Adventures in Cultural LiteracyBy Tyler Stoddard Smith
October 12, 2009
What does it mean to be literate? That one’s pretty easy; it means you know how to read. What does it mean to be cultural? That one’s a little tougher; it means you know that in most situations, it’s unacceptable to put your cigarette out on a dachshund. And so what does it mean to be “culturally literate?” Many have posed this question (Harold Bloom, the Yale professor currently encased in acrylic and preserved for posterity does it a lot.), yet no one has truly come to terms with an accurate answer. My uncle Seamus once remarked that “cultural literacy is for homosexuals,” but he was urinating in a koi pond at the time, so who knows? I suggest we journey together to see if we can’t get to the core of this labyrinthine dilemma. Perhaps the most logical first step is learning how to read (I’ll wait for a few minutes)… Sweet. Our next step is to determine what exactly is “cultural.” Below are a few undeniably cultural items in the realm of architecture, literature and music. Let’s familiarize ourselves with these things, and then we can begin to get a handhold on what it means to be culturally literate.
The Eiffel Tower
Perhaps the most recognizable man-made structure in the world, The Eiffel Tower is a must-see for any culturally minded person. Completed in 1889 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the French Revolution(1), the Eiffel Tower serves as a constant reminder that not everything in Paris is covered in dog feces.
The tower stands well over 1,000 feet high, something I discovered after dropping a crêpe from the observation deck while utilizing the equation Yf = -1/2gt^2 + Vot+Yo. Nestled along the Seine and overlooking the Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower strictly prohibits oral sex in the elevators (although there was no noticeable sign or warning). Also, be sure to say “bonjour” to the one-eyed dwarf who roller skates atop the structure’s antenna, drinking his own blood and reciting Ozymandias(2). As an added frustration, Le Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor offers food you can’t afford. I recommend the filet de turnbot au sautoir, écrevisses et champignons à la Riche, then running away.
A mammoth tome, written by James Joyce and published by Sylvia Beach in its entirety in 1928, Ulysses catalogues a day in the life of one Leopold Bloom. Often cited as the cornerstone of modernist literature, Ulysses takes its name from Homer’s Odysseus, as in The Odyssey, that book you were supposed to read sophomore year but ended up huffing oven cleaner in the school parking lot most of the time.
Written in Joyce’s inimitable stream-of-consciousness style, Ulysses is an integral part of any literary aesthete’s library. In addition, the book reminds us that even though the sisters at Strake Jesuit put saltpeter in our Cheerios to keep us from masturbating, there’s really no stopping the process, even if the guilt stays with you to this day. While nobody has ever read this book, its inclusion in your book collection will ensure at least a cursory dry-hump from the intoxicated Yale co-ed you met at the “Vampire Weekend” concert last month. Be sure to look out for the last sentence in which Molly Bloom probably has an orgasm or is in the throes of Crohn’s disease. Joyce was also blind, so we can forgive him for not making a whole lot of sense (there has been speculation that Joyce wrote much of Ulysses on the back of his cat, accounting for much of the confusion within the text). The poet Ezra Pound perhaps put it best when he remarked, “Ulysses is a treat for anyone trapped under ice.”
Often cited as the only “true American art form,” jazz music is what happens when heroin happens. First popularized in the early 20th century, jazz incorporates West African musical traditions and European stuffiness, resulting in a cacophonous mishmash that makes one feel as if his or her genitals are creeping up and slowly eating his/her belly button. A vital part of America’s long history of misguided art forms, jazz is sure to spark furious debate among people who can’t admit they sing along to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in the car when nobody is looking.
Jazz is, at its core, an interpretive medium. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and other maestros of the genre are venerated within certain musical circles much the same way the idea of a space/time continuum is venerated by physicists, even though, after a while, ruminations on the subject lead one back to the inevitable conclusion that nothing is understandable in this crazy world, especially Ugg boots. If you feel you have the mettle, give jazz a chance. When you’ve discovered it’s over your head and you’d honestly just rather sit there listening to Shakira, don’t feel bad. You can always count on her and her hips don’t lie.
I hope our maiden voyage into the unforgiving sea of cultural literacy has proved helpful. Keep in mind; this is a long journey, but a journey well-worth taking. For how are we to navigate our desires, our fears, and ourselves if we cannot navigate the world around us?
GPS is a good answer, yes
 More on the French Revolution can be found in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities. Although, it is a far better thing if you start reading at Part III, as I this is where the nudity really kicks into high gear.
 There is a place that sells absinthe next to the McDonald’s on the Rue Duban.