25 April 2008

Disgrace by Coetzee, 1999

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:38 am

[Here are some “screen shots” from this novel, beginning with the first paragraph…]

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. ‘Have you missed me?’ she asks. ‘I miss you all the time,’ he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.

* * *

‘We want to give you an opportunity to state your position.’

‘I have stated my position. I am guilty.’

‘Guilty of what?’

‘Of all that I am charged with.’

‘You are taking us in circles, Professor Lurie.’

‘Of everything Ms Isaacs avers, and of keeping false records.’

Now Farodia Rassool intervenes. ‘You say you accept Ms Isaacs’s statement, Professor Lurie, but have you actually read it?’

‘I do not wish to read Ms Isaacs’s statement. I accept it. I know of no reason why Ms Isaacs should lie.’

‘But would it not be prudent to actually read the statement before accepting it?’

‘No. There are more important things in life than being prudent.’

Farodia Rassool sits back in her seat. ‘This is all very quixotic, Professor Lurie, but can you afford it? It seems to me we may have a duty to protect you from yourself.’ She gives Hakim a wintry smile.

‘You say you have not sought legal advice. Have you consulted anyone — a priest, for instance, or a counselor? Would you be prepared to undergo counselling?’

The question comes from the young woman from the Business School. He can feel himself bristling. ‘No, I have not sought counseling nor do I intend to seek it. I am a grown man. I am not receptive to being counselled. I am beyond the reach of counselling.’

* * *

He tries to wash off the ash under the kitchen tap, pouring glass after glass of water over his head. Water trickles down his back; he begins to shiver with cold.

It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country. Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life. Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head. Count Lucy lucky too. Above all Lucy.

A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, to few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country; in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them.

* * *

Just something to dabble at, he had said to Rosalind. A lie. The opera is not a hobby, not any more. It consumes him night and day.

Yet despite occasional good moments, the truth is that Byron in Italy is going nowhere. There is no action, no development, just a long, halting cantalina hurled by Teresa into the empty air, punctuated now and then by groans and sighs from Byron offstage. The husband and the rival mistress are forgotten, might as well not exist. The lyric impulse in him might not be dead, but after decades of starvation it can crawl forth from its cave only pinched, stunted, deformed. He has not the musical resources, the resources of energy, to raise Byron in Italy off the monotonous track on which it has been running since the start. It has become the kind of work a sleepwalker might write.

He sighs. It would have been nice to be returned triumphant to society as the author of an eccentric little chamber opera. But that will not be. His hopes must be more temperate: that somewhere from amidst the welter of sound there will dart up, like a bird, a single authentic note of immortal longing. As for recognizing it, he will leave it to the scholars of the future, if there are still scholars by then. For he will not hear the note himself, when it comes, if it comes — he knows too much about art and the ways of art to expect that. Though it would have been nice for Lucy to hear proof in her lifetime, and think a little better of him.



  1. i like coetzee. this was not one of my favorites, but i liked it. I wonder however about coetzee’s motivation for writing this novel. What do you think?


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 25 April 2008 @ 1:24 pm

  2. These things are interesting about someone trying to figure out whether their art-thing might be somehow immortalized (in case they decided not to sell…). I think Eco said something about these types who write something every 5 years as being a bit of the ‘sensitive suicide’ type. But more interesting was the glamorous but sometimes fatuous (so that ‘Marcel’ calls her ‘mediocre’) Oriane de Guermantes as she holds court in her chic salon, talking about these ‘costive authors’, who write these shortish things every few years only.

    In neither case do these dangerous condescensions much matter, according to who hears them (even when they are guilty of writing in this fashion.) On the one hand, to see Eco in person is to lose even more interest in him than one had had after reading the loathsome ‘The Island of the Day Before.’ He is physically repulsive and ‘acts cute’ to mask this. Sometimes he says truly clever things, and then says precious ones like ‘Oh, yes I gave up my apartment in downtown Manhattan…too sad, too sad…’ I’m sure Barbara Corcoran Group would have known about it before we did at his reading at the YMHA I also always remembered he said ‘I cannot read a novel in the daytime, because of my Catholicism.’ Since then, I have noticed that I have watched movies, read novels, practised masturbation, fellatio, and sodomy all in the daytime–and I’d been told not to just like he had…

    Now, Mme. la Duchesse Guermantes was at least more amusing, because she thought ‘Triatan und isolde’ was ‘charming’ (not quite the appropriate word), and that the ‘Spinning Song’ from the ‘Flying Dutchman’ was an utter delight as well (it is, but you’re not really supposed to say so around anybody who knows the Ring Cycle too well.)

    Since I’ve stopped reading novels for about 6 months, and started watching mostly DVDs or operas, ballets and some films, I’ve noticed that novelists and writers in general do take a darker view than many other artists. While it’s true that they probably are more along the lines of intellectuals much of the time, I find that a segue into musical thinking is not nearly as painful as one might imagine, and it’s even less political: Musicians, dancers and painters have figured out ways of not thinking about the political aspects of what they do for very long periods of time, and it’s for a practical reason: Politics is much more overrated than the Marxists in particular want to make it, and this is proved by the fact that these artists CANNOT create works if they concern themselves overly with politics and ideology. There are many who would say they have no choice but to ‘be political’, but there is a crucial mark made in the various processes by the refusal (when it happens) of those who will not concern themselves consciously with those ‘loftier matters.’

    Those who continue to protest will please note that, while they are keeping the world safe for Marxist democracy, they are also not producing any art to speak of (at least not any of the ones I have in mind.)


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 25 April 2008 @ 2:17 pm

  3. Well DS, I’ve never read anything else by Koetzee, so Disgrace is my favorite. In some ways Prof Lurie reminded me of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, a European-style aesthete using his status to wield sexual power. Like Lord Byron for that matter — my high school English teacher Miss Nickelson would nearly swoon at the thought of Byron riding in his carriage through the countryside swooping up young maidens and having his way with them. So early in the story we have the tables turned: the young college girl brings a sexual harassment complaint against her Byronesque professor and gets him fired from the university. His daughter’s rapists wield power not unlike that which he formerly exercised over his attractive female students, though without the style and taste. He says he is “enriched” by his sexual conquests; the rapists are enriched more literally by robbing the house. But if you cull out the refinements of class the net effect is the same: self-enrichment of the powerful at the expense of the powerless. I’m not sure Lurie, the narrator, ever uses the terms “colored” or “black” in the entire book, but of course we know what he’s talking about. He describes the physical appearance only of women, evaluating their sexual attractiveness like a connoisseur. Lurie represents the end of the pure European “aristocracy,” his artistic voluptuousness doomed to obsolescence, overwhelmed by peasant and prole (and African) crudity. And we see that Lurie himself is losing his edge: it seems he requires power and position and control in order to write a good opera. So one is left wondering at the end: are refined sensibilities attainable only by the powerful? Will it be the children and grandchildren of these crude thuglike Africans who write the operas of the future?


