P R A E S I D I U M
A Journal of Literate and Literary Analysis
4.3 (Summer 2004)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Literate Values
Board of Directors:
John R. Harris, Ph.D. (Executive Director)
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. (Secretary)
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.; York College-CUNY
Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.; Azusa Pacific University
Kelly Ann Hampton
Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Retd.)
The previous issue of Praesidium (Spring 2004) may be viewed by
© All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Literate Values of Tyler, Texas (2004), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
Pensée de la Saison:
Das Recht muß nie der Politik, wohl aber die Politik jederzeit dem Recht angepaßt werden. "What is right must never be adapted to the political; on the contrary, the political must be adapted to what is right." ~ Immanuel Kant
Taste in literature is indexed to taste in music—not good news for the great composers.
Thomas F. Bertonneau
Professor Bertonneau’s retrospectives on growing up in the hub of modern American culture (southern California) are always a blend of nostalgia and amused reassessment. The love of great music, it turns out, can grow from a mustard seed—but it needs watering.
John R. Harris
If literacy has a last great hope, it might just lie hidden in the more sensorily accessible charms of fine music.
There is really no way to argue coherently for human rights without accepting that human life has a transcending purpose—which places our most vocal ideologues in an awkward position.
John R. Harris
Music both satisfies and whets the minds appetite for purpose: it nurtures an "anticipating" intelligence.
It isn’t true that all young people have musically gone to the dogs; here, too, is dismay over popular culture.
Professor Pangborn muses in pleasantly wry verse upon classroom ironies which make many of us wince.
Mr. Lythgoe again shows, with a subtlety poetry is quite familiar to readers of Praesidium, that nature and poetry remain inseparable companions.
(translated by Gianna DiRoberti)
Two very different Italian short stories reveal that music can offer the ideal revenge—and also that it can be the antidote to fierce dogmatism.
This unusual short story, written almost entirely in dialogue, is indeed ultimately about performing for a viewing audience.
A Few Words from the Editor
It has been my conviction for years—by nature, an almost wholly unverifiable conviction—that the kinds of images and sounds we contemplate in leisure ("consume", as one must say nowadays) are related to the way we read and write. I do not mean anything so banal as that tribesmen of the Congo prefer bongo drums to Beethoven. Obviously, our culture submits us to a program of conditioning which heavily determines the inclination of our taste… but the academy has beaten this argument into a barren ground with its many thousands of war-dancing feet. For just as obvious, surely, is the phenomenon of the highly literate person’s discovering something powerfully evocative in jungle drums or in the vibrant colors and hyperbolic forms of hunter-gatherer artwork. Beneath all works of art lies a bedrock of humanity. Even the "accidental grandeur" (to borrow a phrase from my own ill-starred doctoral thesis) of naturally carved stone—the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley—involves the perceiving intelligence in pleasurable speculations which illustrate the essentially human ability to find pleasure in speculation.
The speculative habit of mind, however, should be enhanced by literacy: one has every right to expect that. Writing things down, especially—but also reading over what others have written—should invite one to study a second and a third time sensations which a dog would simply review for hazardous or edible content. The bushman can read spore in this way: a broken twig with its fibers still green and moist raises before him the image of a boar trotting hurriedly just beyond the next hill. Who knows if a stalking lion can make such projections to any degree at all, or instead must merely follow where instinct draws? At the risk of "cultural snobbery", nevertheless, I will observe that homo scribens enjoys an element of leisure in his reflections which is distinctly lacking in the bushman’s encounter. The reader does not risk being starved or getting gored if his meditation upon a poem should carry him a little far afield. His music and painting, likewise, are therefore more leisurely, less determined by the physiological need to release pressure or exorcise fear. He is not smarter than the aborigine, but he has certainly been blessed with the opportunity to listen more closely to the echoes within his imagination in relative confidence that a python is not about to devour his toddler.
What happens when you take this same child of cultural privilege and spoil him to death? Thinking is hard (as Tom Bertonneau has reminded us from the classroom’s front line). Literate man has now scaled to such heights of technological sophistication that he has begun to apply himself zealously to the "problem" of how to dispense—at least in the dreary quotidian routine of most people—with labors of thought. We now write and read, not to review our experience and stir speculation about it, but to compress it and bundle it off where it will no longer upset or "bore" us. In this, by the way, we are truly the most degenerate and ungrateful of our species on the planet. The aborigine did his best with what he had: we, with infinitely more, manage to ruminate less on major crises of our existence than he would do upon a new star.
And does our music not reflect as much? I honestly cannot think of a better way to characterize what blares over our radios than "thought-deterrence". Surrounded by the amplified bedlam of a rush-hour traffic jam, how could any person remember his middle name? No doubt, there is some cultural incentive for the audial lobotomy. Perhaps we seek to stupify ourselves because sober reflection upon our state has grown too depressing. Perhaps stupid behavior is requisite for social mingling in the same way that, say, gunning down a complete stranger in his front yard initiates a young thug into a gang. Perhaps this explosion of all fine discernment in a gaudy electronic supernova is a kind of "I don’t give a damn" gesture at people like me who expect more—a way of laughing at us, maybe, for being so dumb as not to know that the racket-merchants know how dumb they sound. Bad, man, really bad.
Concerning this final option (as a popular fifties song puts it, "Blow you, Jack, I’m alright!"), we must remember that the academic élite has long since formally blessed the deluge. Taste is a mere illusion created and sustained by dominant interests. The most valid, most genuine sentiment is therefore no sentiment at all. That the custodians of our culture have in fact spent much of the last half-century annihilating culture was borne in upon me recently when I read the line in García-Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad, "He then made a last effort to find in his heart the place where all his feelings had rotted away, and could not happen upon it." I at once reflected, in a spirit of growing protest against this novel’s exalted position among postmodern letters, that no one in the book, after all, displays any depth of feeling. Five hundred pages of sentimental sterility… and a "classic" for an era that no longer tolerates classics!
If from one direction, then, our popular music might be called a blunt capitulation of the human intelligence, from another it is perhaps a tactic cheered, if not planned, by the astute engineers of our culture’s demise. Will they prevail—is fine feeling possible without the cultural forms painfully evolved to express it? The durability of great music may be the last outpost to contest this dubious victory.
P.S. The Center for Literate Values has opened a Web page of recommended classical CDs (note the "horn" icon which appears at the top of this page and many others throughout the site.) The list is very much a work in progress: we warmly welcome suggestions. Links to amazon.com have been provided. See literatevalues.org/classicalmusic.htm.
Confessions of a Symphomaniac: Of Luck, Music,
and the Training of the Soul
Thomas F. Bertonneau
Professor Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY-Oswego, and is a regular contributor to these pages (as well as a member of The Center's board).
It was easy for people of my generation to discover that they liked music—certainly easier than for people born in the previous two decades, and probably easier than for the generation born during the Second World War, who tend to devote their spare time to television.
My aim has always been to widen my musical taste in every possible way, to get the most out of the realm of music, which is, after all, a free gift.
Rilke said that the poet’s problem is to keep himself as wide open as he can, even if, like a flower in the sunlight, he might find it impossible to close up again (Colin Wilson, Chords and Discords, 1964).
My paternal grandfather—a product of the late-nineteenth century New Orleansian middle bourgeoisie—apparently played the violin with some proficiency. He appears in an atmospheric turn-of-the-century photograph holding his fiddle. Certainly New Orleans could boast a rich musical life, from vaudeville and minstrel show to chamber and salon music to opera and symphony. The most celebrated American musician of the mid-nineteenth century, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, was a wide-wandering son of the "Big Easy", who maintained friendly relations with prominent musical personalities of Europe. Gottschalk’s keyboard music mixed Chopinesque lyricism with the cakewalk rhythms of the Caribbean islands and the Mississippi delta. By a strange coincidence, Gottschalk’s favorite concert destination was the then thriving Lake Ontario harbor-city of Oswego, in upstate New York, where I now live, teach, and write. I once disinterred the Civil War era reviews of Gottschalk’s local appearances, which quote him as complimenting the musical refinement of Oswego’s fair citizens and the beauty of her young women. With wine and women, song seems eternally linked. I cannot directly affirm my grandfather’s musical achievement, as he died, in his mid-thirties, a casualty of the influenza epidemic of 1918. So far as Gaston Bertonneau indeed had a talent for the fiddle (I take the stories for true), or any kind of musical sensitivity, he spectacularly failed to pass any of it to my father, who, although admirable for many deeds, cannot whistle even a popular tune to save his life.
On my mother’s side of the family, a great aunt, Betty, and a great uncle, Dave, played the piano, which is to say that they banged out chords for rag-tag choral recitations of the "old favorites" at family gatherings or for a Sunday hymn or two. Uncle Dave, one of the most affable men I have ever met, also liked to listen to music. When he listened, he did so intently. His expression changed. He perked up his ears. He owned, in succession, a number of "hi fi" sets, as we called them in the 1950s, and, as soon as it came available, a large cabinet-stereo. The stereo apparatus encumbered several precious square feet of floor-space in the van Westen living room, much to the annoyance of Dave’s wife, Cleone. The record-playing equipment, not to mention the records, struck Cleone as an eccentricity, expensive and bulky. Since Dave applied his spare time already to a number of eccentricities—collecting old science fiction and adventure magazines and building balsa-wood models of vintage airplanes—the phonographic interest seemed to Cleone to compound the scandal beyond tolerable bounds. From the time when my active awareness of the world and people began to operate, around age nine or ten, I always looked forward to weekend visits to Manhattan Beach (a coastal suburb of Los Angeles) for dinner with the van Westens and other maternal relatives. I liked leafing through the musty issues of Flying Aces or Amazing Stories, which Dave stored in a large metal tool cabinet in his garage. I usually spread the issue that interested me on the hood of Dave’s ungainly Volvo, reading the fighter-ace stories by Arch Whitehouse or the planetary romances by Henry Kuttner and Nat Schachner while leaning against the machine. I took a related interest in goings-on around the phonograph, especially after the advent of the massive stereo. When you looked through the chinks in the structure, you could see the chessboard of vacuum tubes glowing in the device’s interior. Now and then a tube would fail and Dave would need to replace it. The operation suggested a hieratic quality, as we all watched in silence, until the engine spoke again.
Like most "hi fi" fanatics, Uncle Dave liked sound. This was not an exclusive preoccupation, but it played its role in his enjoyment. The 78-rpm records in his collection contained famous performances by Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski, but the scratchy surfaces and limited "dynamic response" gave them the aural flavor of champagne gone flat. The orchestra or the soloist reached out as from a dim distance, without touching one’s viscera. Dave extolled the virtues of what he called the demonstration discs—stereophonic long-playing records marketed to "buffs" who liked to show off the capacity of their sound-systems in a culturally refined, rather than in a vulgar, way. (Not that Dave disdained to have one or two "Tijuana Brass" LPs in the record closet.) The classical album covers carried warnings not to turn the volume up too much, in order to avoid damage to the speakers and other components. Dave owned, among others, a Mercury "Living Presence" LP of Antal Doráti conducting the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in Peter Tchaikovsky’s indomitably popular Overture 1812, complete with patched-in canon shots from a genuine Napoleonic artillery piece. He cherished a recording, probably on RCA, of Jascha Heifetz playing the solo in Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, a slightly unorthodox violin concerto in five, as distinct from the usual three, movements. The Symphonie espagnole definitely functioned on a higher aesthetic level than the Tchaikovsky piece: the concluding Rondo boasts an infectious Iberian tune, with virtuoso effects, such as a piquant pizzicato, that Heifetz brought off with his usual Olympian aplomb. Recently, Lalo’s lilting melody turned up as the background of a television commercial for a sports utility vehicle.
Later, Dave added Eugene Ormandy’s recorded performance of Gustav Mahler’s posthumous Tenth Symphony, in the completion by Wynn Morris. It was an unpredictable acquisition, out of character in that Mahler is a demanding, fairly intellectual composer who works on the largest scale. He was not Dave’s usual cup of tea. The frightening "organ chord" that comes halfway through the development of the First Movement of the Tenth tested—and proved—Dave’s stereo set-up.
There were other items, entirely eccentric, but still meaningful. I remember the early entries in "Professor" Peter Shickele’s "P. D. Q. Bach" series. "P. D. Q. was the last of Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty-odd children," Shickele solemnly explained in the opening remarks, "and also the oddest." The color commentary on the First Movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, treating it as though it were a football match, also provoked me—no doubt because it deftly "explains" the movement’s sonata-allegro structure while poking riotous fun at the solemnities of the concert hall. I am not sure whether I got the joke plainly, but something in the silliness of it spoke to me, even while it suggested that one might understand the mass of sound of an orchestral composition.
I am equally unsure whether I "got" Tchaikovsky’s redoubtable battle-piece or Lalo’s congenial Symphonie (a good deal more française, by the way, than espagnole). So much of "getting" music takes place intuitively—at the level of what classical Greek calls Eros—that it is difficult to fix one’s response verbally. Perhaps the phenomenon was purely imitative. René Girard argues that almost all of our proclivities and desires are learned or borrowed from those around us. Uncle Dave, whom I respected, obviously put stock in this music, so I imitated his fondness matter-of-factly, without thinking about it. The fact that others regarded it as an affectation, or as "Dave’s new hobby", however, must mean that a differentiation had occurred, and that I could now imitate what others satirized, except for Dave. Let me not give the impression that Dave was a Bohemian. He was an expert tool and die maker who had worked in the aviation industry since World War Two. He had been employed overseas, in Belfast, helping to build much-needed fighter planes for the Royal Air Force as part of the Lend-Lease agreement before direct American involvement in the conflict.
Like the rest of us, my uncle belonged unostentatiously to the working class. My father was a fireman, my mother a housewife. The main source of "culture" in either the van Westen or the Bertonneau household undoubtedly lay in the television set. My cousin Davy, Uncle Dave’s son, typified the Southern California beach scene at time. Sixteen or seventeen years old, Davy surfed the waves at the Manhattan and Redondo Beaches. He spoke in the slang of "hanging ten" and "shooting the tube." His shins sported "surfer bumps"—friction-induced swellings from contact with seawater at high speed. Davy liked cars and motorcycles; he worked in a surfing shop. He would not have been caught dead listening to his father’s classical music records on the stereo. My other cousin, Susie, a year younger than Davy, showed an equal lack of interest in her father’s hobbies; she made weird faces—grimaces, one must call them—whenever, in her presence, her father put on an LP of Franz Schubert or César Franck. The highbrow was intolerable. She would pinch her nose in public disapproval and make arm-motions to mock the conductor’s gestures of a Toscanini or a Stokowski. Susie did gravitate to music. It seemed as though she could never get enough of it. From her room one might hear, loudly, the repeating "top-forty" hits from her transistor radio. It is possible that I associated popular music with my cousin Susie and that I sided emotionally, without grasping it, with my Uncle, whose disappointment in an unshared enthusiasm one could not avoid picking up.
Uncle Dave’s small collection of stereo spectaculars afforded me my only contact with serious music (or with what aspired to musical seriousness) before I reached my twelfth year. Just before my thirteenth birthday, in the fall of 1966, my father moved us from our old house in Highland Park, near Pasadena in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, to our new one on Point Dume in far-flung Malibu. Land sold cheaply on Point Dume in the mid-1960s because of the remoteness from any significant retail. For the first few years of our residence there, my mother had to drive to Pacific Palisades, a nearly forty-mile round trip, to buy groceries. Neighbors were few. We watched many hours of television beginning with the Walter Cronkite news on CBS every evening, but my parents did insist that the two kids had to go off to bed at nine on a school night. I owned a small AM radio, which I usually switched on when I retired against the pillow. Reception being poor, I tuned to what I could hear, which meant an early foray into talk radio on a frequency whose call letters I forget (memo: KLAC) or the AM signal of the only classical music radio station in Los Angeles at the time, KFAC, which broadcast from a building on Wilshire Boulevard near the famous Tar Pits at La Brea. That signal, always clear, meant for me reassuring contact with a wider world, the world of the city, of Wilshire’s "Miracle Mile", with its tall white buildings and chic atmosphere of glassy offices and ground-floor boutiques. I listened while dozing off evenings in far-flung Malibu. My routine encounter with civic society happened once a week when I wandered around the Ralph’s supermarket on Sunset Boulevard in the Palisades.
From the 1940s until the demise of the station in 1989, KFAC broadcast a two-hour program five nights a week from eight o’clock until ten in the evening under the sponsorship of the Southern California Gas Company. Carl Princi, a long-time announcer at KFAC, introduced the selections and gave a minimum of commentary. Princi spoke with a suave, Hollywood-highbrow voice, a bit "oily", as one says of a delivery that trembles on the edge of unctuousness. It never passed that edge. It came across as tremendously convicted, as though one enjoyed the privilege of listening in to the crème-de-la-crème of transcribed performances. The monthly program could be obtained by mail, courtesy of the radio station and its sponsor, in the form of a booklet, eight-and-a-half inches tall and four-and-a-quarter inches wide when open at the spine. The annotations listed not only the work and its date, but also the conductor and the orchestra, or the soloist when relevant. The broadcast came commercial-free, with nods to the Gas Company tactfully only at the beginning and end.
The formula worked magic on me, so much so that I eventually started sacrificing my last hour of television between eight and nine in order to listen to the radio. I only made an exception for Star Trek on Tuesday night. "The Evening Concert" always began with the same musical signature: the grand cascading C-Major chords from the opening of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto; it always closed with the scampering, nocturnal sounds of the same Concerto’s slow movement. In the darkness of my bedroom I used to think of mice darting about in their warren—an image no more absurd than those that we attach to other music. Princi’s baritone threw the glamour of authority over the whole two-hour affair, five days a week. When I met him years later in his office at the KFAC studios, he looked to me exactly like his voice sounded. He had dark hair, cut short, an olive complexion, a pencil moustache, and he wore a finely tailored suit. For the time being, however, I identified him simply as that voice coming out of the aether: "On tonight’s Evening Concert we will hear…" –After the protocol would come the summary of performer-names and brief identifications of the items on the program. This was not trivial. Not only did each evening’s fare reveal some new and particular musical ravishment (Beethoven of the relentless beat, Mendelssohn of the sweet tune), but also the order implicit in the idea of a musical event became evident through the proceedings. An overture or equivalent short piece would "raise the curtain" flamboyantly, with a solo vehicle following, and then a large-scale symphonic work, either a symphony or a tone poem.
Both the structuralists and the deconstructionists tell us that culture consists of arbitrary arrangements of things that could be and perhaps should be otherwise. Maybe it is so—and then again maybe not. Those arbitrary arrangements (supposing them actually to be arbitrary) nevertheless constitute what we have in place of dissolution and chaos. The concert structure conformed to a comprehensible logic. The overture, normally a brilliant piece of musical obviousness and clarity, awakened the auditory senses and whetted the appetite for form. The concerto reminded the listener of the human virtuosity that lay, unseen, behind the execution. The symphony or tone poem implied a drama complete with catharsis and brought matters to a satisfying conclusion.
As program director, Princi observed a didactic principle. He never selected idiosyncratically, but drew rather from the standard repertory, from Haydn to the French impressionists, emphasizing the Austro-German mainstream of the Romantic school (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner), while also including the Russians and Czechs. Those years of nighttime listening endowed me with a powerful education in basic music familiarity. My sojourn in the Los Angeles and Santa Monica public schools produced, with one exception, nothing like it. I remember no "music appreciation" in school except for a perfunctory semester in the seventh grade, mostly devoted to jazz. "The Blues are a minor-key ballad-form with a thrice-repeated phrase at the beginning of each strophe," wrote the teacher on the blackboard. We ourselves repeated that phrase, indicting it in pencil on our midterm and again on our final exam; we all passed with a bluesy "B."
The exception I speak of above occurred in high school and involved a teacher-dissenter on the English, not on the music, faculty. I will come presently to Gary Johnston, about whom I have written before in Praesidium. KFAC, I note, conducted itself commercially and entrepreneurially; it was not a manifestation of so-called public broadcasting. Audience loyalty meant that the station manager could sell advertising time with the guarantee that so and so many discerning people would be listening at a given hour. The Evening Concert’s underwriter, a utilities company, took care to keep a low profile precisely so as not to give the appearance of preening itself on the largesse of ten hours a week of high culture for the instruction of the willing. No taxpayer money subsidized the effort; no "pledge week" ever interrupted the broadcast’s continuity. No gratuitous political remarks blemished the artistic presentation. The beauty of it came out of the night as a gift, with no strings attached.
I pressed my parents to take me to a symphony concert. Los Angeles has prided itself on a fine symphony orchestra since the 1920s. The Philharmonic always gave a summer season in the Hollywood Bowl, which invariably included an evening centered on a performance of Overture 1812, with cannon-fire and pyrotechnics for the added attraction. The special effects made for good box office. The arrangements entailed that the Bertonneaux should meet the van Westens at the Bowl. Uncle Dave, the instigator of it all, was fittingly present on that first occasion when—amidst an honest-to-God cannonade, the rocket’s red glare, and the hyperbole of the California Air National Guard Brass Band augmenting the orchestra—I attended by urgent request a formal concert. Vulgar let us judge it, but it left me breathless, in a veritable spasm of gooseflesh, participating spiritually in the triumph of "God save the Czar" over La Marseillaise. Perhaps surprisingly, the flashiness of it, the tumult of decibels, concealed an ineradicable, a non-vulgar kernel. The lovely Noble and Sentimental Waltzes by Maurice Ravel had subtly balanced Tchaikovsky’s drum-banging trophy in commemoration of the Battle of Borodino. Ravel’s stately dances (in the ancient modes) contributed that night to keeping the soul in its healthy harmony and in sustaining it in its firm orientation on the Aristotelian middle path. I was transfixed, like a nutty martyr on his homemade cross. I was as hooked as any sampler of opium in a Turkish den. The identical moment likewise cosmically confirmed me as a perfect nerd, since no male fourteen-year old in 1968 was supposed to be agitated in one way or mesmerized in another by Tchaikovsky.
Youth culture had descended from huckster heaven; on the Ed Sullivan Show, teenage girls squirmed in their seats as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones played. The Summer of Love had flowered in San Francisco, as the Haight Ashbury neighborhood filled up with its undeodorized compactness of flesh in flight from civilization. The muddy face of the Woodstock concert already peeked one bloodshot eye around the corner. Of the Bowl and of the soul, of youth culture and of agitation, as of Mr. Johnston the English teacher and his uncanny sense of the real curriculum, more anon…
When I say that the symphonic display transfixed and hooked me, I also mean that it decisively turned me around, quite as in Plato’s "Parable of the Cave" in The Republic. My inner ear now directed its attention away from the immediate scene, typified in pop-tunes on AM radio, to the Pythagorean Music of the Spheres, as made manifest in the sublunary—and therefore slightly gross—conventions of Tchaikovsky in his supreme facility. Because the "Parable of the Cave" is merely a "text", we rarely contemplate what the periagogé, or conversion, means for the one who suffers it. The same goes for the deeply serious, the life-and-death, pronouncements that Plato makes about music. We think of music as an ornament on life, not as the nexus of our soul, where all the spiritual faculties meet and from which they stem, like refractions of some fundamental tone. Plato, who grudged a modicum of respect for Pythagoras, certainly saw it this way; we encounter something like the Pythagorean musical cosmos in Plato’s Timaeus. My encounter with the Petersburg maestro knocked me as silly as did my encounter around the same time with the eighth grade’s opposite sex at Malibu Park Junior High School’s bimonthly Friday Night Dances. I grasped (in my groping way) that the two cataclysms were related—that they put me in touch with something colossal and transcendent. I had an intuition of the great crystalline spheres turning in their harmony. I nevertheless entertained no notion how much the first of the two encounters had guaranteed for me a peculiar mixture of pleasure with misery. It is most happy to like what other people like. It makes for smooth integration with the peer group. Whether it is good to integrate with the peer group therefore depends on what the peer group likes. My peer group was heavily invested in the perpetual adolescence of three-minute top-forty "hits" and the weekly twenty minutes of The Brady Bunch, interspersed with many commercials. I had a glimmer of something else.
Again in The Republic, Plato argues that music performs an important role, morally as well as aesthetically, in civic life: healthy music imbues social ties with robustness and sensitivity, and attunes the people not only to one another but also to the world and to the divine; while unhealthy music intoxicates and subverts the body politic. Some modes (the Mixolydian or the Ionian) in combination with some rhythms exercise a powerful allure and influence many people, perhaps a majority in any actual city, for the worse. Some instruments sap morale and corrode order. Socrates mentions the flute, for its allegedly lascivious character. Plato is thinking, as he always does, of Athens, a city in perpetual crisis, regularly fevered by the disharmony of its internal factions. The affirmation of the majority does not, however, guarantee the merit of the person or behavior or commodity so endorsed, as democracy in Athens proved. The criteria of excellence exist, objectively, in a realm beyond any passing consensus. By Plato’s standards, that Hollywood Bowl concert must have twisted my soul in turning my senses around, as Tchaikovsky employs a large orchestra of many and various instruments, most of which The Republic author would (apparently) disapprove. Overture 1812 requires not only four flutes, but also a piccolo, not to mention the brass band and the battery, both percussion and artillery. I incline to the view that The Republic exaggerates in the direction of strictness in order to make its point that the real polity is the internal one of the well-formed soul and that we can only make indulgences safely in the external domain when we have set our internal monitors on their vigil. Socrates withstands the flute music during the famous drinking party at Agathon’s house just as he withstands the unmixed wine that puts everyone else in a drunken stupor. Socrates’ soul is beautifully ordered; everyone else’s is in barbaric disorder.
Inoculated (if not entirely immunized) against vulgar allure, I could enjoy the rhythmic racket made by the garage bands that provided the music at the junior high school Bimonthly Dances—held in the all-purpose "Cafetorium"—without being paralyzed into the parochial rigidity of rock-and-roll and nothing else. Amplified tunes like "Light my Fire" and "Inna gadda da vida" served for dancing (with Electra Reed or Virginia Trumpy or Jennifer Morse, plump sweethearts of class); they suited the purpose competently. The German composer Paul Hindemith claimed that people had a practical need for a certain type of music, to which he gave the name of Gebrauchsmusik, whereupon he composed a good deal of the stuff. Little of it today seems inspired; most of it is forgotten, although Hindemith did other, serious things well—he wrote some of the finest symphonies of the Twentieth Century. Garage-band music constituted Gebrauchsmusik for early adolescent flirtations on the "Cafetorium" parquetry, nothing less but also nothing more. Between "Inna gadda da vida" and Overture 1812, I could sense the gap. Even considering the merits of the Overture, the gap veritably yawned. For what reasons who can say—but most of my peers and friends remained unaware of anything beyond the entertainments offered by commercial entertainment to the buying masses. I claim no special virtue for my novitiate taste. Many accidents had awakened my as yet unformed faculty of musical-artistic discrimination. Looking back, it seems paltry enough. It was a kernel nevertheless, something apart from me. So I seek no credit for it. In the fairy tale, the adventurer needs magical helpers in order to gain the pot of gold or win the hand of the princess. Often trolls or hermits offer their aid—quasi-people who live at the margins of the community.
Without calling Uncle Dave a misfit or an eccentric (much less a troll, a hermit, or a quasi-person), he fills the helper role in the musical department of my particular education sentimentale, or in the training of my aesthetic sensibility. So does Carl Princi, despite my having been only barely personally acquainted with him. In what circumstance did Dave experience his awakening? Who was his helper and who was his helper’s helper? I do know the generic, if not the specific, answer to this last question. The answer is one word: civilization. Civilization in turn cherishes itself, which is to say, it cherishes its own refinements, subtleties, and politesse. Those people pass civilization along who understand and cherish it, for itself. The most unlikely characters qualify as transmitters of the dispensation. Some people quite refined in their appearance (Madison Avenue types, the intelligentsia) are, on the other hand, deceivers at heart and destroyers of the dear. Those who receive the dispensation must therefore give thanks for a mystery and a grace.
I come back to my thesis about musical experience as a lesson in aesthetic differentiation and—yes, because I refuse to yield to relativistic snobbism—in refinement of judgment. The decision that distinguishes plainly between the gross pleasure of "Let’s do the Twist" and the refined pleasure of Marche Slave, another Tchaikovsky warhorse, reveals a minimum of civilized initiation. To realize the pleasure of "Let’s do the Twist," one twists until one is sweaty and exhausted. The occasion calls hardly at all on the mind; any savage might do it. To realize the pleasure of Marche Slave, one does not literally march: one imagines, not oneself, but (I guess) the Czar’s army on the march, with all its uniformed gorgeousness in the cadre, all its equine pomp, and all its caissons and field artillery in train. It is a different sort of satisfaction, with the advantage that one need not sweat in medias res or collapse afterwards from exhaustion. Mind you, I liked to dance until I dropped; I was not, nor am I, immune to the Dionysian. Most male connoisseurs of what, for lack of any better term, is called classical music, probably began with Tchaikovsky, perhaps even with Overture 1812. After that came the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, with their march tunes and wild fanfares, and the barnstorming concertos. Often the other Russians, Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries, form the next developmental phase of musical-aesthetic taste. I know the reason for this.
