Part 2: Brushing Your Cultural Teeth

This is about bad breath.

C. S. Lewis talks about the value of reading old books. He says in the introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” This is where bad breath comes in: you know when other people have it, but you don’t know when you have it. That should make you terrified. You’re enslaved to your ignorance about whether you have the cultural blight of Bad Breath. How do you remedy that? Choose some honest friends.

On the cultural level, every culture has its peculiar flavor of bad breath. We have our cultural blindspots. How do we identify them? Lewis wants you to choose your friends wisely. Choose old books. They’ll tell you where your blindspots are and are to you as a rear-view mirror. They can do this because no age has the same outlook on the world. Liberal education frees you. When you get a liberal education, you get freed from your slavery to ignorance. That’s why “liberal” comes from the Latin for “free”. That’s why people read old books.

I don’t know what generation you are, if maybe you’re a Boomer or maybe you’re, like me, a product of the baggy-jeaned 90s, or whatever, but I remember pretty vividly the first time I watched the Bee Gees’ music video for Stayin’ Alive. It was scarring. If we’re talking bad breath, somebody had smoked about three cigars and masticated several cloves of garlic. The most disturbing thing is that everyone then thought it was the coolest thing in the world. But this will happen to us, since we all think we’re the cool people, or even just think we’re normal. Zoom out 30 years and you’ll find our skinny-at-the-ankle jeans are as revolting as the ones that appear to limit Barry Gibb’s masculinity. It’s as if our cultural moment is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and a few of us know it and are terrified of how our incipient senility will appear to our children. Every age does irrational and arbitrary things and every subsequent age snickers, one senile nursing-home patient to another.

So, the task of reading classical examples does not endow mere intellectual freedom. Reading ancient drama of Aeschylus or The Holy Grail of the Middle Ages gives you, almost magically, a clean, objective look at our cultural clichés. It’s like the touch of cool metal on a hot day. Aristotle said that the mark of an educated man was to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. (Educated, by the way, was for him the opposite of enslaved.) When most of us watch movies, we get so entertained that we don’t notice what we’re accepting or that we’re accepting it. But when you read old literature, you’re forced to entertain foreign cultural concepts―how Achilles deals with women, how Romans execute their justice system, how the Medievals viewed justification―that you would be revolted at the thought of accepting. But you entertain them anyway. Classical examples are training in the ability to entertain cultural ideas without accepting them. If you have this ability, it will end up accomplishing two things.

First, when you apply this ability to your own culture, you will find that many things of our age which you had previously accepted without noticing it are, on a second look, not worth accepting. Once you can strip that Maroon 5 song (if it has any clothes on anyway) of its catchy riffs, you may find there wasn’t as much there as you thought. A spoonful of clichés makes the shallowness go down. Or it did, before you read Aristotle.

Second, applying this ability will allow you to cherry-pick the best from classical examples. That’s why academia is still called upon (probably mistakenly) to present original solutions to current problems. That originality is supposed to come from a keen understanding of what’s being missed by those embroiled in contemporary events. That missing something can often be found by perusing antiquity, which more than likely has dealt with the same issue and done so in a way utterly different from common contemporary ways of thinking. To bring this down to earth, if you’re an indie band and you really want to market your sound as something new and different, try listening to some Mozart and some Oscar Peterson.

It turns out that this is the other side to the coin I mentioned in the previous part. We do idolize Classical composers way too much. By “we”, I mean lovers of “Classical music,” a repertoire chosen by people discontented with the music of the present, but not interested in writing music themselves and so contented with the music of the past. I still think that if you don’t like current music, you should write better music. Don’t insist that we all listen to old music on the basis that the new stuff is terrible. I still think that writing better contemporary music is far more normal thing than listening only to past efforts.

But. Writing better contemporary music is the hard part. How do we get our music better than the schlock and kitsch out there now? We’re back to our Bee Gees problem. And our solution is the exempla classica. It is the true traditionalism, the secret weapon that has rid almost every composer of schlock status and given him posterity-enjoyment value. So, going back to the two applications of Aristotle’s observation, studying older music should give you an accurate view of how silly certain current music is (or how worthy it is) and it should give you all sorts of ideas about how you could break the limitations of the field and employ unusual ideas. Does it really do this?

