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The Problem with Joseph Epstein’s Essays on Culture

One can't help but wonder what Epstein feels at churning out fuel for those reactionaries most determined to wreck "the best that has been thought and said" in liberal culture.

The Ideal of Culture: Essays
Joseph Epstein
Axios Press
May 2018

The debates around the concept of ‘high culture’, which emerged with particular force in the mid- to late 20th century, have never really gone away. Is the notion of ‘high culture’ – -to privilege certain cultural productions above others in a canonical way — elitist? If it is, is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Is it racist, sexist and discriminatory, given that the most widely privileged ‘canon’, the original to conceive of itself as such, is predominantly white and western and male? Should high culture be publicly subsidized? What should its role be in education, personal and public?

It has in many ways become a boorish debate because so many advocates of high culture — and there are a lot, conceptually speaking — almost inevitably get side-tracked by the perceived need to defend western European cultural productions. Almost as inevitably, this turns into a snide sort of sniping at their foes (who have equally valid points), deriding them as ‘academic feminists’ or ‘professional victims’.

It’s unfortunate, but if you wish to see the world’s foremost (white) thinkers and writers turn into raging children, simply ask them about the topic. The ensuing commentaries will range from A.C. Grayling’s ” A Question of Discrimination“, which struggles admirably to argue that appreciation of high culture transcends cultural barriers (yet does so a bit awkwardly: his example of western appreciation for other cultures is the museum), to former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “The West’s High Culture is the Best Antidote to Discrimination” (a raging tirade of white Australian patriotism). In some ways, the freshest interventions seem to come from those fresh to the debate; Allie Long observes perceptively in an article on Medium that “Things become high culture when their contribution to intellectual diversity doesn’t eclipse their (white) universality.”

It’s bewildering why advocates of ‘high culture’ seem overwhelmingly concerned with protecting the privileged status of European-derived cultural works. The far greater and more exciting project for advocates of high culture, one would think, would be to celebrate our hopefully more enlightened age by broadening the scope of the canons with which they were raised, and embracing all the tremendously varied expressions of high culture that exist in the world. That means, yes, those stone cairns and goat figurines that Grayling refers to. It means questioning, as Long puts it, “Who decides that George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)” is high culture but [Beyonce’s] Lemonade is low culture?” Instead, those advocates seem to spend more time erecting the barricades, shuttering the windows, and arguing for the preserved privileges of western high culture (while the world marches past).

Joseph Epstein has long been a controversial figure and writer. An essayist of prodigious production who’s been widely acclaimed for his wit and breadth of knowledge, he was removed as editor of The American Scholar in 1988 for what he said was “for being insufficiently correct politically”. A 1970 article on sexual identity for Harper’s Magazine was widely denounced as homophobic and sparked protests and a sit-in at the magazine’s office.

Predictably, then, his latest collection of essays is a mixed bag. Ideal of Culture is a collection of essays which combines the beautiful and exquisitely written with the abysmal and reactionary. Fortunately, the former outnumber the latter, but it’s the latter which always leave the deeper, more piercing impression. Ostensibly an intervention in defense of ‘high culture’, it perhaps inadvertently demonstrates why high culture is under such threat: not because people are too lazy or living too fast-paced lives on social media to care about it, but because all too often the defense of high culture becomes indistinguishable from the broader defense of Euro-white privilege. It’s a pity, because recognizing the excellence in Herodotus, Montesquieu and Gogol should be a project of love, not wedded to the denunciation of feminists and anti-racist theorists, as some of Epstein’s essays make it.

Epstein opens with a strident defense of “culture”. No, it’s not elitist, he says, at least not in any exclusionary sense—it simply reflects “the best that has been thought and said”. Yes, there are things—works of art, of literature, of material culture—that are excellent, and others that are not. No, it’s not classist or exclusionary, he argues, pointing out that Communists and capitalists alike have demonstrated an appreciation for culture. He mostly ignores the fact that the leisure time and privatized quality of education enabled by wealth is more likely to expose one to these works of “culture” than poverty and working-class life, but his is an aspirational point; anyone can appreciate culture, he says.

