"Today a philosophy of music is possible only as a philosophy of new music."

"Music participates in what Clement Greenberg called the division of all art into kitsch and avant-garde, and kitsch — the dictatorship of profit over art — has long since subjugated the particular, socially reserved sphere of art. This is why reflections on the development of truth in aesthetic objectivity must be confined uniquely to the avant-garde, which is excluded from official culture. Today a philosophy of music is possible only as a philosophy of new music. What sustains is only what denounces official culture; the latter alone serves the promotion of that barbarism over which it waxes indignant. The cultured listeners almost seem to be the worst: those who promptly respond to Schoenberg's music with "I don't understand that" — a statement whose modesty rationalizes rage as connoisseurship." (Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, introduction)

How philistinism wrecked The New Republic

From 2015: "The broader world of high criticism is badly endangered, but not because of creeping academic mandarinism. The threat has to do only superficially with the latest digital wizardry and the apparent shortening of postmodern attention spans. The taproot of the problem is much older—a fixation on profits, now measured in hits and clicks, which betrays no trace of respect for what one former TNR hand, Steve Wasserman, has called the culture’s 'zone of seriousness.'"

If Hawthorne had been a young Englishman

Henry James in 1879 — "I have said that Hawthorne was an observer of small things, and indeed he appears to have thought nothing too trivial to be suggestive. His Note-Books give us the measure of his perception of common and casual things, and of his habit of converting them into memoranda. These Note-Books, by the way--this seems as good a place as any other to say it--are a very singular series of volumes; I doubt whether there is anything exactly corresponding to them in the whole body of literature. They were published--in six volumes, issued at intervals--some years after Hawthorne's death, and no person attempting to write an account of the romancer could afford to regret that they should have been given to the world. There is a point of view from which this may be regretted; but the attitude of the biographer is to desire as many documents as possible. I am thankful, then, as a biographer, for the Note-Books, but I am obliged to confess that, though I have just re-read them carefully, I am still at a loss to perceive how they came to be written--what was Hawthorne's purpose in carrying on for so many years this minute and often trivial chronicle. For a person desiring information about him at any cost, it is valuable; it sheds a vivid light upon his character, his habits, the nature of his mind. But we find ourselves wondering what was its value to Hawthorne himself. It is in a very partial degree a register of impressions, and in a still smaller sense a record of emotions. Outward objects play much the larger part in it; opinions, convictions, ideas pure and simple, are almost absent. He rarely takes his Note-Book into his confidence or commits to its pages any reflections that might be adapted for publicity; the simplest way to describe the tone of these extremely objective journals is to say that they read like a series of very pleasant, though rather dullish and decidedly formal, letters, addressed to himself by a man who, having suspicions that they might be opened in the post, should have determined to insert nothing compromising. They contain much that is too futile for things intended for publicity; whereas, on the other hand, as a receptacle of private impressions and opinions, they are curiously cold and empty. They widen, as I have said, our glimpse of Hawthorne's mind (I do not say that they elevate our estimate of it), but they do so by what they fail to contain, as much as by what we find in them. Our business for the moment, however, is not with the light that they throw upon his intellect, but with the information they offer about his habits and his social circumstances . . .

"We are struck with the large number of elements that were absent from them, and the coldness, the thinness, the blankness, to repeat my epithet, present themselves so vividly that our foremost feeling is that of compassion for a romancer looking for subjects in such a field. It takes so many things, as Hawthorne must have felt later in life, when he made the acquaintance of the denser, richer, warmer European spectacle--it takes such an accumulation of history and custom, such a complexity of manners and types, to form a fund of suggestion for a novelist. If Hawthorne had been a young Englishman, or a young Frenchman of the same degree of genius, the same cast of mind, the same habits, his consciousness of the world around him would have been a very different affair; however obscure, however reserved, his own personal life, his sense of the life of his fellow-mortals would have been almost infinitely more various. The negative side of the spectacle on which Hawthorne looked out, in his contemplative saunterings and reveries, might, indeed, with a little ingenuity, be made almost ludicrous; one might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools--no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class--no Epsom nor Ascot! Some such list as that might be drawn up of the absent things in American life--especially in the American life of forty years ago, the effect of which, upon an English or a French imagination, would probably as a general thing be appalling. The natural remark, in the almost lurid light of such an indictment, would be that if these things are left out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains--that is his secret, his joke, as one may say. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him the consolation of his national gift, that "American humour" of which of late years we have heard so much."

"Do not look beyond the notes, they themselves are the doctrine."

