Acquired tastes

While it is often said with what seems to me a tiresome insistence that personal taste is the sole arbiter when it comes to appreciating and evaluating the arts, the extent to which we may direct those personal tastes is not, perhaps, too often acknowledged.

Goodness! – what a way to start off a new year’s blogging! I think I got a bit ahead of myself there, and started the post with a sentence that should, rightly, have come at the end – a conclusion, albeit a somewhat tentative one, rather than a starting point. But anyway – a Happy New Year to you all! Well, as happy as is possible, that is, given these strange times.

But if I may go back to the point I’d introduced a bit earlier than I think I should have done, I think it is most certainly true that one may, to a very great extent, direct one’s tastes in certain directions. I don’t mean, of course, that we may like whatever we set our minds upon liking, but that we do quite often set our minds upon liking certain things; that we do quite often end up liking them; and that we wouldn’t have ended up liking them had we not set our minds to like them in the first place. How else can one account for “acquired tastes”?

Most of the things I value most highly now, I find, I had to work at. I do not know whether my experience is typical: I rather suspect it isn’t. Looking back – which is something I feel I am entitled to do without disapprobation given I have now turned 60 – it could be because, during my childhood, taking in anything required an effort: the English I read in books, the English I heard in the classroom and on television, all needed to be translated into my native Bengali in my head before I could absorb it. So, taking my time and working at something before I decided whether or not I liked it became, as it were, second nature: I didn’t expect it to be otherwise, even when I had reached the stage when I discovered I had unmediated access to the English language. Love at first sight was never really for me. Lust at first sight – yes, frequently, as I discovered when I entered puberty; but love at first sight proved for me more elusive.

But let us move away from all this pointless amateur psychoanalysis. The truth, I think, is more likely to be that I am just a bit slow on the uptake, and that it takes time for anything to enter into my thick skull. But as long as it enters eventually, I think I can live with that. (I don’t think I have a choice in the matter, after all.) Most of my tastes I think are acquired, rather than spontaneous attractions. I didn’t take to chess immediately, nor to cryptic crosswords; nor even to single malt whiskies. And this is particularly the case when it comes to the arts. No doubt there are those who fall in love with Picasso on first seeing one of his paintings, or who become an ardent Wagnerian immediately on hearing Tristan und Isolde: I can only say that I am not among them. My first hearing of the now familiar opening strains of Tristan und Isolde merely prompted to my mind the question (and please pardon the profanity: I was young then) “What the fuck’s this?”

I was fifteen, I remember, when our English teacher at school (a lady of whom I have the fondest memories) presented us with Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”. I wouldn’t say I disliked it: rather, I had no idea what to make of it. I couldn’t, in modern parlance, engage. And I couldn’t engage because I didn’t have the first idea how to engage. But that is what the teacher was there for: that is what the education system itself was there for – to help me understand how to engage, and, equally importantly, help me appreciate why it was worth making the effort to try to engage. So well did my teacher succeed, that I remember going into the centre of Glasgow not long afterwards (we lived in the outskirts of the city back then) to buy myself a volume of Keats’ poems. I have that volume still, much battered, and much loved.

And this, I think, is where many go wrong. I see much on the internet, often from people claiming to be teachers or “educators”, arguing in favour of removing from the classroom works prominent in the canons of English literature on the grounds (among others) that children cannot “engage” with them. But engagement is not necessarily a starting point: indeed, if the work is difficult, or intricate, or requires a level of thought and of understanding that has not yet developed – in short, if it is a work that merits teaching – it will most likely not be a starting point. Engagement is, rather, the desired outcome of a good education.

And those acquired tastes help sustain me still – some acquired by my own efforts, and some others that needed a bit of help. I’m so glad my English teacher didn’t think that my lack of immediate engagement was a bar to my ability ever to engage; and I’m so glad she didn’t insult me by assuming that the horizons of a teenager of Indian background would not be up to encompassing the thoughts and feelings of an early nineteenth century Londoner. Britain in the 1970s was certainly far more racist than it is now, but that particular form of racism had not yet raised its ugly head. And for that I remain grateful: had I been left only to what I had loved at first sight, I’m not sure I’d have gone much further than glam rock.

And this is the point where I think I should have placed the opening sentence of this post. “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” Marlowe had famously written (and Shakespeare had approvingly quoted), but, with all due respect both to Marlowe and to Shakespeare, let me propose a New Year toast to all which we love, and which we spent time and effort learning to love – to all those acquired tastes that, over time, have proved well worth acquiring.

