Saturday, July 15, 2017

The man who knew too little

Quite a few years ago, a well-known geographer, Neil Smith, came to campus, and I went to the talk/soirée.

There was a bar, where this teetotaler went to get a soda.  Or, pop, if you prefer.

The bartender was a student, who was of legal age and with the license to serve alcohol.  Of course I had to chit-chat with her.  It amuses me that I am not surprised that I have not forgotten that exchange.

She talked about her interest in Chinese opera.  It was one of the many moments in life when I was made to understand that I knew nothing.  I hadn't ever watched anything from Chinese opera.  Ever. And this young white woman was talking about it with some serious insight.  Even as I type this, I admit that I have not watched, nor listened to, Chinese opera.  Not even for a minute.

I am culture-challenged.

I have admitted to that all along.  I say that sincerely.  I have always said that.  But, people are quick to correct me.  Like the humanities professor back in California.  In our conversation about cinema, when I admitted to not knowing much, she immediately replied that I am a man of culture.  I am?

Over the years, I have come to understand this much then: Even my fleeting familiarity with a few aspects of literature, music, drama, and cinema, apparently make me culturally competent.  But, what about the ocean out there about which I know nothing, right?

Nobody knows it all.

After having truly understood that, the older I get, the more easily I admit to not knowing.  Especially when it comes to aspects of culture.  I am more and more at ease with responses like, "nope, I have not read that; what movie are you talking about?  who is he, or who was he, or is that a she?"

What remains is the primary experience of culture:
The problem was that in falling for New York’s endless cultural possibilities, I had — and still have — much less time for reading than I assumed would be my lot. In exchange for depth I got breadth. I relish, even when only half understanding, the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, the photography of Diane Arbus, the architecture of Henry Hobson Richardson, the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, the theater of Peter Brook. On the other hand, I haven’t come close to reading the major works of William James or Toni Morrison or hundreds of other major writers whose oeuvres I once fondly imagined would be at my fingertips. I’m reminded of a story about the librarian/fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, who was once asked in an interview to venture an opinion about Gustav Mahler. As ever, the most stupendously erudite man of his time was ready with a trenchant reply: “Who’s Mahler?” How inspiring!
I experience culture for this: "its beauty, its reach, its strangeness, its ability to transform an ordinary life like mine."  Even though I have never watched Chinese opera, and even when I have no immediate plans whatsoever to watch one.


Ramesh said...

You haven't missed much on Chinese opera. Its unwatchable !!

Being even older than you, I am even more ready to say I don't know. For example in that extract from Stephen Akey's piece that you have quoted, I can't recognise a single name bar Verdi and Mahler !

Add travel to your list of ways to experience culture. If countries were more welcoming to tourists, it would be so so wonderful to travel and experience life. One of the reasons I have stopped international travel is simply the cost and the utter torture of applying for and getting a visa.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, travel is a phenomenal cultural experience ... "travel" and not mere "tourism"--spending time in a tourist resort in an alien country does nothing "to transform an ordinary life like mine."

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