Yes, it does. As I said, the exempla classica is the real traditionalism. Every great composer has done it. And, I’d say, every great pop musician has introduced time-honored musical traditions into a flabbergasted commercial recording industry with blistering success. Bach, on the one hand, was immersed not just in contemporary music but the music of 50 and 100 years before him. He took an idea from Buxtehude (an older generation) of a fugue whose countersubjects stay consistent throughout the whole thing. That’s the model he used in the Well-Tempered Clavier, and he consequently redefined the genre. On the other hand, Coldplay’s distinctive sound comes from their use of phase music (innovated 20 years ago in Classical academia) and that curious British modality (championed 80 years ago by the Vaughn Williams crowd). If you want to get right down to it, this is how you get a marketing edge.

So, then. Here I am, advising you to listen to music of the past, when earlier I said it was weird to do so. I’m still right. There’s a difference: getting a Classical education in music is not for its own sake. You are no longer listening to Beethoven just for the love of Beethoven. Shocking as it is, the noblest goal of becoming acquainted with Classical music is not to enjoy it for its own sake. At least, I suspect that Classical composers would think you were really odd if you told them so. The noblest goal is to use composers as an exempla classica for new music.

If this annoys you, I can guess why. Probably you’re thinking that using Classical music at all, instead of simply enjoying it, is crude pragmatism and that it will destroy a deep love for the music to use it as a means to an end. But maybe, like me, you’ve noticed something: at the height of your love for Classical music, when you’re listening to Fanfare for the Common Man or glorying in the climax of the “Ricercare” from the Musical Offering or the prelude to Tristan und Isoulde, there’s always a little frustration. There’s always a little sense of isolation. There’s an unfulfilled desire to have everybody enjoy this music, but, ridiculous though it is, some people find their pop music better. The music is great, but not as great as the number of people who think it isn’t. And that is frustrating.

I think lovers of Classical music will find that, when the music becomes an exempla classica for new compositions, the frustration goes away, but the love does not. Maybe even the love deepens, because instead of viewing Copland or Bach or Wagner as gods, you converse with them. You are unequal to them in wisdom, but peers in profession. I don’t think anybody would accuse you of disrespecting a venerable, wise woman by taking seriously her wisdom as a pattern for your own life. Nobody would say you were using her as a means to an end. Maybe they would, but they’d be stupid. If you’re paying attention to her, it’s her venerability, her wisdom, her beauty that will inspire you to model yourself after her. That’s the way to think about the exempla classica.

Do I make it sound like everyone should be a composer? Maybe I do. Yes. I think I do.

(Which will be explained in what follows.)

Part 1: iPods Are Weird

Part 3 is forthcoming.

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2 comments

  1. Aki Sue · July 4, 2012

    Intriguing. But about this idea that everyone should compose… I don’t dispute that having had a little training and practice in the subject is enlightening, and gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation for any type of music, especially counterpoint. But you realize this is very much like saying that every one (let’s narrow this for argument to ‘every Christian’) should be an author. Now, I don’t disagree that every one should have a working knowledge of writing, if only essays. But really. Writing is not everyone’s gift, nor should those who have skills and expertise in, say, mechanics, painting or math spend their days striving to be an expert in writing when they are needed in other areas. This is the same for composing. It right and wise for Christians to seek out their strengths, and pursue them, just as it would be foolish to spend your days attempting to master something that God has not called you to. Which all comes back to the fact that we are all members of one body, but distinctly different parts. We all are designed for different distinct uses, and while there is definite overlap, and we should all strive to grow in wisdom and knowledge, the fact remains that we are finite, and there is only so much that we can accomplish in this current life. Granted, we have another life ahead of us, and only God knows what we will accomplish then.

    I haven’t bee brooding over this for weeks… ;-)

  2. Pingback: Old Testament Prophets | collegium novum

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