We’ve just finished reading Berlioz's chronicling of his one-and-a-half years spent living in Italy as a 28-year-old Prix de Rome first prize winner, a section of the Memoirs that concludes with a savage assessment of the musical proclivities and sensibilities of the Italians; an assessment with which we found ourself nodding in agreement at almost every sentence. That savage assessment concludes with the following summation:
What are undoubtedly more common in Italy than anywhere else are good voices, voices that are not only full and incisive but agile and flexible as well. But the prevalence of voices lending themselves naturally to vocalization and the public's instinctive love of glitter and display react on each other. Hence the mania for fioriture which debases the finest melodies; hence those convenient vocal formulas which make all Italian phrases sound alike; hence that eternal device of the final cadence, which leaves the singer free to embroider at will but maddens many listeners by its perfunctoriness and dreadful inevitability; hence the constant tendency to break into buffo style which lurks even in the tenderest scenes of pathos; hence, in short, all those abuses which have made of melody, harmony, tempo, rhythm, orchestration, modulation, plot, staging, poetry, the poet, and the composer the abject slaves and playthings of the singer.My oh my. How familiar does all that sound. Who would have imagined that all this time we've been echoing — albeit unwittingly and totally ignorant of the precedent — the assessment of a Frenchman on something other than matters culinary.
On arriving in Paris...with my fellow-student Alphonse Robert, I gave myself up wholly to studying for the [medical] career which had been thrust upon me, and loyally kept the promise I had given my father on leaving. It was soon put to a severe test when Robert, having announced one morning that he had bought a "subject" (a corpse), took me for the first time to the dissecting-room at the Hospice de la Pitié. At the sight of that terrible charnel-house — the dissected limbs, the grinning faces and gaping skulls, the bloody quagmire underfoot and the atrocious smell it gave off, the swarms of sparrows wrangling over scraps of lung, the rats in their corner gnawing the bleeding vertebrae — such a feeling of revulsion possessed me that I leapt through the window of the dissecting-room and fled for home as though Death and all his hideous train were at my heels. The shock of that first impression lasted for twenty-four hours. I did not want to hear another word about anatomy, dissection or medicine, and I meditated a hundred mad schemes of escape from the future that hung over me. Robert lavished his eloquence in a vain attempt to argue away my disgust and demonstrate the absurdity of my plans. In the end he got me to agree to make another effort. For the second time I accompanied him to the hospital and we entered the house of the dead. How strange! The objects which before had filled me with extreme horror had absolutely no effect upon me now. I felt nothing but a cold distaste; I was already as hardened to the scene as any seasoned medical student. The crisis was passed. I found I actually enjoyed groping about in a poor fellow's chest and feeding the winged inhabitants of that delightful place their ration of lung. "Hallo!", Robert cried, laughing. "You're getting civilized. 'Thou giv'st the little birds their daily bread.'" "'And o'er all nature's realm my bounty spread,'" I retorted, tossing a shoulder-blade to a large rat staring at me with famished eyes. So I went on with my anatomy course, feeling no enthusiasm, but stoically resigned. [...] I was on my way to becoming just another student, destined to add one more obscure name to the lamentable catalogue of bad doctors, when one evening I went to the Opéra. They were giving The Danaïds, by Salieri. The pomp and brilliance of the spectacle, the massive sonority of orchestra and chorus, the inspired pathos of Mme Branchu, her extraordinary voice, the rugged grandeur of Dérivis, Hypermnestra's aria, in which I discerned, imitated by Salieri, all the characteristics of Gluck's style as I had conceived it from the pieces from his Orphée in my father's library, and finally the tremendous bacchanal and the sad, voluptuous ballet music that Spontini added to his old compatriot's score, disturbed and exalted me to an extent that I will not attempt to describe. It was though a young man possessing all the instincts of a sailor, but knowing only the boats on the lakes of his native mountains, were