7 responses to this post.

  1. “Engagement is, rather, the desired outcome of a good education.” – spot on. It was never meant to be instant or easy…

    Reply

  2. I think you started and ended in just the right place, the ending really drives it home that most “love” at first sight, whether people or books, is probably more accurately described as lust!

    Reply

    • I guess I have to plead guilty here to comparing our relationship to the arts to relationship with people, but it’s a parallel I probably wouldn’t push too far! 😀 But it can be maintained, I think, that both with art (including literature) and with people, some relationships are more deeply engaged than others. I think many people who speak of engagement (in the context of literature, that is) tend not to consider the depth of the engagement. A good education in literature should teach not merely how to engage, but also how to engage deeply. But, of course, that can only be done with books that possess depth in the first place, and theories of education that don’t address this do seem to me not to go anywhere near far enough.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Janet on January 15, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    Goodness knows there’s plenty of literature to choose from in building curriculum. We read Cyrano; the other class read Romeo and Juliet. But then we read Julius Caesar and the other class got something else I don’t remember offhand. I never read Huck Finn in school, but I read (well, half) the Mayor of Casterbridge. Stirring the pot isn’t the problem; it’s what is stirred in and what’s left out that is worrying. Adopting Beloved is smart; adopting a book that is merely entertaining is not.

    If you think of a literature lesson plan as a dose of meds with a spoonful of sugar, then it’s bad teaching to set aside the meds in the hope that repeated administration of sugar will nurture a curiosity about cod liver oil. That’s a bad analogy, as higher level comprehension of the humanities is not really comparable to fish oil, but many people are encouraged to see it that way.

    It’s generational too–a teacher who “engages” at the same level as a fifth grader is unlikely to have the chops to introduce a sixth grader to anything revelatory. But how do you teach something you’ve never been taught and lack the tastes acquired only by investigating what the grownups are eating?

    Reply

    • Hello Janet,

      I think people who speak of “expanding the curriculum beyond the canon” (in practice, what they really mean is removing canonical works altogether) don’t seem to realise the sheer vastness of the canon. When they speak of canonical works, they invariably mention only a small handful of works that are commonly taught in American schools. In reality, the “canon” refers to works considered by informed opinion across several generations to be representative of the best that have been produced, and a list of such works is vast. It is even vaster when we consider not just the western canon, but the canons also of Persian literature, of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese literatures, etc. (When people describe canonical works as “hideously white” – and I’ve seen that expression come up often – it seems to be rather obvious that such people haven’t considered those canons that they may find “hideously brown”, or “hideously black”, or “hideously yellow”. But in any case, I find it profoundly depressing that the skin pigmentation of the author is even considered a criterion in such matters.

      I suppose there are students for whom one cannot expect much more than simply to “get them reading”, but if that is regarded as the goal for all students, we really are short-changing them badly. In the long run, I think the canon will survive: not merely survive, it will triumph. Even as people inveigh against it, new translations keep appearing of Homer, of Dante, of translations from non-western cultures, etc. These translations even turn up in the small bookshops in my locality, so presumably, they are selling. So I have no fear on that score. But it does upset me, I must admit, that this hostility I can’t help observing to high culture may, in the short term at least, seriously short-change a great many students who do deserve better.

      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by Bruce Floyd on January 20, 2021 at 9:57 pm

    It’s a mere coincidence but when I read your latest blog, the one, broadly speaking, about whether taste can be acquired, I had just finished Esther Menaker’s superlative book on the thought of Otto Rank. Unlike the pellucid prose stylist Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Rank’s German (for me it does) needs exegesis, one to sift and skim the obfuscation from his work. Menaker’s book is lucid, successful in explicating Rank to a degree that a layman such as myself can grasp most of that Rank has to say. I[d like, if you don’t mind, sir, to address the matter of taste, just a few fugacious lines, speaking with no real authority, from under no majestic aegis.

