Confessions of a Lowbrow

Frank Sinatra made a more convincing priest than Bing Crosby ever did. Call it blasphemy — with my eyes fixed on heaven, I’ll mount the scaffold confessing it. Fr. Paul, the character Sinatra plays in Miracle of the Bells, is no wise-cracker, and amazingly, no singer; instead, he’s a straight-faced, rather aescetic-looking pastor who executes his duties in deadly earnest. In fact, between his youthful appearance and barely screwed-down intensity, Fr. Paul comes off as the prototype for Fr. Andrew Greeley’s young fogies. When he tells a funeral director, “You’re a greedy and stupid man,” he acts out what I imagine is a fantasy of priests everywhere, much as the actor who played him lived out the dreams of men in general by punching croupiers and bedding Ava Gardner.

I formed these impressions yesterday evening, while binge-watching faith movies on Netflix. Next in the queue was Bells of St. Mary’s, which I’d never seen but had nonetheless felt justified in mocking. It ended up winning me over so completely that I decided to post a public apology over Facebook. “Fr. Chuck O’Malley and Sr. Mary Benedict are to the Church what the Cartwrights were to the beef industry,” I wrote. “If they bear no resemblance whatsoever to life, it’s life’s fault.”

If such a thing is possible to say about Facebook status updates, it was well received — except by one person, that is. “Why,” asked this cyber-Diogenes in so many words, “are you going into such transports of joy over such garbage?”

Knowingly or not, he’d just written the story of my life. I may have a lit-crit vocabulary, but my tastes are those of a developmentally disabled eighth-grader. Given a choice between reading Mann’s Doctor Faustus or Dante’s Divine Comedy – two alternatives suggested by this concerned soul — and watching Bells of St. Mary’s, I’ll watch the damn movie, unless I happen to be in one of my self-improving moods. I am not a hipster; my love of crap is entirely un-ironic. I am intellectually lazy, but I fear the shame of being exposed as intellectually lazy even more than I fear the work of reading a book. So why? Why, indeed?

Reason No. 1: Too much, too young. I grew up in a medieval scriptorium. Remember that place in Name of the Rose — the book and the movie — where the crazy old monk slaps poison paint on ancient manuscripts? Except for my mom’s typewriter, that was the apartment we shared. All our walls, from hardwood floor to 14″ ceiling, were covered with books — Shakespeare, Dickens, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Norton’s Anthology and issues of Granta going back God knows how far. As I dug in, literary references became, literally, household words. When my grades were down, my mother would tell me I was turning into “a regular Fred Vincy.” To protest a room-cleaning order, I’d scream, “Non serviam!”

And Freud. Once when I was about eight or nine, my father took me up to West Point to tour the United States Military Academy. Hermann Göring’s diamond-encrusted, scepter-like baton, on display in a glass case since its capture by Allied forces, made a big impression, which I later shared with my mother. “A phallic substitute!” She snorted. “No,” I said. “It was the real one.” Right then and there, I learned about Oedipus complexes and castration anxiety and defense mechanisms. From that day forward, every time I found occasion to buy a ball bat or a lacrosse stick or a guitar, I smuggled it into the house like contraband.

This is the kind of head start that poor and minority kids would give limbs for, and I’m ashamed to say I squandered it. When I entered my teens, the thought of sharing a cultural framework with a woman in her 40s began to seem shameful, so I traded Ruskin for the Ramones. As an undergrad, I majored in history, and later went for a masters in journalism. Both dsciplines seemed far enough from airy-fairiness to be respectable. A few times since then, I’ve felt tugged back toward the world of belles-lettres and big ideas, but the pull never lasts. My brain has become flabby and fragile, like Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket: when I give it too much to do, it collapses, blubbering and begging mercy. And, like Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann, I berate it for a little while and move along.

Reason No. 2. Anodynes, please! Not long ago, a friend described me as manic-depressive. Possibly without meaning to, she flattered me. “If you ever catch me in a manic episode,” I told her, “do mark the date.” The fact is, in many ways, I am a brittle husk of a human being, and every apparently self-destructive habit I’ve taken up, from comfort food to cocaine, has been a bid to find the bounce I imagine normal people enjoy as a matter of course.

Sophisticated reading material can be bouncy. A great deal of what the canon currently accepts as literature was, in its own time, considered no more than top-of-the-line mind candy. Dickens, Wilde, Twain and Flaubert all wrote for popular readerships; H.L. Mencken ran a newspaper. Walt Whitman handed out copies of his poems to dockworkers, or so I remember hearing. Kipling’s work is so vulgar, so violent and sentimental, that Hollywood grabbed for it with buckets as soon as talkies emerged to do justice to the accents of Pvt. Mulvaney & Co. If what I’m looking for is a quick fix of pity, terror or hilarity, any of these guys will do.

