Absolute Earnestness and Extreme Triviality

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.”

“A what?”

“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).


11 thoughts on “Absolute Earnestness and Extreme Triviality

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    This fashion too, will pass.

  • Sindri says:

    “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..”
    Exactly. The brutish desire of a bunch of morons to disrupt the pleasures of a few harmless classical music lovers derives from a simmering resentment of anything they perceive to be fine and better than they themselves are. I’m reminded of the story in one of your books, Dr Daniels, about some upheaval in, maybe, Liberia where a group of brutish soldiers smashed the legs off a concert grand, perhaps the only one in the country.
    Dismal, lowbrow types who go on about classical music being “elitist” are all of a piece with this crowd.
    And they’ll come for classical music, eventually.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    They are too ignorant or whatever to enjoy Haydn, and so they cannot stand it if others find the music enjoyable. So they do what they can to deny the music to everyone else. As with the controlling personality: anything he can’t control, he will destroy, Likewise a controlling she.

  • john mac says:

    On the same note , ABC classical is soo EARNEST in trivializing the classical canon . Inserting aboriginal “sounds” and content through much of every day , Calling our major cities in aboriginal names , and gifting airtime to the likes of Deborah Cheat’em to call herself Aboriginal, lesbian , woman in some order – anything but a proud Australian . All on the taxpayer dime . The smugness of the presenters is palpable , especially Scottish blow-in Russell Torrance reeling off aboriginal place names as if he’s been doing it all his life ! I try to tune out in between pieces of course .

    • rosross says:

      We have given up on ABC radio. Sick of the aboblather. And increasingly the music is experimental with too many didges shoved in as the equal of violins, harps and real musical instruments.

  • john mac says:

    Yes rosross, not enough that they have TV channels 30,31,32,33,34 with huge indigenous content plus 2 ,to spread their propaganda. Classical should be the quiet. Neutral haven from politics and culture .The presenters, instead of being sober , thoughtful aficionados are all in for the wokery, enthusing about a hippo named “Lizzo” twerking with a centuries old historic glass flute ,oblivious to possibly breaking it. Wheeling out Cheetum at every opportunity to gently scold us , and without our consent, renaming the country, blissfully ignorant of the fact that Classical music is a peak in the mountain range of western achievements and should be treated with the respect it and we listeners deserve. The staff ARE who runs the ABC.

  • Sindri says:

    ABC-FM (as it used to be called), born circa 1976, was a revolutionary achievement: in its day: based in Adelaide, broadcasting fine music to just about every populated pocket of Australia 24 hours a day, satisfying an audience that was entirely unserved with the most inspiring and brilliant music ever written. They devised a clever method of broadcasting to the West seemingly without having to complicate the announcer’s time calls: they modified a video cassette player, which kept very accurate time, and streamed the two stereo channels from it exactly 2 or 3 hours later, somehow keeping the two channels in phase. Nowadays it’s all humdrum and digital; at the time it had never been done on such a scale and was a technical triumph.
    Everything about it was brilliant. Just good music without the tiresome posturing. RIP.

  • Paul.Harrison says:

    There are two common threads running through our river of life and they are the Seven Deadly Sins counterpointed by the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Of the two, the deadly sins are by far the easiest to practice, or to fall into, and by comparison the virtues are most difficult. Marketing uses the 7 sins in almost everything they do: For example: greed, lust and envy to sell the wares of the capitalist world. I would like to paint a mind image for the readers. Imagine the day of your birth, and you espy two columns of paper next to your cradle. One of the columns is a stack, 1000 in number, of the total of moral actions assigned to your life. The other stack, again 1000 in number, of the total of immoral actions assigned to your life. Now imagine at the end of your life, on your death bed, which of the two stacks would you wish was most depleted. I can tell you now that the most depleted stack for everybody would be the stack of immoral actions, and your last dying thought would be, “How did it all go so bad?”

