Interpretation of Cultural Questions

Article excerpt

If there is a first-sentence test for books, Gary Taylor's passes handily. "Part of the meaning of Stonehenge," he offers by way of greeting, "is that we do not remember what it means."

Obviously the great stones were put there to last, indeed hurled at the future. And they have evident astronomical purpose, but that could have been achieved with materials less lasting. Stonehenge raises issues of endurance, significance, difference and remembrance from which are derived the laws of "Cultural Selection" Mr. Taylor explores in his book.

It is a bold book, delighting repeatedly with the writer's searching insights across a very wide field. It ranges from Stonehenge to the 20 years Richard Nixon spent "editing" himself for history; from Herodotus' immemorializing of Leonidas and the Three Hundred at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. to Mr. Taylor's listening to a CD recording of Stravinsky's "Le Sacre de printemps" - the original 1913 score of which was preserved, while Nijinsky's choreography for the ballet was lost.

In a world where culture is the gene pool of the race but America seems committed mainly to newness, Mr. Taylor sees collective commitment to the past contracting fast. He worries about a future dominated by "the homogenized Westernization of everything" and is more alarmed by MTV's molding of young minds than any long-term influence that feminism, multiculturalism or deconstruction are likely to have.

A Renaissance studies professor at the University of Alabama, Mr. Taylor is best-known for his book "Reinventing Shakespeare" and as general editor of the Oxford edition of the "Complete Works." In this book, he uses material accumulated during a literary career (Northrop Frye was an early influence), but also ventures into music, painting, sculpture, architecture and film, plus philosophy, political writing such as James Madison's, scripture and religion.

Like any specialist sallying out into a more open field - having a go at the big questions, so to speak - Mr. Taylor takes risks. Some of these pay off handsomely; others, if not entirely persuasive, have enough effect to have been worth the try. Some though, toward the end of the book, where some adventurous intellectuals tend to be accident-prone at the best of times, are not persuasive at all and leave the impression of a man riding his hobbyhorse.

Mr. Taylor carries the extra weight of an agenda, too, hoping not only to show why some works of art and culture last while others do not, but also "to offer an interpretation of culture compatible with a more progressive social agenda" than that of the conservative cultural critics who dominated the 1980s. Here also, the reader of no particular bias either way comes away crediting a mix of wins, places and no-shows.

Acknowledging debts to current specialist thinking about memory in "half a dozen disciplines," Mr. Taylor develops his "theory about the stories we tell each other" in three sections. The sections are devoted in turn to the experiences of life that impress us (stimuli); the books, paintings, films and other means (representations) by which we record experiences that impress; and the means by which we access the representations later on (remembering).

Mr. Taylor is at his best in the first two sections, while he is making his argument but thinking mainly about the past - not yet giving himself full rein to opine on literary canon wars, the cultural downside of capitalism, plight of the American Indian and other sorry aspects of present affairs.

Culture, he begins convincingly, starts with the death of the author. It is the survivors - for example, and conspicuous in recent memory, the widows of Osip Mandelstam, George Bellows and T.S. Eliot - who preserve the work and transmit it to a new generation. Then, if you take the Marxian view, all cultural artifacts are created equal; but no, says Mr. Taylor, some stimuli are stronger than others, and the long-term survival of even the strongest are never predictable. …