Misquoted and misattributed (by David Starkey among others, tut-tut), the line “when I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my gun” is gaining mass appeal these days.
To set the record straight, neither Goebbels nor Goering ever uttered it, though the aphorism does have a Nazi provenance. It comes from the play Schlageter written by the Nazi poet laureate Hanns Johs, whose artistic attainment was rewarded with the rank of SS-Gruppenführer. The original line ran “Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!” (“When I hear of culture… I release the safety catch of my Browning!”)
By now the word ‘culture’ has been so inflated that it has finally burst, losing its meaning and breaking up into little fragments. Every possible modifier is these days attached to the poor lost word, such as ‘pop’, ‘counter-’, ‘alternative’, ‘mass’, ‘drug’ or even, in the naughtier contexts, ‘Greek’ or ‘French’. When a word can mean anything it means nothing, and ‘culture’ is another proof of this.
But for my purposes it’s sufficient that we stick to the original sense of the word. It was first used by Cicero in the phrase cultura animi – cultivation of the soul, a commendable destination that can be reached by many different roads.
To put a more Western, which is to say Christian, spin on it, we all have souls, and they’re all teleological, that is reaching for the same ideal and absolute end. When culture was thus understood, it was inherently inclusive. For all our distinctions of class and status, in this one sense we’re all in the same boat, and it’s sailing to the same harbour.
That is exactly how culture was at the time when the word began to gain wide currency, in the XVIII and XIX centuries. This doesn’t of course mean that culture in those days was monolithic, devoid of any sub-divisions. It wasn’t. Rather culture then resembled a building, which has high and low floors but they’re all parts of the same structure.
Music, being the quintessential Western art, provides a good illustration of this symbiotic relationship among various cultural tiers. Practically every great Western composer, from Byrd to Bartok, loved, collected and widely used simple folk motifs – unlocking their potential, moving them from the ground floor to the penthouse, but never looking down on them from the height of his genius.
Opera, that most synthetic of musical genres, was from its very inception equally accessible to every social and cultural level because in a way it appealed to the entire high-low spectrum of taste. In Vienna and Prague, the aristocrats would take their seats in the boxes, the bourgeois in the stalls and the lower classes up in ‘paradise’ – but they’d all listen to Don Giovanni or Figaro with equal intensity and then applaud with equal gusto.
This is a far cry from our supposedly egalitarian time. The Christian foundation of the cultural structure has been blown up, the building collapsed, and its inhabitants have all gone their separate ways. They no longer belong together, and they tend not to treat one another in the spirit of equanimity. Instead they take a detached look at one another’s taste and realise they don’t like it very much.
These days people of cultivated musical tastes are revolted by pop excretions and disgusted by their perpetrators. Lovers of pop ‘music’, on the other hand, despise real music for being elitist, effete, posh and generally undemocratic. This animosity is no longer just intellectual but visceral, physiological.
To illustrate, a few years ago I argued with a group of very nice middle-class girls in their twenties, who insisted on playing pop cacophony in the office. The argument was somewhat one-sided, for, as their institutional superior, I could insist that they turn the CD player off whenever I entered the room. But, my innate didacticism getting the better of me, I once made them listen to a chorale from a Bach cantata.
That this experience didn’t produce an instant conversion was predictable. But what surprised even old cynical me was that the girls clearly experienced acute physical discomfort. One of them even had to take her chiselled features and preppie clothes out of the room after the first few bars. They didn’t just dislike the music – they resented it.
This hints at a rift in society that is far wider and deeper than the split between ‘right’ and ‘left’ politics. In fact the political rift is largely a result of the cultural fissure between those still trying to hang on to the remnants of Christendom and those loathing and trying to destroy its every legacy.
No more gentle village songs (in fact, by and large no more villages) with their simple but memorable tunes and lyrics. Instead we have the hateful, nihilistic, anomic words screeched unmusically to the accompaniment of incoherent noise. Most of this so-called music is based on three chords, but even this primitive kindergarten fare is drowned in mind-numbing electronic din.
Rather than cultivating the listener’s soul, this obscenity appeals to the basest instincts and sensibilities, and we all have them. But our traditional civilisation was there to mitigate the worst and bring out the best in us. What passes for civilisation today does exactly the opposite – and does it deliberately.
Never before in history did low culture spring solely from hatred, never before did it bypass people’s minds and souls, appealing instead to their gonads. This being the case, purveyors of pop ‘music’ target mostly youngsters, whose gonads are at the strongest, and minds and souls at the weakest, they’ll ever be.
The purveyors can then bawl their hatred of bourgeois culture all the way to the bourgeois bank. Women’s tennis aside, I can’t think of any other field where those bereft of the basic tools of their trade can become millionaires at an early age. Closely related industries, such as drugs and pornography, also do well in and around pop.
Whenever a child is corrupted sexually, we’re up in arms, and with good reason. Stamping a child’s soul into dog’s droppings, on the other hand, doesn’t raise even the mildest of objections. Yet I submit that, for usually being irreversible, it’s the latter that does far greater damage.
Pop music is a battering ram driven at the heart of what used to be the greatest civilisation in history. The wall has been breached, and the vandals are launching their final assault.