God and Man at 1200 words

The very existence of this blog testifies to my belief that scholars certainly may and perhaps now and then should try to write for non-specialist readers. And the other side of this belief is my conviction that non-specialists can and perhaps ought to try writing about music. The intellectual conversation around music would be better for it; music itself would be better for it. So understand that I do not object to William F. Buckley’s review of Martin Geck’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Works (this week in the New York Times Book Review) simply because Buckley is not a Bach scholar. I object to Buckley’s review because, ah, now, what is the le mot juste? The perfect stroke of the polemicist’s lexical épée with which to transfix the thin tawdry appeal of a certain eminence grise to the vox populi, or, failing that, the vox dei with which said eminence regularly confuses his own vox? I object to Buckley’s review, ladies and gentlemen, because it is stupid. It is a particular kind of stupid: stupid dressed up in the spangles and epaulets of a pointlessly ornate literary style; dressed up, like a pompous arriviste preening in front of a mirror, with words that stupid people believe will confer a patrician touch. Buckley, writing of his own early experience with Bach, remembers a nanny who played Bach on the record players after she “drew the shades, though not so completely as absolutely to forestall legerdemain.” Later he “essays” a two-part invention while at boarding school. (Gentlemen never “try,” they only “essay.”) Buckley, now joining Geck on the high plateau of scholarly contemplation, muses that the trouble with Bach is all those works that may have been lost — or, rather, are “only contingently extant.”

And for Buckley this essay isn’t even that bad. At least he restrains himself from using that dialect composed of words with a fusty archaic flavor — or, as Julian Sanchez puts it, the “‘welcome to the 19th century’ variant to which conservatives seem especially susceptible.” Not always or only conservatives, though. The general badness of Buckley’s writing has nothing to do with his politics. Buckley was close friends with Murray Kempton, a self-described (or shall I
say soi-disant?) socialist whose writing is bad in exactly the same way.

But I’m beating up on Buckley mostly because he indulges in the special vice of non-specialist writers who review specialist publications: assuming that because he doesn’t understand something, no reasonable person could be expected to understand it either:

And you wonder, fugitively, whether Geck was finally too distracted to
stop and just listen. He tells us, on the subject of the complexity of
one of Bach’s chorales, such details as that “the canon voices of the
cantus firmus are divided over two separate keyboards” and “are not
acoustically separated from the other parts.” Thus, “the fabric of
constantly intersecting voices is nonetheless barely comprehensible
because Bach has overlaid the contrapuntal layer with its traditional
opposite. The two voices ‘accompanying’ the cantus firmus canon are
expressive solos taken from the slow movements of his sonatas and
concerti and tricked out with modern mannerisms and gallant rhythmic
changes.” This is the scalpel applied to the Mona Lisa, which brings to
mind a recent news story on the scientists who are studying that
masterpiece with invisible infrared light, perhaps hoping to establish
what the subject ate on the day Leonardo painted her eyes.

OK, quick, hum the most famous chorale prelude of them all, “Wachet Auf.” What do you sing? The “expressive solo,” not the chorale melody. No-one who isn’t a church organist knows how the chorale goes — it’s the stream of eighth-notes that accompanies it that everyone remembers. This is Bach’s thing, reversing figure and ground, or making the relations between figure and ground one of ever-shifting unfolding re-invention. What Geck is describing lies at the center of Bach’s expressive art of chorale embellishment. But the analogy to the Mona Lisa is meant to suggest that Geck’s analysis is pointlessly sophisticated, and that such meaningless casuistry misses the point of the art itself. And what is the point? What can we say about Bach that really gets at the majesty of his creation?

