Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Physiology and Music

In our last class we discussed the extent that we have learned about the connection between music and physiology. In the end, we agreed that the translation claiming that there was much to be discovered in this field was more accurate one and this triggered my memory of a book that I read over the summer. Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music discusses how the brain is used in relation to music. The most interesting point that I took away from his work is that if one plays, composes and listens to music, he or she is using all of the parts of the brain that science has accounted for to this day. This brought me to question Hanslick’s assertion in regards to the relation of physiology to music. It is my impression that he was referring solely to the ways in which one listens to music and not performance or composition. I would be curious to hear what Hanslick would say about these other realms of music and how they could be used to support or oppose the arguments that he makes about the relationship between music and feelings.

Book Review of This Is Your Brain on Music

judgment vs. entertainment (Hanlick vs. today)

The issues we discussed in class yesterday in connection with Hanslick--the pros and cons of modes of listening that focus on musical specifics and recognize hierarchies of value vs. listening done for our own purposes that takes a more relativistic view of value--is clearly alive and kicking. I've reprinted below an essay by Leon Wieseltier in the latest New Republic. His subject is a recent essay by Louis Menand in the New Yorker concerning the once eminent literary critic Lionel Trilling. I read Menand's essay and found it puzzling at spots. Usually Menand is one of my all-time favorite essay writers, but there were things about this essay that troubled me. Lionel Trilling was one my teachers in graduate school (at Columbia), and I have a very high opinion of him. Wieseltier's column clarifies some of what bothered me about Menand's essay, though I'm not wholly on Wieseltier's side. I'm putting it on the blog because the argument is exactly the one we discussed yesterday in class. I've provided a link to the original article, but I suspect it won't work if you're not a subscriber to The New Republic. But maybe it will.

wieseltier new republic 10/22/08

The Shrinker

Leon Wieseltier , The New Republic Published: Wednesday, October 22, 2008

'He is barometrically interesting." This was Irving Howe's judgment of a professor of literature whose prominence we were mischievously discussing. We were praising the guilelessness of barometers. They come right out and say it. The same candor about the weather is gained when a writer unexpectedly expresses himself in a way that requires no interpretation, and thereby exposes the Geist in the Zeit. It is always satisfying to see the errors of one's time clearly stated. I am grateful to The New Yorker for this satisfaction. I refer not to its deaf and blind publication, in the week that the economy was collapsing and the nation was panicking, of a piece about the millions that Leona Helmsley bequeathed to her dog. We are known by what we find important. But in the same issue there appeared a mincing and hostile essay by Louis Menand about Lionel Trilling, an expanded and worsened version of an introduction that he produced for a recent re-issue of The Liberal Imagination. The critic who, also in The New Yorker, compared Jay McInerney to Heinrich von Kleist now pronounces Trilling's work to be "small but subtle and distinctive." I should confess an interest here. Trilling was my teacher. My feelings about him are filial. His legend means nothing to me. But Menand is the latest in a long line of English professors in revolt against the legend. He has summoned the courage to suggest that Trilling was a man with anxieties and ambitions. He has some shallow things to say about the tangle of Trilling's Jewishness. And he contends that Trilling explored the political implications of culture because he held that "people have some sort of moral obligation to match up their taste in art and literature with their political opinions," which is wildly wrong. The synchronization of the realms, which was one of the crimes of Stalinism, was what Trilling deplored.

But what really rattles Menand is Trilling's magnitude. In his conception of the intellectual life, Trilling was big. Menand is the professor of littleness. He is a man in flight from the seriousness of his own vocation. In his telling, Trilling exemplified the era of "heroic criticism," whereas "it feels a little funny just typing the words today." I don't know, I just typed them and it felt fine. But Menand, you see, "went to graduate school after the nineteen-sixties, when the age of heroic criticism was over, and thank God." He has more to tell us about himself: "I became a critic because I wanted to write sentences like 'This intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement.'" Also: "I didn't care about the canon, and I didn't care much about Communism, either." I am not sure why he expects to be admired for his mental blitheness, but he is certainly not the only liberal for whom the Communists are as pertinent to us as the Donatists and the Cathars. "I just liked the way Trilling could turn a thought," he weirdly brags. But then he discovered that "there was a lot of righteousness, not to mention self-righteousness, back in the days of Partisan Review." Unlike in these post-heroic days, I suppose. And to what do we owe our exemption from grandeur, our release from gravity? Menand explains this--he knows, above all, how things work--in a passage that should move the parents of his students to demand the return of their tuition: "Most people don't use the language of approval and disapproval in their responses to art; they use the language of entertainment. They enjoy some things and don't enjoy other things. It just doesn't matter to them whether someone prefers Dreiser or James. This seemed to me to give literary criticism a lot less moral work to do." The less moral work, the better.

There is a term for the indifference and the perfunctoriness that Menand is espousing. It is philistinism. But this is a peculiar variety of philistinism, an airy and calculated mixture of Eustace Tilley and Richard Rorty. The language of entertainment: this is not be mistaken for any sort of aesthetic commitment. Aestheticism, in its desperation or in its delight, is more strenuous--Hamilton Hall strikes again!--than Menand's indolent ratification of popular taste. It is not pleasure that Menand is recommending, it is fun. (In an entry in her journals in 1963, which will be published later this year, Susan Sontag noted: "'Fun'--the American substitute for pleasure.") Is there any less toilsome engagement with culture, any less thoughtful and less lasting, any less salutary for this society, than the engagement with entertainment? Menand mocks Trilling's solemn pronouncement that "with that juxtaposition [of Dreiser and James] we are immediately at the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet," inanely observing that "no actual blood has ever been spilled in disputes" about literature. He is a poor student of totalitarianism. But he will not allow that anything of consequence is at issue in the study of literature. He will not pick up the weight. Menand's objection to Trilling's "pretty dramatic" analysis of the choice between Dreiser and James is that "it makes it seem as though a lot is at stake in getting books right." The contribution to criticism of the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University is, :).

The complacence about mass opinion and the acquiescence in the authority of "most people," the relaxed whatever-ism, the preference for the shrug over the frown, comes from Rorty, to whom Menand once attributed "genius." Rorty, who gleefully and without recourse to argument exchanged objectivity for solidarity and reason for ethnocentrism, claimed that the true and the beautiful are whatever most people believe are the true and the beautiful. Or as Menand remarks, "there is no stable point outside a culture from which to critique it. " No foundation for independence or dissidence, there; but then all that is over, and thank God. His experience in the faculty lounge has taught Menand that "all push becomes pull someday." All that is left for an intellectual to do is to understand the scene and to make it. There are no causes, there are only careers. But I swear I see pain and confusion and dread almost everywhere. Locally and globally, these are sordid times. Sweet, earnest, smart David Foster Wallace, who was his generation's model of the consecration to seriousness, just hanged himself. And we should chill? "It makes it seem as though a lot is at stake in getting books right": nobody will ever become a critic because they want to write sentences like that.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

Wagner and Anti-Semitism

Here's a fascinating "New Yorker" article I found on how Wagner's political beliefs are or are not embodied in his music, and also on Hitler's interpretation of Wagner and his legacy. Really interesting research on where the influence of Wagner's writings and music can be found in Hitler's book and speeches. A bit long, but definitely worth reading if you have time--after all the historical reading, I found it refreshing to read about Wagner from a modern standpoint.