suddenly to find himself on board a three-decker ship on the open sea. I hardly slept that night, and the anatomy lesson next morning suffered accordingly. [...] The following week I went to the Opéra again. This time I saw Méhul's Stratonice, and Nina, the ballet devised and composed by Persuis. [...] Notwithstanding all these distractions and the hours I spent every evening brooding over the melancholy discrepancy between my studies and my inclinations, I persisted in this double life for some time longer, without much benefit to my medical career and without being able to extend my meager knowledge of music. I had given my word and I was holding to it. But when I learnt that the library of the Conservatoire with its wealth of scores was open to the public, the desire to go there and study the works of Gluck, for which I already had an instinctive passion but which were not then being performed at the Opéra, was too strong for me. Once admitted to that sanctuary, I never left it. It was the death-blow to my medical career. The dissecting-room was abandoned for good. —Hector Berlioz, from, The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, edited and translated by David Cairns
In marketing the Kindle, Amazon has taken the position they're now in the eBook reader business; ergo, the Kindle's retail price of $259 per unit. But that's exactly the wrong position for Amazon to have taken, and a cardinal error in their marketing of the Kindle. Amazon should all but give the thing away for nothing because, uniquely for Amazon, they're really not in the eBook reader business, but in the eBook business as that's where the money is, and you can't sell a Kindle eBook to someone who has no Kindle eBook reader. If Amazon sold the Kindle for, say, $99 (or not much more than that) even if it cost double that to manufacture, they'd be way ahead of the game as at $99 per unit every book reader in the world could afford, and most would buy, a Kindle, and then the eBook revolution would, finally, after a number of false starts, be off and running, and the floodgates would be opened for Amazon to rack up millions upon millions of dollars in sales of Kindle eBooks — year, after year, after year, ad infinitum (well, for a really long time, at any rate).Well, it appears that Mr. Bezos may actually have been listening as witness this newest state-of-the-art release of the Kindle priced at a mere $139. We're sold. Our pre-order is in.
Drama requires not only the presentation of action, but an insight into its quality by means of response to action. Only the presentation of such quality justifies the dramatic endeavor; and in the best dramas, the response seems imaginative, true, illuminating, and fully attached to the action. Monteverdi's Orfeo centers on a vision which is projected powerfully for four acts; then no element of the action suggested itself — or, let us say, no element that was possible under the theatrical conventions of the day — to consummate and complete the drama. The same is true of Gluck's Orfeo. These are not perfect works, but for all their imperfections they are more meaningful than the technical successes of others. Another, subtler kind of dramatic failure results when the guiding idea proves intractable to the necessities of dramatic form.... [N]evertheless, a few extraordinary dramas have overcome limitations of this sort. Tristan und Isolde, I have suggested, is such a one. [Debussy's] Pelléas et Mélisande and [Berg's] Wozzeck, on the other hand, seem to me pieces which struggle on the whole unsuccessfully with essentially undramatic material — though the struggle creates a strong semblance of drama, and the genuineness of the composer's response is never in doubt. They are works of power and sensitivity, works of genius, even if we are bound to mind the misemployment of the dramatic form. Quite different is a piece in which the response, the quality of the action, is insensitive or simply sham all the way. The more shrewdly consistent the action and the style, the more exasperating such a piece becomes. In the deepest sense, the operas of [Richard] Strauss and Puccini are undramatic, for their imaginative realm is a realm of emotional cant. They are unable to match any action, however promising, with anything but the empty form of drama. And the form is always there. Alarmingly precise, alarmingly false.Kerman's Opera as Drama is a book that should be required reading for all who've more than a passing interest in opera as an artform. It will repay hundreds of times over one's time spent reading it closely.
