Sunday, November 29, 2009

Languedocian curates

1967 saw the publication of a hitherto unknown manuscript of medieval French poetry, in a critical edition by renowned scholar Luis d'Antin van Rooten. With the cryptic title of Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames (Words of the Hours: Root, Branch), the d'Antin manuscript provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of the Middle Ages. Here, with d'Antin's annotations, is one of my favourites:

Et qui rit des curés d'Oc?1
De Meuse raines,2 houp! de cloques.3
De quelles loques ce turque coin.4
Et ne d'ânes ni rennes,
Écuries des curés d'Oc.5
1 Oc (or Languedoc), ancient region of France, with its capital at Toulouse. Its monks and curates were, it seems, a singularly humble and holy group. This little poem is a graceful tribute to their virtues.
2Meuse, or Maas, River, 560 miles long, traversing France, Belgium, and the Netherlands; Raines, old French word for frogs (from the L., ranae). Here is a beautiful example of Gothic imagery: He who laughs at the curés of Oc will have frogs leap at him from the Meuse river and
3 infect him with a scrofulous disease! This is particularly interesting when we consider the widespread superstition in America that frogs and toads cause warts.
4"Turkish corners" were introduced into Western Europe by returning Crusaders, among other luxuries and refinements of Oriental living. Our good monks made a concession to the fashion, but N.B. their Turkish corner was made of rags! This affectation of interior decorating had a widespread revival in the U.S.A. at the turn of the century. Ah, the Tsar's bazaars' bizarre beaux-arts.
5So strict were the monks that they didn't even indulge themselves in their arduous travels. No fancy mules nor reindeer in their stables. They just rode around on their plain French asses.
Despite the antiquated French idiom in which the manuscript is written, many English speakers find that when these poems are read aloud, they sound strangely familiar.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ethics, virtues and zinc oxide

Whether or not we realize it, the smooth running of our society is facilitated by an extensive network of support structures, of which we are mostly unaware. The following educational film reveals the extent to which this is true of a seemingly innocuous chemical: zinc oxide.

Zinc oxide isn't something we think about on a daily basis, perhaps, but its role can be highlighted by something as simple as an omnipotent filmstrip narrator with the power to cause household objects to suddenly disappear. The disaster that results speaks for itself: in a developed, industrialized society, we depend on zinc oxide for our physical well-being. Many writers, however, have made the point that our social well-being is likewise dependent upon an elaborate support structure of beliefs, values and ideals. The only difference is that our beliefs and ideals are wholly intangible, and that rather than vanishing suddenly, they tend to erode gradually, so that we rarely realize that anything has happened.

An argument along these lines is made by Alasdair MacIntyre in his 1981 book After Virtue. He argues that our society has lost its ability to think in ethical terms:

[Our] culture has continued to be one of unresolved and apparently unresolvable moral and other disagreements in which the evaluative and normative utterances of the contending parties present a problem of interpretation. For on the one hand they seem to presuppose a reference to some shared impresonal standard in virtue of which at most one of those contending parties can be in the right, and yet on the other the poverty of the arguments adduced in support of their assertions and the characteristically shrill, and assertive and expressive mode in which they are uttered suggest strongly that there is no such standard. My explanation was and is that the precepts that are thus uttered were once at home in, and intelligible in terms of, a context of practical beliefs and of supporting habits of thought, feeling, and action, a context that has since been lost, a context in which moral judgments were understood as governed by impersonal standards justified by a shared conception of the human good.
Prologue to the third edition (2007), ix.

What was originally shared by all premodern moral codes, according to MacIntyre, was a sense of innate human purpose to which all ethical actions were to be directed. Necessary for any coherent ethical system are three components: a realistic evaluation of flawed human nature as it is now, a positive vision of transformed humanity as it ought to be, and an understanding of the sorts of actions that will transform one into the other. Good and evil actions are defined relative to a shared conception of what a good human being ought to be. MacIntyre traces this tradition through ancient epic poetry, the Hellenic philosophical tradition, and the Aristotleianism of mediaeval Europe. Although different cultures conceptualize the good in different ways (Aristotle, for example, would not have admired Christ and would have been horrified by St. Paul), each of the cultures examined shares a single idea of the good life which determined its moral code. Conspicuously absent are the irresolvable moral dilemmas that characterize modern discourse.

