The small town in which I live is host to the only Haydn festival in England, and possibly in Europe. Haydn deserves his festival because he was so great a composer, but I like him also because he is proof that a person of brilliant achievement need not be a swine.
Of course, he was not the only person of brilliant accomplishment not to be a swine. I think of Chekhov in this connection, for example. The matter of the relation of talent to bad character was on my mind because I read recently the review of a book on the question of whether talented people should be excused their despicable behaviour on account of the contribution they made to their field.
Anthony Daniels appears in every Quadrant.
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The only time I had a written complaint against me to the hospital in which I worked was when Mr X complained that I had not been helpful in providing him with a sick note. These days, when someone complains, one is supposed to be emollient, not to say slimy; but I replied, “Mr X is a drunk who beats his wife and I’m not signing any sick certificate for him.” This was true, and I heard nothing more from him.
Would I have felt any different about Mr X had he been a brilliant something-or-other? I suspect that I would have done and might have answered differently, though I should not have done. But the relation of the life to the work has never been more fraught than it is today, when past achievement tainted by moral fault (according to current concepts of morality) ceases to be honoured. Bishop Berkeley, who owned slaves, is the latest to be dis- or rather de-honoured: the library named for him at Trinity, Dublin, has been renamed. Perhaps it should be called the Pecksniff Library.
But to return to the Haydn festival. I could not help but notice that my presence in the audience reduced its average age somewhat, although, as the Shakespeare sonnet puts it, my days are past their best. Some of the excellent performers at the festival were young, or at least youngish, but very few in the audience were. What will happen to poor Haydn when we geriatrics die out? Is it possible that, with growing maturity and discrimination, the young will grow to appreciate Haydn? Perhaps it is, but I am doubtful. Most of the elderly in the audience liked Haydn when they were young.
It is not merely that the young don’t like Haydn: they hate him, or at any rate would do so if they could distinguish him from other classical composers. During one of the concerts, young people came to disturb it by knocking on the huge glass windows behind which it was being played. They were soon chased away, and I suppose their behaviour could be interpreted as mere adolescent naughtiness—when I was a small child I thought it great fun to ring on old ladies’ doorbells and run away—but I cannot help but feel there was something more to it than this. It would not have been the first time I have encountered hostility to Western classical music—in the West.
I suspect that this hostility derives from a subliminal awareness that the music is a reproach to their own way of living, to its ugliness. Ugliness there has always been, of course, but now there is ugliness without aspiration to anything else, and indeed a desire to destroy anything else. Ugliness, being within the reach of all, is both democratic and authentic, in a way that beauty is not. Coarseness and vulgarity have become a metonym for political virtue. Coarseness of language is taken as a sign of large-mindedess and absence of prejudice. In a recent review published in the Guardian newspaper of an Irish novel, a reviewer chose the following passage to illustrate the splendour of the author’s witty dialogue and style:
“Like if the grid went down. Or if there was a swan attack.”
“Like, uh, a swan attack?”
“What the fuck,” Nev says again. “Where are you getting this shit?”
There is no doubt that many people do speak in this incoherent and inexpressive way, increasingly so and at higher and higher social and educational levels. I haven’t read the book under review, and it is perfectly possible that the passage is a defensible use of the demotic in reported speech, appropriate to the circumstances under description. But still I would not have chosen it to illustrate the literary virtues or prowess of an author: if the reviewer wanted to entice us by the glories of the author’s writing, surely he could have chosen another passage—unless, that is, the whole of the book consists of such witless dialogue.
We went to some of the Haydn concerts with a Belgian friend who came over specifically for the festival. She made an interesting observation at the end of one of the concerts in which two pieces had been played requiring first a flute soloist and second a solo cellist. The flautist was a woman and the cellist a man, both excellent. At the end of the flautist’s piece, a man approached the stage and gave her a bouquet of flowers. At the end of the cellist’s piece, a woman approached the sage and gave him a bottle of wine.
“In Belgium,” said my friend, “this would not now be permitted. The man and the woman would have to be given exactly the same gift.”
I admit that at this moment, my heart swelled with municipal pride. Our town had resisted, no doubt in blissful unawareness that it was doing so, the madness of modern obsessions, which are to society what the deathwatch beetle is to the timbers of ancient buildings. (Á propos of nothing, I wonder what deathwatch beetles did before there were ancient buildings for them to undermine?)
Moreover, the concertmaster addressed the audience briefly, beginning, “Ladies and gentlemen.” This also would not have been permitted in Belgium because someone in the audience might consider himself neither a lady nor a gentleman, but something in between the two. My friend, a university teacher, told me that she now addressed any audience in public by saying, “Welcome, everyone,” or some such unctuous phrase. She did not agree with the use, let alone the imposition, of such a locution, but there is a limit to the number of fights you can pick at any one time. Who wants to expend physical and emotional energy on the preservation of a banal greeting when there are so many more important and interesting things to think about and argue over? The problem with not expending the energy necessary to combat such demands, however, is that they will never cease once the first one is complied with, because the aim of the demands is not the amelioration of life but the attainment of power.
It is not only, or even especially, in Belgium that the problem is acute. A professor in England of my acquaintance told me that his life had been made a misery because he still insisted on addressing gatherings as Ladies and gentlemen. He was not supposed, either, to address the recipient of his emails as Mr, Mrs, Dr or Professor: this was in order to create the illusion of a complete absence of hierarchy. He was to address everyone as Dear Colleague, and he was to allow the most junior student to address him by his first name, or even by a diminutive of his first name. It is unlikely, however, that those keenest on destroying all sense of hierarchy would be very pleased if increments in pay were likewise suppressed, and everyone received the pay of the cleaner.
One of the curious characteristics of current intellectual life is its combination of extreme earnestness and extreme triviality. We used to sneer at the importance once allegedly accorded to the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but this was a positively sensible inquiry compared with some of those we pursue today. The leader of the Liberal Democrat Party in Britain, asked on the radio whether a woman can have a penis, said that “quite clearly” she could. This is the man who might well hold the balance of power in the next parliament, and thus the question, and the answers given to it, might be an important factor in the next election.
Will enough young people, indoctrinated with the idea that there is nothing biological about the division between male or female, get out to vote and swing the election? If not this time, perhaps, the next.
Under his pen-name Theodore Dalrymple, Anthony Daniels recently published the collection Neither Trumpets Nor Violins, co-written with Samuel Hux and Kenneth Francis (New English Review Press) and The Wheelchair and Other Stories (Mirabeau).