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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, August 16, 2012


In GROTHERY STORES I referenced a Gary Groth blogpost in which Groth tossed out George Santayana’s second-best-known quotation:

"Americans love junk; it’s not the junk that bothers me, it’s the love."

Now what does this statement mean, ripped as it so often has been from whatever context lay behind it?

On the bare face of it, it states the author’s disapproval that anyone should show love toward, not literal junk, but the "junk" of popular culture.  Santayana does not state what one should love rather than popular culture, but the construction implies that there is something worthier of love than mere "junky" artifacts.

Given the usual opposition of the terms “high” and “low,” it follows that if one disapproves of other persons loving what’s often termed “low culture,” then its opposite, “high culture,” may well be the missing thing that is worthy of love.  It’s not unlike the logic that says that one may sleep with a “low-class” prostitute and then cast her aside—which seems the attitude Santayana evinces toward low junk-culture—while one confers love and marital status only upon those of a higher and more seemly class.

Given the fuzziness of his statement, I do not know if this is what George Santayana meant.  Gary Groth has made statements to this effect many times, usually following the Adornite argument that high culture leads to greater and finer thought while low culture leads to mental sloth, voting Republican and herpes simplex.  He’s made so many such assertions that I hope the reader will forgive me for not bothering to ferret out an example thereof, in order to stick to the subject: what should one love?

Should George Santayana “love” the play HAMLET, so often heralded as a high point in Western culture?  And if he did love it, as the phrase goes, why didn’t he marry it?  To extend my prostitute/wife analogy, surely no one would disapprove of such a high-minded marriage, even if he did keep some low-culture doxy on the side.  Maybe, while expousing his love of HAMLET to all and sundry, he kept a set of John Buchan books in a cubbyhole somewhere, taking them out only to use them for some quick unearned gratification, though always taking care that the neighbors should never find out.

Now, by my lights one *should not* love either HAMLET nor BATMAN (to choose a pop-culture icon better known than anything George Santayana might’ve read).  It should seem ludicrous to love either the high-culture or the low-culture icon, for the simple reason that no icons, or any of the works in which they appear, can ever love anyone back.    

Of course human beings do, against all logic, express vivid affection for all manner of fictional works and characters, or even for certain kinds of nonfiction (one thinks of Nietzsche’s recollections of his first exposure to the work of Schopenhauer).  But I suspect that the affection people feel for the phantasms of fiction and philosophy are akin to what Herman Melville termed “the shock of recognition.”  Melville claimed that upon reading Hawthorne, he recognized a spirit akin to his own in the works of the older author.

It could be argued that, whatever similarities existed between the two men, there may have been far more differences.  But even admitting this, Melville’s experience of “shock” is not invalidated.  Melville saw in Hawthorne’s works not the spirit of Hawthorne, but the spirit of Melville himself, reflected by the work of Hawthorne, as in a mirror.

The notion of intersubjectivity explains much of the appeal of fiction.  Elitists like Groth generally insist that the difference between good and bad fiction is a matter of highflown sophistication; that which lacks sophistication is perforce bad.  But even elitist critics differ among themselves over what is good or bad in Shakespeare just as much as comics-fans do about the proper depiction of Batman.  The arguments themselves may be more sophisticated, but the response for or against any given work spring from the extent to which the work mirrors the subjectivities of critic, fan, or general audience-member.  But subjectivity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and so we must speak of intersubjectivity as a way of understanding how persons from all walks of life can see reflections of themselves in the works of strangers, often strangers from other times and cultures. Thus, when we feel affection for the works of Shakespeare or of Bill Finger, what we “love” are shadows of our own tastes and personalities.

Yet we need not dismiss this sort of “love”—which, when examined more fully, might be better termed “esteem”-- as mere solipsism.  Even as people with wildly differing tastes and personalities can work together to produce civilization, all forms of literature can and do play off one another to create a greater whole.  (And yes, the verbal contrast of “working togerher” vs. “playing off one another” is no coincidence.)  Northrop Frye, from whom I derived my own “shock of recognition” despite his being one of many intellectual-mentors-whom-I-never-met, viewed this whole as possessing the integrity of archaic myth.  To any reader of this blog, it should be more than clear that I do as well, whatever disagreements I have with Frye (see here).  In part 2 I’ll address the proper way to show esteem for literary myths, be they of noble or base extraction.  

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