The villains in MacIntyre's narrative are the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who sought to overturn Aristotelianism in favour of a new, wholly "rational" philosophy. The problem they faced was with their overly narrow concept of reason. To the Enlightenment philosophers, rationality was primarily instrumental; reason is a tool, and one that can be used to exert power over the natural world. Instrumental reason is a great thing - it's the tool that allows us to transform chemicals like zinc oxide into everyday objects like emergency brakes, refrigerator shelves and pacemakers - but because it's only a tool, it can't tell you why you should want brakes, shelves, or pacemakers in the first place. Reason can help you make a bomb as easily as a fire extinguisher, but falls silent when you need to decide which one to use. David Hume was perceptive enough to recognize the problem, but concluded that ethics must therefore be a matter of the emotions rather than the intellect. From Hume followed a series of attempts to reconstruct an ethical system based on Enlightenment rationality, all of which ultimately reveal themselves as incoherent. And for all their pretensions at creating a truly new ethical system, all of these philosophers coincidentally end up advocating something like the Judaeo-Christian morality with which they were brought up. The entire enterprise of modern ethics begins to seem like an exercise in question-begging.

Laments for an idealized past are a dime a dozen, and MacIntyre's book would have little value if it merely noted social problems without offering a solution. After all, most the societies MacIntyre discusses have disappeared irretrievably: no-one today can or should act like Hector, Andromache, or Antigone. MacIntyre instead urges us to consider the concept of a virtue. Most people assume that virtues require a previously articulated moral code for their existence, as with the Christian "cardinal virtues" of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. However, no human practice can exist without virtues and vices of its own. Few of us would hesitate to describe a pencil that fails to make a mark on the pencil as a "bad pencil," or a doctor that fails to cure any of his patients as a "bad doctor". And to master a practice as complex as medicine, many virtues are necessary beyond mere technical skill at healing: good judgment, compassion, and intellectual humility, for starters. The ancient virtues re-emerge, whether we invite them or not.

It's a big jump from the concept of "good doctor" to the more extensive "good human being," but the virtues necessary to activities like medicine are transferable to all other human endeavours. If the virtue of compassion was directed towards the goal of being a good physician, it can also be directed towards the goal of becoming a good human being. This sense of human purpose will develop organically within a group of people who share common practices, and if left alone will provide the basis for a healthy and just society. It is only when our sense of purpose becomes confused that our society fails to congeal, and we find ourselves divided on the most basic questions of ethical behaviour.

Without zinc oxide, your stove erupts in flames. Without a shared network of values and ideals, society dissolves into moral confusion. If our culture invested as much effort and care into cultivating shared values and ideals as it did into zinc oxide, we would be better equipped to make difficult decisions.

Friday, November 13, 2009


On the somewhat enigmatic blog Hilobrow, Matthew Battles eviscerates the New Yorker review of the new film The Box. After paying the film a series of backhanded compliments, the reviewer suggests that the film's director "drop his reliance on religio-mystico-eschatological humbug and embrace, in realistic terms, the fantastic possibilities of ordinary acts of murder, fear, heroism, and death. If he pulls himself together, he could be the next Hitchcock." Says Battles:
Get serious. Get realistic. Get ordinary. If we want the human career entire, however, we must accept that religio-mystico-eschatological humbug will never die out, middlebrow bromides notwithstanding.

HiLoBrow celebrates the ordinary possibilities of the fantastic. Humbug, too, deserves its Hitchcock.
To me, this sounds suspiciously like the thirteenth of the Radical Orthodoxy Theses:
Radical Orthodoxy rejoices in the unavoidably and authentically arcane, mysterious, and fascinatingly difficult. It regards this preference as democratic, since in loving mystery, it wishes also to diffuse and disseminate it. We relish the task of sharing a delight in the hermetic with uninitiated others.
What's going on here? I think it unlikely that Hilobrow is endorsing the explicitly antimodern Augustinianism of Radical Orthodox theology, but both statements reflect an animus against middlebrow culture. In Battles's article, we are confronted with a critical establishment that looks with disapproval upon anything "religio-mystico-eschatological," whatever that means. The critic even has the temerity to suggest a list of themes for the director's next movie ("ordinary acts of murder, fear, heroism, and death") which suggest nothing so much as a mediocre episode of Law and Order. In the Radical Orthodoxy manifesto, we are urged to reject a mode of discourse that attempts to reduce religious faith to the mundane and socially acceptable; in its place, they seek to develop a theology that accepts the full implications of the Christian mystery, and a liturgical praxis that embodies that mystery. Both writers have noticed the same trend: a middlebrow distaste for the complex, fantastic and mystical.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Concertina Brow Manifesto

