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Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Why are the greatest composers all German?

Posted by Adam Roberts on 06/04/06 at 12:32 PM

[Note: I wrote this a while ago, and toyed with the notion of posting it when I was first invited by John H. to become a guest author.  I didn’t because the last Moretti book post rendered it, I thought, redundant.  But looking at it again I’m thinking perhaps I was too hasty.  It talks about similar phenomena to the ones Moretti analyses in terms of the novel (although I range windily over the whole of human culture), but it also suggests a particular answer to the question posed in the title that I’m not sure is much in keeping with Moretti’s approach.  But just because it’s not as well-thought-through or as, er, good as Moretti’s work doesn’t mean that it mightn’t bear a day or two in the light of the Valve.]

I’m talking about classical music of course, and I can start with polemical oversimplification, as follows: almost all the greatest composers were from a small area in northern Europe, and all were working within a relatively short period of time.  Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, Wagner … all of them were German.  Some notable other figures (Smetana, Holst, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Grieg) came from territories proximate geographically and culturally to Germany.  All these figures composed during a narrow historical timeframe from the end of the eighteenth-century to the end of the nineteenth.  So this is my question, boiled down to its essentials: why is it that all the great classical composers are German, working within a tightly-defined period of a handful of decades of one another?

Thousands of years of human musical creativity has resulted in an enormous body of work, from every culture.  Why should this corpus be so dominated by a small group of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Germans?

There are a number of possible answers to this question.  One, which I think needs dismissing right away, is the ‘genius’ argument:  to say that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were, simply, geniuses, and that therefore their inspired creativity can’t usefully be interrogated (the line peddled in Forman’s meretricious Amadeus movie): this gets us nowhere.  Related to this is the argument that ‘there is just something musical about Germans’.  During the nineteenth-century, whilst Germany was producing Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and all the rest, England was producing … well, nobody at all.  Why so many great composers from one nation, and none at all from another nation, particularly when we consider that England is proximate to Germany, both geographically and culturally?  In 1856 Ralph Waldo Emerson declared flatly ‘England has no music’, and later in the century Nietzsche wondered whether the English had a defect in their national soul, a lack of rhythm or sense of musical movement, to explain the barrenness of their musical culture.  Is this the answer?  Of course not.  Such arguments are easily refutable: essentialism of this sort is merely another name for racism.

I’m not actually that interested in the supposed German dominance of the classical music canon; I’m interested in art more generally conceived.  I would argue that similar phenomena are evident in all forms of art.  Human artistic achievement repeats this pattern: a long period of low-level achievement, then a short period of inspired production of marvellous art by a small group of exceptional creators; then another long period of low-level production overshadowed by the canon of works by this earlier group.  Let me call this phenomenon golden-age clumping; an uneuphonious phrase by which I mean that separate discourses of artistic productivity are almost always dominated by a “golden age”, a small cadre of artists working in close proximity to one another.

For example: classical literature from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD (that’s 700 years, give or take) was dominated by the brilliant achievement of just such a small group, all from the same city (Athens), all working within a hundred years of one another (in the 5th century BC), many of them friends:  Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, names that are still resonant today.  These poets, dramatists, philosophers and historians, overshadowed Western culture for two millennia.  It is not that nobody else was writing between the 5th century and the Renaissance.  On the contrary, each generation produced myriad scribblers and thinkers, aspirants to the golden-age mantle.  They just weren’t as good as the golden names of Periclean Athens.

Here’s another example: in two hundred years England gave the world Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning: no poetry written before or since, I patriotically (or chauvinistically) assert, comes close to the cultural dominance of the poetry written by that group.  Great poets have come and gone all over the world, of course; but this list represents some of the most influential and dominant grouping in the history of world poetry.

Painting has been a feature of every single world culture for thousands of years, and yet our notions of ‘great painting’ are still rooted in two clumps: a handful of Italian Renaissance painters on the one hand; and a handful of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century French painters (or painters who lived and worked in France) on the other.  Why should this be?  Moreover the enduring success of the second group is grounded in the fact that they invented a new way of doing painting, and so created a body of work distinct from the Renaissance masters. What does this tell us?

And what about fiction?  Two hundred thousand new novels are printed every year.  Many of them are good.  Yet I’ll hazard a prediction that no novelists working in any language today will have the enduring cultural weight and influence enjoyed by a group of a dozen-or-so French, British and Russian novelists from the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century’, amongst them Jane Austen, Scott, George Eliot, the Brontes, Dickens, Flaubert, Hugo, Tolstoi, Dostoevski, Henry James, Balzac, Zola, Conrad, Proust, James Joyce.

To revisit the question of music.  One way of rebuking ‘essentialist’ analyses of music would be to ask this question:  if the lack of English 19th-century composers is to be explained by a simple lack of musical talent in the English ‘soul’, then why is it that the situation that obtained in classical music at the turn of the nineteenth-century was completely reversed towards the end of the twentieth?  At the beginning of the nineteenth-century the Germans produced the world-shaping musicians and composers and the English had not.  But during a brief period from the 1960s to the 1980s it was English music that shaped a new popular genre: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, the punk groups, The Jam, the Smiths.  No German groups from this period are remembered today.  This is because there just aren’t German groups of equivalent stature from this period (the only exception I can think of is Kraftwerk).  It’s not that Germany lacked a culture of popular music (all that Krautrock, Faust, Can, Neu! and so on, much of it really good.  But none of it achieved the cultural saturation or musical dominance of the Beatles or the Stones, of punk or the Smiths.  Isn’t that a strange reflection on the land that produced Bach, Mozart and Beethoven?

Of course, it’s not that the above list of English popsters expresses a narrowly national dominance; that belongs, more fully, to North American musicians (Elvis; Dylan; Beach Boys; Motown; Stevie Wonder; Jimi Hendrix). But I’d still insist that a relatively short period, and two adjacent cultures, account for pretty much the whole of the popular music that matters.  Alas, this golden age of music is probably over now:  popular music as a genre continues to throw up a bewildering array of bands, but most of these are simply rehearsing the successes of this small group of antecedent geniuses.  My prediction: people interested in Pop for the next few centuries will still tend to fall back on the giants of the 1960s and 1970s US-UK scene.

In other words the case I’m putting forward the following thumbnail sketch of human cultural achievement:  the various branches of art enjoy long periods of mediocre achievement, punctuated by blazing, tightly-defined (geographically and chronologically) ‘golden ages’, which then go on to dominate the canon or received climate of the art for many subsequent generations.

Why should this be?  If artistic ability is distributed evenly amongst the population, as seems likely (so that, let us say, one in two hundred thousands humans has exceptional ability regardless of accident of place or time of birth), we would expect artistic achievement to be spread evenly, throughout time and throughout countries.  But this is not what we find.  Why not?

We might be tempted to address this question from aesthetic, cultural or ideological grounds, but I want to suggest thinking it through Darwin.  Let’s think of ‘texts’ (books, poems, works of music, paintings or whatever) less as human artefacts, and more as agents in a cultural environment governed by Darwinian laws.

The Darwinian dynamic is observed in any complex interacting system where there is (a) a mechanism for change or mutation by which new forms of organization may differ from older ones, and (b) an environment that rewards some mutations rather than others.  The classic Darwinian paradigm is material and botano-biological, where the mechanism for change is random variation in heredity, and the environment the diverse and often crowded (and therefore competitive) landscapes of our planet.  But there are other arena in which Darwinian thinking can be applied.

Naturally we need to be careful when doing this.  Some attempts to apply a Darwinian paradigm to non-biological fields result in pernicious discourses: the ‘Social Darwinism’ of far right political groups, for instance, is noisome, and moreover based on a misunderstanding of Darwin’s ideas.  I’ve also little time for the Dawkins school of ‘memes’, ideas, concepts and beliefs that ‘infect’ human minds, such that ‘religion’ is thought of existing in a quasi-living manner like a virus, and subject to Darwinian constraints.  I don’t think I’m talking about memes.

Think instead of texts as animals, he says, living in an environment of readers, viewers and listeners.  These texts compete with one another not for food and sexual partners, but for our attention.  In this environment, the most successful pieces of music (for example) will win many listeners, and those listeners will ‘keep the music alive’ by playing it, buying copies of it, re-recording and replicating it.  It is as simple as that.  Mozart’s music has prospered because it is best ‘fitted’ to its particular environment (us, or more specifically our taste in music).  Salieri’s music failed because it was less well fitted.  It is not that Salieri’s music is in any sense intrinsically ‘worse’ than Mozart’s, any more than a dodo was intrinsically worse than a seagull.  It is simply that one was adapted to its environment better than the other.

Texts have several strategies for snagging our attention, or more forcefully for cultivating our love.  As with types of organism in the real world, most books will fall by the wayside; but some ‘stronger’ ‘fitter’ books will succeed.  They will ‘breed’ in the sense that many copies of them will be made, and they will disseminate themselves all around the world.  They succeed in avoiding death, just as does our DNA if we breed successfully.  In fact it is rather misleading to think of texts as ‘animals’, because unlike animals their success is measured diretcly in their overcoming of mortality, not in their success in the struggle to breed: successful ‘texts’ live forever, where unsuccessful ones ‘die out’—Homer’s Iliad succeeds and is still alive; Statius’s Thebiad failed and died.  In a crucial sense, the Iliad is an immortal animal.  Where the botanical and biological worlds are constantly reshaped by the fact that individual organisms die off, opening space for new organisms, the world of texts is dominated by the elite of “immortal” texts, crowding out all newcomers.  If you write a new play, it must be better than Shakespeare in some evolutionary sense if it is to live on.  That’s a tall order.  It is this, I think, that explains the relatively denuded textual ecospheres:  there are countless thousands of types of insect, but only two dozen or so types of Classical Composer.