But with philosophy and criticism, the payoff just isn’t there. A few months ago, at Barnes & Noble, I settled into one of the overstuffed chairs and tried to read Camus’ “The Sisyphus Myth.” “This isn’t absurd,” I remember thinking. “Absurd is a bear in a paper party hat riding a unicycle. Absurdity is fun.” The only thing that cured my sulk was reading Prairie Bitch, memoir of TV actress and child sex abuse awareness-raiser Alison Arngrim, from cover to cover. Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae had me climbing the walls in frustration, because — I realized suddenly — I’d really wanted an astrology book. What’s my sexual persona? I’d kept asking myself. Ten years ago, I might have been The Beautiful Boy as Destroyer, but that ship has sailed, hit an iceberg, and sunk with all hands. As soon as I traded the thing in for Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, I was able to breathe normally again.

Reason No. 3: Give me Alpha, or give me Omega. In Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon, Joe Queenan undertakes a sort of gonzo exploration of America’s cultural slums. But his definition of shoddiness and shallowness doesn’t include Garth Brooks, McDonald’s or The Brady Bunch; it includes Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Olive Garden, Renne Faires and Kenny G. I can’t remember whether Queenan ever puts it quite in these terms, but he gives the impression of thinking it’s okay to peddle obvious schlock to genuine idiots. The mortal sin, in his view, seems to be covering schlock with a veil of quality and pitching it to people with enough education and leisure time to do better, given minimal powers of discrimination.

Indeed, I smell what the man is stepping in. If I wanted to, I could settle down comfortably in the middle brow and never have to make my brain sweat, or, for that matter, apologize. I’m too fucking vain. If my mush-headededness or emotional warping prevents me from gaining the top, I’ll wallow theatrically at the bottom. True, now that students are writing masters’ theses on graphic novels, people can get away with that kind of thing. But I’m more honorable than that. As a Catholic who writes for Catholics, I submit my crimes for judgment before a panel of medievalists who will forgive cultural illiteracy only in people named Sarah Palin. Hanging after an ornate, self-justifying speech has what Tom Sawyer would call “style.” It gives me the relief of getting my just deserts, and the satisfaction of raising a ruckus.

So, yeah: Old Blue Eyes, Miracle of the Bells. RKO, 1948. Here I stand, I can do no other.

  • http://www.sacredmiscellany.com mjballou

    My bete noir was Hannah Arendt. I dragged “The Origins of Totalitarianism” around on airplanes and road trips for years before I realized I just never wanted to read it and gave the book to the Goodwill.

  • http://ereadingromanticism.wordpress.com Bernadette

    As someone in academia, it has taken me considerable time to admit that there are some books—books that I really, really ought to like—that I just, well, don’t; including a couple—Thomas Hardy and, heaven help me, Jane Austen—who even fall under your “bouncy” category but nonetheless make me feel like a 5-year-old forced to eat her vegetables whenever I read them. Perhaps if more academics could admit to not always loving their own high-brow bread-and-butter, then lay readers would less often find themselves in the situation that Alan Jacobs recently described in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction:

    the American reading public, or a significant chunk of it anyway, can’t take its readerly pleasure straight but has to cut it with a sizable splash of duty. Books that aren’t certifiably good for you are, in this way of thinking, to be suspected—and to read for “entertainment,” or the sheer pleasure of the thing, verges on the morally unjustifiable. Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor tap into many of the same anxieties: they suggest that reading is best done by highly trained, professionally accredited experts; the implicit promise is that such expertise is at least partially transferable to the ordinary reader.

  • http://fivehalos.com Kristine

    Sheesh. I love this.

  • NYCBobby

    Max,

    This is hilarious. One of your best works yet! Lately you’ve been on a role. My mom’s favorite singer is Bing Crosby and mine is Frank Sinatra. I have to admit it, Sinatra is one of those people who did everything he tried really well. And he was a way better actor than Bing. But I can relate to the Sinatra preference as a priest on other levels. No doubt you prefer the grit. Also, never forget that there’s a little Homer Simpson in everyone. “Read a book, watch a movie? Read a book, watch a movie?…Mmmmmm, watch a movie.”

  • Robster

    And I never got much beyond AM Top 40 radio. While my more sophisticated siblings were listening to WNEW FM, I was happy with NY Am radio: WABC, WWDJ, WNBC. American Top 40 was one of my favorite shows. Now their playlist is preserved on the “oldies” station, WCBS-FM. Some of the old DJs ended up there at one time or another. She’s Just the Devil Woman, Magnet and Steel. etc.