1. The Concertina Brow acknowledges his mission as a subset of the general war on Neon Arrows.

2. The Concertina Brow reserves the right to enjoy any artistic product, activity, food, beverage, or cultural artefact of any kind, with no regard for the degree to which his tastes may or may not align with highbrows, middlebrows, lowbrows, or any other brow style of which we may not be aware. The fact that a cultural artefact was favoured by Dead, White, European Males is of no significance, either positive or negative. The opinion of his contemporaries is likewise completely irrelevant to the Concertina Brow, with the exception of individuals whose critical acumen he respects. "Popular" and "unpopular" are terms neither of approbation nor contempt.

3. The Concertina Brow affirms that the relationship of differing artistic traditions (whether divided along highbrow/lowbrow lines or along cultural lines) is one of partial incommensurability. It is logically impossible to state categorically that Italian cuisine, mystery novels, and "pop" music are "better" or "worse" than Thai cuisine, philosophical treatises, and "classical" music, since these terms represent nothing more than conflicting standards of culinary, literary and musical success. It is nevertheless possible, however, to make judgments of quality between particular works, either of a similar genre (a Dan Brown novel versus a Dorothy Sayers novel) or of an entirely different genre (a poorly prepared Italian meal versus an exquisite Japanese meal).

4. The Concertina Brow believes that all forms of cultural expression are of interest and merit based on their unique characteristics, which cannot be encapsulated in any other form of experience. He objects strenously to statements that "Form X is just as good as Form Y," which he recognizes as the veiled insult that it is.

5. The Concertina Brow denies that there is any particular merit to highbrow tastes against lowbrow tastes; indeed, a convicted lowbrow may be more discriminating and tasteful than a highbrow within his own domain.

6. The Concertina Brow believes good taste to be of greater moral significance than is currently believed. His goal is to develop this quality in himself and to encourage its development in others, within the sphere of artistic endeavour that interests them.

7. The Concertina Brow believes that the attempts of institutions to "convert" anyone to a different form of aesthetic expression, whether "higher" or "lower," is presumptuous and insulting. It is the business of arts organizations to present the broadest possible spectrum of expression within their genre at its highest level of quality, not to attempt to alter individual taste preferences. If a person wants to explore a new art form, he should consult knowledgeable friends for guidance and direction. Under no account should a highbrow be pestered for not drinking Bud Light, or a lowbrow pestered for not listening to Xenakis.

8. The Concertina Brow's natural ally is the Highbrow, who shares his concern to articulate the positive qualities of high culture against its cultural attackers. His natural enemy is the Middlebrow, who seeks to subsume both Highbrows (by shaming them) and Lowbrows (by "converting" them) into an "inclusive" culture, neither fish nor fowl. The Concertina Brow likes Lowbrows too, but he doesn't talk to them about aesthetics.

9. The Concertina Brow objects to all self-conscious "crossover" art as exemplifying a baleful Middlebrow influence. He is reconciled to such efforts only if they acquire a definitive expressive form of their own, which he will then judge on its own merits.

10. The Concertina Brow philosophically accepts today's artistic pluralism as a necessary consequence of the centuries-old broader social trend toward individualism and subjectivity. Any attempt to gather our fragmentary cultural forms into a single monoculture therefore has the character of a utopian fantasy, and is thus extremely dangerous.

11. The Concertina Brow nevertheless affirms the special status of the European "High" tradition in the arts and humanities as one which should be given pride of place in the education system, for three reasons. First, it represents the most significant example of an unbroken literate tradition in human history, and thus has qualities which do not exist in oral or vernacular traditions. Second, it represents the basis of today's cultural and political milieu, for better or for worse, having been either inherited or voluntarily adopted to a significant extent by all of the world's societies. Third, its current underrepresentation in the mass media means that only in the schools will young men and women be exposed to it, even if their ultimate choice will be to reject it.