This may read like a metaphorical description of the environment of reading, but I’m tempted to ask for it to be taken literally.  The world of textual reception is as real a Darwinian environment as any.  And I think it does explain the ‘golden age’ phenomenon.

In the natural world random mutations introduce variations into the gene pool, some beneficial, most neutral or negative.  In the world of art we see the same thing.  Bach chanced upon techniques of musical composition that made his music ‘stronger’ than other composers’ work in a Darwinian sense: more likely to live in people’s hearts, more likely to make people replicate it and continue it.  Mozart and Beethoven copied these techniques and improved upon them (this is the textual equivalent of sexual transmission of favourable genes).  Their geographical and temporary proximity is just a way of saying ‘these people were in the ideal position to come across and assimilate the ideas of these other people’.  Mozart and Beethoven come from the same nation at approximately the same time for the same reason and to the same effect that two people having sex must necessarily be physically proximate.

Had earlier composers chanced upon the compositional techniques that Bach did, then they would have colonised the environment created by people’s taste in music.  It so happened that they did not; Bach did.  And why has classical music since the nineteenth-century not lived up to the achievement of those composers?  Because there is only a limited pool of favourable new ‘techniques’ that can be applied to the business of musical composition (or, by extension, to the writing of poetry, the painting of pictures, or to any discrete artistic genre).  It won’t be long before these favourable techniques are all ‘used up’, and the golden age ends.  Later texts will be mere imitations of golden age originals, and these of course are much less ‘strong’ in the Darwinian sense; why listen to an imitator of Mozart when you can listen to Mozart himself?

There are, I should add, many additional unfavourable techniques, strategies which do not endear texts to people; but these are quickly ‘bred out’ by people’s uninterest.  In Darwinist terms, texts can be thought of as occupying certain ‘niches’.  Most of these are crowded, and competition is fierce:  if you compose a classical symphony today, it will have to have more ‘appeal’ than Bach-Mozart-Beethoven-etc if you want it to survive and prosper.  Not something easily done.  Some niches are relatively uncolonised (aspects of the contemporary avant-garde, for instance); but as in Nature, their relative emptiness is usually a function of the fact that they are much less fertile environments in the first place.  When a composer chances upon new favourable techniques, then, it is not surprising that these techniques are rapidly seized upon by proximate composers.

In a short space of time, anything from a few decades to a century or more (depending on the complexity of the art), all the variations of these favourable new techniques will have been embodied in actual texts.  These texts will be ‘strong’ in the Darwinian sense, and will tend to crowd out other less well-fitted or merely derivative texts.  There is, as it were, no time to lose:  when a new favourable but improvable technique is chanced upon, you’d better hurry to imitate and improve it, if you want your text to become immortal.  Otherwise somebody else will, and the niche will fill up, crowding you and your text out.

In other words, Bach-Mozart-Beethoven et al simply happened to be the ones who used up all the new ways of composing.  Composers that merely copied these new techniques doomed their texts to being outcompeted by the stronger pre-existing originals.  The only alternative for composers was to introduce new techniques so radically different that they changed the ‘environment’ altogether—for instance, writing pop instead of classical, and so appealing to a whole new audience.

An author writing a book is like a turtle giving birth to a baby; the baby will carry certain changes in its genetic code that (hopefully) will fit it to its environment, enabling it to prosper.  The book (hopefully) will be different enough to other books to attract readers, whilst still giving readers ‘what they want’.  Schools and universities, by compelling students to read books that would otherwise pass into desuetude (for who reads Milton for pleasure nowadays?) are like farms and zoos, preserving animals that would otherwise certainly die out.

I look back on what I’ve written, and I can see problems.  It might be objected that the phenomenon of ‘golden age’ clumps isn’t true in the first place; perhaps it’s a sort of cultural optical illusion, or perhaps I’ve just selectively forced the data to suggest groupings that don’t actually exist.  But on the offchance that you happen to agree that there are such clumps, I wonder how you’d explain their existence?  Just wondering.


Comments

Well, we only have a record of about 500-600 years of music, so forget the “thousands of years”. My take is that the German domination began about 1700 and lasted until the death of Beethoven in 1827. Before that time Burgundian, Italian, French and even English composers matched or surpassed the Germans. But few listen to music from before 1700. (So the window is now 300 years).

In Germany music became a central part of the religion and was well funded, and the audience participated. It likewise became central to the educational system as it wasn’t elsewhere, so the general level of musical literacy and competence was very high. Secular princes funded music for prestige and also because they enjoyed it, and the bourgeoisie likewise spent money on music when they became a factor. (Bach through Beethoven mark a social trend from patronage to work for the market.) In short, during all that period Germany dedicated itself diligently to music in a way other countries didn’t.

Why England was so weak I don’t know. Probably just weaknesses where Germany had strengths—Calvinists were anti-musical, though they weren’t a majority.

After Beethoven’s death music went into a slump, and Germany became much less dominant. Composers had a choice between trying to match or surpass Beethoven, which only a few were able to even coming plausibly close to doing, or else find something new. During most of the century the new things seemed lesser—program music, for example, or tone poems, or salon music for piano and piano and voice.

wagner was a s major as Beethoven, and he too had a suffocating effect. There were Wagnerians everywhere, but there was no “beyond” to what he did. He finished the job.

The first musicians to escape (very deliberately) from the German style were Satie and Mussorgsky. Both were self taught and not very prolific. Both broke all the rules, but their music is completely listenable today and I have trouble convincing people, even musicians, that Mussorgsky was NOT a generic XIXc romantic. The lay audience responded well to Mussorgsky’s works, but the professionals, almost without a single exception even among his personal friends, always criticized his “amateurism” and “mistakes” and sometimes condemned his work entirely. Even Shostakovich around 1930 corrected Mussorgsky’s work (on German academic principles) when he orchestrated it. (Only around 1950 did uncorrected versions become the norm).

But my opinion is that, except for aspects of the orchestration, all of Mussorgsky’s mistakes were not only deliberate but also musically valid (as were Satie’s). Not long after Mussorgsky’s death, Debussy, Ravel (both consciously anti-German), and finally Stravinsky had picked up his innovations and developed them further, thus remaking music on non-German principles. (Even Bartok was vocally anti-German, though me was much closer to the German style and temperament than the others).

Schoenberg counterattacked, and his people came to dominate the universities, but no one listens to that shit.

So anyway, I question part of your premise. German domination lasted a century and a quarter, with a fifty year period of decadent hegemony. On the other hand, I have accepted the “exhaustion” thesis.

By John Emerson on 06/04/06 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is the Darwinian explanation really that helpful here? I think that the major flaw is the following assumption:

These texts compete with one another not for food and sexual partners, but for our attention.

Classical pieces don’t really work like this; not only is the consumption of classical music really mediated—in the 19th century, one’s choices were limited by what concert halls would play, by what publishers would publish, by what the academies said was good, and so on—but also, the idea of a piece’s “greatness” is problematic in a way that one’s “enjoyment” is not. If (say) a Mahler symphony is “great” in a way that Bizet’s Carmen is not, the reason is not that listeners have kept one alive and not the other.

The explanation I’ve heard of why music from German-speaking (Deutschophone?) countries is now our Great music is that music history and the canon were written by German authors. You picked England as a complementary example to Germany and Austria, but a more interesting case would be France—which did have a strong and continuous musical tradition at the same time as Germany, albeit with different values. But German writers decided that the German-derived values about harmony and structure were the yardstick by which to measure serious music, and compiled their canons accordingly. And when the English and American music academies established themselves along German lines, then the ideas appear to become universal. “Cultural optical illusion,” maybe.

So...maybe artificial, rather than natural selection? Classical music as pigeon fancying?

By on 06/04/06 at 03:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is interesting, though I think, ultimately, rather incomplete. Also, after you say “I don’t think I’m talking about memes,” you write several paragraphs that could have been taken out of a book on memes.

Still, I think you’re right. Darwinian, or better put, evolutionary processes analogous to those in biology are at play in cultural evolution. But they’re not all that’s at play. It’s not simply that certain writers/composers/painters manage to capture some Platonic (or quasi-Platonic) form that exists somewhere in the structure of our brains (or in the state-space of creations allowed by that structure). Sure, the fit of culture to the brain is one important dimension, but it’s far from the only one.

And really, the interaction is far from unidirectional, or eternal. To illustrate part of what I mean, imagine if there were a variant of the Bach-Mozart-Beethoven musical genus that, until the year 2006, had not been produced. In 2006, a young composer writes it. Will it last like the pieces of that genus from the 18th and 19th centuries? I’d bet that it wouldn’t, not because it is not as good as those works (even within the framework of that genus), but because culture has moved on. As it’s moved on, the state space of possible “eternal art” has been changed, in large part by the works of arts and the rest of culture being produced. Mozart is still very adaptive, but only as Mozart. Someone today writing Mozart-quality music of the 18th century German genus might get rave reviews and be played all over the classical music scene, but would essentially die out in a few years. It would have nothing like the impact that Handel, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and the like had, because the time for that genus to take its hold is over.

Perhaps, then, one of the reasons that regional and temporal constraints are at play, in addition to the nature of cultural transmission that you discuss in your sexual reproduction analogy, is that as works are being produced, what is “adaptive” is changing. Works of a paticular artistic genus (or family, or whatever level of abstraction would be the right one) aren’t simply limited by the space of possible adaptive options within that genus, but also by the fact that they’re opening new spaces, and human culture is moving into those spaces.

Adding this doens’t give the complete picture, either, but I think it’s an equally important part.

By Chris on 06/04/06 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A lot of broad interest in this post. Just a couple quick thoughts. There certainly are “such clumps,” in part as you describe them, and much though not all explanation for them can be found in the social conditions that provide fertile or barren ground for various types of art.

