Just for the record: so-called “highbrow culture” is no longer the only hand tending the flame of Western Culture. A while back, a decent friend with perverse intentions invited Rich and I- two exemplars of the Center for Experimental Living— to a professorial wine-and-cheese affair in the loft of an old Coca-Cola bottling warehouse. We found the joint easily enough, but, peering in through the windows, we could not spot our friend in the mix; only a tableau of blazers and black turtlenecks. There was an intercom, but we thought it might be poor form to buzz in and open with “um yeah, rumor has it that you have refreshments inside…” So, as casual as we could- as casual as The Center for Experimental Living ever gets— we scaled the warehouse brick and magically appeared— POOF— on the rooftop patio, having fallen from a hole in the sky.
“Oh, hello, and where did you come from?,” the host asked, assuming we had made some kind of mistake. And, peering around at the company- the tweed-types in standing circles of three and four, we began to suspect maybe he was right. The culture-clash was readily apparent, day-and-night. Whereas this crowd was clipped and effete, we were filthy and manic. They carried hankerchiefs in their breastpocket; we carried lockpicks. They sipped their Pellegrino and Cabernet Sauvignon; we chugged our to-go cups of coffee, Coke, and kerosene. They were not snobs, exactly, atleast not in the caustic sense I usually throw the word. The host had been a welcoming one- amused, even, by our presence. But I could not help thinking that, despite our common interest in the same books and authors and general brainthings, there was no common language between us.
We parked our bottoms, as usual, by the food spread, pausing to watch the highbrows in their natural habitat. You could tell, by the expressions on many of the grad-students and would-be college-profs, that they were thinking to themselves “These are my people. At last, I have arrived!” All smiles and dreams of publication. Manners. I leaned in and whispered to Rich:
“What happened? Is this supposed to be the Life of the Mind?”
Rich surveys the room, and calmly adds, “This is ridiculous.” Again, nothing against them; everyone seemed kind and inclusive. But where was the thrill of it all? Where were the rockstar Voltaires and insolent strong poets and fivestar generals of the kultur-kampf? The difference between them and us was not between la vita contemplativa and la vita activa (a distrastrous distinction running through the West) but instead, as we liked to imagine, between dying and living thought, between the starch-and-dust academics and the life-philosophical (this is a broad and unfair accusation, but just ride it out). No doubt there were some heads in the room more bookish than us; a few souls that had read from cover-to-cover the Summa Theologica or The Decline of the Roman Empire. High scholars, better custodians of Western Civilization, I’ll give them that much. However, what do they have for the restless youth-of-today, tell me that? What fuel and philosophical leverage could they give to American upstarts more concerned with significance than truths? What are they given to in their wildest moments, besides their buxom understudies? What can they do to surpass fiction and compete with primetime? Why is he laughing like that? Was that joke really funny? I mean, I catch the allusion- but is it actually funny or is it just an overt expression of We-ness that comedy is supposed to presume? Must the intelligentsia be, for want of a better term, dorks? They will have to do better.
The next American Renaissance demands it.