Russian music maintains close contact with the Dionysian. It also has a strong narrative, almost pantomimic, impulse—hence its connection with the rhythmic articulations of ballet. Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky himself, and the dozens of minor figures who followed their example brought to orchestral music on a large scale an unprecedented sense color and incident. They had their model in Louis-Hector Berlioz, who played his Symphonie fantastique and Harold en Italie to Russian audiences in the 1840s and 50s. Rimsky-Korsakov taught himself the art of orchestration by studying Berlioz’ famous Traité sur l’art d’instrumentation. Rimsky’s orchestral canvases—Russian Easter Overture, Antar, and Scheherazade, to name the most prominent—highlighted individual instrumental timbre and created new, unexpected combinations of timbre of a distinctive type. Drawing on the rich folklore of Imperial Russia’s outlying regions, especially the Caucasian ones, Rimsky also mined new veins of exotica, taking to its farthest a trend begun timidly enough by Mozart, when he incorporated "Turkish" music in his "song-play", The Abduction from the Seraglio. Russian cuisine, like the Scandinavian, runs to bland; the spicy dishes come from Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia. Rimsky understood this musically and served up feast after feast to his Moscow and Saint Petersburg concert audiences, who were familiar mainly with Italian opera and early nineteenth-century concertos in the French virtuoso style. All that was genteel and inoffensive. Instead of the courtly minuet or courant, Rimsky gave listeners heavily accented hopaks and lezhginkas. Invoking imagery out of Central Asian legend, erotic and violent, and illustrating it with the full resources of the modern orchestra, he shocked and delighted his listeners with the carefully structured phantasmagoria of archetypal drama in sound. Rimsky’s students Igor Stravinsky and Ottorino Respighi grasped the formula and repeated it, respectively, in The Firebird and The Pines of Rome, the latter of which trades Gregorian for Central-Asian modality, but with the same exotic result. Ravel knew the Russians well. In his Noble and Sentimental Waltzes he does Rimsky over, so to speak, in pastels; in his Daphnis and Chloe he reverts to oils à la mode Russe and uses a paint knife to apply the primary hues.
When, in the eighth or ninth grade, I started spending part of my allowance on records, the first ones I collected were the Russians. The album covers were part of the experience. They usually reproduced some Slavic or Caucasian scene as painted by Rimsky’s younger contemporary, Ilya Repin. The pictorial connection reminds me that this gorgeous, entrancing music had something in common with my reading of the time: science fiction paperbacks with exotic covers containing planetary romances that might have provided as convincing a program for Antar as Rimsky’s announced Perse-Armenian saga of princely revenge. Some pieces of this puzzle of enthusiasms were about to join together. I was about to meet someone who could explain my fascination—and explain its sources—with convincing clarity; someone who knew, it seemed, as much about science fiction as he did about the historical details of Russian, and other, music.
On the fourth or fifth class meeting of World Myth and Folklore, in its six-week summer edition of the year 1969 at Santa Monica High School, Mr. Johnston asked us to close our eyes and put our heads on our desks. He would be turning out the lights so that we could listen undistracted to a symphony, Der Titan, by Gustav Mahler, a composer’s name none of us had previously known. The occasion was our preliminary study of the hero-motif in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, armed with the scheme of which we were preparing to tackle the primary syllabus: Homer’s Odyssey, the Anglo-Saxon poet’s Beowulf, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faust, Hermann Hesse’s Demian, the Hindu epic Baghavat Gita, and a batch of short stories and Märchen by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Bored with Malibu, I had jumped at the chance to start high school in the summer just after the ninth grade, instead of waiting until the fall. Santa Monica, perched on cliffs overlooking a magnificent beach, lay twenty-three merciful miles from Point Dume. Johnston’s syllabus—for tenth grade students—indicates his independence from the usual teacherly assumptions about the secondary curriculum. In his view, we could rise from our benightedness into the realization of our better intellectual nature, acquire discipline by applying ourselves to demanding books, and gain a deep sense of the human condition through acquaintance with provocative aesthetic encounters of a wide variety. The exercise entailed more than Campbell’s Hero and the myth-narratives: it also embraced Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Johnston, an aspiring composer who was studying composition nights at USC, explained to us that the patterns discovered by Campbell in his survey of much ethnic folklore, and which he attributed (Jungian that he was) to archetypes of the universal unconscious, might be discerned in musical, as well as in verbal, narrative. In particular, the sequence of starting the journey, being dangerously waylaid, facing and overcoming a deadly challenge, and at last returning home with the treasure—seemed to be implicit in the idea of large-scale musical structure using the so-called sonata form.
Mahler only ever thought on the largest possible scale, stretching sonata form to its comprehensible limits. Der Titan takes its name from an eponymous novel by Jean Paul, although the connection is slim, the fiction having served Mahler merely as a jumping-off place for the musical imagination. Like all effective symphonies, Mahler’s First Symphony explains its own procedures as it unfolds: the opening sounds of the First Movement are hardly music at all; they are fundamental tones and then octave doublings and then triadic harmonies in motion. Birdcalls emerge in the woodwinds until, after the summons by distant fanfares, a real tune at last makes itself heard—the folksong-like "Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld" from the composer’s early song-cycle with orchestral accompaniment Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen. Over the next twenty minutes, Mahler develops his minimal material into a massive, life-affirming, major-key climax. The Second Movement is a ländler-scherzo, once again in a major key, with thrilling fanfares and animating waltz-rhythms. In complete contrast, the Third Movement unfolds as a funeral march based on a minor-key variant of the round-tune that American children know as "Frère Jacques". In German it is called "Bruder Martin". The high spirits of the First and Second Movements thus yield to a touching obsequy in the Adagio. The solemnities are broken up in the middle of the movement, however, by the intrusion of what sounds like a Klezmer-band crossing paths with the Christian procession, after which "Bruder Martin" returns.
The Finale is even longer than the First Movement; it is more complicated in its sequence of moods, starting with a reminiscence of the funeral march, passing through snatches of "Ging heut’ Morgen", and building, through many minor-key modulations to a horn-dominated major-key coda that, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche on music, justifies existence—its own, the listener’s, the world’s. With references to material in Campbell, Johnston reminded us of the correspondences between the moods of Der Titan and the episodes of the hero-cycle, as manifested here, there, and elsewhere, in myth.
Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra told a different version of the same story, when we listened to it a week or so later. Here the music unfolds without the demarcations of separate movements, from the heroic C-Major affirmation of the opening fanfare (made famous in the Stanley Kubrick / Arthur C. Clarke film of 2001) to the impossibly slow, impossibly pianissimo coda: Zarathustra is a hero who, like a certain American General, never dies, but fades away into oneness with the cosmos. With Johnston’s help, the parallelism between the epoi and the Late-Romantic symphonic canvasses struck us as obvious. Who is Der Titan, after all? He is Prometheus—not the forever-bound Prometheus of Aeschylus, but the liberated Prometheus of Shelley, a favorite of all Romantics. On a bus-trip to Westwood Village near the UCLA campus with my friend Tom Cunningham, I acquired the Georg Solti performance of Mahler and the Otto Klemperer performance of Strauss and began repeated auditing of the discs—on my primitive record player—until they abraded into un-listenable crackling and popping. I later assembled the heterogeneous components of a stereo system with a proper turntable and made an effort to take care of my black vinyl.
Consider what Johnston had accomplished by his classroom strategy: he had gotten us to read, and to think about, serious literary material; he had gotten us to pay attention, for nearly an hour, to a challenging symphonic composition by a composer who, even in 1969, still seemed recondite to musicologists—and he had called our attention to parallel structures that assimilated one to the other. He had also folded time so that the nineteenth century A.D. met the eighth and the fifth centuries B.C. The pedagogy was not without its price for the pedagogue. Once an irate teacher from next door barged into the classroom to ask whether our mentor might not play "all that opry" at a lower decibel-level. Johnston nodded politely to his colleague and the volume came down. He convinced us because of his matter-of-fact presentation of the material; he proffered it as though no doubt could exist as to its appropriateness for us, and as though it was completely natural for us to be conversant with it. Diane Glasgow, a few years ahead of me at "Samohi", writes to Johnston in an affectionate open letter how "you were ahead of your time when you played classical music for us in class." Johnston, Glasgow says, "gave us the Mozart effect before that concept existed." In ignoring the usual assumptions about what high school students can do, Johnston "gave us freedom."
Freedom was what I heard in the distant trumpet-fanfares and soaring horn-calls in Mahler’s Titan. I heard it again in the massive C-Major chord that furnishes the climax of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Johnston told us something about Scriabin, who combined composition with theosophical mysticism and planned vast musical rituals to be performed in a purpose-built amphitheater in the Himalayas. All this was before he died of blood poisoning, from a pimple on his upper lip, in 1915. So curious was I about Scriabin that I hunted out Faubion Bower’s two-volume biography in the Santa Monica Public Library, the first musicological book I ever read. I met other effective teachers during high school, but none as charismatic or as polymath as Johnston, all of whose English classes (he also taught German) I eventually took. I even owe to Johnston the most pleasant date I ever had prior to meeting my wife many years later in graduate school.
Regine Wood lived, with her family, on Point Dume, not far from the Bertonneaux. I knew her from junior high school and rode the bus with her when we matriculated from ninth grade and became sophomores at Samohi. Regine also made the lucky decision to take Johnston’s courses. She reacted as I did to the material, with intense curiosity. We often talked about Johnston’s courses on the way to Santa Monica in the morning or on the way home in the late afternoon. In my junior year (1971), I asked Regine out, proposing as our destination on a Saturday evening the Hollywood Bowl, where the "Mostly Mozart Marathon" was to be held. With student identification, you could get "rush" tickets for three dollars a seat.
The "Marathons" were a popular offering, beginning in the early evening and going on until well after midnight; they were organized around obvious themes ("Mozart") and involved chamber music and song, as well as the orchestra. Johnston had mentioned them as a good way to get to know a particular composer or musical period intimately. Both Regine and I were eager. You brought a picnic dinner and made an occasion of it. The lax rules at the bowl meant that well-behaved teenagers who smuggled in a bottle of wine were unlikely to be reprimanded—we indeed accompanied our roast chicken and green-beans-in-vinaigrette and fruit-for-dessert with a genteel rosé. The Bowl is one of those miracles of rare device, set in the hillsides of the Cahuenga Pass, the old Mission path that takes the pilgrim from Hollywood (then part of Rancho Las Feliz), through the mountains, to the San Fernando Valley. Hollywood Boulevard at Cahuenga is an obnoxious intersection of thoroughfares, loud, crass. You could see a strip-show on one corner, if you wanted, or pawn your watch on the other. By the time you have driven up the pass, parked your car in the venue lot, and made your way to your seat, you are in another world, isolated from the city’s hubbub, aware of the insect-noises of the night-ambiance and the sage-flavored breezes of the slopes. The atmosphere of the "Marathons" was casual. We had a box, close to the stage. Jack Brymer, long-time clarinetist of the London Philharmonic, performed in Mozart’s Quintet. A chorus sang parts of the Solemn Vespers. In the wonderful darkness, Lukas Foss led the orchestra in the G-Minor Symphony (No. 40). Heaven might have come down to earth, so sweet it was. The meal was perfect, the wine spicy. So this is civilized existence!
Little can be gained by flogging the spiritually defunct horse of aggressively marketed commercial music, the sort of music that must be heavily sold to a manufactured audience trained to the lowest common denominator of aesthetic judgment precisely because, otherwise, no one would listen to it, much less buy it. Twenty years ago Allan Bloom analyzed rock-and-roll to its infantile-erotic "T" in The Closing of the American Mind. More recently Carson Holloway has revisited the topic in All Shook Up. Together they make the unavoidable case for commercial music as a degenerating, a de-civilizing influence on adolescents. Neither do I wish to identify an inclination to The Ring of the Nibelungs or to the tone poems of, say, Reinhold Glière with morality. Glière, incidentally, was a naturally socialist-realist composer of the Soviet period, and a student of Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov—who was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. That is why I mention him. A certain Corporal Schickelgruber (a failed painter) and his now-and-then ally Iosef Djugashvili (a failed seminarian) both prided themselves on a cultivated musical taste; nor were their pretensions entirely pretentious. As Frederic Spotts shows in Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, Hitler really did know a good deal about music; when Glière got his Stalin Prize for The Bronze Horseman, the decision descended from Stalin and it was by no means purely political. People who complain that Republican presidents of the United States care nothing for the arts are undoubtedly right; it is merely that the political bosses who have cared for the arts in the Twentieth Century are the kind under whose regimes no one in his right mind will want to have lived. So a knowledge of Beethoven does not make one a virtuous person.
On the other hand, virtuous people ought to be interested in music. This is because while good music will never turn a sinner into a saint, bad music, just as Plato argued, can contribute to the corruption of a basically good person. So, of course, can bad literature (think of pornography), or overindulgence in something perfectly acceptable in moderation—like wine, or the much-maligned weed of our never concluded, always-getting-worse drug-wars. Good music can, however, help an incipiently decent person—someone with a moral upbringing, just entering adolescence—be better.
Apart from the piece itself, what do we learn, say, from Mahler’s Titan Symphony? More cogently, what do we learn from it of a moral nature? Let first things come first. When those inchoate sounds of Der Titan’s First Movement tickle the ear, emerging from the non-existence of the previous silence, our awareness of the world suddenly alters. We suddenly attend a distinctive phenomenon that demands contemplation for itself apart from any quotidian annoyance. We must abstract ourselves from the mundane and focus narrowly on this emergent object of our concentrated attention. Gary Johnston had a phrase for this. He employed it while forecasting explanatorily what we would hear in a phonographic documentation of a live concert given in the early 1950s by Wilhelm Furtwängler leading the Berlin Philharmonic, which he was about to play for us. The recording included the audience sounds as the conductor came on stage and climbed on the podium, a shifting in seats, a hustle-bustle, and a whispering chatter. Without being able to see it, we knew when Furtwängler had reached his office and given the cue. The hubbub ceased. Said Johnston: "They’re in aesthetic time now, especially the conductor and his players." He suggested that aesthetic time resembled the "dream time" of the Aborigines, as described by Mircea Eliade in The Eternal Return, which we had been reading; or it resembled the paradoxical "eternal temporality" of the Heaven above the Heavens in which dwelt the Ideas, according to Plato, as mentioned again by Eliade. "Perhaps," said our teacher, "dream time and the eternal temporality are the same as the stillness of prayer, as invoked by the Medieval Christian mystics."
But back to Mahler: the extended tones with which Der Titan commences do not permit us to count the beats as we hear them so that, while we are aware of duration, we cannot measure it. How different such a time is from the time dominated by the ticking of the clock, or the impatient hiatus while we wait to be served, or the staccato downloading of a webpage on the computer screen. Both the descending fourth heard in the woodwind and the birdsong arabesque given to the clarinets hover so freely over the ground-tone that they fail to come to our aid by setting a countable measure. Only the advent of the "Ging heut’ Morgen" tune, in "easy" (the German calls it gemächlich) march-time at last enables us to get into the regular swing of things. Even then, it is not exactly an ordinary four-count cadence, for it never ceases to have its background in the measureless drone and it always shares the stage with the other motifs of the introduction. In addition to acquainting us with aesthetic time, Mahler’s symphony also gives us a basic lesson in pulse and the division of the pulse. The basic pulse is our own, the pulse that we feel when we touch our wrist. The music relates, then, to the physiological stratum of our being, but it reaches beyond the physiological into the non-corporeal—into the immaterial, I dare say, and the transcendental, and the divine.
The birdsong arabesques of the First Movement’s slow opening invite commentary: we recognize them immediately as avian in origin, but they are not the raw stuff of nature—Mahler has reworked his aural reminiscence of some feathered creature of the fields in the form of an immediately apprehensible motif. Before our ears, the maestro transforms nature into art. The twice-sounded fanfare, first on clarinets and then on trumpets, is initially distant, and then not so distant, but also not quite in the same close-up locale as the rest of the orchestra. A plastic space is thus added to the plastic time conjured up by the musical drone. Whereas we hear all of this with our ears, we understand it with our minds. I might borrow an explanation from Thomas de Quincey who claims, in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, that music is mainly an intellectual rather than a sensory experience. In Kantian fashion, de Quincey argues that since the musical performance takes place in time, the aria or chorus is never present in toto to our auditory apprehension, but memory must intentionally preserve the successive instants of the performance and then assemble them as a non-temporal whole. Music requires the faculty of synthesis. De Quincey’s theory explains how, when we become familiar with a piece, we can understand the whole by recognizing any given bar. Memory fetches the missing context to the isolated fragment.
The logic of sonata structure springs from our synchronic fitting-together, our noesis, of the diachronic phenomenon of the musical performance: hence the importance of sonata’s recapitulation of the material after the exposition, as an aide mémoir. The custom of exposition repeats fell out of favor as recording became the main medium for serious music, but when people only heard a particular work once or twice in years of concert going, the repeats were an absolute necessity. Mahler extends this element of sonata-principle to the whole symphony, recalling material from earlier movements in the opening bars of the Finale, as Beethoven did in his Choral Symphony. Thus the Mahler symphony—which serves here as an exemplary instance in the genre of extended serious composition—helps reveal to us the subtle workings of our own mind. It even trains the mind in those workings, which, of course, we do not do naturally, just as we do not speak language naturally, but must learn it, too. There is one more thing. Beauty, which Der Titan boasts aplenty, is its own lesson: the gorgeousness of Mahler’s melodies rewards the attention we pay to his score in performance. This last brings us to the second question, what do we learn from serious music of a moral nature?
The word sublimation has somewhat fallen out of currency, but it is kernel of what I would like to discuss. Freudian psychology uses the term. The Freudian usage is not without its obvious import. More significant is the link between sublimation and the sublime. For Kant, as perhaps for de Quincey, the sublime is purely aesthetic; it has no ethical implication. In his oft cited, little understood monograph On the Sublime, however, the Second Century A.D. writer Longinus asserts a connection between sublimity, which he discusses primarily as a literary matter, and the health of the body politic. Longinus says to his addressee—Terentianus—that the sublime only appears in art when freedom is the condition of politics. But it is really a circular argument, although not a vicious one, as it is only by recognizing the sublime and taking their orientation from it that men properly arrange for their freedom. By "freedom" (eleutheria), Longinus means the self-control—in Greek, the autonomy—that makes for a sane republic whose constituents are so many balanced, as opposed to so many unbalanced, souls. A free soul has learned to fend off envy (philotimia), which turns men against each other by inciting their concupiscence for status and for things; it abjures whatever is base and tries to imitate the beautiful. The sublime puts us in our rightful place and shows us our true stature by establishing an absolute measure, against which we become aware of our mortal limitations. The sublime is a humbling experience.
Perhaps the Longinian sublime reflects the absorption of the Olympian godhead by Late-Antique neo-Platonism, which itself becomes a type of religion (ersatz religion) in the period. Perhaps the sublime is itself a decadent phenomenon. Yet I believe otherwise, as social-political decadence comes to light for Longinus precisely as an absence of the sublime. On the Sublime is really Plato’s musicology from The Republic applied by Longinus to the conditions of the Roman Empire. "We seem to be schooled from childhood in an equitable slavery, swaddled," Terentianus says, "from the tender infancy of our minds in servile ways and practices." "Perhaps it is not the world’s peace that corrupts great natures," Longinus answers, "but much rather this endless warfare that besets our hearts, yes, and the passions that garrison our lives in these days and make utter havoc of them." One source of that "havoc" is a pandering art, literary, musical, or any other, which titillates our grossest drives and does nothing to awaken our higher faculties. Gladiation was, after all, an aesthetic phenomenon, as is a strip-show or "gangsta rap", with its barked-out, repetitious vocabulary of female organs, rape, and male-on-male sexual domination. We no longer kill in the arena, but we incite to concupiscent frenzies just this side of the rapine and the homicidal. We stunt the soul. We do so mainly through commercial music.
When the lovely young woman, Regine, and I spent our long summertime soirée amidst other music-lovers at the Hollywood Bowl, or even when we bent our heads to our desks in Johnston’s classroom to attend Der Titan or The Poem of Ecstasy, we were submitting to a rule outside ourselves. We were putting aside the ego momentarily while we appreciated the achievement of Mozart or Mahler or Scriabin, which infinitely outbid anything that either of us might have done—although to appreciate Mozart or Mahler of Scriabin is to aspire toward a higher standard than one has so far satisfied. We were sitting in attentive stillness as we listened (this belongs to the bracketing of the ego), forgetting the external world as we participated in the noetic world of aesthetic time. We sat with one another in a moderately romantic situation, but the object of our mutual attention, which was also the object of mutual attention of many other people on the same occasion, chastely mediated our closeness. This would have been especially true at the Bowl, but it was also true in the classroom. The moment of maximum pleasure in a large-scale musical composition is always deferred. As Der Titan lasts fifty minutes or so in performance, it requires much patience for a novice to participate in the composer’s scheme. Recently, while teaching Rousseau’s sylvan Reveries in a college summer course, I thought it would be interesting for my students to listen to Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique—not all at once, but in two or three installments. When I said, at the beginning of class, that we would take fifteen minutes to listen to the symphony’s slow middle movement, the Scène aux champs, the students groaned. The idea of sitting quietly while listening to a single span of slow music for a quarter of an hour pained them in advance. They require constant, passing stimulation; it must be something else every few minutes, and it ought to flash and have an invariant four-beat-to-a-bar pulse.
As for Regine and me—we were acquiring patience, respect, a sense of orderliness, a scheme for aesthetic discrimination, and knowledge of how to mediate our erotic attraction through worthy external objects of mutual interest; we were becoming aware of hierarchies of achievement and of how to relate to them non-invidiously. The requirements of musical attention thus implied both an ethics and, with respect to beauty, a criterion. These in turn implied the sublimation of the ego: restraint in manners, postponement of appetite, and an ability to meditate silently on significant objects. Our encounter with the sublime was formative.
These same qualities have appeared—and I have seen them perfected well ahead of anything that I had then done with them—in other, musical people whom I encountered. In my second or third year at college, I made the signal acquaintance of Reinhold Kieslich, then resident in Hawaii, but a Sudeten German by birth, once an Austrian subject, later a draftee in the Wehrmacht, but by profession a baritone in various German-language opera houses under the stage-name of Til Kentauri ("Til—as in the case of Til Eulenspiegel, the trickster-figure of medieval German folklore—of the Centaurs"); and latterly, before his induction, an assistant stage director at the Dresden State Opera. After settling with his wife in Hawaii post bellum, he taught Latin at a private school there. A widower of some years in the early 1970s, he was the doting uncle ("Uncle Til") of one of my mother’s friends, Betty Byron; he would fly to Southern California visit her several times a year. The Sudetenländer accent, quite different from the Austrian accent once you know it, settled a quiet, continental grace on Kieslich’s English. Part of Uncle Til’s musicality was his facility in languages: not only his native German and his adopted English but French, Italian, Russian, Czech, Greek, and Latin. Unusually for a Sudeten German, he had taken a degree (in philology) from the Czech-language Charles University in Prague. He and I immediately discovered a mutual interest in Swedish. He had learned it in the 1920s when he took his summer vacations there. I had been studying it for a year at UCLA. In Vogue Records on Westwood Boulevard just outside campus, I had bought a number of LPs of Scandinavian composers, including a recital of songs by Gösta Nystroem. Betty’s husband Bill had a state-of-the-art stereo system. One afternoon Uncle Til and I listened repeatedly to Nystroem’s Sånger vid havet ("Songs by the seaside"), in which he identified the French influence—especially of Debussy—that the composer had absorbed during his Paris sojourn just after World War One; he also remarked on the musicality of Swedish, with its many vowel-endings.
Uncle Til’s life was the stuff of Platonic and Longinian speculation. He said that he had observed European politics in the 1920s and 30s through the lens of The Republic. The degeneration of parliamentary politics under demagogic pressure, the spiritual disorder of the galvanized crowds, the loss of historical memory—all these derailments occurred as both Austria and Germany slumped towards chaos. He conceded that the National Socialists had exploited the Richard Wagner cult and had turned Bayreuth into a German shrine, but he denied that Wagner’s music had ever been the genuine music of the Third Reich—the attempt to expropriate it notwithstanding. The Nazis subsidized Wagner operas at Bayreuth and they subsidized Richard Strauss operas in Dresden; it bought for them, they thought, a high-cultural prestige, which, as they were really nothing but street hoodlums, they knew instinctively that they lacked. But their real music was in the mass-songs for soldiers and youth, in the military marches, and in the trivial "light music" that played constantly on radio. It was anti-Semitic choruses on the one hand and mindless entertainment music on the other. They insisted that the Horst Wessel Lied be played at symphonic concerts, so as to trump the genuine music by stealing the first place on the program. Those who refused, like Furtwängler, got into dangerous trouble. They banned endless music—not only the Jewish composers, but the non-conforming Aryans, like Hindemith, and, of course, jazz.
The story of Kieslich’s incorporation sous le drapeau in 1942 was particularly telling. He had been rehearsing the chorus for a Dresden production of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. At the end of Act One, the disguised heroine, Leonora, persuades the jailer, Rocco, to let the prisoners out of the dungeon for a spell in the open air. As the prisoners emerge, blinking, into the sunlight, they sing: "Oh what joy, what joy in the free air to draw our breath with ease! Here, here alone is life, the cell is a tomb, a tomb." Judging their mien too casual, Kieslich told his singers that they should convey better the desperate happiness of the wretches to taste sunlight again, although only briefly. "Sing like you’re coming out of a concentration camp," he suggested. Everyone knew about concentration camps; everyone also knew that the regime forbade speaking of them. That night, the leather-jacketed men visited his rooms. One asked, "What do you really know about concentration camps?" "Nothing," he answered. "Would you like to know about them? It could be arranged." He thought his end had come. "Perhaps," the interrogator told him, "perhaps your language talents would be put to better use in the army." That was that. They put him through basic training (he was in his forties) and sent him, as a non-commissioned specialist, to Belgium to translate newspaper copy for the German censors. He established clandestine communications with the Belgian resistance, whose people vouched for him when the liberation came. Because of his clean bill of political health, Uncle Til became a prisoner-trustee under the Allied presence. He had his own jeep and could come and go more or less as he pleased. Later, as a civilian, he did simultaneous translation at the Nuremburg Trials. Dresden now lay in the Soviet Zone—in any case, the Staatsoper had been burnt out in the notorious bombing raid. He looked west.
Uncle Til loved Bach and Mozart above all other music. He had sung the part of Papageno in The Magic Flute in the 1920s. He signed his letters with his name—Reinhold—and with the little panpipe-signal that always identifies Papageno in Mozart’s opera. He read Goethe and Schiller and had an interest in mysticism. He sent me books that he thought might interest me—Evelyn Underhill’s study of the mystic tradition, a book of prose meditations by the German poet who went by the name of Bo Yin Ra, the Gateway paperback of Science, Politics, and Gnosticism by Eric Voegelin. He lived frugally, with little in the way of material possessions, but he did gratefully accept from his Malibu relatives a good stereo-set. He died in 1981. I still imagine him as engaged in the improbable activity of listening to Bach’s Art of the Fugue, in conductor-musicologist Hermann Scherchen’s chamber-orchestra arrangement, amidst the tropical fecundity of hibiscus and plantain in his ramshackle little island-style house on a lush hillside just beyond the grasping reach of ugly Honolulu’s tentacular sprawl.
Uncle Til wrote to me regularly up until his death, which happened when he disembarked from the airliner after a long trip from Munich to Los Angeles in 1981. His heart had failed. By the time his grandniece got to him, he had expired. There is no lonelier death than one in the lifeless anonymity of an airport.
