Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Wednesday, May 09, 2012
Critical Questions: On Music and Letters, Culture and Biography, 1940−1980
by Jacques Barzun
ed. by Bea Friedland
-A weird book, with weird selections and a lot of typos. If you can make it through all the Berlioz in the front half of the book, (I couldn’t, but seeing such a deeply devoted fan is always heartwarming) and if you can forgive the ranting in the second half of “Liberalism and the Religion of Art,” where among other head-scratchers anti-fluoridation gets a cameo, there’s some stuff I found helpful.
“[Esthetics] is at once too personal and too social for abstract thought to seize upon any regularities. If the example of history and the historians is invoked — for here too one faces a chaos of facts and beliefs — it is of no avail, for historians succeed in creating order through detachment, which the very nature of art forbids. A philosophy of art on these terms would be but a catalogue of techniques and devices, and even these would be misrepresented, for they have no independent meaning, only a functional one as triggers of meaning.
Fortunately “philosophy” can be understood in at least two senses. It can denote a system, a theory strictly so-called, that is: the most complete and most general view of a subject. It can also mean philosophizing. Not being a philosopher in the first and strict sense, I have taken the liberty, all my life, to philosophize in the second sense — to try to think straight about the subjects that have interested me. What can philosophizing about the arts do for us? The answer I would propose here is not a series of conclusions, even tentative ones, but rather a series of topics or issues about which straight thinking might, in addition to the pleasure of the thing, do some good. What good? Well, such good as this: clearing up the confused vocabulary of criticism for educated minds, and gradually building up a set of commonsense maxims — guidelines — by which sincere people who wish to converse about art could avoid the fumbling and stumbling now caused by what they have been taught — the “ideas” or fashionable cant — thus inducing a wider tolerance through showing how the casual or formal creeds of art-lovers are linked to temperaments and visions of the world.
These endeavors, if they were achieved, would liberate many good souls from the oppression of having to admire what they don’t admire and having to repudiate what they secretly love — a net increase in the freedom and happiness of mankind.”
I dunno that a “catalogue of techniques and devices” would necessarily be such a bad idea, though. Ever since I got into William James (thanks to Barzun), it always seemed to me that the “Varieties of ____” approach is a good one. And making distinctions among the varieties of a thing always seemed more practical as a way forward, intellectually, than taking a step back and saying, look, it's all connected.
But in another essay, on the topic of “Cultural History,” Barzun says:
“...the periods of culture have troublesome historical names — Renaissance, Baroque, Puritan, Classical Romantic, and the like — which cover multitudinous manifestations of spirit. In using these names to denote men or periods, one cannot avoid trying to disentangle appearance from reality and prejudice from fact. But there is danger to truth in wanting things too clear; in wanting to make the names cover absolutely homogeneous ideas or persons. I for one see no use and great harm in those refined distinctions that profess to sort out eighteen kinds of Romanticism, or Humanism, or Pragmatism. I doubt whether the maker of such distinctions could himself respect them in an extended narrative; and supposing that he could I fail to see what he would accomplish as a historian — unless it were to reduce the battle of ideas to a regulated ballet. To put intellectual order in place of the intelligible disorder of history is to apply the geometrical spirit to a subject that calls for the spirit of finesse.”Maybe the problem for Barzun is that the catalogue-making tendency reminds him of the system-making tendency, and both remind him of his enemy, the mechanical (see "Toward a Fateful Serenity")? I have a lot of the "geometrical spirit" in me, I admit, but I'm not a mystic whacko about it or anything.