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 April 2008 @ 4:48 pm

  4. This idea of transcendent artistic immortality is part of the final refinement of the Eurosnob, which Prof Lurie embodies in various ways. But it’s all being taken away from him, and now he finds that he’s probably just as doomed to mortal oblivion as the meerest bourgeois hack. He can’t even get it up any more, artistically speaking: he produces only flat and bland work now that he’s been brought down a few pegs on the societal hierarchy. Certainly there’s politics being addressed in this book, but it’s enacted at the level of individual relations. Is it propaganda, on the order of Orwell? No, it’s much more nuanced, because the reader does sympathize with Lurie’s plight. He’s sophisticated, generous, not particularly pompous, and at the individual level it’s unfair that he and his daughter be victimized. That third quote from the book is apropos: the hydraulics of socioeconomic movement might justify the overturning of status hierarchies and the redistribution of goods and women, but at the individual level it’s impossible not to see these events in terms of pity, terror, disgrace, immorality. It’s partly ecause this conflict of perspectives is irresolvable that the novel is a successful work of literature.

    I quit Proust’s book about a third of the way through many years ago, and since then I haven’t been able to summon enough stamina to start again and persist. I presume that by the end Marcel finds a way of leveling off Mme. Guarmantes’ pretentions.

    I agree, Jonquille, about the societal dictum that pleasurable and sensual activities ought not be engaged in during daylight hours, when hard work and clear reason should dominate. I’m still not immune: I tend to read fiction at night still, even though I write fiction in the daytime. I read The Name of the Rose and found it mostly tedious.

    I wanted to look at those four excerpts from Disgrace and think about which bits would be better represented in film versus on the page. The first two bits would work fine in a movie; the third and fourth wouldn’t. This whole injunction to “show, don’t tell” in fiction writing seems like an attempt to turn all novels into screenplays. This is especially true of American fiction, which is one of the main reasons I rarely read American novels published in the last 40 years or so. I like novels to do what movies can’t do, which includes telling instead of showing.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 April 2008 @ 5:48 pm

  5. ‘the hydraulics of socioeconomic movement might justify the overturning of status hierarchies and the redistribution of goods and women, but at the individual level it’s impossible not to see these events in terms of pity, terror, disgrace, immorality.’

    That’s marvelously said, and along those lines Jodi and I were discussing my final conflict at ‘lenin’s tomb’ when he found serious fault that I was more personally concerned with New Orlinians ruined by Katrina than I was with suffering Iraqis. This is patently immature nonsense, because if I were able to be in Baghdad I would feel the same way. It is ridiculous when people do not go ahead and admit that they care about their things and their people first. I have a DIRECT relationship to New Orleans, from experience there as a child and as an adult. My DIRECT experience of Iraq is reading about it and that my nephew is there as a paramedic. ‘lenin’ calling for rejoicing each time an American soldier is killed, as if it followed that each one was a mere ‘mini-Cheney’ and each new American soldier killed ‘mathematically’ meant that fewer Iraqis were then killed doesn’t mean anything, so I fled. Jodi had wondered about why I had found myself at ‘lenin’s tomb’, but there had been earlier things there that had to be taken care of. Anyway, that was the end. I refused to wish my nephew dead due to his being not very bright in many ways, but also including not being able to figure out not how to go to Iraq.

    In any case, Jodi and Paul and I had a delightful time just now, they are full of interest at almost everything, and after much coaching, our waitress was able to figure out what a Campari and Soda was (then that I might still have a lemon with despite the fact that she had dropped mine on the floor. Paul offered me his from the water, but she had needed a slight discipline, so I insisted upon new lemons.) Jodi is cute beyond belief and one of the most curious people I’ve ever met, in the sense that she would occasionally even take notes to make sure she remembered something.

    John, the Proust is definitely worth forcing your way through, but it’s something one has to come to, as it does seem most forbidding. I found ‘Marcel’ to be a good ‘unreliable narrator’ of Proust’s creation Oriane–but no, not quite does he succeed in proving her mediocrity, given that he tries to coldly set her aside after ‘figuring her out.’ She ends up in the final volume being very ‘au courant’, which in this case, means a bit the vacuous socialite to be sure, but ‘mediocre’ is the wrong word for someone who definitely had ‘real moments’, and she’s one of the most vivid characters in the entire novel for us decorative types. Proust clearly loves Odette much more, and the end of the first volume has him already reminiscing of a much later time, imagining Mme. Swann (Odette) being driven through the Bois du Boulogne.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 25 April 2008 @ 8:33 pm

  6. “And we see that Lurie himself is losing his edge: it seems he requires power and position and control in order to write a good opera. So one is left wondering at the end: are refined sensibilities attainable only by the powerful?”

    I find these thoughts coming to me from time to time as well. In 2002, I read a biography of Chopin in which he was quote as saying something about fame and money, etc., actually producing more talent. So, the answer, if truthfully told, is both yes and no. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be fame and money that would reinforce the talent, but after a certain point and in certain cases, yes, those would be the ingredients that would bolster and steer certain talents. They are forms of support which then sometimes do propel the talent further up into stratsopheres (in some cases, they could ruin it, as has been often seen). But what had interested me was that I had never heard until Chopin’s quote about the idea of money itself then making MORE TALENT, which is slightly different from ‘developing talent’, which is the virtuous way of saying it. Given that it was the overwhelmingly exotic (this never changes no matter how many domesticated situations his music is found in) and gifted Chopin, it was worth paying attention to–and although not nearly alwayw purely ‘true’, it is clear that there is much validity in what he was courageously pointing out.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 25 April 2008 @ 9:14 pm

  7. This is patently immature nonsense, because if I were able to be in Baghdad I would feel the same way. It is ridiculous when people do not go ahead and admit that they care about their things and their people first. I have a DIRECT relationship to New Orleans, from experience there as a child and as an adult. My DIRECT experience of Iraq is reading about it and that my nephew is there as a paramedic.

    I couldn’t agree more! The Bolshevik’s delusion is that they are somehow able to feel the pain of the world, to abstractly identify themselves with the universal and the common, without having personal experience. Though I do not dismiss that this worked for some exceptional people, like Einstein, usually it’s only the most frightful dictators and lunatics like Hitler who were convinced that they could fix the whole world because you know, they understand things much much better than anyone else. But with the Bolsheviks it’s especially perfidious because they feel that they have this understanding on an EGALITARIAN premise (instead of elitism), namely the position of the prole, the working man, the everyman, which I guess explains why Kamarad Lenjinini is an elitist in egalitarian lingerie, and so is the noble humanitarian horseman formerly known as Alphonse.


    Comment by parodycenter — 26 April 2008 @ 7:21 am

  8. Did you tell Jodianne that I secretly find her cute, especially because of her lefty arty-farty slightly rebellious pose?


    Comment by parodycenter — 26 April 2008 @ 7:24 am

  9. “I was more personally concerned with New Orlinians ruined by Katrina than I was with suffering Iraqis.”

