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The Death of the High Middlebrow? Part I

“Martha,” the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.  Maine Senator Olympia J. Snowe, the last remaining moderate Republican in either chamber of the U.S. Congress, left politics just short of a century later, in 2012, thereby rendering moderate Republicanism in the U.S. extinct to all intents and purposes.  When the last moderate Conservative or “Red Tory” left Canadian politics, I don’t know for sure.  I do know that no such person has been seen in Ottawa for at least a decade, if not longer. 

          The end of the High Middlebrow, a once thriving species in both Canada and the U.S., cannot be as precisely ascertained as the two aforementioned American events, but it may perhaps have occurred at some point between 1985 and 2014.  While the High Middlebrow was clearly imperiled by the former year, there was still evidence, some of which you will see later in this essay, that the breed still existed. By 2014, that could no longer be said with any certainty.

          To clarify, 2014 was the year in which I, desperately seeking fellow members of this by then rare breed, put out a call on Facebook.  Not only did no one self-identify as a High Middlebrow; no one appeared to have the foggiest idea what one was.  The Facebook friends ignorant of what a High Middlebrow was included many extremely well-educated individuals, some with graduate degrees (including doctorates) and others with professional degrees.  Almost without exception, these were highly intelligent people, well-versed in literature, history, politics, economics, and the creative and performing arts.  Their inability to understand the term was a reflection not on them but on how the world had changed.  Given the world’s many changes over the preceding quarter-century, from innumerable technological advances to a serious decline in educational standards, it was perhaps as unreasonable to expect someone to know what a High Middlebrow was as it would have been to expect a cook to know how to prepare a Floating Island, or a man to know how to don spats or pince-nez spectacles. 

          What my survey suggested was that if High Middlebrowism were to continue, I might well have to take up the banner single-handedly.  Having no desire to lead a church of one, I publicly gave up and announced I was throwing in my lot with the Highbrows, in opposition to the unlettered rabble making up the rest of the cultural universe.  But I was not at all happy to do so, and have to this day privately maintained my old High Middlebrow identity and cultural standards, in hopes of finding at least one or two fellow adherents somewhere—anywhere.

          Why, you might ask, should I be concerned with such an arcane matter as this?  The development is of concern to me because I believe we are all the poorer for living in a world in which there are, simply, people who are cultured and people who are not—a world in which there are no shades or gradations of culture.  In such a black and white, either-or world, there is a greatly reduced capacity for self-deprecation and irony, let alone any sort of balanced perspective on the follies and foibles of members of the intelligentsia.  Indeed, in a world in which “you are either with us or against us,” there is precious little room for cultural maneuvering of any kind.  Just as the political arena is poorer for the loss of its moderates and occasional fence-straddlers, so would the cultural world be poorer for the loss of this important intermediate category.  I, for one, would rue the loss, which is why I have continued to “keep the faith,” if only in my private devotions.

          What, then, is, or was, a High Middlebrow?  As one who proudly and publicly bore the label for over half a century, I’m probably as well-qualified as anyone else to attempt a definition.  To begin with, a High Middlebrow is, broadly speaking, a member of the intelligentsia, or cultivated class of society, just as much as is a Highbrow.  On average, a High Middlebrow is as well-educated and as well-versed culturally as the full-fledged Highbrow.  Indeed, while the Highbrow is likely to confine himself to one or two areas of interest, the High Middlebrow will typically graze a good deal more widely.  Whereas the Highbrow tends toward narrow specialization, the High Middlebrow is normally a generalist, of eclectic intellectual and cultural interests.

          It’s a bit of a stretch to apply the French distinction between a gourmet and a gourmand to this broader cultural issue.  But only a bit of one.  The distinction actually gets us a good bit of the way toward understanding the difference between the two types under consideration here.  While the gourmet has extremely cultivated tastes in food, (s)he is often quite a picky eater. There are many things (s)he won’t eat.  Gourmands generally have equally cultivated tastes, but aren’t picky eaters at all. When they hit on something they like, they will eat a whole lot of it.  And their tastes in food are generally quite broad, even catholic with a small C.  Depending on the occasion and their mood, they can be just as happy with a good hamburger and a glass of draft beer as with a four-star meal at a French or Italian restaurant. 

          This isn’t to suggest that the gourmand is simply a glutton, or has undiscriminating tastes. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the gourmand hits on something (s)he can’t abide, (s)he will be quite vocal in informing the world about it—perhaps even more so than the gourmet, whose temperament is generally far more reserved.  But by and large, there are many more things that the gourmand likes than that (s)he dislikes.  It’s much the same for the High Middlebrow in the broader cultural context.