Given the absolute ease today of self-publishing a POD book the physical product of which is absolutely indistinguishable from the physical product put out by any major house, and given the amount of non-writing work commercial publishers today expect an author to perform in the peddling of a published book, what irreplaceable service does a commercial publisher provide an ordinary (i.e., non-celebrity) author today for its 85%-90% cut of the book's sales price beyond the stroking of the author's ego and vanity by the prestige of being published by a commercial house? I've of course asked myself the same question, and no matter how I twist it, the answer I come up with is none. Nada. Zero. Zip. Bupkiss. I guarantee you that anything you come back at me with, I'll be able to come up with an alternate way to accomplish the same end, and just as effectively, even when economies of scale are taken into consideration. Your thoughts, please, as I suspect I must be missing something.That eMail never made it onto that agent's blog, nor was it even so much as acknowledged. Surprise! — or, rather, no surprise at all. It's time the commercial book publishing industry stopped asking itself for whom the bell tolls. Manifestly, my dear dinosaur, it tolls for thee.
There is an enormous literature on Wagner, much of it interesting, some of it utter garbage. Michael Tanner, the opera critic of The Spectator and a man whose knowledge and understanding of the Master and his works are probably unsurpassed this side of Bayreuth, has just added to the corpus. His Faber Pocket Guide to Wagner [not yet available on this side of the pond] wears his immense erudition lightly, and as such is probably the best introduction ever written to this most complex of composers. Dr Tanner tells the story of Wagner's life; he summarises the plots of the operas and comments on them; he gives an immensely valuable discography (valuable because his own knowledge of the recordings verges on the omniscient, and his judgment is quite exemplary); and he deals, head on, with the question not just of Wagner's anti-Semitism, but of his "links" with the Nazis. Indeed, it is that chapter that constitutes one of the finest and most important pieces of writing on the composer that I have ever read: not least because it should serve to close down an utterly pointless and futile debate about Wagner that has poisoned the study and appreciation of his works for decades. When I described as "garbage" some of the stuff written about Wagner in recent years, it was some of this line of thought that I had in mind. Dr Tanner is perhaps nearer the mark when he calls it "deranged". There is no doubt that Wagner was anti-Semitic, and a particularly revolting aspect of his character it was too. [...] However, it is a considerable step from [this fact] to the assertions made by some writers that every unsavoury character in the operas is clearly Jewish, that there are "messages" about the general shockingness of Jews that Wagner was seeking to transmit through his operas (which he was so bad at doing, as Dr Tanner points out, that it took until the 1990s for certain geniuses to pick them up)....Just so. In July 2004, in response to some particularly "deranged" comments on this matter from one Daniel Leeson — a former IBM executive, professional classical musician, one of the world's acknowledged scholarly authorities on all things Mozartian, and a man who should have known better — we wrote in part (the full article, "A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste", can be read here):
It's...clear that those [slanderous, racist anti-Semitic] "subtleties" of which Leeson became aware [in Die Meistersinger] would never have been perceived by him as racist anti-Semitic coding had he not worked backwards from his knowledge of the popular association of Wagner's name with Hitler and the Nazis, his knowledge of Wagner's notorious and justified reputation as a rabid anti-Semite ... and his knowledge of Wagner's virulent anti-Semitic prose writings, an anti-Semitism most repulsively prominent in Wagner's twice-published article, Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music). If some other composer had written Die Meistersinger using the very same text the entire imbecile anti-Semitic coding business would never have been so much as even imagined — not by Leeson, not by even the fevered brain of the most devout PC academic. Can one find anti-Semitic overtones and references in the text and characterizations in Die Meistersinger, or in any other of Wagner's operas, for that matter? If one is so disposed, one most assuredly can. One can find pretty much anything one is looking for in Wagner's stage works, an ineluctable consequence of their at-bottom archetypal nature. Archetypes are essentially empty matrices that can be filled-in and fleshed-out in their particulars in multiple ways and at multiple levels by the filler-in-ers and flesher-out-ers, and so if one is determined to find anti-Semitic content in the filling-in and fleshing-out, one can be absolutely assured of not being disappointed. That archetypal quality is not a flaw in Wagner's stage works but their very genius, and a principal source of their timelessness, universality, and astonishing resonant power. [...] Soberly considered, Leeson's and certain others' "analysis" of the alleged racist anti-Semitic coding in Die Meistersinger as well as other of Wagner's stage works adds up to nothing more than a manifest and classic case of the obscenity being in the mind of the beholder not the beheld which is itself guilty only of being too deep and too rich for its own good. The proof of that is that it required the assiduous "researches" of a small band of Wagner-hating zealots to "discover" the nefarious and pernicious coding in Die Meistersinger, and this not until after almost 150 years of the opera's constant public exposure, prior to which time the supposed evil coding was not even so much as suspected.It's long past time that this ugly, tendentious, and utterly blockheaded notion died an ignoble death. Our appreciation and kudos go to Mr. Heffer and, on Mr. Heffer's word, to Dr. Tanner for helping it along to it's richly deserved end.