    So Coetzee writes a novel where the main character and narrator is a privileged white academician, arty and scholarly, sensitive, passionate, kind — just like me! And his life is fucked over by those who have traditionally been outside the power grid: students, women, blacks, the poor. Not only that, but the ones who fuck him over don’t seem particularly sensitive, passionate or kind; rather, they’re crude and cruel and grasping. I don’t identify with these people; I don’t feel like they deserve their turn to win. I feel badly for the professor in his disgrace and downfall — I empathize. Those who benefit at his expense I regard as entirely other. I have more sympathy for the dogs that the professor helps euthanize than I do for the up-and-comers who achieve power at the professor’s expense. This is what Coetzee is messing with here: the reader’s identification with those whose privileged position in S. African society is threatened. It’s disconcerting, but it taps into a truth that’s hard to deny: we’re more likely to side with those we identify with, even if in theory we recognize this is unjust. It’s a gut-level reaction. Doesn’t mean we have to let our heads follow our hearts; but it is something worth knowing about ourselves.

    Regarding the Iraqis versus the Americans, I had a discussion on one of the blogs where I said I identified more with the Abu Ghraib jailers than with the Iraqi prisoners. I wasn’t proud of this self-recognition, but I couldn’t deny that at an instinctive gut level I feel more camaraderie with other English-speaking Americans, even when they’re doing repulsive acts in conformance with inhumane and illegal policies, than I do with the unjustly tortured but alien prisoners. It’s a sad fact: I’m more appalled by the grotesqueries perpetrated by the guards than by the injuries and humiliations inflicted on the prisoners. No sense denying it, but no need to accept it either.

    This is where cognitive self-analysis ought to overrule affect. Or, better: retain affective affiliation with one’s own, but cultivate also an affective empathy with the other as well. I believe this is possible. I don’t have to become unemotionally rational in regarding everyone as equal; rather, I can extend my empathic reach to those at a greater geographic and personal distance. Those whose lives have been fucked by American policy probably couldn’t care less about my sensibilities, but I do. Not Platonic intellectual indifference, but a kind of cosmopolitan broadening of empathic response.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 April 2008 @ 11:18 am

  10. No sense denying it, but no need to accept it either.

    And now if you could just clysmatize out of yourself whether you want to accept it or deny it, maybe your creative block would be over. Who knows, as the Dutch like to say!

    As for identifying w the aggressor, certainly it’s deeply true that none of us wants to be the buggered party. The insidious lie of Marxism is that no, we want to be the underdog. There is an intrinsic desire in the human beink to side with the poor and the needy. The result, as we have seen, is poverty for everyone. And all these neoMarxists can wail all they want that something’s changed about that fact, that lie of Marxism, but it hasn’t, and it won’t.


    Comment by parodycenter — 26 April 2008 @ 11:36 am

  11. I was still noodling with my comment when you responded, PC, so you might have missed my last paragraph. The ability to extend empathic reach is an innate human capability, I believe, and it doesn’t necessarily require the head overriding the heart. So I accept my empathic limitations, but I can make the effort to extend them. I have to recognize a stronger pull of those closer to me, but to valorize this instinct is to succumb to provincial isolationism at best and fascism at worst.

    “it’s deeply true that none of us wants to be the buggered party. The insidious lie of Marxism is that no, we want to be the underdog.”

    Jesus allied himself with the underdog, and encouraged his associates to do the same. I think a strong case could be made that Jesus was a sort of socialist anarchist. One could interpret his position as a rationalist statement of the categorical imperative, but he was promoting brotherhood based not on reason but on love as a form of shared responsibility for human weakness. Even at that Jesus was still pretty provincial in his outlook, working specfically to level Jewish social order without really concerning himself with the Romans or the other Palestinian peoples. This alliance with the underdog is of course one of the things Nietzsche hated about Christianity, preferring Greek nobility.

    And certainly the Christians abandoned the underdog ethos once they got power in the Empire. It’s funny, though, how so many Americans like to imagine that they’re the underdogs in world affairs, standing alone against overwhelming odds to pursue the right course. I think that’s one of the reasons why world opinion against invading Iraq served to strengthen the conservatives’ resolve: it’s us against the world. Promoting this self-image of identifying with the underdog is often manipulated by those in power to get what they want.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 April 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  12. I see that a movie version of Disgrace has been made (not yet released), with John Malkovich playing the lead. He should be able to convey the Humbert Humbert aspect of the character, but will he arouse any empathy in the viewer? Will it be presented as the well-deserved comeuppance of an arrogant privileged bastard, or will it retain the ambivalence of the book?


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 April 2008 @ 12:44 pm

  13. Howzit bru…

    so just a few scattered impressions

    —His daughter’s rapists wield power not unlike that which he formerly exercised over his attractive female students, though without the style and taste.—

    style and taste. Not just power, but power with style and taste. this seems to me an exceedingly odd formulation. But in truth, i don’t remember the book well enough to say much, but i wonder…

    if we take your suggestion – that “refined sensibilities [are] attainable only by the powerful” – and repose the problem along the lines of the statement, “power is the condition of defining what constitutes a refined sensibility”, what then do we have? certainly the second statement doesn’t contradict the first. But if the latter statement is true, the attaining of refined sensibility is, in some sense, internal to exercise power. But this sensibility also appears poorer when its link to power is exposed. Ironically, it is in castration, in the loss of power – that is, so to speak, when the ‘sensibility’ loses its ‘refinement’ (in the symbolic order) – that the secret bond between ‘our refined sensibility’ and power can no longer hide itself. For arguments sake lets calls this (symbolic) loss of refinement, disgrace.


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 26 April 2008 @ 1:04 pm

  14. “power with style and taste, this seems to me an exceedingly odd formulation”

    It is odd, but I think it’s true. Only the elite have the resources and the leisure to cultivate a connoisseur’s tastes. Byron is the paradigmatic exemplar here: a lord and a poet who despite small stature and physical deformity (a club foot as I recall) wields the power to rape with impunity any girl who struck his fancy. For those who would aspire to invert the power hierarchy is there a concomitant desire to cultivate the same tastes as the overthrown masters? I don’t think that was happening in Refinement: Lurie regards his daughter as having purposely made herself unattractive to men; he thinks the rapists were marking their territory, like dogs pissing on a lamppost. The African neighbor who says he’ll marry her: Lurie thinks it’s mostly to acquire her land, that the man may have no sexual interest in her whatever. From Lurie’s point of view the Africans are like animals, displaying no taste whatever. And yet as Lurie sinks into his disgrace he sees his own refined sensibilities fading away, eventually seeing himself as the peer of one of the dogs that’s about to go under the needle. Just thinking along here — more later.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 April 2008 @ 2:02 pm

  15. “power is the condition of defining what constitutes a refined sensibility”

    Yes, interesting ideas, DS. Financial power does make one more discriminating as a consumer, that’s for sure. And certainly for high-end products the increased use value is minimal compared to the fetish value. And among the high-status crowd it’s the subtle nuances that count more than obvious manifestations of wealth: the lining of a coat, for example. The upper classes create a secret language of refinement whereby only they can distinguish their kind from the hoi polloi. So I think it’s true that refined sensibilities, if they don’t already exist, are created in order to signal differentiation in economic power.