Uncle Til often admonished me, when he thought I had done wrong, to alter my ways. He advised me strongly to do everything that I could to reconcile myself with the university after the administration dismissed me on a charge of general academic delinquency in 1976. He was right. I could see it clearly later. As I was stupid and adamant at the time, I did not act on Kieslich’s wise counsel. As unhappy as college had made me, with its pointless coursework and impersonal treatment of students, dropout life made me unhappier yet. Readers of Praesidium and its precursor Arcturus can revisit my imbroglii (assuming they are masochistic enough to do so) in "A Blast-Proof Bunker" and "The Seer of Solstice Canyon". I held dead-end jobs, drove a broken-down car, lived in wretched places, ate badly, drank too much beer, and chased girls without ever meaningfully catching up with them. The ones I did catch up with I ought not have. As I am writing about music, I should add that I was still passionate about it; music might have been the sole equilibrium in my tottering, delirious life. Every time I changed lodgings, I needed to deal with the logistical nightmare of carting my burdensome LPs to the new domicile. It meant four, five, or six car trips. I had to load the Rabbit lightly because the shocks were worn. Yet it was unthinkable not to bear the onus: Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Ives, Harris, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and all the others made up a kind of ordered bulwark against the disorderly craziness of my world. Although college had made me crazy, so much so that I turned my back on it, I retained fondness for some aspects of the Westwood campus. I made much use, in my spare hours, of the Arnold Schoenberg Library, where I read composer-biographies and music histories and made what I could out of the study-scores. Sometimes a reference in one of the musicological books sent me to the Research Library, to the philosophy or history section. When I read that Mahler took inspiration for his Third Symphony from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, I went off to read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. When Wilfrid Mellers wrote that no listener could fully understand Ralph Vaughan Williams, the English symphonist, without knowledge of the Metaphysical poets, I went off to read the Metaphysical poets. When I had absorbed the poets, I sought clarification in T. S. Eliot’s comments on them.
On campus one day I met an acquaintance. He had been my supervisor when I worked in circulation in the College Library. He suggested that I apply for a position in the University Archives. It required no degree, which made it a possibility for me. The director of the Oral History Program wanted to collect spoken memoirs of people who had been active in the musical life of Southern California and he wanted to hire an interviewer for the project. My old supervisor and one or two other sympathizers vouched for me. Soon enough the Program dispatched me with a tape recorder to interview the first name on the preference list, the redoubtable conductor-musicologist-lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky, whose Lexicon of Musical Invective had given me many a chuckle. I also knew Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Composers and Musicians, an absolutely indispensable resource for anyone with a serious interest in music, Music in Latin America, Music Since 1900, and the maximally erudite Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. According to the entry under his own name in Baker’s, Slonimsky had authored the groundbreaking paper, "Sex and the Music-Librarian". "It was a very short paper," he winked. Slonimsky’s death will shake the musical world, Lawrence Weschler once wrote while the maestro still lived. No one else had been so robustly at the center of twentieth-century musical activity; no one else had chronicled that activity so copiously and precisely. When I sat down to talk with him in his ground floor Wilshire Boulevard apartment, he had just celebrated his eighty-fourth birthday; his demise would come sixteen years later, just shy of his twentieth completed lustrum.
Slonimsky liked to say, in his Russian accent, that he had been born in three different places and at three different times: first in Saint Petersburg, which later became Petrograd, and later again Leningrad; on 15 April, on 27 April, and on 28 April, 1894—due to the non-conformance of the Orthodox and Western calendars and to a turn-of-the-century adjustment in the former. It was the type of jest that he liked, and that he expressed as a composer in his fascinating "Derangements" (as he called them) of Bach, which he played for me on his upright piano in the room where we spoke. Make consistent mathematical alterations to a Bach fugue and you get a Debussy prelude, whole-tone scale and all; make another consistent alteration and you get atonal counterpoint on the model of Schoenberg. But the superannuated Wunderkind cleverness, turning baroque counterpoint into Impressionism or into Atonality by means of a logarithm, only barely concealed the resilient person, the genius, the pioneer, and the survivor.
Rimsky-Korsakov and the other Russians had awakened me musically. When Slonimsky applied for admission to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, he underwent examination by none other than Rimsky’s successor in the directorship of that august institution, Alexander Glazunov. Rimsky, who sympathized with dissentients during the events of 1905, had tendered his resignation when the Czar put down the reformers, with the tacit agreement that his student should fill his office. Glazunov, arguably the most prominent living Russian composer in 1908, had given the fourteen-year-old Slonimsky the highest possible grade, a "Five Plus". When a fellow humbly confronted the white-haired, pixy-like polymath, who could not have been much more than five feet and two inches in height, he confronted a living, breathing heir of the Rimsky tradition, a student of the man whom Rimsky himself saw as his musical legatee. He humbly confronted someone who had survived the cauldron of the Communist revolution and the ensuing Civil War in Russia. In 1918, along with other more or less able-bodied males, Slonimsky obeyed a compulsory decree to shoulder arms under the hammer and sickle. In a field outside the city, he listened to a harangue about the inevitability of the Bolshevik triumph delivered by none other than Leon Trotsky. As revolutionary Petrograd descended into military executions of counter-revolutionaries and endemic famine, Slonimsky slipped away. He stole through Ukraine and Crimea to Turkey and then eventually, via France, to the United States. He arrived, in 1921, speaking no English. He learned the language by the unusual expedient of reading advertisements in magazines. The advertisements in Harper’s or Saturday Evening Post were far more verbal than they would later become. He played piano when he could, he gave lessons, and he gradually made himself fit for the new social environment. He even composed. His "Five Advertising Songs" began to appear on recital programs. One of them borrowed advertising copy for a laxative, which it wedded with the harmonic progressions and melodic outline of Rachmaninov’s C-Minor Prelude.
Within a few years Slonimsky merited the honor of becoming assistant to Serge Koussevitsky, director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was Slonimsky who re-barred the score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring so that Koussevitsky, whom the composer’s irregular time signatures badly disgruntled, could conduct it, to great acclaim. With a chamber orchestra drawn from the regular Boston Symphony personnel, Slonimsky began to perform the newest American music by Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Edgar Varèse, and Carl Ruggles. He gave premiere performances of now famous scores, such as Ives’ Three Places in New England and Varèse’s Ionisation. To beat time correctly in the middle movement of Three Places, which depicts two village bands passing each other while playing different tunes in different keys and in different meters, Slonimsky learned how to conduct so that the fourth beat in the right hand, in four-four meter, would coincide with the downbeat in the left hand, in cut meter. "Somebody said that my conducting was Evangelical because my right hand knew not what my left hand was doing." When Slonimsky demonstrated this disjoint stick-technique, the onlooker had the awed feeling that no Ankara dervish could excel him in exotic motor skills. Daringly, the intrepid maestro took this avant-garde repertory to Germany in 1934—a Russian-Jewish conductor, on an American passport, exhibiting the latest in entartete Musik to sell-out audiences in the concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. It was like taking bagels and cream cheese to the Reichskänzlerei; with State Department help, it was a stab at the nascent anti-Semitic regime.
Back home, Slonimsky’s association with "modern music" cost him his chance to head a major orchestra. He took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic for part of its Hollywood Bowl summer season in 1934, insisting that Ives, Ruggles, and Varèse appear on the program. The radio engineers (KFAC, no less) who broadcast the concert had made air-check discs that recorded the ill tempered boos and hisses from an audience that wanted… Tchaikovsky! The blue-haired burgesses and prigs on the Symphony board, made known their displeasure. What had been a tryout for the post of music director became a rejection. After that, the man lectured at universities, on literature as well as music, and wrote dictionaries and other books for his living.
Of Tchaikovsky, Slonimsky said something remarkable. I posed the (rather hackneyed) "desert island question". If you were stranded on a desert island, and could have the music of only one composer, whose would it be? Slonimsky told me that he would choose the Tchaikovsky symphonies. Far from being the non-rigorous sentimentalist that popular stories suggested, the spinner of obvious tunes, weak in his compositional structures, Tchaikovsky exercised absolute mastery of symphonic argument, of the details of orchestration, and of the assimilation of folk- into art-music. Stravinsky merely acted on Peter Ilyich’s lead.
Gary Johnston, Reinhold Kieslich, and Nicolas Slonimsky had in common their passage through and survival of the turmoil of the twentieth century. Johnston, as I have described elsewhere, had come to the United States as a war orphan from Germany: a nightmarish Reich of Allied bombing attacks and adolescent conscription into the Hitlerjugend. We students could only surmise what the conditions were that had made him. Kieslich, a generation older than Johnston, emerged from the same catastrophe. Slonimsky evaded the Lenin-Stalin nightmare by the skin of his teeth. He invoked his final image of Petrograd during an early interview: a starving horse dropping in the street and the starving citizens encircling it immediately with raised knives to claim a slice of still warm flesh. My complaints paled. I had authored my own neurotic problems. A heady presumption tainted the idea of interviewing such a person as Nicolas Slonimsky. How did I not strike him as unbearably impertinent? Redeeming the occasion consisted in understanding the presumptiveness of it. Salvation consisted again in the other person’s endowing the callow questioner with the loan of dignity, in the hope that he might repay it by assimilating it. The junior partner brings no real collateral to the transaction, but he must possess evident interests outside himself, and a curiosity beyond the confines of a narrow parochialism.
Looking back on the transcripts of the Slonimsky interviews, I see how he helped me to organize the mass of material I had assembled in preparation for speaking with him. He undertook a kindly collaboration with the bumbling aspirant. Uncle Til never did anything else. Like Socrates at the beginning of Protagoras, when the agitated Hippocrates comes banging at the teacher’s door before sunrise, he had always sought to calm me and to suggest the sources of order. As for Johnston, he was one of the few teachers I have known who understood the real object of instruction is the soul and that the soul is only nourished by the most exalted things. Slonimsky was a non-religious Jew and a materialist; Johnston was some kind of secular mystic; Uncle Til was a Quaker with an inclination to mysticism on the medieval Christian rather than on the Jungian or Theosophical model. Yet the passions of all three, even of the materialist, suggested a transcendent orientation. The composers whom Slonimsky had championed were all mystics and seers in their own way: Varèse an inveterate reader of Paracelsus, Ives of Emerson, and Ruggles of Blake. Galileo Galilei, as musical as he was astronomical, said that music mediates between reason and faith. Slonimsky, Johnston, and Kieslich were all—each in his peculiar manner—men of faith as well as men of learning and reason. Exposure to them had the effect, by stages, of reinforcing my own faith and my own reason and therefore of fostering an internal, a spiritual order that permitted me to reestablish myself on my own modest path.
This happened at a time when some of my dropout friends stumbled even further into decline, brought down by drugs or alcohol or sex or despair. In every case, the casualties succumbed also to an inability to rise from adolescence made perpetual by the seductions of commercial culture. They all owned as many bulky LPs as I did, but in a different genre. It is difficult to see what kind of faith commercial music might nurture, since it comes in three-minute bites, without any harmonic progress, and with a monotonous beat; it requires no postponement, points to nothing but itself and a few immediate urges, and celebrates a middle-school petulance, which, when it endures in a person chronologically adult, is ugly and intolerable. I am not saying anything so simple as that rock-and-roll did them over, as if it were a case of elementary causality; obviously it is more complicated than that. Say rather that, insofar as we choose the musical accompaniment to our follies, our delights, and our sorrows, what we choose signifies. Outside observers legitimately interpret our choices and judge their appropriateness to the events that they accompany. My intoxicated, lay-about friends were all cool, of course, and I was more pronouncedly than ever a nerd. But I could see that my mentors had probably been nerds, too, or the equivalent in their native contexts. It alleviated my nervousness. Probably my New Orleansian grandfather—the one in the old photograph with the violin—was a nerd, playing his scales while the other boys cut Huck Finn capers on the levee or ran like ragamuffins in the French Quarter. When our son was born, my wife and I agreed that we would rather raise a civilized nerd than a socialized barbarian. Young master Joseph was listening regularly to Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and all the rest before he learned to talk. We taught him to read at home before we ever sent him off to school. In my forties, I held to my hard-won principles devoutly.
In terms of volume (in both senses), ours is the most music-filled, if not the most musical, age ever. Recording and broadcasting have propagated music—increasingly indifferent as to what kind—since the turn of the last century. Before the 1950s, however, the purveyors of commercial culture assumed that middle class people had adult interests and could understand civilized references, including those to music. Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini were celebrities. When Bugs Bunny goes onstage at the Hollywood Bowl and raises his hands, sans baton, to lead the orchestra, the director of the cartoon expects that movie audiences will "get" the allusion. Stokowski famously conducted sans baton. The Bugs-and-Elmer Fudd conflict can assimilate to the plot of Wagner’s Ring and be comprehensible to the same audience because many of the moviegoers listened with some regularity to broadcasts of the NBC Symphony and of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon performances. When Elmer belts out "Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!" to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, the humor comes from a collision of contexts and it works because the audience knows both contexts. In the Stokowski vehicle, One Hundred Men and a Girl, the random cab driver agrees to carry Deanna Durbin to Carnegie Hall despite her not having the fare because he admires Stokowski and knows of her association with the extravagant maestro. The cab driver is any one of us—ordinary people taking advantage of the matinee who enjoy the movies but who also cultivate higher taste, at least on weekends. After World War Two, producers of commercial culture ceased making such assumptions about their customers, no doubt because the critical mass of their customers no longer invested in refined diversion. The lamented Los Angeles classical music radio station KFAC broadcast on both AM and FM: the AM signal could be picked up on car radios and on the old radio-sets that many older people still owned in the 1960s, without FM reception. The cynically engineered dissolution of the station in 1989 was motivated by greed for the AM frequency above all. The liquidators immediately began broadcasting commercial music.
A recurring item in the news in the 1990s concerned the problem that masses of teenagers posed to the businesses that rent space in malls; obnoxious kids scare away adult customers, so the merchants lose business. How to solve the problem? Play classical music over the speaker system—Haydn and Boccherini repel the kids the way sunlight repels vampires. Were they not a captive audience, my summer course students would have fled the room when I asked them to put their heads down on their desks and listen to one of the five movements of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, a musical tableau so vivid that only someone artificially deprived of his imagination could not conjure up the cinematographic pictures of a thunderstorm in the lonely fields that it evokes.
"If the doors of perception were cleansed," prophesied William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite"; and this is because "man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru’ narrow chinks of his cavern." We reflexively think of "the doors of perception" in ocular terms, as though they involved only the eyes, but Blake almost always speaks in the plural of the senses. The bard is not only for Blake the one who sees but also the one who hears—hears the singing of angels and the harmonies of the celestial spheres. Blake knew, too, that neither seer nor hearer springs effortlessly into being, but rather struggles his way through tribulation and catastrophe to the dearly purchased competency of seeing or hearing without mediation. I think of the tremendous anguish that Beethoven expresses in his "Heiligenstadt Testament"—Beethoven, who went on hearing long after his ears succumbed to deafness and who, from his deafness, taught us the proper way to listen as we walk beyond the distractions of civic life in the spiritual recreation of park and field. Blake seems to invoke Plato’s cave, where we have, in his terms, closed ourselves up, and where man "sees all things thru’ narrow chinks of his cavern." How will those doors of our perception be cleansed when a brutal half-music coupled with brutal imagery is the predominant medium of musical instruction, exhorting us ceaselessly to lower our preferences to the degree-zero of thumping titillation? What subtleties shall we learn to perceive when there is no deliberate training in the eroticism of the subtle or in the sweet teasing of the eye or the gentle tickling of the ear? An individual might be lucky enough to benefit by the charity of magic helpers, but civilization cannot sustain itself on the hope that a critical nucleus of individuals will meet up providentially with similar mentor-benefactors. The disintegration of the musical paideia runs in parallel with the disintegration of the literary paideia. I thank God for my luck—for Uncle Dave and Uncle Til and Gary Johnston and all the rest—while at the same time I know that the number of the lucky grows yearly smaller and smaller.
Three Short Essays on Taste and Technology
Mr. Wegierski is a Canadian journalist (based in Toronto) who has generously contributed to recent issues of Praesidium. The following three pieces, in particular, while extremely perceptive, have not (he informs us) succeeded in finding a home among various outlets of a more general audience. We entirely agree that there is a palpable resistance throughout the news media and the literate public to addressing the range of grave issues outlined here. Indeed, one should constantly bear in mind while reading the essays that their matter is considered off limits in most newsrooms.
In the New Millennium: Five Internet Visions from a Technoskeptic
With the advance of the computer/electronics revolution, and especially of the Internet, five main outlooks upon the effects of these technological advances have emerged.
Corporate Net: Huge conglomerates like AOL Time Warner, Disney, DreamWorks, and Microsoft have all the resources to move into offering what are considered the best kinds of products on the Net. They have the capital to hire the most creative people, and to market their own entertainment products there. Thus, the Internet will just be another facet of increasing the social and cultural dominance of sports-industries, the Hollywood entertainment complex, rock and rap music and videos, electronic games, the fashion-industry, and, of course, the "pornucopia"—together constituting the "carnival culture". There will also be sprinklings of maudlin sentimentalism here and there. All this will only accentuate currently existing trends towards consumptionism, consumerism, and commodity-fetishism, driven by advertising increasingly utilizing postmodern tropes (such as transgression and drastic incongruity). In the end, these transnational corporation tendencies are likely to lead to a world like that portrayed in Ridley Scott’s dark-future film, Blade Runner (based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (filmed by Stanley Kubrick), or to the antiseptic and soulless Brave New World of Aldous Huxley.
Nerd Net: The Net does not really offer untold wealth and power to most of its participants. Rather, it often proffers to techno-nerds, wildly enraptured by the science-fictional writings of cyberpunk guru William Gibson (author of Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and Pattern Recognition, among other works) an illusion of mastery. While professionally they may sometimes be the persons who write extensive computer code and carry out critical support functions for computer systems—which could be seen as the backbone of the New Economy—culturally and recreationally they typically play in their elaborate MUSH (Multi-User Shared Hallucination) environments, and interminably surf the Net, looking for "neat sites" and for various "kicks". The hacker elite among them feels itself flexing its muscles when it implants computer viruses, or breaks into less or more important data banks. One might well ask how much meaningful social change does this generate? The old computer cliché of Garbage In—Garbage Out (GIGO) might well be invoked. If the computer user is indeed the typical, rootless, flat-souled product of the current-day North American consumption-culture and education system, no amount of neat software and "information"—or writing computer code—is going to improve him or her. Indeed, it is only those who are real personalities—real "persons of spirit"—to begin with, who might start to have an impact. Only then might Gibson’s vision—in terms of the critical importance of so-called "netrunners", though hopefully not in terms of a polluted, corporation-run world—begin to have some substance. The geeks must finally transcend their own geekhood—and help save humanity from the encroaching techno-dystopia.
Rightwing Net: According to some persons, the Net is teeming with all kinds of right-wing ideas that have been suppressed in North America’s public and managerial cultures. Alternative right-wing communities and lobby-groups can form on the Net. The economic transformations being brought about by "the electronic cottage" are also interpreted by some as having a conservatizing edge. People will increasingly "cocoon" around their family home, and not have the need to go to the big office towers downtown, thus starving the inner-cities of their last major source of tax-revenue. Eventually, this may polarize population centres into inner-cities which receive an absolute minimum of welfare, and a suburban and rural North America that doesn’t give a damn about the inner-cities and no longer has any reason to commute downtown.
In the U.S. Presidential election of 2000, the rural-urban split was extremely pronounced. George W. Bush won a substantially larger number of U.S. counties than Al Gore, whose support was concentrated in the coastal and urban areas. In terms of the popular vote, however, Al Gore was slightly ahead. There is clearly a struggle between the hinterland and the megalopolis. If physical distances and mutual remoteness are a hindrance to the political mobilization of the hinterland, it might be effectively linked electronically and triumph over the megalopolis.
The final result may be a scenario suggested in some sci-fi movies, notably, Escape from New York, which portrays New York as a walled-off penal colony for most of America’s prison population. (Escape from Los Angeles was the 1990s sequel.) In the recent Dark Angel and Freedom television series, a military government was portrayed as having taken over. Although techno-Republicans like Newt Gingrich and George Gilder talk in terms of the opportunities of the electronic world, one of the foremost opportunities it may offer is for the middle-classes to forever escape entanglements with the inner-cities.
New Age Net: In this interpretation, the Net is indeed central to the future of humankind. It is in fact the place where a new planetary consciousness is being born. Young people all over the world are forging links which are, despite the heavy corporate presence on the Net, independent of the transnationals. All kinds of revolutionary new ideas about the total malleability of human nature are being put into practice in the electronic realm, where we can literally be whoever (or whatever) we want to be—a world without boundaries. Symptomatic of this trend is the fact that LSD guru Timothy Leary acclaimed "virtual reality" (VR) as the best new high and the key to transforming evolutionary consciousness. The Net, in this interpretation, will finally translate the world-transforming ideas of the new social movements that arose in the Sixties into a concrete, worldwide reality.
Further beyond could be the idea that the electronic realm constitutes the next stage of human evolution—i.e., that humans will eventually be "uploading" their consciousness into electronic form—and thereby possibly achieving near-immortality. The experience of such an electronic realm, which many have thought could be of human consciousness totally willing its own reality, may be the ultimate dream for humankind—of "a mind forever voyaging"—although some might see it as rather nightmarish.
The dark-future movie, The Matrix, pessimistically extrapolated a combination of malevolent Artificial Intelligence (AI) and virtual reality as leading to the enslavement of humanity. The theme of machines vs. humanity was also prominently raised by the Terminator movies.
Fragmentation Net: The dislocations engendered by the Internet and the electronization of the world will constitute a profoundly trying time in human history. No outlook will be able to triumph fully: instead, we will see the hyper-fragmentation of society. The Internet might well reinforce persons with every possible "kink" who would otherwise find themselves marginalized in their physical communities. While this might encourage eclectic philosophical debate, it could just as easily encourage "communities" forming around the most bestial and depraved kinds of interests. It would also practically mean the end of any kind of "common culture" in North America. Many believe a certain amount of commonality is needed for the upholding of ethical standards (which are already very tenuous today), as well as for the continuation of some degree of real democracy and meaningful political participation. The Mad Max/Road Warrior movies may point to what could be the final result of massive ethical and social breakdown.
Indeed, the obsession with technology, cyberspace, and the resultant social hyper-fragmentation—the swallowing up of common public and social concern by a realm of images and illusions—might well result in North American civilization’s being unable to deal with many, rather more concrete local and planet-wide social and environmental questions, including increasing disparities between rich and poor, overpopulation, mass migrations, the crisis of public and social morality, the anomie of a rootless existence, and global ecological collapse. Physical, environmental, and spiritual problems may prove more pressing for the future of humanity than the virtual reality of the enticing but enervating electronic realm.
Can the Internet Challenge Today’s Informational and Cultural Monopoly?
The Internet may offer the possibilities of enhancing serious social, political, cultural, and truly philosophical debate; but the various "news" and entertainment imageries so widely and readily transmissible through it may simply intensify American consumerism, political-correctness, and mindless ersatz patriotism, as well. To understand which direction is more probable is vitally important.
It may be noted that a situation now exists where little more than one percent of the population—termed variously "the knowledge elite", "the symbolic analysts", or "the New Class"—endeavors to condition thoroughly the rest of the population—through the mass media and the mass education system—in what to think, feel, and believe, and how to act. This system has been described as the managerial-therapeutic regime: the melding of big business and big government, a social environment of total administration and near-total media immersion.
It may be noted further that any more honest challenges to the system, whether from the anti-consumerist ecological Left or from antiwar, localist, paleolibertarians and paleoconservatives, are simply being edited out of "approved", media- and administration-constructed social reality.
It is an open question whether simply making some good ideas available on the Internet can have a major social, cultural, and political impact. Although some may not wish to admit it, there is a clear hierarchy of information on the Internet. It includes the mostly unmoderated, self-posting forum, or purely personal Web site or blog (unless the "Webmaster" has already achieved major success outside the Web); the widely-read, conscientiously edited but not income-generating e-zine; major web-magazines like Salon and Slate; and the Web sites of major media entities such as CNN and The New York Times, which are simply reinforcing their massive presence in the world outside the Web. It seems that there can be, in the media world, only a comparative handful of "exceptions that prove the rule"—such as the vast success of The Drudge Report and the unexpected success of The Blair Witch Project—and, now, of course, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, funded almost entirely from Gibson’s personal funds obtained over more than two decades of blockbuster Hollywood movie roles. Gibson should receive respect for his many long years of self-renunciation and perseverance in the Hollywood environment, which sometimes seems about as friendly to sincere Christians as Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Also, while there now exists the possibility of easy book-printing—along with a greater hope than previously that the book can reach a wider audience (for example, through placement on Amazon.com)—the obvious "authority" and "imprimatur" of a book appearing with a major commercial, literary, or academic publisher constitutes a very tight barrier indeed to the intellectual transmission of "unapproved" ideas. And among many so-called "alternative" or small publishers—or such putatively non-commercial forums as public television and National Public Radio—the taboos and dogmas of "political correctness" are indeed often held with even greater fervor.
As for the sub-genre of talk-radio (typified by Rush Limbaugh, who has now been going through a personal scandal of his own), there is arguably little here apart from a jingoistic, meaningless, ersatz patriotism (whose main purpose appears to be to drive the United States into endless foreign wars) as well as stupid levels of vitriol against environmentalists (typically derided as "tree-huggers") and serious critics of consumerism and capitalism. It also does not appear to have occurred to many people that allowing members of the public to rant freely on the radio (or, more accurately, being given the illusion that anyone can rant freely on the radio) tends simply to work as a safety-valve that might actually diminish initiatives of constructive political engagement. The modus operandi of virtually all talk-radio hosts (of whatever persuasion) has also been well-described by critics: deride and cut off the air anyone you disagree with, and then spend the next fifteen minutes or so laughing at him or her as your fans call in to "offer their support".
It could also be argued that the Internet tends to accentuate a "hyper-fragmentation" of social, cultural, and political interests, which means that broadly based public and political debate becomes ever more difficult. Also, in the case of a very large number of people, the Internet is used simply for access to various entertainment and pop-culture imageries and "news", existing in various sub-genres like "porn", celebrity-cults, rock- and rap-music, and sports, movie, and television show fandom.
Today, there are also many "displacement syndromes" in a public discourse where consideration of many serious matters is mostly proscribed. These displacement syndromes include, for example, the viewing of tobacco products, guns in private hands, fast food, and soft drinks as inherently and unquestionably evil—and as targets for massive government intervention and class-action lawsuits. The displacement syndrome is at its most acute when people express such overbearing concern about the purely physical health of individuals (especially children) while paying virtually no attention to the cultural and spiritual aspects of what might constitute a "healthier" social setting and society.
Ironically, physical health itself has been undermined (especially in the United States) by the increasing division between an overweight, spectator public and a handful of "beautiful people" and sport-stars. Another obvious point is that overeating often arises from deep personal and social frustrations—and many persons’ sense of inadequacy is reinforced by media advertising, programs, and films that push the most excessive consumerism and celebrity-worship. It could also be argued that, in most cases, the more men imbibe readily available erotic imagery, the less they have of real sex and—still less—of prospects of marriage or real intimacy.
It makes more sense to examine the deeper social and cultural reasons why people are, for example, over-eating or looking at "porn", rather than blaming the fast food companies or Internet sites for catering to those cravings. Other vehicles for the diminution of serious criticism of the current-day regime are those "escapisms" that are offered to the more manifestly bright, inquisitive, and comparatively decent among the youth and children today (some of which were indeed offered to young people growing up in two or three previous decades). These include things like "properly steered" volunteer work—and such deeply engrossing endeavors as role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons); various video, computer, and electronic games (including the so-called "massively multi-player online role-playing games" such as Everquest); and the popular study of dinosaurs or astronomy; science fiction, fantasy, and "serious comic-book" fandom (such as, most prominently, Star Trek). Most of these could be (to a large extent) characterized as "geek sub-genres"—and what "geek" does not desire to "transcend" somehow his or (in deference to this possible new type) her "geekhood"? Instead of
awaiting the next "dark future" electronic game (however intelligently designed)—such as Deus Ex: Invisible War—or arguing about the philosophies of The Matrix movies, young people might seek to inquire about the lineaments of the world they actually inhabit, and how that world might be changed for the better.
It is an open question whether the provision of good ideas through the Internet will be sufficient to challenge today’s informational and cultural monopoly. It is possible that the Internet simply does not (and perhaps cannot, for the foreseeable future) provide enough "authority" and financial, administrative, and infrastructural weight to dissenting ideas. One may indeed note in today’s society the virtual disappearance of "middle-level" commentators. There appears to have emerged a division between a tiny handful of very comfortably-funded, mostly "court" academics, intellectuals, media-people, and commentators—and a broad mass of powerless "wannabe" pundits, usually with few financial resources, who appear mostly in various eclectic small publications and comparatively little-known Web sites. They can all too often be simply written off by the establishment media as "extremists" or "whackos"—regardless of the possible perceptiveness and clarity of their views. Indeed, it is entirely in the interests of the media and academic elite to permit the promulgation of the wildest conspiracy-theories and vitriol on the Web, since such excesses tend to discredit those who try to make their way as serious critics and commentators there.
