Thursday, November 13, 2014

We Get Letters

One of the many benefits of conducting one’s education publicly, as we try to do here at the Jade Sphinx, is that our broad range of subjects brings us a broad range of letters.  (Oh, very well … emails; but it doesn’t sound quite the same, does it?)

Without further ado, let’s dip into our mailbag in-box, and see what we have there.

You write about children’s literature a great deal.  Do you think that’s a fit subject for adult criticism?

Short answer: yes.  In fact, I’m rather surprised at the question.  There are many children’s books – the works of Andersen, Grahame, Milne and Barrie come to mind – that rank among the most important novels in the language.  More important – a truly interesting children’s book can be read on multiple levels.  I believe that children are amused by the animal shenanigans to be found in Wind in the Willows, while adults will pause at the more subtle philosophical asides and implications. And if my home were sinking into a concrete quagmire, I would salvage a great many classic children’s books from my library before I grabbed many contemporary novels.

And keeping on a contemporary note, some of the most interesting things on bookshelves today are found in children’s books.  Look at the rich imaginative world of William Joyce, for example.

Do you really hate all rock music, or is that an affectation?  And if you do, how do you avoid it?

I am nothing but a catalog of affectations.  But, seriously, yes, I have hated most all popular music from the rock era onwards.  It’s not simply that all of it is bad – though it is; or that it is very bad for you – though it is that, too; rather, it is simply because we have lost so much by embracing so little.  The palette from which rock (and funk, pop, bubblegum, rap … and all the other playground words we use to describe it) paints with sound is a very limited one, indeed.  We now find ourselves in a musical landscape which has very little room for romantic love, or simple idealism, or even, it seems, common decency.  It is no surprise that mores and society have both degraded since the advent of rock.  If a personal library is the measure of a man, then popular music is the measure of a people, and what our music says about us flatters no one.  When contemplating contemporary music, it is inexplicable to me that we do not all simply retreat from it in shame.

As for hiding from it … it is a continual battle.

I found your lamenting a lack of humor in The Iliad and The Homesman to be more than a little quirky.  Do you really think that humor can be found in most anything?

This reminds me of another reader who asked how an aesthete could have a sense of humor.  I think the only possible reply is that an aesthete must have one.

True story: my husband and I were leaving Cambodia on our way to Thailand.  We were at the airport, going through customs.  The customs agent processing my husband’s passport looked at him, looked at the document, stamped it, and nodded him on.  My customs agent looked at me, looked at my passport, looked at me, looked at my passport…. Finally stamping it and holding it out to me.  But – before I could take it, he snatched it away and held up and tiny, printed sign that read, TEN DOLLARS COFFEE MONEY.  I cocked an eyebrow at him and countered, “how much do you want for tea?”

What encounter with art changed you profoundly?

Too many to list here.  Perhaps the most formative was a one-man show by John Gay about Oscar Wilde called Diversions and Delights.  It starred Vincent Price and I went multiple times in my early teenage years.  I’ve never been the same.

When the Apollo Belvedere came to New York as part of the touring Vatican show – again in my teenage years – I stood before it for hours, transfixed.  Here, I thought, was something utterly and completely perfect in every way. 

After reading your piece on the New American Philistine, I suggest you leave your mother’s basement and walk around the real-world for a bit.

Many thanks for the breath of fresh air.  Or something.

Brickbats aside, America isn’t the Land of the Philistine, it’s the Promised Land of the Philistine.  We don’t want to hear it, and pretend that all aesthetic opinions are created equal, and that democratization of taste allows the cream to rise to the top.  But none of that, however, is quite true.  Signs of our cultural decay are all around us, and plain to see.  We are gorging ourselves on junk, and it is killing us. 

Do you have questions?  Send them in for a future column!

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