An occasional series from the world of books, podcasts, films, and music.
Pop Culture Happy Hour
A recent episode of the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour offered its analysis of the 2017 Grammy Awards. It was a beautiful example of intersectional thought in action, with winners and losers carefully parsed according to which minorities were or were not involved in its production. All language was carefully calibrated to avoid overly moral judgements—award decisions were “problematic” or “worthy”, not “right” or “wrong”. Fair enough.
It was therefore surprising to hear a sudden recourse to traditional religious and moral language. Former Whitehouse Press Secretary Sean Spicer had appeared in an SNL-style skit mocking his own famously truth-stretching claims regarding the size of the crowds at President Trump’s inauguration. The skit was described as too soon because Spicer (and I quote) “has sinned” but has not yet done his full cycle of “repentance.”
The whole account gave the distinct impression that modern discourse has not in fact moved beyond moral and religious categories. It has merely shifted ground over which actions warrant the label “sin” and therefore require repentance and atonement.
Pop Culture Happy Hour is a good podcast. There’s no question of the knowledgeability of the hosts, or of their competency in their subject. Their grasp of contemporary popular culture is vast.
Vastness does not, however, deliver depth. The subject matter guarantees the result. In a study of contemporary culture you are committing yourself to a huge range of material that is all essentially saying the same thing. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s plea that we read old books:
“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
Lewis’s rule is grounded in the observation that:
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. … To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”
To use a phrase Lewis would not have, old books protect the value of diversity. They allow us to hear voices and ideas from beyond our immanent frame of reference: voices that have the power to shock, surprise, delight, and devastate in a way even the grittiest of HBO productions simply can’t because they are products of our age. I’m a huge fan of pop culture, but six months of podcasting this particular show have let me craving the actual intellectual diversity, the actual shock, that only old books can provide.
The Joy of Paglian Sex
Camille Paglia is one of the most interesting dissident feminists writing today. Carl Trueman’s “The Joy of Paglian Sex” is an excellent introduction to her work and world. In the article, Trueman talks us through Paglia’s extraordinary essay “The Joy of Presbyterian Sex”, her devastating account of liberal Christianity’s progressive conceits.
For an engaging introduction to Paglia’s life and thought, Tyler Cowan’s recent interview is excellent:
Winton on Winton
A recent holiday in Western Australia’s North was an apposite context in which to catch up with Tim Winton’s recent writing. Both his 2015 Island Home and 2016 The Boy Behind the Curtain are non-fiction and biographical, and both, as you would expect, are inexorably tied to a sense of place.
It so happens that Tim Winton’s place is also my place, coastal Western Australia. On being a writer from this part of the world he says:
“For somebody writing from the wrong side of the wrong continent in the wrong hemisphere … when you’re starting out, it takes nerve to write about home and to do it in a language that’s unapologetically local. Some voice in your head is telling you to moderate the demotic and the specific, to accommodate the ‘cosmopolitan reader’”. (134)
Winton’s determination to honour place by using the language and vocabulary of his home is remarkable. I had often wondered what anyone outside Western Australia, let alone Australia, would make of his references to gilgies and gidgees and dugites—words familiar to me having grown up here, but only ever from the spoken English of childhood adventures. And yet there they sit on the pages of Winton’s books defiantly untranslated, without so much as a glossary at the end to guide you. I always thought that would have taken some chutzpah.
It was interesting to learn of Winton’s debt to Flannery O’Connor, the magnificent southern gothic author whose sense of place in rural Georgia fortified Winton’s own courage to write about coastal WA. He speaks of O’Connor having to teach, not only her readers, but her New York-based editors to read her work in all its suborn particularity.
Along with Old Books, I submit we also need literature grounded in place to combat the sheer tedious sameness of modern life. I have often had the experience of being in an airport and taking several moments to recall which city, even which country, I am in. Airports, sporting all the same chain stores and franchises, give very few clues as to your whereabouts. You could literally be anywhere. Which is to say, nowhere. The writings of Tim Winton and Flannery O’Connor on the other hand, are unmistakably somewhere, and are richer for it.
In The Boy Behind the Curtain, Winton gives a moving account of what it was to grow up in a devout evangelical family. The chapter, “Twice on Sundays” describes a normal Sunday in the Church of Christ:
“When I was a kid the Day of Rest required grit: it was a marathon, a test of character. Looking back I wonder if we only went to school on Mondays for a breather. Compared to church, school was easy; the demands it made on me relatively inconsequential.” (100)
Both Winton’s family and church were working class and suburban. But a life immersed in the exegesis of scripture, and in the self-reflection and self-criticism that Christianity inevitably requires, brought an intellectual richness to Winton’s childhood experience. Of his fellow church-goers he says:
“They were poorly educated and their life experiences were narrow, but they were the bearers of more culture and civilisation than even [Australian novelist Patrick White] could credit. They were not drawn together by some gnostic destiny, hardly White’s shambling ‘elect’, just plain folk trying to follow the Way, but when I read The Tree of Man and Riders in the Chariot at nineteen I heard their voices and saw their faces. They had their sights set higher than many of the sleeker people I came to know.” (102)
A similar testimony to the riches of an evangelical upbringing is given by author Jeanette Winterson, whom Winton quotes. Winterson says:
“I saw a lot of working-class men and women—myself included—living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the Church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met in noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning…” (105)
Neither Winton nor Winterson are uncritical of their church backgrounds; but both bear elegant testimony to some of the hidden and unintended outcomes a life soaked in scripture can bring.