Highbrow and Lowbrow

 by Mary Jackson (May 2010)

he most highbrow thing I read is the Times Literary Supplement and I only read about half. Someone – I don’t know who – described it as  “the last refuge of pedantry and malice”, and the letters page is often delightfully sniffy. Take this:

Sudhir Hazareesingh complains, in his review of Gillian Tindall’s Footprints in Paris, that “it does not seem to occur to Tindall that poverty, exploitation and dispossession are also present in the rural world” (September 25). One might ask why he should expect to find such a concern in a book that is focused so closely on metropolitan life. Perhaps he should try her Célestine: Voices from a French village; that is, if he can deign to consider any further “reactionary heritage literature”.

Or this, from a letter on the subject of “Things-in-the-World”:

Sir – I am surprised by Jerry Fodor’s surprise that Michael Tye was saying (October 16) that “things-in-the-world … are constituents of (not just causes of, but constituents of) one’s phenomeonology”. Fodor goes on to confess: “It struck me that nobody could believe that.” I am surprised at this surprise…

Surprised? I was gobsmacked.

I couldn’t write letters like those, being only an occasional interloper in the land of the highbrow. I’m a middlebrow, preferring The Spectator to the TLS, Classic FM to Radio 3 and Radio 4 to most things. I like music to have a tune and paintings to look like something, which probably makes me a lower middlebrow.

A professor who rejoices in the name of W. A. Pannapacker defends the middlebrow, in which he includes the TV series Upstairs Downstairs. The latter was set in an Edwardian England in which everyone knew his place. The scullery maid knew that Upstairs was not for the likes of her, and the parlour maid, who got pregnant by the master, was “no better than she ought”.

Upstairs Downstairs was definitely middlebrow, being neither up nor down.

Middlebrow is better than lowbrow, argues Pannapacker:  

It wasn’t until I arrived in graduate school that I learned there were people who took the intellectual life for granted—who didn’t think reading was praiseworthy in itself—and who looked down on the striver’s culture from which I emerged as “middlebrow.”

“If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me ‘middlebrow,'” wrote Virginia Woolf in an unsent letter to the editor of The New Statesman, “I will take my pen and stab him, dead.” Woolf claimed to love “lowbrows”; “I study them; I always sit next the conductor in an omnibus and try to get him to tell me what it is like—being a conductor.” But middlebrows, she wrote, “are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality.” Middlebrow culture was a “mixture of geniality and sentiment stuck together with a sticky slime of calves-foot jelly.”

Suppose the bus conductor had responded by asking “What is this that roareth thus?” Woolf would not have approved, because A. C. Godley’s macaronic is nothing if not middlebrow. I suppose highbrow would be the Aeneid, and lowbrow would be “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.”

Where do Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and To the Lighthouse fit in? What brow are they? Did Woolf set out to write something highbrow, and would it still be highbrow if a bus conductor read it?

Some words are highbrow, and access to their meaning is denied to middlebrowsers like me. Try as I might, I cannot work out what they mean, yet those who use them do so without batting an eyelid – or raising an ‘ighbrow. Such words function like the Masonic handshake, bonding and excluding.

This month’s highbrow word is “essentialist”. I saw it today in a review in the TLS by Leo A. Lensing of a book about Karl Kraus:

There is no chapter or section in this book on “Kraus and the Jews” or “Kraus and Judaism”. [The author] undoubtedly meant to avoid the essentialist assumptions that such categories can invoke.

Undoubtedly. We don’t want to go invoking essentialist assumptions, do we? So “essentialist” is a Bad Thing, meaning something like over-simplifying” or “stereotyping”. Probably.

Harry’s Place blogger David T, who tries too hard to convince himself there is an “Islamism” distinct from “Islam”, writes:

[Robert] Spencer, in my view, essentialises Islam and Muslims.

There’s the e-word again, used pejoratively to mean something like “over-simplifies”. At least I think so; I don’t see what else it can mean.

There’s a whole lot of essentialising going on:

Klein essentialises a complex issue.

The concept of the cross-cultural is a key aspect of both diversity and cultural sustainability. Its interpretations stretch from a relativist view that essentialises and privileges difference to a universalist one that sees culture as one manifestation of the fundamental bond of common humanity.

An important feature of this discussion is the idea that women cannot be essentialised.

These writers seem to know what essentialising is all about and think, to a man, that it is a Bad Thing. But where do these negative connotations come from?  

Essentialist/essentialising aren’t in Merriam Webster, but essential is, with meanings as follows:

1 : of, relating to, or constituting essence : inherent
2 a : of the utmost importance :
basic, indispensable, necessary <an essential requirement for admission to college> b : being a substance that is not synthesized by the body in a quantity sufficient for normal health and growth and that must be obtained from the diet <dietary protein provides the body with essential amino acids> — compare nonessential 2

Essential is either neutral or positive. If Robert Spencer “essentialises” Islam, that could mean that he sees the important parts, such as the eternal war against unbelievers, and distinguishes these from peripheral aspects like the much paraded Five Pillars.

Essentialise and essentialist are gratuitously opaque. Highbrow or not, they are designed to throw dust in the eyes of the reader, and should be ditched. And don’t get me started on “quintessential” – that’s five times as bad.

Coming back to Virginia Woolf, the normally sensible ex-northerner, Jeanette Winterson. gives her a free pass. (See Theodore Dalrymple’s scathing comments on Woolf’s “servant problem” for a more realistic view.) Winterson thinks Orlando is “sexy, provocative and tantalising”:

It has every power to suggest that a commitment to gender is a waste of half a life.

Perhaps Orlando is sexy, provocative and tantalising – I haven’t read it. But if it suggests that “a commitment to gender is a waste of half a life”, then it is silly – essentialising even.

Leaving aside the absurd phrase “commitment to gender”, or “genre” as the BBC’s winning apprentice would call it, this “half a life” thing makes no sense to me. Those magazine articles you see, where a woman lives “as a man” for a day, or vice versa, make no sense either. If I were to spend a typical day – office, pub/theatre/eat, home/eat, TV, blog, bed – “as a man”, the main difference for me would be that I would use a different toilet. Much would be the same. I would get up, put on trousers and a shirt (but I call it a top), go to work and so forth. Of course, if I were a man, I would be able to speak forthrightly, and make dirty jokes. Oh, wait…

Many women’s lives are different from mine. I have no children, and little interest in make-up. I don’t claim to speak for all women or about all men. But generally, I have far more in common with an enlightened Western man – and wear less make-up than some – than with a Saudi or Somali woman.

Islam sees men and women as different species. Ne’er the twain shall meet – at least not as equals. Even the men in Islam waste half a life and the women have their whole lives wasted for them.  The battle of the sexes must surely take second place to the battle for civilisation.

Highbrow or lowbrow, if you wish to comment on this article, please click

To help New English Review to continue to serve all brow heights please click here

If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to read other articles by Mary Jackson, click here. 

Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome. 



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

Order here or wherever books are sold.

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend