Reader Richard writes from Italy, commenting on my Duck Dynasty vs. Dante essay from the magazine:
This article jumped off the computer at me this early morning, from a desk in a hotel room in Milan, where I’m attending a meeting. This is my first visit anywhere in Italy, a visit that began with a free post-arrival afternoon, which began, quite naturally, at the Piazza del Duomo.
The image is apt, because the high art of the Duomo (roundly criticized by John Ruskin as a Gothic-era mishmash of styles) and the masscult of our present time are each in ample view.
How to assert the value of inherited things in the culture is the job of parents, and it is a job that requires a commitment to one’s own lifetime of learning and discovery (for example, the embrace of a study of Dante after one has turned 40 – just saying). The most unfortunate consequence of masscult is that it seduces people who notionally possess the idea that inherited ideas and traditions in the culture have value – and it leads them to do a thing that Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard” would have taken them to task for: to waste their time.
My day afoot in Milan ended with the blessing of actually landing a same day ticket to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the Refrectory at Santa Maria della Gracia. I am not sure I would have appreciated the painting as much as a backpack-and-Eurailpass college student in the 70′s, though I imagine the painting would have impressed me. But recent years that have been given over more and more to reading, and less and less to television, movies and other things of the day, rewarded me yesterday. That’s not a boast for ‘me’. It’s a description of what is possible when you train your mind. Our son sends me kindle books and the odd Facebook post that say “Here. Read this” because history is something we have come to share as a family, because we read together and took advantage of (mostly US) travel together “growing up” together.
And we introduce each other to new beers or wines, too, and share our frustrations over our baseball team. It’s not all about grand ideas. But part of it can be. Our son and I wandered the battlefield of Saratoga one brutally hot summer day years ago when he was 11, sharing the ghosts and the echoes whom we recognized because we’d each read Kenneth Roberts – books that we received from my father, handed down from his father, who had sold Mr. Roberts coal in the 1930′s. The tradition in our family did not start because someone had a Ph.D. It started with a classically American origin – a sales call. You can start learning anywhere. You just have to start, and make it a part of your life – and occasionally choose not to do things that get in the way of learning. And there are incredible rewards if learning is something that can be done together as a family.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” It’s a matter of getting up out of one’s La-Z-Boy, and going to look for the river.
What a great letter, one that speaks to the philosophical heart of the piece. We live in a time in which things have been flattened; people seem to have lost the sense that there is anything to be aspired to other than self-fulfillment — and if you feel fulfilled by watching crap TV, who’s to say that you’re wrong?
It’s this expectation that the world should cater to us, and that we should not have to stretch ourselves to achieve a higher consciousness (so to speak) that I find so harmful. I do not like opera. I have tried to do it, but it’s just not worked out for me. Do I think I’m a lesser person because I don’t like opera? No, not in a moral sense. But I am sure that if I were to apprentice myself to a good teacher (which could be a friend who knew a lot about opera, and was eager to show me how to listen to it), I could learn a lot about it. It turns out that most of the things I enjoy most in life weren’t things that could be immediately understood, or give me immediate gratification.
I think about how inaccessible the Orthodox liturgy is to most people in this culture. When I first started attending, I didn’t understand much of anything about it. But its overwhelming beauty, and the sense of holiness present that I found unparalleled in any other Christian tradition, drew me in. Eventually I did come to understand, bit by bit, what was going on, and why things happened the way they did. But somebody who comes to the Orthodox liturgy expecting it all to be perfectly clear after one visit is bound to be disappointed.
I think other difficult things — classical music, jazz music, vintage wine, etc. — are like that. When I first started drinking wine, I liked things that were simple, and a little on the sweet side. Bordeaux was bitter to my tongue. Over time, I came to prefer Bordeaux, because I learned how to “read” wine — that is, to appreciate complexities that are present, but not immediately apparent to the novice.
I hope that opera is like that one day for me, and classical music, and ballet.