“Things that are easy to swallow are hardly ever nutritious.”
Nothing of worth ever begins as something popular. Something of outstanding worth usually has to make its way gradually, moving on timid steps, out into a hostile, indifferent world. It doesn’t bolt into the spotlight like an extravagant starburst. It moves on hesitant steps, always extremely vigilant, because on all sides looms The Popular which can overwhelm it or lead it astray. A work of extraordinary merit usually it takes a great deal of time to gain its footing, and it requires a lot of exposure, analysis and comparison before a book or a painting or a play or a beautiful building are recognized as being “the real thing.”
That recognition can be as slow as a glacier’s progress. When the Italian Dante finished his The Divine Comedy,” the critical opinion of the day damned it as “Gothic obscurantism.” It isn’t. It is measured, stately and beautiful. Today, it is extolled as one of the great narrative poems in Western Civilization. It took 150 years for the greatness of Shakespeare to emerge, thanks to the Romantics. Even The Iliad, Homer’s masterpiece, required a long span of time before its imperishable beauty was praised. The Greeks of Homer’s time were so corrupt, they even denied that the Trojan War took place. Homer’s work was dismissed as mere fraudulence.
Great art is like a message in a bottle. The heaving sea is populated with acres of bottles bobbing on the swells. A curious onlooker can idly fish out a bottle and take out the message. If the message has no interest for him, he lets it fall into the surf. If it appears to have brief interest, he may perhaps hand it to his neighbor who might gaze at it for a minute, then discard it. This is where endowments of intelligence and gifts of emotional depth and perceptiveness begin to play a part. Say we have a mind that consistently spends its time reading, observing, reflecting, and meditating. Over time, he or she is going to develop skills based on those activities. He or she will lead two lives, the personal and the intellectual. The skills from the latter depend on the growth of insight, vivid interests and focused observation.
So what happens when a richly endowed mind comes across the message? It will not read the message idly, but with genuine curiosity. If it is a trifle, he throws it away, but if it isn’t, he will consider it, examine it, create a scale of importance, rate it, and if he has friends of similar temperament and gifts, will pass it on to them. In other words, the reaction of his friends will vary according to their brains and emotional depth, but it isn’t likely that they would want to discard it without a hearing. Soon some preliminary agreement will be forged about the worth of the message. Analytic comparisons take place. That is how fame is established and spread. Fame depends on convincing the skeptical.
So what establishes value? The passage of time. Time weeds out nuisances and but keeps the worthy creations and onlookers and readers will begin to rank them in the scale of importance and excellence. There is always a struggle taking place in a civilization between the cheap and glamorous and the quiet and truthful. The more our nature is limited, the more our brains and feelings are shallow, the more likely they will be to praise what is worthless and to exalt what is false and dubious. Integrity grows in our character only by overcoming the inferior elements of or minds and supplanting them with something more alert and astute. If you have a nature that risks ridicule because it halts to think before it pronounces, you have a nature that is honest. It may be mistaken at times, and may come to repudiate its earlier judgments, but if it has integrity, it will demand repeated efforts to correct its earlier misconceptions.
The best in us wants to admire the admirable, not the shoddy and flimsy imitations of it. We do not want to substitute something that has an enduring value, something that acts to stimulate accomplishments for something flashy and worthless, and yet people do that all the time. They forget that the popular is usually the radically unsound because the popular caters to our mental or spiritual limitations. Popularity is a mirage that masks merit. The first idea to delight the mind may not be a sound or noble one. It may beguile, mislead, stupefy, and it may lead he mind completely astray. The goal of our thought should be clearer or more accurate and more deeply felt perceptions of our own common life. To obtain greater clarity of sight, we have to shun things that pretend to be insightful or durable when it fact, they betray and blind us.
Masterpieces of art enter the world like messages in a bottle. There are hordes of bottles bobbing about in the broad sea, and in each bottle, is a message that seems like all the others, until a reader or spectator, or a discerning critic takes the message out and is exalted by it. Of course, the spread of its fame can be tantalizing slow, as you can see from the examples above. Some natures, receptive, richly endowed with feeling and superior brain power will come across them, and they will work tirelessly to save them from oblivion. But, as I said, that takes time.
In a democracy, whose political ideology declares that all men and women are created equal is a worthy political goal. But if you move beyond politics, we encounter the array of masterpieces in Western Civilization, and to appreciate them requires exceptional gifts of temperament and mind. What is a masterpiece? A masterpiece is a work of an artist whose ambition was to construct something so beautiful, so humanly dramatic and poignant that it will endure beyond the reach of Time. That is the aim of genuine artists whether their art is sculpture, painting or writing architecture or composing musical masterpieces.
Each of our minds has the gift of integrity, but embracing the popular is a certain way to degrade that gift. Of course, the question must be asked, how can something be mistaken when hordes of morons sing its praises? Because that praise is based on inadequate perceptions and inferior judgments. It may be based on ignorant familiarity or based on what the neighbors say. But in order to develop, the mind must start to ask questions of itself. What is it about the popular that is so priceless and imperishable? Will the popular still be revered in a few years or a few decades or will feckless fashions and fads demote it until you then find out, to your horror, that you have worshipped what was worthless, that you supplanted your integrity with something false and ephemeral.
