Sunday, January 26, 2014

Classical Music: Why Modernity Doesn't Suck

I’m going to confess a deeply rooted prejudice that I have no intention of letting go. Music is much, much worse now than it used to be.

With a few exceptions, like Howard Shore’s soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings, most music written after 1900 sounds to me like the aural equivalent of cellophane. That, I know, is a sweeping conclusion. But it caps a twenty-year search for good music in modernity, which has come up with almost nothing besides a little bit of the Band and the Beatles, who are nice to listen to. Though it’s obviously different for the legions of modern people who buy or steal Kanye West and Miley Cyrus singles, there’s very little that touches my soul on the radio. (Folk music is another story, and I hope that as long as humans live together, they’ll sing together, too. That’ll be another post.)

Così fan tutti.
Contemporary classical music sounds even worse to me, mostly because it’s utterly unhummable. In a burst of open-mindedness, I once told a friend to sit me down and help me appreciate modern music. After half an hour at the piano, I finally told him that I liked something he’d played. “There’s no hope,” he said. “That’s because I just played something rhythmic and tonal.”

When I compare this to the kind of music that people used to write, my forehead wrinkles in frustration if I’m in a good mood, and despair otherwise. Mostly, I’m talking about Mozart. Most of his music is, at worst, extremely pleasant. But by the end of his life, he wrote a string of works in which God came down to earth and sang to us. The end of The Marriage of Figaro is one of those. (If you’ve seen Amadeus, it’s from the scene with the pool table.) So is the Ave Verum Corpus, and Non mi dir from Don Giovanni.

But Mozart is only the summit of an incredibly beautiful tradition of Western music. There’s Rossini, whose hummable melodies are transfused with light joy. Also Haydn, Gluck, and the unpronounceable Dvořák. Beethoven, though he wrote in a ragged style that later wreaked havoc on music, uplifted the souls of millions. The Renaissance, though largely ignored on WQXR, is filled with heavenly polyphony.

But—and this is the part of the post where I contradict myself—is this good cause for sadness? No way! There are two consolations.

The first is the iPod, which should immediately silence all complaints about the decline of music. For the first time in human history, billions of people can, at any moment, listen to world-class musicians play any conceivable piece of music. I can listen to Handel while I run, Haydn in the car, and Bach on the subway. I can listen to more Mozart than Mozart could. So who cares if people have stopped writing good music? We have centuries’ worth already, and it’s perfectly preserved for us.

That leads me to my second point: for most of history, most people weren’t able to listen to most of the music that would be produced. That’s because it wasn’t written yet.

If you lived in 1750, for instance, the music being written in drawing rooms was much better than the music written in 2014. On the other hand, you were deeply impoverished, because there was no such thing as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony yet. (You were probably impoverished in the obvious way too, but that’s another story.) So we’re actually very lucky to be born after the musical fountain ran dry. In fact, if there’s going to be another birth of good classical music, it’ll be a great shame, because we’re going to miss out on it.

Add that to penicillin and Wikipedia, and the modern world stops looking so bad after all.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Mormons and Captain Underpants: A Story about Intellectual Freedom

When I was a first-year at Chicago, I took a required class on Augustine’s Confessions, which was filled with bored undergrads complaining about Augustine’s repetitive praises of God. One day, the professor, realizing that we might not understand the Manichean philosophy that Augustine rejects, decided to give us a summary. “The Manicheans,” she said in a matter of fact, somewhat ironic tone, “believed that substance itself was evil. So they decided to purify themselves by only eating divine foods, like lettuce.” [Incredulous laughter.] “No, that’s actually what they believed. If you were an elect priest, you would make sure that you only ate the right foods and not the wrong ones, because good foods had particles of godliness that could bring you to heaven.”

I understood nothing. My professor had said nothing false. But she missed the most important part of Manichaeism: the part that moved the souls of millions, the part that actually offered wisdom and a godly life on earth. (What was it? I still don’t know.) What could she have done better? The best, I think, would have been to speak, at the very least, in a reverential tone of voice. It’s not just words that carry an idea. It’s an entire human context, and to take a religious precept out of its natural habitat makes it die for lack of air.

Another first-year class I took, this one on philosophy, was taught by one of my favorite teachers ever. He had an unnerving talent for disguise: when we read Plato, he was an ardent Platonist, charismatic enough to make my skin tingle. Then, suddenly, he was a level-headed Aristotelian, then a cynical and atheist Machiavellian. Only later, when I got to know him personally, did I learn he was a devout Catholic. John Ellison is one of the few people I’ve met who’ve actually made me understand something. He made me see how an idea exists in a person’s heart as well as his brain, and that you can’t explain a way of life without showing its movements in a real human being’s soul.

Most people I know, including myself, know nothing about Mormonism.

Of course, many can tell you the bare facts: Joseph Smith, magic plates, Nauvoo, exodus westward, polygamy, no more polygamy. Some can even summarize the book of Mormon: Lehi’s flight from Judea, Nephites and Lamanites, the great war, and the burial of the plates on the hill of Cumorah.

