Saturday, June 12, 2021
Ethan Hein on whether Lorde "ripped off" George Michael and on the inescapability of musical tropes--we can't escape musical tropes [and if we take our cues from the galant era philosophy and practice of music rather than Romanticism we won't have to]
Thursday, June 10, 2021
This is off one of Yang's earliest albums, Si Ji, that I picked up years ago. The entire album was devoted to classical guitar music by Chinese composers or composers exploring cultural themes from Chinese regions. This lovely stand-alone piece calls for a second nut, if memory serves, to be put on the fingerboard to create the timbrel effects you'll hear throughout the piece. Sadly the score for this has never been published to my knowledge but the music is worth hearing.
Freddie deBoer sounds off on what he regards as a reflexive panic of elite liberals about Trump, mentions "Republicans have always been dangerous monsters". Well, here on the West coast we don't remember Mark Hatfield as being a dangerous monster, okay
The essential point I want to make here is this: elite liberals, as a class used to comfortable and orderly lives, were massively freaked out by the election of Donald Trump, and what they have demanded in turn is not a new and better political movement but for everyone else to be freaked out too. The cries of “this is not normal!” were always quite vulgar as well as wrong - reactionary demagogues have always been a major force in American politics, thank you - and revealed a caste of people for whom political discourse had become indistinguishable from group therapy. And if you declined to participate in the yelling, even if you openly rejected Trump and his party, you were held up as a agent of Trumpism. Feel the way that we feel or you will be exiled.
Conversations about how left critics of Democrats underestimate the danger Trump represents are never really about what we might ordinarily recognize as substantive political disagreements. They are about the fact that many of those left critics refused to devolve into the primal-scream-therapy histrionics that liberal Dems themselves did. Elite liberals are not used to their worlds being shaken by political events, even after Democratic losses, and are deeply habituated to a certain sort of propriety and order in how politics operate. Republicans have always been dangerous monsters, but Trump failed to couch his bigotry in the genteel terms expected in our discourse, and this offended the Ivy League sensibilities of media and political elites. When some people within their orbit were found not to share their same fundamentally psychodramatic relationship to current events, those elites got nasty....
Wednesday, June 09, 2021
Monday, June 07, 2021
Ethan Iverson on jazz, classical music, and Mary Lou Williams' History of Jazz Tree and some thoughts about why I find Nikolai Kapustin's preludes and fugues more compelling than his piano sonatas
Alan Jacobs on an article at Current Affairs on how Dungeons & Dragons was thought of as a competing mythoi rather than some proposed mythoi vs a logoi in Christian fundamentalist doctrine
Martha Nussbaum on the Romantic legacies of the myth of authenticity and the myth of the artist as transgressive of societal norms; Justin E. H. Smith has a fairly predictable defense of "real literature" by way of invoking Zhdanovian socialist realism
...Abusers are often shielded not only by this “myth of authenticity,” but by another myth, which pervades all the performing arts, and indeed all the other arts as well. This is an age-old myth, at least as old as Romanticism. The myth is that the constraint of usual social norms and rules is bad for artists. They have to be permitted to be transgressive, to break the rules, or else their creativity will be stifled. Genius is beyond good and evil. This myth is basically false: there are many artists who are perfectly capable of maintaining a boundary between their inner freedom in the realm of creation and the way they live outside it.However, the myth is so pervasive that for many it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. An artist who sincerely believes that breaking society’s rules is necessary for success, by long habit actually becomes unable to create without transgressing. It’s revealing that the myth is overwhelmingly about male creativity, used by males for males. And it’s revealing, too, that the myth mainly concerns sexual rules. I can’t think of an artist I’ve known who believed that being creative licensed him to commit theft or burglary. It’s just a handy way, for a small number of talented men, to arrive at a conclusion so often coveted by male pride: I am above sexual laws, and other people aren’t fully real....There’s another factor: if the arts we love are to thrive, they need star power. Star power generates both ticket sales and donations. Even if we dislike star power and star influence, but just want the art we love to persist and do well, we can ill afford to get rid of the star, however badly behaved. And some people may not care so much about the health of the art, but more about making money on their investments. Hence the fact that some stars whose gifts make money for others are held to account only when they are too old and ill to make money for others any longer.
In a speech to the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow in 1934, Central Committee secretary Andreï Zhdanov reminded those assembled of Comrade Stalin’s recent declaration that, in the Soviet Union, writers are now “the engineers of the human soul”.
What obligations does this appellation entail? Most importantly, Zhdanov says, reality must be depicted “neither ‘scholastically’ nor lifelessly, nor simply as ‘objective reality’, but rather as reality in its revolutionary development. The truthfulness and historical exactitude of the artistic image must be linked with the task of ideological transformation, of the education of the working people in the spirit of socialism. This method in fiction and literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.”
