• August 30, 2015

Narcissus Regards a Book

Narcissus Regards a Book 1

Polly Becker for The Chronicle Review

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Polly Becker for The Chronicle Review

Who is the common reader now? I do not think there is any way to evade a simple answer to this question. Common readers—which is to say the great majority of people who continue to read—read for one purpose and one purpose only. They read for pleasure. They read to be entertained. They read to be diverted, assuaged, comforted, and tickled. The evidence for this phenomenon is not far to seek. Check out the best-seller lists, even in the exalted New York Times. See what Oprah's reading. Glance at the Amazon top 100. Look around on the airplane. The common reader—by which I don't mean the figure evoked by Dr. Johnson and Virginia Woolf, but the person toting a book on the train or loading one into his iPad or Kindle—the contemporary common reader reads for pleasure, and easy pleasure at that. Reading, where it exists at all, has largely become an unprofitable wing of the diversion industry.

Life in America now is usually one of two things. Often it is work. People work hard indeed—often it takes two incomes to support a family, and few are the full-time professional jobs that require only 40 hours a week. And when life is not work, it is play. That's not hard to understand. People are tired, stressed, drained: They want to kick back a little. That something done in the rare off hours should be strenuous seems rather unfair. Robert Frost talked about making his vocation and his avocation one, and about his work being play for mortal stakes. For that sort of thing, assuming it was ever possible, there is no longer the time.

But it's not only the division of experience between hard labor and empty leisure that now makes reading for something like mortal stakes a very remote possibility. Not much more than 20 years ago, students paraded through the campuses and through the quads, chanting variations on a theme. Hey, hey, ho, ho—they jingled—Western culture's got to go. The marches and the chants and the general skepticism about something called the canon seemed to some an affront to all civilized values.

But maybe not. Maybe this was a moment of real inquiry on the kids' part. What was this thing called Western culture? Who created it? Who sanctioned it? Most important: What was so valuable about it? Why did it matter to study a poem by Blake, or ponder a Picasso, or comprehend the poetry latent in the religions of the world?

I'm not sure that teachers and scholars ever offered a good answer. The conservatives, protected by tenure, immersed in the minutiae of their fields, slammed the windows closed when the parade passed by. They went on with what they were doing. Those who concurred with the students bought mikes and drums and joined the march. They were much in demand in the news media—figures of great interest. The Washington Post was calling; the Times was on the other line. Was it true? Were the professors actually repudiating the works that they had purportedly been retained to preserve?

It was true—and there was more, the rebels yelled. They thought they would have the microphones in their hand all day and all of the night. They imagined that teaching Milton with an earring in one ear would never cease to fascinate the world.

But it did. The media—most inconstant of lovers—came and the media went, and the academy was left with its cultural authority in tatters. How could it be otherwise? The news outlets sell one thing above all else, and that is not so much the news as it is newness. What one buys when one buys a daily paper, what one purchases when one purchases a magazine, is the hypothesis that what is going on right now is amazing, unprecedented, stunning. Or at least worthy of intense concentration. What has happened in the past is of correspondingly less interest. In fact, it may be of barely any interest at all. Those who represented the claims of the past should never have imagined that the apostles of newness would give them a fair hearing, or a fair rendering, either.

Now the kids who were kids when the Western canon went on trial and received summary justice are working the levers of culture. They are the editors and the reviewers and the arts writers and the ones who interview the novelists and the poets (to the degree that anyone interviews the poets). Though the arts interest them, though they read this and they read that—there is one thing that makes them very nervous indeed about what they do. They are not comfortable with judgments of quality. They are not at ease with "the whole evaluation thing."

They may sense that Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience are in some manner more valuable, more worth pondering, more worth preserving than The Simpsons. They may sense as much. But they do not have the terminology to explain why. They never heard the arguments. The professors who should have been providing the arguments when the No More Western Culture marches were going on never made a significant peep. They never quoted Matthew Arnold on the best that's been thought and said—that would have been embarrassing. They never quoted Emerson on the right use of reading—that might have been silly. (It's to inspire.) They never told their students how Wordsworth had saved Mill's life by restoring to him his ability to feel. They never showed why difficult pleasures might be superior to easy ones. They never even cited Wilde on the value of pure and simple literary pleasure.

The academy failed and continues to fail to answer the question of value, or even to echo the best of the existing answers. But entertainment culture suffers no such difficulty. Its rationale is simple, clear, potent: The products of the culture industry are good because they make you feel good. They produce immediate and readily perceptible pleasure. Beat that, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Touch it if you can, Emily Dickinson.

So the arbiters of culture—our former students—went the logical way. They said: If it makes you feel good, it must be good. If Stephen King and John Grisham bring pleasure, why then, let us applaud them. Let's give them awards. Let's break down the walls of the old clubs and colleges and give them entry forthwith. The only really important question to pose about a novel by Stephen King, we now know, is whether it offers a vintage draught of the Stephen King experience. Does it deliver the spine-shaking chills of great King efforts past? Is the mayhem cranked to the desirable degree? Do homebody sadist and ordinary masochist get what they want and need from the product?

What's not asked in the review and the interview and the profile is whether a King book is worth writing or worth reading. It seems that no one anymore has the wherewithal to say that reading a King novel is a major waste of time. No chance. If people want to read it, if they get pleasure from it, then it must be good. What other standard is there?

Media no longer seek to shape taste. They do not try to educate the public. And this is so in part because no one seems to know what literary and cultural education would consist of. What does make a book great, anyway? And the media have another reason for not trying to shape taste: It pisses off the readers. They feel insulted, condescended to; they feel dumb. And no one will pay you for making him feel dumb. Public entertainment generally works in just the opposite way—by making the consumer feel like a genius. Even the most august publications and broadcasts no longer attempt to shape taste. They merely seek to reflect it. They hold the cultural mirror up to the reader—what the reader likes, the writer and the editor like. They hold the mirror up and the reader and—what else can he do?—the reader falls in love. The common reader today is someone who has fallen in love, with himself.

