Being able to comfortably shift gears between “high” and “low” culture is one of the easiest ways in which a contemporary critic can gain the reader’s trust.
Culture Fever by Stephen Akey. Orchises Press, 307 pages, $24.94
By Matt Hanson
Not long before he died, Gore Vidal was asked whether there will be any great writers in the 21st Century. Vidal answered with customary severity: “Never mind the writers. Where are the readers?” When I’m in a pessimistic mood, I suspect that Vidal might be right. Social media (where, I’ll admit, I spend way too much time) chops up our attention spans to feed our insatiable desire for easily consumable and disposable prose. Of course, it’s not that there isn’t any literary talent out there. My fear is that the kind of loving commitment that deep reading requires is about to be swept into history’s shredder. Well, Vidal’s indignant shade may rest easy, at least for now. Stephen Akey, a New Yorker and librarian by trade, has published an essay collection that proves that at least one reader is still taking the time to pour over the right words.
Culture Fever is Akey’s fourth book. All the pieces have previously appeared in outlets like The New Republic, The Smart Set, and Open Letters Monthly. The collection was published by Orchises Press, a tenacious one-man publisher run out of a professor’s basement in the Washington DC suburbs. In the new volume, Akey takes deep dives through an ambitious serving of culture: fiction, poetry, music, and visual art. But like any self-respecting (and reader-respecting) critic, Akey’s perfectly aware of what he doesn’t know. And he is comfortable enough to cop to it: “Me, a highbrow? Surely I flatter myself. There’s a lot more I don’t know than I do.”
Yes, the classic works of antiquity move and fascinate him, but Akey confesses that “anyone as rabid as I am for the music of ZZ Top is not in a position to cast aspersions on those drawn to the more immediate gratifications of popular culture. I like to think that Beethoven would have dug ZZ Top. Maybe not, but he certainly didn’t disdain the folk music of his day.”
Being able to comfortably shift gears between “high” and “low” culture is one of the easiest ways in which a contemporary critic can gain the reader’s trust. (Specialism seems to have become the dead end of academia.) The other, of course, is through an evaluation of their taste. Refreshingly, Akey is a close reader of the old masters: Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Caravaggio, and Shakespeare among them. But he doesn’t take their greatness for granted. Akey likes Shakespeare’s comedies best of all, and admits that the rhetorical convolutions of The Winter’s Tale leave him more puzzled than exhilarated.
Reading through a painstaking analysis of Dickinson’s stark word choices or Stevens’s opaque imagery might sound like schoolwork, but Akey’s passion is infectious and his graceful attention to literary detail makes challenging work immediate. In a movingly observed piece on the romantic life of Thomas Hardy, he explores the tragic death of the writer’s first wife, viewing it through her husband’s increasingly devastated poetry, paying close attention to the ways in which the verse structures articulate the poet’s grief. Those carefully calibrated mediations on mortality bring Hardy face to face with the visceral impact of his cosmic pessimism.
Clearly, Akey cares deeply about the value of craftsmanship, and that is particularly valuable in a time when most people’s idea of poetry is more like a soggy diary entry or spontaneous gibberish shouted from an open mic. This is a critic who is far too in love with le mot juste to settle for that. But, crucially, the needle of Akey’s literary compass ultimately points beyond the domain of the page, towards the real work of life itself:
More than anything in the content, however, the poem teaches us how to live and what to do merely by being there. To read it, to hear its music, to ponder its mystery is already to live and to do so fairly intensely. There are equally intense ways of living and doing…but reading poetry is one of the things I do that helps me to live my life.
Akey is a very learned fellow, but he doesn’t let his smarts get in the way. He invites readers to join in on the fun, rather than just to observe him doing his analytical calisthenics. He has an engaging skill with creating literary portraits; figures as distant as the Roman poets Horace and Catullus come off as contemporaries. Horace’s world-weary wit and wisdom still resonates, and Akey has fun explaining that Catullus hurled the kind of insults at Roman nabobs that would have made Caligula blush. Nietzsche’s over-the-top late works, with their lively blasphemy and mocking ironies, is amusingly treated, dissected as an example stand-up comedy. A God who doesn’t know he is dead slips on every rhetorical banana peel laid out before Him.
Hyperliterate rascals get their due attention. Akey claims that he’s never read a better novel in English than Tom Jones, which is an intriguing claim, given that the volume clocks in at just shy of a thousand pages. His favorite fictional character is Milton’s Satan — the fallen angel gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost. (As Shelley dryly remarked, the Devil owes everything to Milton.) Chuck Berry is given his due as the brilliant wordsmith he was; a close reading of his compelling tune “Memphis” illuminates his skills as a minimalist storyteller, the equal of the grumpy Hemingway. Akey admits his lifelong love of opera was sparked by Fans, an ’80s-era concept album by Malcolm MacLaren, the sleazy impresario behind the Sex Pistols. His appreciations of The Talking Heads (despite, he laments, the unfortunate vanity that afflicts much of the group’s fan base), the sylph-like PJ Harvey, and the genius of Paul Westerberg are just as joyfully nuanced as his parsing of the high brow likes of Philip Larkin and Northrop Frye.
The book’s concluding piece is also its critical tour de force — a dramatic retelling of the tortured life and work of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the great painter of chiaroscuro who, always one step ahead of mayhem, created one masterpiece after another. Akey arranges the master painter’s life into sixty-nine individually numbered paragraphs, each focusing on a revealing moment. The device suggests a progression of individual canvasses that take us through the wild life of Italian painting and, naturally, Caravaggio’s gripping portraits of Biblical violence and suffering. The effect is cinematic, engrossing, and respectful, though unsentimental. (The essay’s title is “Thug.”) Caravaggio’s appetite for creation is more than matched by his dark yen for destruction. With scholarly concision and narrative pizazz, Akey dramatizes what facts are known about the man while exploring the myths that cocoon his reputation.
So what does this expert critic think about the future of attentive and appreciative reading? Will people grow tired of the constant stimulation of shiny things on shallow screens? Perhaps it will depend on whether culture is considered a matter of mental challenge/enrichment or an escapist vehicle filled with easy pleasures. Could it all come down to giving a damn whether or not others consider you pretentious?
As Akey explains in Culture Fever’s introduction: “Although I know enough about boredom in a theoretical sense to appreciate its importance…it’s something I’ve rarely experienced. Partly that’s because I find life too damn hard to be boring but it’s also because of my highbrow dispositions. Samuel Johnson said he who is tired of London is tired of life. Wheras I say he who is tired of seeing Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy for the third time or won’t wait in the rain outside the Frick Collection…that person may or may not be tired of life, but that person is definitely not me. Plenty of people think I’m pretentious. I don’t mind. I know how to think, I know how to talk, and I’m not bored.” A belligerently proud, and flexible, highbrow — no doubt just the kind of reader Vidal might have had in mind.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.