Rick McGinnis writes:
He begins the essay with a reminiscence of teaching a course called Advanced Prose Style, and a quiz that he gave his students – “15 or so would-be – or as we say today, wannabe – novelists and poets” – to gauge, by his standards, their cultural literacy. The list contained names and events like Sergei Diaghilev, Francis Poulenc, Mark Rothko, Alexander Herzen, the 1913 Armory Show, John Cage, the Spanish Civil War, George Balanchine and Jean Cocteau, and Epstein says that his students, mostly in their very early twenties, didn’t do particularly well.
Everyone loves a quiz, so of course I scanned the list and felt rather proud of myself that I was able to identify all but one of the names. (I had to look up Alexander Herzen, a writer and the “father of Russian socialism,” who, even according to his Wikipedia entry, was “almost forgotten” by his death in 1870.)
Of course, I’m almost 53 years old, and I’m not sure I could have scored so highly on Epstein’s quiz when I was in my early twenties. (Epstein admits that he probably wouldn’t have done much better himself.) I do know that I would have known nearly every name or event on the list by the time I was thirty, which really says more about how I spent my 20s. (…)
But getting back to Epstein’s list, I can’t help but think that many of the entries are there mostly for context, as bullet points in a historical appreciation and not as high points of art or inspiration. Looking at it myself, my reactions range from a stirring of interest (Rothko’s paintings, Balanchine’s choreography) to wry amusement (Cage’s music, Cocteau in general) to dark bafflement (the Spanish Civil War – why couldn’t they both lose?) to angry boredom (Russian socialism.) These are opinions that I’ve had years to develop, starting from real curiosity and tempered by experience and a life’s work of coming to understand my own taste, but none of them elicit real enthusiasm, and I honestly wish we could all come to a place where we happily and confidently reserve our energies for those rare things that stir real joy, interest or passion.