    “lets call this (symbolic) loss of refinement, disgrace.”

    Castration of power disconnects the signifier (refinement) from the signified (power and wealth). Disgrace = loss of grace, where grace connotes both refinement of manner and God’s favor. Refinement signals status as being in God’s good graces, a mystification that makes the powerful seem not like stronger animals but like higher beings.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 April 2008 @ 5:21 pm

  16. Well, this needs a quick refresher, because all you have to do is think of the refined sensibilities that have been financially deprived and poor–in music alone, most of the great masters had periods of impossible struggle, and so did painters and writers so numerous then needn’t be named. Once this is accepted, you can then perhaps find a kind of dillettante who can sometimes adopt a pose of great superiority, and Proust (again) documents many of these in his monumental novel.

    Somehow these didn’t occur in a discussion of what constitutes a ‘refined sensibility’, but if the surface is even scratched, then the refined consumer of coat linings doesn’t still have the refined sensibility of a poor schoolmaster like Schubert, or Gauguin doing syphillis and bad tempers in Paris and les Marquises. This kind of wealthy esthete knows his/her way around purchasing a ‘home’ in the best suburb, but will rarely know that the 4th movement of a Mozart quartet is a Theme and Variations unless he reads the program notes.

    Once this is re-introduced, and it is at least admitted that certain kinds of refined sensibilities do exist in a connoisseurship type of way among these ‘higher being’ nobility like–we might as well go all the way to the top, say the Queen of Goddam England, who knows her art collection very well and also detailed history of her own ancestors, as well as why certain of her own clothes are not smart enough to suit her own tastes-eh bien, one can realize that it also does happen the other way around if money and capital do not, in fact, by their very nature, bequeath taste and refinement, that then very often taste and refinement produce money quite out of the blue, quite out of the air, and former street trash cum rock singer now gets to perform at a big royal jubilee; and he got it for being born with things that brought him/her money, modest or huge. In this way, there are always these exceptions that prove that the iron hand of capitalism is perhaps sometimes the iron hand of Marxism, since it is Marxism which determines that this ‘money’ and ‘capital’ and ‘labour’ and ‘price’ things are somehow of a different nature from all the other aspects of life–and if that ‘pure economy stuff’ would just be changed…but they are always wrong because the most vile people on the blogs who decry all things capitalistic are even stingier personally than many piggy capitalists. So no–equation of ‘refined sensibility’ with any level of socio-economic status is fundamentally fallacious: Debussy finally got some bourgeois comforts, but he was always a man of the most exquisite sensibilities, and he did not have money for a long time, and he never had it in the way that many of the others who followed, like Stravinsky and now Boulez, have got it. It’s a bit simpler, I think, than it’s been made. Of course, there are always rich writers like Norman Mailer and opera stars are always rich, etc., so Chopin was not necessarily right about the money and fame bringing on the extra talent–Van Gogh was diseased and always piss-poor–so people who know how to choose the best prices to pay at auctions at Sotheby’s like Mrs. Onassis did, and she also loved Nureyev’s dancing, etc., descending from those excellent cabinetmakers, etc., I think it was–one can riff on and on about this, but it is mostly the well-to-do dillettante that adheres to the notion that economic personal power would bring on a ‘refined sensibility’. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. I don’t believe there really is a single generalization that can be made about this.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 26 April 2008 @ 8:16 pm

  17. Eish…unrepentant Victorians

    —think of the refined sensibilities that have been financially deprived and poor—

    Indeed there are many. Yet I can’t think of any where poverty became the basis of a social death (the strict correspondence and proportanlity of capital and power, money and influence, seems to emerge with capitalism – and even then, not without resistance of the old codes (think of, for instance, how a notion of refinement comes to structure the identification of a nouveau riche – a distinction that announce a struggle over the power to define our so called ‘refined sensibilities’)

    —the 4th movement of a Mozart quartet is a Theme and Variations—

    But how is that such knowledge comes to be the mark of a refined sensibility (as apposed to, for instance, knowing your way around purchasing a house)? And is the guy who know knows his hindu kush from his purple haze any less refined than the guy who knows his merlot from his pinotage? Why?

    —the iron hand of capitalism is perhaps sometimes the iron hand of Marxism, since it is Marxism which determines that this ‘money’ and ‘capital’ and ‘labour’ and ‘price’ things are somehow of a different nature from all the other aspects of life–and if that ‘pure economy stuff’ would just be changed…but they are always wrong because the most vile people on the blogs who decry all things capitalistic are even stingier personally than many piggy capitalists.—

    I also can’t help being troubled by the way Marxism keeps appearing here. Don’t get me wrong, its not that i feel inclined to defend this, my church and faith…i just can’t stand to see a straw man whipped.


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 27 April 2008 @ 5:19 am

  18. clysmatics the eastern orthodox church condemns communism because it was an attempt to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth violently, and I underline by violent overtake. Human beings do not have that power, and the attempt to steal that power from God must receive punishment. But this is not punishment as people often understand it, a hanky panky or a spanky, not that Old Testament shit, but self-punishment, for people know not what they do and they do not see God’s eternal understanding and love. Notably the Orthodox church never dealt with Communism violently, but Communists were very violent to the Eastern Orthodox Church.


    Comment by parodycenter — 27 April 2008 @ 5:19 am

  19. “all you have to do is think of the refined sensibilities that have been financially deprived and poor–in music alone”

    I agree with this version as well, Jonquille. The wealthy never actually produce their own art. The craftsman who makes exquisite coats with beautiful silk linings has always made them for rich customers. Painters, sculptors, architects, composers — all of them did their finest work for rich patrons, including the church. The artists developed artistry while the patrons developed aesthetics. While a patron with good taste could never instruct a craftsman on how to produce masterpieces, I’m sure the masters were sensitive to the tastes of the patrons — so something like a marketplace has always been at work. The progression from Vivaldi to Bach to Haydn to Mozart was probably a function both of a sort of natural progression of artistry through the master composers, but it also reflected the progression of aesthetic taste among the European patrons. So art at the highest levels was always closely associated with money.

    “This kind of wealthy esthete knows his/her way around purchasing a ‘home’ in the best suburb, but will rarely know that the 4th movement of a Mozart quartet is a Theme and Variations unless he reads the program notes.”

    Do you think that’s always been true Jonquille, or does it constitute a decline in classical sensibilities? Patronage, either private or public, still plays a major role in keeping orchestras playing. And it’s mostly the rich who buy art either for their own private collections or for public museums. But do they have to wait until the critics pronounce judgment before they’re willing to buy? The free market hasn’t been particularly kind to high art in any medium, while patronage for actually commissioning works of art has all but disappeared. One could contend that high culture is in slow decline as the demand for pop product has expanded, and where the marketing machinery is able to shape those popular tastes quite successfully. The artists with refined sensibilities seem ever more precariously placed in the Western world.