They're [i.e., the "minimalist" works of Reich and Riley are] tedious, mind-numbing bores — clear reactionary responses to the complicated (posing as complex) musical gibberish produced by Modernist-era, avant-garde charlatans such as Cage, Babbitt, and Stockhausen and their ilk, and, pace Alex Ross and other well-informed appreciators of the 20th-century's musical avant-garde, taking them seriously as music is something that ought not to be encouraged,it occurred to us that perhaps it was high time we read rather than virtually skip over completely, as we did the first time round, the "Beethoven Was Wrong: Bop, Rock, and the Minimalists" chapter of Alex Ross's, The Rest Is Noise, to see what he had to say there. And so we finally did, and were struck afresh by Ross's almost preternatural skill in non-judgmentally (as in, no ax to grind) describing music and its context in words in such a way that one feels it an almost imperative to actually hear that which he's describing. It's not for nothing that Ross and The Rest Is Noise received the almost universal accolades of the critical press, and were the recipients of several prestigious awards (that the Pulitzer was not among them will forever be a blot against its awards committee). Did what Ross have to say in this chapter (or anywhere else in the book, for that matter) change our mind about the "music" of Reich and Riley (and the non-opera music of Glass)? It did not. But that's quite beside the point, isn't it, the point being that had we not already done so we would have felt all but compelled to hear this "music" never mind how tedious and mind-numbing the reality of it proved to be for us. Would that more writers on music possessed and displayed in their writings Ross's extraordinary skill, for if they did it seems to us that much so-called New Music that truly deserves multiple hearings would not languish for want of it.
Some people will perhaps wonder why I have undertaken to write about music, there being so many works by outstanding men who have treated the subject most thoroughly and learnedly; and more especially why I should be doing so just at this time when music has become almost arbitrary and composers refuse to be bound by any rules and principles, detesting the very name of school and law like death itself. To such I want to make my purpose clear. There have certainly been many authors famous for their teaching and competence who have left an abundance of works on the theory of music, but on the practice of writing music they have said very little, and this little is not easily understood. Generally, they have been content to give a few examples, and never have they felt the need of inventing a simple method by which the novice can progress gradually, ascending step by step, to attain mastery in this art. I shall not be deterred by the most ardent haters of school, nor by the corruptness of the times. Medicine is given to the sick, and not those who are in good health. However, my efforts do not tend — nor do I credit myself with the strength — to stem the course of a torrent rushing precipitously beyond its bounds. I do not believe that I can call back composers from the unrestrained insanity of their writing to normal standards. Let each follow his own counsel. My object is to help young persons who want to learn.Hardly surprising these sentiments in our present era of what might be described plausibly as one of near musical anarchy. Except that these sentiments were not written in our present era, but in the 1720's by one Johann Joseph Fux in the Forward to his enduring 1725 classic, Gradus ad Parnassum, reprinted in an edited English translation of the work from the Latin by Alfred Mann titled, The Study of Counterpoint: from Johann Joseph Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum. We're at present engaged in our first perusal of this classic text which informed the likes of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Hindemith as, curiously, it was not among the texts used in theory classes where we attended conservatory. Written in the form of a dialogue between the master, "Aloysius" (Fux's stand-in for his beloved Palestrina), and his student, "Josephus", the instruction is charming, lucid, hugely illuminating, and — believe it or not — easy to grasp. Based on what we've so far read, we recommend this book to the attention of every serious lover of classical music who can read music but is unfamiliar with this work. It promises to repay many times over the time spent in reading and study.