Those among the masses with little intellectual curiosity and engagement (whom the media-elite probably privately consider little better than "cattle" or "sheeple") are given what George Orwell characterized as "prole-feed" in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Today, this consists mostly of endless, stupefying, consumption-driving advertising, "reality shows", and celebrity-gossip "news"—combined with rock- and rap-music, the fashion-industry, the massive excitement of sports, the titillation of various kinds of "porn", the sneering cynicism of today’s comedy (especially stand-up comedy), and the extra jolt of horror and violence. Most of these kinds of emotional engagements are also delivered frequently enough through the regular evening newscasts. Most of the 24-7 "news-junkies" and financial/business news followers probably operate at only a slightly higher level of political awareness.
Freedom of speech appears to exist today only for those who are massively independently wealthy or manifestly willing to accept a rather immiserated existence as the price for writing or saying what they honestly feel. Nearly all government agencies and institutions, universities and
colleges, and private corporations, including media enterprises, are very likely to fire their "offending" employees upon the slightest infractions of "political correctness". An acerbic opinion columnist can often be fired after one especially pointed column. An independent businessperson may be ruined by a variety of tactics, and there may be continual pressure on major newspapers to withdraw the columns of controversial syndicated columnists. Only a professor with tenure is (more or less) safe from most of these pressures.
In today’s society, there are still admittedly some professors and political columnists of dissenting views with some putative "authority" in the media—but how long can this be expected to persist, in the face of a full-spectrum, media- and educational-system "shutdown" of many important ideas and discussions? What is occurring might be called "ideocide". It could be argued that challenging the managerial-therapeutic regime requires the persistence or creation of major social, cultural, and political infrastructures (such as, for example, various publishing enterprises, institutes, think tanks, and foundations) that can, to a large extent, be free of the current-day system’s informational, cultural, and indeed financial chokehold on free thinking. Whether the Internet can become significantly enabling toward the creation of such infrastructures remains to be seen.
For a New Cultural Criticism
Retro-Review: Pet Shop Boys, Please (1986), EMI America (Capitol Records-EMI in Canada)
It appears that, for the first time that I can remember, a debate has begun in some of the conservative media about what could constitute "conservative rock-music". Somewhat following the lead of Anthony Gancarski, I would argue that Eighties’ alternative, New Wave, techno-pop, and some ballad-type music (represented by such groups and individual artists as The Smiths, Bryan Ferry, Joy Division/New Order, Deborah Harry/Blondie, The Police (and Sting in his solo career), The Cure, David Bowie, ABC, Pat Benatar, Sade [sharday], Christopher Cross)—music that is today termed "retro", "Eighties’ retro", or "retro-alternative"—has a certain Romantic, aesthetic, and emphatically "Eurocentric" appeal. Such music often seems to have an "orchestral" or "symphonic" feel to it. As a twenty-something in the 1980s, I enormously enjoyed listening to such music and continue to do so today. "Retro" can be favorably contrasted with such currently popular music sub-genres as rap, hip-hop, and grunge. A similar argument can be made in regard to Seventies’ so-called "progressive rock" (typified by such groups as Supertramp, Genesis, Yes, and the Canadian band Rush—with its sometimes amazing lyrics). Perhaps even some current-day rap music, such as Eminem’s "Lose Yourself", can be given a truly "contrarian" reading.
I am presenting here a piece which was initially drafted in 1986, but has not until this moment appeared anywhere in print or on the Web. This message has, until now, been simply unable to find its medium.
It is interesting to ponder the question of whence certain trends and fashions, particularly in clothing, music, and film, ultimately derive. Is it the music and film industry moguls and fashion-designers that dictate such trends, or is there some deeper source for these popular trends and directions?
Let us look back at the hugely successful debut album of the Pet Shop Boys, Please. It is instructive to note that Neil Tennant, clearly the leader of the two-man group, was formerly the editor of Smash Hits, Britain’s bestselling pop-music magazine. It might well be argued that this experience had given him some insight into the elements of mass culture, as well as of the subconscious strata which lie beneath it. How else could one explain the vast popularity of an album whose songs "Opportunities" and, especially, "West End Girls" (both initially released in1985) had become cult club hits in Canada and elsewhere with virtually no radio-play or promotion? The popularity of the Pet Shop Boys—however banal they may seem today—was initially built upward from the mass of modern youth rather than downward by corporate methods. This would suggest that they had struck a rather deep chord in the music-listening audience. Why, one wonders, were the Pet Shop Boys so hugely popular? If one could identify some of the reasons for their popularity, one could get a clue as to the directions of a large section of Eighties (and possibly today’s) society.
It should be pointed out here that, while the reviewer recognizes the possible gay subtext of the group and its lyrics, and that many of the songs can be read in a gay as well as a straight way, he does not intend to pursue this angle of approach in this review. This subtext was, the reviewer believes, never too obvious outside of Britain. The Pet Shop Boys are to be applauded for crafting lyrics and music that had a broad spectrum of appeal across sexual (as well as political) orientations. The reviewer is glad to recognize serious social and political insights, regardless of who enunciates them. He is, however, conveying the meaning of the songs and lyrics as he himself understood them.
The Pet Shop Boys’ music can be classified as electropop/technopop/New Wave. It makes heavy use of synthesizers and electronic effects, and is spoken melodically rather than sung, punctuated by electronic beeps and other effects. The use of synthesizer technology is the defining element of the melody. Listening to it suggests an electronic world, a world of computer monitors, push-button controls, instant communication, and satellite networks, in which power is projected through comm-links and images on telescreens. It is, of course, an exciting, dynamic world, so different from a world of boring, petty bureaucrats and administrators overseeing a decaying welfare system and urban rot. The lyrics of the songs, it may be argued, decry the meaninglessness of today’s society as well as suggesting some kind of alternative, a full self-actualization by those persons who are capable of it.
The first song of the album, "Two Divided by Zero", conveys the sense of high adventure in the abandonment of conventional, plodding, middle-class life. There is an exciting intrigue going on throughout the song, centred most likely around vast sums of money. The desire to escape a boring existence is shown in lines like, "We’ll catch a plane to New York, and a cab going down, / ’Cross the bridges and tunnels, straight into town. / Tomorrow morning, we’ll be miles away, / On another continent and another day."
"West End Girls", a far more somber song, may be read as a critique of a worthless, spiritually sterile, materialist civilization: "Too many shadows, whispering voices, / Faces on posters, too many choices… / If, when, why, what, how much have you got?" There is also an interesting geographic reference, "from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station", which was the route taken by Lenin’s sealed train on the way to the Russian Revolution. It is used as an ironic device in the song, presumably signifying the ultimate dissipation of revolutionary energies today.
In "Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)", the call for self-actualization is made. The point of the song is that any moron can "make lots of money". If this is the case, an intelligent person should also be capable of it: "There’s a lot of opportunities, if you know when to take them. / If there aren't you can make them, / Make or break them." There is no reason for relatively decent and intelligent people to remain downtrodden and unknown. They could easily become a part of the power-elite by the force of their intellect and the strength of their image. Instead of being captives of other people’s images, they must become image-makers themselves. As the next song reminds us, such a person should also remain in touch with the better side of his or her nature.
"Love Comes Quickly", whether for someone who is living "lonely, heavy as stone, / Learning and working alone", or someone living a "life of luxury, tast[ing] the bitter pleasures". The main message seems to be that it is love that is most important: "You can fly right to the end of the world, but where does it get you to?" It is not material pleasures that make one happy. It appears that, ultimately, love is more important than technology or the power gained through technology. But the fully actualized person can integrate both aspects of existence.
"Suburbia" is a protest against the sterility and aridity of much of modern urban (and, of course, suburban) life. It is only a rare person who sees the shallowness and stupidity of it all. "I only wanted something else to do but hang around." It seems that one solution being offered is the launching of violent revolution (as the explosions at the end of the song indicate), with the anomie and mindlessness of the dehumanizing suburbs erupting into violence. It is, of course, an uncontrolled and undirected violence, which is incapable of attacking the root-causes of these problems.
The second side of the album begins with Tonight is Forever", an evocation of the excitement of night-life, in the face of a rather pessimistic future, unless one can obtain an unlimited line of credit, or its equivalent. It is also a love-song, expressing the hope for a long-term attachment with the chosen person, despite the dim prospects of the future. "Violence", while ostensibly an anti-vigilante song, really underscores the general meaninglessness of society in respect to violence, as in the gang-warfare and spiralling crime-rates of large North American cities. "I Want a Lover" expresses the viewpoint of a man going to a singles’ bar, looking for a good time with no strings attached. "Later Tonight" complements the song before it, giving the viewpoint of a woman in a singles’ bar, searching for an idealized (and non-existent) boyfriend. "Why Don’t We Live Together?" offers a possible positive resolution to this whole problem, albeit expressed in the contemporary idiom—an idealistic, meaningful, and enduring relationship. Since this is the concluding song of the album, the final message seems to be that real love is better than promiscuity or outstanding material success.
Yet another possible message of the album is that relatively decent, intelligent people are capable of achieving real success and power because they understand better the nature of an electronic media society. They must project their intellectual strength and the power of their healthier life-instincts across the media channels by an appeal to the human imagination and deeply-seated human feelings. It is only they who can undermine the rule of the petty administrators and bureaucrats and corporate controllers who are mechanizing and stifling human existence.
Implicit in the message of the Pet Shop Boys’ album is the hope for the possible emergence of what could be called a truly postmodern consciousness. Humanity today is enslaved by the structure of the mechanical, by the system of petty apparatchiks and bureaucrats and corporate controllers, and by the metallic technology itself. Men and women with intimations of greatness are effectively crippled and enchained, in almost every field of human endeavour. Yet it is they alone who can awaken the human imagination and overcome the structure of mechanism, which will eventually result in a new synthesis where technology will be generally used for truly creative, humane (human) ends.
Since music, even of the most banal, popular type, is often a reflection of certain deep-seated feelings and shifts in the human unconscious, we can conclude that the popularity of this Pet Shop Boys’ album possibly had its ultimate origins in its reflection of certain deep-seated archetypal needs of the young population which were not being fulfilled by the Eighties’ sociopolitical regime. (Nor, manifestly, are they being fulfilled today.) The question remains, how do we get from here to there?
Five-Finger Exercise for the Hairy Paw:
How Music Might Rehabilitate Literacy
John R. Harris
En art, on n’a à lutter le plus souvent que contre soi-même.
"In art, one most often has to struggle only with oneself."
I have been wanting to write this essay for years, perhaps. Yet I have also dreaded the task. Since I am not musically literate (I confess that I do not so much as read musical notation), I must tread carefully lest I appear to claim a high authority rather than to offer a casual witness’s testimony. Of the visual arts I may speak from the experience of a performer as well as an observer, but the present discussion will seldom take me far in that direction. My amateur ramble through the musical realm will call a halt on the borders of painting and visual representation: that trespass I save for a later issue.
The general subject, as I defined it in the pages of Praesidium 4.2, is the fine arts. Specifically, I here pursue an earlier suggestion that the death of literary taste and finesse might in some way be delayed—or even (dicatur modeste) averted—through a revival of musical and artistic cultivation. After all, the cult of ease is what got us into our present mess: the antipathy to long labor and purposeful pain, the impatience with fixed forms requiring memorization, the tedium of serving an apprenticeship before undertaking a masterpiece… define it however you will. In a nutshell, our cultural wasting-sickness (nourished, to be sure, by our romance with technology and our meretricious market-economy) has made us terminally lazy. There is no effortless way to learn reading and writing, no effortless way to acquire a literate taste absorbed from hundreds of books. (Books on cassette are no shortcut—not if you understand that pauses for reflection are an integral part of thoughtful reading.) By comparison, exposure to music and to painting is far more likely to make inroads in our sluggardly tribe. One may indeed simply sit and listen, or simply stand and look, without a great summoning of intellectual and spiritual energy. That the session will produce salutary results is by no means certain, of course, for listening to Handel or studying Manet does demand a faint complication of brain-wave activity if it is to produce pleasure. We have all known upright subjects in shoes who seem entirely capable of "just saying no" to this invasion of their private space. Nevertheless, it is a relatively painless invasion, compared to the literary one. To expect a fertile engagement of the intruder does not require the optimism of the literature teacher hoping to inspire his students by reading "The Lotos-Eaters".
I am indebted to Mark Wegierski’s preceding essay on the music of the eighties for suggesting to me a point of departure. Not that I was familiar with the references therein: I should stress right off the bat, rather, that I was familiar with none of them. In fact, with respect to my own adolescence (a few years earlier), I may say confidently that I could not name half a dozen performing groups which were all the rage among my peers. The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, The Rolling Stones… I’m already at the end of my tether. Never at any point in my youth did I own (or borrow) a single record cut by a single one of these improbably christened squadrons of the long-haired. If I must make a full confession, I logged most of my turntable hours listening to Debussy. Not Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms (such masters, I suspect, are more appreciated by those who have actually studied an instrument)—but Debussy, that bohemian impressionist who lifted melodies from folksongs and invariably made you regret turning up the volume within seconds as you chased a vanishing flute. I used to shed tears over Debussy. The piece which tugged at me most, I hasten to add, was not Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune (for which I never much cared: Debussy himself deprecated several of his early works in his later years).1 Instead, my favorite was the late arabesque of orchestration, Jeux—literally "games". The vacillation between yearning surges of idealism and playfully unraveling reversals of the same motifs would leave me spellbound. I understand that musicians of the highest reputation and most unimpeachable taste hold this sort of thing against Debussy. They say that he lacked seriousness. I cannot agree, philistine that I am. Nothing ever seemed more serious to me than Jeux’s fluid commentary on the destiny of heavenly visions. To me, the piece was the gentlest possible thrust out of the Garden, with the crossing of the threshold punctuated not by a slamming gate, but by a gathering mist. I was not quite twenty-something, you see… and I knew that this would happen. Though I had very high hopes indeed for life, as people of my age did and do (perhaps especially when those hopes have been uniformly postponed by a frustrating adolescence), something in me kept whispering that there wasn’t going to be a magical age to reach or a magical place to go—that I would have to end up striking a great many compromises. It would break my heart. Listening to Jeux, I could already tell what would happen and how badly it would break my heart.
I linger over my own sophomoric encounters with classical music not to demonstrate that I came from a very cultivated household (I am probably demonstrating the contrary, as far as that goes) but to testify that the moods and misgivings common to young people can find every bit as much of an outlet in the classics as in super-amplified screams and twangs. I believe my mother, who first induced me to listen to classical composers, was indeed mildly shocked that I could find so much in Debussy. He came to occupy about half of my collection. The bond I felt with his music was very sincere, very profound, and very "serious". If I had to define its essential characteristic (for I sense that I must do so in order to develop a contrast with Rock music), I would stress its irony.2 In Debussy, play is always breaking out (the middle movement of La Mer is titled Jeux de Vagues, "Wave Games"). At the same time—or maybe at alternate times, but often stirring even as the games begin to play themselves out—are aspirations to the noble, the sublime, and perhaps the holy. One of my other favorite pieces is written for harp and strings: Danses Sacrées et Profanes ("Dances Sacred and Profane"). Nothing has ever impressed me as more numinous than the first movement of this work—yet nothing could flow more naturally from it (or be less profane, as we commonly use the word now) than the second movement. Here and throughout much of Debussy’s opus, the Platonic striving after perfection is forever unraveling (I cannot resist the word, at the risk of wearing it out) into… not into delusion, I think—not ever that—but into evasion. The ideal always slips away. This is, after all, a fully reverent prayer. To me, it seems the only reverent prayer. For the heavier variety of those more "serious" composers is undermined by a sense of its own grandeur, as if it had truly captured perfection; and what notion could be more irreverent than that? In Debussy, I have always found the supreme irony of life itself: of chasing the moon through the forest’s trees, of trying to incarnate a divine image in corruptible matter. It is a dance one dances again and again, if one devoutly worships the ideal; because the death of the ideal in its incarnations is never superior to the ideal’s surviving magnetism. Tragedy is always the second act of a comedy—a divine comedy.
I do not mean to imply that the Germans are devoid of irony (though they certainly appear to me to rank well behind both the Italians and the Russians). The German classics, however, have indeed seldom numbered among my favorites precisely because their idealism is too uncompromising, too cocksure. It is the idealism of a hard-liner, maybe even a fanatic. When it fails—or, perhaps I should say, when reality forces heroic death to become part of the ideal, as in Wagner—the result can become overpoweringly oppressive. Irony would have redeemed this plunge into the depths; but the German composers, like so many German philosophers and poets, prefer an almost lunatic toasting of annihilation, as if intransigence to the bitter end were a road to immortality and not a materialist apostasy from the spirit’s power to flutter free.
But I must desist from such tendentious remarks before I veer into religion and, worse still, float a comment or two about the link between certain composers and fascism. No such connections are forged in steel. Each of us has his allotment of imagination and his burden of circumstances, and he responds to art as a man might to a beacon while carrying a great mirror on his shoulder, seeing the light before him yet also a vague radiance which he has unwittingly imported to it. Here I need only emphasize that classical music can be ironic, or that in refusing irony it can be heroic. It is a game, that is to say, which is played in time. Irony and heroism are qualities which we students of literature first associate with narrative. There must be a story for expectations to be created which are later thwarted, and there must be a story for an ascent to be traversed which becomes glorious. Now, music does not tell a story in any literary sense—not as pure music. When I first listened to Wagner, I knew absolutely nothing about the myths behind the Götterdämmerung: I heard only music.3 Music moves through time, however, which is the dimension of narrative; and when one feeling is followed by another, the sense of narrative is created even in the absence of any explicit narrative. The listener can supply his own joys and griefs. They are often deeply personal ones (none more so than mine as an adolescent). What can become an insufferably subjective indulgence in the reading of poetry—interpreting "The Lotos-Eaters", for instance, as "tripping out" over Spring Break—is a wholly licit practice in responding to music. Here we encounter not objective events in search of a subjective interest, as in literature, but an already subjectified time which will accommodate innumerable subjective interests. For music is not the sum of measurable audial frequencies produced at measurable intervals: it is the more or less labyrinthine, sometimes very nearly frustrated courtship of arithmetic pattern which we call melody. It is more than this, as well, of course—it is tempo and timbre and orchestration; but even at its most numerical, it does not refer to external, observable objects with anything more than the brilliant whimsy of Vivaldi evoking a storm or Ravel evoking a dragonfly.
Hence I suggest that fine music is a kind of arithmetic of the soul. It toys with objectively exact distances between sounds (distances both in time sounded and in position on the scale) and creates a life history, or perhaps a prophetic dream. Through its ability to enlist the mind’s calculations, done at the speed of light and with a subtlety which no machine will ever replicate, into coloring a richly subjective landscape, it is surely the most mysterious artistic collaboration of quantitative and qualitative reason.4 A dozen coordinates sketch out, not just a parabola, but a rainbow after a spring flood. What philosopher—or, a fortiori, what clinical psychologist—would ever predict that these certain notes shuffled in this certain way might haunt human beings far and wide for centuries?
I may further suggest at this point, I hope, that when music enlists fewer of these staggering calculations, it becomes less refined as music. A melody of fewer notes, or whose notes pose a highly predictable pattern up and down the scale, is a less evocative melody. Played by fewer instruments, or played with less modulation of tonal quality or subtle variation of tempo, it inspires the imagination with less color, fewer shades and depths. One of the things I account to the discredit of "contemporary music"—and by this phrase I may as well include everything popular since the advent of radio—is its heavy reliance upon lyrics: that is, upon a spoken narrative. That we require words to stir a certain mood in us must be viewed as a sign of music’s degradation, and of our own as consumers of music. The mind which is now told to muse upon hopeful love or love rejected or burning down the suburbs or surrendering to Jesus is a mind far, far less involved in adumbrating a subjective response to an intricate orchestration of sounds in time. In fact, to the extent that melody remains respectable in some genres of popular music, it is often puerile melody of less sophistication than a lullaby’s—and it is rigidly repeated three or four times within about two minutes, the only changes coming in the lyrics (and few enough there). Other popular genres, to be sure, rely heavily on instrumental effects. Once again, I must caution myself against claiming an authority which I do not possess while begging the reader to entertain my remarks as a mere testimonial; but from my little bit of exposure, I should say that the sort of music discussed by Mr. Wegierski, amply beholden to computerized synthesis, is much more advanced than most of what we find. Usually, "instrumental enhancement" will consist of strident percussion effects pounded from electric guitars as well as drums. Such heavy-handed solicitation clearly has no use for subtlety: the more insistent, the better. In ancient Greece, war songs like those composed by the Spartan Tyrtaeus employed Homer’s most martial formulas in truncheon-like couplets.5 Despite his general suspicion of the arts, Plato’s Socrates speaks approvingly of such bellicose choruses in the Republic precisely because of their narrowly focused utility to the state’s defense. To be exact, he endorses the relation between simple rhythms and athletic training—"gymnastic mixed with music" (Republic 3.412a)—a hybrid experience sadly suggestive of "jazzercise".6 Such strumming and piping does not leave the audience in two minds about how to respond: it has the physiological compulsion, rather, of a powerful stimulant.
Drugs and Rock music… no, I shall resist the temptation to take that particular excursion, as well. Yet it is not at all unfair to emphasize that music dominated by one or two aspects—by a war-dance tempo and ear-splitting volume, in this case—must be considered to elicit a response more instinctive than ratiocinative. Such performances are not high art, but low manipulation, rather like the drums at a football game or the hoarse chants at a cutthroat soccer match. About Rap music, I shall allow readers to draw their own conclusions: mine must surely be foreseeable. An era which has permitted the cheerleading of the battlefield and the bacchanal to express its "soul" in the reverend name of music must be a very sick time, indeed.
But am I not being grossly unfair in another way? Is it not historically abusive to contrast the orchestra with the Rock band? The orchestra as we know it, complete with brass and percussion sections, has existed for scarcely over two hundred years. On the other hand, popular lyrical songs have been around since the first shepherd cut a reed and made a pipe. Should not the contrast, if there is one, be posed between varieties of popular music?
In the first place, this vein of argument is disingenuous. The popular ballad did not achieve its ascendancy by reaching the "top ten" on the charts: it was not "popular" in that manner. It was, rather, a product of "the people"—of the rank and file, that is (usually rural), who had neither the resources to possess delicate instruments nor the time to master them nor the density of neighbors necessary to rehearse as a large group. In a meaningful sense, the ballads which arose from such environments were pre-literate, just as the classical symphony was very much an outgrowth of high literacy. The literate world supported large—sometimes vastly large—communities at the same time as it fostered a healthy introspection among its citizens. Only here could people squeeze themselves into auditoriums, impose upon themselves a venerant silence, and proceed to enjoy the well-orchestrated performance individually—no hand-slapping, no foot-stomping—as we would listen to a CD in the privacy of our den.
And yet, the same audience also often enjoyed the music of "the people". I believe I would as soon listen to James Galway playing Carolan’s Dream as Syrinx, and I doubt that I am alone. There is no reason why we should have to choose, either: Jean Redpath for Monday, Silvia Bartoli for Tuesday. Our progenitors did not regard the symphony as some extravagant tribute they had to pay to haute culture—none but the most hypocritically Victorian of them. Orchestral performances were patronized because they, too, were popular. "High" and "low" were hardly better defined in Dr. Johnson’s time than they were in Shakespeare’s. The great composers from Mendelssohn to Gershwin have always admired, and indeed borrowed from, traditional music, especially those who penned symphonies. If smaller productions were on the balance more innovative (and I am by no means convinced that this is true), they were also more homespun. Chamber music was indeed played most often in the "chambers" of private dwellings, either before a modest audience of guests or for the simple delectation of the gathered family. Opera in Italy imposed no social division greater than that between gallery seats and a box. In Vienna, the waltzes of the Strauss family were the "disco" music of their day, inviting sometimes riotous celebration from youthful enthusiasts and occasionally associated with political rebellion. Even if we assume that a significant distinction between "high" and "low" music ever existed in such a fashion as to polarize the populace, that era has clearly passed us by. Nowadays as never before, we can eat the cake of Tchaikovsky while gnawing the brown bread of the tin whistle or the Andean pipes.
Yet classical music has virtually expired in our midst, and the reason is not because we, as a culture, have opted for democracy—the rule of mass taste—in a righteous surge of social conscience. It is because we are intellectually lazy—and because, being lazy, we have grown ignorant and insipid. We have collectively chosen to turn all of our attention in the direction of small performing groups and simple tunes because our minds are no longer very disciplined, our pleasures no longer amenable to an investment of concentration, our attention no longer tolerant of complication.
Frankly, I cannot see my way clear to comparing any "top ten" chart of the past fifty years to performances of folk traditions by master-fiddlers and flautists. How long would most contemporary music survive if purged of its lyrics? Yet there are folk tunes from traditions of whose tongue I do not understand a single word which have remained fixed in my memory for decades. (I remember, for instance, the Russian lullaby in Sergei Bondarchuk’s film of War and Peace which plays as the slaughter of Borodino is reviewed.) How many of our popular performers have spent more than a few years mastering their instruments—how many, indeed, are mere teenagers? I can only smile in contempt when I hear some "lead guitarist" spoken of as a great talent, then reflect upon the tens of thousands of hours which Andres Segovia devoted to his art. And why, I ask yet again, must the audial volume be elevated to levels conducive to delirium in so much of our musical "creativity"? A wall stained with blood is moving in some sense, but it is not considered a great painting. To be sure, the rhythms of Appalachian genres like Bluegrass were imported directly from Ireland, and their appeal is so visceral that the percussion section is often supplied by hammering heels—who could remain still during a performance of Riverdance? The keeping of such rhythm, however, is hard: it is a labor both for human limbs and for the human mind. It is a joy of a labor, yes: so is all art. The distinction between faculties vigorously engaged in measuring complex divisions of time, however, and faculties more or less hypnotized by an insistent regularity whose waves of noise physically sweep over the epidermis should be comprehensible to anyone. My great objection to the use of percussion in contemporary music is not that it is liberal, but that it is loud and invariable. Perfectly timed pirouettes are an ecstasy, perhaps, of full engagement. A torpid, swaying trance, if any kind of ecstasy at all, is one of surrendering one’s higher powers. You can find your more spiritual self in exquisite art: you can also forget that same self in degraded art.7 Would anyone question that the sledgehammer beat and volume of much recent music has been an avenue to self-oblivion for many of the young who have determined its cultural victory?
I am now sounding the note which has grown all too familiar to readers of Praesidium: the miserable decadence of modern times—the squalid tares that have sprouted from the snows of yesteryear. The resonance seems flat in a hymn to hope; and, in fact, I do not believe that our lapsed taste in music is as grave a matter as our lapsed taste in literature. The former lapse is certainly more easily reparable. As I began by saying, a person doesn’t need to have studied an instrument or learned to read musical notation in order to appreciate a great composer. He only needs to have ears and the determination to ponder what his ears have heard. (I should confess here that I was never enthralled by any piece of Debussy’s on the first audition.) With literature, in contrast, one must to a great extent have the preparation of a Henry James in order to read Henry James: not just the raw ability to read and write, that is, but a long history of reading psychological novels and a highly literate person’s predisposition to consider what makes people tick.
That the latency of the public’s musical appreciation is far less comatose than that of its literary appreciation is surely indicated by the constant resurgence of excellent music in films, and even on television. The score composed by Geoffrey Bourgon for BBC’s production of Brideshead Revisited a few years ago was as fine a work in the classical vein as I can imagine. The theme for the BBC enactment of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Spy, referenced to the Anglican order of worship, has stayed with me for twenty years in every bar and nuance. Cinematic legend Ennio Morricone also drew much of his inspiration from traditional church music. Admittedly, the Europeans surpass us in this sort of thing: America has always led the way in exploring just how low the least common denominator can be forced culturally. The greatest scores of our own movies have often flowed from the pens of expatriate Europeans like Elmer Bernstein and Maurice Jarré. Still, there is something to be said for our audiences’ having recognized the quality of such work. Our souls are not dead, even though our historical mission sometimes seems to be the anesthesis of all rare aspiration as "undemocratic".