    Now why is it that mass tastes don’t rise? It costs as much to buy a Madonna CD as it does to buy a modern classical or jazz recording. And why is it that classical tastes tend in the popular imagination to be associated with upper-class, anti-democratic sensibilities? The starving artist stereotype retains its romantic sheen, but now it’s the struggling pop singer who figures in these scenes.

    “the iron hand of capitalism is perhaps sometimes the iron hand of Marxism, since it is Marxism”

    The marketplace both caters to and shapes mass-consumer tastes. I think I’d rather see a more communist-inspired means of funding the arts, with pools of collective money being apportioned to excellent art and made widely available in public galleries and freely downloadable music. Much of academic research is funded this way, through tax revenues, even when that research has no obvious payoff for the marketplace via technological innovations. It’s a form of public patronage that potentially allows for more diversity and more excellence than the marketplace affords.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 April 2008 @ 5:20 am

  20. Also, while i think that power ultimately defines what constitutes a ‘refined sensibility’ – such that the attaining (or attributed the marks) of such a sensibility underlines a bond with power – this doesn’t then mean that such sensibilities were, at one time or another, not in themselves the subject of a struggle…

    Anyway, for me, understanding the value or something is impossible outside of an understanding of the social contestation of value. And it is with the latter in mind that we should read every artistic or literary canon, not simply for the value of the texts collected there, but precisely in relation to the struggles and contests that have made those texts canonical…that is, the bearers of the marks of a refined sensibility.


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 27 April 2008 @ 5:44 am

  21. DS I agree that refined tastes are culturally contingent and not absolute. But in practically everything it’s possible to make distinctions in taste, while those self-selected few people who spend effort making fine distinctions invariably emerge as aesthetic experts. Refinement of tastes become almost inevitable. The question is whether refinement has to be associated with money and power.

    And it’s clear that some kinds of refined tastes are directly associated with higher prices, including refined features of houses like granite countertops and custom cabinetry. On the other hand, a novel by, say, Coetzee doesn’t cost any more than a hack crime novel. Or music: I just heard a chamber piece by Mendelssohn that he composed while someone prepared him a good dinner. I suspect that Madonna can’t pump out a pop tune much quicker.

    Is it because the masses have bad taste that shitty literature, music, movies, etc. outsell more excellent artistic work? That would be the classist argument, that the moneyed classes have always been the ones to nurture cultural refinement in a world of philistines. But it’s also in the interests of capital to nurture tastes that are easy to satisfy by mass manufacturing, hence the crappy interchangeability of pop music stars and pulp fiction and blockbuster movies. So in capitalism the buying power of the masses and the opportunity to exploit this mass buying power converge on uniformity and mediocrity.

    If compensation for artistic work were based not on numbers of units sold but on excellence, it might be possible for quality and aesthetic tastes to rise together. Patronage by the church and the aristocracy used to achieve this result; why couldn’t patronage by the state or some other collective buying apparatus accomplish similar ends, while also achieving more widespread distribution of the results? Music and movies can already be distributed for next to nothing: why not a socialized buying apparatus that commissions music and movies on behalf of the populace and that does away with the marketing budgets for convincing the masses to consume them?


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 April 2008 @ 6:18 am

  22. “understanding the value or something is impossible outside of an understanding of the social contestation of value.”

    The close association between value and market value is what characterizes the marketplace. Arguably aesthetics have no practical function, no use value. So does that mean that artistic products or enhancements possess only fetish value, functioning as “petit objet a” that bestows a semi-divine aesthetic plenitude on the one who buys it, a plenitude that associates taste with purchasing power? Would good taste fade away if it didn’t distinguish the rich from the poor?

    Repeatedly in my own experience I have found that the more I try to do excellent work, based on the standards of whatever craft I’m practicing, the less financial reward I reap from customers. So I have to nurture good taste “on my own dime” so to speak, recognizing that its aesthetic value will earn me no monetary reward and may in fact cost me money. So as a worker in a mass-market capitalistic economy, the pursuit of artistically high-quality work becomes associated not with wealth but with poverty. Again, the temptation is to attribute bad taste to the masses, but it’s also a matter of mass production and distribution. Continually exploring new directions and refinements requires more highly skilled and creative workers, and it must tolerate plenty of false starts and dead ends. Mass production/distribution can’t tolerate this expensive unreliability.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 April 2008 @ 6:39 am

  23. PC, the mutual antagonism between the Church and the Party seemed to have more to do with power relations than the work of the gods. I think you’d agree that over the long course of the Middle Ages Christendom built up a formidable hierarchical structure that concentrated power and money in the hands of the few, and that this ecclesiastical structure paralleled and interlinked with the secular political-economic hierarchy. By means of this interlinked societal hierarchy the connections between money, power and godliness became overdetermined. And good taste got linked in here too, since all the good art got commissioned by the priests and kings and built into the architecture of churches and palaces. This hierarchical church structure had nothing to do with Christ or the 1st century church, which was a very loose and flat affiliation where the people owned everything in common.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 April 2008 @ 6:55 am

  24. hey k,

    i sense we not going to agree on this…a question ‘good taste’. this might simply be a product of my stupidity, or indeed, lack of taste ;). But its an interesting discussion and a break from what i am supposed to be doing, so i’ll say something more.

    So, without attempting to convince you of anything either way…

    Taste (generic)
    Almost everyone has taste. Not everyone however is said to have good taste. to speak of good taste is to imply something like a politics…here a way of discriminating between ways of discriminating… and therefore also the question of power

    Q blows up.
    there is a novel that i love called Q by luther blisset. its not a very “good” novel…being almost a kind of pulp spy thriller, and only someone like me – that is, someone lacking in the appropriate sensibility – would consider it a better novel than say a book like disgrace. And indeed, someone out to cultivate something like a refined sensibility, or simply someone wanting to immerse themselves in “good literature”, are unlikely to pick Q off the shelf over disgrace, in spite of the similarity in their prices. This is because, in spite of winning some minor prizes, Q, unlike disgrace, hasn’t won the booker prize – a prize caring a very specific signification. And, perhaps more importantly, at least for what we talking about here, a novel like disgrace – that is a novel by a critically acclaimed author, steeped as it is in the hegemonic codes of western culture, and winner of the nobel prize – finds a ready made place in the university syllabi and critical commentary in which the canon is given (simply it is canonized)…And if we can agree that ‘refined tastes are culturally contingent and not absolute’, it seems to me that then the question of power is unavoidable. Returning to Q, it might be that this humble spy thriller might one day be a more important novel than disgrace, a novel befitting a refined sensibility. But in our present context it would only become so through specific and highly institutionalized struggle. Perhaps someone like Hardt, with his interest in italian literature, decides to include it in a course on immanence being taught at duke. perhaps a grad student, encouraged by autonomist marxist thinking, writes a paper on the novel that gets published in an important journal…that then some other luminary with good taste, picks up and judges to be important, and ‘endowed’ with the kind of institutional power that might make the judgment meaningful…and so on. The silly example perhaps underlines my provincial understanding high art and theory, but what is important, is that Q way to ‘blowing up’, its valorization – as a text befitting a refined sensibility – occurs through a process where names such as duke, this or that journal, nobel prize, hardt, and so on, carry real significance in an economy of power.