12. The Concertina Brow objects strongly to manifestos as being prescriptive and tacky.

(with apologies to the author of Radical Orthodoxy: 24 Theses)

The browbeaten masses

A terrific post at The Transcontinental on the recent dustup, and the overwhelming dominance of a "middlebrow consensus" in the classical music community:
To be clear - I am not saying high culture is better than mass culture. What I am saying is that people on the high culture side of things feel a very great tendency to say out loud, and often, that they think mass culture is just as good as high culture. . . What they are really doing is making it clear that the middlebrows are still the arbiters of taste, even though most people's complete indifference to classical music, and the classical music community's intense, nearly overwhelming desire to proselytize, to convert, the lowbrows over to the fold suggests the complete opposite.
It seems to me that this is exactly right. There is no demand from the many, many fans of Céline Dion, for example, that we acknowledge her music as having the same aesthetic and formal merits as the Saint Matthew Passion; indeed, anyone who starts thinking along these lines at a Céline Dion concert is probably missing the point. There is likewise no demand from cranky, dyspeptic organist-bloggers that Céline Dion fans should be forced, perhaps at gunpoint, to attend performances of the Saint Matthew Passion - they would probably be unhappy, confused, and disruptive. (Would you rather sit next to a Dion fan at a symphony concert - or me at a Céline Dion concert - or someone who actually wants to be there? Think hard.) The demand for a spurious "reintegration" of classical and popular music comes exclusively from a middlebrow intellectual elite, who accuse the highbrows of snobbery and condescension while simultaneously condescending to the lowbrows by their patronizing attempts to "convert" them to classical music, or Shakespeare, or multigrain bread, or whatever.

The highbrow/lowbrow distinction itself, of course, is a relic of medieval phrenology, in which the dimensions of one's skull were thought to be indicators of one's mental characteristics, particularly intelligence. I'm not sure who coined the term "middlebrow," but the concept is certainly foreshadowed in Hazlitt's 1816 essay "On Common-Place Critics":
A common-place critic has something to say upon every occasion, and he always tells you either what is not true, or what you knew before, or what is not worth knowing. He is a person who thinks by proxy, and talks by rote. He differs with you, not because he thinks you are in the wrong, but because he thinks somebody else will think so. Nay, it would be well if he stopped here; but he will undertake to misrepresent you by anticipation, lest others should misunderstand you, and will set you right, not only in opinions which you have, but in those which you may be supposed to have. . . He thinks it difficult to prove the existence of any such thing as original genius, or to fix a general standard of taste. He does not think it possible to define what wit is. In religion his opinions are liberal. He considers all enthusiasm as a degree of madness, particularly to be guarded against by young minds; and believes that truth lies in the middle, between the extremes of right and wrong.
The central characteristic of the middlebrow is a sort of intellectual parasitism; because the very concept of "middle" is epistemically secondary, he depends upon the concepts of high and low culture to orient himself. As the public prestige of high art continues to dwindle, and public figures avoid showing any support for Western culture for fear of being represented as snobs and racists, the middlebrow is obliged to invent more and more ludicrous highbrow straw men against whom to inveigh. He urges artists to strive towards an integration of high-art and low-art elements in their work, in the name of artistic "diversity" - which, in this case, means that all styles should become exactly the same. The only downside to the career of a middlebrow is that he would be immediately put out of a job if his dreams of cultural integration ever came true - which shows how carefully he's chosen his target, for they never will.

Middlebrow culture, in short, is a culture that can only be defined negatively. It is utopian, therefore another example of Neon Arrow thinking, and therefore ultimately nihilistic. It claims catholicity of taste against highbrow snobbery and lowbrow Philistinism, but its position is in fact rather more precarious, with its constant nervous glances upwards and downwards to make sure they haven't slipped too far in one direction. But no-one who reads classical music blogs can plausibly claim their tastes to be "lowbrow," nor can anyone cling exclusively to European highbrow culture in this media-saturated age. The only alternative seems to be what Robertson Davies, writing as his inimitable alter ego Samuel Marchbanks, described as the "concertina brow," able to alternately enjoy "middlebrow" red wine, "lowbrow" farces, and "highbrow" Wagnerian opera. (It seems to me that this is probably what the folks at mean by "hilobrow," but I find myself stymied by their cryptic website.) The concertina brow will partake of artistic products and other cultural artefacts solely because he enjoys them and for no other reason, and will resist the efforts of the middlebrows to consolidate and amalgamate highbrow and lowbrow culture into mush.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A free thought

It's not so much that bad prose ruins the effect of good music precisely, although even that is closer to the truth than most people suppose. Rather, there is something profoundly pathetic about seeing the noble charger Gregorian Chant harnessed to the clattering shopping cart of Inclusive Language.