  • http://pannoneappetit.blogspot.com/ jp

    You’re in good company, Max. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein loved to read trashy hard-boiled detective fiction, and not the good stuff either — the second- and third-rate offerings were his favorites.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    I was talking to a Yalie guest last night and Moby Dick came up. I admitted that beyond “Call me Ishmael” I would not go and that I found Ulysses unreadable, saying “those are two books everyone talks about but nobody reads.” So, yeah, I join you on the lowbrow shelf.

  • Robster

    And cheesy TV sitcoms–the Brady Bunch, Mr. Ed, My Favorite Martian–All worthy of the designation: “Chewing gum for the eyes.”

  • wloch3

    Bernadette may be aware that Jane Austen recently completed a more popular collaboration with Los Angeles writer Seth Grahame-Smith. However it seems that her present discomfort with the novelist was shared by Mark Twain, who apparently mistook Miss Austen for Huckleberry’s bane. “The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways.” 

  • calahalexander

    This might be my favorite post ever written on the internet. Seriously, as the wife of an academic who regularly catches shit for reading Harry Potter and the Game of Thrones books, this post is…just everything I could never say this eloquently, because I spend my time floundering among pop lit and blogs and refusing to read “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” (When it comes to Joyce, my motto is “just say no”.)

  • Karen

    Very good!!! What other faith movies did you find on Netflix. I’d love to do a binge myself.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Re “Non Serviam” when my younger son was about 5-6 and I’d tell him to pick up his toys or his room he’d bellow at me, “you’re making me like a slave!”

    [Once, when I was only a little older than that, my mother grew frustrated with my dilatory tidying, rushed in, started grabbing handfuls of whatever looked to her like junk and throwing them in a huge Glad bag. I screamed, "MOM! YOU GO THROUGH MY ROOM LIKE THE NAZIS THROUGH POLAND!" Like a well-aimed anti-tank round, it stopped her.]

  • http://www.woodeene.blogspot.com Woodeene

    I’m with you, Elizabeth Scalia. Moby Dick is unreadable. And I reread the Scarlet Letter not too long ago and thought, “This is crap.” Clearly the lowbrow seats are more comfy than the lofty erudite ones.

  • Chris

    Actually, if you read the parts of Moby Dick that describe whale biology and hunting/processing of whales by the whalers, it is fascinating. It’s the novel that is unreadable. :-)

  • David J. White

    Actually, if you read the parts of Moby Dick that describe whale biology and hunting/processing of whales by the whalers, it is fascinating. It’s the novel that is unreadable.

    I had a similar experience reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover. I found the supposedly titillating parts boring, tedious, and predictable. What I found far more engaging was Lawrence’s picture of what industrialization and mining were doing to the English countryside and the people who lived there.

    And I’m generally a fan of Bing Crosby over Frank Sinatra, but I agree that his portrayal of a priest in Miracle of the Bells was superb.

    Still, my favorite movie priests are Pat O’Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces and Spencer Tracy in Boystown.

  • Parasum

    Despite the avalanches of adoration (& exploitation) & analysis & scorn, Tolkien’s work has survived intact; only an outstanding story could do that. How anyone could not love Dante’s poem is is beyond me. “Paradise Lost” is nearly as good.

    DC comics are fun – or were, while Curt Swan was still drawing Superman.

  • Elle

    For me, it’s Henry James. I have tried oh so many times to wade through his dense thickets of prose, but am always bogged down. Then I pick up one of Michael Connelly’s wonderful detective novels and savor the crisp, clean understandable prose and am happy again.

  • http://manicdoodlings.blogspot.com Steve

    “If I wanted to, I could settle down comfortably in the middle brow and never have to make my brain sweat, or, for that matter, apologize.”

    That’s the key for me: either hibrow or lowbrow but absolutely, no middlebrow!

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    You’re not very convincing. There are just too many learned allusions in there to persuade me you’re not at least a pseudo high brow…lol. I’m willing to bet you’re a high brow who longs to be a low brow who contemplates the hypocrisies of middle brow who ultimately gets a hair transplant the brings his hair line down to his eye brows so that there is no brow at all. :-P

    Your piece was a good read. :)

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    You’re hilarious, Max.

    “Indeed, I smell what the man is stepping in. If I wanted to, I could settle down comfortably in the middle brow and never have to make my brain sweat, or, for that matter, apologize. I’m too fucking vain. If my mush-headededness or emotional warping prevents me from gaining the top, I’ll wallow theatrically at the bottom.”

    Yes, yes, and yes. One of my favorite hobbies is to sneer interiorily, God help me, at people who have the wherewithal to know better and still talk about the Olive Garden like it was freaking Buckingham Palace. “Do you know they serve all you can eat breadsticks and salad there?” Yes, and when I was 18, poor, and had a 28″ waistline, that was very exciting.

    But I will never pretend, either, to have finished Brothers Karamazov or to have enjoyed the 3/5 of it that I dragged my sorry ass through.

  • Rosie

    Your posts always make me laugh.


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