I’ll allow him the point, and go along with it – especially when he adds that true high culture includes works which “appeal across different cultures”. As we have seen, one of the problems with high culture is that it has traditionally been defined almost exclusively within white European historical and cultural frames of reference; if high culture is to have any relevance or meaning in a modern, globalized world, it must be rapidly expanded to include all the other remarkable productions of humanity outside of the white European-derived sphere. This is not, as it’s commonly described by white folks, tokenism; it’s simply a reflection that for the past several centuries, those defining culture have done so with blinders on that obscured their consideration of any other iterations of culture beyond those of Europe.

Now that the blinders are off—if indeed they are—we should be able to adopt a truly global conception of high culture. Or so one would hope to see the defenders of high culture argue (while acknowledging there are still arguments to be made against the concept on purely aesthetic and conceptual grounds). How beautiful it would be if a writer with the prestige of Epstein were to dedicate their time and energy to this task, rather than revivifying the (admittedly just, yet by now overdone) celebration of Herodotus, Tacitus, Montesquieu. Culture, says Epstein, is “the best that has been thought and said”; works that “elevate the soul, stay in the memory, and appeal across different cultures”; that which “is genuinely worth knowing”.


Unfortunately, Epstein’s essays fall short of the high standard suggested in his introductory and titular one. Indeed, having laid out these loose prerequisites for culture, Epstein proceeds to ignore many of them. The first portion of the book, comprised of essays on such cultural phenomena as parenthood, death, humour, genius, wit, and more, offer second-rate essays grounded in what can only and charitably be described as grumpy old-man reactionism. His efforts at humour seem grounded in another age and come off either humourlessly or offensively. He taps into racist and sexist stereotypes. He tears into feminists.

“In striving after the attainment of culture, one invariably falls short. Other people are soon enough discovered who have it in greater depth, and make one’s own cultural attainments seem paltry… One is too clearly aware of the lacunae of one’s own cultural shortcomings, the vast gaps in knowledge of the kind a person claiming to be cultured ought to possess…”

So Epstein sagely states in his introduction; why, then, does he throw this wise reflection out the window and stoop to poorly-constructed savageries in his essays? Many of the critical comments he makes are thrown in as asides; but like any provocation, that precise method gives them a centrality in the essay which cannot be ignored.

Yet this reveals an important point about defenders of high culture: many of those who claim that high culture is a non-exclusionary reflection of human excellence don’t, I think, really believe it. If one were to really and truly adopt a non-bigoted embrace of human excellence, it would include not only the history of the Byzantine Empire and Gregorian chant (two of Epstein’s examples) but also works of feminism, queerness, intersectionality, anti-racist theory. These are now just as much elements of high culture as Gregorian chant. Instead, we have writers like Epstein who claim that high culture transcends borders, yet seem only able to recite a checklist of white European cultural productions when providing examples.

We ought constantly to strive to culture ourselves, Epstein suggests. He distinguishes between knowledge that is worth knowing, and knowledge that isn’t. His critique of the Wikipedia and social media era is that people are smothering themselves in information, but not paying any attention to whether the knowledge they’re filling their brains with is useful, and meets the criteria of “culture”. There is a legitimate critique here. But he ruins it by failing to elevate his own knowledge and striving for culture; he seems to restrict his idea of culture to the notions of a past era – where high culture is exclusively white and European — and fails to see new high culture for what it is.

In his opening essays, he does worse than reveal his ignorance; he revels in his inadvertent rejection of this broader ideal of culture. Works of true culture, he wrote, are supposed to “appeal across different cultures”. But then he bars himself off within the confines of western culture. In the opening essay, he goes on a tirade against those who criticize the historical preponderance of “dead white European males” in what was considered high culture: “dead white European males were, and remain, the substance and pretty much the sum of high culture,” he rages. He laments the end of WASP privilege: in today’s so-called meritocracy, he argues, people are just after their interests. Ah, but in a privileged white oligarchy, he says, there was virtue:

“Trust, honor, character – these are the elements that have departed American public life with the departure from prominence of WASP culture… The WASP day is done. Such leadership as it provided is not likely to be revived. But recalling it at its best is a sad reminder that what has followed from it is far from clear progress. Rather the reverse.”

He graduates from this defence of WASPS, to go on to attack the country’s first African-American president; a man with at least as much gravitas as Epstein’s celebrated WASPS.

“However articulate he may sound, and reasonable he may seem, why do Barack Obama’s words lack weight and conviction?” He doesn’t answer the rhetorical question (which many would consider bizarrely inaccurate in the first place), but given the bent of his essay one must conclude that it’s because Obama is not a WASP. Such opining is awful, and what does it have to do with “culture”, anyhow?