Narcissus looks into the book review and finds it good. Narcissus peers into Amazon's top 100 and, lo, he feels the love. Nothing insults him; nothing pulls him away from that gorgeous smooth watery image below. The editor sells it to him cheap; the professor who might—coming on like the Miltonic voice does to Eve gazing lovingly on herself in the pool: "What thou seest / What there thou seest ... is thyself," it says—the professor has other things to do.

The intervening voice in Milton (and in Ovid, Milton's original in this) is a source of influence. Is it possible that in the world now there are people who might suffer not from an anxiety that they might be influenced but rather from an anxiety that they might never be? Perhaps not everyone loves himself with complete conviction and full abandon. Maybe there remain those who look into the shimmering flattering glass of current culture and do not quite like what they see. Maybe life isn't working for them as well as it is supposed to be for all in this immeasurably rich and unprecedentedly free country.

Reading in pursuit of influence—that, I think, is the desired thing. It takes a strange mixture of humility and confidence to do as much. Suppose one reads anxious about not being influenced. To do so is to admit that one is imperfect, searching, unfinished. It's difficult to do when one is young, at least at present: Some of the oldest individuals I meet lately are under the age of 21. It is difficult to do when one is in middle age, for that is the time of commitments. One has a husband or a wife, a family and job—or, who knows, a career. Having second thoughts then looks like a form of weakness: It makes everyone around you insecure. One must stand steady, and sometimes one must pretend. And in old age—early or late—how can one still be a work in progress? That's the time, surely, to have assumed one's permanent form. That's the time to have balanced accounts, gained traction, become the proper statue to commemorate one's proper life.

Of his attempts at works of art one writer observed: Finished? They are never finished. At a certain point someone comes and takes them away. (At a certain point, something comes and takes us away, whence we do not know.) We, too, are never truly finished. What Narcissus wanted was completion, wholeness; he wanted to be that image in the water and have done with it. There would be no more time, no more change, no more revision. To be willing to be influenced, even up to the last, is tantamount to declaring that we'll never be perfect, never see as gods see—even that we don't know who and what we are, or why (if for any reason) we are here, or where we'll go.

The desire to be influenced is always bound up with some measure of self-dislike, or at least with a dose of discontent. While the culture tells us to love ourselves as we are—or as we will be after we've acquired the proper products and services—the true common reader does not find himself adequate at all. He looks in the mirror of his own consciousness, and he is anything but pleased. That is not what he had in mind at all. That is not what she was dreaming of.

But where is this common reader—this impossible, possible man or woman who is both confident and humble, both ready to change and skeptical of all easy remedies?

In our classrooms, in our offices, before the pages of our prose and poems, watching and wondering and hoping to be brought, by our best ministrations and our love, into being.

Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.


1. pete_l_clark - January 31, 2011 at 02:25 am

The negativity and pessimism expressed in this essay may or may not be grounded in reality, but this reader did not find it to be earned. It feels very facile to me to take potshots at modern culture in this way.

For instance, it is not clear to me that William Blake is necessarily on a higher intellectual plane than The Simpsons. (Well, it would depend upon which poems of the former and which seasons of the latter we are talking about.) They are very different art forms, but I will say this: the amount of knowledge implicitly embraced by The Simpsons via its incredibly densely allusive content is much greater than that of Blake's poetry. In fact, would anyone like to wager whether there is some joke or line in The Simpsons that needs a familiarity with Blake's _Songs_ in order to be properly understood? I will bet yes.

Moreover, reading Stephen King is not clearly a waste of time, and once again, not all of his work is at the same level. In the last decade he was written some very fine short stories, for instance.

But anyway, lamenting the low-cultural aspects of the populace's current reading lists seems wrong-headed to me. A lot of children really like the Harry Potter novels (as do I) and a lot of teenage girls really like the Twilight novels (I would rather die), but to me the gratifying point is that they are spending some of their time reading novels instead of (only) flipping through People magazines or watching TV. Reading contemporary novels should be the stalwart ally of reading older, more "literary" novels, not the enemy. I myself started with Stephen King novels as a young reader, and I still have a soft spot for the horror / dark fantasy / moody supernatural urban literature genre. It has not stopped me from reading Dante, Milton, Hardy, Morrison and so forth. In fact I recently "discovered" amazon.com and have been placing substantial orders at a rate of once every few weeks. Here is my last order:

Metamorphoses (by Ovid)
Stranger than Fiction (by Chuck Palahniuk)
Hodge Theory and Complex Algebraic Geometry 2 (by Claire Voisin)
Jack of Fables Volume 2 (by Bill Willingham et al.)
Supernatural: The Complete Season 2

Of these, the first presumably needs no comment, the second is a book of nonfiction by the author of _Fight Club_, the third is a (very) advanced math book, the fourth is a comic book, and the last is a TV show which is not as good as The Simpsons but still quite entertaining, especially if you are up on your Christian mythology. If you haven't yet mastered Hodge Theory, perhaps you shouldn't be looking down your nose at my reading list?

2. raghuvansh1 - January 31, 2011 at 10:20 am

How can you defined the common reader? Every reader is unique so what purpose he read it depend on his choice. I agree some read for pleasure but all common reader are not read for pleasure. Some read for acquire knowledge some may read for entertainment some may read to impress friend.So all common reader for pleasure this conclusion is not correct.