Oftentimes various social forces—say corporate or financial or religious, etc—drive out or engender certain types of art and not others so that it can be partly misleading to say:

“There are, I should add, many additional unfavourable techniques, strategies [and, we might add, topics and content and purposes] which do not endear texts to people; but these are quickly ‘bred out’ by people’s uninterest.”

So-called or would-be popular goods, including varieties of art, are often forced upon people or withheld from them due to the interests of powerful social actors (e.g., corporations, universities, churches, governments, etc) in ways that have nothing to do with “people’s interests”. This is surely true within eras and realms, as well as across them. Many have discussed this, Upton Sinclair notably in his book Money Writes (1927) and Mammonart (1925) and V.F. Calverton in The Newer Spirit: A Sociological Criticism of Literature (1925), and elsewhere.

This isn’t necessarily true:

“There is, as it were, no time to lose:  when a new favourable but improvable technique [or, we might add, situation] is chanced upon, you’d better hurry to imitate and improve it, if you want your text to become immortal.  Otherwise somebody else will, and the niche will fill up, crowding you and your text out.”

For example, some of the plays of the ancient Greeks can be and are wonderfully performed today, but does this mean that no plays from this era, even those quite similar in technique and even general content, would not be performed (wonderfully) two and a half millenia from now as well? For example, consider the recurrence and canonization of more-or-less utopian tales and social satires over the millenia. And take sweeping (relatively) long tales of fantasy like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Golden Ass, The Divine Comedy, Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, etc—if we consider these as the loose class, fantasy, or the loose class, epic, or the loose class, long fiction, we would have to say that the golden age for (recorded) fantasy/epics/long fiction has existed for over 4,000 years and is ongoing and will in all likelihood continue for as long as there are humans.

Sure, specific eras and realms may produce specific types of great long fictions that may or may not recur. And again this is due in large part to various social conditions of natural or imposed fertility or barrenness that authors would do well to be aware of in detail so that they might best judge what they can and ought to take advantage of and what they can and ought to challenge or resist…

By Tony Christini on 06/04/06 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dude! Wasn’t Mozart like, totally Australian?

By on 06/04/06 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree that there is clumping, but disagree as to the reason.

I think the evolutionary approach causes problems:
The thing is, the author is vital to a text’s reception. To use your popular music analogy, there is a reason that “Crossroads” was gobbled up by audiences when it was “authored” by Cream, and ignored by audiences when the “author” was Robert Johnson, and the reason wasn’t that it was innovated upon. The reason is the same as the one that made thousands of little bobbysoxers, who wouldn’t listen to Howlin’ Wolf if you made them, hummed themselves to sleep at night with the harmonica line to “Eight Days a Week.”

Features of the author, from traditional critical bugaboos like race, gender (would George Eliot’s fiction been so successful if they were “authored” by a “Mary Ann”?), ethnicity, to less traditional ones, like prior fame (Hamlet would have only served to boot Shakespeare off the stage if it was his first outing) have too profound effects on the ultimate strength of the text for evolutionary theory to apply.

Evolution doesn’t care who your daddy was; readers, and listeners, do.

By on 06/04/06 at 04:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A further comment on my statement that...this isn’t necessarily true:

“There is, as it were, no time to lose:  when a new favourable but improvable technique [or, we might add, situation] is chanced upon, you’d better hurry to imitate and improve it, if you want your text to become immortal.  Otherwise somebody else will, and the niche will fill up, crowding you and your text out.”

Of course, I considered matters as they extend beyond a person’s lifetime, but the same holds within a person’s lifetime. Plenty of novels more or less of the type of future great works were being written many years before the creation of some of the great achievements—the great Middlemarch for one example, preceded for many years, decades, by much in its vein, including Eliot’s own work.

Sure, in some ways at least, some of the great achievements do break type of much or anything that has come before. But as shown by the history of the novel, let alone the history of sweeping long (call it “epic") fiction, it need not be the case.

By Tony Christini on 06/04/06 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting response.

You say, Tony:  “For example, some of the plays of the ancient Greeks can be and are wonderfully performed today, but does this mean that no plays from this era, even those quite similar in technique and even general content, would not be performed (wonderfully) two and a half millenia from now as well?”

See this is, it seems to me, an interesting case-in-point.  The high status of these plays meant that they were very often imitated.  Take two such imitations (both by significant and talented writers): Matthew Arnold’s quasi-Sophoclean Merope and Shelley’s Prometheus Bound.  The first of these is an English-language experiment in writing an Attic tragedy that sticks closely to the original form of that sort of play.  It reads very much as if an Attic tragedian had come to life in the mid nineteenth-century with the ability to write in English.  The second takes the general idiom of Aeschylean drama to write an extraordinary, marvellous and thoroughly un-Greek rhapsodic meditation on subjectivity, suffering, mass political action and utopia.

My point is that Merope, which is (as it happens) by no means a bad piece of writing, is wholly forgotten today.  And why should it be remembered?  Putting it crudely, why should anybody bother with a C19th-century Sophoclean play when there are lots of actual Sophoclean plays already in the canon?  (I know Arnold based Merope on a Euripidean topic, but its execution is thoroughly Sophoclean).  Shelley’s drama is still ‘alive’ in some sense not because it takes the form of Aeschylus, but actually very precisely because it doesn’t, it creates something new, something startling and wholly original.

You also say:  “take sweeping (relatively) long tales of fantasy like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Golden Ass, The Divine Comedy, Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, etc—if we consider these as the loose class, fantasy, or the loose class, epic, or the loose class, long fiction, we would have to say that the golden age for (recorded) fantasy/epics/long fiction has existed for over 4,000 years and is ongoing and will in all likelihood continue for as long as there are humans”

Well, it strikes me that each of the texts you mention makes something new, does something original in the (really very broadly conceived) mode of ‘the fantastic’; that Gulliver’s Travels gives us things that The Odyssey just doesn’t (for instance, satire, humour, an engagement with ‘science’ and ‘humanism’ that isn’t present in the Homeric original).  The same could be said of all the works you mention.

A counter-exampling list might be ‘Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Brookes’s Shannara books, Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Books, Tad Williams’ Memory Sorrow Thorn etc etc.’ What are the chances that the last three will still be read in a hundred, or five hundred years time?  It’s not that they’re necessarily terrible books, just that there’s no need to read them when we have the Tolkienian original.  Or to put it in the terms of the post, Tolkien has already colonised this particular textual-ecological niche,

By Adam Roberts on 06/04/06 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thinking on it (from an amateur point of view), the likely reason for Germany’s dominance in Classical composition, especially over England in the given time period, was economic.

Classical music, due in part to its length, the delicacy and expense of the instruments involved, requirement of literacy (reading musical notation) on the part of players, and the fact that it was performed almost exclusively at Court, was primarily an elite exercise. A large, stable elite with relatively stable aesthic tastes (more on that later) was needed as the primary consumer, and underwriter of texts.

Germany had this. By the early eighteenth century, the upheaval caused by the Reformation had largely subsided, and courts that would be Protestant, or would be Catholic, already were. By and large, the land that is now Germany’s elite weath was largely preindustrial, agriculture-based, and in the hand of those at Court, a fact that, even through centralization and nationalization of government, did not change until WWI decimated that system.

This was the perfect support system for Classical music. You could move to Leipzig, hold concertos in a salon, and never be forced to move, or adjust to the tastes of a new master (your audience was of one). Your fame could grow, and your music flower, as you dig in roots.

In England, on the other hand, the middle class was growing. Wealth was moving from the landed elite to bankers and Merchants. Novels were being written, and not for the elite: they weren’t addressed by Pope in any of his essays. Moll Flanders was about a woman of lace, but nobody would mistake her for a queen. In the early eighteenth century, parts of the country still harbored antipathies toward any non-religious art at all, a remnant of the Puritan interregnum. There were also constant Papish/Romish/Catholic Plots that sent this or that Duke or Earl scurrying into exile. There were skirmishes over the royal allowance. At the end of his reign, George III went temporarily insane. Court was an unhealthy place for someone to sit down and write BVWs or Opuses or anything of the like. And Lord knows you can’t write symphonies unless you’re subsidized past all champagne wishes and caviar dreams, or your name is Ludwig.

Ultimately, German Classical music was perfectly situated. It had a parasitical dependency on the rich and powerful for its creation, a dependency, with its requisite proximity, allowed it to gain legitimacy from being heard first by Princes and Emperors. That’s not to say the stuff ain’t damn good, just that it got a lot of help by being born with a silver spoon it its mouth.

Me, when I’m in a contemplative mood, I like to listen to the sweet counterpoint in Contrapunctus IV performed by Gould on organ, followed by the mellow lyricality of Traffic performing the centuries-old English folk song “John Barleycorn.” English music wasn’t unsuccessful at sticking around, it was just bad at doing it the German way.

By on 06/04/06 at 05:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting post, Adam. I’m generally favorable to this style of speculation and have spent a great deal of time wandering about in this territory. I suspect the “clumpiness” of cultural production is real.

Historians of jazz have asked why New Orleans seems so pivotal. And the standard answer is that that’s where we get the most intimate and extensive intermingling of European, especially high cultural European, and African musics. New Orleans, for example, had the first opera company in the New World. At the same time, you could go to Congo Square on weekends and hear traditional African music in relatively pure form.

The thing is, that’s about all New Orleans did for jazz, gave it birth. Further developments happend elsewhere, Chicago, New York. That’s another story.

Getting back to your question about Germany and classical music. There’s an aspect to that question you missed. Sure, clumping. But why did that clumping happen in Germany and not elsewhere? In general, we’re talking about he accidents of history. What accidents annointed Germany?—though Italy’s done well by opera.  Martin Luther thought highly of music, could that be what gave Germany an edge?

I don’t really know. But the question is real.

At the moment I’m much taken by manga and anime, Japanese graphic novels and animated films, respectively. Manga existed from early in the 20th century, but blossomed after WWII to the point where manga constitutes 30% or so of annual Japanese print production. Why did that happen after WWII?