He goes on in his next essay to attack “professional victims, those who make a nice living off their victimhood”, by which he implies everyone who is not also a privileged white man. He writes off both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, saying that their support comes in large part from guilty voters, not from political acumen on their part. He characterizes Toni Morrison as “a connoisseur of victimhood”. And so on and so forth. He recycles and churns out a succinct array of half-baked bigotries in essays such as these, which will no doubt be picked up within a few years by men’s rights activists and neo-nazis and other distasteful reactionaries. One can’t help but wonder what Epstein feels at churning out fuel for those reactionaries most determined to wreck “the best that has been thought and said” in liberal culture.

There’s a certain sadness at witnessing society’s foremost thinkers and writers slide back into the murk of any age’s reactionary ignorance. It’s sad to watch the progressive thinkers of one age find themselves at dissonance with the virtues and ideals of the succeeding age, because if there’s anything we hope ‘high culture’ would guarantee, it’s the ability to transcend the specific tastes and mores of a particular age and generation; the ability to rise above one’s own nature and nurture and recognize excellence in its new forms, not just its old and familiar forms. Yet Epstein comes across as more eager to fire off a few cheap shots at feminists and “victims” than to achieve this goal. His cultural essays are an artifact of an earlier age, in which it was possible to present oneself as a cultured liberal and still tap into the privilege of whiteness, of sexual harassment (of which he also writes flippantly, if not dismissively), and other assorted forms of privilege.

It reflects too, perhaps, the problem with essayists. Insofar as an essayist is, almost by definition, a generalist, they are among those most prone to succumb to the false generalities and superficial analyses that their intellectual successors wind up criticizing them for. As Epstein himself noted, we as a society are now inundated with general information, and it no longer suffices to have a broad base of knowledge. What today’s thirsty public wants are those who can drill through all this general knowledge to produce not merely facts but that very ideal of culture Epstein himself aspires to – that which “is genuinely worth knowing”.

Ironically, it is many of the very same qualities which render his essays so abysmal on the topic of society and culture writ large, that render his literary essays far more appreciable. Indeed, some of these verge on masterpieces of short-form literary commentary. Here, Epstein’s breadth of knowledge and light skimming of his topic matter, drawing in disparate threads of historical anecdote or zeroing in on very particularized elements of an author and their work, provide lovely snapshots of writers. In most cases, there’s nothing new or special in these essays, and Epstein largely restates what others have already said, yet he does so with a succinctness and beauty of form that render them a delight to read. His essay on George Orwell, for example, poses the question of why Orwell remains so popular despite the lack of superior qualities in his literary writing. It’s well-trod territory, and Epstein mostly re-treads what others have said, but does so in a fair and touching overview that winds up being sympathetic and appreciative while also critical.

These essays are thankfully devoid of the grumpy-old-reactionary-man attitude which pervade his culture essays and leave one to wonder whether the greater tragedy is that Epstein was unable to look beyond his own narrow opinions to comment as usefully on culture as he does on literature, or that he tried doing so in the first place.

Again, here Epstein draws on a voluminous familiarity with history, culture and literature to frame the charm and significance of his subjects in terms that resonate with the needs of his readers; both those that speak to contemporary concerns and those that resonate with the reader’s desire for more eternal truths and values. In his masterful essay on Edward Gibbon, celebrated author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he unsententiously points to Gibbon’s critique of the Antonine emperors, in terms that echo the bane of today’s social media politics: “The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was usurped by the sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste.”

And with equal ease he draws recitations from other authors which lend themselves to his subject in beautiful and succinct aphorisms. Quoting Simon Leys: “The novelist is the historian of the present and the historian the novelist of the past.” His essays on Willa Cather, Herodotus and Tacitus are also particularly delightful.

The collection features a short series of articles on Jewish notables and culture, and finally a series of very brief commentaries on literary “masterpieces”. These, too, are terrific; I’ve never felt such an urge to rush out and purchase books by Herodotus, Tacitus, Machiavelli or Boswell.

The Ideal of Culture is a mixed bag, then. Epstein’s mastery of the literary essay is undeniable. His essays on ‘culture’, however, aspire toward an ideal that continues to elude him.