          Related to the above distinction is the matter of temperament.  While High Middlebrows are typically people of great enthusiasms, folks who revel in the wealth of God’s cultural plenty and aren’t in the least afraid to let others know how they feel, Highbrows are reserved, even guarded in their expressions of approval.  Enthusiasm of any sort is a trait disapproved of by almost all full-fledged Highbrows.  To the true Highbrow, overt displays of emotion of any sort are at the very least unseemly, at worst a gross violation of the unspoken rules of etiquette.  Enthusiasm, the Highbrow would say, is to be distrusted. It’s for the little people, the hoi polloi.  The Highbrow may express approval by smiling, or clapping politely.  But that’s the extent of it.  And it’s important not to do too much even of this kind of discreet approval.  To be too easy in granting approval is to lower standards.  And a fear of lowering standards is what the true Highbrow culture is all about.  It is far more distinguished by what it excludes from its canon than by what it includes in it.  To say that the traditional Highbrow defines himself in negatives is a stretch, but only a bit of one.

          Finally, there’s the matter of the individual’s attitude toward cultural and aesthetic rules and norms.  These rules and norms, both official and unofficial, apply to everything from language to food and dress.

          In the area of language, cultural norms dictate never starting a sentence with a conjunction like “but” or “end,” never using a split infinitive, never using the word “disinterested” to mean “bored,” and never using the word “hopefully” at the beginning of a sentence.  In the area of dress, they dictate never wearing a straw hat after Labour Day and never wearing a tie with any kind of pattern with a shirt with any kind of pattern.  If your shirt is striped or checked, you can wear only a plain-coloured tie with it.  In the area of food, they dictate never serving certain starches with certain proteins, never serving food all of one colour together at a meal, never drinking iced water, and on and on.  I don’t know enough about music and the visual arts to know which strictures would apply specifically to them, but I do know that they have their own, equally comprehensive lists of “do’s” and “don’ts—especially the “don’ts.

          The Highbrow’s attitude toward such rules and strictures, some of which may still be in general force but many of which are regarded by most people as at least bordering on the archaic, is one of reverence and strict observance, particularly in his or her chosen field.  This really makes perfect sense, since Highbrows are all about exclusion, and how better to exclude large numbers of people than to do so on the score of their violation of the rules (written or unwritten, spoken or unspoken).  Overall, their attitude is one of extreme deference to authority, even authority that lacks any real credentials, or authority that has (as in the case of William Safire, well-known conservative writer on language and also a former speechwriter for Spiro Agnew) given us good reason to be suspicious of its motives.

          The High Middlebrow knows these rules as well as the Highbrow does, but has a far more complex attitude toward them and is far more selective about observing them.  Some of those rules, such as the distinction between “disinterested” and “uninterested,” the High Middlebrow genuinely believes in and accepts.  About others, he or she is not so sure, but will accept them because he or she doesn’t think them worth fighting about.  Still others—say, the rule against ever using a split infinitive—he or she regards with amused skepticism.  Others—the stricture against wearing a straw hat after Labour Day or against a sentence-opening “hopefully,” he will simply laugh it, and quietly or not so quietly disregard.  Toward the “cultural obedience tests” that are the Highbrow’s stock-in-trade, his attitude is generally to consider them guilty until proven innocent.  A true child of the philosophes, she accepts little on blind faith.  She has enough faith in her own judgement to believe that if a cultural norm doesn’t make sense to her, and can’t be made to make sense, then she won’t follow it.

          A good example of these differing attitudes toward “cultural obedience tests” occurred some years ago, in a dispute about art I was having with a former Facebook friend, whom I finally unfriended after many moons of putting up with her aggressive stridency on all sorts of issues, from art to politics.

          This woman was appalled at my dissing  Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock in one of my threads.[1] Citing several experts in the field of modern art who thought Pollock the bee’s knees, she suggested I should consider changing my attitude on the basis of their views.  Right from the start, I knew this was a battle nobody would win.  So I did my best to deflect her, citing the Roman writer Horace on taste, and doing so in the original Latin, no less: “De gustibus non disputandum est.”[2] Undeterred, she plunged on doggedly, hauling out several more of her experts, as if the sheer accumulation of the weight of authority would have changed anything. The argument ended only when I logged off Facebook after telling her it didn’t matter how many experts she quoted; to me, a Jackson Pollock painting resembled, and would always resemble, something produced by emptying what was left of the dog’s dinner onto the canvas from a height of six feet.