3. fdarnall - January 31, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I think the notion that the professors of an earlier generation could have formed serious readers had they taken their responsibility seriously, well, quaint. The larger culture movement has been toward an ever more frenzied embrace of entertainment.... When I was young (in the 60s and early 70s), the same movie played at the local theater, on a single screen, for months at a time. Now all twelve films change in a matter of weeks, with the exception of the occasional blockbuster. Ordinary middle class people did not own boats, or even jet skis, or take vacations in hotels to which the entire family flew. the kids were thrown into the back of the station wagon, driven to the national parks, or a single day at Disneyland in a REALLY SPECIAL year, where we camped or stayed in a very middling motel...
POINT: plenty of people do adhere to the notion that something is more important than entertainment - religious people certainly do, but the idea that stalwart professors exhorting young minds to seek the beautiful could have resisted our culture's embrace of the entertainment God in the last 50 years is laughable.

4. bbremen - January 31, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I don't often agree with Edmundson, but he's absolutely right here. His sentiments are those of Vladimir Nabokov in "Good Readers and Good Writers," a text I teach to nearly all my students and one that's particularly important for future high school English teachers.

5. nedlitam - January 31, 2011 at 09:52 pm

1. Mr. Clark obviously spends a lot of time looking into a pool, and he is mightily pleased to do so. He gets "The Simpsons"; he just doesn't get the joke.
2. Our culture balances its obvious "Just Do It" flattery with more frequent messages on our inadequacies: discontented readers are in evidence in the sales of self-help books.
3. I hope Professor Edmundson is right, that the mixture of humility and confidence perpetuates itself.

6. jpworth - February 01, 2011 at 02:01 am

The generational divide appears to be alive and well in the responses you've received so far, Professor Edmundson. Thirty years ago I heard a lecture on how literature effects readers' religious views. The professor said that the topic wasn't of great relevance because most people don't read. The people who receive the Chronicle may, but I wouldn't consider them to be "common readers." Apparently, at least to me, they're missing your bigger point. But, hey, what do I know, I really am middle aged.

7. karlinamichelle - February 01, 2011 at 07:05 am

This article comes off as a frustrated rant against popular culture. The question of qualitative standards for contemporary literature is very worthy of discussion, but here it is only presented as a negative aspect of the commodified literature market today. It may be true that the great writing of the past was higher 'quality' than what is popular now, and the "common reader" may indeed be in pursuit of easy reading. However, to frame this issue in an ivory tower pooh-poohing of any person's consumption of culture seems to be a ministration lacking love. Better luck next time, prof! :) Peace!

8. burton4242 - February 01, 2011 at 08:42 am

"Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man" - Thoreau

The Simpsons are great fun but they don't complete me.

Some of us look to literature and art for spiritual fulfillment, as part of our quest to know more fully who we are. There is nothing wrong with the desire to be an apologist for such an endeavor and to lobby for the preservation of the traditions and institutions that sustain it.

To the author of the article, kudos. His words inspire. They energize. They lift up the spirit. And this is the highest duty of words, after all.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

9. burton4242 - February 01, 2011 at 09:09 am

To Pete: I like what you have to say and I think it is an important statement. However, the notion that there is a lot of cultural allusion embedded in The Simpsons is not a good enough reason for allowing that which it is alluding to to be displaced. In fact, it is an argument which makes the opposite case. Where would such satire be if that if which is being satirized is lost?

With regard to Stephen King, I am no expert but David Foster Wallace at least did seem to find some little-noticed literary merit. So we can do well to remember that such merit and value are not exclusively given to "serious" works.

Fine. There is nothing implicitly wrong with pop culture. It has its place. It does have redeeming value. However, this does not mean it has the same value, and it does not mean it should replace or invalidate the value of the classic canon. Pop culture, in short, is part of our heritage; it adds to the canon, at best. It does not replace it. It is worth the effort to remain mindful of this. Thank you, Mr. Edmundson, for taking up the thankless task.

10. kln999 - February 01, 2011 at 10:24 am

A fine essay. I fear that one must be a certain age to read it and think "'Tis not too late to seek a newer world." Maybe I HAVE been made weak by time and fate, but it's nice to be reminded of my original will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

11. elisa3355 - February 01, 2011 at 10:36 am

This article is HILARIOUS!! Thank you ever so much! Mr. Edmundson, it is ever wonderful to see one expose himself so. So, glad you aren't a common reader sir.
Too funny!

12. aldebaran - February 01, 2011 at 10:44 am

Pete Clark's rebuttal is one of the more amusing things I've read recently. Anyone who thinks that *The Simpsons* dwarfs in sophistication Blake's extraordinarily learned and allusive body of work, which presupposes a knowledge of Swedenborg, Milton, Boehme, and a thorough grasp of the Bible, needs to put aside his Hodge Theory for a moment and actually read some Blake!

As for Pete's adducing his Hodge Theory study as evidence of his mighty intellect, I'd say that, instead, he merely demonstrates Edmundsun's point: That most of our lives today consist of hard work and mindless recovery from work, which it is the function of the likes of Stephen King and *The Simpsons* to provide.

Apologists for pop culture and the status quo may now carry on with their defensive reactions to Edmundsun's quite sensible essay.

13. theotormon - February 01, 2011 at 11:00 am

Lets at least compare apples to apples here. The correct comparative to The Simpsons is not Blake's poetry. It is Chaucer's Canterbery Tales. Both are incisive satire about human foibles and contemporary institutions. Both were enormously popular in their time (though if the Simpsons becomes part of the canon, it will be the earlier seasons).
If you are looking for a modern Blake in television or film, you might do better to look to at filmmakers like Werner Herzog or Lars von Trier, who similarly seek extreme visionary experiences. If you are willing to expand your search to contemporary poetry, may I suggest the intellectually formidable Anne Carson, whose readership dwarfs what Blake or Dickinson ever had in their times.

14. bevaconme - February 01, 2011 at 11:01 am

a sobering essay, and i am more on his side than not, but i suggest that prof. edmundson look also at the nyt bestseller list of, say, 1936, ask himself whether 'twas thus ever so, and stop blaming the 1960s (stretched here, for his purposes, into the '80s) for everything.

