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April 8, 2014

Highbrow? More Like Huh?-brow!


I’ve always been interested in what classifies a book as “highbrow” or “lowbrow.” What elusive factors --- aside from the basic quality of the writing --- make some books more valued than others? And readers have different tastes; so who gets to decide these things, anyway?

But our culture seems to have an invisible yet ever-present value system; a mutual agreement of which books we would most proudly display of if we ever met an alien who asked to see examples of our art.

“Highbrow” books are valued in part because they gracefully address Deep, Meaningful Themes. But there are some that contain surprising moments…moments that would not be out of place in a raunchy comedy film that critics might roll their eyes at. Here are some typically “highbrow” works that contain things you might not expect:

THE WINTER’S TALE by Shakespeare
Obviously Shakespeare is a master of language. He slides between vastly different situations with ease, from zany hijinks to high tragedy. Among the aspects of his plays that have been studied --- meditations on death; the trials of the human heart --- there remains one thing that nobody can explain.

The “huh?” moment you wouldn’t expect: Bears. For no reason. Shakespeare was not known for his long stage directions. Typically “he enters” or “she dies” is the extent of it, but in THE WINTER’S TALE, there is a stage direction that says, “He exits, pursued by a bear.” No bears were mentioned prior to that scene and there was absolutely nothing leading up to that. This is equivalent to a Will Ferrell-esque movie where a bear appears for no reason…and this was written by the master of the English language.

ULYSSES by James Joyce
This masterpiece is truly an epic at nearly 1,000 pages and there is no question that it is “highbrow.” Jam-packed with literary references and dense writing, Joyce once said he put enough in there to keep the professors busy for hundreds of years. So far, he’s right.

The “huh?” moment you wouldn’t expect: Crap. Literally. Soon after one of the protagonists is introduced, there are a few pages dedicated entirely to him pooping.

The original “Little Red Riding Hood” by Charles Perrault
Like all fairy tales, because they are so ubiquitous across a variety of cultures, there are many different versions of this tale. In some, a huntsman saves Little Red; in others, she saves herself. She’s sometimes cunning, sometimes naïve and sometimes just plain dumb. In one of the first and most famous versions of the tale, the wolf tells her to climb into bed with him and she does…

The “huh?” moment you wouldn’t expect: First, she pauses to remove her clothing, despite the fact that the wolf never said anything about removing clothing. She does this of her own free will. Whether she realizes it is the wolf or whether she thinks it’s good old Grandma --- either way, what are you doing, Little Red? What are you doing?

WATCHMEN by Alan Moore
Okay, yes, this is technically a graphic novel, but it’s in Time Magazine’s “100 greatest novels” list so I guess if they count it, I can, too. This is no doubt a tour-de-force of the medium; a non-linear narrative that jumps decades and storylines with ease and creates rich, complicated characters that aren’t afraid to be un-heroic and deeply flawed. Moore was Christopher Nolan-ifying superheroes before Nolan did.

The “huh?” moment you wouldn’t expect: One character gets naked and f***s off to Mars. It makes sense in the context of the story, but it still seems like something out of a raunchy intergalactic college comedy. (Sadly, I don’t think “intergalactic college comedy” is a genre that exists. But it should.)

This might be the opposite of the other items on this list, because this work is famous not as much for talking about Deep and Meaningful Things as it is for being infamously taboo --- not only for its era, but by today’s standards, too. (Also if you’re wondering why I’m considering Sade “highbrow,” it’s because he influenced such people as Michel Foucault and Angela Carter. Nothing says you’ve made it to Highbrow like influencing people who appear in Norton anthologies).

The “huh” moment you wouldn’t expect: In the middle of all the explicit erotica, there is a long, sophisticated and progressive rumination on the philosophy and morality of a true republic.

When it comes down to it, between inexplicable bears, stripteases, f*ing off to Mars --- or any other activity that sounds like they should be in a comedy film that would be panned by critics --- books that have an inherent, agreed-upon Value are just as weird as other narratives that may not be as valued.  

These scenes are the equivalent of seeing a famous person take out the trash or pick their nose. “Highbrow” books are human too --- and maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss other books that have inexplicable oddities.