Charles Rosen in The Frontiers of Meaning: "Music has its existence on the borderline between meaning and nonsense. That is why most attempts to attribute a specific meaning to a piece of music seem to be beside the point—even when the attribution is authoritative, even when it is made by the composer himself ... Nevertheless, music will not acknowledge a context greater than itself — social, cultural, or biographical — to which it is conveniently subservient. To paraphrase Goethe's grandiose warning to the scientist: do not look behind the notes, they themselves are the doctrine."

T.S. Eliot on Dante, contra Valery

From The Sacred Wood — ...if it be maintained that the older poetry has a “philosophic” element and a “poetic” element which can be isolated, we have two tasks to perform. We must show first in a particular case—our case is Dante—that the philosophy is essential to the structure and that the structure is essential to the poetic beauty of the parts; and we must show that the philosophy is employed in a different form from that which it takes in admittedly unsuccessful philosophical poems.

"...as W.H. Auden had it, the old masters were never wrong..."

Joseph Epstein in the Weekly Standard — "Between time spent watching six segments of Seinfeld and listening to the late Beethoven quartets there really can’t be any argument about which is the right choice. Nor can there be any between reading, say, Tolstoy and Stephen King or Sir Ronald Syme and Doris Kearns Goodwin. As for visual art, about suffering and much else, as W. H. Auden had it, the old masters were never wrong, and any competition between them and contemporary visual art ended, sadly, with the triumph of Andy Warhol, after whom serious people no longer needed to be interested in contemporary visual art. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott notes that one of the signs of being cultured is that one knows what one doesn’t have to know. Contemporary visual art, perhaps for the first time in the history of painting and sculpture, is one of those things a cultured person no longer has to know."

The original poet "must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished."

Charles Rosen in an essay titled "The Frontiers of Nonsense," published in The Frontiers of Meaning: If getting used to music is the essential condition for understanding, it is hard to see just what purpose is served by writing about it. A few experiences of listening to a symphony or nocturne are worth more than any essay or analysis. The work of art itself teaching us how to understand it, and makes the critic not merely parasitical but strictly superfluous. This is not an unprecedented dilemma but one in which the critic of literature found himself at the end of the eighteenth century, when the function of criticism as an act of judgment crumbled before his eyes. The accepted criteria that had served so well for centuries began to seem the heritage of an alien culture; it no longer required any courage, or provoked any surprise, to question the authority of the classics, and it became almost commonplace to assume that the models given by Homer, Virgil, and Horace were no longer relevant to the literature of contemporary Europe. With the realization that absolute standards were not valid for new civilizations and different cultures, critics were compelled to derive their measures of evaluation from each culture in turn, and then from each individual author, and finally from each work. Standards could no longer be imposed from outside or in advance, and critics finally recognized that a new work was capable of establishing its own system of values. Here is the basis for Wordsworth's famous affirmation that an original poet "must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished." The more traditional, straightforward exercise of judgment was left to journalists. Critical evaluation was transformed into understanding, and criticism became not an act of judgment but of comprehension.

This is the legacy of Romanticism, and critics who would like to maintain or return to absolute standards have been protesting it without much success for almost two centuries. Whether there is, in fact, anything constant or invariant about aesthetic appreciation is irrelevant -- even if there is, it must be on a level of such generality that it can never help us in any given instance. Our sensuous appreciation of the world and of the works created by man has, no doubt, a biological foundation, one shared by all human beings, but that is no use to us when we try to evaluate a Bach fugue or a Dostoevsky novel -- or even the simple experience of a landscape, as our delight in the view of a mountain or a waterfall is also determined by the traditions of our culture. The coexistence of different criteria of judgment is, in any case, by now a fact of life. Beethoven cannot be judged or even understood by the standards of Mozart, however much he may have continued them, nor Berg by the standards of Wagner or Richard Strauss, nor Elliott Carter by the values of Ives and Stravinsky. A work of music can be only partially integrated into history, although that partial integration may be inescapable: it also demands to be listened to as if nothing had come before it and nothing was to come afterward.

The paradox was stated explicitly in that manifesto of Central European Romanticism first published in 1799, the Athenaeum, at the beginning of the section of book reviews:

"Excellent works generally criticize [characterize, or review] themselves, and in this respect it is superfluous for another to perform yet again the very task that the author has doubtless already done. If such a criticism, nevertheless, is a work of art (as it always ought to be), then its existence is anything but superfluous; but it stands entirely for itself and is as independent of the written work criticized as this itself is independent of the material treated and described within it."

This proclaims the independence of the critic, which may here be equated with the freedom of the artist; and it must be recognized that a small degree of irresponsibility is necessary for a critic with any self-respect. Without that irresponsibility the work of criticism is indeed superfluous. If the principles of judgment are to be drawn from the work of art itself, it is clear that its creator has already done that, even if only implicitly.