  • SimonBenson says:

    The key to this insightful piece of writing is in the observation that the rabid, allegedly ‘postmodern’ left’s “hostility” to the music of the likes of Haydn “derives from a subliminal awareness that the music is a reproach to their own way of living, to its ugliness”. How true. Similarly, the source of their hostility to God’s gendered humanity is a dis-ease with the gender God gave them. To address the last point about politics, any aspiring politician should be invited to attend a farm stay, where they are offered a monetary reward for finding a bull that produces milk and a rooster that lays an egg. Gender distortion is a thing that will go the same way as all hysterically funny passing fads. I say enjoy the idiocy while it lasts. After all, there is something endlessly comic about it that makes leftist views on this and so many other issues a constant source of amusement for so many. Humanity will look back in years to come and laugh loudly about it all. And I for one want something about this humourless age for my sons and daughters, and grandsons and granddaughters to laugh about.

  • William says:

    Mr Daniels is completely on target regarding the fact that the hostility to Haydn is a consequence of his reproach to the ugliness of their life.
    To take this observation further –
    There are people who have a visceral hatred for Christianity and the culture that resulted from it. They may negate the Christian origins of our music, art, universities, science, literature etc., but when it comes down to it, they are aware that it is a direct consequence of the Christian religion itself – because they wish to destroy it.
    From the twentieth century, one saw the deconstruction of our music and art: the mastery, genius and plain creativity were precluded from these people so, under the guise of ‘egalitarianism’ or a contempt for elitism, art of the genius of Michelangelo, Raphael and our two thousand year history, was sniffed at by the art marketers. Art was reduced to a style that could be produced by those who had felt disenfranchised by a culture that valued such skill and had allowed for the mind set that nurtured the creative genius: – abstract art was therefore promoted by those who felt excluded or that it disagreed with their perceived victimhood. The snobbery of education was employed to silence the reaction of the public to the banality of abstract art and its descent into contortions of ludicrous dimensions (fish on bricks/black crosses on brown backgrounds/white canvases with no images). The triumph of these as art was a result of marketers and critics, coupled with educated-sounding manifestos, where the meaning was pretentiously presented. For the majority of this period, realism was sneered at, by both critics and buyers.
    When it comes to music, the same- Mozart was a genius, but he was a product of a Christian culture, as was Haydn, Vivaldi (a priest), and Beethoven. Who could attain the heights of such genius? Who could live with the reality that such beauty was the direct product of the Christian faith? This music must be destroyed, demeaned, sneered at, or, if this fails – what was enacted in the article – protested for its political statement. After all, it is a statement for the Christian faith that is far more powerful than the slogans and craven threats that are employed in the demand for compliance to the demands of the cultural renovators.
    Music, reduced and deconstructed, at first appropriated black culture in jazz and variations of rock and roll, to degenerate to rap, where there is no music at all. In these musical genres, the musical mastery of Mozart is not even recognised or understood- the mediocre is extolled. There has always been highly educated and sophisticated music, and there has always existed contemporaneously, folk music – exhuberant and talented. When we look at the marketing of this modern phenomenon, we are not looking at organic musicality (which is, in truth, a genuine egalitarian musical expression). Rather, we are seeing an ideology pushed upon us by the music marketers, who wish to see the disappearance of our cultural framework and to impose their own, new, ugly, untalented expression in its stead.
    Promotion of the truly mediocre has been achieved by the promotion of those who conformed to the deconstructed style – discordant, unpleasant unmusical music was extolled as ‘genius’ and praised as possessing some undefinable power that resulted from the alienation of the composer.
    To compare these composers with musical genius of Mozart, Haydn, Vivaldi is laughable – and yet, all was embraced by the media critics as ‘exciting’ and modern. In truth, those plebeians who were sneered at by the saying ‘I don’t know art but I know what I like’ spoke the truth. They were the child who said that the emperor had no clothes.
    And finally music descended from second rate composers who were called ‘genius’ to rap..
    This is music by people who do not understand music, cannot play an instrument and do not care.
    So unless the readership are content with our culture being shredded , it is important that each person values these gems – musical, artistic, true scientific method (as opposed to ideology), genuine literature (Shakespeare) and that each person, on greeting groups says, ‘ladies and gentlemen’. To comply with the predominant discourse is to make it harder for those who refuse. It is not as if it stops at ‘ladies and gentlemen’ . To submit will require further submission. It is a basic tool of the socialist and it continues until the more absurd the claim, (men are women/women have penises), the more the person is invested in the lie. This is a socialist tactic employed as far back as Engels. Don’t think for a minute that it will stop at ‘ladies and gentlemen.’

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