15. adeuxian1 - February 01, 2011 at 11:04 am


Whether 'apostles" or sellers in the temple, the newness sold by media is not a new phenomena as this seminal article written in 1977 attests.

16. kln999 - February 01, 2011 at 11:43 am

What has confused me for the entire history of The Simpsons is WHY intellectuals are always so eager to defend it. It is a hit show that has made a massive pile of money. It isn't suffering. It is loved by more than it is loathed. Why are educated adults with expensive degrees and the liberty to put a noble shoulder to ANY cause in the whole field of human expression so eager to defend a cartoon? Why?

17. asongbird - February 01, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Excellent article, timely, needed, well-argued.
I posted a link to it in some "popular" venues...since here, we're singing to the choir somewhat.

18. apothegms - February 01, 2011 at 12:46 pm

I am worried that my contributing to this discussion will only add to the sum total of dreariness in the world. Edmundson's article is, as Pete Clark says in the very first comment, facile, and its negativity, while possibly justified, is unearned. Anyone who has read letters written home by boys in uniform during the Civil War is entitled to weep for the state of our literacy today, but this article's rounding up of the usual suspects is lame. I agree with elisa3355 that, aside from letting us know that high culture still has a home in Mark Edmundson, it does not illuminate its ostensible subject. I must also note that Edmundson has devoted a good deal of academic research to slasher movies, so I'm not sure how he considers himself to be immune from the virus that allegedly plagues the rest of us; but he really takes a chance condemning Stephen King in light of how he has spent some of his remunerated hours in academe. He is also a defender of Freudianism, which is a reminder that what is considered to be High and Deep in culture may also be a fiction that is as near to being totally wrong, not to say pernicious, as any body of thought can be. Edmundson manages to indict all of us of narcissism without mentioning his Master, but I suspect he is just withholding credit. In any event, such a diagnosis hardly amounts to anything more useful than "Oh, this self-centered younger generation!"

Then Mr. Clark's innocent remark that a poem by Blake (say, "Little lamb, who made thee") may not necessarily demand as much of the culture consumer as an episode of "The Simpsons" (say, the one that required the viewer to draw upon his knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan in conjunction with remembering the plot of the movie "Cape Fear"). This has drawn down upon him the wrath of still other defenders of the canon, as if the world were not large enough to contain both Romantic poetry and contemporary satire in a pop medium. Yes, most television is junk, as was most of the poetry written during the Romantic era. If we have to have this discussion at all, let's try to figure out if we can say anything that will actually move it forward.

19. aldebaran - February 01, 2011 at 03:51 pm

apothegms, laughably pretending to take the high road, writes:

"[L]et's try to figure out if we can say anything that will actually move [the discussion] forward."

Yes, by all means, let's have more comments along the lines of "Edmundson's article is, as Pete Clark says in the very first comment, facile, and its negativity, while possibly justified, is unearned". Yep, that sort of comment, along with apothegms' various *ad hominem* remarks about Edmundsun, will surely move the conversation forward, all right.

I would add that poor, maligned Pete Clark isn't receiving criticism for a merely innocent contrast between Blake and *The Simpsons*, as is falsely implied. He is receiving criticism for his fatuous observation that "the amount of knowledge implicitly embraced by The Simpsons via its incredibly densely allusive content is much greater than that of Blake's poetry."

Meanwhile, asongbird cheeps,

"since here, we're singing to the choir somewhat."

Have you read the comments here? *chuckles* They actually fit the standard pattern for *Chronicle* comments: An author posts a controversial opinion, and most of the replies in the comments section are angry, indignant, or otherwise negatively phrased attempts at rebuttal. It's a pattern that's almost as reliable as sunrise and sunset.

20. echo_ - February 01, 2011 at 04:22 pm

Narcissus is pandered to, delusional and disaffected.

21. bevaconme - February 01, 2011 at 04:50 pm

right. kids today, with their clothes and their music...

22. gwern - February 01, 2011 at 10:13 pm

pete_l_clark wrote:

> In fact, would anyone like to wager whether there is some joke or line in The Simpsons that needs a familiarity with Blake's _Songs_ in order to be properly understood? I will bet yes.

I'd take that bet at even 3:1 against.

There are fairly thorough synopses of _The Simpsons_ available at The Simpsons Archive (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Simpsons_Archive), which identify many allusions in the show (eg. the 'Movie (and other) references' section in http://www.snpp.com/episodes/5F20 ).

But there is not a single mention of William Blake on the entire site (http://www.google.com/search?q=Blake+site%3Asnpp.com).

Nor does the general Internet know any connection: http://www.google.com/search?q=%22William+Blake%22+%22Songs+of+Innocence+and+Experience%22+%22The+Simpsons%22

Not conclusive proof, but the odds don't look good for your wild claim...

23. castelauro - February 01, 2011 at 11:28 pm

"The academy failed and continues to fail to answer the question of value...But entertainment culture suffers no such difficulty."
A theme of our times and worthy topic for further discussion.
Thank you Mr. Edmundson.

24. apothegms - February 02, 2011 at 12:53 am

Just a quick addendum for Aldebaran, who spanks me for my ad hominem approach to Edmundson, and then laments that, as usual at the Chron Ed, "An author posts a controversial opinion, and most of the replies in the comments section are angry, indignant, or otherwise negatively phrased attempts at rebuttal." I may be unfair to Edmundson, and Edmundson may be right about everything; but on planet Earth at least, there is certainly nothing AT ALL "controversial" about his opinion. That's really what I'm complaining about. If Aldebaran hasn't seen this about a hundred times already, he needs to get out more.

25. neoconned - February 02, 2011 at 02:56 am

.... yes, yes, and how many Roman plebes read Ovid? rather less than went to the circus... (snore)...