Beyond this, I’m wondering whether or not manga and anime will do for the visual culture of this century what African-American music did for the musical culture of the last century. Manga and anime have been spreading out from Japan. While I have a hard time imagining that graphic novels will ever capture 30% of the print production in the USA, their presence is increasing rapidly. I don’t know what will happen with film. But I can’t imagine the Matrix flics without the prior existence of the Japanese “Ghost in the Shell.

By Bill Benzon on 06/04/06 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you note: “Well, it strikes me that each of the texts you mention makes something new, does something original in the (really very broadly conceived) mode of ‘the fantastic’; that Gulliver’s Travels gives us things that The Odyssey just doesn’t (for instance, satire, humour, an engagement with ‘science’ and ‘humanism’ that isn’t present in the Homeric original).  The same could be said of all the works you mention.”

Yes, but the exact same thing could be said of many novels within a specific type or genre. Say, mystery. Every great mystery tale “makes something new, does something original”. So my broad type is perfectly legitimate and I think useful. What’s an “early” great mystery? Something by Poe? Something by Dostoevsky? Something by Conrad? Something by Roth? These authors have all written psychological thrillers or mysteries of a sort over centuries. Poe—most anything; Dostoevsky—Crime and Punishment; Conrad—The Secret Sharer; Roth—The Ghostwriter. Over course each work here “makes something new, does something original” even though they fall within a rather narrow literary psycho-thriller or mystery genre. Doesn’t matter how “tight” you make the genre, you’re going to see wide variation between the great works—it’s inevitable. And these great works spread out over a century and a half are essentially more similar in a key sense than they are different, as I see it —that is, their lasting value depends far more on what they share, and what defines them of a type, than how they are different—and I think the later ones are no less great and are likely to be no less renowned than the ealier ones. If this can be true over 150 years, it seems to me it can be true over 1,500 years – and is – and over 15,000 years as well, should humankind be so fortunate to last.

So, I think better examples can be found than those you gave. And remember, my criteria were quite stringent—at the extreme end, to better test my hypothesis --the criteria: plays, etc, that are “quite similar in technique and even general content”—and I think it can be met, more or less (with perhaps one caveat that I’ll mention below). Take many of the bits and pieces of poetry in The Greek Anthology. Much of it reads absolutely contemporary—someone yesterday could have written it and we wouldn’t know the difference, and some of today’s such poetry would surely be saved to be read 2,000 years from now. Or so it seems to me.

Also, I think of The Satyricon, by Petronius, the greatest ancient novel, a small fraction of which remains extant. It seems that some one or a number of exuberant recent-century novels very much like it will be canonized and read as long as there are readers. The caveat is this: The Satyricon may always be known for being the first of its kind or one of the first greats of its kind; thus, simple chronology due perhaps to historical curiousity will perhaps always give it a more prominent place in the canon and perhaps cause it to be more well known and more well read. I say perhaps because I don’t think it’s much read today and may not be as much read in the future, as much as other great and more recent examples of its type (of course The Satyricon has the disadvantage of being only partially extant).

Wikipedia has some good entries on it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Satyricon
Satyricon, or the Petronii Arbitri Saturicon, is a book of randy and satirical Neronean tales attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter. Written around 60 AD, the tale is a mixture of prose and poetry detailing the misadventures of the narrator, Encolpius, his friend Ascyltus, and Giton, their attendant and love object. It is often regarded as the first example of what was to become the modern novel. The Roman worship of Priapus is the topic of its tales of the orgies and debauchery of Nero’s time, heterosexual, pederastic, and bisexual. Of the work itself there have been preserved 141 sections of a narrative, in the main consecutive, although interrupted by frequent gaps. Speculation as to the size of the original puts it somewhere on the order of a work of thousands of pages, and reference points for length range from Tom Jones to In Search of Lost Time. What has survived at present can be compiled into the length of a longer novella.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trimalchio
“Trimalchio is a character in the Roman “novel” The Satyricon by Petronius. He is gaudy and fat. He is known for throwing lavish dinner parties, where his numerous servants bring course after course of exotic delicacies, such as live birds sewn up inside a pig and a dish to represent every sign of the zodiac. The Satyricon has a lengthy description of Trimalchio’s proposed tomb, which is incredibly ostentatious and lavish. “The original title of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was “Trimalchio in West Egg.” One of Fitzgerald’s complete earlier drafts of the book was published under the name Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby. “Fitzgerald makes a reference to Trimalchio in the introduction to Chapter 7 of The Great Gatsby: “It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night-and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.

It seems to me that there are some novels of the past several centuries a lot like The Satyricon that will last, and maybe be even more prominent than the Satyricon (perhaps including, to note just some of the more recent contenders: Coover, Barthes, Roth, Pynchon, Kennedy O’Toole). Some pages and chapters of some novels might as well has been lifted straight out of the Satyricon, they are so close, virtually identical in style and topic.

If a great novel like Middlemarch can equal or surpass in quality and lasting value a really very similar, though not totally of course, other great novel like Pride and Prejudice, decades after the first was written, then is it so much to think that some great contemporary satirist in verse could come along 2,000 years after the fact and match or surpass say Juvenal in his great satires—on topics and in a form virtually identical to his, but of contemporary times? It seems evident to me that this could be done, given the proper convergence of talent, interest, and society. Since what Juvenal describes seems utterly contemporary, I don’t see why it couldn’t be done. Of course it will be different. Middlemarch is different than Pride and Prejudice, but much more similar than not. So, as I’ve noted I think the historical examples exist to show that it has been done, is being done.

Of your “counter-exampling” of fantasies, who knows, maybe none will be read down the road, or maybe more than one. Personally, I could never get into the Tolkien books, but loved the Shannara books. I hope they last. They would for someone like me, or at least someone like I was years ago. Don’t know what my response would be today.

But of course any “counter examples” are of no consequence if there are examples of cases that actually do convincingly support the hypothesis put forth, as it seems to me I give regarding 19th century novels, and other such examples, and thoughts, in my previous posts and this one.

I think too that, to a certain extent, we may simply be focusing on different types and degrees of literary “technique” and substance, or have different understandings of these terms.

Much more could be said.

By Tony Christini on 06/04/06 at 07:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What I’ve been speculating about recently is that books become classics because they are necessary for subsequent generations of writers.  Popularity in the long run doesn’t map well with being a best seller in the first years of publication.  The books that are useful to writers get reprinted and the new work points backward at the older work.

I suspect that some of the survival of music from that period of German history is that it was good to play, so it gets played.

For any great period theory, we’ve got anomolies and outliers—Chaucer for one.

Looks also like the best way to have the very best art is to have a lot of people in the arts with sufficient leisure to practice it well enough to understand when the jobs are particularly well done.  The US doesn’t have thousands of symphony composers.  We do have probably hundreds of thousands of garage bands.

By on 06/04/06 at 09:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"What I’ve been speculating about recently is that books become classics because they are necessary for subsequent generations of writers.  Popularity in the long run doesn’t map well with being a best seller in the first years of publication.  The books that are useful to writers get reprinted and the new work points backward at the older work.”

Very much so, I think, at least in part.

“Looks also like the best way to have the very best art is to have a lot of people in the arts with sufficient leisure to practice it well enough to understand when the jobs are particularly well done.  The US doesn’t have thousands of symphony composers.  We do have probably hundreds of thousands of garage bands.”

Now we’ve got hundreds of thousands of weblogs (and other websites), from which maybe advanced art forms will emerge, or become, if they haven’t already.

By Tony Christini on 06/05/06 at 12:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gould writes somewhere about the problem of the .400 batting average.  Surely, one might suppose, baseball players today cannot hit like those .400 giants of yesteryear.  But Gould argues that in fact baseball players today are so much collectively *better* than those in the past that batters must contend with far more powerful pitchers and fielders. 

Gould goes on to extend this argument into the arts.  The age of giants is not superior to ours.  Giants perhaps speak to a relative lack of competition.  More people study and produce “art music” today than ever before (and more people gain the sort of prestige and patronage from others sorts of music that a musician once could only gain through art music). 

As far as predictions about today’s novelists go, I think Rebecca’s comment is true: future generations will determine the writers who live or die from past generations.  We’ve already seen this as contemporary experimental poets redefine the contours of modernism, so that Williams and Zukofsky become more important than, say, Stevens and Frost.

Finally, about Pop: Adam writes, “My prediction: people interested in Pop for the next few centuries will still tend to fall back on the giants of the 1960s and 1970s US-UK scene.”

But of course, this is already untrue, and has been so since the mid 70s.  Punk, Post-Punk and New Wave themselves wouldn’t exist without Krautrock and, in cases like Talking Heads, Devo, a lot of the No Wave scene, Adam Ant, and many others, Afro-Pop and Latin American Pop.  There’s no “golden age” of Anglo-American dominance in music from the 60s and 70s.  Rock starts with Sun Records in the 50s, which is a gradual outgrowth of urban electric blues and country.  If anything, a stronger argument would be that African-based musics displaced European-centered musics sometime around 1900, and we’ve been living out the effects of *that* shift ever since. 

Today’s music scene doesn’t look back to 60s-70s US/UK pop rock.  The whole “anti-rockism” movement today is an attempt to shift attention to other streams of music, streams connecting Tin Pan Alley to Disco to slow jams.  The most interesting developments in pop—such as techno and electronic dance musics—grow out of Neu! and Can and Kraftwerk.  The important musicians of the past few years are looking not to Dylan but to Pearls Before Swine or The Holy Modal Rounders or John Fahey; they look not to the Beatles or the Stones but to Nicky Siano’s DJ playlists; not to the Clash but to the Slits.  Joanna Newsome looks to Texas Gladden.  The Fiery Furnaces and the White Stripes look to Skip James and Progressive Era pop.  The Double look to Mad Professor.  In fact, this is the power of those artists Adam claims will simply die out as copies of the past.  Franz Ferdinand might not become huge pop-historical icons, but they will have succeeded in reminding us that UK punk was about more than English bands the Clash and the Jam.  (Just as Bach constantly reminded the world of Purcell’s influence on him.)