The "electronic connection", by the way (which we Americans pioneered through much of its circuitry), has had much to do with the degeneracy of musical taste, even though it will also—almost necessarily—provide the media of resurgence. Radio made music accessible to every household in the country. I could readily proceed from here to indict the market mentality for catering to the least cultivated, most numerous elements of that vast audience: soap and cough syrup are likely to sell in far greater volume if advertised on The Grand Ole Opry than on Evening with the New York Philharmonic. Yet I doubt that advertising was the primary impetus behind the decline. I suspect that radio itself may have been the culprit. Electronically transmitted symphonies do not sound particularly compelling. They fare somewhat better in the laser technology of the CD, but even here the live performance is much to be preferred, just as a laser print of an impressionist painting remains incapable of conveying the canvas’s purposefully uneven clots and ridges and flakes. On conventional radio, any symphony is positively mauled into a fragile whine through which chickens scratch and squawk. Naturally, singers and solo instrumentalists suffered a certain corruption over the air waves, too. The former, however, had the medium of lyric to touch listeners, and did notably better than the latter. The giddy ascent of language set to music was now launched—not opera, where the human voice is itself an instrument, but (in some of the worst cases) a kind of dictation where words were droned or shouted over the background throb of a few strings or a blaring band. To be sure, singers of operatic quality could emerge from the electronic fracas. My main point is simply that voices trumped instruments. In the world of jazz, for example, instrumentalists like Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton never enjoyed the universal public recognition of Lena Horne or Nat King Cole (or even Louie Armstrong, a superb trumpeter and mediocre vocalist who nonetheless became more generally celebrated in the latter capacity). Whenever music provides its listeners with a specific reason for its existence—as when it speaks verbally to the rejected lover or alienated teenager, or as when it becomes emblematic of a political cause—musical taste is debased; for music is not an art suited to objective specification.
I suspect, as well, that electronic delivery may have much to do with the unhappy ascent of racket in contemporary music. You can tinker with the "bass" knob or create a stereo effect on a radio or a record player, but the resulting enhancement is minimal when compared to the real thing. On the other hand, you can turn up the volume until your eardrums (and those of your unfortunate neighbors) refuse in their pain to acknowledge a higher register. A self-proclaimed genre of music which relies upon sheer proliferation of decibels to spread its "message" will fare well in this environment (as will a vocalist who can shout far better than he can sing). Without radio, we should never have had Rock: of that I am quite convinced.
Enter the age of the image—the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, MTV, music videos more numerous than sand on the seashore. Now music is a histrionic art: not just certain howled or growled words, but a certain facial expression, a certain tonsorial signature, a certain style of clothes. A Rock band is, of course, infinitely more animated even than a symphony reaching the climax of the 1812 Overture. I recall that mini-skirted "go-go girls" who contributed nothing more vocal to the performance than an occasional yap at the microphone were a staple of "concerts" thirty years ago. (Now the lead singer comes on stage wearing little and leaves wearing less.) I can scarcely imagine anything more unlike the musical art. In a way, the abysmal bottom of this descent may itself be cause for hope: one may suppose that a spirit so starved of genuine music might lurch at the first notes of panpipes in the breeze. Yet the deeply sinister side of "image culture" must not be underestimated. I sometimes find young people to be held in a virtual paralysis by all the poses which have been broadcast into their lives and "imprinted" (as biologists speak of bird behavior) on their brains. Nothing they do, nothing they say, and nothing they wear must vary from the electronically purveyed paradigms. The degeneracy of music and literature and visual art into a stultifying series of postures and formulas could not be more hair-raising if it were the deliberate attempt of an arch-enemy to brainwash an entire society. Indeed, one may smile bitterly over how much this ultimate triumph of capitalism—the masses having been given the games for which they most clamor—resembles the government-imposed lobotomy of Mao’s "cultural revolution". The singer/actor/icon’s message is socially centrifugal rather than centripetal: "Eat Mom and Dad," rather than, "One measure of rice for everyone." When a mind has reached such a state, however, surely specific commands are interchangeable. Just slide another cassette into the VCR, another disk into A-Drive.
German novelist and essayist Heinrich Böll once wrote (as Rock music was reaching its zenith), "Hölderlin has his [literary] reality; so do Erich Kästner, Reiner Kuntze, and many others practically innumerable. And perhaps all their realities reduce just to this: one must simply read, read everything and read it thoroughly."8 This is an excellent therapy for reversing cultural lobotomy—but what an arduous task it poses people who, thanks to de-culturation, have lost their will! Can a flute in the distance really call back these human sheep from the precipice? More precisely, if we assume that the recent heartening enthusiasm for, say, "Celtic tradition" in music (and the word "tradition" is thrown about very carelessly in such circles) could lead to James Galway, thence to Debussy and Saint-Saëns and even Mozart, what sympathetic reaction would this domino-effect stir in our literary life? The association, I think, is not far-fetched if we accept the reality of aesthetic truth: that is, if we believe some things to be beautiful, not because of their objective "thingness" or its practical utility to our circumstances, but because the relation of parts within the whole stimulates a close analysis ending in a resonant synthesis. Of course, the study of aesthetics has been dead in the academy for several decades insofar as it implies a universal human response. Today’s most prominent scholars and theorists remain ideologically wedded to the notion that all human values are conditioned by environment or—at the closest approach to universality—biology. (Yet a universal value could scarcely be instinctive or otherwise genetically programmed; for value implies priority arrived at through a sentimental, if not a logical, determination, whereas an instinct would be spontaneous and virtually irresistible, by definition. We instinctively fear the dark, but phaophilia [love of light] is not a "value".) The most compelling recent commentaries I have seen on the subject of beauty are, like Frederick Turner’s, a bit dense in references to the brain’s left and right hemispheres and in such stunted hybrids of terminology as "neurocharms".9 I am uncomfortable with the notion that brains savor great music the way stomachs savor a good steak.
Surely we may stop somewhere short of determinism and still agree that there is a vaguely mathematical calculation involved in apprehending fine art.10 This is most apparent in music, where the relationship has been recognized at least since the days of Pythagoras. Aristotle was not much later, however, in stressing the collaboration of parts in the literary narrative’s whole. (We don’t know how he would have extended the point to poetry—the second part of the Poetics was lost—but Greek verse was most ostentatiously metrical.) The artistically satisfied mind, at any rate, appears to be engaged in a rather engrossing, perhaps almost feverish back-and-forth assembly of components into a unified structure. In music, the process of fitting things into place clearly relies upon a certain pattern in leaps taken up and down the scale. (I apologize for my ignorance of more precise technical terms; yet since I write these remarks with the intent of appealing far and wide, perhaps my crudity is felicitous.) In narrative, the elements of an evolving story are similarly constrained to build in a certain direction—to resist irrelevance, bifurcation, and all other disruption of the tale’s mounting suspense. What vexes the comparison here is that, while our mind is rationally disposed to think of sounds as on a scale, the forces contributing to real-life dramas do not submit to objective calculation. Basic human nature, the active potential of a strong individual will, the degree of hostility in our physical environment or of concern in whatever creator we may believe to exist—such essential elements of the human struggle are ironically, and not doubt unhappily, also among human life’s greatest mysteries. An arrogant person who makes three errors on a folktale ends up being either wiser for the rest of his days or beyond reprieve in the talons of some harpy: that seems tidy enough. But it also seems entirely unreal to us nowadays, the relic of humanity in a more child-like state (if not the raw material for a children’s story). Play upon the musical scale, to be sure, can be childishly simple, too. If "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" plucks any adult heartstrings, we may thank the nursery’s denizens for it rather than the tune. Two observations must be made here, though. First, the nursery song is mathematically facile, not morally or epistemologically so. It is no less "real" (or more) than the Brandenburg Concerti. Second, even so insipid a tune as this might become poignant with some artful "complication". Many lullabies are already so (as I have conceded). Debussy was able to take the incomparably tedious five-finger exercise of working up and down the piano'’ keyboard and launch into a splendid little piece which he called, disingenuously, "Pour les ‘Cinq Doigts’". Not serious? But how could such liberation from dogma as music enjoys over literature ever be anything but ethereal?
All the same, I must not be misunderstood to argue that music is a mere puzzle—a labyrinth, perhaps, whose solvent corridors may be discovered by preserving certain ratios—while the literary puzzle, in contrast, only yields its secrets to people of a designated political party or religion. Puzzles are not works of art. They certainly have pieces, but the whole produced by correct assembly is profoundly arbitrary. The labyrinth’s corridors might have been made to turn left rather than right at any point. Artistic wholeness in a work of art is not declared by the sudden appearance of a finish line. (Have you ever attended a musical performance where several auditors begin to clap during a pause? Something hasn’t worked!) The whole must loom over the art work’s parts right from the beginning, drawing them speculatively forward even as the perceiver’s mind labors to find coherence in what has appeared so far. In literary narrative, this haunting aura of wholeness was once called "the dominant" by structuralist critic Roman Jakobson—not a bad name, but one which, I fear, must leave mistaken impressions in any formalist context.11 Russian Formalism, besides (to which Jakobson had ties), was more interested in poetry, and in a certain kind of poetry: it comes all too close to resembling a nascent theory of propaganda.
No, I believe that the narrative whole’s "dominance" is more spectral than a tally of special words or images, more qualitative than quantitative. The events—the "peripeties"—are the quantities. They can be counted. Man travels to island in search of lost lover; inhabitants deny all knowledge of person; man persists in inquiries; death threats ensue, then assassination attempts; lover at last discovered in, and liberated from island ruler’s palace; harrowing escape nearly fatal to reunited pair, but all ends well. This sort of tale has been written countless times. With the proper setting and mood (along with the proper cultural trappings), it could be a mythical journey to the Other World. Mutatis mutandis, it could also be a thrilling romance-adventure, a political censure, or a testimonial of religious faith. It could not really be all of the above, however. There must be a dominant reference, or rather a sense of where the dominant references congregate. If the lover seemed to be saved by her faith, then the adventure yarn’s investment in the value of action would be vitiated. If the traveler seemed to move beneath a cloud of destiny, then any denunciation of despotism would be compromised. The damage would be aesthetic, even though most readers (and, I’m afraid, most critics) would proceed to classify it by hearkening obscurely to their political or ethical or metaphysical convictions.
Again, the qualitative synthesis which builds the musical work’s wholeness is much less vexed in non-artistic subject matter. I cannot call this intangible coherence harmony, because, in music, that term refers to a quantitatively balanced relationship between sequences… but it is indeed a kind of broader, unquantifiable harmony. It dictates that a certain kind of melody should be plucked rather than trumpeted, or consigned to a single plaintive trumpet rather than boomed out by all the brass together. Choice of instrument, choice of timbre, choice of tempo, choice of accompaniment… choice of the moment to alter any of these in building toward finality… only a keen sense of wholeness can make such determinations. In the last issue of Praesidium, I emphasized that our culture is most palpably degenerate in its loss of finesse, even though a sense of anything necessarily depends upon quantities and cannot be considered separately from them. Our contemporary taste (or tastelessness) in music seems to me to demonstrate nothing so clearly as a near animal stupidity about the whole effect. Quantitatively impoverished as many popular works surely are (invariable volume, invariable tempo, jejune melodies hiding their nakedness under stridency), the ultimate cause of such sickening simplicity is most likely a missing feel for the overall effect. A person who has never pined away in a hopeless love cannot imagine how such a despondent wretch would walk, sit, or stir his coffee. So for our "performing artists": they can generally not lend any nuance of expression to their tunes and songs because they are sentimental sophomores. They lack finesse. The intricate collaboration of parts in a resonant whole exceeds their ability because their qualitative reason is under-employed: they do not feel thoughtfully.
I would stress that this is not an empirical deficiency—not a pathology of the sheltered childhood or of emotional deprivation in the broken family. This is a deficiency of tutelage. We have heard for forty years now that our youth (including the youth of my day) belt out their music at full volume and with minimal harmony because "they are angry". Well… anger and fear are perhaps the most spontaneous, least meditated emotions: they are certainly not sentiments. So we have been saying, in effect, that our young musicians do not think very much.
This lapse of thoughtful art is no doubt due in some measure to a real decline of the typical artist’s intelligence. When performers achieve success (thanks to electronic technology) at least as much for their looks as for their talent, one can expect no other result. But the audience is surely not stupider than before—just less cultivated. One must suppose that, given an exposure to immeasurably richer, deeper expressions of sentiment, intelligent young people would respond. They might not respond quickly, or overtly. After all, faithful allegiance to the right "images" of their peer group determines everything from number of friendships and invitations to degree of psychic contentment over not being "weird" (i.e., different in any regard form the group, as in individualistic). Fortunately, electronic technology has brought us full circle, from the blaring radio lethal to privacy to the CD set-cum-headphones. Symphonies and chamber music can be enjoyed with far more security from detection, and far more fidelity to the original sound, than could the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe by prisoner-citizens of Communist Bloc countries once upon a time. To be sure, the surreptitious adolescent who smuggles Haydn (or even Debussy) into his bedroom will still be afflicted by private knowledge of his sin—his weirdness. But then, a little finesse soon cures the sufferer of his guilt; it reveals to him, instead, that the prisoners of shallowness are the true sufferers.12
If only our young people could indeed be induced to listen to a little Bach or Vivaldi once in a while, would they not begin to divine the intriguing complexity with which life is pregnant? If a flute is different from a coronet, then an oboe is also different from a flute: even so do sincere and feigned laughter differ, and even so can a smile sometimes be more exhilarating—more spiritual, as the French say—than a laugh. An apparent imperviousness to such delicacy is, in fact, what most dumbfounds and dismays me about young people today. Frozen under glaciers of electronically screened imagery, they often seem incapable of fine registers—of unspoken sympathy or subtle irony. Their speech itself has been virtually dismantled into a series of pointers directing the auditor to some stereotypical posture: "So I’m like, ‘Okay…’, and he’s like, ‘I’m so "Who cares?"’." The "like" in these most rudimentary of exchanges might as well be a paddle held before the mouth featuring one of Microsoft’s icons. The use of unqualifiable adjectives, and even of brief clauses, after the intensifier "so" seems to me yet a further incursion of "gesture language", ignoring the sentence’s inner coherence to wave enthusiastically at a pose. "That picture there? That me! Yes, much me!" One imagines Tarzan communicating in this kind of broken beckoning—but Tarzan, of course, would have an excuse. When people ostensibly raised to read and write nevertheless adopt the same idiom, they cannot be very profound people. Fine sentiment cannot possibly thrive in an atmosphere of such self-effacing extroversion, such surrender of the self-analysis necessarily prosecuted by fluid language to an impotent flapping at pictograms. But music, I repeat, might just entice these pitiable shells of humanity to plumb their inner resources by chasing fine modulation rather than to suppress the same resources by accepting standardized approximations of feeling.
The role which I envision for fine music, ultimately, is perhaps less ancillary to literary taste than to moral maturity. For to understand the heart’s intricate places—to know, at any rate, that they are too intricate ever to be fully understood—is to begin to be capable of conscientious behavior. The act of conscience is an anguished triumph. It is chosen in clear awareness of painful costs to oneself and others, and in acceptance of those costs out of devotion to a higher good. (Note the same dominant principle of wholeness which we experience in great art.) It is not—this act—an inflexible obedience to a behavioral paradigm: the operative word in such a case would be "fanatical" (a word which I came close to using of certain German composers… but let that pass). May I suggest that a heart rendered thus sensitive to echoes and alert to the dominant whisper blowing where it listeth is, by the way, a heart primed to appreciate great literature? For literature is the most overtly moral—or at least the most moralizing—of the arts. The story’s matter is human deeds, and the story’s totality of portrayed deeds tenders a comment—indeed, a judgment—about what is right for people to do. To close this tenuous circle firmly, I would emphasize that young people are no longer reliably coached in good behavior and that older people, apparently, no longer seem to believe that any behavior is ever more than provisionally good. Hence a return to five-finger exercise seems called for. Open your most receptive senses, and attend them. Where do you perceive pattern, and where can you imagine an enhancement of the pattern? What is, and what might be in conjunction with (not obliteration of) what is? The answer to these questions is the basis of morality. But it is also a thumbnail sketch of musical composition!
Read everything you can, wrote Heinrich Böll, and read it thoroughly. Open your senses—open your mind. Allow that which is false to ring false in the emerging symphony of testimonies; for the sound of what is beyond bounds trains the ear to distinguish what is within bounds. When I was a graduate student, I eagerly anticipated having many conversations late into the night which would have just this quality of giving every idea its chance to sing. Alas, the reality proved quite otherwise. A host of ideas was categorically denied admittance even to our most informal symposia, whose tedious predictability made nights seem long well before the witching hour. What dull aestheticians I found among my cohort… and what colorless music rambled on in the background! I had the serendipitous experience of unearthing the best and brightest of the group recently, knowing full well that, after all these years, she would still almost certainly disapprove of my philosophical orientation. Her response to me, however, was more disconcerting than any cold shoulder had ever been in the old days. Though uncomfortable with my thinking, sure enough, she blessed it as what I believed. I could not be held accountable for my errors of judgment, apparently, any more than she could possibly find a way to convince me of those errors… and fervor is always good in itself, like a heartbeat or some other vital sign. The truth may or may not be relative—which is to say, there may or may not be truth. Since none of us is capable of applying an objective truth test, in any case, we can only "go with our gut" (among whose meandering bowels the truth, if it exists, would seem to burrow like a tapeworm). And may God go with those of us who care to believe in a god….
This, of course, is patented postmodernism. The great fraud of it all, the intellectual swindle (if I may borrow Eric Voegelin’s phrase concerning Marxism), is that the postmodern’s absurdist embrace of all viewpoints no more reflects the vast reading recommended by Böll than his benediction of viewpoints against which he shuts his windows tight is a good-faith tolerance. A broad experience of ideas and beliefs vaccinates one against careless generalization: it does not paralyze one in a morbid disengagement of the judging faculties. An absolute leveling of all things is not implicit in an exposure to many things. At a minimum, one must accept a certain definition of unity to arrive at a practical experience of many units. Seen from the other direction, variation is various with respect to something. It is not the chaos ensuing upon the dissolution of all hierarchy, where the toddler’s clamor of pots and the senior harpist’s threnody are equally acoustic, and so equally musical. This would be the epistemology of a dog, or a cretin.
If my ideas are mistaken, then I should like to hear their dissonance as they are brought into proximity with right reason. It is obvious from the discomfort which my fellows in graduate school once registered with my thinking (and still register when I happen upon them) that they do not, in fact, believe all convictions to be of equal value. Let cacophony, then (if I dare not appeal to harmony), blow the chaff from the wheat: let us speak our minds. But my cursing, blessing comrades accuse the resort to experience (or what I would call higher reason elicited by experience) of being manipulative. They award me points for fervor, as if to placate me; but the contest for the tune that rings least false must not, on any account, be decided by actual performance! On their side, they have the authority of the "right people"—a curious conjuncture of words if ever there was one; for what person was ever right by virtue of being himself rather than, for the time being and in one instance, by virtue of having uttered a sensible judgment?
The right people… how is it that my generation, reared merely on TV and not videos or the Internet, has fallen into such torpid worship of "image"? Was television already sufficient to desensitize us? The right people in soi-disant intellectual circles, at any rate, are still shouting the same refrain to the same tempo as they dream of the same old never-never revolution, still savaging the same old bourgeoisie, still soaking up the same old absinthe, still smoking the same old weed. And their music, in all these years, hasn’t changed, even though it was wading-pool facile when we were young. They still cannot name a single work of Debussy’s (unless, perhaps, "Clair de Lune", a piece which arouses a wince because of its innocent association with "musac" at the shopping mall). They have still not read much of anything, perceived much of anything, or thought much of anything. There is still no "jam session" of ideas in their ever rarer get-togethers—no snatching of a theme and carrying it to the edge of possibility. Less of that than ever, less chance of it than ever. For certain synapses of the soul must surely begin to seal themselves irreversibly as one exits one’s twenty-somethings: nobody begins to like Debussy—or even John Coltrane—at forty, unless by an act of divine grace.
I have no doubt that the Rock ’n Roll generation, too old now to achieve any finesse not already acquired, will largely resist introducing the Hip Hop generation to fine music. In other words, the greatest obstacle to insisting that our middle-schoolers hear Mozart or Beethoven or even Copland once or twice a week is not their own formidable aversion to anything not arcanely "teen", but the still more formidable aversion of our aging academic mandarins to anything not ostentatiously non-Western.13 A recent contributor to this journal informed me that the six-hour core requirement in Western Civilization has been cut in half at his institution out of "fairness" to the three-hour non-Western course. (In fact, I gather that this was viewed as a triumph by the few advocates of matters Westerns, since the original proposal had been to eliminate all mandatory study of the West.) Any attempt to expose younger children to classical music would almost certainly founder in a polyphloisboisterous wash of racket-raising gang-bangers demanding equal time for their "culture". The evidence of honest experience would surely suffice to silence such imposture. No sane, intelligent person could possibly stand before the Grand Canyon or a magnificent rainbow and claim that Rap would express his sentiments better than Grieg or Stravinsky; no sane, intelligent person could imagine someone who had just learned of his father’s sudden death musing in a dark room to Eminem sooner than Schumann. But then, the wizened ideologues among us are little inclined to submit to experience—or only to an experience unprocessed by reflection, the dog’s "experience" of taking what garbage scraps or females in heat may pass his way. This hostility to vibrantly human experience is indeed nothing less than a hostility to sentiment, exactly. The theoretician’s panoramic, "dialectical" grasp of human history has revealed to him that sentiment is bourgeois (this despite the ready identification of the "right people" as "caring": formerly "compassionate" before that word was coopted by the "wrong people"). It is precisely against sentiment that young people are to be inoculated; for history has revealed that people pussyfoot around in complexity, taking forever to get where the theoretician—that mortally bored chess player—wants them to go.
For that matter, sentiment is indeed bourgeois. It is a product of the bourg, the settlement in which fairly large groups of people learn to coexist by respecting each other’s humanity (and by postulating each other’s humanity even where it is not very visible). Anyone in this settlement might be a fledgling Debussy (Debussy’s parents were in fact petit bourgeois), and everyone in it is considered capable, on a good day, of liking Debussy’s music. It is an idealistic place, the bourg—idealistic in the demanding sense of believing that people have something in common, that there is a positive and abiding basis for mutual respect rather than a mere absence of references to license judgment. The ideologue, on the other hand, is definitively unsettled and uncivilized in his anti-sentimentality. If he is a bored chess player who elbows pieces along beneath his huge yawns, he is also, due to such "creativity", a kind of lunatic artist. Perhaps he is the ultimate angry Rock star, making his "statement" by sapping the structure of civilized statement—by substituting the numb anti-matter, the otherness, of his irrepressible racket for that generous indeterminacy of fine art and fine ideas which he finds so tedious. I have known disturbed, disturbing children to shred works of art which they envied, as if their own might thereby fill the gap by the physical fact of having survived. If there is a significant difference between this sickness and the ideologue’s, I fail to see it.
The bourg, I note in closing, is also a literate place. The birth of alphabetic literacy has always been attended (in the few places where it has occurred) by relatively unfettered commercial activity. It is the inhabitants of fixed settlements who are freed from toiling in the fields to make clever things: it is they who develop a taste for clever things—poikila, Homer calls them: engraved bracelets, painted pottery, ornate weapons; they who trade and eventually sell their poikila; they who travel to expand markets, yet always come home in the end; and they who discover an urgent need, not just to record their sales, but to meditate upon strange foreign customs beside their own traditions. They have no luxury of years to bestow upon mastering some Byzantine hieroglyphy which could never, in any case, convey new objects and ideas… and so they create an alphabet whose rudiments may be learned by anyone within a few hours. Over the next several centuries, barring catastrophe, this people will bequeath to posterity an unprecedented florition of acute self-analysis. Among its numbers will be more than a handful—more than a privileged élite—who read everything, and read it thoroughly, seeking a dominant set of truths, or at least a harmony. Such is literacy, in the word’s most substantial sense.
But such, also, is the crucible of fine music and fine art. There are no poikila in Arcadia, much less in Laestrygonia.14 If a reed pipe or a drum can be played cunningly, its limits are nevertheless manifestly rigid. More notes, more accompaniment, larger audiences requiring more volume and also (except in our time) creating the opportunity for a richer range of volumes—these are the blessings which alphabetic literacy indirectly bestows upon music. They are not bestowed where the shepherd remains a shepherd, or even where a certain cleverness of instrumentation is conceived only for the emperor’s ear. So for the visual arts. Many a shepherd has left a talented sketch behind in a cave—but the art of painting could mature only where the painter might turn his labors into a livelihood and where a broad public was sufficiently curious about non-traditional forms and techniques (i.e., sufficiently individualistic) to reward his efforts. Historically, alphabetic literacy has served as midwife to more complex music and more complex visual art (megalithic architecture being an exception only because of the vast manpower it has required until recently). There is no getting around it: to study the fine arts, you have to study the West.
The person who would reject this transparent truth on the ground that it invites cultural arrogance—a kind of neo-Nazi Arian myth, perhaps—would have to be as dense as the person who would claim such superiority. There are no moral implications or moral consequences to the West’s triumph in the fine arts (other than a much neglected obligation to share this wealth above all other). The environmental and circumstantial factors which determined that literacy would flourish around the Mediterranean do not redound to any group’s or individual’s credit: the suggestion is absurd prima facie. What does indeed belong on our moral balance sheet is how we have used our rare opportunity, and how we will use it. Canny connoisseurs of guilt, we have learned to view our more recent, more pragmatic poikila—our combustible powders and brews, our remote delivery systems of homicide, our poison-fed engines of self-propulsion—with grave suspicion. Good for us: we should regret this chapter of our cultural evolution and strive to append to it a more humane one. To seek to nullify through negligence the entirety of our accomplishment, however—the symphony along with the nuclear reactor, the oil painting along with genetic engineering—is a program of breathtaking folly. Its motives, of course, are mixed. I am well aware that many campus crusaders who want every scintilla of Western culture suffocated under curricular reform are enamored of their grandiose posture (and harrowed, secretly, by the depth of their ignorance). I strongly suspect, besides, that many good minds even of my generation have been stunted by electronic amusements—their creativity mesmerized by ubiquitous images, their natural hunger for depth artificially deceived and turned cynical by the proliferation of gaudy surfaces.
Yet even the most rapacious careerist or the most disillusioned cynic has to feel something if a Carolina surprises him early one morning. Is that something more magnetized to Jennifer Lopez or to L’Enfant et les Sortilèges? If Ravel could only obtain a hearing as this miserable person scrambles to deny his epiphany to himself and to refuse others its occasion, the battle for fine sentiment would be won.
1 I am thinking specifically of the highly popular piano piece "Reverie", the motive for whose composition Debussy claimed to be purely material. Of course, the same motive was behind his Rapsodie pour Orchestre et Saxophone (Debussy had never heard a saxophone, but a wealthy American made him a generous offer)—and the result was what T.E. Lawrence called the most splendid musical work ever composed! An artist is himself often as whimsical in judging the merits of his creations as are we foolish observers.
2 Professor Thomas Bertonneau once remarked to me (in an astute observation for which he refused original credit) that all French music is pastoral. The occasion of this exchange had been my high praise of Gabriel Pierné’s Cydalise et le Chevre-Pied; but upon reflection, I am inclined to agree that the pastoral in some form is to be found beyond Pierné’s piping satyrs—and even Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande—in French compositions, largely because of irony. Of course, there is no dearth of the ironic in French letters. But the irony of the pastoral is infinitely more delicate than that of La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère. It is a dream of the simple life by those who know that life is hopelessly complex. The pastoral always assumes that the artistic work’s auditor is not a shepherd and is painfully aware that idylls live on borrowed time.
3 Fairness demands that I cite Charles Baudelaire’s elegant essay on Wagner, in which he compares his first response to Lohengrin’s overture—unprejudiced at the time by any libretto or dramatic setting—to Wagner’s description in the program and Liszt’s highly informed portrayal. The correspondences between the three are stunning, insists the poet (Oeuvres Complètes, Bib. Pléiade v. 2 [Paris: Gallimard, 1976], 782-786). It must be added, however, that three artists in nineteenth-century Europe would quite naturally have responded to a piece of music with similar visual images: the cultural boundaries to be crossed would be minimal. Great music, all the same, does succeed in crossing these boundaries, even though it often emerges trailing a very different garment of images than those intended by the composer.
4 Cf. Piet Ketting, Claude-Achille Debussy, trans. W.A.G. Doyle-Davidson (Stockholm: Continental, 1938): "As music, however, is an abstract art and the absolute value of Debussy’s music proves to be comprehensive, such terms as symbolism, impressionism and so on are frequently, but incorrectly, used to explain the nature and structure of his musical creations" (23). These comments were most welcome to me as I first read them. Amateur that I am, I was relieved to see that a true scholar of music could insist with such authority that literary categories are inappropriate in this landscape where forms are never more than "in becoming".
5 Cf. the appalling—and scarcely Homeric—sentiment in Tyrtaeus 8.4-6: ασπίδ’ ανηρ εχέτω / εχθρην μεν ψυχην θέμενος, θανάτου δε μελαίνας / κηρας ομως αυγαις ηελίοιο φίλας (“Let the man hold his shield nursing hatred in his heart and a love for death’s dark shadows as if they were the sun’s rays”). It is well worth noted that “the crafts of vase-painters, ivory-carvers and poets, which had all flourished, now died" in Sparta at the very historical moment when Tyrtaeus’s verse was stirring hearts to prosecute the second Messenian war (David A. Campbell, Greek Lyric Poetry [London: MacMillan, 1976], 169).