That’s not enough. Because most of the time, these facts are only brought up to make a laughingstock out of Mormonism. Can you believe it? Magic spectacles? In upstate New York? Once in a while, of course, Mormonism gets a scrap of respect east of the Mississippi, in the following sentence: “Everyone always mocks the Book of Mormon, but the New and Old Testaments are just as ridiculous. The Mormons are just unlucky that they don’t have the cushion of millennia to soften their skepticism.”

And the result is that we don’t grasp anything, and find ourselves mocking a shadowy belief-system that a seven-year-old could have invented literally in his sleep. This is what we miss: regardless of whether we think it’s true, Mormon belief has been enough to attract millions of happy believers and keep them together in a community. If we can’t understand why a smart or normal person would be a Mormon, we must be screwing up somewhere. Understanding Mormonism means understanding the reverence that the religion is treated with by Mormons, and that takes either an active imagination or a talented teacher. Or spending time in a Mormon community, or spending time on By Common Consent, an excellent community blog.

These pictures show different things.
This is partly a fault of geography: I and most of my friends live in a part of the country where Mormons have next to no cultural influence. But it’s also our own fault: Evangelicals also have very little influence on the Upper West Side, but most people in Zabars can least imagine what it’s like to love Jesus and be born again. Because of our own prejudice, our understanding of the Mormon religion is restricted to no coffee, simple-minded but kind people, and that South Park episode.

But in a country which is the birthplace of Mormonism, and in a world in which Mormons outnumber Jews, we would do well to enlighten ourselves. Not by reading John Krakauer or even the Book of Mormon without a teacher, but by looking at the ways in which Mormon belief can actually shape a person’s life.

More importantly, there’s even a selfish reason to educate yourself; not just about Mormonism, but about Judaism and Atheism and Platonism. (For a similar reason, about pot and Prozac, but that’ll be another post.)

The reason is freedom. It just might be, by doing a little mental wandering, by really taking foreign ways of thinking seriously, that you’ll find something that you think is really good, even worth living by. In my family, we call this a Captain Underpants experience. My brother and I vehemently protested as little boys against our dad, who wanted to force us to listen to a trivial book about a bald idiot in briefs. And were were pretty wrong about what we liked. (Of course, my parents had me try a lot of books that didn’t stick, like Harold and the Purple Crayon and A Philosophy of History. But now I know.)

College is an excellent place to do the kind of experimentation I’m talking about. People come from all over the world in a place where there are very few consequences for getting things wrong. That’s an excellent recipe for mental freedom. At the University of Chicago, to date, I’ve spent time—and sympathized in various degrees—with atheist activists, Orthodox Jews, nudists, utilitarians, Episcopalians, and some sensible people. I’ve been in love with Plato, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, and Calvin. I met John Ellison, as well as Constantin Fasolt, who taught me what I’m writing down now. I’ve done a lot of stupid things, and a lot of smart things, none of which I could dreamed about when I was eighteen. If I hadn’t poked around a little bit, I would have been stuck by default with the worldview I started with.


In brief. By definition, you can’t make serendipity happen, but you’ll never find it if you never leave the house.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why David Brooks is Wrong

If you'd asked me last year about David Brooks' column about weed, I would have defended it. Now I won't. Forget that the warnings Brooks sounds against marijuana are false, and forget the argument that Brooks can't consistently oppose weed but not alcohol. That's all true, but the thing most worth opposing is what comes at the end:
In healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.
First, I want to fight against what I'm tempted to say here. David Brooks isn't just making stuff up when he writes this. The "higher pleasures" are not, pace me, an invention of conservatives to make sure the rest of us have less fun; they're an important part of human life. There is a difference between the higher and lower parts of our nature—there's a difference between things like hiking, listening to Mozart and having kids on the one hand; and drunkenness, casual sex, smoky bars, and poker on the other. It takes a real lack of imagination not to see that. Pretending that it's just a matter of chocolate and vanilla ice cream will blind you to the real importance that the choice between celestial and earthly pleasures have in human beings' lives.

On the other hand, that doesn't count for much morally speaking. It's one thing to recognize a fundamental difference in the way that humans treat their pleasures. It's another to claim that we're better people if we're more into heavenly delight than earthy glee. What ever happened to treating each other well? Pleasure is something that happens in our innermost souls; luckily for all of us, though, we're really only accountable for the stuff we do to other people. High and low pleasures are like Japan and France: different countries, but citizens of one aren't inherently better because they live there. I've met a bunch of people who think they're on the right track because they study Greek and never say fuck or drink. Nuts.

File:Temptation of Christ.jpg
"And no wonder, for even Satan fashions himself into an angel of light." 

Sometimes, though, this way of looking at things runs strongly against our intuitions. How can it be that the higher pleasures aren't preferable to the lower? I have a hard time with this too sometimes, especially after walking through an alcohol- and condom-drenched college dorm. But then I remember: Bach's music, which is lovely to me, was even lovelier to the Nazis, who put it on at all their rallies. Gladiator matches were like artful bullfights: splendid and noble. Torquemada listened to exquisite polyphony in church, and his heart must have been often raised to the heavens by perfectly executed altarpieces. In other words, a lot of good people do filthy things and are no less good for it, and a lot of evil people do beautiful things without cleaning an ounce of moral grime from their hands. So there is a difference between the high and the low, but it doesn't mean much. And there's an awfully weak case to be made for the government steering us towards one over the other.