    Rank came from modest circumstances. When younger, in despair, he contemplated suicide, but, as it sometimes happens, he used his Will to change himself. He made a choice, know full well he was, knowing full well the results he wanted. He buried himself in libraries, spent his time in deep thought, in profound cogitation. In short, he willed himself to become what he imagined himself being. I recall that Northrup Frye said that our sensibilities are the results of our imaginative experiences, and one of the ways, if not the most salubrious way, to invoke our imagination is through literature. Dickinson was right: books are the frigates to carry us lands away. It a person have intelligence enough, and it need not be on a genius level, and if he or she has the will and drive enough, he or she can somehow find his or her sensibility commensurate to the imagination. A person is an act, not a fact. We are, to some degree, shaped by the books we read. I doubt most of those who relish the novels of Dan Brown read “Moby-Dick” on the side.

    This probably sounds like first-rate gobbledygook. I’m just a man who’s read Ernest Becker and through Becker I found Rank. For reasons I’m not sure I could expound upon, both make a lot of sense to me about the human condition. But, once again, what I take away from Rank, the antithesis of a thinker singing the verities of determinism, is that, yes, we can acquire taste, deeper and more profound taste, simply by willing ourselves to do so. Of course this willing must be followed by hard work, a difficult apprentice, if you will.

    Years ago, if you will forgive a foray into a personal matter, I determined I’d find out what men I admired loved about the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I was an ignorant boy from the rural south, and, frankly, she baffled me, but I, embarrassingly aware of my fathomless ignorance decided early on in college that if my cultured professors prized a writer for whom I could generate no affection, for whom I could sift no reason or joy, then the fault was mine. I was missing out on what one might call a major joy of life (it was the same with painting and music). I worked hard, at both reading and writing, and now, all these years later, Miss Dickinson, along with Stevens and Larkin and Hardy and a few others are my favorite poets. Their volumes sit within arm’s reach of where I sit to type these few words. It’d be fair to say that my reading life gravitated to the canon–let canon mean what it will.

    It sounds boastful, even arrogant, I understand, but I willed myself to persist at my task, and now, though still ignorant, as we all are in this complex world of self-consciousness in which we don’t even know our purpose, in which we seem to cling to illusion since reality eludes us, I find my sensibility, the way I evaluate and interpret the world, much different that it was when I was, say, twenty years old. I dare not profess myself wise, but I can say that I am–or so it seems to me, much wiser now than I was when i was a young man. Perhaps Blake is apposite here; “If a fool persists at his folly he will become wise.” Yet, I suppose each of us, though loath to admit it, know the tent of ignorance has permanently pitched a tent in a corner of our hearts. At three in the mourning the wretch exits the tent to mock us. A gastric rumble reminds even the most illustrious genius that he’s a dying animal, food for worms, a congeries of ephemeral flesh.

    Well, you might conclude, probably do, that, alas, the years did not bring me the virtue of brevity, and it’s certainly no virtue to be a garrulous ninny, so let me close with a few lines from Menaker’s book. Here’s what she says about Rank:

    “Since he was not committed to a deterministic philosophy, Rank saw personality not as fixed by the stamp of influences of the past, but as a continuously evolving process open to change and choice by virtue of its creative potential. Rank perceived the power of the self-creating will in terms of his own experience–that is, of not duplicating the lives of his forebears, but of creating his own lights, and, subsequently, through various phases of his growth and development, of transcending himself.”

    Bruce Floyd

    Reply

    • Hello Bruce,

      Firstly, thank you very much for your fascinating comment. And secondly, I have, once again, to issue an apology that I have been issuing quite frequently recently – an apology for not having replied promptly. And please do not worry about not being brief: “Brevity is the soul of wit” is a line spouted by one of Shakespeare’s most witless of characters.

      I think Rank is certainly right that the taste we develop is, to a great extent, the product of our will. And, further, that personality is, within certain parameters, a constantly evolving process. This blog has only been going some eleven years (I started soon after my fiftieth birthday), and even in those eleven years, even at a time of life when one would expect one’s tastes to be fairly settled, my tastes and values – in certain areas at least – have changed to such a degree that I find many of my earlier posts rather embarrassing to read.

      Of course, poets such as Dickinson or Stevens, Larkin or Hardy (I nearly wrote Laurel and Hardy there!), require work. (Wallace Stevens, especially, is a poet who still, all too often, eludes me.) How else is one going to appreciate such poetry if not by working at it? And how else can one compel oneself to work at it if not by an act of the will?
      It doesn’t follow, of course, that one may will oneself to like anything: our individual temperament inevitably plays a big part. But I do tire of facile dismissals of works the reader clearly has not made the effort to absorb.

      My best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

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