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January 8, 2011 / ozifrog

highbrow 101

According to Wikipedia, that most reliable source of information on the internet, highbrow was originally simply a physical term. That strange mob, the phrenologists, used to measure and feel up people’s heads,  their actual heads, and make conclusions about the person, their intelligence, personality and character. The higher brow on the head was associated with someone more culturally elite.

So what is considered highbrow? From outside or within a given area, you get a different answer, that’s my proposition. From outside, classical music his highbrow. From within, mahler may be highbrow, but strauss lowbrow, handel’s messiah, with its popularity, musical in jokes and cheeky layering low to middlebrow (more on this category later) but his Zadok the Priest or Tamerlano are so well respected they could only be highbrow. For some people, the highbrow is celebrating that which is harder to like, less obvious, more difficult to get a handel (!) on.

But let’s stick with the basics now: highbrow music: classical, opera, chamber, choral, jazz. Lowbrow music: rock, house, punk, thrash, funk, hip hop, rap etc etc etc. Highbrow writing: broadsheets, literature, plays, creative non fiction. Lowbrow writing: mills & boon (man do I have a lot to say on this one), blockbuster novels, some travel writing, daily non broadsheet papers, your cosmo, dolly, new idea women’s day type mags. Ah the list could go on…and it will. Food, clothing, travel, cars….

I was thinking how many blogs (despite being very new to the arena) seek to categorise the world, and wondered if this was a good thing. Lists, categories, tags. Put things in boxes. I was wondering is this this a problem. I think it is a natural human instinct. Categorisation makes sense of things, categories give us less things to remember, a systemised ordered way of making sense of the world. Numbers. Colours. Animals. Plants. We categorise things from our earliest adventures in speech. It is humans making a place in the world. Sorting. It, the  process of categorisation, isn’t bad in and of itself. It is living WITHIN those boxes that is a problem. Categorisation is a good place to start a discussion…or an argument.

Today I was driving to work, sort of late (try 11am but I have a fairly flexible workplace), listening to the bookshow on Radio National in Australia. I hate the host – she’s the worst interviewer ever and asks questions and makes long winded statements over the top of the authors – but it has excellent content. Anyway, Anna Funder was reading from her quite acclaimed book, Stasiland. Stasiland was at one point in my to read pile. High brow? I don’t know. Possibly closer to high than low. The book is non fiction, stories from people she interviewed post Berlin wall about their experiences in the former East Germany. I enjoyed it, enjoyed her reading of it, and now intend to go out and get the book. I had echoes of the movie the lives of others, which I adored and intend to make many other people watch I found it so beautiful. Her tale today was about deciding to find people to interview, deciding to do the book, after wandering around the city. It was compelling, their tales, brief bounces of her surface sometimes, chance wonderings.

I was also thinking, to me, Berlin is highbrow. Berlin is a city, that when I travelled to it, it didn’t let me in. I didn’t GET Berlin. I have spoken to other people who felt exactly the same as me about the place. Then others rave, saying it is the best place they have ever spent time in, a place with a unique soul, embracing change and progress. Part of getting a city, for me, was finding the reality to match the city it was in my head. Seeing the Paris in my head with its Eiffel tower, the arch of the bridges over the river, the sidewalks overflowing with cafes. Seeing the London in my head. Seeing the Prague in my head. Yet I got to Berlin and there was no Berlin in my head. I had nothing. No image. I had nothing to hold on to the city with. And despite quite a few nights, plenty of doing and seeing, I never did get that handle on Berlin. Perhaps that untouchability of it why I see it as highbrow. Perhaps Anna Funder will help me pick up Berlin and turn it around in my hands. I wonder whether the dichotomy that Germany lived in is what makes the place, after the wall, unknowable. It can’t be categorised, because it just doesn’t fit in the boxes in my head.


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