Monday, December 27, 2010

A question of upbringing: on innies and outies

Did you know that the University of Chicago Press gives away e-books each month?

They recently offered free copies of the indispensable Chicago Manual of Style. This month, it's Anthony Powell's A Question of Upbringing, which I devoured over X-mas - book one of Powell's perennially best-selling epic, A Dance to the Music of Time.

What a fun book it is! And in every walk of life, there are folks like the narrator's mysteriously hapless Uncle Giles, who ("wrinkling the dry, reddish skin at the sides of his nostrils, under which a web of small grey veins etched on his nose seemed to imply preliminary outlines for a game of noughts-and-crosses") chafes at his own failures by blaming those he believes to have secured an unfair advantage; for Giles, people who run things are therefore one and all abhorrent:

As a result of this creed he was unconquerably opposed to all established institutions on the grounds that they were entirely - and therefore incapably - administered by persons whose sole claim to consideration was that they could command influence. His own phrase for describing briefly this approach to all social, political and economic questions was "being a bit of a radical:" a standpoint he was at pains to make abundantly clear to all with whom he came in contact.

If only he'd lived long enough to be a blogger!

Cheers to the U. of C. Press for being one of this reader's favorite institutions.


Modernism, with its implied critique of society, depends both philosophically and financially on sustaining the notion of an inside and an outside. Art simultaneously must provoke the confusion or disapproval of outsiders while flattering insiders who (at least claim to) "get" it. An insider thereby finds fellowship in a theoretically innumerable self-selected community of like-minded cognoscenti, which in principle can include anyone. Insiders become custodians for posterity, owning, caring for, appreciating art that others will reject but will eventually admire. [...] It must, or at least must appear to, be fluid, embracing different classes and backgrounds, while ultimately requiring a certain aesthetic and behavioral conformity.

-- Michael Kimmelman, NYRB

1 comment:

Michael Schiavo said...

"Do not be so impatient to set the town right concerning the unfounded pretensions and the false reputation of certain men of standing. They are laboring harder to set the town right concerning themselves, and will certainly succeed. Suppress for a few days your criticism on the insufficiency of this or that teacher or experimenter, and he will have demonstrated his insufficiency to all men's eyes."

Ralph Waldo Emerson
"New England Reformers"