6 Plato’s insistence in the Republic’s second and third books that poetry convey matter affirmative of public morals rather than laced with lurid myths redounds throughout antiquity (cf. Plutarch’s essay, How a Young Person Ought to Listen to Poems), and is well known in our time. The irony bears emphasis, however, that some of us (I include myself) view the musical provocation of strident, invariable drumbeats as incipient brainwashing, and hence morally suspect—whereas highly imaginative literature disturbs the Platonic social engineer precisely because it is too permissive of multiple interpretations. As for music itself, Socrates repeatedly states his desire to have it purged of polychordia and complex harmony (cf. 3.399c) that the courage of young men might be spared confusion. What would he have made, I wonder, of Lord Wellington’s banning of the bagpipes just before Waterloo lest the ranks be stirred into an unruly and untimely charge?
7 Naturally, I anticipate howls of indignation here that my assertions are racist with respect to traditions relying heavily on percussion instruments. Allow me to deflect this charge. I recall an album among my father’s jazz collection, Arthur Lyman’s Greatest Hits, which always deeply intrigued me. I know nothing in particular about the performer and his band other than what this album revealed: an intricate cleverness, that is, for lending to songs a Polynesian or African flavor by orchestrating complex drum sequences. Drum rhythms can indeed be overlaid with fascinating results, and drums themselves can achieve an astonishing variety of pitches and timbres. That the percussion effects of our popular favorites today do not exhibit such qualities must be ascribed (to paraphrase a proverb) to the drummer, not the drum.
8 My translation from the German. See p. 184 of "Laudatio auf den Georg-Büchner-Preisträger Reiner Kuntze" (183-188) in Heinrich Böll’s collection of essays, Es Kann einem Bange Werden: Schriften und Reden 1976-1977 (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1985).
9 In Beauty: The Value of Values (Charlottesville and London: UP of Virginia, 1991), Turner argues that "rhythm implies time, and time implies both consciousness and mortality. Hence our aesthetic unease about jazz and rock (words whose hypothetical derivations include slang terms for sexual intercourse)" (83). I venture to say that the justification of this very odd syllogism lies in its rendering the classicist’s resistance to Rock a priggish bourgeois suppression of sex. No doubt, Turner must be allowed his gestures to the academic grandstand. Merely by alleging that beauty has a universal appeal based in the structure of the human brain, he has already outraged ivory-tower orthodoxy dangerously.
10 I note in passing the decline of musical taste among our youth even as mathematical achievement appears to be declining steeply by most standardized measurements.
11 Cf. Jakobson’s opening remarks on p. 82 of "The Dominant" in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, ed. L. Matejka and K. Pomorska (Ann Arbor, U of Michigan P, 1978), 82-87: "The dominant may be defined as the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components. It is the dominant which guarantees the integrity of the structure." I do not imply in my following comment that Jakobson was reductive for political ends: I say only that his dominant seems "overdetermined" to me and hence lends itself to abuse.
12 My reference to guilt is not entirely humorous. I am convinced that young people often view any disloyalty to the habits and rituals of their peer group as a moral lapse. Of course, they are in fact feeling the fear attendant upon shame: that is, they dread being detected in an overt deviation from the group’s norms. One may well suggest that this shame is itself false, inasmuch as "true shame" tends to be understood as a genuinely moral inkling attached to detection by others, whereas here the apprehension is merely one of being detected in non-conformist behavior. In any case, the much-remarked connection of true guilt—i.e., the inner conviction of wrongdoing, regardless of what others may think—with literate culture is highly relevant. Our children, alas, too often examine their behavior with the pre-literate awe of tribal expectations and terror of rupturing those expectations.
13 I discovered the following description of a college course in music on the Internet, whose barbarity is self-advertising (original punctuation preserved): "Women’s Studies students at Bowdoin can take Music and Gender. The main question addressed in this course: ‘Is Beethoven’s ninth symphony a marvel of abstract architecture, culminating in a gender-free paean to human solidarity, or does it model the process of rape.’" Nothing could more directly indict the shameless vulgarity of our academic class. That such charges are often clearly designed to curry favor with a political coterie quite possibly adds to rather than diminishes the act’s squalor; for what could be more contemptible than to heap moral condemnation upon art, not because one simply has no taste, but because one hopes to draw praise from the brass-knuckle squad?
14 Honesty compels me to repeat the opinion of Socrates that ακολασίαν η ποικιλία ενέτικτεν (“finesse has begotten licentiousness” [Book 3 of the Republic, 404e]), a remark made specifically of intricate musical harmony. A person better purged of malice than I might be forgiven for wishing that the great teacher could have passed a few days in contemporary America to observe with what meager justice these words were uttered.
Cosmic Dualism, Moral Freedom, Teleology,
and Natural Rights
Gary Inbinder is an attorney specializing in healthcare law. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a J.D. from the University of La Verne (California). His essay, "The Judgment of Paris," appeared in Praesidium 4.2 (Spring 2004), 16-21. Mr. Inbinder is publishing steadily in various other national forums where matters literary and humane may be openly discussed. He resides in Woodland Hills, California.
We can not only hold with Galen and Harvey, and all the great physiologists, that the organs of animals give evidence of a purpose; not only with Cuvier that this conviction of a purpose can alone enable us to understand every part of every living thing; not only say with Newton that…’the business of natural philosophy is to deduce causes from effects, until we come to the very First Cause, which certainly is not mechanical’: but we can go much further, and declare, still with Newton, that ‘this beautiful system could have its origin no other way than by the purpose and command of an intelligent and powerful Being, who governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as the Lord of the Universe, who is not only God, but Lord and Governor’
Rev. William Whewell, The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, 1840
I once had a calendar that featured a computer-enhanced picture from the Hubble telescope of spiral galaxies in collision. The smaller galaxy swings past the larger and more massive galaxy in a counter-clockwise direction. Strong tidal forces from the larger galaxy distort the shape of the smaller, flinging out stars and gas into long streamers. The smaller galaxy does not have sufficient energy to escape from the gravitational pull of the larger, and appears destined to swing past the larger galaxy again. Trapped in their mutual orbit like two Roman gladiators in their imperially commanded dance of death, these two galaxies continue to distort and disrupt one another. However, unlike the gladiators, who are destined for either victory or death, the two galaxies will, billions of years from now, merge into a single, more massive galaxy.
The conflict of the galaxies brought to mind something Leo Strauss wrote in his Introduction to Natural Right and History:
How then, may we view the conflict among the galaxies and the conflict among individual humans, cultures, civilizations, and nations: in a naturalistic (mechanical/deterministic) sense—a Hegelian/ Marxian dialectic materialism of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; or in a teleological sense, a cosmic design that will end as the designer planned, with us as individuals acting as free and intelligent agents therein? In what sense can we be free in either system? Are we limited, like the Marxist, to the "advancement of history" according to party dogma, or as a Theist, to conforming, or binding, our will and action to that of an intelligent Creator and his Church or Synagogue? In either case, are individuals, cultures, civilizations, and nations trapped in a mutual orbit like the spiral galaxies in conflict, predestined to distort and disrupt one another until we finally merge into a single massive whole? Or are we more like the gladiators, with one destined for ultimate victory, the others for defeat and death?
Our moral freedom, it would seem, is limited to the choice of which of Strauss’s "two hostile camps" we join, assuming that we are not "fence sitters" or ostriches with our heads in the sand, and that freedom may be further circumscribed by our natural inclination (genetically in a naturalistic sense, or spiritually in the theological sense) to join one camp or the other. From the worldview of the Thomist camp, to quote William Dembski, a Christian mathematician and philosopher:
Dembski, and other scientists and philosophers who operate within the tradition of Sir Isaac Newton and Dr. Whewell, hold that we may deduce causes from natural effects until we deduce the ultimate: an intelligent first cause. The proponents of Intelligent Design Theory have cogently argued that the naturalistic presupposition is therefore not, as Strauss implies, something that is required by modern natural science, but rather it is something that has been willed by those who "view themselves as autonomous and the world as independent of God" and who therefore reject any theory, no matter how scientifically well founded, that opposes their own deeply held atheistic convictions.
From the naturalistic perspective, the intelligent agent in the service of the Creator’s telos and eschaton acts in accordance with his or her "irrational" presupposition of the creation, revelation, and ultimate redemption of an as yet unredeemed cosmos by its intelligent creator. Regardless of which view one takes, the two opposing camps seem both to require certain presuppositions that are accepted on faith, and therefore seem to be destined, either naturally or by design, for conflict like the two spiral galaxies in my calendar.
If we recognize all the limitations on human freedom of action, not the least of which are the limits of human knowledge, we should also recognize our own necessarily circumscribed individual capacity for reason and moral choice. One of the best arguments, I think, for the teleological view as a moral imperative in preference to the naturalistic view is made by Paul Elmer More in his Platonism.
More contrasts the different connotations of the word "necessity" in Plato and Marcus Aurelius to demonstrate that "to deny man’s inner freedom by imprisoning the spirit in a huge mechanism of fixed and calculable natural law is to invert the whole order of the Platonic philosophy." In the Platonic view, "necessity meant the resistance of the meaningless and incomprehensible flux of things, whether in nature or the human soul, to the government of order and happiness; it was the exact contrary of the spirit, which is shrined in liberty." In the Stoic view of Marcus Aurelius, "necessity was the binding force of the whole world, leaving to the spirit this poor relic of freedom alone, that it might form its own opinion as to the moral character of the universal flux of which it was itself also a part, and so might persist in praising that as good which it felt to be evil." More observes that the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and the stoicism of modern science share the same pallor of sadness and spiritual sterility. "In the end," More predicts, "men will clamor for release from such joyless servitude; if they cannot discover the way of freedom in the law of the spirit, they will throw open the gate of the soul to the throng of invading desires, and the stoical necessity of science, save for the few exceptional minds, will remain as a theory, while in practice the mass of mankind will follow a rebellious and epicurean individualism."3
Whatever their philosophical and religious differences, I think Strauss, Dembski, and More would agree that modernism’s mechanistic view of the Universe leads to the Nihilism and moral relativism we now observe in our so-called postmodern era. Edmund Burke also made this observation when writing about the atheism fostered by the French Revolution: "we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take the place of it [Christianity]."4
Modern Europeans fleeing the void created by their loss of Christian faith either followed post-Enlightenment liberalism’s decline into a "rebellious and epicurean individualism" or succumbed to the "uncouth, pernicious, and degrading" superstitions of Communism and National Socialism, not to mention "New Age" religions and fashionable psychobabble.
In the postmodern conflict between theists and naturalists, both appear trapped in their mutual orbit like the colliding spiral galaxies. Does it make a difference in the course of history how the mechanistic versus the teleological conception of the universe is ultimately decided—or, given the contingency of that ultimate determination, what we presume and how we act upon those presumptions in the meantime?
Returning to Strauss, Natural Right and the respect accorded to each human subject as a "created equal" are connected with a teleological view of the Cosmos, and are derived from the Western Civilization that was built upon the cultural confluence of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. In such a system, Natural Rights must correspond to civic responsibilities, since each individual’s pursuit of happiness must be in accordance with the spiritual and material goods that are shared and valued by the Civil Society as a whole.
A naturalistic/mechanistic view is alien and anathema to the dominant forces that enshrined human liberty and justice within the consciousness of the West. Naturalism, which was suppressed in the West by the dominant theistic culture, connects right to political might, the ends justifying the means in Machiavellian fashion. The human individual is treated as object, not subject, a means to the utilitarian materialistic ends of the faction, group, or alliance of groups in power, whereas justice, or asserted "Natural Right", is merely the interest of the stronger or politically dominant faction.
Postmodern Western liberals, in their adherence to an atheistic naturalism, appear to have abandoned themselves to what Paul Elmer More referred to as a "rebellious and epicurean individualism", more concerned with their purported "rights" to kill the unborn and indulge themselves in pornography and perverted sex than in the defense of Western culture and civilization. Further, the forces of an "uncouth, pernicious and degrading superstition", Marxism, appear to have made a temporary alliance with radical Islam in opposition to Western Civilization. As Franz Rosenzweig pointed out in the Star of Redemption, "The way of Allah is a concept quite distinct from the ways of God (in Judaism and Christianity). The ways of God are a dominion of divine counsel high above human occurrence. But walking in the way of Allah means, in the strictest sense, the spread of Islam by means of the holy war. The piety of the Moslem finds its way into the world by obediently walking this way, by assuming its inherent dangers, by adhering to the laws prescribed for it. The way of Allah is not elevated above the way of man, high as the heavens above the earth; the way of Allah means, very simply, the way of believers."5 People may dispute whether Rozenzweig’s description applies to all of Islam, but it certainly applies to the radical, aggressive, and violent strain of Islam that is now in conflict with the West.
To return to Strauss’s analogy, the "two hostile camps, heavily fortified and strictly guarded" appear incapable of reconciliation. The contemporary American economist, historian, and political philosopher Thomas Sowell cautions about the outcome of this conflict in A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggle:
Aristotle held that dramatically coherent narrative is that in which the decisive event is unpredictable until it happens, but the moment it happens it is seen to be what had to happen. The real denouement of that human drama which we might call "the conflict between the mechanical and teleological conception of the universe" is hidden from us, circumscribed as we are by our mortality, unless we affirm that it has already been revealed to us by our Creator. Therefore, if we are to act morally on this world stage, we must act upon our well-founded and just presumptions. How we act in the face of hostility and violence that is susceptible neither to reason nor to love should at least be consistent with our presumptions, that is to say our well-founded beliefs.
To promote peace with our enemies because it is consistent with our beliefs does not necessarily mean that we need be passive in the face of an irreconcilable evil that threatens us and others who seek our protection from that evil. Defense of the weak and oppressed in the context of a just war is an act of charity. Nor should we concede that good and evil are relative, merely social and linguistic constructs.
Further, we need not retreat in the face of the seeming contradictions and contingency of our brief existence in time and space. Our practical reason can determine what is probably good and what is probably evil universally and, to the extent that determination is consistent with those values which (through millennia of human experience) Western Civilization has traditionally presumed to be universally good, hold onto our well-founded beliefs. In so doing, we grant our teleological vision epistemic primacy and can hold our fortress against the irrational, malevolent, and irreconcilable forces that seek to subvert, undermine, and destroy it. On the other hand, if we abandon ourselves to the "rebellious and epicurean individualism" of postmodern liberalism, the enemies of liberty and human rights may prevail over a decadent and dissolute West.
In the collision of the spiral galaxies, all matter from the largest star to the smallest sub-atomic particle appears to be subject to an implacable causality and cosmic indifference which posits the inevitable outcome for us all. Human freedom—the moral freedom to choose our vision, adhere to it, and defend it—consistently and steadfastly stands above those mechanistic and deterministic limitations, if we keep faith and reason in balance, believing, along with Newton and Whewell, that "this beautiful system could have its origin no other way than by the purpose and command of an intelligent and powerful Being, who governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as the Lord of the Universe, who is not only God, but Lord and Governor."
1 Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965), 7-8.
2 Intelligent Design, William A. Dembski (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 99.
3 Platonism, Paul Elmer More (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 238-239.
4 Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches ed. Peter J. Stanlis (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Press, 1963), 560.
5 The Star of Redemption, Franz Rosenzweig (Notre Dame: London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 215-216.
6 A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell (New York: William Morrow, 1987), 8.
Teleology and Music: Editor’s Postscript
Mr. Inbinder’s fine essay speaks for itself and stands on its own, even in this special edition of Praesidium which I have sought to devote largely to music. The subject which he has addressed, however, enjoys two such obvious connections to what I might call (neither pompously nor crudely, I hope) "the philosophy of music" that I cannot resist stepping in to make the ties explicit. With the author’s consent, I do so here.
Like all art, music is "teleological": that is, a forward momentum animates it, at last orienting to the general advance even apparent digressions, at last shedding a unity everywhere whose inclusive aura is merely emphasized along the dark alleys eventually suffused in a turn. My tortured visual metaphor is also vaguely narrative. I picture artistic unity not only as a sunset—a diaphanous gold on this cloud’s crest, a lurid red on that remote mountaintop, the moment nowhere ignored while complexly various—but also as a journey past many obstacles. (The last slanting rays of a clear day are themselves the very incarnation, full and imminent, of a long journey.) Frankly, music is more palpably driven by the quest for unity than either painting or narrative. One resorts to other images, no doubt, only because the musical courtship of an end, a coming together, is so perfectly abstract—in a sense, so mathematical. A hyperbole can be graphed along an axis as far as we wish: its next point is rendered inevitable by its previous points. Music is by no means this rigid in seeking the closure of melody, but the tremendous and oppressive urgency of finding some pattern capable of containing potential "rebellions" is indeed autocratic. If a musical sequence doesn’t sound right, then it is forever irredeemable.
Oddball stories often reveal a heightened regard for order when one re-reads them and grasps to what extent they have rejected simplistic, "fraudulent" orders. (I think of All Quiet on the Western Front.) I have far less tolerance of disruptive visual art, which I think is extended a license to be slovenly when debunking bourgeois decorum only be analogy with literature. I have never been gripped by a painting or sculpture which failed to move me at first exposure upon being informed afterward of all the stodgy conventions under attack in its repellent confusion. A dunghill must always remain a dunghill.
Music, I say, is like this a fortiori. It goes somewhere because it must: otherwise, it isn’t music, or is only failed music. A dissonant mess which appears to struggle less toward harmony than away from harmony’s distant, desperate hails is not breaking any patriarchal shackles. It is failing to be music. It is succeeding as a cacophonous mess. The purpose of music, the telos, is to converge in audial sequence and tempo and harmonized accompaniment and orchestration toward a unitary effect—not to a single effect, but a consonantly whole effect. This must be regarded by any sane adult who honors the truth as no less self-evident than that the good knife cuts well.
A knife can cut too well, of course; or, to put it another way, different knives have different purposes. A razor blade is not ideal for buttering toast. Should the effect of music appear too unitary, we may be nearing the margin of degeneracy—a dreadful bourne of which I wrote lengthily in my own essay. Heavy, unremittant drumbeats sound to my ear the bestial note of behavioral conditioning and propaganda. Nursery-simple tunes with whining lyrics indict an unchallenged intellect, and perhaps a very weak one not capable of meeting challenges. The purpose of music, then, might be more accurately explained as striving after coherence through a series of artfully imposed obstacles. There must be some degree of intricacy, some few moments of uncertainty—what painters call chiaroscuro, the teasing sometimes menacing play of shadow, distance, and obstruction. This is why Immanual Kant wrote of the art work’s "purposiveness without a purpose": i.e., not because art ultimately has no purpose, but because its purpose is precisely to seem purposive at every instant.1 If a piece of music or a poster moves one to leap up mid-way through the encounter and proclaim, "I’m off to vote for Holzkopf!" or, "Kill all the Pomeranians!" than it has served far too narrow a purpose—and a purpose in nowise artistic. The true art work is riveting from beginni9ng to end; and it is so because one constantly senses its pregnancy, its unflagging dedication to an infinitely subtle, at last indefinable purpose.
The art work, if you will, is a "revision" of divine creation with special highlights and abbreviations to accommodate the human understanding. A serious atheist novelist is really a contradiction in terms, a master rhetor whose most beguiled auditor is himself; for the mere fact of being a novelist has already branded this person as someone who insists upon life’s meaning—and it really doesn’t matter whether that meaning is seen as bestowed by some Puppeteer-Creator or by man himself resisting the absurdity all around him. For did not God create man, and hence man’s horror of the absurd and his moral capacity for willing resistance?
Here I come to my second and final observation. About a year ago in these pages, Professor Chaves presented a strong case for epistemological realism which, I gather, has drawn much approving notice.2 Mr. Inbinder is not wedded to realism to such a degree, yet neither—obviously—does he dismiss the apparent order of the sun and other stars as indicative of their Mover’s sublime love (if I may hearken to Dante). Art, it seems to me, confronts us with an essential quality of "the music of the spheres" which ultimately renders the realist/idealist wrangle all but pointless. We know that art works are not part of the physical cosmos into which our species was born. Artistic adepts have created many of these works within our lifetime—occasionally under our very noses—and some of us have ourselves written music or poetry of more than negligible merit. Are these works not "real", then? Are they not in some respects the "most real" things we have known in life’s wide wasteland? Yet not only were they not created directly by the divine hand, but their human authors seldom intended them to be real as the tides or the Moon’s craters are real.
Works of art are real because of the fertile human intelligence in whose mysterious fastnesses they generate their force fields. A masterpiece without an audience is just a strip of canvas or a block of stone: the Grand Canyon is only a big gully unless a pair of human eyes perceives it. The falling tree does not raise a sound in the deserted forest if it is a symphony. Beethoven’s overture to Leonora No. 2 would sound much the same to a dog or cat or rat as a lot of dead wood striking the ground—which is to say, ot would have none of that sound at all for which it was created.
So for the stars themselves. We can date them, taxonomize them, and to some extent navigate them because of mathematics—yet mathematics is a patently abstract science (what Kant called the paradox of "synthetic knowledge a priori) insofar as no two pencils or toothpicks of the dozens counted by grade-schoolers are in fact identical, no perceptible line is truly straight or runs forever, all physical points have dimension, etc., etc. The universe makes sense because it is beheld by creatures endowed with sense. We process the raw data, and it acquires order (just as, more spectacularly, we process certain sounds a second and third time, and they acquire beauty). To argue that acknowledging the human mind’s imposition of order upon external phenomena exiles God from Creation is extravagant. It strikes me, to be honest, as a little pugnacious. Such an argument seems to reject God’s creation of our minds along with the tides and the stars. It seems to consign the perception of order to the kind of whimsy which wrings a castle from a cloud. To be sure, those who deny God’s existence often advance this very argument: the Greeks burn the dead and the Persians bury them (and the natives of the New World, Montaigne would add, eat them). Certainly the canard that all our fondest loves and holiest ideals belong to the great crap shoot of cultural peculiarity is the relativist’s favorite refrain.
But it is a shamefully frivolous refrain. We should not grace it with perpetual review, let alone adopt it ourselves in making a counter-claim. Arithmetic facts are defined somewhat differently in different cultural settings (the Greeks, for instance, had an annoying habit of starting from one rather than zero when tallying up years—and we all know where a Frenchman looks for the first floor). Such disparity stems from a minor conceptual caprice, however, rather than from the faculty of reasoning quantitatively. Time is viewed quite differently in oral-traditional societies from how we find it portrayed in literate-progressive societies (Homeric Greece thought of the future as “behind” and the past as “before”: οπιθεν, “behind”, is used when Athena yanks Achilles by the hair—and it also means "later"). Yet no group of human beings anywhere has ever imagined itself as existing in a vast unchanging present or as advancing into yesterday—or only, perhaps, some paleolithic group incapable, quite simply, of thinking at all; for the ability to concatenate events sequentially is part of what defines the ability to function as an adult human being. We see the world around us as we must see it, as our minds are made to see it. Our artistic creations, as I have already suggested, are a kind of thrice-processed arrangement of data, so that we see the world even more as we must see it in an artistic representation. Hence the higher reality of art.
Now, for a malign wit to counter that God may still be deceiving us from this perspective—that I have merely substituted universal illusion for a host of individual illusions—and that only realism will save us from this nightmare is… well, pugnacious. Surely such a wit is spoiling for a fight. For what is there to argue over here? To accept on faith that reality is in fact identical to our humanly processed picture of it does not diverge practically from accepting on faith that the God who "programmed" our minds has not designed us to mistake chasms for bridges. What the strictly realist alternative accomplishes of a subtle nature is to shift focus from the internal to the external. We love God because the constellations are beautiful, not because God has endowed us with the faculty of finding beauty in a vapor, an echo, or a zephyr. We feel secure in God because the dome above our planet is a well-wrought edifice, not because God has breathed into us a spiritual energy whose hunger for purpose will thrive eternally through however many sea changes the universe may endure.
At its most extreme, this seems to me a difference between believing in something beyond the material which will materially validate matter’s plump promises, on the one hand, and believing in the spirit’s power to transform any nondescript body of matter into something perfect and magnificent. It is perhaps the difference between loving art for its enhanced provocation of the senses and loving art for its power to transform what is sensed. The difference, I must admit, is not inconsequential when taken at such a level—but I very much doubt that it roots in such clearly distinguished depths when we consider individual souls. The tree of faith can take many a right-angle turn as it struggles up through the rock pile of sensations and rationalizations.
Music, at any rate, may very well be the firmest gage and surety of divine benevolence; for in a chaotic sea of discord, we begin to rewrite the winds as a symphony even before we begin to see majestic battlements in thunderheads. How can one announce that something does not exist which often exists more vibrantly (for the prisoner, the refugee, the castaway) then anything else on earth? Yet it exists in us through a common endowment: the stars do not, after all, make music on their own, though we can all imagine how they might. Music’s existence, furthermore—more than any of the other arts—is manifestly a reflective straining and re-straining of sense impressions to create an object, a whole, which our senses could never possibly have perceived if left to "mere reality"; and it is an object, besides, which is infinitely superior to that raw reality in its vastly heightened, pulsating awareness of purpose.
I am not blind to the irony (and for me it is often quite a bitter one) that the religious traditions most insistent upon a strict realism have produced the most beautiful music, while those most tolerant of idealism have either banished music to other venues—a harsh measure, but respectable—or entirely collaborated in debasing it to the most pedestrian taste. I will not squander time on tracing the further irony that these latter traditions have in fact grown more realist as their surrounding art has grown cruder. No doubt, there is more than one invidious spiral working a downward slope in human affairs. We are universally endowed with sense… but we are also universally cursed with impatience, laziness, and self-importance. Vanitas vanitatum! Such equivocations can leave one profoundly depressed, and would do so more often but for antidotes like great music.
1 The phrase used in Kritik der Urtheilskraft is Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck. Cf. Section 10 of Part One: "Purposiveness can thus be without purpose insofar as we do not implant the causes of this [aesthetic] form in an act of will, be rather we can only make comprehensible to ourselves the form’s detailed possibility as a process derived from willed action" (my translation from p. 220 of Kritik der Urtheilskraft, vol. 5 in Kants Werke [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968], 165-485).
2 See Jonathan Chaves, "Kicking the Stone and Viewing the Icon: Realist Epistemology Between Heaven and Earth," Praesidium 3.2 (Spring 2003), 5-23.
A Generation X-er Declines to Defend Contemporary Music
Kelly Hampton holds a degree in English from Union University and has amassed several dozen graduate hours in that field. She sits on The Center’s board and keeps us apprised of our younger readers’ moods and assumptions (a source of much mystery to those of us who recall JFK, Cary Grant, and Casey Stengel).
As someone whose childhood and teen years primarily took place in the 1980’s, I realize that I have the power to bring into the music discussion the views of an age group entirely different from the foregoing commentators’. We are not the hippie generation, nor are we the hip hop generation. Our music is often overlooked, since it was not the by-product of psychedelic, drug-induced idealism or race anger; yet it was often controversial in much more subtle ways. I will not argue that there were no stupid, goofy trends. Disco, though it was on its way out in my early years, is something I can vaguely remember. I definitely remember break dancing, and, of course, we are cursed forever with bad music karma for having unleashed MTV upon the world. Well, we thought it was a good idea at the time. We were young. Sue us. We are punished by these channels now, as they seem to play nothing but reality shows and hip hop. The M in MTV use to stand for music. Go figure.
All joking aside, I have to admit that I like a lot of the music of the 70’s and 80’s. Oh, I know that there were stupid trends mercifully doomed to early death, like hair bands, and stupid trends to whose longevity we were mercilessly doomed, like boy bands. There was flaky, meaningless pop: that I do not deny. The seeds of style over substance in music were already being sown, I will honestly confess.
Yet—and this is the important part-there was also talent. John Harris has argued that contemporary music’s heavy reliance upon lyrics is evidence that it appeals to a less cultivated mind than classical music, which is largely instrumental. I will not argue that point. I do listen to classical music, and yes, it engages the mind more in many ways (in my opinion). I do not deny that I still like rock and roll, for different reasons. I submit that, while rock songs do not have the same level of sophistication as classical music, decent, intelligent lyrics can lend to a song at least a certain amount of depth. One is not experiencing total brain atrophy when listening to a song by John Mellencamp, or Sting, or the Eurythmics, for example. These people can actually sing, and the lyrics they write have at least some meaningful quality to them. The like of John Mellencamp’s catchy little tunes can even be deceptive in their simplicity. There is often far more meaning hidden in his words than is apparent upon the first listen. Themes of race relations in small towns, the plight of middle America’s farmers, the appeal of small town life and values—all seem to creep into his music in very clever, subtle ways.