Ultimately, I think the appearance of artistic golden ages or ages of giants are more about the construction of canons and cultural memory by subsequent generations (and by cultural institutions).  Bach-Mozart-Beethoven dominate today’s live classical scene not because their audiences can recognize their superior artistry, but because their names supply these audiences with the cultural capital the audience wants.  Mozart and Beethoven shocked the audiences of their respective days; they simply reflect the “good taste” of today’s audiences.

By on 06/05/06 at 02:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jazz: jazz came from the whole Mississippi valley. Major figures came from places like Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and even Minneapolis (Lester Young, moved there from NOLA at age 11). When Charlie Christian reached NYC he’d fully developed his style in places like Bismarck ND, Deadwood SD, and Wyoming.

The point of that is that developing something new might only be possible somewhere away from the center (also Mussorgsky in Russia). Bismarck was low evolutionary pressure, so Christian could experiment and work out the details. NYC was intensely competitive, and since Christian was immediately recognized as a the latest new thing, he could do whatever he wanted to there too.

Classical music is a craft which was first perhaps taught informally in an apprenticeship system but quickly (1725, Fux, or before) was taught through standard textbooks and ultimately in conservatories. The local rules of German music (common-practice harmony and the rules of voice leading) came to be understood as “the laws of music.” Almost everything in the XIXc was done within these rules (with a lot of hoopla whenever anyone bent them slightly) until Musorgsky and Satie just forgot about them.

Max Weber wrote a peculiar book called “The Rational and Social Foundations of Music”, based in part on Helmholtz’s acoustics. For him classical music, like everything else in Western Europe, was an apotheosis of instrumental rationality.

By John Emerson on 06/05/06 at 09:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: ‘Bach-Mozart-Beethoven dominate today’s live classical scene not because their audiences can recognize their superior artistry, but because their names supply these audiences with the cultural capital the audience wants’: yes, I’m absolutely not saying that M and B are simply ‘better’ or ‘superior artists’ than any other two classical composers we might mention.  But they do dominate it, and whilst the cultural capital is part of the answer I don’t see how it particularly adheres to these two.  (Since self-conscious elitism is part of the cultural capital accumulation, wouldn’t it be better serviced by more elite, more obscure figures?  Montiverdi, Belioz, John Adams?)

And with your list of pop, you put me in the unenviable position of having to justify Elvis, the Beatles and Dylan against a number of artists many of whom (I agree) are superior artists in aesthetic terms.  But although of course some of the people you mention have been influential, none of them have achieved one one-thousandth of the cultural penetration or musical ubiquty as the Fab Four.  Telling me that “Joanna Newsome looks to Texas Gladden” will only persuade me if you can also persuade me that Joanna Newsome is going to carve herself a niche in music such that four hundred years from now billions will be listening to her on a regular basis, as people today are with Mozart and Beethoven.  This isn’t to impugn her as a musician, but there are, as Rebecca points out, many many hundreds of thousands of bands in the world.  What’s going to make Joanna N stick out?  Personally I think this niche, the pop music one, is already pretty much filled.  However good she is, I’d be surprised if she achieves Mozartian levels of fame.

It’s something I see a lot of in SF criticism: an individual’s personal investment in a writer gets parlayed up into a belief that said writer is not just interesting to the individual concerned, but significant, important etc.  Almost always they’re not.  It’s the confusion between personal taste and the brute empirical fact of cultural selection.  Maybe it’s true that as many people globally ought to have Can, Neu and Faust CDs as they do Beatles and Bob Marley.  But they just don’t.

This is the parallel case your pop examples made me think of, Luther:  who’s to say that the Renaissance tragedians Trissino, Giraldi, Speroni, Jodelle, Grevin, Torres Naharro, Montchrestian, Waldis or Frischlin weren’t as good as Shakespeare?  On aesthetic grounds, on grounds of merit, maybe these fellers indeed deserve to be remembered.  But there’s no getting around the fact that they are not remembered, and Shakespeare is, for all that.  They are all of them, to a man, dodos; and Shakespeare is the living chicken.

By Adam Roberts on 06/05/06 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that we should get away from the fact that when two artists are both trying to do the same kind of thing, one can be objectively better than the other. If music is defined in terms of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, it’s pretty much objectively true that they are better than the others.

I think that it’s difficult to rank styles or genres (jazz vs. classical), but within a style or genre ranking is possible. Artists usually recognize these rankings, even those like Hemingway who overrate their own work. In music you frequently have head-to-head competitions, and these often end with a clear consensus which is often shared by the defeated musician.

I just went through a list of ten top founders of bebop. Only one was born in NYC, two came to NYC from NC in their childhood, and the rest (6 from the west including NOLA, one from SC) came to NYC as fully-developed musicians.

By John Emerson on 06/05/06 at 09:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One transcendent figure--a Mozart or Charlie Parker or Dante or Sophocles--would be a statistical rarity, but we would expect to find statistical rarities.  What needs to be explained is why such transcendent figures occur in clusters.  Keats would be unusual, but Keats AND Shelley AND Byron all at once seems freakish, since there are whole periods in certain places that have not even one such figure.  So the obvious answer is that there have to be certain conditions that allow for “genius” to flourish:  A strong tradition.  And that genius will in fact flourish more than once when these conditions are met, and will stop when these conditions no longer are met. 

It’s been pointed out that it can’t just be that elites want elite art, because all periods have their elite art and not everything from this tradition becomes equally canonical after the fact. 

The conditions for some arts might be harder to satisfy.  For example, really transcendent theater seems hard to sustain for a long period.  That seems to be an extreme case of “clustering.”

It may also be a case not of “why is this so?” but of “why does it seems to us to be so?” That is, why do we need to only recognize phenomena in these clusters.

By on 06/05/06 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Randomness is clumpier than we think: Intuition smooths. And Darwin is primarily about variations that are selected for by the environment. My main problem with memetics, which carries over to the above, is that the variations are more directly to the environment itself. So, below the genre level, I prefer catalysis as the proper analysis, though externalities determine reactivity. (And didn’t JBarth do the whole Exhaustion/Replenishment thang?) But one clump I’ve puzzled over is the midXIXc US trio of Poe Melville & Hawthorne, particularly in that Melville was dormant for 60+yrs and Poe had to transit through France.

By nnyhav on 06/05/06 at 10:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I don’t think that we should get away from the fact that when two artists are both trying to do the same kind of thing, one can be objectively better than the other.”

I basically agree (tho I don’t know about ‘objectively’ ...); I’m just not sure how relevant it is.  Being ‘better’ doesn’t translate into undying fame.  Most of the Victorians who talked about such things agreed that Thackeray was a better novelist than Dickens; but Dickens is alive and Thackeray not.  Or Thack is much less alive.  Or alive only in specialised environments like university-courses.  Dickens is the domestic dog, Thackeray the panda bear.  Or something like that.

Me, I think Moby Grape were better than the Stones; but everybody knows Jumpin Jack Flash and nobody knows Murder in my Heart for the Judge.  Tis the way it is.

By Adam Roberts on 06/05/06 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On the one hand I think of Bach with that long-term steady church gig getting his stuff in front of an audience and having those musicians get familiar with his music week in and week out. Could that steady exposure given an advantage to the region where he happened to be located?

Once those jack rabbits landed in Australia they bred so fast there simply wasn’t room for anything else. Was Bach the jack rabbit of musical Europe? (He did have lots of kids.) Did his success bias the cultural environment in a way that favored certain styles over others?

But I’m also thinking that it’s audiences that matter. It’s audiences that do the cultural selecting. From a very abstract point of view we don’t need to worry about the particulars of the composers and musicians. Just posit an anonymous source of music (or fiction, or sculpture) and get it out there. But where does it stick around?

Yes, John, those bebop cats came from the hinterlands, but that’s not where they made their careers. They made their careers in front of audiences mostly in cities. And they most important cities were all major transit points—NYC, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles. Lots of people moving in and through them.

By Bill Benzon on 06/05/06 at 11:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"It’s something I see a lot of in SF criticism: an individual’s personal investment in a writer gets parlayed up into a belief that said writer is not just interesting to the individual concerned, but significant, important etc.  Almost always they’re not.”

Sure, but take Tolkien and Terry Brooks: looking back 2000 years from now, are they not going to look a lot like two peas of a pod in a way—not as pretigious, or even exactly equivalent—as that of Sophocles and Euripides, or Aeschylus? Maybe today there are many Tolkiens and Brooks whereas there were only a few Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus—but that may be attributable to simple social factors, particularly population size and the incredible wealth of our age.... It seems to me the answers to your lines of thought here are readily explainable by such straightforward social factors. Why the Stones rather than anyone else? Not sure it has much to do with the art but rather the personal motivation coupled very much with the size and structure of their PR machine and the economic system waiting to use them as fuel—right place, right time. If not the Stones, someone else, and there are others. But the economic and larger social system seems to me to impose the decisive constraints here, not the artistic facility or development nearly as much.

By Tony Christini on 06/05/06 at 11:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, rephrase. There was no one better than Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven at what they did (Haydn might be added). They are also more famous than the people they’re better than. The choice to prefer that kind of music is a matter of taste, but once you do, those are the musicians you end up with. (In the post-Beethoven period there is less consensus, at least before Wagner. There’s less unity of style, and no one achieved dominance. Taste is a different thing; I dislike Wagner a lot, but there’s no doubt that he was the greatest composer of his time.)

I’d argue for the “objectively” too, but not right now.

