"During my teaching days, along with courses on Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather, I taught an undergraduate course called Advanced Prose Style. What it was advanced over was never made clear, but each year the course was attended by 15 or so would-be—or, as we should say today, wannabe—novelists and poets. Usage, diction, syntax, rhythm, metaphor, irony were some of the subjects taken up in class. Around the sixth week of the eight-week term I passed out a list of 12 or so names and historical events—among them Sergei Diaghilev, Francis Poulenc, Mark Rothko, Alexander Herzen, the 1913 Armory Show, John Cage, the Spanish Civil War, George Balanchine, and Jean Cocteau—and asked how many of these items the students could identify.
The identification rate among my students was inevitably low, which did not much surprise me. I mentioned that at their age (20 or 21), I should probably not have done much better, and then added: "But if as writers you intend to present yourself to the world as cultured persons, you have to know these names and events and scores of others, and what is important about them. This is not something that one gets up as if for an exam, or Googles and promptly forgets, but that must be understood in historical context—at least it must for those who seek to live a cultured life."
Oddly, no one ever asked what a cultured life was and why it was worth pursuing. This may have been just as well for, though I believed I was myself by then leading (or earnestly attempting to lead) such a life, I'm not sure I could have answered either question. I'm going to attempt to do so now.
What I mean by the ideal of culture is high culture, as set out by Matthew Arnold in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy. Arnold described this level of culture as "the best which has been thought and said," but in our day it has been enlarged to include the best that has been composed and painted and sculpted and filmed. Arnold believed that high culture had its "origin in the love of perfection" and the "study of perfection," and thought it an idea that the new democracy under the industrial revolution developing in his day needed "more than the idea of the blessedness of the franchise, or the wonderfulness of their own industrial performances."
Behind Arnold's notion of high culture was a program for the partial reform of human nature. Attaining the perfection of high culture, Arnold held, would bring about "an inward condition of the mind and spirit . . . at variance with the mechanical and material civilization in esteem with us." Properly cultivated, this elevated culture would lead to "an expansion of human nature" and release us from our "inaptitude for seeing more than one side of a thing, with our intense energetic absorption in the particular pursuit we happen to be following."
One might think Matthew Arnold's idea of culture is restricted to the well-born. He saw it otherwise. "In each class," he wrote,
there are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery . . . for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection. . . . And this bent always tends . . . to take them out of their class, and to make their distinguishing characteristic not their [social origins, wealth, or status], but their humanity.
Make no mistake: High culture, culture in the sense in which Arnold speaks of it as an ideal, is an elite activity—but one open to everyone with what Arnold calls a "bent" for it."