We consumers of Bach suffer from an inability to express what it is,
exactly, that Bach does for us. This may simply be the metaphysical
drawback in music criticism. How to describe Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”?
Hagiographers tend to react in the manner of Miss Oyen rather than that
of Martin Geck. Devotional exercises can even take theological turns.
During a lecture I once gave at a Lutheran seminary in St. Louis, an
animated young man rose to ask whether, given my attachment to Bach, I
shouldn’t reconsider my Catholic affiliation. My polemical guardian
angel was with me, because only a few months before I had read a novel
called “Bach and the Heavenly Choir,” which concerns an impasse at the Vatican
in the search for a new pope. In desperation, after multiple ballots,
the cardinals settle on an elderly, pious abbot presiding over a small,
ancient seminary in the South of France, where he taught Scripture and
immersed himself and the seminarians in music. Two years after his
installation, the new pope lets out word that he intends to canonize
Johann Sebastian Bach. The idea brings on surprised and then heated
resistance. Bach, the pope is reminded, was a Lutheran and could not be
made a saint under Catholic auspices.

The quiet father listens.
But after a long time asks, How could his counselors explain the music
of Bach, other than as the work of God?

So saying “God did it” is so much more satisfying?

You know, I don’t have a problem with non-specialists writing about music. I have a problem with non-specialists writing about music badly — which is also the main problem I have with specialists. And really, this review is only a symptom of something that seems to have happened more and more to the New York Times Book Review since Sam Tanenhaus took it over. Maybe it’s not his fault — maybe it was happening anyway — but lately it seems as if the principle behind choosing reviewers has become their celebrity, and the way the book under review feeds some aspect of their public image. William F. Buckley is known to be the sort of urbane chap who plays Bach on his harpsichord; his review becomes an opportunity for him to burnish this little part of his public mythology. Which means that the review does not end up being about the book, or even about Bach himself. My main dude Scott McLemee wrote about an equally lame review William T. Vollmann wrote of a Nietzsche biography, Vollmann having no qualifications for writing about Nietzsche beyond being the kind of hard-living writer who gets called “Nietzschean.” Writes Mclemee:

And while it is not too surprising that a review of a biography of a
philosopher would tend to focus on, well, his life — and even on his
sex life, such as it was for the celibate Nietzsche — it is still
reasonable to expect maybe a paragraph or two about his ideas. Vollmann
never gets around to that. Instead, he offers only the murkiest of
pangyrics to Nietzsche’s bravery and transgressive weirdness — as if he
were a contestant in the some X Games of the mind, or maybe a prototype
of Vollmann himself.

At this point you might ask me, OK, what would good journalistic writing on academic subjects look like? And my answer to you is this: Scott McLemee. McLemee ends his article with the suggestion that the Times Book Review put out a special issue in which academic specialists review every book — but not books about their academic specialty. I like that idea. My own idea is that the NYT put out an issue where every book is reviewed by Scott McLemee. Or me.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Books, Intellectuals. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to God and Man at 1200 words

  1. Elsie says:

    Phil, I commend your minute dissection of this unreadable Bach review; you’ve certainly more patience than me. I’ve been frustrated by the growing trend of journalist-as-subject in lesser newspapers for some time; to see the NYT go in this direction too, especially given that it’s one of the few press outlets where musicology gets any coverage, is depressing.

  2. Peter Alexander says:

    Phil: Thank you for that! I read the same review and hated it for the same reasons. I too noted and particularly hated the Mona Lisa crack. It’s too easy to mock what you don’t understand, and you could do this with any writing, in any field, intended for specilaists. It’s like asking a theoretical physicist if he doesn’t just look at the stars. Well, yes, it starts there but at some point you need to go a little deeper than unalloyed awe. Besides, I have always found Buckley’s Baroque pretensions — including using the Brandenburg #2 for his theme music — to be annoying. Bach became an ornament, a way for him to say “aren’t I refined.” It’s a cheap cachet.

  3. John Duffy says:

    You have probably seen James Ostreich’s review (NYT: B42, Friday, December 22, 2006)that somewhat redeems the paper’s selection of Buckley as a reviewer in the Book Review. Buckley is reputed to be a cultured fellow. I, alas, have only experienced him in his pretentious, portentous, paternalistic, and self-absorbed moments.

  4. Tom Darbinger says:

    …and yet, this response to Buckley’s review, however one may take to it, is itself the most inanely pointless piece of writing by someone who clearly believes in the necessity to spread his opinion as much as Buckley. The irony, oh the irony.

Comments are closed.