10 January 2009

Or: He Is Largely Right, Although . . . .

Trying to play a guitar solo in this band is like
trying to grow a watermelon in Easter hay.
— Frank Zappa

In this post of mine, I expressed relieved pleasure (or it may have been pleased relief) that someone else out there (in this case, Jno Bellman on Dial "M" for Musicology) saw through a certain variety of projective cultural narcissism.

Also on Dial "M", Phil Ford picks a most reasonable quarrel (though with a title apt to rile a few Bach-o-philes) with a tag to a rhetorical question:

[Bellman] :: How can any of us be sure how people's minds worked? Particularly people whose minds are better than ours, by many parsecs?

In brief, Mr Ford's point that the mind of the artistic genius differs from the everyday mind (for the most part) in degree, rather than in kind, is well taken. But, I think that Mr Bellman's tag there is honorific, in a way inessential to the point of his rh. q. I think there is some middle ground to be struck between Mr Bellman's uncertainty, and Mr Ford's pragmatism of [having] to proceed from the assumption that other minds work basically the same way as ours.

Art is I; science is we.
— Claude Bernard

To adapt Mr Bellman's example, it seems to me fair to claim that when I proof a choral octavo, I [do X]; when Vaughan Williams proofed a choral octavo, he [did X]. There's ample field for presuming much the same functionality, particularly regarding the more 'mechanical' tasks within the broad umbrella of composition; but the creative work, that's something of another matter.

A neighbor elsewhere, in the course of discussing the question of genius, observes:

Einstein was clearly a genius, but had he been run over by bus in 1904 someone else would have worked out special and general relativity. Had JS Bach died in 1700 we would not have the WTC.
And why? Because Einstein's discoveries are out there in the natural world, awaiting (one might say) comprehension. Apart from the unique circumstances which result in a composer's writing it, the work of music is not. And while I should agree with Mr Ford that other minds work basically the same way as ours, two ancillary concerns which I see in the present topic are: if there is variety in personality 'type', how might this translate to differences in the workings of mind; and (to build on Mr Bellman's question), how can I be sure that Beethoven's compositional mind works the same as mine, when there is a limit to how well I might elucidate my own process, the compositional experience I walk through myself?

1 comment:

Cato said...

Hi Karl!

Debates on the definition of genius take me back 40 years!

I will not relive the sophomoric aspects of those quibblings, but one aspect has remained constant in my mind, one that troubles me more today in our growing "gimme-gimme" society of egalitarians than ever before.

Namely, the fear that the egalitarian pressures of the ochlocracies may prevent budding geniuses from blossoming, and that the lionization of mediocrity will swamp and even drown the productions of the geniuses who do emerge.

Namely, the fear that were Beethoven or Bach to be born today, their personalities would be rendered sterile by a risk-averse mediocratizing nanny-society/state.

How do you produce an "Eroica" Symphony when the anti-hero is king? When heroism must be found to have several Achilles' heels so that the hero emerges as nothing special, lest the herd feel bad about not being on his level? How would Bach produce his cantatas in the fashionable era of empty churches and trendy scientific atheism? A Passion According To Saint Richard Dawkins would not resound with the same passion as the one according to Matthew.

I have mentioned Albert Jay Nock, a pessimistic conservative philosopher from the early 20th century, who nevertheless retained some optimism that somehow, by hook or by crook, the genius would find his audience, and the audience would find the genius, even if on a small underground scale. These people he called The Remnant.

So while the severely off-key "geniuses" with no demonstrable talent are extolled by the mediocracy and have heavy bank accounts, let the creator who is confident about his own definition of genius stride forcefully into his imagination to explore new worlds...despite the nonsense around him.