The censures of the carping world

When O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder charges in 1995, the only people I talked to who weren’t surprised were friends in law school. O.J.’s lawyers worked a textbook defense: destroy the credibility of the arresting officer, and reasonable doubt descends on the entire case. I thought of O.J. fairly early on in this week’s must-read, Richard Taruskin’s Monty-Python-16-ton-weight of a book review in The New Republic. Taruskin is reviewing recent literature on the allegedly precarious state of classical music in current culture. His favorite?

Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall, a journalist and recovering oboist, which despite a pandering title actually contains the smartest and most constructive take on the situation.

Come on. Blair Tindall? I could see if he wanted to cite the book as symptomatic of certain attitudes that he saw in the modern music world and wanted to use in his argument. But “the smartest and most constructive take on the situation”? That book was trash—entertaining trash, yes, but about as constructive as jello shots. The jury would like to see those gloves again, your honor.

This review encapsulates everything that drives me nuts about Taruskin’s writing: at first I’m amused by by the insult comedy, then the rhythm starts to bog down, and finally I’m just exhausted—and, temporarily, reflexively sympathetic to whatever poor idea he continues to bludgeon out of apparent inertia. Taking up a trio of books that could be easily—and deservedly—dispatched on the back of a couple of napkins, Taruskin instead unleashes 12,000 words (12,000 words—let us never speak of this man as “pithy” again), so focused on his invective and his provocations that he ties his shoelaces together, stumbling over his own arguments, lurching past more interesting, subtler points. Even more frustrating, those points are eminently worth making—but they’re drowned out by the irresistable lure of the lapidary put-down.

Here’s a favorite bit. In the midst of Taruskin carpet-bombing Julian Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music?, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head (I know, I know—Taruskin playing the anti-Semitic card? Shocking) in the Halloween-mask guise of Richard Wagner. Taruskin traces Johnson’s classical-music-as-moral-uplift back to E.T.A. Hoffmann, then condemns it because Wagner took it up:

Between Hoffmann and Wagner, however, the metaphor of depth had been claimed by German writers as a national trait; and just as nationalism underwent its general transformation from a modernizing and liberalizing discourse into a belligerent and regressive one in the later nineteenth century, so the notion of spiritual depth had been turned into a weapon of national and racial aggrandizement in Wagner’s hands.

So what? Ideas don’t automatically lose their validity just because unscrupulous people try and assimilate them into their own distasteful worldviews—and it’s an awfully tenuous assumption that, by listening to a composer’s music, we automatically perceive and accept that composer’s philosophy. (I’ve listened to Wagner for years without succumbing to the temptations of rabid nationalism, racial superiority, or wife-stealing.) Now, Taruskin is bringing up Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the context of taking down Johnson’s advocacy of classical music as a moral tonic. Taruskin rightly points out that art should bring pleasure, first and foremost, and that pleasure takes many forms:

But pleasure does not have to be defined sensuously, and there are all kinds of pleasures: guilty pleasures, altruistic pleasures, animal pleasures, spiritual pleasures, perverse pleasures, the pleasure of a good meal, of a good cry, of worthy accomplishment, of self-improvement, of self-possession, of exclusion, of ascendancy, of dominion, of revenge.

Taruskin coruscates Johnson: “To cast aesthetic preferences as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an obscenity.” But Taruskin, of course, is doing just that, saying that if you derive pleasure via a Hoffmann-esque aesthetic philosophy, you’re headed down the same road to perdition that Wagner took. “Belief in [classical music’s] indispensability, or in its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable,” Taruskin states, “and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves.” First of all, a belief is not an argument, and second of all, doesn’t that belief constitute an aesthetic preference? Certainly some pleasures are morally reprehensible, but that means that other pleasures (even if just the pleasure of avoiding the morally reprehensible) are, by comparison, morally advantageous. Taruskin wants it both ways.

Both the book itself and its reception (as recorded on expose the sort of pleasure it promotes: that of solidarity in sanctimony. To all who have read it with enjoyment I urgently prescribe a reading of Father Sergius, Tolstoy’s parable of moral exhibitionism and its comeuppance. I will pray for the salvation of their souls.

God’s eyes would probably glaze over around the 8,000-word mark.

The thing is, all three of these books (or at least the two that I read) deserve a certain amount of opprobrium, but the interesting review that might have come out of that—promulgating a theory as to why, market forces to the contrary, so many of us do still listen to classical music—is buried under spluttering, Dickensian rage and that seemingly deathless nostalgic 1970s hit, poking Adorno with a stick. (ANABlog has already pointed out a couple more of Taruskin’s less watertight arguments.)

On the other hand, why make a big deal? I don’t particularly care for the eat-your-vegetables rationalization of classical music in these books, either. Here’s why: on the header of his blog, the film scholar Jim Emerson quotes the philosopher Daniel Dennett: “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.” In my book, scattershot bullying counts as a bad argument; by the end of the article, I had to consciously remind myself that I actually agreed with a lot of his positions. Taruskin closes by quoting Tony Soprano—see, kids? Your professor is down with pop culture, too. (In the meantime, the kids have moved on to “The Office” and Arcade Fire songs.) “Do not expect nuance from a mob boss,” he warns. I won’t, Don Taruskin.


  1. I think I gave him a little more credit than you (and perhaps than he deserves), but my guess is that the entire thing is a put on. He indicts himself along with the three authors early on:<>As with rising gorge I consumed these books, the question that throbbed and pounded in my head was whether it was still possible to defend my beloved repertoire without recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.On the evidence before me, the answer is no. <>Because, in the course of the essay, he employs all of those techniques, and the sympathetic reader would include the review itself in that body of evidence.As you say, most of what he believes is agreeable (his dismissal of the J. Bell hubbub was particularly welcome)

  2. Excellent! I’m still looking for a paper copy of TNR – no way am I reading 12,000 words on line. You’re 2500 miles from him; I think everybody west of Illinois is cowering and hoping he doesn’t notice them.

  3. I don’t have a problem with Taruskin’s article, mainly because he approvingly quotes a jokey comment I made on a Sequenza21 post after a night on the turps, which I couldn’t remember writing even after I googled it. Luckily, it was on the first page so I didn’t have to read any further.That, coupled with the Blair Tindall puff, suggests Taruskin was in a pretty giddy state of mind when he started the review, and probably needed the 12,000 words to settle down.

  4. First off, the way the article is laid out online is ghastly.Secondly, the whole thing reminds me of the classic Monty Python sketch about Doug & Roy Spim, two Australians who use tanks and grenade launchers and grenades to kill tiny insects, i.e. overkill much?<>I think everybody west of Illinois is cowering and hoping he doesn’t notice them<>Hahahahaha. Luckily, I live in a really crime-ridden part of Los Angeles and he wouldn’t *dare* come here. Oh damn, there’s still the Internet…From the ANABlog link:<>In case anyone is keeping score, we care neither why people listen or that they go on listening to classical music, and we’re quite fond of butter tarts<>Excellent. I’m sick to death of a) The Death Of Classical Music Because Composers Don’t Appear On The Cover of <>Time<> Anymore sorts of articles and articles simply can’t grasp the fact that people listen to classical music because *gasp* there’s a lot of really great music to be found, that the music itself is sufficient without all the cultural baggage that Taruskin and his ilk want to attach to it.

  5. So you say ‘…market forces to the contrary, so many of us do still listen to classical music…’What’s your definition of ‘many’?

  6. I’ve been reading up and down the blogosphere about this; I think your analysis of the Taruskin problem is dead-on.Robert Bonotto, also in Boston

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