How, then, do we get from H. Rider Haggard to Anthony Bourdain? Let’s start with the easy and straightforward. Both are white men, as are Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola for that matter. Haggard was British; he was born in the 19th century and died in the 20th (1856-1925). Bourdain was American, born in the 20th and died in the 21st, at his own hand (1956-2018). It’s easy enough to interpolate the other two: Joseph Conrad, Polish-British (1857-1924); Francis Ford Coppola, American (1939 and still living).
So much for bare biography. It’s the imaginative life that interests.
Haggard wrote a ton of novels, many of them well-known. The Allan Quatermain stories, starting with King Solomon’s Mines, are said to have inspired the character Indiana Jones. She: A History of Adventure marked the beginning of a different series and is one of Haggard’s best-known novels. If not exactly a high-culture masterpiece, it has been quite influential as one of the founding texts of “lost world” fiction. Wikipedia tells us that it’s been made into 11 films and sold over 83 million copies, making it an all-time fiction best seller, and has been translated into 44 languages.
The gods of irony are smiling. I recently attributed the existence of the TV-show Jersey Shore as the closest thing to an insult I could fathom for myself, when comparing myself to Christians who regularly want things banned. Then, thanks to Jerry Coyne, I discovered my old friend – my seriously old and now obviously senile friend – academia has cozied up to said show, in order to get them young folk interested in “bigger questions”.
Not so long ago, the University of Chicago had an academic conference on Jersey Shore, where the various sessions discussed important topics like: “The Monetization of Being: Reputational Labor, Brand Culture, and Why Jersey Shore Does, and Does Not, Matter”, “The Construction of Guido Identity” and “Foucault’s Going to the Jersey Shore, Bitch!”. What are the merits of having conferences on pop-culture, where questions are discussed on metaphysics, ethics and “identity” (I still don’t understand that topic)? Anchoring these questions to pop-culture topics, like Jersey Shore, is like putting scented oils on a corpse, serving little purpose other than to keep our breakfasts down before we bury the whole mess and carry on with our actual lives.
Coyne certainly thinks it’s largely useless:. He says: “(1) I’m not a huge fan of academic pop-culture studies, which seem shallow, too infested with postmodern obscurantism, and bad in that they replace more substantive material that can actually make students think deeply about things. (2) Pop-culture courses seem to me to be an easy way for professors to attract students by tapping into their t.v.-watching and music-listening habits.”
Now those are two distinct points. The first part argues that pop-culture conferences are largely useless, a waste time and resources, too indulging in obscurantism, and replace actual learning with the illusion of grappling with profound subjects because the titles indicate “big questions”. The second part points out why such conferences exist at all and how professors can be comfortable teaching this with a straight face: it gets them students, therefore maintains income because more students would come to a course on Jersey Shore than just vanilla ones on Plato, etc. The second is a description and seems to me obviously true: It is one way to keep education alive, one way to secure oneself a regular job, and so on, by affixing your learning toward what your audience actually cares about.