Coming to the sound conclusion about matters of art or politics requires powers of judgment. A sound mind questions not only what it believes, but how it came to belief it. How did it invade our mind? What put it there? Neighbors steering us into the wrong path? By ill- informed friends that tried to have you endorse their faulty conclusions as your own in the name of fellowship?
The weight of numbers is always on the wide of the stupid. Think of history, of popular fads, the US military leaders who, before Pearl Harbor, said Japanese would never be competent pilots because their mothers carried them on their backs when they were babies. Think of your own examples. How did such idiocy gain approval? How did such rank nonsense get passed around as if it were the authoritative truth?
An error repeated two million times is still an error. It is something inferior and weak that postures as strength. It is something shoddy that the meagerly gifted natures among us embrace as something priceless because mediocrities are always gullible and sell themselves cheap. Mediocrities lack critical talents. They lack the moral courage to deride the inferior.
If you admire a rock or a tree or a bird in your backyard, should make the effort to see many trees or many rocks or birds as you can in order to erect a sense of hierarchy that makes clear which of them has merit and superior durability.
Remember that true merit is the enemy of popularity. True merit is not immediately recognizable. Its voice is a still one. It doesn’t bray, it doesn’t posture, and it doesn’t strut. It convinces the open- minded who are determined to grow, not conform – minds that display a hunger to share what they have learned with similar minds. They are not startled or put out by an unfamiliar note. And remember, that note may be heard by others, who may stop to listen, wondering what its meaning is. Idiots are always certain that their truths are absolute simply because they rule the day. But the thoughtful, the generous, and the unbigoted, always keep an ear cocked for the new note and are willing to spend the energy to decipher its meaning.
Popularity is a vulgar steamroller that flattens everything good or bad. It makes no distinctions. It is incapable of measuring accurately something unfamiliar which it discards as useless. Merit takes time to create its own appeal. Popularity is like a train announcer, herding and ordering pliant minds to and fro.
The goal of education is to train the intellectual and emotional endowments of each of us, no matter unequal they are, to appreciate the complex, the subtle, the depthful, the outstanding in culture and art. Inequalities will always exist, but with help, each of us can become something deeper, more serious, more earnest and more determined to make the effort to improve. If education doesn’t do that, it has failed us.
Remember, your perceptions are sacred and inviolable – trust them. Believe what you see. Other people may see it, but they will never see it in the same way. That is the truth. What they see is not what you see. In proportion that you are endowed with an original turn of mind, cling to what you saw. Never be talked out of it. Never surrender your sight to what others say about it. I have told here on the site about being three years old and standing behind a red barn when I saw two lights. Then I saw four and ran away. I was constantly mocked by my parents, but then a dog was an eviscerated, and it became clear that a pair of bob cats lived behind the barn. It was the light of their eyes I saw.
The monotony of other people’s inert reaction to anything out of the ordinary teaches us little plus it disheartens. Be observant. Be a remembering animal. If you don’t know the meaning of what you saw, keep it tucked away until additional facts make clear its meaning. What rules today is what is popular with greater number of people. But how qualified are they to judge? Most are not. There are exceptions of course, but it is their fate of any good things to be ignored or, worse, shouted down. Familiarity seems to be the standard of acceptance today, but familiarity is a mere habit. It never probes, questions, reexamines. It is incapable of new and original conceptions.
What is truly disgusting and retarding to the mind’s development are the paid trolls of TV news whose see their jobs as schemes for betterment rather than the discovery of new truths, new original insights, or new angles of vision. They originate nothing. They endlessly drink each other’s bathwater. Their minds are like rats circling the bottom of a piss pot. They can’t stray or explore and can do nothing to escape their narrow orbit to which they are everlasting condemned.
We can learn nothing from them except their defects and what to avoid. It is ungifted mediocrities who teach us to think in unison. Yet our minds and nature are individual. There is no getting around that. Each of us unique. Each of us has gifts which are uniquely our own. Be faithful to them. Feed them, nurture them, encourage and support them. Mental riches will be your reward.
I have seen books described as “page turners.” What does this mean? Are they easy to breeze though? Are they are driven by plot rather than character? Can you skim over them and yet obtain a good idea of what they are about? What was the writer’s point in writing them? Fame? Money? Being seen on the TV news? How can a good writer expect to convey what he has accomplished in two minutes on the air? A crowd is nothing but impatient and superficial. Do they want to be inspired by a thoughtful explanation? Detailed analysis? Your success depends on making a favorite impression on the audience so be modest, be humble, throw yourself on the crowd’s compassion, and perhaps they will understand the exertion of reading what you worked so hared to write.
Finally, you can only praise what your mind grasps. If you are tone deaf, even the most magnificent music would be unable to impress or move you. To the deaf, music would be like knocking on a locked door. No one will come to answer.
We must cultivate in ourselves what resists. We must resist the easy, the effortless, the fascinating, the mindlessly diverting, the inert, the routine, the bland habit. All these work to dethrone the virtues of the mind. You don’t sharpen a blade by hitting with a stone. But that is what the TV news does. It dulls the edge of the mind and once the edge is gone, the blade is useless.