When did “difficulty” become suspect in American culture, widely derided as anti-democratic and contemptuously dismissed as evidence of so-called elitism? If a work of art isn’t somehow immediately “understood” or “accessible” by and to large numbers of people, it is often ridiculed as “esoteric,” “obtuse,” or even somehow un-American. We should mark such an argument’s cognitive consequences. A culture filled with smooth and familiar consumptions produces in people rigid mental habits and stultified conceptions. They know what they know, and they expect to find it reinforced when they turn a page or click on a screen. Difficulty annoys them, and, having become accustomed to so much pabulum served up by a pandering and invertebrate media, they experience difficulty not just as “difficult,” but as insult. Struggling to understand, say, Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece The Sound and the Fury or Alain Resnais’s Rubik’s Cube of a movie “Last Year at Marienbad” needn’t be done. The mind may skip trying to solve such cognitive puzzles, even though the truth is they strengthen it as a workout tones the muscles.
Sometimes it feels as if the world is divided into two classes: one very large class spurns difficulty, while the other very much smaller delights in it. There are readers who, when encountering an unfamiliar word, instead of reaching for a dictionary, choose to regard it as a sign of the author’s contempt or pretension, a deliberate refusal to speak in a language ordinary people can understand.
Others, encountering the same word, happily seize on it as a chance to learn something new, to broaden their horizons. They eagerly seek a literature that upends assumptions, challenges prejudices, turns them inside out and forces them to see the world through new eyes.