[M]ythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern men of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible form of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations. There is a real danger, therefore, in the incongruity of focus that has brought the latest findings of technological research into the foreground of modern life [i.e., c. 1959], joining the world in a single community, while leaving the anthropological and psychological discoveries from which a commensurable moral system might have been developed in the learned publications where they first appeared. For surely it is folly to preach to children who will be riding rockets to the moon a morality and cosmology based on concepts of the Good Society and of man's place in nature that were coined before the harnessing of the horse! And the world is now far too small, and men's stake in sanity too great, for any more of those old games of Chosen Folk (whether of Jehovah, Allah, Wotan, Manu, or the Devil) by which tribesmen were sustained against their enemies in the days when the serpent still could talk.And this, from the Introduction to Part One of the book proper:
The artist's eye, as Thomas Mann has said, has a mythical slant upon life: therefore, the mythological realm — the world of the gods and demons, the carnival of their masks and curious game of "as if" in which the festival of the lived myth abrogates all the laws of time, letting the dead swim back to life, and the "once upon a time" become the very present — we must approach and first regard with the artist's eye. For, indeed, in the primitive world, where most of the clues to the origin of mythology must be sought, the gods and demons are not conceived in the way of hard and fast positive realities. [...] [In a living mythology] there [is] a shift of view from the logic of the normal secular sphere, where things are understood to be distinct from one another, to a theatrical or play sphere, where they are accepted for what they are experienced as being and the logic is of "make believe" — "as if." We all know the convention, surely! It is a primary, spontaneous device of childhood, a magical device, by which the world can be transformed from banality to magic in a trice. And its inevitability in childhood is one of those universal characteristics of man that unite us in one family. [...] [A] highly played game of "as if" frees our mind and spirit, on the one hand, from the presumption of theology, which pretends to know the laws of God, and, on the other, from the bondage of reason, whose laws do not apply beyond the horizon of human experience. [...] [In a highly played game of "as if",] the opaque weight of the world — both of life on earth and of death, heaven, and hell — is dissolved, and the spirit freed, not from anything, for there was nothing from which to be freed except a myth too solidly believed, but for something, something fresh and new, a spontaneous act. [...] [I]n the play of children, where, undaunted by the banal actualities of life's meager possibilities, the spontaneous impulse of the spirit to identify itself with something other than itself for the sheer delight of play, transubstantiates the world — in which, actually, after all, things are not quite as real or permanent, terrible, important, or logical as they seem.If any era of Homo sapiens needed to learn and understand what Campbell has to teach us in the four volumes that constitute The Masks of God, and in this first volume in particular, it's our present postmodern era that needs it most, and most urgently. The four volumes are still in print, but to our utter astonishment, not as a set in paperback, each volume having to be purchased individually. All four volumes are available for immediate shipment from Barnes and Nobel (but, not, amazingly enough, from Amazon which doesn't have available except as a used book from independent sellers Volume 4, Creative Mythology). The four volumes are: Primitive Mythology (Vol. 1), Oriental Mythology (Vol. 2), Occidental Mythology (Vol. 3), and Creative Mythology (Vol. 4). We cannot recommend to your attention too highly these four volumes that together constitute The Masks of God. As far as we're concerned, they're required reading for everyone whose IQ is larger than his belt size.
We've just finished reading for the second time the second edition (1947) of musicologist and music historian Edward J. Dent's classic (and brilliant) 1913 study of the Mozart operas, Mozart's Operas: A Critical Study, and found it just as rewarding a read as we did first time around. This time, however, we found ourself smiling at a graf on the penultimate page of the book that previously somehow evaded our notice. Writes Dr. Dent talking about current (1913) German stagings of Die Zauberflöte:
For the interpretation of Die Zauberflöte, we ought naturally to pay considerable respect to the traditions of the German stage; but we have the authority of many German critics for believing the older "traditions" to be extremely corrupt, and we have the evidence of our own senses ... for the vanity and pedantry of modern German producers and conductors whose one aim seems to be to produce the opera in a way that no one has ever seen before, regardless both of tradition and of the original libretto and score.