Shaw on Wagnerian singers

From George Bernard Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite: "No nation need have much difficulty in producing a race of Wagnerian singers. With the single exception of Handel, no composer has written music so well calculated to make its singers vocal athletes as Wagner. Abominably as the Germans sing, it is astonishing how they thrive physically on his leading parts. His secret is the Handelian secret. Instead of specializing his vocal parts after the manner of Verdi and Gounod for high sopranos, screaming tenors, and high baritones with an effective compass of about a fifth at the extreme tiptop of their ranges, and for contraltos with chest registers forced all over their compass in the manner of music hall singers, he employs the entire range of the human voice freely, demanding from everybody very nearly two effective octaves, so that the voice is well exercised all over, and one part of it relieves the other healthily and continually. He uses extremely high notes very sparingly, and is especially considerate in the matter of instrumental accompaniment. Even when the singer appears to have all the thunders of the full orchestra raging against him, a glance at the score will show that he is well heard, not because of any exceptionally stentorian power in his voice, but because Wagner meant him to be heard and took the greatest care not to overwhelm him. Such brutal opacities of accompaniment as we find in Rossini's Stabat or Verdi's Trovatore, where the strings play a rum-tum accompaniment whilst the entire wind band blares away, fortissimo, in unison with the unfortunate singer, are never to be found in Wagner's work. Even in an ordinary opera house, with the orchestra ranged directly between the singers and the audience, his instrumentation is more transparent to the human voice than that of any other composer since Mozart. At the Bayreuth Buhnenfestspielhaus, with the brass under the stage, it is perfectly so."

"I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of."

Eco interviewed by the Paris Review — INTERVIEWER: You have been criticized for the erudition you put on display in your work. A critic went so far as to say that the main appeal of your work for a lay reader is the humiliation he feels for his own ignorance, which translates into a naive admiration of your pyrotechnics.

ECO: Am I sadist? I don’t know. An exhibitionist? Maybe. I am joking. Of course not! I have not worked so much in my life in order just to pile knowledge before my readers. My knowledge quite literally informs the intricate construction of my novels. Then it is up to my readers to detect what they might.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think your extraordinary popular success as a novelist changed your perception of the role of the reader?

ECO: After being an academic for so long, writing novels was like being a theater critic and all of a sudden stepping in front of the footlights and having your former colleagues—the critics—stare at you. It was quite bewildering at first.

INTERVIEWER: But did writing novels change your idea of how much you could influence the reader as an author?

ECO: I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of.

Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

"The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction."

A brief excerpt from Robert Pippin's After the Beautiful: "There are many reasons to be skeptical that anything of value can result from trying to project Hegel into the future like this. After all, anyone who has heard anything about Hegel has probably heard that he said two things: that philosophy was its own time understood in thought, and some summary of the following remarks.

In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place. What is now aroused in us by works of art is not just immediate enjoyment but our judgment also, since we subject to our intellectual consideration (i) the content of art, and (ii) the work of art’s means of presentation, and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of both to one another. The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction. Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.

"If one considers the history of modernist art after Hegel, there is something both ominously prophetic and yet clearly hasty about Hegel’s remarks. The tone of pessimism in the remark can seem to us more like something simply obvious. It seems trivially true that the fine arts do not and cannot matter to us as they mattered in the tragic festivals of ancient Athens or in religious practices or in the dreams of the Frühromantik. We have invested our hopes in science, technology, medicine, market capitalism, and, to some lingering extent, in religion, but certainly not in art. And Hegel had not even anticipated two other threats to the vitality and autonomy of art: that an art-buying leisure class of the bourgeoisie would become the principal patrons of the arts, nor did he anticipate how mass consumer societies would radically alter the conditions for art’s production and appreciation. Yet, on the other hand, the revolutionary vitality of the modernist moment itself and the continuing vitality of art forms like film and photography are evidence enough that art has not become a thing of the past."

Scientism and the future of the humanities

Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times — "And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy. So, too, does the view that the strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility — that literature majors may find good jobs, that theaters may economically revitalize neighborhoods — but rather in the appeal to their defiantly nonutilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life. ... ..."Is all this — is humanism — sentimental? But sentimentality is not always a counterfeit emotion. Sometimes sentiment is warranted by reality. The persistence of humanism through the centuries, in the face of formidable intellectual and social obstacles, has been owed to the truth of its representations of our complexly beating hearts, and to the guidance that it has offered, in its variegated and conflicting versions, for a soulful and sensitive existence. There is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life. And a complacent humanist is a humanist who has not read his books closely, since they teach disquiet and difficulty. In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter. Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance."

"To be a really lousy writer takes energy."

