Daniel Asia has edited the proceedings of a conference held in March 2014 at the University of Arizona, the book entitled, The Future of (High) Culture in America.
It's a lively volume with contributions by Terry Teachout (drama critic for the Wall Street Journal), Carol Iannone (editor of Academic Questions), and Asia himself (a distinguished composer and professor of composition at U of A), among others, and they all get to the heart of the problem of high culture at the present time in America. That is, it's marginal. Serious authors no longer appear for thoughtful interviews on nighttime television, we don't have variety programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show that reserved some space for ballet and classical music, and Time Magazine hasn't had a classical musician on the cover since 1986.
It's not that there isn't high culture to be found in our country. It's that high culture has so little influence on popular culture—which wasn't always the case. (Remember classical music and opera in Saturday morning cartoons?)
To bring it back to prominence, however, we can't take the scolding route. As Teachout notes, people need to be shown how much richer and deeper experience with Shakespeare and Beethoven is than is that of Mad Men and America's Got Talent. We must accentuate the positive of high art, telling our students and kids and friends not “The music and movies you consume are junk,” but “Today, let's try The Magnificent Ambersons, not Breaking Bad,” or “Let's listen to Mahler's Fifth, not Classic Rock—just for a change.” High Art tastes begin with the simple act of exposure.
For a year or so, I've been raiding Pope Francis's bookshelf. First I read Romano Guardini's The End of the Modern World, the book most often cited in Laudato Si'. Next, I took up Francis's favorite novel, Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed. I was then more or less compelled to read Guardini's Letters from Lake Como, a book that bridges the other two. In it, Guardini describes the beautiful countryside that served as a setting for Manzoni's novel, and begins to develop the critique of the technological age that he expressed more fully in The End of the Modern World. He sees a garden-like countryside built on a human scale disappearing before mass and machine. His lament is piercing.
But he does more than tally the losses. By the last letter, he is calling for an embrace of the machine age, a mastery of it that preserves human values: “What we need is not less technology but more. Or, more accurately, we need stronger, more considered, more human technology.” This must be why Mies van der Rohe, a great modernist humanist, was taken with the book. Guardini's ability to face the inevitable squarely while fully counting its costs is impressive. So, too, is his willingness to dream. As he says toward the book's end, “Utopias have so often become the reality that imagination is legitimate.”
J. H. Newman expressed his affection for St. Philip Neri in this hymn:
When he comes near to teach us and to bless us,
Prayer is so sweet that hours are but a minute;
Mirth is so pure, though freely it possess us,
Sin is not in it.
This “prophet of joy” of sixteenth-century Rome had such a wonderful power of attraction that “those who came to know something of him wished that they could have spoken with him, assisted at his Mass, spent some time in prayer with him. Amazingly, many even find themselves overcoming their reluctance to make a regular confession, having learned from him what a great aid this is to a life of holiness and joy.” I've been reading the most comprehensive biography of St. Philip that I could find, first published in 1986 (Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy by Paul Turks). Newman had apparently wanted to write a biography of Philip but had produced only a plan for the first chapters. Here is a book, then, that gives a detailed account of the life of this magnetic figure of Christian joy—a great reformer, a practical joker, and a true lover of God.
I consumed many fantasy novels in my youth. Somehow, I missed So You Want To Be A Wizard, by Diane Duane. At the suggestion of a person dear to me, I recently gave it a read.
I recommend the book highly for the young and young at heart. It tells an exciting tale, makes the most of its Manhattan setting, and has a strong moral sensibility. The book wastes no time in setting up the cosmology of its fictional universe: the stakes of our young protagonist Nita's first forays into wizardry involve a battle between Life and Entropy. When Life speaks through our heroes, it is in the words of the 139th Psalm. The incarnation of Entropy, though he goes by many names, is essentially a fallen angel. Nita and her comrades have not simply to defeat this enemy by force but grapple with the theological question he raises: can the devil ever repent? Throughout the book, the heroes' victories are not ones of domination but of charity (as when they play Androcles to the lion of a wounded sentient car).
The book's evocation of New York City was quite charming to me. Though I am a relative newcomer in the city, I've already begun to sympathize with the mythological reverence the New York-born author lavishes on her hometown. For the science-fiction-flavored, chaos-battling magic of this book, New York makes a pretty great setting. Here's the passage where all the haecceity of New York (the “thisness” of the city) is summoned to lend aid to the forces of good:
Kit was invoking New York, calling it up as one might call up a spirit; and obedient to the summons, it came. The skyline came, unsmirched by any blackness—a crown of glittering towers in a smoky sunrise, all stabbing points and jeweled windows, precipices of steel and stone. City Hall came, brooding over its colonnades, gazing down in weary interest at the people who came and went and governed this island through it. The streets came, hot, dirty, crowded, but flowing with voices and traffic and people, bright lifeblood surging through concrete arteries. The parks came, settling into place one by one as they were described, free of the darkness under the night—from tiny paved vest-pocket niches to the lake-set expanses of Central Park, they all came, thrusting the black fog back.
A little over a year ago I received in the mail a yellow Lamy Safari fountain pen. The friend who sent it included a note—the pen had caused him some grief (stained hands, ruined clothes, inconvenience), and he had given up on it, but he thought I might enjoy trying it out. My friend was right. I loved the pen. The fluidity of the lines, the ease of writing, even the aesthetics of the little molded modernist device—everything about it pleased me.
Being left-handed, I found that the ink he included with the pen (Noodler's Black) smeared too easily as I dragged my hand over freshly written lines of text. One of the wonderful things about fountain pens, though, is that you can use any ink you like with them. And there are hundreds of inks out there. So I started searching for the right ink, and began my foray into the world of fountain pen ink reviews.
On many different occasions over the past year, I've spent hours at a time reading through collections of reviews of various inks. The Fountain Pen Network—a web community where people can share writing samples and discuss different pens, inks, and papers—has been especially helpful to me. I can search for inks by different characteristics (permanence, chemical properties, colors, sheens, dry time, sensitivity to paper quality), look up recipes for homemade ink combinations, and browse images of doodles members have shared with each other.
My personal writing characteristics make the problem of finding appropriate inks especially difficult. I'm a lefty—that's already bad. But I'm also a “side-writer”, meaning that I hold my hand to the left of the line I'm writing (rather than above or below). Worst of all, my hands are generally moist and clammy. And I do a lot of writing on cheap standard copier paper. In order not to end up with a perpetually ink-stained hand and smeared lines of text, I need an ink that's fast-drying, water resistant, and bleed resistant. These are not, as I discovered, qualities that generally go together.
One wonderful thing about the fountain pen reviews as a genre is that the average pen fiend cares about all the things I think about when buying an ink. Most reviews include demonstrated drying times, a variety of paper tests, assessments of bleed through, feathering, water resistance, smearing, and variations in color depending on the width of the pen nib and absorbency of the paper. (Here's a sample review.) There's a level of passion and refinement in the fountain pen community that one only finds among a certain kind of hobbyist. The contagiousness of the enthusiasm makes exploring much more fun.
After a few months of intermittent reading and some experimentation with different inks, I discovered a wonderful ink called Salix, made by the German company Rohrer and Klingner. Salix is an iron gall ink. It replicates the chemical properties of the ink most widely used in medieval scriptoria. Iron Gall ink is so named because it is traditionally made from oak galls, a kind of arboreal tumor. When prepared properly, the galls produce an ink that oxidizes to the paper (or parchment) it is applied to, creating a permanent marking that gradually darkens over time. It dries quickly, never bleeds, and is almost instantly waterproof.
After a few months of use, I passed on my Lamy Safari pen to someone I thought might enjoy using it, and bought a nicer pen with a finer nib, more suited to my writing style. I rarely buy inks—reading around, one gets the sense that some pen collectors have scores of bottles. The bottle of Salix I've been using for the past eight months is still most of the way full. But I still regularly read and enjoy ink reviews.