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Friday, November 30, 2007

Antonio Salieri, Homer Simpson, and the Echos of Genius

In the movie 'Amadeus' the aged composer Salieri despaired that his once exalted reputation had vanished, with scarcely anyone playing his music, while that vulgar twit Mozart was getting all the attention, and quite literally, the last laugh. Of course, in Salieri's prime he received the best press, the best jobs, the highest laurels, and the ear of a tone deaf emperor, but ultimately it didn't matter because no one cared.

Similarly, consider the legacy of the writers Norman Mailer and William Styron. Lionized by the literary elite, feted with publicity and prizes, their legacy likewise faded with their years, so that almost no one reads them anymore, while a vulgar twit named Kurt Vonnegut gets the attention, the readers, and the last laugh.

Homer contemplating a doughnut

Ultimately, the argument of who is better or right is irrelevant if no one pays attention. Like a tree falling in the forest, does an argument matter if it isn't heard? The celebrated debates in philosophy and psychology are mere footnotes in our collective memory, not because they have been settled, but because no one cares. As I read the umpteenth argument for or against evolutionary/freudian/behavioristic psychology, arguments full of storm and fury and torturous logic, I know as well that they are significant to next to no one. This is because their authors do not consider the simple fact that people do not ponder the meaning of existence or their behavior as much as the meaning of that doughnut they ate this morning. But does this mean that the only philosophy that matters is written by Homer Simpson? Not really, but it does mean that you need to include a little Homer Simpson in your heroic and immortal prose. That is, to convince people, you must first engage them, and philosophies that are immortally beloved must not only mix high logic with high art, but also carry a good tune. That right dose of hummable vulgarity imbues a Mozartean or Shakespearean quality that makes the logic go down, and as Kurt Vonnegut likely knows now, an echo in eternity that even God will take pause to listen.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

First and Foremost!

During the fight for the island of Iwo Jima in WWII, a group of Marines were first to raise a really big American flag on Mount Suribachi, and became famous. A bit earlier, another group of Marines were first to raise a really small American flag on the same spot, but did not become famous. It was just as well, as the former group to their bewilderment were feted as war heroes not because they were brave, but because they were first. Somehow heroism became equated with winning the game of king of the hill, except that as the soldiers knew, it wasn't a game.

Being first imputes qualities for an individual and his or her accomplishment that he/she may not possess. Indeed, first timers get Nobel prizes, adulation, and credibility. So if you were the second guy to fly over the Atlantic, land on the moon, or discover Uranus, you receive only anonymity for your achievement.

Being first is the emblem of the creative and adventurous mind, however your creativity won't be recognized until you are pinned with an affirming tin trinket bestowed by some blustering know it all, like the Wizard of Oz. But how do you get your just reward when the laurel wreaths have already been passed out? Simple. While there are only so many things you can be first at, you can still 'invent' new ones. So it's best to invent new categories where you can make the first and best impression. Thus, if you can't be first to fly across the Atlantic, why not try to be the first to kayak, balloon, or paddle backwards across? Like reinventing the wheel, just do things in a slightly different way to gain the same result, and you can be heralded as much as that unknown caveman who 10,000 years ago who came up with it. Better yet is to reinvent the description of an event, and thus gain creative laurels for redescribing the wheel. Social scientists are particularly good at this, and have coined a thousand categories to define that motivational lecture or conversation you just had with a family member. It may have the same effect no matter how you analyze it, but at least it gets the Freuds and Dr. Phils of the world the status of getting there first.

There are only so many ways you can counsel, motivate, or otherwise control the behavior of other people, and we have individually discovered on our own pretty much all of them, although we were not the first. Come to think of it, the fact that we generally ignore self help gurus speaks to the fact that when it comes to insights into human behavior, our common sense in sublime anonymity arrived there first.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Bach Within

It was Europe in the year 286, and times were tough all over: illegal immigration by scruffy looking people with bad manners, rampant inflation, religious conflicts, and plagues. As the saying goes, the more things change.... So, to fix things the Roman Emperor Diocletian literally fixed things. He thus righted the economic ship of state by fixing wages and prices, and topped if off by fixing nearly everyone's career. So if your dad was a sheep herder or brick layer, that's what you'd be later on in life. And if you didn't like it, you were executed.

Well, Diocletian's master plan didn't work, and the Roman Empire fell anyway. But it did produce a medieval mind-set that saw stability in knowing your own place. It was a deal that was hardly inspiring to the upwardly mobile. Yet when dealt with lemons you might as well make lemonade, and perchance in every few generations would be someone in the lemonade guild who could stir the supreme refreshment.

And so it was with not only cobbling shoes but cobbling music as well, as in olden times the arts were less a diversion than a trade. And as with any avocation, every so often you would produce a master cobbler. It does get you thinking about the natural frequency of genius in small populations of folks who are straight jacketed for generations into career tracks and the invariable one track mind.

That's the Bach family for you. For over two hundred years music was their craft, and music was handed down from generation to generation not like an heirloom, but like a craft that needed to be mastered in order to pay the bills. And genius came naturally, and as with every odd generation of craftspeople, sometimes the genius was supreme. But it was all blue collar stuff, no Juilliard training here. Just complete an apprenticeship like a junior plumber, and writing fugues become as natural as installing storm drains.

J. S. Bach with score for Cantata #112, 'The Lemonade Cantata'

So what is the lesson? Artistry is like plumbing. Keep your aspirations practical, and music will pay the bills, and every now and then will pay off in artistic genius as well as a great glass of lemonade.