Cultural Conservatives, Wrong Again

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    Chaperoning John Milton Boozing with a friend, when a middle-aged woman with a shaved head and an English accent leaned down the bar to shake in our faces a copy of the newspaper's horoscope? And in fact we hadn't. We hunched over the paper as the woman returned to her cigarettes and her male companion, who beamed near her shoulder with a lofty distraction. The blurbs, however, were inconclusive. Meanwhile the barroom, late on this weeknight, dissipated into haggard undead animation. Green faces froze; beer glasses suspended themselves over tossed-back gaping skulls. Limbs were jackknifed everywhere and everybody had petrified into weird, angular, cantilevered attitudes. The bar was a wax museum of contorted human bodies, an assemblage of human pick-up sticks. Dry human bodies were tossed around like kindling.

    "You can't lose by believing," I mumbled stupidly to my friend, passing him the paper. "What?" "That's from Pascal," I said, probably even more stupidly. "Pascal's Wager." "See?" he cried with exaggeration. "I knew I should have finished school!" "Oh, I never read Pascal," I answered. "Picked that up from a Mel Brooks movie or something." Then he grabbed my shoulder and pulled my head closer to him and screamed with parodically insane mirth: "Oh no you don't, buddy! Pascal doesn't belong on the dancefloor!"

    Passed the paper back to the shorn woman, who had earlier muttered something friendly about British socialism?thus insinuating into this 21st-century barroom of New York's Downtown the gray Le Carre ambience of middle-class spinsters' sad flats lit by electric fires and minor bureaucrats wearing serge Prime Minister Callaghan trousers and committed to History. Of weedy 29-year-old virgins who commute to library jobs in Birmingham on sooty bikes, and study Marx through correspondence and eat potted meat alone each night in the vaguely enlivening presence of the budgie.

    On the other side of the room a guy with a hound threw back his head and laughed.

    My friend's fevered proscription of Blaise Pascal, the great author of the Pensees, from the proverbial dancefloor was?as the reading public will by now have discerned?a reference to Norah Vincent's "Higher Ed" column in the Feb. 2 Village Voice. That issue's installment?it's actually the first of what promises to be a biweekly column?was entitled "Hop On Pop" and subheaded "Lear, Seinfeld, and the Dumbing Down of the Academy." In it, Vincent?a conservative who used to work as a staff writer here at New York Press?angrily addresses the proliferation of pop-culture scholarship in the American university. "From the Sex Pistols to The Simpsons," she writes, "from hip-hop to porn, from cyborgs to sex toys, low culture is infiltrating the scholarly world, a curriculum of aptly 'higher' learning in which shallow amusements have no place."

    And also this phrase from Vincent, which was the one that my barroom companion was alluding to: "...just as Milton doesn't belong in the rave scene, sitcoms don't belong in the canon or the classroom."

    And so on. But I have to admit: the confidence of those pronouncements astounds me. Milton doesn't belong on the rave floor? Who says? And why? Why doesn't he? Sitcoms don't belong in the classroom? Why? Can anybody tell me? Who's supposed to adjudicate these things? Do English novels belong in the canon or the classroom? Does, say, Jane Austen? Classical scholars in the 19th century probably wouldn't have thought so, would have considered novels the humanistic equivalents of nosegays for ladies. Does Rabelais belong there? No, because he was exuberantly low and vulgar? Yes, because he was learned? Do Chaucer's bawdier tales? Should we include in the canon all of Shakespeare's plays except those in which someone drinks, wenches, pratfalls or eats capons' legs? What about Catullus, who wrote wonderful poems about fellatio? Actually, should we admit to the classroom only those Shakespeare's plays that didn't appeal to the groundlings? Mozart's popular effervescences? The Marriage of Figaro? His "Musical Joke"? What of Whitman, that peasant?

    I don't know much about Milton, but I know a little about poetry, an art that originated in music, in the dance, in the intersection of rhythm, language and the body. In, so to speak, the rave scene. How is it that Vincent, who's just a bit older than I am, has managed in her relative youth to define the utility and, indeed, the essence of John Milton, and presumably also of That Great Western Tradition that he, in her formulation, represents? Milton was a writer and a thinker of tremendous and endlessly mysterious power, an artist who generated texts of mind-boggling richness. Yet Vincent seems to have him all figured out, just like that. She's his chaperone, and as far as she's concerned he'll avoid those vulgar celebrations and be in bed reading God and Man at Yale no later than midnight.

