After criticizing the literary establishment yesterday and planning to review a book on nerds this Friday, I should note for clarity that I was (a) a nerd and (b) an English major (or at least, half an English major — I double-majored in that and philosophy), but I was never an English major nerd, which is to say, someone who thought people were fools if they weren’t fascinated by Tennyson, etc.
On the contrary, as yesterday’s entry hinted, I retain my sympathy for the average-American reaction to a lot of highbrow artsy stuff, precisely because I was the sort of nerd who (quietly, humbly, and without imperiling my grades) sat through English classes thinking “Isn’t the sci-fi novel Ringworld arguably better than Thomas Hardy?”
I’m not sure I still think that, but my point is that I think it’s a perfectly “permissible” thought, and the cool kids don’t — whether cool for current purposes means black-clad rockers or just assistant professors of literature. The two types exhibit similar pack mentalities, I fear. Nerds can be just as bad as the cool kids and the elites, even worse, but at least nerds are often blissfully unconcerned about the social repercussions of their aesthetic judgments, which in some sense makes them more objective, or at least honest (though a consistent social-democrat might argue that “objective” taste simply is whatever is decreed by the masses — whom Edward Bulwer-Lytton called “the great unwashed,” by the way, another bit of genius from that ostensible idiot).
Our intellectuals like to think they’ve created an open-minded culture, yet it takes some courage to rattle off a list like the following without pausing to ask oneself which parts are acceptable to the various cultural elites and which aren’t:
I like white socks with black shoes, Shakespeare, comic books, the theme song from the animated series Starblazers, the Fixx (about whom much more tomorrow), Fozzie Bear, cows more than horses, watching robots but not being around children, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine far more than Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Ewoks (yes, the Ewoks), canned ravioli, cold weather rather than summer or beaches, avoiding travel and unnecessary exercise (aside from walking), Dadaism but not ballet, Road Warrior but not figure skating, and the absence of tattoos no matter how hip. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about any of it, even if you’re an art critic at the New York Times — and even if you have an army on your side, and it’s quite likely you don’t, so there, if you see what I mean.
Or to put it less combatively: in these matters of taste, it seems a shame simply to import other people’s and spend a lifetime stifling your own. The award the cool people give you for thinking like them — even if it’s a Pulitzer — probably won’t be as much fun as living your own life would have been.
On a related note: Where were all these adoring Dark Knight fans ten years ago when the film’s co-writer created the wonderful sci-fi film Dark City and no one but Roger Ebert seemed to care? (He called it the best film of 1998, which means a year later, he may have reacted to The Matrix much the way that Scott Nybakken and I did: “That was good, but it felt sort of derivative of Dark City.” And indeed, The Matrix re-used some of Dark City’s actual sets, not just some of its reality-altering tropes.)
In short: we all know the herd mentality exists in aesthetic judgments, but I think we could still do more to resist it.