By John Emerson on 06/05/06 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"who’s to say that the Renaissance tragedians Trissino, Giraldi, Speroni, Jodelle, Grevin, Torres Naharro, Montchrestian, Waldis or Frischlin weren’t as good as Shakespeare?  On aesthetic grounds, on grounds of merit, maybe these fellers indeed deserve to be remembered.  But there’s no getting around the fact that they are not remembered, and Shakespeare is, for all that.”

I’m somewhat confused as to how you see these clusters being produced; as a process of contemporaneous production or something produced in retrospect? The reason I ask is that I’m thinking of someone like Walter Scott whose work was central to the novel cluster of that period (more so than Jane Austen) but whose work is nonetheless not remembered (your inclusion of him above notwithstanding).

By Richard on 06/05/06 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, my point is that most of them were fully formed musicians by the time reached NYC. Charlie Christian worked in NYC for less than two years. He taught more than he learned.

NYC is where it all came together, and where the radio stations were, and the record companies, and it was the financial engine, but the music itself was from a bigger, less urban pool.

By John Emerson on 06/05/06 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, much that you say seems quite valid, but this generalization and much that would follow from it has difficulty holding up:

“Ultimately, I think the appearance of artistic golden ages or ages of giants are more about the construction of canons and cultural memory by subsequent generations (and by cultural institutions).”

(I take it you mean by subsequent cultural institutions?) But no golden age of rap is going to appear before the late twentieth century because the art form did not exist, I assume. What you say may then hold true for rap ever afterward but that’s far from certain. Does there really exist a smooth and uninterrupted stream, no “clumps”, of highly accomplished plays of the quality of those produced during ancient Greece’s “golden age”? The social conditions that give rise to varieties of art forms and their intensity and qualities of production do change, sometimes radically, thus radically affecting even terminating various sorts of art. Thus, much of the explanation for the clumping and golden ages, despite some outliers.

No subsequent “construction of canons and cultural memory” accounts for the actual shape and existence of such ages, though such “selection” can and does often marginalize, distort, falsify, or conversely reveal, explain, or usefully emphasize the existence and qualities of various “clumpings” and “clearings,” call them. The forces of “selection,” cultural and otherwise, affect not only the historical view but also the contemporary production of course, which itself can lead to clumpings and clearing of production as well, to degrees that may or may not augment or override other social and cultural forces.

Though there has been a continuous (and I would guess a more-or-less ever increasing) outpouring of novels and criticism over the past few centuries, I think it’s possible to identify clumps and “golden ages” within that span and also possible to locate the socio-culture factors that largely account for those peaks and valleys (outliers aside). Additionally then, there is much, as you note, and sometimes overwhelming “construction of canons and cultural memory” that has gone on since that marginalizes or emphasizes various aspects of the actuality, and continues to.

“Bach-Mozart-Beethoven dominate today’s live classical scene not because their audiences can recognize their superior artistry, but because their names supply these audiences with the cultural capital the audience wants.  Mozart and Beethoven shocked the audiences of their respective days; they simply reflect the “good taste” of today’s audiences.”

It has also been noted that Edith Wharton shocked, scandalized some of society in her era, and today’s reader may turn to her work for reasons of “good taste,” status, and any other elite and often prejudiced or biased presumptions, I assume you mean, but of course one can go to her work to learn from the achievement of an accomplished artist and to appreciate it for what it’s worth—and its actual exceptional worth and not only for its time is presumably what the reputation of “good taste” is built upon, at least in part. One may then if one wishes turn a blind eye to any would-be illuminating but discomfitting insight that makes up the folds and forms of much of the achievement of the art. That doesn’t mean it’s not there but that some vital and great quality is being ignored, or goes misunderstood, while the work is otherwise appreciated (or indulged in).

By Tony Christini on 06/05/06 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I apologize, a little, for the tone this comment will undoubtedly take, but it suggests one of my complaints about literary theorists: some of them believe that the study of literature makes them scholars of everything.  (Because all scholarship is done with words, right?)

The speculations above are interesting, but are so riddled with half-truths and misunderstandings when it comes to the “evidence” that I can’t bear to finish the article or read the comments.

The Dodo wasn’t ill-adapted to its environment.  It was ushered into extinction with help.  The idea of text as animal but nothing at all like meme suggests a lack of familiarity with meme (whatever the merits of the uncomfortably inapt - to my ears, anyway - analogy with animals).  Bach didn’t start the musical techniques of the Baroque, he finished them.  He didn’t chance upon them either, they were the technique he was born into.

Furthermore, it is hardly clear that this argument, as presented, represents any better an understanding of Darwin’s ideas (or their modern incarnations) than Social Darwinism.

And lastly, the analogy, for whatever interest it may hold, fails to encompass some very important aspects of literary (and musical!) works: some works “breed” like nobody’s business for a couple of years - then vanish without a trace.  The virtues of the canon are not that those books, outside of the classroom, are so universally read!  And some genres persist with indistinguishable (to the untrained eye) formulaic offering after formulaic offering - individual instances instantly forgettable, but the imprint marching on.

When you get done taking a cold hard look at the discussion above, and ridding it of all the “something like that, anyway” evidence, you are left with the late night “dude, like, what if our universe were, like, a single atom in some bigger universe” speculation.  Interesting if it is late at night and if you haven’t learned any cosmology or physics.

The question is interesting - but the analysis?  Maybe I hold this list to unnecessarily high standards.  But the argument, such as it is, sounds a lot like fishing around for things that can be made to fit a conclusion, rather than a real and rigorous search for truth, even if it doesn’t come in a neat “darwinian” package.  If you are seriously interested in the question, I’d hope it would be worth more serious thought than it seems to have been given.

By on 06/05/06 at 05:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, of course, you are correct.  I overstated the importance of institutions in shaping cultural memory, and probably overstated the fickleness of cultural memory itself.  To return to your rap example:

Yes, no golden age of rap will appear before, say, 1976.  But, this isn’t to say that we know when and where “rap” as such came into existence, what constitutes it in its purest formal or aesthetic terms, and so on.  Yazoo Records has a fabulous collection called “The Roots of Rap,” and many of these tracks from the teens and 20s sound like rap.  Bruce Jackson’s CD for *Get Your Ass In the Water* has prison and streetside recordings of toasts that predate rap and yet sound exactly like it. 

The question then becomes: when was rap institutionally constituted such that it *could* be said to have a golden age?  Early 1980s, right?  And that’s exactly where many people locate its golden age.  Artistic giants and cultural golden ages often emerge at the very moment of an art form’s cultural constitution or its moment of recognition.  Of course, there’s a dialectical movement here: a set of historical conditions allows the constitution or recognition of something called “rap,” and a certain set of artists—a certain critical mass—define the new parameters of this thing named “rap,” this thing that actually predated “rap” itself.  Same goes for “rock” or “folk”—Howlin’ Wolf and Dock Boggs should be the touchstones, but instead, as Adam suggested, many musicians continue to go back to the Stones or Dylan for their influences. 

Adam, regarding cultural capital, I think you’ve identified the power of the middlebrow.  More obscure or experimental artists may offer “more” cultural capital, but cultural capital is not simply one currency, but rather several currencies each of which is only accepted by certain cultural groups.  Going to see Charalambides in a loft will not get you more cultural capital than going to see the 9th at the local orchestra house, but each will give you cultural capital for different groups. 

Which is to say that the “dominance” of a group of artists often means these artists are defined by the lowest common denominator.  We can’t just talk about the dominance of Beethoven; we have to talk about the dominance of a certain version of Beethoven. 

Adam, I realize that you weren’t arguing that these Giants are intrinsically better than other artists.  I agree that we need to consider how a certain artist, nation, or historical period comes to cultural dominance.  But my point about a contemporary artist like Joanna Newsome looking back to Texas Gladden wasn’t to say that she will have the sort of impact of the Beatles or the Stones or Elvis.  Instead, I want to argue that the music of recent years that will be remembered—much of it electronic, freak-folk, and “out” rock, or what a friend calls “Wire Magazine Rock”—has already put into question the enduring influence of Elvis or the Beatles on contemporary music.  Today’s dominant musicians—whether in terms of sales or artistic recognition—are not rockers.  Mariah Carey will overtake the Number One single record set by Elvis and the Beatles.  Jay-Z has nothing to do with the 60s rock canon.  But I’d hazard a bet that Jay-Z (or Timberland) knows about Can, because so many DJs sample their drum beats.  (Rock itself is probably already in its death throes.  Why else has it needed to be saved from black folks and gays and teeny-boppers twice in 20 years?  First the anti-disco movement, and more recently the spate of White Stripes and Strokes criticism that tried to herald the Rebirth of Rock in the face of Britney and Jessica.  In fifty years, Morodor might be a giant like Dylan or Elvis.)

Finally Tony, I didn’t mean to imply that today’s classical music audience somehow invalidates the aesthetic merit of classical composers.  My point was only that, to rephrase what I just argued, what dominates is too often a “vanilla” version of an artist, a simple narrative of his/her life and work.  This is also tied to institutions: Beethoven or Mozart could get challenging music heard and performed, as could Schoenberg or even Boulez.  But since the 1970s, the classical music establishment has worked against “new musics” (just as the jazz establishment has worked against out jazz—in each case, it’s probably a reaction to the dominance of pop and rock and rap and r’n’b from the late 60s til now: classical and jazz institutions could stay in business by promoting only “the Greats” and taking no new risks).  John Zorn has to run his own labels to get his music out, and he’s had a great deal of success for an experimental composer.  Anthony Braxton can’t get performed or recognized—being black and experimental can do that to a man.

Ultimately, though, I agree that there are times and places where great art seems to cohere and spread at a faster rate than in other times or other places.  1915 to 1945 was such a period, and it might in fact mark the first truly global artistic golden age.  But many people would be quick to remind me that this historicization is simplistic: modernism can be smoothly traced back and forward from, or it can be taken apart as a set of discontinuous historical fragments even within, that 30 year time span.