Yet the primary question of this brief essay is: where does music find itself today? Are there any John Mellencamps out there? Generally, no. The country music industry produces some artists with talent, but what passes for music on most stations today usually does not even come close. One of the primary pieces of evidence of this is the number of artists doing the covers of past hits. (N.B.: "Cover" is just a modern term for a remake of someone else’s song. It’s becoming quite a common term. In fact the music channel VH1 not too long ago had a program called Cover Wars in which two bands engaged in competition by adapting older songs to their particular style, attempting to redo songs in styles different from the original. Whoever knew and adapted the most old songs from the random selections won.) Most such reprises are simply hideous. The worst example was surely Madonna croaking out "American Pie", by Don McLean. I was far from the only person who cringed. She sounded almost cheerful. Someone should have told her that the song was about a plane crash. It appeared from the tone of her singing that she was unaware of that essential fact. She is not alone in this trend. From Jessica Simpson’s rendition of "Take My Breath Away" to Britney Spears’ of "I Love Rock And Roll" (by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts), it seems that covering older tunes is the order of the day. The situation is so bad that the recently reunited group Wilson Phillips has gotten back together to do an entire album of covers. Their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s "Go Your Own Way" has all the appeal of what one might imagine the original to have been if Fleetwood Mac had castrated singer/guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, then force-fed him some sort of depressant just before the performance.
Of course, if you are a rap artist, you do not have to cover the whole song. You can steal a bit of it here and there, mix it with a few repetitive lines of your own, and call it "sampling". The master of this art form is Sean "P. Diddy" "Puffy" "Puff Daddy" Combs. Whatever he is choosing to call himself these days, his basic musical hit-making formula has not changed. Step One: find a hit from the 80’s. Step Two: borrow the most memorable part. Step Three: mix in some repetitive rap. Keep this short. Don’t want to think too much. Also make sure it’s either about how rough and violent life in the ghetto is or about all the money and women I get. Step Four: watch stupid teens buy records and people with respect for those old songs turn nauseabund. Alas, there was a day when getting rich required effort. Now it merely requires lack of a soul. To think there was a time when white artists copied black music makes the contemporary formula all the more ironic.
One could argue that white rapper Eminem has copied black music. Does he have talent? If saying things that shock people can be considered talented, I suppose he could be said to have talent. So far his favorite topics have included how much he hates his mother and his ex-wife, how much he hates women in general, and how much he hates gay people. Only the last has attracted any really significant criticism. Strangely enough, his misogynist tendencies do not seem to apply to his little girl. I have often wondered how he will react one day if someone talks about his daughter the way he talks about the women in his songs. He argues in his defense that he is simply playing a role that he does not intend for his audience to take seriously. He wouldn’t really beat up a gay person or abuse a woman, he says. Yet his audience is primarily angry, male, and young, and I wonder if they are able to make such distinctions.
When it comes to gender issues in music, you could hope that more black women at least would be attempting to raise the bar; but alas, in many cases ‘tis not so. The range of topics most black women are singing about goes from how much they want sex, to how much sex they want, to whom they want sex with, to—finally—when they want sex. This trend started with the likes of Salt-N-Pepa and Lil’ Kim, and has progressed into something that, were I a black woman, I would find truly offensive. I will not say that a few black women are not working against the current state of affairs. Yet nowhere is to be found the likes of, say, Aretha Franklin demanding R.E.S.P.E.C.T. The black-girl groups like Destiny’s Child are okay, but not here is to be found anyone in the class of the Supremes.
White women in music are faring little better. Most of the new girls out there fall into two categories: those who are blatantly trying to be Britney Spears clones, and those who are Britney clones but are pretending to be the Anti-Britney. The most worrisome aspect of this music is that it represents what used to be the safe "bubble gum" pop, but it has gotten far more sexual every year. There is no such thing as subtlety in this music anymore, even with regard to the crudest topic. Example: Britney’s latest album features a song entitled "The Hand". I’ll leave you to guess what this lovely little number is about. Keep in mind that many of her biggest fans are usually not even twelve. My niece was singing along to many Britney tunes by age four.
Some of this offensiveness and general lack of creativity might be forgivable if some of these artists could actually sing. Most of them cannot. They are there to look good and they know it. Take Jennifer Lopez. She got rich as an actress and she is pretty. Therefore, by today’s musical standards, she is given record deals and allowed to cut albums. Where, I must ask, would Cass Elliot fit into such an industry? A fat girl with no money, just talent? I must laugh. Not a single record company would deal with a group that allowed her to be a member. Can any of our present boy-band groups like N’ Sync give us a vocal harmony comparable to the Eagles singing "Seven Bridges Road"? I think not. Does Justin Timberlake or any one of his contemporaries have the vocal range of Freddy Mercury? Simply put, no. Do any of the Britney clones have the talent of Janis Joplin? Keep dreaming.
Yes, the old artists had character flaws. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll were all linked together somehow in the 60’s and 70’s. We lost some, like Jim Morrison. Yet I can forgive them to an extent because they at least had some talent. They at least did some work to earn their place in music history. No one handed it to them because they were pretty or because they had money. They had to play instruments or sing or both. If they did not, no record deal. It was that simple.
I had to cheer Elton John recently. He bluntly told the judges of "American Idol" that music was about talent, not beauty contests, and that he didn‘t care if he never sold another album in America. Now I can only hope that eventually our culture will someday realize the truth in his words once again. The image-makers who push the same tried-and-true formulas on the same tired audiences would get a lot farther if they would just let real artists be themselves. As I write this, I am also planning to go to a summer tour concert in September. Sting and Annie Lennox will be headlining together. On her cover of her most recent album I recall that Annie talked a lot about being true to herself, as a maturing woman. How very unlike Britney—who, if she ever shows signs of age, will certainly get a face lift. If she does not do so right away, her publicist is bound to warn her of lagging album sales. Creativity? Authenticity? Talent? Originality? Can we really blame Britney for not having none of these? Her time, after all, must be devoted to clothes, hair, and make up. Image is everything, even in today’s world of music—especially there—and she must now dance to the image which has absorbed her soul.
We are fortunate to be able to feature two poets this month. (Summer, no doubt, is kinder to poetic inspiration than the other seasons... or is it just a matter of having time to write?) James M. Pangborn, Ph.D., teaches English at SUNY Oswego and at the Fulton Center, Cayuga Community College. Lt. Col. Michael H. Lythgoe, USAF (Retired), has frequently contributed poetry to Praesidium, and sits on The Center's board.
The Mendicant Professor Vows Poverty of Expression
In today’s society, Erin is wearing
a red sweater. In today’s
society, Ramon’s notebook
is still blank. Missy’s is filled
with silly illustrations, as
is my lecture.
In today’s society there are many essays.
There are many issues. There are no correct answers.
Dates are not important until after class on Friday.
In today’s society, many problems exist.
In today’s society there are many students
who beheld themselves in the faces on milk cartons—
whose parents tried to encase them in plastic
to preserve them from a world gone too far self-deluded,
to preserve them from a phantasm of their own self-importance,
from their own disguised wishes for freedom and ownership
(Sorry, Ma’am, I call ‘em as I see ‘em).
Over eighteen and still not kidnapped,
many such students are brimming with hatred.
In today’s society, buy our product.
It’s dumb to be smart and smart to be stupid
just as long as you buy the right product.
The projector is broken: in today’s society
the film will have to wait for next class.
Meanwhile, let’s discuss today’s reading
and relate it to our own lives.
The poem was hard. The story was way too
long. The chapter was irrelevant and we didn’t
understand a word. In today’s society,
nothing relates to our own lives.
We don’t want to relate. Just tell us
what we need to know. Teach to the test
and the rest is none of your damned business.
In today’s society there are many wishes.
The saucer people might return and reclaim us—
take us back home to our real life elsewhere
in the universe. Meanwhile, waiting is hell.
In today’s society the wishes are understandable.
In today’s society the wishes are hurting us.
Everyone has their own opinion,
in conclusion, is hurting today’s society.
They come from the woods wearing war paint
These leaves from a tribe of trees.
They will ride like the wind
Until they descend to become eulogies.
Leaves lie down in rain like actors in grease paint.
They play in costumes on the autumn stage;
They turn to clowns in crimson masks,
Red-skins posing for a wild west show.
More than drama is an Indian Summer;
It is the hand-print on the fast flank
Of a painted pony racing for hunt and harvest.
Leaves are like grapes, chameleons changing skins—
Leaving stains on concrete like spilled wine,
Or the star’s handprint at Hollywood & Vine.
Two Musical Italian Short Stories
"The Tympanist", by Aldo Camerino
(translated by Gianna DiRoberti)
Gianni DiRoberti is a Ph.D. who "defected" to being mother and housewife—yet without shutting down her mind in the fashion which some feminists would have us consider inevitable. Her contributions to Praesidium date from the days of journal’s infancy. Most recently, she gave us a most provocative selection of passages from Pierre Lasserre’s Le Romantisme Français (3.4 [Fall 2003], 36-44).
Camerino is perhaps better known for his architectural undertakings (he was especially interested in antique glass) than for his literary activity. He came of age in the aesthetically saturated atmosphere of Venice, where he spent most of his life (d. 1978). His extraordinary collection of vignettes, Cari Fantasmi ("Beloved Ghosts"), appeared for Mondadori in 1966. "Timpanista" occupies pp. 176-182 of this volume: thanks to its brevity, I was able to navigate around the kinds of interruption which have often sabotaged my efforts for this journal. Yet the translation from Italian was no easy task for me. Camerino’s style, as might be expected of one from his milieu, is elegant to the verge of the florid, if not the precious. The world he describes, of course—the world which ultimately perished in World War Two amid brutal shortages of staples, ruthless plundering, and homicidal political bullying—put the final coffin nails around the aesthetically hyper-developed, often Byzantine atmosphere of nineteenth-century Italy. Camerino obviously laments the passing of this world: its ghosts are dear to him, as the collection’s title announces. As this particular story illustrates, however, he is no blunt romanticist of things past. He is well aware that excessive refinement can have a lugubrious side. ~G.DiR.
"Oh, yes," continued my neighbor, "I was born vindictive. Only too much so."
To see him, no one would have said such a thing. He had a dry, diminutive face: penetrating eyes, extremely black, glowed with an affectionate light. We had been chatting for some little while in the garden’s autumn peace. As it happened, he had just turned the conversation back in my direction, sitting beside me on a small bench. In such circumstances, I am usually rather impatient; but the refined manner of that slender little man, and his style of speaking distinguished by a subtle, unusual precision of detail, held my interest. Not my entire sympathy, to be honest. There was something in him which I not only would not know how to define, but which struck me as unsettling. The man was gentle in his ways, very courteous—and yet turned, as it were, toward a part of himself rather than toward me: a partner in conversation by mere chance. I had the impression, not of meaning nothing whatever to him (as would have been fair enough), but of being a help, an occasion (and this didn’t seem fair to me at all). It was as if certain things which he could never have expressed clearly to himself were flowing from him in confusion to a neighbor who happened by. I resigned myself. After all, there was in the man a complicated attraction, and the desire to know more overtook me. Just now, with that brief sentence, he began to reveal himself better than he had done in half an hour’s mincing, indefinite generalities. I acknowledged with my head—a gesture somewhere between curiosity and inquiry. The man continued further.
"I was born vindictive; and for many years, in my youth, especially, I strove not to let pass a single act from any of my peers which seemed not to treat me as I would have wished. I was exigent. I had a difficult character."
He turned to look at me, raising his head as if in question. Yet I would not have answered him for anything; and I sensed that something—one of his life’s important anecdotes—would have to be recounted to me now. The decision had been made. Any word that I might utter would have proved pointless. I allowed myself a half-smile which apparently encouraged him to speak on.
"One would find it difficult to ascribe a particular profession to me, no?"
Once again, I felt a reaction somewhere between astonishment and stupor: I felt its flush upon my face, and not without shame. If I had been forced to guess, I would have imagined this man a figure behind the counter of a suburban shop—or perhaps a painstaking artisan, such as a lute-maker or an engraver. But I knew how little is needed to lose the trust which another is disposed to place in us. My neighbor had affirmed that he had "a difficult character". What assured me that his gentleness, so evident in his conduct and discourse, had become truly ingrained in him and would not cede to less elegant manners iof a power of precise induction should not aid me in determining his nature? I preferred to remain silent. I was fearful only insofar as I would have been much displeased to scare away the little history which he was about to tell me—which, so I now believed, he could no longer keep from me.
"You, sir, are perhaps unaware of how many small parchments are meticulously illustrated and ornately manuscribed in a city like ours, even today, using tiny quills and pens of every shape. The kind that confer an honorary title… the rich man’s son receiving his license to practice law, the factory owner who marries, the school mistress who retires…. It is an independent and rather profitable trade which does not impose a strict schedule and leaves the fantasy relatively free. I am fairly creative. The parchments which carry my stamp are fine works, belonging to a certain class—a class which you, dear sir, scarcely imagine (for—excuse me—I see that you carry about a stack of books… a journalist, perhaps, or a writer? I have noted that you jot down a line or two every so often in your notebook… a poet, maybe, in your best moments?). For people who derive much pleasure from little things, such homage as I can design is a marvel. He who receives it savors it every morning in long gazes… until it ends up in an attic, where it is—yes—useless and ridiculous.
"I digress, sir, I digress. But I see that my rambles are not displeasing to you. The fact is that I have always been a bit of a dreamer—and, like all of my kind, somewhat timid. Music is my great love, sir…."
He fell silent, as if awaiting an observation: an "ah" or an "oh" of mild shock. But I continued to hold my tongue. He resumed:
"As a boy, in fact, I studied music in a lyceum of sound reputation. I have the diploma, of course. I am the man who operates the tympanic section. I have a good ear, precision, passion…."
I have always admired the particular quality of attention required of the man who sounds the orchestra’s tympanic section. He occupies an angle of the mystic gulf while the others are swept along in their playing, or, during a concerto, stands yet more freely and in full view. All at once, his moment comes: the rolls and cannonades of the drums are unleashed. They invade the entire theater, they take command of it, they swell the air and all but overpower the other instruments. I had never known a tympanist, and this gentleman scarcely appeared to me to personify his profession. I conceived of the sounder of the drums as tall, full of authority, sturdy, muscular, decisive. Without showing my bewilderment, I uttered the words of some generic compliment.
"yes, and I used to serve as the drummer of an orchestra. I used to live in that artificial world of wonders; if I might so express myself, I used to dwell in music. Naturally, I never entertained the impression of being one of the least among my colleagues. The part that fell to me was important, as everyone who understands such matters will grant. And, quite apart from the satisfaction of the continuous praises my tympanism drew from my conductors, much less from the wage of which I had little need (I am a bachelor and have few wants), believe me, my true reason for living was to take part in a grandly sonorous whole, to collaborate, to participate in executing musical designs. Yes, I used to play, as I have said. You may observe, sir, that I am not old and that I carry my years well. But I was vindictive: this is the third time I have stressed it. It is five years now that I have listened to music without taking part in its production—or no more than one may do from the gallery. And I know that the fault is mine, mine alone. Minute reproductions for a living now, and nothing else. You may imagine how it grieves me, sir, how it grieves me…. I have become so much better, so much more humble. I have come to understand at my own expense the high price of forgiveness. And also that of not allowing oneself to be overcome by resentment…."
"It happened during the height of the concert season. We were all rather tired: rehearsals every day, one’s dinner not yet digested (not all of the orchestra’s members could, like me, be free when they wanted to). And so many concerts, one after another. We were all somewhat on edge; and there would arise in some, in the less durable, an excessive impatience with an observation or a furrowed brow from the orchestra’s conductor. I have told you that I, in particular, was vindictive. I could recount for you, sir, some pretty little pay-backs—by no means dishonorable, please understand; one might even say that they were all for the good…. But, to return to the case. I was quite self-confident. Imagine what state I was in after receiving from the celebrated F… such a reprimand as had never been dealt me before (and unjustly, sir, quite unjustly: all of my colleagues agreed upon that score). He accused me of being distracted and imprecise. I responded acidly: it was an unfortunate reaction. F… very nearly ground me beneath his heel. Another word, and I should have tossed all my sheets of music into the air, or perhaps have launched a mallet at his face. But different, more exquisite kind of satisfaction occurred to me just then—far more costly for me, I instantly recognized, as if the whole sequence of events had already played itself out. I remained silent. With the others, I began from the top (‘From number eighty-four,’ said the conductor dryly). And so I continued, incubating my vendetta.
"Yes, it was all a matter of a patently unjust reprimand: but everyone is obliged to tolerate such things. I was not in the habit of doing so, however. My joy lies in performing my duty punctiliously, and let him thank me who will. Who knows what came over me?"
"Two evenings later, the concert. Applauses which seemed to have no end for that conductor who was, to be sure, exceptional. A public capable of dazzling one: its members rose as if possessed. What a grand success! The second part began. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was in the program. Wagner insisted that it should be played as a Dionysiac exaltation of dance; certain of our contemporaries see it as a supremely poetic expression of vigorously martial sentiments. I shall say only that it is one of the absolute masterpieces which move me most. F… could feel that masterful quality with all his soul, and he drew it forth superbly. He attacked the Scherzo. For my part, quite calmly and with furtive yet determined steps, I made my way to the small exit door: then off the stage I went without ever turning back. You will well recall, sir, the major role of tympanic effects in this Scherzo. The conductor suddenly froze: peering back, I could see his wide-open eyes and his face, at first stunned and quickly thereafter furious. My next prospect was of the alley into which I had issued. I dragged my feet along in the mud unto a light rain.
"It is my understanding, sir, that they suspended the concert, and for a reason which I suppose quite new in the annals of concerts. For F…, it was a disgrace, a disaster, even though they attempted to circulate the rumor that I was a little insane. But I am not insane: I am vindictive to the point of not being able to endure the least offense. Naturally, as I have said, a return to the orchestra is quite out of the question for me…."
In that pathetic voice, did I discern the repentance of someone who, after an extreme ordeal, had reached a healthy state of mind? Almost at once, the man slipped away; and since then, we have exchanged no more words. It would please me to rest assured that he had no further occasion to indulge his passion for vengeance—or if he indeed had so, to profit by it and hear the tale of another strange vendetta.
"Music", by Giovanni Guareschi
(translated by Gianna DiRoberti)
Readers who are unfamiliar with Giovanni Guareschi may congratulate themselves that they may make a very thorough acquaintance of this author without my assistance. Guareschi’s short stories have been translated into dozens of languages. English versions of them were often available almost as soon as the originals appeared in Italian. This was surely so, we must admit, for reasons not purely literary, at least in the United States. The Cold War was raging at its height in the fifties, when Guareschi was in his most prolific stage. His recurrent characters, the two-fisted village priest Don Camillo and the head of the local Communist Party, the burly Peppone, come to physical blows more than once—probably because, in temperament if not in doctrine, they have so very much in common. Peppone, of course, is at a perpetual disadvantage. Ideology reduces him to firing light artillery in the far more frequent polemical exchanges between the two, and he is forever grinding his teeth over having been made a fool of, yet again (or perhaps over having yet again made himself a fool—for Peppone, deep down, is as sharp as the proverbial tack). In a way that perhaps only Guareschi could have engineered, however, the two adversaries usually end up finding a bit of common ground where each can acknowledge the other’s concern for humanity. Communism is folly to Guareschi—but Communists, at least in Italy, are often pitifully misled people still capable of seeing the true light. In few of his stories is this more apparent than the one I have translated below; and I may add, finally, that Don Camillo’s own excesses, for which Christ lovingly teases him in his prayers, are also a staple of these adventures.
My translation is taken from "Musica", pp. 428-438, in Ciao, Don Camillo (Milano: Rizzoli, 1996).
In her ninety years of life, Desolina Camatti had never given away anything for nothing. Sensing herself close to the end, she sent for Don Camillo and said to him:
"Reverend Father, if you’ll meet me halfway, I’ll give you the money you need for the new organ."
Don Camillo’s emotions gave such a surge that his breath almost failed him.
"Tell me what you have in mind, Desolina."
"For the three million lire, I want six thousand Masses."
Don Camillo made a quick mental calculation.
"Even if I said one Mass a day, it would take me almost seventeen years. I’m too old for such an undertaking."
"You’re right, Father. I’ll take the matter up with the priest of Torricelli—he’s a young man, with lots of time before him."
"Desolina, I’ve been dreaming of that new organ for a century. What about… twelve hundred?"
"Five thousand, six hundred."
There was a long discussion. Don Camillo cut his obligation down to two thousand Masses, but he had to permit the deal to be set in writing. The three million would be paid out to him by Desolina’s executor upon the organ’s completion.
Her final bargain thus concluded, Desolina Camatti made her passage to the other world fully satisfied, while for Don Camillo began a feverish anticipation of the new organ.
He nourished the rumor that no more was going on than a few simple repairs to the old organ. For the testing of the new instrument, he chose a day when the rain was falling in buckets and the wind all but choked the breath in your lungs. Squirreled away in their homes, the people caught on to nothing.
They would hear the new organ only on the day of its inauguration, and no one would be allowed to forget the grand day once it was set. The program was indeed magnificent, because the members of the committee had scrounged up plenty of money with the help of which Don Camillo had been able to procure the services of a famous organist.
The date of the inauguration was fixed under the most rigid secrecy.
"The announcement," explained Don Camillo during the committee’s final meeting, "will break upon the scene this coming Monday. The posters are all set to go and will arrive from the city on Sunday evening. Our volunteers will sally forth at four o’clock the next morning, and everyone will find a poster before his nose as he leaves the house. The follow-up is all lined up, too: blurbs in newspapers, fliers, banners, radio broadcasts. For six days in a row, there will be a tremendous blitz. People will come from every corner of the county—we’ll fill up not just the church, but the whole churchyard—we’ll overflow into the piazza! We’ll set up some loudspeakers in the bell tower. The Reds are going to be bursting with rage!"
Don Camillo never knew if it happened by pure chance or if there were a traitor in their midst; but the fact is that, the following Sunday, the countryside was hung in posters as big as sheets—and that it was the communal administration which had ordered their dispersal during the night to announce to the citizenry that, at four o’clock that coming Sunday in the recently restored local theater, a colossal Verdi concert would take place. A spectacle never before witnessed, given the renown of the orchestra, the chorus, the conductor, and the soloists.
And all of it with free admission, and on the same day and at the same hour as the organ concert.
Don Camillo celebrated the first Mass in such a manner that God pardoned him only because he confessed to the provocation’s gravity and the partial infirmity of mind resulting from it
Left alone, Don Camillo opened his heart to the Crucified Christ of the main altar.
"Lord," he said, "is it not disgraceful?"
"No," responded Christ. "I would say it is a normal kind of competition."
Amazed, Don Camillo raised his eyes to heaven.
"Lord," he exclaimed, "competition is what happens among shopkeepers. The theater peddles entertainment—this is the house of God! A theater cannot enter into competition with the house of God."
"Of course it can, Don Camillo, even when the house of God doesn’t organize its spectacles as the theater does. But if you place yourself on the level of the spectacle, you transform the house of God into a theater—and then you can hardly complain if another theater creates competition."
Don Camillo spread his arms in desolation.
"So then, Lord, propaganda to win recruits has arrived even in Paradise?"
"Don Camillo, are you forgetting that you are speaking to your God?"
Don Camillo bowed his head.
"Pardon me," he whispered humbly. "Poor country priest that I am, I clung to the idea that the function of a church organ was entirely different from that of an orchestra staging a show."
"To the extent that it serves to bring the thought of the faithful closer to God, your organ is useful to the sacred rites. But not when it distracts the mind of the faithful from thinking of God. It’s a question of degree, Don Camillo. When the priest pours a little wine into the chalice, he doesn’t always gulp it down as if he held a tankard."
Don Camillo celebrated the eleven o’clock Mass with greater calm, and delivered a serene little lecture to the body of the faithful:
"Dear brothers, next Sunday, at four o’clock in the afternoon, the veil which has stirred your curiosity for so long will fall. His Excellency the Bishop will bless the new organ which we owe to the generosity of our sorely missed Desolina Camatti. At the end of the ceremony, a celebrated organist will perform a concert of sacred music, accompanied by the choir of the Academy of Santa Caterina and by noted solo vocalists. At the same hour, the communal administration is offering in the theater a spectacle at which will be present—with his entourage—a highly placed political official expressly sent by the Communist central authority in Rome. Let everyone make his choice freely: I speak now only to alert you that, directly after Verdi, the Reds will be on hand, and I do this so that no one who is convinced in good faith of rendering homage to Verdi may end up rendering it effectively to the Reds."
Peppone, informed of this discourse by his secret service, responded with a manifest that was publicly posted the next morning, right beside the announcement of the organ concert. He spoke generically of "clerical cliques" , of "rabid attempts at sabotage", and he concluded: "Behind Verdi is nothing more than the spirit of the people of the Low Country, whose most faithful interpreter is the Swan of the Roncole. As for that, while this democratically elected administration is making sacrifices for the cultural well-being of the working people, the priest in question, trapped in his medieval obscurantism—though the old organ was operating very well—he would be better off spending all that money for the parish orphans."
Don Camillo replied he had received three million to procure the church a new organ and could use the money only to procure this organ for the church. In contrast, Peppone and his comrades, having obtained from the citizenry a mandate to administer the community, were busy playing politics. And to mask their maneuvers, they were making use of Verdi, just as at one time they had made use of Garibaldi.
"Poor Signor Peppone," concluded Don Camillo’s reply. "Even he is obliged to labor on behalf of the Recruitment!"
On Thursday, Peppone demolished Don Camillo with an unexpected blow, causing to be posted at street corners a manifest featuring a reproduced photograph of a bearded gentleman, complete with scarf and fur coat extended to the feet:
"Giuseppe Verdi at Petersburg in 1862 for the premier of La Forza del Destino—for 98 years, Verdi has worked for the Recruitment!"
On Friday, a red banner had been pasted over the manifest:
"Different times! 98 years ago, Italians went to Russia to play. Now they go to be played!"
On Saturday evening, Peppone, finding himself face to face with Don Camillo, gave him a piece of his mind:
"Reverend Father, it’s not necessary for you to go to Russia to be played. Keep on with your provocation, and you’ll find yourself giving a sonata right here."
"First someone to play me would have to be found," answered Don Camillo. "Not so easy."
"To play your kind doesn’t require a degree from the Conservatory," smirked Peppone.
Peppone was accompanied by a couple of heavies from the Party elite, who suddenly arranged themselves on either side of him.
"Chief," warned Smilzo, "don’t forget the directives of the Ninth Congress."
The matter finished there—most fortunately, because both Don Camillo and Peppone were ready to boil over.
"We are a democracy," observed Brusco, "and it’s the people that ought to decide. Tomorrow the people will declare if they prefer the Verdi of the Reds or the fleur-de-lis of the Blacks."
The next morning, spring burst forth. The sky had the intense blue of a tourist leaflet. At the eleven o’clock Mass, the church was as full as an egg, and the people even overflowed into the churchyard beyond the door. Don Camillo did not abuse his triumph: he limited himself to reiterating the afternoon’s performance without going into detail.
At midday he ate with an enviable appetite. Then, about three-thirty, as the most zealous of his flock were beginning to arrive at the church, he departed with the committee members to meet the Bishop and escort him.
They had arranged for a column of at least twenty cars to drive to the district’s limit, turn itself about, and rest waiting along the roadside.
At exactly four o’clock, the procession, led by the Bishop’s long black limousine, filed into town; but, contrary to Don Camillo’s expectations, the piazza and the churchyard were deserted.
It was a bitter blow for Don Camillo, but more bitter still was the one he received when he entered the church. The last three rows of benches were empty, and the others were occupied, at most, by the customary old folks who never missed any church event.
Liberated from its veil, the new organ appeared in all its splendor. Clearly, it was something quite out of the ordinary.
There followed the rite of the benediction, then a brief discourse from the Bishop, and—at last—the organ made its new voice heard.
"Now they’ll start coming in," thought Don Camillo. But no one stirred anywhere.
The organist was exceptional, the chorus beyond comparison, the soloists stupendous… yet the last three rows of benches remained empty.
His heart swollen with anguish, Don Camillo could no longer resist slipping away at an advantageous moment. How was it possible that the entire countryside had flocked to the theater?
The names on Peppone’s poster were formidable ones, but that didn’t account for the general indifference to the organ concert. The names on Don Camillo’s poster were also formidable.
Peppone, at the last instant, must have been inspired by some demonic suggestion. God only knew what he had thought up to attract all the populace to the theater.
Don Camillo neatly cinched up his robe, hopped on his bicycle, and pointed it toward the theater.
He traversed a desolate landscape. Even when he reached the theater, empty space was still around him. The old man in charge of the bicycle depository was one of his flock.
