Monday, March 30, 2009


I am spending the afternoon reading some C. S. Lewis: The Abolition of Man. I had a discussion this morning at my quintet rehearsal about what I believe is the universality of Beethoven's Ninth symphony. My argument is that Beethoven was able to create, in some mysterious manner, a work of art that fundamentally resonates with the human spirit. I was immediately rebuked by one of my colleagues who said, "speaking of universality is tricky business. You have to be really careful there."

This then led into a ten minute discussion about art. My position, and firm belief, is that good art, whether it's music, drama, poetry, sculpture, or anything else, is good because it connects us with our humanity, and that some artists have the ability to do this more than others. My colleague stated to me that Beethoven's Ninth is recognized as "good" because our society and culture has decided that it is, so thus it is. I find that absurd. She's of the rather liberal streak of academia that is critical of western culture, of dead white men and much that they taught, created or espoused. I find it all unfortunate, and as I listened to her this morning, I thought back to my reading of Chesterton, and it made me want to come home and read The Abolition of Man.

I am of the belief that many in academic circles suffer from an insidious creeping cynicism that masquerades as enlightenment in their minds. The simple pleasures of life, or what has generally been lauded by most people in most places are seen, through the lens of academia, to be merely sentimental drivel, so out of a desire to leave aside "childish things," the academe often excises from his or her life the simplest of pleasures that the common man seems to think is delightful. She informed me that when she performs Beethoven Nine, she never has overwhelming feelings of emotion, which never fails to happen in my case. She then told me about a book that she felt I needed to read, with a title like "Deconstructing Beethoven," which apparently has convinced her that Beethoven's place in history is more an accident which resulted from western society deciding that he should be lauded, rather than the fact that his music is intrinsically and objectively good music. I think that many college professors are very easily be swayed by a new book that espouses a theory that says something like that, and then embrace the theory so as to themselves feel enlightened and educated, which results in this maxim: to love Beethoven Nine is to be a fool.

I think this happens all the time, and it's one of the reasons I love Chesterton and Lewis so much, and the rest of their company. The older I get, the more clearly I see the side that I desire to align myself with: those who love story, beauty, wonder and awe as gifts to be embraced and encouraged, and within these gifts can be found be reflections of our very humanity. I think what Lewis writes in The Abolition can easily apply to the way some professors I know view the world: "They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda--they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental--and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down the jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence (sic) against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head."

I love that! And as I read that last line, I saw a direct corollary to a line that I had underlined in Chesterton's Orthodoxy just last week: "Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain." The context is different: GKC is talking about madness, but I wonder if Lewis inadvertently used this idea of GKC's.

Back to my reading now, to think more about the universality of humanity's love and appreciation for beauty and that which is sublime. I knew this morning that Lewis would give me insights into what I find to be an incredibly silly position to hold.

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