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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.

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