Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nothing to Do with What You Think, If You Ever Think at All

Joseph Epstein:

My cousin Sherwin's way into the snob-free zone was simple enough: care only about one's work, judge people only by their skill at their own work, and permit nothing else outside one's work to signify in any serious way. View the rest of the world as a more or less amusing carnival at which one happens to have earned—through, of course, one's work—a good seat. Judge all things by their intrinsic quality, and consider status a waste of time.

...The music was terribly thin, leaving no residue, better listened to, if at all, while driving across town on an errand. But why did I have to establish my superiority to my (mildly) detested fellow listeners, even if only in my own mind? Why not simply note them and think about other things? Because, alas, the snob cannot bear to think himself a nobody, even in his own mind, and he certainly doesn't want to think himself included in an audience of what he sees as dull people, who have, as W. H. Auden once said to Nicholas Nabokov about a bureaucratic group in the U.S. Army, the "wrong ideas about everything and belong to that group of people neither you nor I can possibly like or condone." And rather than sit back and enjoy this concert, unmemorable as it was, I had to make plain, if only to myself, that I am a much more serious person than these people sitting around me, and serious in a way that deserves recognition, even if (again) only to myself.

Why do those thoughts play in my head at all? Why did I need to assert my superiority, even to myself, when no one was contesting it? Why cannot I, even so late in the day, grow into one of those admirable fellows--reasonable, tolerant, generous-spirited, honorable--that Jefferson called "natural aristocrats" and that a liberal arts education is supposed to form but almost never does?

I thought about this excerpt recently, seeing a couple stories go viral for seemingly no other purpose than occasioning an orgy of self-congratulation over our refined taste. I don't begrudge anyone their honest preferences, but I do rankle over the pack mentality toward easy targets, the sad reminder that so much cultural activity is nothing but signaling, posturing, and competition for praise.