    The refinement is in the text
    It is not without significance in that when we try an define a refined sensibility what are more often indexed are not characteristics of taste, but particular works that embody good taste. [‘Coetzee doesn’t cost any more than a hack crime novel, This kind of wealthy esthete knows his/her way around purchasing a ‘home’ in the best suburb, but will rarely know that the 4th movement of a Mozart quartet is a Theme and Variations unless he reads the program notes’]. We do not say ‘the poor like their music salty and rich like it sweet…and because sweet is better therefore the rich have better taste’. Instead we say, ‘the poor listen to Brittany’s ‘ You want a piece of me’ and (some of the) rich listen to Verdi’s La traviata…therefore the elite appear to have better taste than the masses…because as is universally acknowledged (that is within cannons of western culture), Verdi is tastier than Brittany, even if more partial to a refined pallet. brittany, no doubt outstrips verdi in the market. But who cares…’cause verdi is eternal, and even the masses who listen to brittany know this.

    diamond in the rough
    Pretty woman is universally acknowledged to a be a crap, frivolous movie. And yet it did really well at the ‘boxoffice’, and is somewhat iconic for a particular era that was just emerging out of the aesthetically disastrous 1980s (think big hair and don johnson clones). The movie itself is unremarkable, but there is bit in the movie that perhaps says something interesting about the popular imagination (read ‘what the masses think’, or rather, are asked to think) on the question of taste. Fans will remember the important scene where our heroine is fully realized…when she shines in full carat – a woman of substance and refinement. I am of course talking about opera scene…outfitted with haute couture gown a an expensive diamond set, our heroine goes to watch Verdi’s La traviata. The name of the opera is in fact not given in the movie…Simply opera itself is given the task of caring the burden of denoting sophistication and good taste. At the beginning of the performance Richard Gere’s character tells tells julia Robert’s character something to the effect of: ‘peoples first impressions of opera is definitive. If they don’t like it immediately, they may still grow to appreciate it, but it will never become a part of them in same way as for someone who loved opera immediately. Of course in the pathetically contrived bit that follows, Roberts, even mustering up tears of ecstasy, shows herself to be the kind that loved it immediately…that is, our pretty woman shows herself to be woman of natural refinement, indeed, of class. None who watched the movie would deny that what is conveyed was precisely this sense of a refined sensibility (immediately set apart from the dillettante who, ‘if the surface is even scratched’ seem pretenders next to those for whom opera has become a part of them). [it might not be irrelevant that this idea, that ‘democratizes’ class, and makes of refinement something that is not the prerogative of birth but a kind of natural selection, is inescapably from the mythologies that supported the ascendency of the bourgeoisie.]

    In the name of bad taste
    so i was going to say more but i ran out of stream. but maybe you see that i am just talking to myself.


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 27 April 2008 @ 11:08 am

  25. “i sense we not going to agree on this”

    And here I was thinking that we were in agreement. I shall return later, but for now I’ll admit that on your recommendation I checked Q out from the library and couldn’t make it past about page 80. It’s much more structurally complex than Disgrace, and surely it required a lot more background research. The fact that it’s an “exquisite corpse” adds philosophical interest to its mode of production. So when I set Q aside I had a sense that I ought to be liking it more, ought to make the effort to plow through to the end. But I resisted the proddings of conscience and returned it to the library mostly unread. However, I can at least talk about it, which surely conveys more evidence of sophistication than actually reading it, which is a purely private matter.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 April 2008 @ 12:12 pm

  26. —And here I was thinking that we were in agreement.—

    i’m just a bad reader ;)


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 27 April 2008 @ 1:04 pm

  27. “None who watched the movie would deny that what is conveyed was precisely this sense of a refined sensibility (immediately set apart from the dillettante who, ‘if the surface is even scratched’ seem pretenders next to those for whom opera has become a part of them).”

    That may point to what I once read of Baudrillard (or somebody) talking about ‘use value’ somehow gone too far (I definitely know how to do this, if it’s possible, but even the Marxists think you can go too far with this ‘use-value fetish’ and entire into the overrichness of ‘too much pleasure’. Well, it’s a privilege if you can get it.

    I never meant the dillettantes and patrons aren’t capable of an immensely important good taste, just not to emphasize the gentry a little to unduly. Without Esterhazy’s excellent capital and taste, Josef Haydn would have suffered much longer than he had in his youth of frequent meagre feeding ; as it was, he was hugely successful, and even had a lover since his marriage was to a notable tin-ear.

    ‘Pretty Woman’, which i have never been able to get through as John hasn’t ‘Q’, amuses still further when I find that ‘La Traviata’, which I love but find requires none of the specific kind of ‘good taste’ to which we are probably mostly referring, would be the opera that would prove you could lead a horticulture, of course, but not necessarily to ‘Parsifal’ or some of the neo-classical dance. To wit, some of the things that are not immediately accessible are not therefore not worthwhile: Their chief drawback is that then people who want to acquire ‘good taste’ do gravitate to the more snob appeal forms and have no idea how they got there (or better, they may or may not know not to tell how they did, which is probably by reading the New York Times.)

    I just threw out the ‘theme and variations’ idea because that is an easy form to hear if your ear is not blocked up with trying to ‘make sure you know what it is’, to ‘get it’, and a non-musician would usually be able to pick up theme and variations if he has not stuck in staring at social blockages. A ‘menuet’, though often a 3rd movmement, can be very different from many other menuets, and would be a less obvious one. One might sometimes think it a gentler, but not slow, movement, without thinking ‘oh, that’s a menuet.’

    It’s another level in which the patron operates, and much received wisdom will enter into the choices he makes about what to put his ammunition behind. The best will also have taste and refinement, albeit mostly within certain ‘socially established superiorities’, but they will enhance this with much research and study very often.

    The singer Kiri Tekanawa, was born half-Maori and half-Anglo, adopted within less than a month (i believe), by another mixed couple, was given a choice by her 2nd father to become either an opera singer or a New Zealand receptionist, the Queen heard her in N.Z., said ‘she should be at Covent Garden, shouldn’t she?’ and the biographer skips the part about which specific strings were pulled. After the brilliant use of her in the 1981 Royal Wedding by Prince Charles, she was sometimes referred to as ‘royal Kiri’, and so that’s an extreme example of somebody who went all the way to the top in the exchange value system–but also had the voice and talent that ‘justified’ it, if this is considered success, every step of the way, because the ‘use value’ of Kiri’s voice is so extraordinary that Paul Theroux took cassettes with him and listened to them in the most remote parts of les Iles Marquises.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 27 April 2008 @ 1:05 pm

  28. entire into the overrichness of ‘too much pleasure’.

    ‘enter’, not ‘entire.’


