Monday, November 05, 2007

Two Items

1. From a long NY Times article on philosopher Antony Flew's seeming conversion to some sort of deism:
Intellectuals, even more than the rest of us, like to believe that they reach conclusions solely through study and reflection. But like the rest of us, they sometimes choose their opinions to suit their friends rather than the other way around. Which means that Flew is likely to remain a theist, for just as the Christians drew him close, the atheists gave him up for lost.

2. From a Mark Steyn speech on the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, which I remember struggling through when I was 13:
“Popular culture” is more accurately a “present-tense culture”: You’re celebrating the millennium but you can barely conceive of anything before the mid-1960s. We’re at school longer than any society in human history, entering kindergarten at four or five and leaving college the best part of a quarter-century later—or thirty years later in Germany. Yet in all those decades we exist in the din of the present. A classical education considers society as a kind of iceberg, and teaches you the seven-eighths below the surface. Today, we live on the top eighth bobbing around in the flotsam and jetsam of the here and now. And, without the seven-eighths under the water, what’s left on the surface gets thinner and thinner.

* * *

Popular culture used to be very at ease with the inheritance of the past. One of the trends of the last forty years is not just the vanishing of “high culture” but of low-culture jokes about high culture—the variety-show sketches in which Schubert’s mates urge him to come down the pub with him and he says “No, I’ve got to stay in and finish my symphony.” It assumes a residual familiarity—from some half-recalled school lesson—with a bloke called Schubert who wrote an “Unfinished Symphony.”

* * *

The old middle-brow middle-class couples who subscribed to the symphony every season and dutifully sat there through Beethoven, Bartók, Brahms, and Bernstein are all but extinct, and pitied for their inability to cut loose and boogie in the same way we feel sorry for those trapped in a loveless marriage. What a difference it would make if grade-schoolers could know just enough of a smattering of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to recognize the excellent joke “The Simpsons” makes of it. What an achievement it would be if every high-school could acquire a classical catalogue as rich as that used in Looney Tunes when Elmer Fudd goes hunting Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny. Carl Stalling, who scored those cartoons, often fell back on formula: If someone was in a cave, the orchestra would play “Fingal’s Cave.” But you can’t even do that any more, because no-one gets the joke.
Sad but true. Steyn also makes this intriguing point:
Imagine if talking pictures hadn’t been invented in 1927, but eighty years later, in 2007. Do you think Hollywood studios today would conclude that they needed to hire house composers and full orchestras to accompany the drama with symphonic scores? Something we take for granted about the form of modern talking pictures—dialogue accompanied by orchestral music—arose from a particular kind of cultural aspiration that no longer exists.


Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

On the first item, you mean you don't think it's just "sometimes" that intellectuals "choose their opinions to suit their friends"? (And, really, is it ever?)

In any case, Flew's flights hither and thither (in directions seemingly determined by who his most recent interlocutor happened to have been) on the central issue of his philosophical career are far too bizarre to count as an example even of that. The recent history Oppenheimer recounts reads rather like some sort of doxastic counterpart of Zelig. If Oppenheimer's account is to be believed, Flew is proof that one can be pathologically open-minded. (Apologies to Allan Bloom.)

On the second item, I basically agree with a lot of the points, but there are problems. First of all, I think Steyn seriously overestimates the degree to which middlebrow tastes in the '40s (say) achieved an easy rapprochement with classical forms, and so too the degree to which audiences raised during that era would, say, have gotten Stalling's musical joke with the Mendelssohn concerto. And indeed if Steyn's half the musical snob I am, he should have been appalled by the editing the canon has been subjected to in middlebrow offerings like Fantasia. It's probably not a coincidence that that film's reputation today among critics is far better than it was when it was released in the Golden '40s (to dismal reviews and poor box office).

Steyn also undercuts his credibility by basing his anti-pop snark on the very worst that pop has to offer, and acting as if that were all pop had to offer. Today's pop just isn't that bad compared to its direct ancestors. Some of it is sublime and moving, offering a distinct form of listening pleasure that classical music can't supplant. But I'm no relativist, either, and would agree that classics on the whole offer richer grounds to mine than popular forms. It's just that you're not going to convince these kids today of that by bitching about how these kids today listen to nothing but garbage. Especially when that's not even true. The negation of "It's all good" isn't "It's all crap."

6:59 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Right, I'm (somewhat facetiously) saying, "Only sometimes"? Maybe that's too strong, but after reading Overcoming Bias (the blog), Philip Tetlock's book, Nassim Taleb's books, etc., I've become very cynical about whether anyone ever really forms beliefs for valid reasons, at least on topics that have any emotional weight to them (politics, religion, etc.). Compared to the number of intellectuals who form their political opinions based purely on disinterested research, I think there are more intellectuals who really form their political opinions based on the fact that they personally can't stand being part of a coalition that includes [[George Bush, Trent Lott, Jerry Falwell, Michelle Malkin] or [Hillary Clinton, Al Sharpton, Ramsey Clark, the Daily Kos or Firedoglake crowds]]. Then they come up with sophisticated rationalizations to convince themselves that their tribe actually is correct in its views on transportation policy or whatnot.

Sure, the Bush administration has been incompetent in various areas, and that's a valid reason to condemn it for its faults. But I'd bet anything that there are intellectuals who disagree with No Child Left Behind or school vouchers or raising the Social Security retirement age, not because of the actual merits of those policies, but because they can't stand the thought of agreeing with the Bush administration on anything.

9:30 PM  
Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

Admitted, Bush's sponsorship of otherwise acceptable legislation in some cases probably nudged some intellectual opinion against. (I wouldn't want to overstate this effect, though. For instance, I don't think Bush turned anyone against school vouchers who wasn't already there.)

On the other hand, betting against a policy merely because Bush sponsored it turns out to have been a pretty reliable heuristic!

9:18 AM  

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