Did you know that when Shakespeare’s Juliet asks Romeo, “Wherefore art thou?”, she is not asking ‘Where are you?’ But ‘Why are you?’ In other words, she is not wondering where he is, but instead she is lamenting the fact that he is a Montague, rather than a Capulet, as she is. Their families are feuding, so she wishes his last name was anything but Montague because perhaps then he would receive acceptance from her family and they could marry without any interference or disapproval.
Whether or not someone knows that has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. If we know it, it just means that we’re lucky enough to have been exposed to that knowledge, a knowledge that is gained through reading. Familiarity with the fine points of Shakespeare is one (but just one) mark of an educated, cultured person. Familiarity with paintings, music, especially classical, different areas of the world, and manners are all marks of a cultured person. No one knows everything about everything. But the more we read, the more we travel, the more we know about history and politics, and the more we discipline ourselves to have emotional intelligence and understand human nature, the more we will lead a rich inner life that can only be imagined, if you will pardon the pun.
Taking pride in being a cultured person appears to be becoming a thing of the past. People can tell you about Honey Boo Boo, but if you talk about whether or not Nietzche believed that God was dead, they will give you the blankest of stares. Honey Boo Boo does not take a lot of thought, other than the frustration that her mother is willing to exploit her to such a degree for the sake of realizing D-level fame.
Speaking of fame, there’s a joy that comes from knowing that French music contains lyrics that speak to universal frustration about dreams not realized. An example is Luc Plamondon’s Les blues du businessman, which compellingly tells the tale of a businessman who had big dreams that he never fulfilled. Instead, he can only dream of a life he never lived, while he sits in his office and ponders better things, like fancy hotels and restaurants. A lot of people are similarly frustrated, and so the lyrics are haunting and moving. They make you think, a lost art in today’s society.
German literature is also interesting. Although I do not think anything collectively will ever beat English literature, German literature has such vital human portraits as Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit, where a town’s morals are compromised by the offer from a wealthy former resident of the town to give the townspeople millions of dollars if they will kill the man who took advantage of her when she was younger. Over the course of the play, the morals of the townspeople weaken as they begin to rationalize and justify the murder of the former scoundrel. Another example of interesting German literature is Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where a bank employee wakes up as vermin. Over the course of the story, we read that he has complicated relations with his family and fellow bank employees. We realize just why Gregor, the main character, wrestles with his identity, or at least we consider some possibilities. Again, important questions about human nature are raised in this novella.
Watching shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians is fun. I’m not saying that people should stop, necessarily. I’m certainly not going to. But dreck like that should be balanced with literature and other forms of culture that celebrate the human spirit, and inform us about the vagaries of human nature. That way our inner lives will be enriched in ways we have never imagined.