26. aldebaran - February 02, 2011 at 08:47 am


By "controversial", I meant, "intended to stir controversy", by stating a strong opinion, and then waiting for the inevitable fall-out. It was more a general observation, in any case. I would merely add that, if Edmundsun's comment were not controversial in the sense that I intend, then then the comments box here would not be filled with negative reactions. Castelauro, at #23, identifies the issue raised in the article rather well. I've seen the theme before, of course, but not at least one hundred times, so I will consider the suggestion to "get out more"

I would in turn suggest that if the defense of pop culture over high culture (for lack of better terms) is not the majority opinion among academics, then it is fast approaching it. Just visit your local bookstore's "cultural studies" section, if you doubt me. I don't even necessarily object to that, but merely to moronic statements such as "*The Simpsons* is more densely and richly allusive than the poetry of Blake".

27. aldebaran - February 02, 2011 at 08:49 am


" yes, yes, and how many Roman plebes read Ovid? rather less than went to the circus... (snore)..."

Your comparison seems to miss Edmundsun's point rather spectacularly. The tastes of the plebes did not dominate and threaten to overwhelm the high culture of Rome, the way the tastes of their modern equivalents do, today.

28. kln999 - February 02, 2011 at 10:31 am

A word of warning. Maybe some commentors here who are around my age (45) are still hanging in there with the "it's so cool and subversive and futuristic to blur the line between high and low" ... i.e., to defend The Simpsons as high art in a post-high art world. But the day will come when the objects of your enthusiam will suddenly go limp in your hand. Watching your "significant" television shows and listening to your "significant" bands will suddenly feel like watching "Barney" and listening to The Wiggles.

I'M NOT JUDGING HERE. I'm warning you about a concrete experience. When people start calling you "sir" or "mam" you'll feel like an idiot for investing so much energy in products that are not made for you. You'll be surprised and a little freaked out to realize to what extent the post-modern blurring of lines was part of a marketing scheme to play into your prolonged collegiate gullibility, into your dream of perpetual youth.

And this is NOT to say that anyone should rush to be a sad bag of bones like me. Rather: rock out and laugh at the Simpsons, but stop wasting all of this effort on legitimizing your pleasure. The best thing about low art is that it's low.

29. aldebaran - February 02, 2011 at 10:47 am


Brilliant, and absolutely on target!

I am currently studying logic on my own, and re-reading Wordsworth's *Prelude*, but my own pop culture vice is occasionally watching old cartoons of my childhood, such as *The Fantastic Four*. The difference is that I recognize the cartoon for just what it is, and I don't make comments along the lines of, "the complex character tensions and interactions of the Fantastic Four rival those of Balzac's *Comedie Humaine*".

In the end, to use an analogy, there's nothing wrong with eating a handful of potato chips, from time to time. It's less wise to eat the entire bag. It's legitimate to question both the health and the intelligence of someone whose main diet consists of potatio chips. And it's downright stupid to insist that a diet of potato chips is equal or superior to a balanced diet that includes lots of fruit and vegetables.

(And please, folks, before the flames start, at least review the definition and concept of what an analogy is).

30. pete_l_clark - February 02, 2011 at 10:54 am

Well, it is fun to see that some people firmly agree with me and others disagree just as vehemently. (I imagine that, in this regard, I feel similarly to the author of the piece.)

Regarding The Simpsons versus Blake's *Songs*: in retrospect I think I responded to an obviously too extreme position by taking a position which was too extreme in the other direction. I didn't mean to suggest that I have not enjoyed and admired Blake's poetry (and I certainly didn't mean to suggest that I haven't read it -- nor did I, I think. I wonder where people got that from?) Blake's *Songs* are justly still being read almost 200 years after the author's death. They're really great. However, I was speaking especially about allusive content, which while not necessarily the ultimate indicator of intellectual merit, is relevant here because the more allusive a work, the more it encourages the "reader" (or "watcher", "listener", whatever) to experience other works. I am quite sure that nothing in Blake's *Songs* specifically alludes to any work of art or historical event of the last 200 years. So in that one regard, an essentially maximally allusive *contemporary* work like an episode of The Simpsons is certainly going to win hands down.

But "who wins" this matchup is very much not the point, and I regret having cast it in those terms. Some commenters seemed to think I was saying, "Don't read stuffy old Blake; watch The Simpsons instead." That was not my intent: if for some strange reason I get to tell people what they should be doing, I certainly think they should experience both Blake (or things like his poetry) and The Simpsons (or things like it). I guess I thought that mentioning that I had just ordered *Metamorphoses* from amazon.com was a big clue that I have a lot of interest in the classics.

What else? Briefly:

#16: I'm not 100% sure I count as an "intellectual" (although I will certainly take that as a compliment), but the reason I defend The Simpsons is pretty simple: I like it a lot (more so The Simpsons from 15 years ago, as with many people) and I think that it is very intelligent and even somewhat subversively intellectual. I certainly agree that The Simpsons does not need me as an apologist: it has done awfully well by any standard.

#12: my mention of Hodge Theory was intended to be somewhat ironic (a dangerous thing to attempt on the internet, I know). The point is that I am a mathematician and so my idea of what constitutes "highbrow reading" is going to be somewhat different from that of a classicist or literature professor. There are other pinnacles to intellectual human achievement and "the canon" than late 18th century English poetry. As for the idea that reading advanced math books is somehow drudge work from which one must recover by watching a lot of TV....well, I find that to be a somewhat plebeian perspective. I'm not in my line of work for any other reason than the fact that I love it and fascinated by it, the same (I hope!) as the rest of you.

31. pete_l_clark - February 02, 2011 at 11:13 am

to gwern: thanks for checking up on the possibility that Blake is referenced in some episode of The Simpsons. I did not do so myself.

I will however offer you 3:1 odds in *your* favor if the bet is that some time between now and the end of its run, The Simpsons will make such a reference.