By on 06/05/06 at 06:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim says: “ ...riddled with half-truths and misunderstandings when it comes to the “evidence” that I can’t bear to finish the article or read the comments ...”

Really?  Let’s take a look at your objections.

“The Dodo wasn’t ill-adapted to its environment.”

It was adapted to its environment fine for a while, but then its environment changed.  When a predator presented itself (us) it proved itself very poorly adapted to its environment. Or are you suggesting that humanity is not a significant feature of the enviornment of a wide variety of living things?  But that would be a crazy thing to say.

“The idea of text as animal but nothing at all like meme suggests a lack of familiarity with meme (whatever the merits of the uncomfortably inapt - to my ears, anyway - analogy with animals).”

I don’t understand the point of your objection here, apart from the fact that you don’t like the analogy of texts with animals.  That’s fine; but it is only an analogy.  Of course texts aren’t literally animals.  “... suggests a lack of familiarity with meme ...” You’re saying I havn’t read Dawkins?  I have.  A meme in his formulation is an idea that lodges in people’s minds, which can be passed on to other people’s minds, and which is subject to quasi-Darwinist constraints.  I’m not talking here about ideas in people’s minds so much as the larger cultural profile of ‘art’ and its place in society.

“"Bach didn’t start the musical techniques of the Baroque, he finished them.  He didn’t chance upon them either, they were the technique he was born into.”

How is this relevant to what I’m arguing?  I don’t disagree with what you say here, but whether Bach was the first musician to try a particular style, or whether he found that style by chance or not, has no bearing on the case I’m making. I’m interested in the cultural endurance of Bach, nothing else.

“Furthermore, it is hardly clear that this argument, as presented, represents any better an understanding of Darwin’s ideas (or their modern incarnations) than Social Darwinism.”

This is an assertion.  In what ways does my argument misrepresent Darwin’s ideas?

“And lastly, the analogy, for whatever interest it may hold, fails to encompass some very important aspects of literary (and musical!) works:”

Agreed.  This is a few thousand words of speculative writing, not a comprehensive critical account.  There are lots of things it doesn’t cover.

“Some works “breed” like nobody’s business for a couple of years - then vanish without a trace.”

This is true, of course.  But it’s true of the analogous Darwinian biological world too, which contains lots and lots of instances of species flourishing for a time and then dying out.  How does this fact invalidate what I say, exactly?  (Hint: it doesn’t)

“The virtues of the canon are not that those books, outside of the classroom, are so universally read!”

This sentence doesn’t make sense.

“When you get done taking a cold hard look at the discussion above, and ridding it of all the “something like that, anyway” evidence, you are left with the late night “dude, like, what if our universe were, like, a single atom in some bigger universe” speculation.  Interesting if it is late at night and if you haven’t learned any cosmology or physics.”

I don’t see what this has to do with anything I’ve written here.

“The question is interesting - but the analysis? Maybe I hold this list to unnecessarily high
standards.”

OK.  If I might make a suggestion?  Perhaps you should hold your own writing to the higher standard of which you speak.  At the moment, and on the evidence of this, it’s rather incoherent.

“I apologize, a little, for the tone this comment will undoubtedly take ...”

There’s no need to apologize.  Disagreement is the lifeblood of debate, and scholarship.  Just try to disagree a little more effectively, that’s all.

By Adam Roberts on 06/05/06 at 06:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I apologize, a tiny beak, for the tone this comment may take to those who have not yet evolved ears, but it suggests one of my complaints about drive-by anonymous commentators: some of them believe that their wit is as sharp as everything, a wet bill not least. (Because all anonymous commentary is done with thought, right?)

The speculations above (of the anonymous, timorous dodo) are interesting, but are so riddled with the ill-development common to drive-by anonymous commentary that I can hardly bear to read the note and finish off its comments.

The drive-by anonymous dodo wasn’t necessarily ill-adapted to this environment. Yet it was ushered into its own oblivion with the help that it would apparently not think it supplied. The idea of a drive-by anonymous comment as a would-be meme dodo that is nothing at all like an animal suggests a lack of familiarity with what being meme is all about (whatever the merits of the comfortably apt - to my ears, anyway - metaphor of meme dodo). Bach didn’t start with dodos, you understand, he finished them off. Poor buggers, that is, birds - you see. Bach didn’t chance upon them either, they were the drive-by anonymous dodos he saw fit to bore into.

Oh to be a dodo who would be meme.

Furthermore, it is hardly clear that such commentary, as presented, represents any better an understanding of Dodo the Great’s ideas (or their modern incarnations) than Social Dodoism.

And lastly, the drive-by anonymous dodo, due to whatever disinterest it may hold, fails to navigate some very important aspects of weblog commentary (and oh how!) it works: thus, some anonymous dodos “breed” like nobody’s business for a couple of moments - then vanish without a trace. The virtues of such commentators are not that they, outside of the Weblog, are so universally read! And some such commentaries persist with dun (to the delighted dodo’s eye) dumping after dumping - individual instances instantly excreted, the fowl imprint of the anonymous dodo marching on.

When you get done taking a cold hard look at the drive-by dodo’s commentary above, and ridding it of all the “somedung like that, anyway” guano, you are still left with the pre-dawn “dodo, like, what if our pond were, like, a single mud puddle in some bigger lake” gabbling. Interesting, I suppose, if the drive-by dodo is staring its own anonymous oblivion in the bill and if it hasn’t learned any astrology to guide it on its way of ducking about.

The question is interesting - but the drive-by anonymous dodo? Maybe I hold this dodo to unnecessarily high standards. But the commentating, such as it is, sounds a lot like fishing around for fowl scraps of bait that can be made to fit a dull hook, rather than a real and rigorous search for truth. Well, this is the standard sort of “dodoian” gambit. If you, anonymous drive-by dodo, are truly interested in any question, I’d hope it would be worth far more serious flexing of the feathers than that which you, proud bird of oblivion, have so surely given.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodo

By Tony Christini on 06/06/06 at 12:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sorry, I don’t have time to follow all the comments, and you may be aware of this already, but Peter Hall’s massive Cities and Civilization takes up the question of Golden Ages in art and urban design through a series of case studies ranging from ancient times to the near-present. It’s massive - worth saying twice - and his answers are perhaps ultimately not satisfying - he was critical of his own work in a talk I heard around the time the book came out - but definitely worth a look

By eb on 06/06/06 at 01:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Artistic giants and cultural golden ages often emerge at the very moment of an art form’s cultural constitution or its moment of recognition.”

This seems too roughly stated. A problem is that a “cultural golden age” seems to be blurred with “an art form’s cultural constitution”. That is, it seems a lot like a restatement. Much of popular music and its culture that was pioneered in the late 1950s, the Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, etc, era, I think, though it remains great in its way was later developed and continues to be developed I think in ways that at least partly, and even largely, stay true to, say, those “roots” and earlier roots, whether it’s the crooning love songs and ballads or some particular lively similar musical zeitgeist. There may be a sort of particular sort of lively social scene that has now gone and become something else, but I think the sorts of music that were pioneered then continue to manifest itself today, decades later, in ways that sometimes maybe often equal or surpass what was done then. The “pioneers” certainly remain distinct and great of course, as do their predecessors, but I wouldn’t say they could necessarily be said to represent the golden age of their art form. _A_ golden age, of some sort, sure.

Would not the same hold for rap? Take some recent five years and collect the greatest rap songs recorded and then take any five years in the 80s and collect the great rap songs—would the 80s songs really shine so much more brightly than the 2000s songs? Would late 1950s love ballads really shine so much more brightly than late 1990s love ballads? It doesn’t seem likely to me, but it’s something that could be tested, it seems to me....

Or apply a similar sort of test to particular sorts of novels written in the early 1900s and those written in the mid and late 1900s.

I do think that a peak, or the peak of the novel, may be identified as roughly the Victorian age, the Victorian novel, loosely defined, very loosely, in that I would argue in a certain way at least, the novel’s peak age runs from Jane Austen in the early 1900s and extending throughout the century, that is, no short period of time, extending well beyond “the very moment of an art form’s cultural constitution or its moment of recognition.”

Of course, relatively speaking, that could be considered a short period of time, even as ‘a moment of emergence,’ all those many decades clumped together.

You then it seems to me usefully qualify indirectly and partially at least your remarks above here:

“Ultimately, though, I agree that there are times and places where great art seems to cohere and spread at a faster rate than in other times or other places.  1915 to 1945 was such a period, and it might in fact mark the first truly global artistic golden age.  But many people would be quick to remind me that this historicization is simplistic: modernism can be smoothly traced back and forward from, or it can be taken apart as a set of discontinuous historical fragments even within, that 30 year time span.”

Just in passing, it’s often misunderstood—the history has been so badly consciously (especially at first) distorted for ideological reasons—much of the most socially engaged and most concrete political art and politically progressive art of this era was also easily among the most avante garde (or progressive) in technique, aesthetics as well—The Living Newspaper of the Federal Theatre Project, for example. Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy. Bertolt Brecht’s work, and so on. Not as true today perhaps, though the mixture of progressive politics and progressive aesthetics is far from unknown in contemporary works.

For what it’s worth, as for long fiction today (both apart from TV and film and including them), it seems to me that the aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, social…and political possibilities are vast, as vast and vital as they must have seemed to the great novelists during their great era(s). Ditto for criticism of all variety, and many other forms of human endeavor. Not that today’s great long fictions could or should look excessively like the great Victorian novels, though I think they would have no little bit in common with them. Unfortunately, the threats to all this are at least equally great and require, it seems to me, much of our immediate efforts.

