∞ In Defense of Difficulty

We are weak and pathetic creatures, inside and out. I realize–daily–just how selfish I really am, and how that selfishness causes me to implode. See, the greatest joys I can have are difficult–I have to fight for them. But there are times when I don’t want to fight. I’m tired. I just need to rest. And that is fine, because I am weak. But, too often, I will rest too long.

And so it goes with our culture. We hate to work hard, and we will only truly labor over something if we are captured by the prize at the end. Intellectual work is no different, but it is. It’s harder. And spiritual work is even harder than that. The only way we will ever regain our footing on those down days is if we fix our eyes on the goal–and become enraptured with it. Then, we will have fuel to empower us through the difficult work necessary to reach it.

This is a pretty heady quote from a piece in the American Conservative, entitled “In Defense of Difficulty”. Difficulty needs defending in our culture, and shoot, even in my own heart! And once you see the verbage this guy employs in his article, you may realize (A) he's overselling, or (B) he's right, and your vocabulary is just really small.

When did “difficulty” become suspect in American culture, widely derided as anti-democratic and contemptuously dismissed as evidence of so-called elitism? If a work of art isn’t somehow immediately “understood” or “accessible” by and to large numbers of people, it is often ridiculed as “esoteric,” “obtuse,” or even somehow un-American. We should mark such an argument’s cognitive consequences. A culture filled with smooth and familiar consumptions produces in people rigid mental habits and stultified conceptions. They know what they know, and they expect to find it reinforced when they turn a page or click on a screen. Difficulty annoys them, and, having become accustomed to so much pabulum served up by a pandering and invertebrate media, they experience difficulty not just as “difficult,” but as insult. Struggling to understand, say, Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece The Sound and the Fury or Alain Resnais’s Rubik’s Cube of a movie “Last Year at Marienbad” needn’t be done. The mind may skip trying to solve such cognitive puzzles, even though the truth is they strengthen it as a workout tones the muscles.




If you want to read more, if you’re dying for some difficulty right now, you can read my highlights of the piece below. It’s a lot, but it’s shorter than the original and worth your time if you are interested in the decline of intellectualism in America–and the subsequent fight to regain it. It’s a large argument that will never be complete… ever.

[…]

More than 25 years ago, Russell Jacoby put it sharply in The Last Intellectuals, when he decried the disappearance of the “public intellectual” since the heyday of the fevered debates over politics and literature that broke out among Depression-era students in the cafeteria at New York’s City College. Much had gone awry: “A public that once snapped up pamphlets by Thomas Paine or stood for hours listening to Abraham Lincoln debate Stephen Douglas hardly exists; its span of attention shrinks as its fondness for television increases.”

[…]

In the postwar era, a vast project of cultural uplift sought to bring the best that had been thought and said to the wider public. Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago and Mortimer J. Adler were among its more prominent avatars. This effort, which tried to deepen literacy under the sign of the “middlebrow,” and thus to strengthen the idea that an informed citizenry was indispensable for a healthy democracy, was, for a time, hugely successful.

[…]

Mass circulation newspapers and magazines, too, expanded their coverage of books, movies, music, dance, and theater. Criticism was no longer confined to such small but influential journals of opinion as Partisan Review, The Nation, and The New Republic. Esquire embraced the irascible Dwight Macdonald as its movie critic, despite his well-known contempt for “middlebrow” culture.

[…]

As Scott Timberg, a former arts reporter for the Los Angeles Times, puts it in his recent book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, the idea, embraced by increasing numbers of Americans, was that

“drama, poetry, music, and art were not just a way to pass the time, or advertise one’s might, but a path to truth and enlightenment. At its best, this was what the middlebrow consensus promised. Middlebrow said that culture was accessible to a wide strat[um] of society, that people needed some but not much training to appreciate it, that there was a canon worth knowing, that art was not the same as entertainment, that the study of the liberal arts deepens you, and that those who make, assess, and disseminate the arts were somehow valuable for our society regardless of their impact on GDP.”

[…]

Harvard’s Robert Darnton, a sober and learned historian of reading and the book, agreed. He argued that the implications for writing and reading, for publishing and bookselling—indeed, for cultural literacy and criticism itself—were profound. For, as he gushed in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, we now had the ability to make “all book learning available to all people, or at least those privileged enough to have access to the World Wide Web.

[…]

Others, such as the critics Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, were more skeptical. They worried that whatever advantages might accrue to consumers and the culture at large from the emergence of such behemoths as Amazon, not only would proven methods of cultural production and distribution be made obsolete, but we were in danger of being enrolled, whether we liked it or not, in an overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture that, as numerous studies have shown, renders serious reading and cultural criticism increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and sustained argument.

[…]

Today, America’s traditional organs of popular criticism—newspapers, magazines, journals of opinion—have been all but overwhelmed by the digital onslaught: their circulations plummeting, their confidence eroded, their survival in doubt. Newspaper review sections in particular have suffered: jobs have been slashed, and cultural coverage vastly diminished. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post have abandoned their stand-alone book sections, leaving the New York Times as the only major American newspaper still publishing a significant separate section devoted to reviewing books.

