing because it knows nothing and remembers less.
The trouble with this truth is that it isn’t. The truth, I mean. The evidence to contradict it is abundant, and no more difficult to sample than by checking out the magazine racks at your local corner grocery. Or, at least, by checking the magazine rack at my local corner grocer, which regularly stocks the New York Review of Books along with the usual fluffier titles.
To buy the New York Review of Books is to be reminded 20 times a year at point of purchase, and daily for as long as it takes to read the latest issue, that we are living in the richest, deepest, most exciting time of intellectual fervor in the history of human thought. In fact, it doesn’t specifically require the NYRB to grasp the point. It could as easily be made citing Image Journal, or Canada’s own brilliant Border Crossings, or Britain’s Granta. Any of hundreds, if not thousands, of publications could be pointed to as stunning testaments for the tenor of curiosity, inquiry, questioning, thinking, the breath-taking culture making going on so vividly around us.
I point to the NYRB to make my case only because its entire subject matter as, well, a review of books, concerns the thinking life that breeds rich culture. So, its potency comes not just from the quality of its own essays but also from the way each book reviewed stands as an icon of the entire cultural enterprise. Each represents all the dreaming up, researching, and writing every book requires. Each heightens awareness of what a massive and vital industry ideas are in 2017.
The latest NYRB issue I have in hand features, in 56 tabloid-sized pages, essays on topics as various as the foibles of Sigmund Freud, the interior genius of Steven Spielberg, the libertarian blindness of Alan Greenspan, the risk-taking courage of novelist Annie Proulx, the prescience of British novelist Beryl Bainbridge, the indefinability of painter Francis Picabia, the multiplicities of King Lear, the case for having colleges in prisons in an age of mass incarceration, a history of Britain through portraiture, death and survival at sea, and how President Bashar al-Assad’s regular army troops are using guerilla tactics to win in Syria. Consistently across that unimaginable breadth of subject matter, the writing is clear, clean, exquisitely polished, and at times cuttingly witty.
There is, as with the publications mentioned above, a fondness for writing about writing. In the current issue, there’s a truly beautiful review-memoriam for James Tate, a wunderkind poet of the 1960s who went on to become kind of Walt Whitman-like container of multitudes in his work, genially but unflinchingly refusing to be pinned down to one style, fad, fashion or cultural pseudo-truth about what poetry is supposed to be.
His long-time friend, Charles Simic , admiringly quotes Tate’s poems in the review, including “Goodtime Jesus” :
Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn’t afraid of that. It was a beautiful day. How ‘bout some coffee? Don’t mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey. I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.
Tate’s fine last book of poems was published in 2015, the summer of his death. It was the year, so the message being passed among us claims, that our tawdry, trivial culture at long last sank so permanently low that only a snake like Donald Trump could come along and go lower.
Obviously, both those things can’t be true. Something’s been shredded along the way. I’m willing to bet it’s the book of poetry that will prove the enduring truth.
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