And here we've always imagined the willful, self-indulgent, self-involved distortions of the intent of the original creator of an opera as made manifest in that opera's score (music and text), which distortions are the hallmark of Eurotrash Regieoper everywhere, to be a pernicious excrescence endemic to our postmodern age alone.
We've just finished reading theoretical physicist Brian Greene's The Fabric Of The Cosmos, an explanatory text on the nature of space and time written for a lay public that covers some of the most esoteric and recondite physics imaginable, and came away from the book feeling as though we understood everything — perfectly. For a lay public, Greene is to theoretical physics what Leonard Bernstein was to music. He's, quite simply, a prodigy; a virtuoso explicator.
We then went to our next physics book written for a lay public: The Black Hole War by theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind which documents his "Battle With Stephen Hawking To Make The World Safe For Quantum Mechanics", which is the book's subtitle. The first few chapters of this book cover much the same introductory material covered by the introductory chapters of Greene's book; introductory material necessary to understand what follows. And like Greene, Susskind uses ordinary life examples and metaphors in place of mathematical formulae in order to make the material comprehensible to a lay public. We were tempted to simply skip these introductory chapters in Susskind's book and move on to the book's main argument as, thanks to Greene, we had a perfect grasp of this material, but in the end decided not to, and proceeded to read them anyway.
Bad decision. By the time we finished reading Susskind's introductory chapters, we were thoroughly confused. What Greene made crystal clear, Susskind muddied beyond recognition — or understanding.
Well, OK, we exaggerate, but you get the idea. We'll still finish the Susskind book because we want to read its main argument, but we'll simply forget his introductory chapters, and depend on what we learned from Greene to give us the basic background we need in order to understand that argument.
Dr. Greene, we love you to pieces, and hope you live forever — or at least long enough to write more books for inquisitive mathematics- and physics-challenged dummies such as ourself. We don't know what we'd do without you.
Any of you out there fans of horses and horse racing? We're not. We know nothing, and couldn't care one whit, about either. That notwithstanding, here we find ourself, riveted by a copiously and technically detailed, non-fiction, narrative documentary account of a freakishly-built race horse, the three people responsible for seeing its racing potential and developing it, and of the curious inside world of Thoroughbred racing during the years of the Great Depression, and we simply can't manage to put the book down. Every time we attempt it, we find ourself thinking, "Well, just one more page, and then we'll put the book down for the nonce."
And so it's been going for some two days now.
The book? Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Thoroughbred racing sportswriter Laura Hillenbrand.
A sample (this, the introduction to Seabiscuit's trainer, Tom Smith):
As a general rule, Smith didn't talk. He had a habit of walking away when anyone asked him questions, and he avoided social gatherings because people expected him to speak.
He was fifty-six but he looked much older. His jaw had a recalcitrant jut to it that implied a run-in with something — an errant hoof or an ill-placed fence post — but maybe it was the only shape in which it could have been drawn. He had a colorless translucence about him that made him seem as if he were in the earliest stages of progressive invisibility. On the rare occasions when he took off his gray felt fedora, you had to look hard at his threadbare head to tell where his gray hair ended and his gray skin began. When photographed hatless, he had an unsettling tendency to blend with the sky, so that his eyes hung disembodied in space.
In Tom Smith's younger days, the Indians would watch him picking his way over the open plains, skirting the mustang herds. He was always alone, even back then, in the waning days of the nineteenth century. He talked to virtually no one but his horses, and then only in their vernacular of small gestures and soft sounds. The Indians called him "Lone Plainsman". White men called him "Silent Tom". People merely brushed up against him. Only the horses seemed to know him well. [...] His history had the ethereal quality of hoofprints in windblown snow.