[…]

Margaret Fuller, literary editor of the New York Tribune and the country’s first full-time book reviewer, understood this well. She saw books as “a medium for viewing all humanity, a core around which all knowledge, all experience, all science, all the ideal as well as all the practical in our nature could gather.” She sought, she said, to tell “the whole truth, as well as nothing but the truth.”

[…]

The arrival of the Internet has proved no panacea. The vast canvas afforded by the Internet has done little to encourage thoughtful and serious criticism. Mostly it has provided a vast Democracy Wall on which any crackpot can post his or her manifesto. Bloggers bloviate and insults abound. Discourse coarsens. Information is abundant, wisdom scarce. It is a striking irony, as Leon Wieseltier has noted, that with the arrival of the Internet, “a medium of communication with no limitations of physical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words.”

[…]

Information is abundant, wisdom scarce. It is a striking irony, as Leon Wieseltier has noted, that with the arrival of the Internet, “a medium of communication with no limitations of physical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words.” The Internet, he said, is the first means of communication invented by humankind that privileges one’s first thoughts as one’s best thoughts. And he rightly observed that if “value is a function of scarcity,” then “what is most scarce in our culture is long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers.” Time is required to think through difficult questions. Patience is a condition of genuine intellection. The thinking mind, the creating mind, said Wieseltier, should not be rushed. “And where the mind is rushed and made frenetic, neither thought nor creativity will ensue. What you will most likely get is conformity and banality. Writing is not typed talking.”

[…]

As even the vastly popular science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov understood, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

[…]

Their response suggested, at least to me, that the best way to connect with readers was to give them the news that stays news. In the end, it hardly mattered.

[…]

Richard Schickel, the longtime film critic for Time magazine, writing in a 2007 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, objected to the “hairy-chested populism” that increasingly dominates and enfeebles what passes for cultural commentary. “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity,” he insisted. “It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinion of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.” Sure, he seemed to be saying, let a hundred million opinions bloom; but let’s also acknowledge the truth that not all opinions are equal. In these matters, I, like Schickel, am a Leninist: Better fewer, but better.

[…]

When did “difficulty” become suspect in American culture, widely derided as anti-democratic and contemptuously dismissed as evidence of so-called elitism? If a work of art isn’t somehow immediately “understood” or “accessible” by and to large numbers of people, it is often ridiculed as “esoteric,” “obtuse,” or even somehow un-American. We should mark such an argument’s cognitive consequences. A culture filled with smooth and familiar consumptions produces in people rigid mental habits and stultified conceptions. They know what they know, and they expect to find it reinforced when they turn a page or click on a screen. Difficulty annoys them, and, having become accustomed to so much pabulum served up by a pandering and invertebrate media, they experience difficulty not just as “difficult,” but as insult. Struggling to understand, say, Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece The Sound and the Fury or Alain Resnais’s Rubik’s Cube of a movie “Last Year at Marienbad” needn’t be done. The mind may skip trying to solve such cognitive puzzles, even though the truth is they strengthen it as a workout tones the muscles.

[…]

Sometimes it feels as if the world is divided into two classes: one very large class spurns difficulty, while the other very much smaller delights in it. There are readers who, when encountering an unfamiliar word, instead of reaching for a dictionary, choose to regard it as a sign of the author’s contempt or pretension, a deliberate refusal to speak in a language ordinary people can understand. Others, encountering the same word, happily seize on it as a chance to learn something new, to broaden their horizons. They eagerly seek a literature that upends assumptions, challenges prejudices, turns them inside out and forces them to see the world through new eyes.

[…]

Consider, by contrast, Theodor Adorno’s exemplary response to his good friend Gershom Scholem upon receiving Scholem’s translation of the Zohar, the masterpiece of Kabbalah, as mysterious as it is magnificent. In 1939, Adorno, living in exile in New York after fleeing Nazi Germany, wrote Scholem who had long since settled in Jerusalem:

I’m not just being rhetorical when I say that the Zohar translation you sent me gave me more joy than any gift I have received in a long time. Don’t read into this remark anything pretentious, because I am far from claiming to have fully grasped the text. But it’s the kind of thing whose indecipherability is itself an element of the joy I felt in reading it. I think I can say that your introduction has at least given me a topological notion of the Zohar. A bit like someone who goes high into the mountains to spot chamois bucks but fails to see them, because he’s a nearsighted city dweller. After an experienced guide points out the precise spot where the bucks congregate he becomes so thoroughly acquainted with their territory that he thinks he must be able to discover these rare creatures immediately. The summer tourist cannot expect to glean anything more than this from the landscape, which is truly revealed only at the price of a lifetime’s commitment—nothing less.

The ideal of serious enjoyment of what isn’t instantly understood is rare in American life. It is under constant siege. It is the object of scorn from both the left and the right. The pleasures of critical thinking ought not to be seen as belonging to the province of an elite. They are the birthright of every citizen. For such pleasures are at the very heart of literacy, without which democracy itself is dulled. More than ever, we need a defense of the Eros of difficulty.

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