November 24, 2015
Bragging about how stupid you are is not attractive
Joseph Epstein needs to hang around with smarter people:
For many years I taught an undergraduate course in prose style to would-be writers. At one point in the course I used to present my students with a list of 15 or so items that included such names and events as the Peloponnesian War, Leon Trotsky, Serge Diaghilev, the 1913 Armory Show, the Spanish Civil War, Nicolas Chamfort, Boris Chaliapin, C. P. Cavafy, the Dreyfus Affair, and a few others. I asked how many knew who or what these items were. A few among them knew one or two of the names and events listed. I said that, at 20 years old, I myself could not have done better than they. I then added that, if one wanted to pass oneself off as a cultured person one had to know such things and a great deal more. My sense is that these students were, as I hoped they would be, as I myself as an undergraduate was, properly cowed by their own ignorance.
I was talking over the phone one day with another friend, Samuel Lipman, who as a child was a piano prodigy and later a powerful music critic and with Hilton Kramer a founder of the New Criterion. Sam was dying of leukemia. I told him I had heard that Steve McQueen had gone to Mexico for laetrile treatment for his cancer. Following a pause, Sam, who was then 58 and had spent his entire life in the United States, asked, “Who is Steve McQueen?”
At 20 — hell, at 16 — I would have done quite well on Epstein’s undergrad quiz, from the looks of it.
And I know who Steve McQueen is, to boot.
Some of us do manage.