It is impossible to approach, even remotely, a full accounting of the world’s great books. Of course, most of what gets published is pablum, but that’s okay, since most of life is pap too. Even the much reviled Bloom has something like 1,500 books on his Western Canon list. Honestly, I’ve never really disliked Bloom’s aesthetics; I’ve always appreciated his defense of literature against theory, but let’s face it; anyone who’s read Naomi Wolf’s account of her treatment at Bloom’s hands can’t help but despise the guy; not to mention his comedically large frame. I mean, I know he’s read thousands of books, but did they all come with a sandwich or something?
We all have our well known favorites. And we all have our obscure favorites, the authors we champion even though few have heard of them. Sometimes we confuse the two lists, or historical vagaries push a writer from one list to the other and back again. A lot of us take these lists seriously. We argue over who should be where, and who should be read, and what writer is overrated, what writer is racist, or limited, or an affirmative-action plant. Those of us who write, or teach, or care about what passes through culture’s digestive tract on its way to shit and dust, will argue over these things like sports fans, whom we often despise because, you know, they care about stupid stuff, and drink cheap domestic beer, and shout at each other about meaningless plays on a pointless field in a desperate attempt to conceal their fear of female power or male love or some other such bullshit rationalization of our resentment at never getting picked for kickball in grade school.
Like I was saying, a lot of us take these lists seriously, and get upset when our favorite author is slighted. Why this upsets us is a reasonable question, however. It’s difficult to believe that it’s concern for our fellows; our advanced degrees in the Humanities, subscriptions to the Times Literary Supplement and The New Yorker, don’t exactly qualify us as great humanitarians with deep concerns for our brothers and sisters. If that were the case, I assume we’d get off our asses and volunteer at a soup kitchen instead of reading Lacan.
Someone reading this will rightly cry foul and say that I’m making a false distinction: “we can read Marx and help the poor,” they’ll say. Okay, fine, that’s true. There’s no doubt that Mary Harris Jones was pretty well versed in Marxist theory, not to mention Antonio Gramsci–Albert Schweitzer was pretty great too–but when was the last time you helped a stranger without advertisement or selfish concern? Look, I’m not preaching. I’m not so great either. My point is that those of us who are “intellectuals” tend to use our knowledge to set ourselves apart from the uninitiated or demonstrate our distinction, rather than help our fellow fey. It’s a particular kind of vanity that is easily remedied by reading Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Bourdieu explains how our refined aesthetics tend to follow class distinctions rather than deep considerations. In fact, the guys over at n+1 have done a great job of turning Bourdieu’s critical strategy onto that most annoying of contemporary poses–the hipster.
Hipsters are a tribe to which no one admits membership, but yet are so plentiful you can’t walk through a farmer’s market without getting one stuck to the bottom of your shoe. They care about clothes, but only the right kind. They care about music, but it can’t be popular. They care about books, but only the ones least likely to be read. In fact, the hipster’s greatest triumph is his chance to name drop some obscure cultural confection that not even its chef remembers making. They are, in one sense, a natural outgrowth of the phenomenon described by the philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, in his work, One Dimensional Man, a work that lamented advanced capitalism’s ability to mollify the working class with wealth; he claimed that our human potential was flattened by capitalism, and that it was becoming increasingly difficult to imagine an outside to the system. The argument goes something like, “what the hell do you do when you can walk into a Borders and find Marx on the shelf right next to Adam Smith?” The tools of the revolution are turned into consumer products. Marx didn’t envision a Border’s Rewards card being used to buy Das Capital at 20% off. Consumer choice, according to Marcuse, is just a sophisticated form of oppression.
Indeed, Marcuse specifically fretted over capitalism’s ability to turn ideas into commodities–buying and selling happiness, trading love–and since Western culture can’t straddle the world anymore, we have to narrow our horizons to hold on to our prospects. Sadly, there are no more Arawak to plunder, so we secret away our impotence in opinions about nothing of consequence, ruling our Facebook fiefs with clichés or obscurities–whichever you prefer. Of course, there are those of us who didn’t get the memo, and still believe in good old-fashioned iron-sided enlightenment, the white man’s burden, democratizing the world with exports and monetary policy–The End of History and the Last Man. One version of us is shadow boxing while the other is busy boxing up shadows. It’s enough to make you want to put on some records, crack open a Pabst, and snicker at all those Walmart shoppers while reading the New Yorker on your Kindle–by the way, anyone interested in a slightly used iPad should email me, because I have to have the iPad 2.
Personally, I think everyone in the West, Marxist and Capitalist alike, is just mad that Jesus didn’t come back, so we came up with things like dialectical materialism and invisible hands to make up for getting left home all alone with our party hats on. Does anyone else hear the Superman theme, “Up, up and away,” when they read Marx? Of course, I’m probably just drunk. Marcuse was a pretty bright guy, and I’ve had a lot of whiskey, and even though I suspect a lot of Western literary theory revolves around the gravitational collapse of Christ’s identity–God or man, historical or fictional, dead or alive–I could be wrong. In fact, it’s more than likely that I am. Still, will anyone disagree that if there was even one reliable witness to that event this whole wild west show would have gone down some other way?