An extraordinary and extraordinarily rewarding read which, if you haven't already made this meticulously researched book's acquaintance, we heartily recommend to your attention (if you saw the 2003 Gary Ross Hollywood movie based on Hillenbrand's 2001 book, you've experienced but a pale taste of the original).
Take a look at this remarkably expressive...What?
Is it a painting or a photo? We would have sworn it was a painting, perhaps by Edward Hopper, but we're informed that it's indeed a photo — a photo taken using a non-state-of-the-art, 1.3 megapixel Nokia camera phone by actor and published photographer Joel Grey, and included in his recent book, 1.3 – Images from My Phone.
We're suitably impressed.
(Our thanks to WNYC Culturist blogger Benjamen Walker for the image and the link.)
We recently began reading Philip Gossett's excellent Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera and have now read through some one-hundred extremely detailed and technical pages and were astonished to learn the extent to which early-to-mid-19th-century Italian opera in Italy was a major pop-culture industry, and operated exactly like any major pop-culture industry operates even today. And the more we read, the more vividly does that 19th-century Italian industry seem the Italian analog of America's Tin Pan Alley and Broadway.
Quite a jolt for someone mostly familiar with the German and Wagnerian opera traditions, and goes a long way toward explaining why Italian opera is what it mostly is. (We leave it as an exercise for the reader to unpack that last.)
From the start of the last century, modernist painters, writers, composers, and art theorists consoled themselves that audience resistance was a mark of worthwhile creative endeavor. Modernists looked back at the nineteenth century and saw that bourgeois listeners had found Beethoven ugly and dissonant, Manet and Baudelaire obscene, Wagner nonsensical, and Flaubert offensive but had come in time to appreciate their genius. In fact, all great art of the avant-garde is rejected until a larger public comes to understand it. The story of the premiere of the Rite of Spring is therefore modernism's most enduring morality tale: what once was so outrageous, so unintelligible, that it could cause a riot, came eventually, through knowledge and familiarity, to be accepted as a masterpiece. Modernism thus extrapolated from such incidents a general rule: our ability to adapt to new kinds of music or art has no limit whatsoever.
[P]romoters of modernism cited Dadaist experiments to insist that beauty could reside in any perceptual object, that people could be "taught" to take aesthetic pleasure in any experience whatsoever. Once this fact was understood, so modernist hopes went, we would all become free to enjoy pure abstraction in painting, atonality in music, random word-order poetry, Finnegans Wake, and readymades, just as much as we enjoy Ingres, Mozart, or Jane Austen. "Difficult" modernist art, literature and music could become popular — culturally dominant, in fact — given enough time and familiarity. As Anton Webern longingly imagined, the postman on his rounds might someday be overheard whistling an atonal tune.
The Darwinian claim, on the other hand, is that at the heart of all such arguments lies a fatal non sequitur: while it is true that culture sanctions and habituates a wide variety of aesthetic tastes, it does not follow that culture can give us a taste for just anything at all. Nor, conversely, does it follow that if in the future no postman is ever found whistling one of Schoenberg's tone rows, the reason must be that the postman's culture deprived him of the chance to appreciate the beauties of atonality. Human nature, so evolutionary aesthetics insists, sets limits on what culture and the arts can accomplish with the human personality and its tastes. Contingent facts about human nature ensure not only that some things in the arts will be difficult to appreciate but that appreciation of them may be impossible.
Any sophisticated and worldly observer in the eighteenth century could already see the ways aesthetic taste was informed or determined by historic conditions. But an enlarged or broadened way of thinking about the arts is extended by Darwinian evolution from the realm of culture into the domain of human nature itself: the vast realm of cultural constructions is created by a mind whose underlying interests, preferences, and capacities are products of human prehistory. Art may seem largely cultural, but the art instinct that conditions it is not.
—From, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, by Denis Dutton (Bloomsbury Press, 2008)
[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 5:41 AM Eastern on 11 Feb. See below.]