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 27 April 2008 @ 1:07 pm

  29. Re: Esterhazy. Haydn is the one who had the talent, but it would have been formed, of course, by being holed up with Esterhazy. That’s another fate that is prefectly legit if you can get it, as far as I’m concerned. Americans want a lot more evening out of ‘fairness’ than other nations, so the experiments of a high quality that get by in the U.S. are probably fewer and far between–somewhat like art despite the internet, but using it and avoiding it alternately.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 27 April 2008 @ 1:14 pm

  30. lol…i lost.


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 27 April 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  31. that’s, ‘i’m lost’…but never mind. i suspect it something that might still be attained.


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 27 April 2008 @ 1:25 pm

  32. “a way of discriminating between ways of discriminating… and therefore also the question of power”

    Any act of partitioning phenomena is an exercise of power over those phenomena, just like language and knowledge constitute acts of power. And certainly different aesthetic “schools” come and go, supporting the idea that “good taste” is at least partly a matter of fashion and consensus and perhaps also competition — these are aesthetic paradigms, so to speak, each one dividing artistic space along a different set of coordinates. But the act of establishing a paradigm also points toward ways in which exemplars of that particular paradigm can be compared with each other, as well as experts or connoisseurs who develop mastery in making these comparisons. While the relative value of different works of art within a paradigm may be only intersubjective and relative, nonetheless the comparative value distinctions refer to features of the artworks themselves. So I think it’s fair to speak of “aesthetic” as a characteristic of artistic phenomena, as well as “taste” which is a characteristic of the perceiver.

    “Good taste” might be a matter of agreeing with recognized experts, in which case the experts wield power. Or it might be a matter of having very finely tuned perceptions and an ability to describe one’s judgments in terms that refer not just to one’s own subjective responses but to features of the artwork itself. I’ll grant that it’s possible to have good taste in pop music or in mystery novels, and certainly there are purported experts who review pop music and who exert considerable influence over pop tastes and purchasing decisions. So certainly judgments are being made and power is being wielded even in presumably less high-class pursuits. The act of discriminating and judging and comparing is, I contend, intrinsic to pretty much any human endeavor.

    But then comes the question of whether some aesthetic paradigms are better than others, whether say the pop music genre and its aesthetic criteria for ascertaining excellence are intrinsically inferior to the classical or jazz genres. It’s been the case historically in the West that the classical aesthetic has always been regarded as “higher” than whatever the folk music of the time could offer. In part this certainly reflects a classist orientation to culture. But oftentimes classical music constitutes a more complex, varied, and nuanced version of folk music. I’m listening to Beethoven right now, and it’s certain that one could find German folk music of his era that would be similar to what Beethoven was doing — it’s just that he took that music I’d say farther than the local pop musicians wanted to do or were capable of doing.

    I think jazz bears a similar relation to pop music, elaborating on straightforward pop standards in ways that add complexity of rhythm, virtuosity, improvisational collaborative composition building on the original tune, etc. Jazz takes pop music farther than the pop musicians wanted to go or could go.

    Now it’s possible to prefer simple, straightforward music over complex and varied music. But I think it’s almost certainly true that the complex and varied music demands more proficiency, range, precision, subtlety, etc. than does the simple and routine. I think this is true of just about any human endeavor: speaking, writing, thinking, dancing, woodworking, mathematics, etc. It’s harder to prepare a good lamb curry than a good hamburger.

    So why is it that we tend to associate simple art (e.g., Britney) with the poor and complex art (e.g., Verdi, Charlie Parker) with the rich? As I said before, the CDs cost the same either way. Britney isn’t poor — she makes more money by herself than entire orchestras do. The pop genre isn’t poor — pop music brings in a lot more revenue to the record companies than do classical and jazz. One could decide that simple folk have simple tastes, which is certainly possible, but I suspect that these days most rich people also have simple tastes. My contention is partly this: Britney-level talent is easier to cultivate and to multiply than Verdi- and Parker-level talent. And simple music is easier to duplicate from one tune to the next than is complex music. Consequently the music executives and their financiers are incented to promote simpler music to the masses, because the music performances and records are themselves the result of mass production. American Idol is a good example of how the production machinery works: all it takes is a little bit of talent to make the charts; the rest is spectacle and hype.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 April 2008 @ 4:02 pm

  33. ‘One could decide that simple folk have simple tastes, which is certainly possible, but I suspect that these days most rich people also have simple tastes.’

    And there needs to be a further distinction (as well as no distinction) between folk and pop. Nowadays they seem to have merged in a way they were not 25 years ago.

    Simple folk music does last, exactly like classical and ‘concert’ music, etc., and they are made with the idea of lasting in mind, although in vastly different milieux. Folk cultures are also not as ubiquitous and self-possessed as they once were. Classical and complex music, the product of the moneyed, whether aristocratic or bourgeois, is also mediated by longer-lined ideals than is pop, which is mediated by short-lived attention spans, quick bucks, flash-in-the-pan, marketing surveys and cynically determined advertising and marketing that is meant exclusively to sell it in the short term; if there is some sort of long term, then well and good, but that’s not what it’s all about. Pop culture such as most movies is the same.

    I’d agree that most simple people prefer simple things, but not folk music usually, but rather trash music. Also agree that rich people are also becoming much more confident in their love of the laziness of giving in to pop trends and other trash. There could not possibly be so much talk of dumbing down and homogenization if there was not a lot of it.

    Then there is pop music and some movies that aren’t trash, whether ‘History of Violence’ or the Dixie Chicks.

    “But I think it’s almost certainly true that the complex and varied music demands more proficiency, range, precision, subtlety, etc. than does the simple and routine.”

    This is mostly true, but is misleading. The ‘routine’, yes, but the ‘simple’ is not necessarily the ‘routine’, and there is shit ballet like ‘Paquita’, and its stupid Minkus score adored in Paris and demanded by fatuous people every year that the Paris Opera Ballet keep doing it. Minkus is nothing but noise, not just hokey, but it can’t also ever make itself exist in the quieter dynamic ranges; far lower than Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. There used to be seriously great Broadway singing, with stars opening show after show like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. This doesn’t exist any more, although there is talent there that is mostly wasted in turning tourist sows’ ears into silk purses when possible. While it is true that ‘La Boheme’, when put on Broadway in 2003, had to have 3 alternating casts in order to really do the music 8 perfs. a week, unlike ordinary shows, this doesn’t really mean much in terms of the value. The simple can definitely have as much resonance as the complex, and Broadway used to be able to come up with things that were as viable as opera (it isn’t anymore, and yet while old opera does last, new opera is even more impossible to make that interests people on a long-term basis than is musical theater).

