Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Q&A with Martin Puchner




Martin Puchner is the author of the new book Culture: The Story of Us, from Cave Art to K-Pop. His other books include The Written World. He is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, and he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write this history of culture, and how would you define “culture”?


A: Friends and I were sitting around the dinner table, bemoaning the decline of the humanities. That fall, only 8 percent of the incoming class had declared an interest in the humanities. Ouch.


Suddenly, while wallowing in self-pity and a general sense of malaise, it occurred to me that I actually had no idea what the arts and humanities were. So, I started asking everyone I met. The responses were all over the place.


After a while, I realized that I was asking the wrong question. What I was really after was culture, the special things humans keep making, from cave paintings to sculptures to epic stories. Those things are useless, strictly speaking, except that they aren’t: they have helped the people who created them, and the people who interacted with them, to make sense of the world.


So, I started asking a different question: how does culture work? And what can we learn about us as a species from the history of these special objects? The result was Culture: The Story of Us.


Q: Your book The Written World also covered thousands of years. Did you use the same research process this time around, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: The main reason why I write books that cover a lot of material is the sense of discovery. In this book, I wanted to understand how cultures develop and change over time, so I started assembling a lot of case studies from different time periods.


I love this part of the process because there are so many small and larger surprises along the way. How Ashoka, the Indian King, tried to write messages for the future by inscribing extremely solid and visible stone pillars, but also how quickly these inscriptions became illegible because the writing system he used fell out of use.


Stories that should be much better known such as the Ethiopian sacred text, Kebra Nagast, which tells a fascinating story of the theft of the Ark of the Covenant, the shrine in which the Ten Commandments were kept. Once you take a dive into the ocean of culture, there isn’t a dull moment. The sheer variety and ingenuity of what humans have wrought is exhilarating.


And then, a second process starts: I slowly abstract from all the case studies and a bigger picture emerges, and I start to see patterns and developments.


What surprised me in this phase was the sheer variety of ways in which cultures borrow from one another. Often, it’s the work of unusual individuals, travelers, translators, traders, artists, storytellers, people curious about other cultures. Sometimes it’s a matter of groups of people, of one group imposing its own culture onto a defeated foe, or, conversely, it's a conqueror adopting the culture of the defeated, and most of the time, it’s everything in-between.


I started to keep a list of all the ways in which borrowing happens and then selected episodes that show that variety.

Q: The writer Anthony Doerr said of the book, “Culture is a breakneck, utterly captivating survey of the cultural transmission of ideas, stories, and songs—how they survive, change, vanish, and are borrowed, refined, coopted, and grafted through time.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m blushing with embarrassment (and am secretly pleased) because Anthony Doerr is a writer I admire immensely. I read Cloud Cuckoo Land the day it came out, in the fall of 2021, which was just around the time I was finishing my book, and I thought: this book does exactly what I am trying to do--but is so much funnier.


Usually, when people ask me about the difference between fiction and nonfiction, I say that I write nonfiction because it’s much more surprising, that you couldn’t make up half the things that really happened. But Anthony Doerr is an exception: his powers of invention are boundless.


Anyway, it’s a perfect and generous and brilliant description. I feel that, above all, it’s a description of Doerr’s own work, so I am thrilled that he sees my book in a similar light.


Q: You write, “The history of culture sketched in these pages has plenty of lessons for us today.” Can you say more about that, and about what you see looking ahead?


A: When I look at the incredibly rich and varied history of art and culture, the main lesson I take away is humility. If you include cave painting, the book covers some 35,000 years and still mentions only a tiny fraction of what humans have wrought. But even that tiny fraction is astonishing.


So, when confronted with that richness, I find myself bracketing many of my own opinions and values and beliefs, they suddenly seem much less certain and much less important.


A second lesson is closely related to the first. We all know that we live in a very censorious, judgmental age, an age of “culture wars,” and there are plenty of culture wars in the book. Again and again, I found that it’s people beholden to a misguided idea of purity who wreak the most havoc.


Why? Because culture thrives on borrowing and mixing. There is a lot of destruction in the book, either deliberate sabotage or strategic neglect, and almost always it comes a from deeply held puritan beliefs in moral superiority against which the past is judged and found wanting.


But then an interesting thing happens: history turns against these purists very quickly because their strict and restrictive value systems don’t last. I always try to keep that in mind now when I find myself censoring other cultures or the past for this or that presumed transgression.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Culture: The Story of Us is supposed to have a second life as an introduction to the arts and humanities, which is why I am in the process of turning it into a book teachers might assign as a textbook.


In many ways, this is a response to the steep decline in humanities enrollment in the US I mentioned earlier. Norton thought that what’s needed is a new, genuinely global textbook that gets students excited about the arts and culture.


Now that I’m doing this work of expanding, I’m finding it very hard, to tell you the truth. Textbooks need a certain amount of coverage, more coverage than I currently provide, but above all I want to immerse students in moments of culture, to help them envision how extraordinary works were created. I feel that the whole pedagogical enterprise will stand and fall with my ability to communicate that excitement, that sense of discovery.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: A book such as this one could not be written without the help of countless scholars on whose more specialized work I rely. Of course, all books have acknowledgment pages, but in this case, the acknowledgments are the core of the book.


I have been fortunate in that I have been involved in many collaborative projects such as the Norton Anthology of World Literature, so I know a lot of scholars working in far-flung fields and was able to consult them. But I also approached scholars whose work I admired but who I didn’t know at all, and they were incredibly generous with their time as well.


The fact that a book such as this one exists is an expression of collective scholarship. Often, I felt like I was simply a conduit, channeling the story of culture rather than actively telling it. When I look back now, perhaps that’s the answer to the question I started out with about the humanities, the one I couldn’t answer: they are the collective work of re-making culture in each generation.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Martin Puchner.

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