In part this is just because, having experienced The Simpsons for my entire adult life, it is hard for me to really believe in a time when it will be off the air.

But a small part of me is hoping that one of the show's writers will find this discussion, be inspired by it, and we will eventually get a Blake episode of The Simpsons after all: "Homer! Homer! Burning Bright"? Talk about a win-win...

32. theotormon - February 02, 2011 at 11:50 am


You refer to "the defense of pop culture over high culture" by those in the academy. At least as far as I've observed the trend, the truth is more like what kln999 suggests -- that the lines between the two have been blurred. And is this so unreasonable? Just as any era's recognized intelligentsia will champion many works that are later forgotten, so too will many popular works make it into the canon. Off the top of my head, writers with crossover appeal: Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Byron, and Dickens. My time at university is about a decade behind me, but I honestly don't remember any of my professors denouncing the artistic products of high culture. The notion that high culture is always high and low culture is always low is what seemed to be under attack. The question is "Do The Simpsons have a place alongside The Canterbury Tales?" not whether or not they should replace it. That is why this is something of a manufactured crisis. (Again, I repeat that the comparison to the gnomic and otherworldly Blake is meaningless.) It also seems like the more outrageous claims of Theory have largely (not totally) been debunked, and it is the valuable parts that have remained. Mostly Edmundson's rant seems a little late. Relevant 20-40 years ago, postmodernism is now dying a slow death, though some worthwhile advances will survive.

33. bartofsky - February 02, 2011 at 12:41 pm

The majority of the comments are the case in point.
Nobody wants to feel dumb, I guess it is the result of the tuned off the function of self-reflection, which was a necessary element in the quest for education and it is amazing to read how deaf is today's Narcissus, deaf and self-convinced.
One way or the other, it is true and a very sad storey and I don't think we, as humans, will survive the death of the Culture: we will become biological attachments to electronic gadgets...
What a "modern culture": simpsons replaced William Blake!!!

34. aldebaran - February 02, 2011 at 01:28 pm


First, my apologies if my own response to your comment was intemperate. But this is what you originally wrote: "[T]he amount of knowledge implicitly embraced by The Simpsons via its incredibly densely allusive content is much greater than that of Blake's poetry." You did not limit your remark to Blake's *Songs*. You extended it to Blake's entire corpus.

Although I agree with you that this is a relatively minor point, I would add that the *Songs* are also quite allusive, in their way. Blake himself had over 2,000 years of Western culture to draw on (and draw on it, he did), so I am not quite as ready as you to hand the crown to *The Simpsons*, based on their additional one hundred seventy-five or so years of history to allude to.

"As for the idea that reading advanced math books is somehow drudge work from which one must recover by watching a lot of TV....well, I find that to be a somewhat plebeian perspective."

Not really, because you didn't make clear why you were reading the book, or for what purpose. Edmundson's larger point remains, which is that, for most, the purpose of most popular culture is to provide entertainment while one recuperates from work.

35. apothegms - February 02, 2011 at 01:30 pm

Aldebaran smoked me out calling my attack on Edmundson "ad hominem." I've disagreed with almost everything Edmundson has written over the last 15 years. I will say again that my problem with this article is not that he is wrong but that he is unilluminating and late with the news. I tend to agree with the conventional wisdom that today's college students do seem to be, in the aggregate, spoiled illiterates. Being old enough to remember the famous speech by the head of the FCC, Newton Minnow, wherein he called television a "vast wasteland," I have some credentials for saying that these laments are nothing new. When Edmundson says that we are no longer "comfortable with judgments of quality" or "at ease with 'the whole evaluation thing,'" I have to assume that he missed the 1970s. Thereafter, with the Republican ascendancy beginning in 1980, we bifurcated into two nations: conservatives have NO hesitancy about judgments on just about everything; all the relativism and timidity is on the liberal side. On one point I agree with Edmundson: I always thought the problem would not become acute until the generation that zoned out on television became our public school TEACHERS.

I see that as the discussion continues, some of us antagonists are moving a little closer to each other. Clearly both Aldebaran and I consume both high and low art, in common with most discussants. What I would say here is that we need to remember always that a lot of what we now call high culture was, in its own time, low culture. Shakespeare is the preeminent example, but there are many others. I am uncomfortable with the division. Aldebaran is re-reading "The Prelude." Tastes differ, but for my taste Wordsworth has a much less interesting mind that Matt Groening. I think we have to be careful about thinking "The Prelude" must be great because it is in iambic pentameter. In fact, when read aloud, it sounds like fussy prose by a writer who hasn't heard of a full stop. (Try reading Milton aloud--a poet whose world-view I despise but one who knew his way to aural beauty and also wrote long sentences--and then Wordsworth.) I think Groening's "Life in Hell" cartoons may be looked at in later centuries after "The Prelude" has sunk out of sight. The reader can disagree heartily with such a prediction but probably make some of his own along the same lines.

There is another argument being conducted, about whether the lines between high and low art have been blurred. There always will, or should be, a line between art with ambition and art that is designed to be consumed like popcorn and thrown away. But again we have to remember that today we want Shakespeare's popcorn more than we want Sir Philip Sydney's organically grown poetry. Sometimes low culture accidentally does more than the works that start out pretentiously intending to be high culture. I'll take Jane Austen over James Joyce. When kln999 writes "rock out and laugh at the Simpsons, but stop wasting all of this effort on legitimizing your pleasure" I have to take issue with his or her assumptions about some pleasures being "illegitimate."

But to get back to Edmundson's diagnosis of narcissism: I find that to be shallow and condescending. We are no more self-centered or lazy than we ever were. A hundred years ago, students read the Great Books because they were assigned, not because they were a higher breed of human being. Then they went out and made the messes that we are still cleaning up. This article takes on a big, serious issue, one with a multitude of causes and effects, and treats it superficially and, well, lazily.