...I understand that Roth’s posthumous legacy has met with some bumps recently, and it is hard not to suppose that the biographer who was responsible for seeing to it is now being punished in a sort of twofer deal: for his own real crimes, and for his deceased subject’s crimes of imagination. I don’t have much to add to the Roth/Bailey “discourse”. I don’t really know why people read literary biographies, let alone treat their authors as persons of public interest. For years I have struggled to come up with something interesting to say about the question of “moral luck” — interesting, that is, beyond the sort of hack position-taking that one is required to engage in for, say, a “Guest Essay” in the Times. I will say that I do not support anything so simplistic as “distinguishing between the artist and the work”, since it is fairly plain to me that often the moral rottenness of the artist is constitutive of the work. This extends even to philosophy, where any honest person will concede that Martin Heidegger was not “a great philosopher” who was “also a Nazi”, and that the whole challenge of dealing with Heidegger and his legacy is to figure out how Western philosophy developed in such a way that when Nazism emerged it made sense for at least one of its greatest expositors to offer his services as a handmaiden to this ideology. It is precisely for this reason that reading and understanding Heidegger is so urgent. There is nothing “honorific” about doing this; philosophy is not a fan club, and if you are treating it as one, this is because you do not really understand what philosophy is.
I have already confessed in this space to a certain sympathy for the devil in my musical taste, and it should not be surprising to learn that this sympathy extends into literature as well. I have been through hell, aesthetically speaking. I was “brought up” on tales of lowlife criminality from Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs (another red flag, apparently), and all sorts of “hardcore shit” I won’t even bother to describe. I think I turned out alright, as did the great majority of those in my cohort of bourgeois decadent romantics.
These days I am more sensitive, and a convert to the Good. But I can’t help but think that this conversion is also a continuation, just as J.-K. Huysmans’ arch-Catholic En route completes the trilogy that begins with the satanic Là-bas, and that the journey through that valley has been a key element of my own moral education. Nor does it seem to me that the two are so easy to separate out from one another, no matter what Zhdanovism —which is also a Manicheanism— would have us believe. There is nothing more transgressive than St. Julien’s massacre of the animals, not to mention his subsequent massacre of his parents. In the end what elevates him to the status of a saint is not his anchorite retreat from the world in repentance for his sins, but rather his hallucinatory erotic tryst with a dying scabrous leper. This is something Flaubert is in part spinning out of his imagination, but if Lolita is spun out from the stories of “detectives, pimps, and prostitutes” that Zhdanov sees as populating bourgeois imperialist arts and culture, Flaubert is rather drawing on the source material of the medieval “legends of the saints” genre, notably the Genoese archbishop Jacques de Voragine’s thirteenth-century Légende dorée. Christian tradition, and the literatures it has produced, has generally been sensitive, in a way that Zhdanovism cannot be, to the fact that we human beings, qua human beings, have always been doing hardcore shit, and it is a purpose of art to lay this bare, and compel us to meditate on it...
I am currently translating one of the legends of the Sakha oral epic tradition known as Olonkho (I’ve written extensively about my work on this project here). A common narrative sequence in this tradition features an ogre, far more beastly than Humbert Humbert, spying on girls in the forest. The girls pee in turn, and the ogre observes to see which of them produces the urine with the most bubbles in it. This is taken to be a sign of fertility. When he determines which of the girls it is, he kidnaps her, and takes her off as his “wife”.
In the prenuptial ritual traditions of several Eurasian cultures, extending broadly from the western coast of the Black Sea all the way to the north of Lake Baikal and the Lena River basin, there is a moment where the groom’s family and friends simulate a kidnapping of the bride. The simulated quality of the ritual is generally obvious in more bourgeois and urban settings; as one moves out into the countryside, it becomes more difficult to say whether one is witnessing a sublimation, or indeed the real thing. The Olonkho motif with the ogre and the maiden is itself a more distant sublimation — correctly discerning the true monstrous nature of the men who perpetuate this tradition. It’s an evil tradition. Engineers of the human soul would wish to deal with this evil by suppression; literature, real literature, deals with it through the power of imaginative sublimation. It is dark and wrong, to speak with Moshfegh, and we understand ourselves through it. ...
We have, today, a Zhdanovshchina suited to the particularities of our times, one that promotes not so much an “engineering of souls” as a “human-resources management of souls”. The abrupt ascendancy of HR as the central organizing power of society extends far beyond literature, of course. It has certainly overtaken philosophy, the academic discipline I know best. In the middle ages philosophy was said to be the “handmaiden” [ancillaris] of theology; in the modern period it became the handmaiden of science. Today philosophy is in many respects an ancillary of human resources (as here, for example).
In literature as in philosophy, we may at least comfort ourselves with the enduring existence of the treasures of the past, to which at least for the moment our information technologies continue to provide us access.