    No. My suspicion is that many of the greatest "canonical" writers and thinkers would have been comfortable in the rave scene, or at least fascinated by it, as they were probably fascinated by everything. To deny that is to suggest that artists are motivated by the same imperatives that motivate conservatives: a discomfort with cultural plenitude, it seems, an anxiety in that same uproarious, baffling, wide-open total field of cultural production, the field of all the things that people do and make.

    And who lives according to the terms of Vincent's argument? The ambiguities of life?I'm listening to Black Flag even as I'm typing "Pascal!"?not only impugn her position but make that impossible. We live culturally miscegenated lives, and in fact people always have. Why shouldn't universities reflect that? I truly don't understand why that should generate anxiety. Adam Heimlich writes with more intellectual rigor about hiphop than many of my old academic peers wrote about Aquinas. Vincent would deny him the right to do so; would deny that the possibility to do so even exists.

    But, then, I guess that's why they call them cultural conservatives, and why so many people fear them so much.

    Quoits We played quoits with the steak?hard as it was, and cooked brown/gray like shoe leather. Mike cut a chunk out of the meat with his pocketknife and then, in the purple light of that West Chelsea dusk, we set up a post on the sidewalk to toss at. Biting our tongues with concentration, we paced off 10 yards. Then we threw quoits?or rather our one quoit, which was the steak. The steak hit the metal ring with a thud. "Five bucks on the next toss." "You're on." "You messing with the wrong guy." "Yeah," sardonically. "You're the master of quoits." "You know, this quoit's a little greasy still." At the end of the game I was out 20 bucks, but that was okay. It was all about hanging out, catching up with an old friend. The steak, notably, wasn't the worse for wear, despite it having been chucked across the pavement several dozen times. It was scuffed along its edges, and soiled, but still intact, maintaining a dignified severity of mien. The chef had done a professional job with it. Had blast-furnaced it until it had assumed the hard, carbonic quiddity projective that our sportsmanship necessitated.

    Game over, we tossed the steak into the trash. Returned to our seats in Jerry's Bar & Grill, over there in West Chelsea, to finish our dinners.

    Everything else was excellent, though, so despite the overcooked steak they served me, I'd recommend Jerry's Bar & Grill to anybody, and chalk the poor meat up to a mistake. The restaurant's an offshoot, as you can probably tell, of the original wonderful Jerry's down in Soho, and it's opened on the corner of 23rd & 10th to redeem the formerly insipid space it occupies and to service the booming Chelsea art scene. The help is friendly, the bar is extremely comfortable to spend time at, the decor is art-scene-elegant and generally monochrome without being alienating, and the post-30 clientele tends to be good-looking. Dark tables under warm track lighting along the restaurant's raised perimeter; and then, down a flight of stairs in the room's sunken heart, the bar area, which is lined with dark-upholstered and glowing backlit banquettes. A couple slate-gray pillars. Well-dressed human beings on the cusp of middle age sit on the wide, padded barstools.

    Jerry's serves New York food: mussels in a huge bowl puddled at the bottom with an onion broth, with pieces of bread, like the pieces of bread you get with a bouillabaisse, interspersed among the shells and slathered with aioli. And calamari fried in cornmeal on a bed of frisee, with all sorts of other stuff mixed through with the greens: corn niblets, sweet shards of roasted onion, a spicy dressing wetting everything down. And really good crabcakes served with slices of avocado and more sweet onions and a honey-lime vinaigrette. And baby lamb chops served with potatoes and grilled asparagus and a black olive sauce, which meant that little black kalamata olives were scattered around the bottom of the plate. So stuff that's conceived and put together with some care and imagination, but nothing so complicated that you have to think about it too much.

    Jerry's Bar & Grill is open for lunch, too, which is nice. Jerry's Bar & Grill, 470 W. 23rd St. (10th Ave.), 989-8456.