36. aldebaran - February 02, 2011 at 01:38 pm


The status of pop culture among academics is a mixed bag, I'll grant you, but my point is that there is a significant wing who will defend it over and above what we traditionally call high culture. Of course, boundaries are never so neat, but I stand by that statement.

Whether the trend is unreasonable is a matter of opinion, I suppose. (Does that make me a Post-Modernist? I hope not!) Let's not, however, lose all sight of the specific context of the discussion, which should make clear my own opinion: The unreasonableness lies in championing the allusiveness of, say, *The Simpsons* over that of, say, William Blake--which, as pete_l_clark originally stated the case, *is* a prima facie instance of defending pop culture over high culture (Of course, Pete has now clarified that comment of his).

"That is why this is something of a manufactured crisis."

See my "potato chip" analogy, above. If, as one can certainly argue, more people than ever are obtaining their intellectual and spiritual nourishment from the cultural equivalent of potato chips, then the crisis is hardly a "manufactured" one. That, I think, would be Edmundson's position, and I would agree. Others are free to differ.

37. aldebaran - February 02, 2011 at 01:49 pm


Thanks for your clarifications. We certainly still differ in major respects (not that it matters, but especially about Wordsworth), but I appreciate your honesty, especially with respect to your history with Edmunson. I want to make clear, though, that by my reference to the *ad hominem* parts of your first post, I was referring only to those parts. I did not intend to imply that everything about your post was *ad hominem*.

38. pete_l_clark - February 02, 2011 at 03:59 pm


"'As for the idea that reading advanced math books is somehow drudge work from which one must recover by watching a lot of TV....well, I find that to be a somewhat plebeian perspective.'

Not really, because you didn't make clear why you were reading the book, or for what purpose."

Yes, really -- I do find that, i.e., that is my opinion. As to why I am reading math books -- given that I said that I am a mathematician and that being a mathematician is for me a labor of love, I'm not sure how to be more clear. If it helps, I am not reading that book because anyone asked me to or for any course I am teaching or currently plan to teach. It could be helpful in my future research (as could almost any other math book), but apart from that I have a desire to understand as much of the mathematical landscape as possible. I think these reasons are mostly the same as the reasons why other people read some of the books that they do.

This seems to have little to do with Edmunson's piece, so we should probably stop talking about it. On the other hand I feel, unfortunately, that the "Blake vs. The Simpsons" debate is one of the most interesting points raised in the piece. The rest of it -- that "average" people nowadays read too little serious literature, consume too much pop culture, and gravitate towards things which fuel their narcissism -- is not so intriguing a topic for discourse (I find -- yes, really!).

39. transcend - February 02, 2011 at 04:34 pm

A major aspect of the dearth of serious reading - whether as cause, effect, or both - is the decline of true leisure, both in its real existence and even as an ideal. The article indeed points to overwork and exhaustion as fundamental problems here, but thereby rationalizes the desire to spend one's remaining time in light diversion and entertainment, nothing too strenuous. If anything, we should be moving our culture and individual lives towards a better balance of leisure and work time, and insisting on spending that leisure time in the best possible ways.

Leisure - in the ancient ideal - is the highest aspiration of the civilized life, and where life finds its true meaning. We have reversed the priorities, and made work the standard of our lives, with leisure the exception, and demoted to mere "free time", again defined in terms of work, as a mere break from work, a chance to recuperate to work even more. We are more than workers, and more than consumers - at least we can be, if we so choose.

A highly recommended (and not too strenuous) book which explains very well how leisure has become "free time", and how this time is declining from decade to decade in the U.S., is Sebastian de Grazia's fine work, "Of Time, Work, and Leisure".


If we divide our lives into work and entertainment, we forget the beautiful ideal of the essential third category, true leisure. If one begins to perceive this lack in life as painful, then there is no time like the present to being restructuring one's life according to new priorities.

40. kln999 - February 02, 2011 at 04:57 pm


As much as I enjoyed Edmunson's essay, I tend to agree with your following:

"Mostly Edmundson's rant seems a little late. Relevant 20-40 years ago, postmodernism is now dying a slow death, though some worthwhile advances will survive."

Everything now does seem to be dragging its bored feet toward Bethlehem. Something about this whole thread ... it feels equally absurd to defend or attack either position. It's a big yawn to try to "position" The Simpson and a big yawn to protest that effort.

41. aldebaran - February 02, 2011 at 04:57 pm


"Yes, really -- I do find that, i.e., that is my opinion."

I wasn't denying that that is your opinion, merely that it has an adequate basis. I hope that that is now clear, as well.


Your observation about declining leisure has merit, I think. I also endorse completely the view that our work-obsessed cultutre is utterly pathological.

42. kln999 - February 02, 2011 at 05:05 pm


I like the potato chip analogy ... I just regret that I spent all those years thinking that my potato chips were broccoli.

43. bartofsky - February 02, 2011 at 05:34 pm

What a delinquent banch.
Do you know the difference between commenting on the article and texting your love/hate musings to each other.
Start you own blog, granted it will be short in postings and life span...

44. justiceg - February 02, 2011 at 06:03 pm

Johnson's "common reader" is much more to the point than Edmundson allows, both in support of and in distinction from his argument about popular culture. Johnson's "Common Reader" was the reader who read for pleasure, consumed the products of the literary marketplace, and participated to the extent possible in the culture of the time.

45. jmonroe6400 - February 02, 2011 at 08:54 pm

Reading for pleasure is by no means a phenomenon introduced only in the last 40 or fifty years. Perhaps it looks a bit different from a prof's point of view, in the post-GI Bill era -- all the hoi polloi walking around campuses attending to their own tastes -- but the only change is the place at which the writer flatters them.

Indeed, leadership of a kind is needed to lift tastes out of the muck of self-regard -- but let's not kid ourselves about the narcissism of the reader; or at least let's try and figure out what is genuinely new about today's narcissism so that teachers can work with it.