By Tony Christini on 06/06/06 at 03:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony Christini: “Maybe today there are many Tolkiens and Brooks whereas there were only a few Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus...” Actually, there were indeed many classical Greek tragedians (if not as many as there are Tolkienesque fantasists). The reason nobody aside from a few scholars has heard of them is that only fragments of their works survive. The same is true of most of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, for that matter.

By Adam Stephanides on 06/06/06 at 09:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam (Roberts): At one point in your original post you say this: Salieri’s music failed because it was less well fitted.  It is not that Salieri’s music is in any sense intrinsically ‘worse’ than Mozart’s, any more than a dodo was intrinsically worse than a seagull.  It is simply that one was adapted to its environment better than the other.

Later on, however, you say this: In the natural world random mutations introduce variations into the gene pool, some beneficial, most neutral or negative.  In the world of art we see the same thing.  Bach chanced upon techniques of musical composition that made his music ‘stronger’ than other composers’ work in a Darwinian sense: more likely to live in people’s hearts, more likely to make people replicate it and continue it.

It seems to me that this is awfully close to saying that Bach’s music was intrinsically better than the immediate competition. Presumably the music appealed to the heart because of properties that the music itself had - certain melodies, certain chord progressions, and rhythms, and so forth. Those properties matched—as a key to a lock?—the affective needs of the population within earshot of Bach’s music. How more intrinsic could you get? Music is supposed to appeal to the heart, no?

Alternatively you could say that the population was desperately in need of something. Bach’s music came along at that time and they immediately became attached to it (in the way Konrad Lorenz’s goslings became attached to him?) and thereby the population became Bach-biased. Thereafter, alternatives were not appealing, even though they might have been so had they gotten there before Bach.

* * * * * * *

On a different matter, it would be interesting to take the canon of British novels and map them onto the categorized list on which Moretti based his study of genre succession in the British novel. Are the canonical novels a random subset of this full collection, so that no genre and no time period is more likely to be in the canon than any other? Or are the canonical novels “clumped” with respect to the full run?

* * * * * * *

Finally, Shakespeare did well enough to live comfortably and give performances in the most elite of circles. But was he the most popular Elizabethan dramatist of the age? Did he rack up the most performances in his time and rake in the most money? Or was his popularity middling, but also elite? Was he, say, a George Lucas or an Ingmar Bergman?

By Bill Benzon on 06/06/06 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam Stephanides: In fact, thousands of students, along with many educated readers, at the very least, have certainly “heard of” the existence of the many classical Greek playwrights, as well as of the fact that the vast majority of the works of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus have not survived. But that has nothing to do with the point of my comment, which was that today there may be more fantasy writers of fairly equal high caliber (as was more than implied) alongside the Tolkiens and the Brooks than there were playwrights of the caliber of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, of times past.

I’ll simply repeat, my suggestion is that Tolkien and Brooks may not be so very much more great, if at all, than many other fantasy writers of today; maybe there are dozens or more at a top level today, as compared to a few of times past. It may be true, as I wrote, if only due to such factors as population size and the wealth of our age, compared to those of times past. If true, it seems to me that this complicates the matters that Adam Roberts and others are interested in. Even if not true, it’s quite worth considering, for a variety of pertinent reasons, it seems to me.

And of course much could be said about whether or not Tolkien and Brooks and others are relatively equally accomplished, and what it means in terms of the larger accomplishment for one writer to precede or follow another even slightly in time…

On another perhaps not unconnected matter, maybe I should point out that my satire of tim’s post doesn’t negate some of the real concerns to be found in his post, especially regarding those about the quality of commentary found on weblogs, of virtually all variety. Surely much scholarly work is best suited to the traditional forms of most careful reflection, deliberation, and review to be found in the production of many essays, journals, and books quite apart from (or in conjunction with) running weblog discussions. Such concerns partly account for my carried over use of tim’s phrase “The speculations above [...] are interesting,” using it of course to indicate his post, and partly account for my taking and treating tim’s post with no little seriousness—however necessarily, it seems to me, satiric. Obviously I think weblogs can be extremely useful as well, for all variety of matters, some number of which may be found on the Valve.

By Tony Christini on 06/06/06 at 12:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam:

“Bach chanced upon techniques of musical composition that made his music ‘stronger’ than other composers’ work in a Darwinian sense: more likely to live in people’s hearts, more likely to make people replicate it and continue it."

Bill:

It seems to me that this is awfully close to saying that Bach’s music was intrinsically better than the immediate competition.....

Alternatively you could say that the population was desperately in need of something. Bach’s music came along at that time and they immediately became attached to it (in the way Konrad Lorenz’s goslings became attached to him?) and thereby the population became Bach-biased. Thereafter, alternatives were not appealing, even though they might have been so had they gotten there before Bach.

I don’t see any reason to rule out the possibility that Bach’s music was, in fact, “better”. During Bach’s time there was a big, serious, sophisticated, educated musical audience, and composer’s strove to satisfy this. Most composers were doing varients of the same thing, and Bach was recognized to have surpassed the others. He didn’t just “happen on” anything, though; he was a wrokaholic and travelled here and there in order to learn what the other guys were doing. (For one thing, he learned both the German and the Italian style).

Bach was “better” than the others in the same sense that Michael Jordan was “better” than the others. You can argue that perhaps Handel was as good as Bach, but as far as I know, there’s no other contemporary about whom you can say this. It’s not just “taste”.

A fly in the ointment: when styles changed, Bach was more or less forgotten for about a century. He was revived mostly by Mendelsohn.

By John Emerson on 06/06/06 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bach was “better” than the others in the same sense that Michael Jordan was “better” than the others.

Ummm, except it’s possible to quantify Michael Jordan’s being “better” than the others, which is why modern athletics are so stats-obsessed. It would seem implausible for Bach to be “better” than other composers in anything close to this sense.

By on 06/06/06 at 03:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe quantification isn’t why Jordan is better. Maybe it’s because he beat everyone else one on one, which is what Bach did.

Bracketing out artistic quality as intangible and unknowable and really quite arbitrary and subjective is a positivist cliche, a contemporary truism, and a basic Valve doctrine, but by and large I think that Bach’s contemporaries recognized his superiority. I don’t think that people should so automatically assume that it was an audience whim.

By John Emerson on 06/06/06 at 04:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"A fly in the ointment: when styles changed, Bach was more or less forgotten for about a century. He was revived mostly by Mendelsohn.”

That’s the effect I was talking about.

The other thing is that we don’t know if canon formation is retrospective and that in the day, there were others equally as well known as Bach.  And if Bach was more or less forgotten for about a century until a newer composer found him to be useful, then that does imply that Bach wasn’t played much between his death and Mendelsohn’s revival of him.

Every writer reads Shakespeare and most writers from sometime after Shakespeare have read Chaucer and Skelton.  How we read the past depends on our presents—before the linguistics involved were understood, people read Chaucer in a radically different way that we do now.

The other thing is the issue of critical mass—the great periods are rarely products of one person.  They’re generally products of a group of talented people being born in an environment that brings them together.

We had 19th Century official US poetry, and we had Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson.  To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Dickinson’s only supportive contact with the popular writers of her day was with Helen Hunt Jackson (Thomas Wentworth Higginson thought Dickinson was half mad and tried to get Whitman fired from his government day job).  That may have been enough.  Most people, however, do require more.  I’ve often wondered what Whitman and Dickinson would have made of each other.  The Atlantic Monthly poetry of that time is pretty much forgotten or of historical interest only.  Dickinson and Whitman still sell in the top 5,000 at Amazon.com.  (Whitman had more social contacts with other writers, including Oscar Wilde).

People who riff off from their friend’s work, ideas and energy don’t tend to be imitators of each other—their groupies tend to be the derivitive ones, and older writers don’t have a good track record at picking their successors, so any age burns out quickly because of those two factors.

Universities may be controlling the critical mass needed for a good creative age by spreading the bright young artists around after graduate school so that creative communities of the sorts that formed in the national capitals and creative cities in the pass can’t form now outside of cities with many universities and even then, getting together with people who aren’t colleagues is harder than getting together with people who are.

Great art doesn’t just take the person whose works live on as useful to subsequent artists, but the people who egged her or him on.  Human beings don’t do work of any kind in a social void.

Outside of universities, the general reader reads things that are contemporary and things that those contemporary writers found useful or refer to.

By on 06/06/06 at 04:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I know that ranking the intrinsic value of these artists is fraught with difficulties, and that Adam’s argument focuses on other factors than the inherent artistic worth of Bach or Mozart, but can we honestly remove such considerations when looking at why “Golden Ages” have formed the way they have?  (I believe John was getting at something similar to this.)

Mozart IS better than Salieri, and Shakespeare IS better than (for example) Marlowe.  Saying that Shakespeare is only perceived as the best because he’s read the most by modern authors is rather disingenuous, I believe.  I think Adam hits at some good points about why these clumps occur the ways they do, but other comments seem ready to assume that all artistic quality is completely subjective.

I know we can never be objective about artistic quality, obviously.  And I know that some “masters” in the canon aren’t as great as others who never made it in (for many of the reasons Adam pointed out).  But there is, I think, a strong correlation betweeen quality and artistic immortality.  Saying otherwise just doesn’t seem fair.

By on 06/06/06 at 06:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Shakespeare is perceived as best because he can be read in more ways than some of the others, but he’s got gaps through which one can drive a whole minor poet.  He was a biased witness to his age.  Even someone as minor as Robert Green corrects some of his blind spots.

As far as I know, Shakespeare’s Globe was, if not the most profitable theatres, one of the two most profitable theatres in Elizabethan London.  My understanding is that theatre then was like rock music venues with a heavy dose of government propaganda on the conservative side and some fairly subversive plays by people who decided being anonymous was a good thing (Arden of Faversham).  Shakespeare was better enough to have Ben Jonson alternate between jealousy and flattery.

Would Shakespeare would have done something else if he’d been born today—like science.  If creativity is general, not specific to any particular art, the clusters will be around whatever