Blogger and musician Osbert Parsley of This Blog Will Change the World has lodged several objections to Steven Pinker's comments as quoted in this S&F post, the first of which objections is his accusation that Pinker has misquoted Virginia Woolf. Writes Mr. Parsley:
As so often happens when non-artists try to pontificate on the arts, Pinker's comment betrays a lack of appreciation for the art works themselves. But he also gets his facts wrong: Pinker cites a comment by Virginia Woolf "In or about December 1910, human nature changed". A quick search for the source of this comment turned up the original essay. What Woolf actually says is the following:
. . . On or about December 1910, human character changed. . . The change was not sudden and definite. . . but a change there was, nevertheless.
Not only has Pinker significantly misquoted Woolf, but he's removed Woolf's careful qualifiers in order to make the statement more sensational than it actually is.
Well, Pinker does seem to have misquoted Woolf by substituting "human nature" for her "human character". But the misquote is trivial (although still unforgivable considering the source), for Woolf's use of "human character" in that quote means precisely "human nature." As Woolf explains,
I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910. [...] In life one can see the change, if I may use a homely illustration, in the character of one's cook. The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. Do you ask for more solemn instances of the power of the human race to change [emphasis ours]? Read the Agamemnon, and see whether, in process of time, your sympathies are not almost entirely with Clytemnestra. [...] All human relations have shifted — those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910.
As Pinker rightly asserted, Virginia Woolf was wrong. Human character — human nature — "did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter." Evolution determined human nature hasn't changed for millennia — or, rather, has changed only in those miniscule Darwinian increments that gradually become perceptible as change only after the passage of eons of geologic time.
Mr. Parsley has further objections, all of which seem to have resulted from a misunderstanding of both Woolf and Pinker; to wit:
As I read the [Woolf] essay, Woolf's intent was to propose a more realistic portrayal of character than that of 19th-century authors, who dwelt on the surface details of characters rather than exploring their deeper humanity — or in Pinker's terms, their human nature.
That was not Woolf's essay's intent. That was Woolf's essay's example (which Mr. Parsley gets backwards, BTW) to contrast the difference between literature's Edwardians (her designation for literature's pre-modernist authors) and Georgians (her designation for literature's early modernist authors). Woolf's essay's intent was to fire a warning shot over the heads of the Georgians, so to speak, by admonishing them to take a lesson from the Edwardians, and to,
[C]ome down off [your] plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown [Woolf's ad hoc, made up, paradigmatic character in literature]. [S]he is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.
But [Woolf cautions readers of the Georgian modernists] do not expect just at present [i.e., since the advent of modernism in December 1910 or thereabouts] a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure [Woolf advises readers of Georgian literature]. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction — we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.
As regards Mr. Parsley's misunderstanding of Pinker, Mr. Parsley seems to think Pinker's "denial of human nature" refers to the content of works of art when what Pinker is saying is that the theories underlying modernist and postmodernist art exhibit a "militant denial" of evolution determined human nature, and embrace instead the delusional (and dead wrong) blank slate theory of mind. That's the key to and overarching concept of this chapter on the arts in the book titled The Blank Slate as it is generally, concerning various instances and domains, of the entire book.
Finally, as to Mr. Parsley's assertion that Pinker,
[L]acks the familiarity with modernist art works to judge them as aesthetic objects, or to make accurate comments about the movement....
To not put too fine a point on it, we can only say: Mr. Parsley, you're as wrong as wrong can be.
Oh, and as to Mr. Parsley's sneering at Pinker's assertion that music is "auditory cheesecake," Pinker's quite right, you know — in evolutionary terms, that is, as music plays no conceivable survival or reproductive role whatsoever in the process of natural selection, and is therefore a nonadaptive byproduct of evolution and ipso facto "cheesecake," or, to use Stephen Jay Gould's more technical term, a mere "spandrel". (There's some new thinking afoot lately that might serve to make an end run around natural selection and confer adaptive status on music and other arts via natural selection's sister process, sexual selection, but that's not pertinent here.)
Update (5:41 AM Eastern on 11 Feb): Osbert Parsley responds to the above. Our response to his response is in the comments section of his post.