Playing For the Rules
Consider the following quote from George Orwell’s essay “Writers and Leviathan”:
I often have the feeling that even at the best of times literary criticism is fraudulent, since in the absence of any accepted standards whatever—any external reference which can give meaning to the statement that such and such a book is ‘good’ or ‘bad’—every literary judgment consists in trumping up a set of rules to justify an instinctive preference. One’s real reaction to a book, when one has a reaction at all, is usually ‘I like this book’ or ‘I don’t like it,’ and what follows is a rationalisation. But ‘I like this book’ is not, I think, a non-literary reaction; the non-literary reaction is ‘This book is on my side, and therefore I must discover merits in it.’
How can I read a passage like the above and not imagine “piece of music” every time I see “book” and “musical” every time I see “literary”? But the question of whether Orwell’s observation is really applicable to music as well as literature will have to wait, because I want to assume, for the moment, that it is.
First of all, the phrase “trumping up a set of rules to justify an instinctive preference” really caught my eye. The funny thing is that even though trumping up a set of rules about music to justify instinctive musical preferences seems 100% phony and backwards to me, trumping up a set of assumptions about society to justify (or, better, explain) instinctive musical preferences seems like it could be quite a genuine and fruitful process, given that you’re willing to stand by those assumptions no matter their musical ramifications.
In that case, though, isn’t our hypothetical listener simply defaulting to “This piece is on my side, and therefore I must discover merits in it,” a position that Orwell ascribes to critics with political agendas at the front of their minds? Maybe—but I must admit that I don’t have Orwell’s problem conflating the value of a piece of music as a piece (does such a thing even exist? If it does, who cares?) and its value as a prismatically reflective culture-object. In my opinion, the “literary” question—whether, in other words, I like the piece regardless of if it’s “on my side” or not—is immaterial: We’re humans, we inhabit a civilization, and to pretend that music (or literature or whatever) is to be apprehended and appreciated in a vacuum is to suggest, in essence, that music is better than people. It is not. Bach’s counterpoint is not about counterpoint: Bach’s counterpoint is about Protestantism and having lots of kids and having to walk a long way to see Buxtehude. Only then does the music matter, and while you don’t have to take a “side” as such on the Reformation, children, or how there didn’t used to be trains in Thuringia, keeping these things in mind prevents you from hiding behind a screen of mythology and pseudoscience when you have to formulate an opinion. In fact, if we twist Orwell’s use of the term “on my side” to mean “with my best intellectual interests in mind and willing to prompt me to consider unexpected viewpoints” rather than “aligned with my political orthodoxy of choice,” his “non-literary reaction” is exactly the reaction I’d hope for from my audience.
I’m being a little provocative here; a recent comment on another NewMusicBox post jerked my chain. When I ran across this quote in Orwell (in the context of an essay wherein he cautions writers to avoid toeing a political line, advice he himself took in only its narrowest sense), I had to bring it to your attention.