Clive James in the London Review of Books — "To be a really lousy writer takes energy. The average novelist remains unread not because he is bad but because he is flat. On the evidence of Princess Daisy, Judith Krantz deserves her high place in the best-seller lists. This is the second time she has been up there. The first time was for a book called Scruples, which I will probably never get around to reading. But I don’t resent the time I have put into reading Princess Daisy. As a work of art it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks, but as best-sellers go it argues for a reassuringly robust connection between fiction and the reading public. If cheap dreams get no worse than this, there will not be much for the cultural analyst to complain about. Princess Daisy is a terrible book only in the sense that it is almost totally inept. Frightening it isn’t."

Beethoven's bad influence

Alex Ross in the New Yorker: "Music is being accorded powers at once transcendent and transformative: it hovers far above the ordinary world, yet it also reaches down and alters the course of human events. Beethoven’s music went some ways toward fulfilling the colossal role that Hoffmann devised for it. Epoch after epoch, Beethoven has been the composer of the march of time: from the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, when performances of the symphonies became associated with the longing for liberty; to the Second World War, when the opening notes of the Fifth were linked to the short-short-short-long Morse code for “V,” as in “victory”; and 1989, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth near the fallen Berlin Wall. “We ourselves appear to become mythologized in the process of identifying with this music,” the scholar Scott Burnham has written. Yet the idolatry has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory. As a teen-ager, I contemplated becoming a composer; attending a concert at Symphony Hall, in Boston, I remember seeing, with wonder and dismay, the single name “BEETHOVEN” emblazoned on the proscenium arch. “Don’t bother,” it seemed to say."

Hitler, continued

An excerpt from Ron Rosenbaum's updated afterword to Explaining Hitler:

One regret I have about the original edition: I did not deal with the deeply misguided regard for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, perhaps the most fraudulent aspect of the conventional wisdom about what might be called “Hitler culture.” Chaplin’s meretricious and in fact genuinely, historically damaging The Great Dictator is a film I’d seen long before focusing on this book and had taken for granted the conventional wisdom and knee-jerk approbation. And forgotten it. But its “courage” is one of those myths that really needs re-examining because it persists to this day. The myth that The Great Dictator was a bold challenge to Hitler or that it somehow damaged his cause. Quite the opposite.

It may be too late, but I feel an obligation to set the record straight. I’m recalling now how shocked I was when, after being invited to “present” a showing of it at the Harvard Film Archives, I actually watched it for the first time in years.

It was shocking on two levels. First, the fact that in his alleged anti-Hitler satire, who does Chaplin blame for the hostility his Hitler character has for the Jews? Jewish bankers! Jewish bankers turned down the Great Dictator and it’s all about getting even with those Jews. The Jews’ misfortune was their own fault, in effect. That’s the explanation Chaplin’s film left in its audience’s mind — probably the first impression much of America had. In addition, the impression that Hitler was a harmless joke, nothing to worry about. That’s what he told America at that crucial moment in October 1940 when the film was released. People seem to forget this when they get all misty-eyed about how great The Great Dictator is.

The tedium of evangelical atheism

"Several critics have noted that if evangelical atheists (as the philosopher John Gray calls them) are ignorant of religion, as they usually are, then they aren’t truly atheists. "The knowledge of contraries is one and the same," as Aristotle said. If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you’re not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists' arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism). But even more damning is that such atheists appear ignorant of atheism as well."

Kitsch and the holy: the origins of poor taste

"What I am calling “kitsch” is just that clutching at the viewer’s heartstrings, the sense of what Keats called a “palpable design” on the beholder. A fundamental uncertainty as to whether the artist and the viewer still form part of a community of faith creates a need to extort conviction when none might be forthcoming. But whatever is cringe-inducing in Rosso’s pictures is more or less inextricable from what sometimes makes them so breathtaking. Unfortunately, his great 1521 Deposition has not come to Florence from Volterra; as with any exhibition of Renaissance art, this one inevitably suffers from the fact that so many of what might have been the most important exhibits are immovable. In that work, the geometry of a massive cross becomes the armature for clusters of weirdly distorted bodies—geometricized yet weightless, as if they had been sculpted in Styrofoam—that arouse about as much credibility as Dalí’s soft watches, yet convey an anguish adequate to the painting’s subject precisely through this sense of dreamlike unreality."

"I don't think the novel is dead. I think the readers are dead."

From an interview with Gore Vidal: "The novel doesn't interest anybody, and that's largely because there are no famous novelists. Fame means that you are touching everybody or potentially touching everybody with what you've done—that they like to think about it and talk about it and exchange views on it."

David Foster Wallace on Updike (1997)

David Foster Wallace on Updike (1997)