Saturday, August 21, 2010

A rambling remembrance of Allan Bloom on music

Yesterday afternoon I spent time re-reading portions of Allan Bloom's great book, The Closing of the American Mind, which I read close to the time it first came out. I also remember watching his interview with Willian F. Buckley and sending away for the transcript (there was no on-line in those days), which I still have. I also re-read the short essay Ten Conservative Principles, by Russell Kirk, whom I hadn't even thought of for quite a few years.

I am most fortunate to have literally stumbled on both of these important thinkers at an impressionable age and during the formative years of my education. For most of my readers, it goes without saying that I did not encounter either Bloom or Kirk on a syallabus for a university class. I am still very taken by Kirk's assertion that "conservatism is the negation of ideology." It is certainly an abuse of the word ideology to say that every way of looking at society and the world is an ideology. If, as Giussani asserts, the object determines the method (an assertion also at home in Kirk's view), then ideologies arise when we seek to impose a set of ideas upon reality, thus asserting ourselves against it, not letting the object determine the method.

Allan Bloom

Personally, I locate the beginning of the age of ideology, an age that has not ended and that seems endless, with the rise of German idealism (i.e., Hegel, Fichte, et. al.) and subsequently Kantianism. Of course Marxism, taking its cue from Hegel, has been perhaps the most pervasive and destructive ideology of all. It at least paved the way for all kinds of ideologies, both dangerous and ridiculous. If ideology is the assertion of the self against reality, we see it prevalent in many aspects of life, most especially now in our approach to human sexuality, as the recent and on-going debate about marriage amply demonstrates. As Bloom observed, "Law may prescribe that the male nipples be made equal to the female ones, but they still will not give milk." This brings to mind a conversation between George Weigel and Rowan Williams upon Weigel's presentation of his biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope. As Weigel reports it:
"I gave him a copy of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II; we spoke of John Paul’s theology of the body, and then fell to discussing the difference between 'sacramental' and 'gnostic' understandings of the human condition. The former insists that the stuff of the world – including maleness, femaleness, and their complementarity — has truths built into it; gnostics say it’s all plastic, all malleable, all changeable. The sacramentalists believe that the extraordinary reveals itself through the ordinary: bread, wine, water, salt, marital love and fidelity; the gnostics say it’s a matter of superior wisdom, available to the enlightened (which can mean, the politically correct). Dr. Williams seemed convinced that the gnosticism of a lot of western high culture posed a great danger to historic Christianity and the truths it must proclaim."
Along these same lines Bloom was, rightly, even if he overdid it a bit, critical of rock n' roll in all its variations, a view he famously laid out in his famous chapter on music: "Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire- not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored." Now, anyone who knows me knows that I love rock in all its variations. Anyone who loves rock like I do knows that this is not really a fair criticism because there a lot of rock music that does not seek to whet our sexual appetite. Just drawing from my own recent experience, one of the reasons I enjoy the music of Rush is precisely because they take up other themes, universal human themes, even in a Shakesperean mode! But, on the whole, Bloom's is a fair enough criticism.

On this view, sexual liberation becomes an ideology, a way of asserting yourself against reality, which is always destructive, both of the self and of culture, a step backwards in human terms. As much as I love rock n' roll, I would never propose using it as sacred music, meaning music that is worship of God, nor would I ever give up listening to Bach, Schubert, Liszt, Mahler, et. al.

Dido and Aeneas, by Guérin, ca. 1815

One of Bloom's major academic achievements was his original translation of Plato's Republic. It was from here, via Nietzsche, that he derived his views on music: "Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agrees with Plato's analysis, says...that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state... Music is the soul's primitive and primary speech... without articulate speech or reason. It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason." The result of viewing sexuality from an ideological perspective? "There is nothing wild, Dionysian, searching, in our promiscuity. It has a dull, sterilized, scientific character."

I don't mind saying that the Wikipedia entry on Bloom is very good and has served well as source for this post- it beats thumbing my way through a book I read more than 20 years ago. Cutting to the chase, Bloom's explication of the dynamic in play with regard to popular music in particular, which can be applied to popular culture generally is that
"[p]op music employs sexual images and language to enthrall the young, and persuade them that their petty rebelliousness is authentic politics, when in fact they are being controlled by the money-managers whom successful performers like Jagger quietly serve. In fact, Bloom claims, Jagger is a hero to many university students who envy his fame and wealth, but are really just bored by the lack of options before them. Along with the absence of literature in the lives of the young, and their sexual but often unerotic relationships, the first part of Closing tries to explain the current state of education in a fashion beyond the purview of an economist or psychiatrist—contemporary culture's leading umpires."
Hence, Bloom asserts, "The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside." Indeed, when a young person discovers this "outside," say, by reading Plato's Republic, or stumbles on Giussani's The Religious Sense, is struck by the big questions posed by Camus in L'Étranger or Le Peste, not to mention L'Homme révolté, in which Camus himself definitively moves beyond ideology, let alone engages deeply with Orwell, taking away his concern for truth, for confronting reality as it is, not as I wish it to be, coming to know that in the course of human events it is very often the case that there are no good guys, or reads Dostoevsky's deep explorations into life and meaning, or who seriously engages Homer's great epic poems, or that of Virgil, or considers the milieu of the writing of the creation accounts found in the Hebrew Scriptures, their deep connection with The Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Enuma Elish, it is exhilarating, liberating, and has the feel, especially these days, of an act of subversion. It has this feel because it is an act of resistance against the annhilation of the human being.

Pope John Paul II set a brave example of the effectiveness of such cultural resistance with his subversive activities as a young man during the German occupation of his beloved country, Poland.

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