Then again, another variation on the Zhanovschina could be guys in Paris pontificating about how nobody over the age of forty should even know who Spider-man is. Yes, well, since I had fun watching Alfred Molina play Otto Octavius I won't mind that he's reportedly coming back for the next Spider-man movie and I really hope Kathryn Hahn reprises her funny take on Doc Ock in the next Into the Spider-verse film. The paradox of Zhdanov style socialist realism as a mentality is that it can manifest as readily as a fixation in those who oppose it as those who advocate it. If we treat it as another variation in a post-Tolstoy conception that artists, if we are too admire them, should in some sense have earned that admiration, this is not that unusual or shocking. If Nabakov can draw upon pulp what's the case that pulp is off-limits? Smith doesn't take that view about Paula Abdul in contrast to opera, so why take that kind of stance in cinema and literature? What's the case for studying Nabakov rather than Hammett?
For those who don't invoke Zhdanov and socialist realism the trendier invocation is the Puritans. Or Tolstoy comes up, or maybe even Charles Ives with his sentiment that if you are not first a good spouse and/or parent then the idea of being a good artist will be hard to sustain. So, sure, I prefer, where practical, that artists, writers and musicians aspire to be humane and generous. I remember hearing a tale from my brother about a comic book discussion forum, no less, where when news about Bill Cosby's crimes began to spring up one person declared that he really, really wanted for Mr. Rogers to have actually been the guy he seemed to be on his show. Mr. Rogers is the kind of person "we" make fun of at a cultural level for being pretty square and squeaky clean. Fred Rogers would never be anyone's idea of a Byronic hero because he simply wasn't, and thank God for that (I suppose it doesn't contradict our understanding of him as a public figure to recall he was an ordained minister).
But a point raised by the woke and the social justice scene that still doesn't go away is who has defined and who gets to define what "real literature" is and what literature you have to read to get through undergraduate and graduate studies. It may be that progressive American academics are in a figurative pissing context about what should be canonical and what shouldn't be for what reasons. That the debates can happen. Smith waxed philosophical, fairly literally, but the core question went by with a hand-wave about "real literature" and sublimation and an incessant thread of comparing anyone who might wonder why this or that literary figure has been canonized is on the side of Zhdanov, the formal advocate of socialist realism.
Which brings me around to the late Nikolai Kapustin and the question of why it was that someone who was born and raised in a Soviet bloc nation that was stuck having to deal with Zhdanov style socialist realism ended up being more successful at synthesizing jazz and classical traditions in his 24 Preludes and Fugues than a bunch of Western European composers.
In almost any field anyone can make a case that bad people can have great accomplishments and we should have "grace" for them. I'm a Presbyterian so I'm not going to argue against "grace", but I'm going to ask whether the "grace" people want to talk about is common grace or prevenient grace or sanctifying grace because a lot of art-religion seems to propose that the worsts people can make the most beautiful things and that beauty is what redeems us when we consume it. There is, so to speak, no arguing against the intensity of the experience and palpable results. If the writer is an asshole but attains "art" by changing people's lives do we argue against that?
Well ... I will admit to a concern. I heard similar arguments on behalf of, oh, Mark Driscoll here in Seattle, over the span of twenty years. Maybe people will even concede Mark Driscoll is "an asshole" (I know someone who said this, literally) but he's changing lives. At one point I still thought Mars Hill was capable of making positive contributions to the Seattle scene. I changed my mind but it was not because I suddenly became progressive or particularly liberal. I have remained what is probably best described as a kind of Mark Hatfield type Republican (f that exists any longer). I concluded that the convictions I had not only didn't require me to give Mark Driscoll a pass for doing what he did but that it was also better to go find somewhere else to call church home.
I admit to being skeptical about the idea, whether on the topic of art-religion or religion-religion, that if someone just gets results that people feel/think are "sublime" that all the other stuff can be forgiven. There's room to propose that the Harvey Weinstein allegations have re-introduced the possibility of a Donatist controversy in the realm of Western art-religion. Of course for the non-religious I want to find a way to reformulate this idea in more secularly comprehensible terms, and terms that don't presuppose being immersed in Christian doctrinal debate--well, one incredibly blunt way to reformulate the observation is to ask why Hollywood waited until Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump to have its moment of reckoning with the legacies of Weinstein and Bill Clinton. If Justin E. H. Smith wanted to make an argument that had more sting he could have asked why that was but he didn't. The argument that the earnestness of the censorious from the left and the right can often turn out to be in bad faith might be something of an argument ... if Smith had made it.
If the best Smith can do is to argue that social justice types and the woke are like Zhdanov in what they want and how they want to go about it that's a long and only occasionally artful ad hominem. I'm not even exactly particularly progressive myself and I admit to not being trained in philosophy but I don't see that Smith has successfully pivoted from why philosophers can be jerks but we should study them to why writers can be jerks but we should study them. It's possible to take that as axiomatic and still regard Smith's variation as having an element of bad faith.