          To my late Facebook friend, the views of those various art critics, none of whose work I ever bothered to read, had the weight of Holy Writ.  To me, they were irrelevant.  I was (and am) quite capable of coming to my own conclusions about any given artist for myself.  It may or may not have been a coincidence that this particular woman had spent the bulk of her career in the military prior to becoming a religious defender of modern artistic orthodoxy.  In any case, the debate, which was soon followed by even more acrimonious debates about literature and politics, offers an excellent example of the differing cultural stances of the Highbrow and High Middlebrow.

          What, then, are some of the tastes and attitudes that have caused me to label myself a High Middlebrow?  I like my own homemade sweet and sour spaghetti sauce as well as Coquilles-St-Jacques, a baked potato stuffed with creamed tuna or turkey as well as Beef Wellington.  I love Bull Durham, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Grand Budapest Hotel, National Film Board documentaries, tense dramas from early postwar Russia and Czechoslovakia, and all manner of screwball comedies from the 1930’s and 1940’s.  I adore Tom Jones, Middlemarch, The Master and Margarita and The Tin Drum, but I’m also extremely partial to the comic novels of Peter de Vries, the simple honesty of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, and the weird and wonderful characters who populate The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I love baseball, tennis, and hockey but can’t stand American football, golf, or NASCAR racing, and am only ho-hum about basketball. 

          On stage, I love farces such as Harvey and Arsenic and Old Lace, the screwball comedies of Norm Foster, taut murder mysteries like Double Indemnity, and plays halfway in between comedy and mystery, such as Anybody for Murder and Habit of Murder.  I’m equally fond of Bertolt Brecht’s powerful political dramas (Mother Courage and Caucasian Chalk Circle) and cornball musicals like Sound of Music and Oklahoma.  As for music, I enjoy Mozart and Vivaldi in the morning, mid-range classical such as Brahms or Rachmaninoff in the afternoon, and all manner of jazz at night, from early Dixieland through to Ornette Coleman’s improvisations.  Folk music I enjoy almost any time, and am as likely as not to wind up singing along to it.  I love pops concerts, especially those held outside, brass band concerts, and also all manner of dance, from square dancing to contact improvisation, that wild crazy modern hybrid that I pursue to bring out my inner anarchist.

          All of this is not to suggest that I am undiscriminating in my tastes.  Far from it.  I absolutely cannot abide instant coffee, oleomargarine in any form, Kraft dinners, instant mashed potatoes, the abstract noise of Philip Glass and Ann Southam, or the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian and Barnet Newman, let alone the ludicrous and pathetic productions of the all-too-numerous imitators of Andy Warhol, for whom a feed bag nailed onto a plank of wood or a bunch of cereal cartons tied together with baler twine represents “art.” At the other end of the scale, most ballet leaves me cold, as does most opera when I see it live, though I admit to a lingering fondness for The Nutcracker and for certain comic operas such as Cosi Fan Tutti.  And I positively refuse to see anything remotely resembling an “action” movie, drink a pre-mixed cooler or cocktail, read anything written by Ayn Rand or anyone of her ilk, or listen to rap or heavy metal music, or any other kind that hurts my ears.  I was, after all, given but a single pair of ears; it behooves me to take good care of them.  And I have neither time nor patience for bullies, religious fundamentalists who insist on imposing their views on others, or anyone else prone to believe there is “one best way” of doing things.

          These pronounced dislikes–some of which rise to the level of full-scale prejudices–notwithstanding, there is much more in this world that I like than that I dislike.  Even at my advanced age, an age at which most people are supposed to be persnickety about a whole lot of things, I’m much happier saying “Yes” than “No.”

Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce, Dartmouth, N.S.


[1] For more detail, see my essay, “Paint Like the Masters:  Lesson 1, Jackson Pollock,” at www.jonpeirce.ca. Posted June 14, 2020.

[2] Yes, it’s true. . .the High Middlebrow is by times given to a bit of showing-off.  Why not?

2 replies on “The Death of the High Middlebrow? Part I”

Bravo! Love it! Always wondered why I couldn’t be Highbrow…never could articulate the reason, but you just did. I bet there are a lot of us out here….

Ann

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Thanks, Ann. Each new recruit gives hope! When one grows up with a Highbrow, one quickly sees why one could not ever be one.

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