Crossing the Equator 2: On Why “Highbrow” and “Lowbrow” Are Too Time-Dependent To Be Useful

I’ll let Farisa speak on it (slightly edited for de-spoilerization). She says it better than I can.

“Let me pose this,” Farisa started, awake and ready for intellectual combat. Her eyebrows would start popping all over the place soon. “It’s five centuries ago. Theater is undignified. Dirt-poor hawkers sell fake jewelry in the aisles. People don’t get away to piss, they just go under the bleachers. If an actor performs poorly, he’s pelted with rotting food.”

“That’s disgusting,” Mazie said.

“It is, but we’re talking about a different time. This is how important stories are. Rich and poor alike will crowd together, in hot sun or freezing rain, with a thousand other stinking people, just to hear ‘em. Anyway, acting is deemed unsafe and undignified, so women can’t do it. You have ten-year-old boys playing the roles of women, showing a bit of hairless leg, pretending to kiss men as old as Claes.”

“You’ll reach a point, Farisa,” Claes said, “when forty-five doesn’t seem old.”

“Ay, old man, but you’ll be ancient. Now, some of these actors have animal bladders sewn into their clothing, and those bladders are filled with another animal’s blood. Might be a sheep bladder and cow’s blood, details aren’t important. In a swordfight, the bladder breaks and the blood goes everywhere. Sometimes, it spills on the audience.”

“Where are ya going,” Mazie asked, “with this ‘istory lesson?”

“One playwright decides to drop all pretension and write for a popular audience. To make as much money as he can. Doesn’t write his own stories, but steals them from ancient legends and folktales. He’s talented, so he writes some of the most sublime verse he can, but he also writes a few plays full of rape, cannibalism, and regicides. Every third line is a sexual pun. There are tons of anachronistic references to popular culture. He makes up words and breaks with the standards of verse, because most of his audience wouldn’t know better. You’d call it trash, right?”

Claes and Mazie nodded.

“Well, I would call it Pallastro. Salah, not Wilhelm, because I’m pretty sure that the wife wrote the plays while the husband counted the bacon.”

“Farisa has a point,” Claes said, “although I don’t buy her Baconian theory.”

“Long before they were high culture, they were the trash of the time. Ragnar and Teefa was almost lost to history, because no one considered it worth writing down. So was Marley’s Luck.

Jakhob’s Gun isn’t going to be remembered in five ‘undred years,” Mazie said.

“Do you know that? I don’t. Anyway, that’s not why I’m bringing it along. As I said, I think there’s a code in it. Steganography.”

“You know what’s great about hanging out with Farisa?” Claes asked, rolling his eyes.

“What?” Mazie asked.

“You learn all these Farisa words. Steganography. That’s the study of dinosaurs, right?”

There is an irony, when it comes to what we deem to be high- or lowbrow. If you wanted critical acclaim in Shakespeare’s time, you wrote in Latin. How much Renaissance-era Latin-language literature is extant? Almost none. People today read Latin-language classics in the original, but nothing from Shakespeare’s time. For writing in a vulgar Germanic language, the (spoony?) bard was as ill-regarded in his day as Stephen King was before he wrote On Writing, establishing himself to be both a passionate and masterful writer. (King’s reputation may have been marred by film adaptations with low production values, but that’s a topic for another time.)

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