"Look over there," he said, indicating cluster of bikes and motorcycles in a corner. "Four of them. And in the car park, nothing but the wheels of the bigshots just in from the city. The theater is maybe half full, give or take a few. And to think that the performers and singers are top notch!"
Don Camillo climbed back in the seat. The explanation that the community was suffering from subservience to delight wouldn’t fly any more. Pedaling slowly, he continued to ponder the strange phenomenon.
"Perhaps," he reflected, "the cause of this is that both of us have missed the mark. Our polemics have disgusted the people. They don’t want to hear any more about politics, and we have transformed the whole matter into a political issue…."
"Hey, watch out!"
A rude voice tore him from his meditations and forced him to recollect that he was pedaling along a public street. He reacted scarcely in time to hit the brakes and avoid slamming into the cyclist who had launched the cry.
"Where is your head, if I might ask?" shouted the man who, for his part, had also just barely stopped his bike and skidded up against the wall.
"Probably there same place yours is, Mr. Mayor," babbled Don Camillo.
Peppone grumbled something incomprehensible, then asked him furiously, "Well, now that you’ve had a look, are you happy?"
"And you… are you happy?"
"Messina may weep," roared Peppone, "but Spartacus isn’t laughing. It’s no banner day for the people when both sides get tricked."
The concept was valid, though this was no time to philosophizing about Spartacus and Messina. At that very moment, a motorcyclist arrived. It was Smilzo.
"Boss, it’s just as I said," he explained. "They’re all over there."
The old Bishop was fully pleased with the day. As far as he was concerned, everything had come off perfectly. His secretary, however, saw things differently; and, once the concert was finished, he told Don Camillo that, for such an affair as this, it would have been better not to inconvenience His Excellency.
"I don’t know how we could possibly have offered more," replied Don Camillo. "The organist was a celebrity, the singers…"
"I’m not talking about the concert," the secretary interrupted him, "I’m talking about the people. A half-empty church—Father, it’s practically a scandal!"
Don Camillo felt himself beginning to lose control of his horses.
"And just how could I have known that the whole countryside would converge upon Trecastelli to hear Tony Dallara sing?"
"You should have known. In what world are you living, dear sir? Don’t you read the newspapers? Don’t you listen to what the people are saying?"
The secretary was quite curt—but even more so was the central official, at the same moment, was lecturing Peppone.
"Comrade, what kind of a joke was this supposed to be? You spent an entire month leaning on me to round up high-ranking dignitary in Rome for this occasion, and then you play me a dirty trick like what happened today!"
"A dirty trick?" protested Peppone. "A Verdi concert with performers of the first order is a dirty trick?"
"It would have been better if they’d been of the third order but with a few more people in the seats. Politically speaking, this was a disaster. Complete lack of organization, of preparation…"
"It’s not my fault if the whole countryside trooped out to Trecastelli to hear Tony Dallara!"
"Of course it’s your fault! You ought to know the tastes of the people. If you want to stage a big event and Tony Dallara is at Trecastelli, you ought at least to book Mina."
"What I wanted was a Verdi concert…"
"if the people want pop tunes, give them pop tunes."
"Verdi, Verdi! When the people want Verdi, you can give them Verdi!"
"It’s our duty to elevate their cultural level."
"It’s our duty, first of all, to elevate their political level," corrected the official. "Then we can think about other things. Comrade, this discussion doesn’t please me any more than today’s events."
"On the other hand," said Peppone between his teeth, "I found those events quite pleasing."
The official grew pale.
"Comrade," he questioned with in a dubious tone, "what do you intend to say?"
"That we wanted to honor Verdi, and we have honored him. If your high-ranking dignitary does not feel honored, he can go…"
And Peppone proceeded to say exactly where the dignitary could go if he did not feel honored. The official decided that this was not the proper place to pursue their discussion.
"Comrade," he concluded, "I understand your admiration for Verdi—but you ought to be more concerned about the Party."
Peppone stared at him bluntly, and appeared larger than life, so swollen was he with rage.
"I don’t care for the Party’s music," he declared in a hollow voice. "I prefer Verdi’s."
"Naturally," exclaimed the official, attempting to smile. "Verdi is always Verdi. On that we can agree."
Mr. Moseby has contributed short stories to Praesiidum for several years. His fondness for "magic realism" is perhaps faintly evident here: but most of this story-in dialogue’s events, alas, are all too probable.
"I mean, we’ve both done this long enough to know what the typical scenario looks like. People hitting their brakes when the idiot cuts in front of them, some of them too hard—some fender-benders, sometimes a chain-reaction that can get really bad when someone down the line decides to try to switch lanes before it’s too late. It’s like… well, cluster-bombs after a jet makes a low pass. A long trail of rack and ruin, and if you want to find the cause, you look ahead of it, beyond all the skids and horns. Like a… a flower coming open, but the nectar’s at the very bottom of it. Or the pollen, or whatever they put in flowers. Jeez, listen to me, Logan, I’m talking about flowers. It’s been that kind of day.
"But this was the weirdest pile-up I ever saw on a stretch of fifty-mile-an-hour highway. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. No flower opening, no trail of dented fenders behind our idiot in the jet. No, it was… it really only started at the red lights. I’m riding back there at about… I think it was the Winston Road light when I first noticed it. And I’m thinking, ‘What are they, passing out free porn out the window?’ Because that was when all the grinding started. Yeah, and the stops. They were already stopped, but they’d all grind in on each other, both outside lanes into the middle one, and everybody in back would ease up into the guy in front. Like they were going to make a big ball. Like rugby, you know. You ever see them play that game they call rugby? The Aussies, isn’t it? And then when they started moving on green, they all moved like a big ball, a big swarm. No one wanted to give up his place. People were missing their turns—one guy turned too late for his exit and banged over the curb. I kept moving with the flow. Don’t know if I could have made it over, anyway, but I wanted to see what in hell was going on up there. All those craning necks.
"Well… well, I won’t keep you in suspense. There was this chick in a convertible. She had a… a vibrator, Logan. Yeah. You laugh—me, too, I’m laughing now. But it was no party. Would you believe I had to tell her to turn the damn thing off? Like it was a radio. Yeah, I had to walk up and lean over the door of her red convertible—and then I think, ‘Oh my God!’ Her jeans are snugged down almost to the Valley of No Return, she’s got a towel over her crotch, and… the damn thing’s vibrating! The towel, I mean. And her radio, that’s on, too, come to think of it. I had to tell her to turn that off, too. But I swear I didn’t even hear it till I could hear myself think. She had this bottle of water—you know, mineral water. Bottled mineral water, like all the yuppie joggers drink. Seems she’d been trickling it into her mouth and down her… her shirt. Her throat. Whenever she came to the lights. You know, when she was stopped. There she’d be, shouting and swinging to the music—and to the other thing—and the water glistening on her front teeth, and her blonde hair floating out in the wind, and that tanned neck of hers all slick and… oh, God!"
"How old was she?"
"Old enough to know better. I mean, old enough to… that you’d remember her, that you’d remember her doing all that, being that way, for the rest of your life. I mean, not too old—not so old that you wouldn’t."
"That you wouldn’t remember her."
"Uh… thirty. Thirty. I checked her d-o-b, on the license. But even without that, I would’ve known she couldn’t be a kid. I mean, even without seeing the little lines on her neck and around her nose, the little tiny wrinkles. It just stands to reason, a kid wouldn’t have done something like that—or only a d-w-i."
"She wasn’t d-w-i?"
"No, man! She was… there was nothing but chewing gum on her breath. And she didn’t just walk the line, she… all she needed was a pole and some oil, the way she moved her hips."
"This was after you’d got her to button her pants."
"Ah, don’t laugh, man. Now why would a thirty-year-old woman do something like that? A kid wouldn’t do it, or only a drunk kid. Kids… you know what kids are like. They’re afraid of what all the other kids think. A carload of kids, maybe… maybe they all would have done it, all of them together. But just one of them, at almost rush hour, at the light on Winston Road? In a convertible? Now what makes a thirty-year-old woman do something not even a kid would do?"
"Maybe that was it. Maybe it was her birthday. Her thirtieth birthday."
"You mean… her thirtieth birthday! I just looked at the year on her license, but… wow. I never thought of that. Damn, Logan, you ought to take the detective’s exam. That’s really smart. And she would be… thirty. That really freaks out young women, doesn’t it? Like forty for men. I’ll be forty in less than five years now. Throw in a divorce or something… you know, ‘My whole life is crumbling,’ and then the sexually-desirable thing, like… you know how women are, when they’re thirty. Like men at forty. Like, ‘Am I still desirable?’"
"I gather that she was."
"Damn. You know what she said to me? She says, ‘You’re kinda cute.’ She put her fingers on my shoulder, right there on the patch. And when I told her I was going to have to run her in, she says, ‘You could take me into personal custody tonight.’ You should have seen the look she gave me when Slade and Freeman took her away. It was like… like…"
"You’re a good man, Kent. A decent man."
"Yeah, a real decent man. That was it, all right. She made me feel like, You sorry, pitiful, decent man! You’re wasting the chance of a lifetime, and you don’t even know it."
"You can’t think about things like that."
"I didn’t have to call for back-up. It was like she knew that. She knew I could have handled it all alone, right there. I could have just given her a speeding ticket, or something. Now the D.A. can sort out whether he wants to slap her with… what is it? Deliberate indifference, or criminal negligence? Whatever. It was criminal negligence, all right. The chance of a lifetime."
"Sorry I wasn’t there, Kent. It would’ve been different if you hadn’t been alone."
"Yeah. You’re right, it would have. It would’ve been completely different. It was being alone that made me think about it—I mean, the fact that I could have done it. So easily."
"Hey, you had to do what you had to do. Forget it. You didn’t ask for that thing with your dad. Maybe that’s not so bad, really. I mean, forgetting everything. Everything. There’s a lot to forget, a lot that’s worth forgetting. But I’m going to remember that chick even when I’m sitting in some home forgetting to swallow my drool. Hey, I… I didn’t mean to say it like that."
"And then, not half an hour later, that 10-37."
"But half an hour later, our shift should have been over. What were you doing out there?"
"You don’t remember? Lopinski and Depaulo. Mike’s daughter is graduating, and Rich is her godfather."
"But… why didn’t you remind me? I thought that was next week."
"Aw, you got things on your mind, you don’t need to be worrying after me with all that other stuff. Anyway, it was just half a shift. I wouldn’t have done it, otherwise."
"You shouldn’t have done it. Nobody should have let you."
"Well, it’s done now. Anyway, so I get called to this 10-37. That’s one where I should’ve waited for back-up. But there was this girl in the driveway, jumping up and down and waving me on. And I could hear things breaking, all right. And the shouting—loud shouting, and every obscenity in the book. Quiet residential neighborhood. I was surprised there weren’t any people out. No gawkers. Walkers, joggers, kids on skateboards… not a one. Nobody else in sight. Just a van real near in the next driveway, that I didn’t think about at the time. And it was nearing five o’clock. I figured maybe I could put a lid on the fight before things got crowded. At least I could take a peek through the front door, which was open. At least I could get that girl out of the way before shots started flying, maybe."
"You did the right thing."
"You know what it was? It was a movie. They were filming a goddam movie. I told them they were disturbing the peace. I wrote ’em up for it, too, I was so pissed off, even though they fed me all the plot with their big round eyes—‘Oh, Mr. Policeman, this is so cool, it’s just like what you do!’ Something about a kidnapping. I told them they needed a permit for that—the movie, I mean—which I’m not quite sure they do. Do they? It seems like they should. This isn’t Hollywood, you know. A movie! But even after the citation, I hadn’t simmered down much. I canceled the back-up call, but I still had a feeling that something wasn’t right. I mean, it wasn’t like I was in any danger. It was all over with, and everyone but me was laughing. And the girl who waved me in. But… that’s just it. She wasn’t exactly not laughing. I mean, I caught her in a couple of glances at the kids inside. They were just kids, of course. Adolescents. Maybe college kids. In fact, one of them said he was filming this movie for a college class. But the girl kept looking at them like, ‘Did I do okay?’ or ‘Did you get all that—was it good?’ And then when I was walking back to the squad car, I noticed how many neighbors were prissing around on their lawns, like they’d come out to check how the Miracle-Gro was doing. Where were they five minutes ago? Why had this one girl been standing in the driveway, and nobody else had had the nerve to sneak out on the front porch?"
"Maybe they’d heard shots."
"I asked them about that. I asked ’em all—because those kids, you know, would have spent the night downtown if there had been shots fired to make this great crime epic. I’d smelled powder in the house, too, and I’d asked about that right off. But they all denied it, and the girl denied it. And when I went around canvassing the neighbors—the ones suddenly checking their mail boxes—no one would admit to hearing anything but the shouting. I finally went back inside and wrote ’em up again for using obscenities in public, since they’d had the front door open. They can challenge that if they like, I heard what I heard. Their faces all drooped when I hit ’em with that one, and that made me feel a little better. But I’m turning it over to the detectives tomorrow. I just don’t like what happened out there."
"So you’re coming in tomorrow…"
"Sure, I’m coming in tomorrow! It’s not a day off, is it? If guys like you can come in, with all you’ve got on your mind… do I look like I’m sick, or something?"
"No. It’s just that… considering where you are right now…"
"It clears my head. Anyway, so I’m leaving the scene, and just as I’m opening my door, I notice that black van again. In the driveway right across from me. And that’s when I realize that it wasn’t empty when I’d pulled up. In my mind’s eye, I could see… I could see shoulders, and a head, and something else. I went over and looked inside the van’s window, which was open… and what do I find on the floor? An empty film box. You know, like for a cassette, a video cassette. That something the individual was holding, it was a camera. A video camera. I remembered then that I’d flinched just an instant, because you see somebody poised like that, and the first thing you think of is…"
"Exactly. So I’d registered that somewhere in my mind even though I was all occupied with the other thing. Think of it, Logan. I pull up, and there just happens to be somebody crouching in this black van shooting my arrival on his video cam. And then when I leave, he’s mysteriously vanished, along with his cam."
"Did you get the plate? Turn it over to the detectives. Whatever film he took can be subpoenaed."
"Yeah. Yeah, that’s just what I’ll do. First thing tomorrow. When I come in."
"Are you ready to come down now?"
"But don’t you think that’s suspicious? I mean, one group in this house raising hell for a movie they’re making, the neighbors all in on it and keeping quiet, then the call to bring the cop and the other camera stationed just where it can get him squealing up. Don’t even have to have a budget for props and extras, just dial 911."
"They’ll get what’s coming to them."
"No they won’t, not most of them. There’s no way you can get everyone who was involved in that, all the neighbors and everything. And to think that those punks looked at me like I was little Hitler for the obscenity charge…. Well, I’m thinking all this over, just beginning to see the light come on, as I drive back toward the Loop. I go by State’s campus, just skirting it—I take Reilander over by the west side of Charger Stadium. I happen to scan the empty parking lot around the stadium, and what do I see? Jeez, I had to hit the brakes and pull over to the curb, I couldn’t believe my eyes."
"Not another blonde…"
"No, that would be too normal for this day. No, I see… get this, Logan. I see this beat-up pick-up truck, maybe an eighty-five Chevy, driving around at about fifteen miles an hour, and this thin white male with short light hair and stubbly beard in the passenger seat… and behind the wheel, a dog."
"Probably a retriever. Light brown hair, long floppy ears. So, you know, I just have to go over for this. The lot was empty, not even any parked cars to hit, but… come on! So I take a right into the lot and cruise up to the pick-up. The dog brings the car up beside me real smooth and stops—or the white male brakes, I suppose… he’d have to, wouldn’t he? I mean, it would have to have been him. Dogs… they couldn’t do that, could they? With their legs? So, anyway, I get out and ask the guy—the white male—what in hell he thinks he’s doing letting his dog drive a moving vehicle like this. He turns into a real smart-ass with me, like the dog is a great driver and has had hundreds of lessons and, anyway, it’s private property. I inform him that a state university campus is not private property, and as for the dog being a great driver… well, he seemed to be handling the empty lot okay, but… do you think any sane person would put a dog behind the wheel, even in an empty lot?"
"Depends on how many bowls he’s had to drink."
"Yuck yuck. Naw, they hadn’t… he hadn’t been drinking. He was just some weirdo smart-ass professional student, I guess. One of those guys who’s about thirty-five and still working on his first degree, which he’s changed lately from Hindu Art to New Age Philosophy. I swear I wasn’t going to give him any problem when I first stopped him. Hell, man, I was ready for a laugh. But the way he came at me… and then he started in on me with all this stuff about dogs being human beings, or as good as, with souls and all that, and how I was a bigot. He called me some screwball PC name, like ‘android’. ‘Andro-centrist’ or something, ‘centrist’ was in it. I told him I didn’t care what he thought of me, he’d just better not let that damn dog drive around any inferior two-legged species or he’d find himself doing the long end of five-to-fifteen for manslaughter. ‘You know, like human-slaughter,’ I told him. ‘Like in a cage, as in the dog pound, only nobody comes to adopt you and take you home.’"
"Good line, Kent. I’ll bet that sobered him up."
"I don’t really know. Because about then, I become aware of these kids waving at me from the third story of one of the classroom buildings, the gray one there by the edge of the lot. I walk toward them with my mouth hanging open, and I make out this camera mounted on a tripod. As you can imagine, I felt kind of pissed off when I saw that, after what had just happened on that phony 10-37. I guess I showed it somehow—probably put my fists on my hips, or something. That’s when they really started to rib me. I could hear them laughing in a very derogatory way, and then the girl among them—I think the other two were males—lifted up her shirt and flashed me."
"Wow, Kent. This has really been your lucky day."
"Hasn’t it, though? I turn my back at that point and start back to question the individual in the truck about what he knows about these maroons. Because after what had just happened with the 10-37, I’m wondering if he set me up—was this Candid Camera or something, maybe another assignment for that same college class? Or maybe these twits were just trying to get some footage of cop harassing innocent motorist that they could sell to Nightline. Or maybe they were trying to draw me into a confrontation with them, so that they could create some incident of the same kind for the campus newspaper. Of course, the guy in the truck wouldn’t have known about that, if they’d done it on their own. He seemed like a legitimate crackpot—the one guy I’d met all day in a really funny situation, and he’d never cracked a smile, and he sure hadn’t been holding it in. He was about my age, I guess. Maybe something starts to go when you get that close to forty."
"You never saw his ID?"
"No, I hadn’t asked him for it before. And when I turned back, he was gone. Gone without a trace."
"Well, I get back in the squad car and cruise around to the front of the gray building. The Feinmann Communications Building. Hmm. Gives you food for thought, doesn’t it? I mean, here we go with more filmmakers."
"Did you go in?"
"I could have. Classes were over by then, it was well after five. It would have been easy enough to find a few isolated students on the third floor. But what would have been the point? By then, I felt that I would just have been playing into their hand. I didn’t even contact campus security. What would have been the point?"
"Yeah. You’re right."
"By this point, I’m much more interested in just surviving this weird half-shift I’d signed on for without being held up by Puss ’n Boots, or something. I crossed the Loop at McCarty and kept on out to the Whispering Hills subdivision. We should’ve been giving it a drive-by, anyway, at about that hour—remember what Sarge said at roll-call last week? A little after six, the construction crews gone for the day… several cases of stolen bricks and lumber, and sometimes the houses close to being finished are getting broken into."
"More than that goes on out there. You shouldn’t have done that alone, Kent."
"Yeah. So I went out there… but I was glad enough to take that drive, anyway. I probably would have, no matter what. I used to cruise around there a lot, when Connie and I were still together. I was thinking we might buy a lot out there… might get a small loan and build our dream house. I really loved it out there. Connie couldn’t ever understand why. She said it was just flat and dry, nothing but wide-open spaces. Well, that’s why I liked it. You could see forever. There was a certain rise I used to climb—I’d get out of the car and climb up there. Toward sunset, you could see the red tips of these mountains way off to the south, like islands over an ocean. That was Mexico. Man, I really wanted one of those plots up there! But they were too expensive, and then… well, it’s just as well, I guess. Can you see me surrounded by rich neighbors? It’s all modern-looking palaces now, on that rise—you know, with the wrought-iron gates and the recessed doorways with the wrought-iron porch lights hanging over them. You can’t even find a place to park to see the mountains, down in Mexico.
"Anyway, I cruise out through the new construction, as far out as the bulldozed roads will take me. Way out into the sagebrush. It really is flat… and quiet, so quiet. I ground down the window and turned off the engine. All you could hear was one of those caracala birds. The sand kind of soaks all the sounds up, like a big sponge. That’s why I didn’t immediately turn around when I heard a dull thud behind me. I mean, it took a minute for me to realize that I had even heard anything, it was such a gentle thud. But when I finally turn around, I see the tail end of this band of Hispanic-looking individuals in jeans and tee-shirts scrambling out of the half-built house behind me. My guess is that they had crossed up from Mexico, and were being stashed there for the night. When they saw the squad car, they must have thought I’d come for them, like I was the Border Patrol. But I didn’t really add it all up on the spot, not right away. I thought one of the crews might have been working late. It was the running that made me turn the engine back on and cruise over that way."
"You didn’t call it in? After what the Sarge said?"
"I tell you, Logan, I wasn’t thinking real clear by that time. Everything I’ve just told you about had happened in a space of just a few hours, starting with the blonde chick in the convertible. I guess I’m lucky I didn’t get my head blown off. But I was just curious. For all I knew, it could just have been some kids, some teenage vandals. So I eased the car around the corner toward a house that didn’t have doors or windows up yet. It was pretty obvious that they must have holed up in there. Then I noticed that there was a pick-up in front of the house, and as I got closer, I saw a male of average height in a hard hat—probably Hispanic, thick black mustache, dark skin—what they call a moreno. He was looking at me something fierce the whole time, but he never made a move or said a word. Then I see this other guy crawl out of the passenger side of the truck. He was taller and skinnier, with no hard hat, but he had a carpenter’s vest on and didn’t look at all shabby like the fugitives I’d followed over. What I really paid attention to, though, was something black in his hands—something round and smooth, like a tool. I didn’t exactly reach for my weapon. I don’t think I could have mistaken it for a gun, even for an instant. But he was holding it in front of him for me to see, almost as if it was a gun and I was supposed to notice it and back off. He kind of cradled it, like he had it in the ‘ready’ position. And I guess he did. It was a camera—another damn camera. Another damn video-cam. He looked at me like the other one, only more intense, more intelligent. He looked me through and through. His mouth was slightly open. I could see his front teeth shine, almost like he was smiling. Only he wasn’t smiling. It was more like… like a… desafío."
"You’ll have to help me out there."
"You know. A… a defiance. Like en garde. Like, ‘Come on and get us now, Señor Policía!’ Like a dare. There was the beginning of a kind of snarl in his lip."
"So what did you do?"
"Without ever taking my eye off him a single instant, I got on the horn and called it in. Trespassers, possible illegals. I never took my eye off him. And he never took his off me. It was like some kind of stand-off, me with all the hardware and manpower of the law behind me, him with his camera. I mean, it was like he considered that to be some kind of even stand-off—like he figured that I would understand it as even. ‘You with your guns and back-up, me with my camera.’ And the oddest thing is… I’ve been up here ever since Lopinski and Depaulo relieved me, wondering if he was right. I mean, just look at this afternoon! And we do it, too. Down in the gym, there are security cameras all over the place. One when you walk in, one in the locker room, one in the weight room… everywhere. But not up here."
"Is that why you come here? Do you come out here a lot?"
"Lately I have. I like the fresh air, the cool night fresh air. Funny how you only need to get up three stories off the pavement to find a breeze, when you’ve been suffocating down there all day long. You can see… pretty much the whole city."
"Look, there’s the ball park. The Double A’s having their All Star Game tonight. And the mall, it’s still open for half an hour. And way out there somewhere is Whispering Hills. Too dark to see those mountains in Mexico, but that big white streak is the salt flat right along the border. Sometimes you see a shooting star. I used to know the names of some stars, but I can’t remember any now. When I was in college, I took an astronomy class. I knew… I must have known three dozen names of stars. Now I can’t remember a single one."
"But… but look, Kent, why do you have to sit on the ledge like that? You need to come off of that ledge."
"It just seems more… more real this way. Or less real, I don’t know which. It seems like you could almost fly. Not pinned down by things… and no cameras. Nobody’d ever think to point a camera out here, out into thin air. Who’d you be looking out for… Spider Man?"
"You know what I’ve been thinking about, too? I mean, I said I’ve been thinking about that trabajador with his camera, but I really haven’t. Or maybe so, but not in quite that way—not about him, about that place where we were. I’ve been thinking about that blonde chick. She’s the only person I stopped all day who didn’t put me on film. Who knows, maybe she wanted on film. I mean, maybe she was doing a stunt to get on camera. ‘Woman caught speeding down highway with a…’. Now that would be some publicity stunt! Think of all the interviews! What a way to jump-start a film career! We’re not that far from Hollywood, and… well, news travels fast. Or maybe she wants out of some contract. Or maybe she wants to sell some book. I’ll bet somebody got her on camera! I’ve been trying to remember if the cars that pulled over into the Pancake House parking lot with us—there were a couple, you know, though I couldn’t spare them much attention—I’ve been trying to remember if they might have had cameras on board. And then I wonder, ‘Yeah, and they were shooting you, too. Another reel for the term project in Movie Making 101. Another sleazeball trying to get something to sell to the tabloids, or America’s Funniest Videos, or something. Or maybe it was Martinez trying to nail me making a deal with a perp so he could ruin my career—sex for a free pass. He never forgave me for not helping him destroy evidence, you know, like it was all my fault he was in the john on that. Maybe… who knows? But I really want to know, Logan. I find that I really want to know. I want to know if that blonde was really out-of-her-gourd crazy or if the whole thing was staged. I made a call in the locker room before I came up here. She’s already made bond. Her car’s still impounded, but somebody picked her up. I have her address, right here in my pocket. I thought about going over there and asking her how real all that was."
"Bad idea, Kent."
"Yeah, I know."
"Get off of the ledge now."
"Yeah, I’m coming. It’s nice, though, to know that cameras can’t film you in the dark."
"Um… actually, you know those infrared jobs they use in Vice? Well, the technology has made it to the gentlemen of the press, too."
"You mean… shit, who’s that down there?"
"Come on now, big guy. I’ve got your elbow. That’s it. You go on now with Brinkman and Foiles. They’ll get you down the elevator and out the back way."
"You mean I’m… hey, this is crazy! I’m not going anywhere with anyone! The only place I’m going is home!"
"You’re going home, dammit, Kent. You’re just going by the precinct first. Give me your keys and I’ll bring your car along."
"God damn it, if you think I’m going to be led away like a—"
"Look, Kent, this is the way it happens. You go down to the precinct, I go down there, you tell your story, I tell what a nice easy chat we had—how you were about to go out on a date—then the brain trust figures up something to feed the press. And then it all goes away. But the more of a fuss you kick up, the less of a chance of it going away. Right now it’s just a little embarrassment. I mean, what’d you expect, man? Sitting on a ledge like that—even in the dark…"
"Oh, my God…"
"Now don’t blow it up out of proportion. I’m telling you now, it’s all going to go away. We’ll be back on the street together, you and me, in just a few days. What? No, just leave his gym bag, I’ll get it. Did you have a gym bag, Kent? The red one? I’ll bring it. Go on, now. Hey, man, you did some good work today!"
"Officer… officer… Times-Telegraph. Was that the man? Was that the man on the roof that those officers took into the elevator? Was he cuffed? Did he put up a struggle? Is it true he was a cop?"
"Now how in the hell did you two boy scouts get up here?"
"Power of the free press, Logan."
"Yeah? Well, power this."
Officer Logan suddenly launched himself into a lightning descent of the staircase adjacent to the elevator shaft. Encumbered with a camera, notebooks, and gear for illuminating the scene, the two reporters were left stumbling in his wake.
"Aw, come on, Logan! Hey, wait! Listen! To hell with the story, listen. Ted and me are working—are you listening, Logan? We’re working on a new series! Freelance! For Court TV! I’ve got an interview… next week… come on, slow down… are you listening? Advisor… you… advisor and… serious camera time, Logan! Your voice… you got the voice, man! You’d be great! Are you listening? Just give me a call… Logan!"
As he emerged upon the final landing and straightened his creaking leather belt, Officer Logan heard with a smile the decisive clatter farther up the stairwell of delicate paraphernalia for preserving history. The sound which turned his head was not this, but rather the nearer—right at his shoulder, if infinitely less clamorous—flutter of three-inch calling cards. A whole set had apparently been flung in a desperate gesture down the slender chasm between the rails. Officer Logan peered at the one which had alighted precariously on the bottom rail, just at his elbow; and, in the same motion as turned his muscular torso once more toward the exit, he passed a palm secretly over the card and deposited it in his shirt pocket.