Might be good, also, to try and remember that in the Good Old Days the cultural imperium of the middle was so strong that people of higher taste took very seriously the need/duty to communicate effectively: to flatter the tastes of the "common man" -- And why not? I might add. Surely that is part of the return on his investment in sinecures.

46. jmonroe6400 - February 02, 2011 at 08:59 pm

Comment on certain posts:

All these posts of the "I'm so beyond this issue already" type are really confessions of a different order, perhaps, than intended.

47. ah2000 - February 02, 2011 at 09:40 pm

pete_l_clark and gwern:

Bart Simpson reciting and analyzing "The Tyger" on Larry King:



48. quidditas - February 03, 2011 at 07:31 am

"Indeed, leadership of a kind is needed to lift tastes out of the muck of self-regard -- but let's not kid ourselves about the narcissism of the reader; or at least let's try and figure out what is genuinely new about today's narcissism so that teachers can work with it."

Is it narcissism-- "the muck of self regard"-- or is it something else? No one mentioned the self help section.

49. dank48 - February 03, 2011 at 10:41 am

Well, speaking as one who often as not agrees pretty much with the tenor of the article, meaning that, thanks to inter alia the hardening of my arteries, the world seems to me to be going to the dogs, the barbarians appear to be at the gates, and they don't make films/books/plays/paintings/restaurants/whatever like they used to, let's do a little comparison.

No research here; we're relying on memory. I'd cheerfully put Blake's

To see a world in a grain of sand,
A heaven in a wildflower;
To hold infinity in the palm of your hand
Or eternity in an hour.

up against anything The Simpsons has had to offer lately. On the other hand, did you see Homer delivering stuff to the city dump, with areas labeled "Eight Track," "VHS," "Reserved for DVDs"? Just in passing, a deft sendup of our current belief that whatever is newest, highest tech, most expensive, hardest to get is going to be the standard forever and ever, hallelujah. And I don't think we can pick and choose too carefully with our selections. Blake also wrote the wildly foolish:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on, 'tis all in vain.
You throw your words into the air,
And the wind blows them back again.

The atoms of Democritus
And Newton's particles of light
Are sands upon the Red Sea's shore,
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.

which unless I'm totally misreading it (always a possibility) is elegantly expressed dislike of The Way Things Are Nowadays, not terribly different from some of the above.

I sympathize with Pauline Kael's comment that, when championing popular culture way back when, no one realized it would end up the only culture we have left. Still, it really isn't. I do think, though, that we may tend to idealize the past in terms of what percentage of people appreciated high culture. Chaucer and Shakespeare today are pretty much exclusively high culture, but a few hundred years ago were "popular" . . . for those very few who could read and for those who had the time and the penny to get inside the theater.

The world is indeed changing. Wasn't it before?

50. deepwater - February 03, 2011 at 03:04 pm

I look at Playboy for the articles!

51. snapcase - February 03, 2011 at 06:47 pm


Didn't Curtis White (another English prof) make a similar rant 10 years ago in The Middle Mind?

52. theotormon - February 03, 2011 at 08:41 pm

Most pop culture is potato chips, but you'll concede you can at least find some chili fries or hummous and pita sometimes!

I appreciate your turn of phrase there with the "toward Bethlehem" line.

Truly nice work! Kudos on finding that.

You might check out "Cult Stud Mugged" in Dissent Magazine. If you surfed in through aldaily you probably already have seen it. It touches on a lot of the same concepts and really helped frame Edmundson's argument in a way that made me a *little* more sympathetic toward it.

53. asongbird - February 04, 2011 at 11:59 am


Yup. I do. They are.
Sing on.

PS what's wrong with liking both potato chips and broccoli? Nothing, of course. But...

Liking is one thing, nutrition quite another.

54. bscmath78 - February 06, 2011 at 03:30 pm

When my mother died I was very young

And my father sold me while yet my tongue

Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"

So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep

55. sahara - February 07, 2011 at 10:37 am

Boy, this discussion sure fell apart. If you can't talk about the original topic (instead of - yes, becoming Narcissus with your personal rants), then stay out of the discussion! broccoli, potato chips, Playboy -- how stupid, all of you.

56. lnelly07 - February 08, 2011 at 01:22 am

As a current undergraduate student, I feel the urgency (and relevance) of Professor Edmundson's essay. Many factors obfuscate the possibility of "being influenced" by a book. In my four years at the University of Virginia, I have struggled to find spaces (outside of some wonderful English classrooms) to seriously discuss and engage with literature.

One kind of reading - the reading Edmunson posits - seems to end immediately outside the seminar door. Students quickly fill their days without leaving hours to wrestle through a book. Critical reading with its potential to influence feels out of place in the rest of university student life. When the challenge of reading is rarely rewarded or even encouraged by peers, administrators, and general university culture, it makes sense that students wouldn't commit time and energy to wrestle with a book.

Many of my friends will graduate this spring without ever being influenced by a book in all of college. I worry that their relationship to reading may never change once they move beyond the university.

57. aldebaran - February 08, 2011 at 12:51 pm

"If you can't talk about the original topic (instead of - yes, becoming Narcissus with your personal rants), then stay out of the discussion! broccoli, potato chips, Playboy -- how stupid, all of you."

I know that I shouldn't feed a troll, but I cannot resist: What exactly does your own rude, self-absorbed personal rant have to do with the subject of the article?

I would add that, if you cannot see the relevance to the original article of some of the comments you mention, then perhaps the stupidity is yours, and not others'?

58. nosnob - February 09, 2011 at 12:27 am

Will I confuse everyone by noting that Blake's most often quoted lines are the words to the Jerusalem Anthem, routinely sung by drunken soccer hooligans in stadiums all over Great Britain? Talk about your Satanic mills!

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