    And there is modern dance that is not as sharply defined in certain of its aspects as ballet, but it is not the less great (at least over the years, Martha Graham is still very difficult, there are Paul Taylor and also Jiri Kylian of the Nederlands Danz Theater). While ballet freaks (who are currently trying my nerves with some oftheir lunacy) claim that ballet dancers can ‘also do modern’ and it ‘doesn’t work the other way around’, this is only the exception like, say, Baryshnikov. Few opera singers have been able to sing pop with the right verve, and a superb pianist like Jean-Yves Thibaudet thinks he can make an album of Bill Evans pieces written out for him by someone else, and just learned like classical pieces. I was told a few years ago by a pushy girl at Steinway ‘Yes, listen to his Bill Evans recording. THAT works.’ Well, it doesn’t and sounds constipated. He has a big range of wha t he can do but being able to ‘swing’ is not one of them. TeKanawa can sound very good in some B’way songs (as ‘Cockeyed Optimist’), but this is prett uncommon (she definitely sounds better on that one than mary Martin.). But most of the time, opera singers in their ‘candlelight leisure albums’ just come across as vaguely vain and condescending. They do not sound like Dionne Warwick or Lena Horne, and the first of these, by the way, has a lot of classical training. So this question here is a very mixed thing.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 27 April 2008 @ 5:07 pm

  34. I’ve been trying to equate popular music across eras, so that traditional folk music becomes equivalent to contemporary pop. But I agree, Jonquille, that it doesn’t really work. Folk music is craftsmanship and tradition; pop music is global cultural product. American Idol in the States, Star Academy in France, who knows what it’s called everywhere else — the same show in every country, producing this season’s pop stars. Maybe we’re just throwbacks to a bygone era trying to make these distinctions between high and pop culture. But pop is globalization just as surely as McDonald’s.

    I’m not confident in my ability to characterize artistic excellence in abstract terms, because I think it’s largely a matter of hearing, tasting, feeling — finely tuned senses; the words are an afterthought.

    While high culture may have developed in association with upper class power and money, the alternative low culture used to be much more localized provincial folk culture. Now all that is being swept away by big-money global production and distribution and marketing, leaving the old high culture fragmented and undernourished. It’s an inversion, with big money more directly tied to the low culture than to the high. But it gets sold as “the people’s culture” to make it seem more like it’s what everybody always wanted — customer-driven and all that.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 April 2008 @ 8:31 pm

  35. Exactly so. And it frankly is upsetting that the purity that one finds in both folk culture and high culture are being perhaps really lost to this ‘infinite middle’, which is probably where pop really lies. This is what causes all the malaise, dread, and ennui. So that people like me start spending a lot of our time just trying to carve our way through the watered-down stuff.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 27 April 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  36. Back to books for a minute. Q isn’t run-of-the-mill pulp crime; it’s far more ambitious than that, more experimental both in attitude toward its subject and in the way it was written. As I said, I didn’t get far into it, but I believe it was making a case that Luther, far from being a revolutionary, was actually as much a supporter of the status quo as the Pope himself. It’s the Anabaptists who made the radical break, not by allying with or conquering the powers that be but by separating themselves from the larger culture in which they were embedded. I suspect the authors were trying to make an analogy between the Reformation and contemporary global culture, where the choices are a global revolution that perpetuates the same power relations that already dominate or, perhaps more radically, a recommitment to localization. This is at least part of Q’s ambition as a book, isn’t it DS?

    If you’re able to reflect on a movie like Pretty Woman and draw insights from it, then you as viewer are able to transform it into material for high-cultural reflection. Your reading of the opera scene is a good one that probably goes deeper than the screenwriter had in mind: that Julia Roberts is a “naturally” high-class chick, a born aristocrat who’s finally going to rise to her rightful place. And she is hanging off the arm of a rich guy now as she walks into the opera house, so the wealth-class-culture matrix is reinforced without irony. But the writer is aware that this story has been told many times before, including in La Traviata, and of course it calls to mind also Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. So it’s a self-aware homage to the tradition. But as I recall the film doesn’t do anything to change the basic story other than to update the characters. No, that’s not quite true: the Richard Gere character isn’t aristo; he’s nouveau riche, a global corporate raider who’s made himself rich motivated by personal resentment. So it’s like he too is a whore who’s made good. What you end up with then is both characters using money to buy their way into high society, but they deserve this money because they have naturally highbrow tastes, as opposed to the aristocratic poseurs who patronize opera because they’re expected to but they don’t really have a natural feel for it. American capitalism is going to buy up all the seats in the opera; America is the natural inheritor of the high culture. Pretty Woman is La Traviata repackaged for the American whore culture. Something like that, no?

    Back to Disgrace. Prof Lurie is bourgeois: not rich, but rich enough to pay for whores; not powerful, but powerful enough to seduce his students. His impotence at writing the chamber opera parallels the loss of his job and his fall from power. He blames the politically correct academic system, and he blames the African thugs who rob and abuse him. But in the end he comes to a realization that maybe he’s not as high-class talent as he thought he was, that his opera never was going to fulfill his expectations for it. Is it because of his sudden downfall? No; it’s because he allowed whatever lyrical gifts he possessed to wither as he settled into his life of academic self-indulgence. He’s come to realize that he has whored himself for the comfortable bourgeois academic life, that he’s not a worthy carrier of the high culture after all, that he’s Byron the exploiter and not Byron the poet. I think he allowed himself to be fired from his job in order to see if he could become the artist he’d always imagined himself to be. Now that he realizes he’s not, he’s suddenly become a hopeless old man. And in this regard he’s representative of a bourgeois culture that’s holding onto the money and power but that has lost the creative spark. The Africans don’t present themselves as worthy heirs of this culture either, and they don’t seem to offer an African alternative; rather, they just seem crassly interested in inheriting the money and power, without any aesthetic fineness to temper the brutality. Hence the tragic overall tone of the book.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 April 2008 @ 4:47 am

  37. “No, that’s not quite true: the Richard Gere character isn’t aristo; he’s nouveau riche, a global corporate raider who’s made himself rich motivated by personal resentment.”

    And how much is Marguerite like Julia Roberts or Eliza Doolittle? A courtesan, but she is suave and superficially sophisticated, but still so young it may not matter that she does not spend so much time cultivating her mind, which in any case would not all of a sudden ‘open up’ with some ‘natural aristocratic’ appreciation of something high. She is a parisienne, and not at all unsophisticated. So maybe I don’t see Traviata as mirroring Pretty Woman all that well, you’re surely right that the film as a whole was made for the American whore culture as is so much made for it. And anyway they could see it as mirroring Traviata no matter how clumsily. Julia Roberts was on Broadway in a play a couple of years ago, and Brantley, a critic I find uninteresting and dull for the most part, called her an ‘Everyman’s Garbo.’ Sort of true, and as such, fitting in perfectly in the current whore culture: While talk of actors’ looks is usually just more pulp, talk of hers has long been somehow different, with people finding her either ravishing or even ugly by turns. She is effective in broad roles with no subtlety like ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘Erin Brokovich’, and is perfectly content to wallow in trash products (as has now become the case with Meryl Streep, who produces one piece of trash after another; and if she can’t find decent scripts, I have a strong feeling it’s not because they don’t exist, but because she can’t make the difference herself).

    Whore cultures are not uniquely American, of course, and they are also wondrous in many ways. The mirroring, I would posit, whether or not the writers wanted to beyond just some vague parallel among the whole realm of the brotherhood/sisterhood of prostitution (only Roberts’s character would attent the World Whores Congress, though), is in the fact that Verdi wrote much good whore-culture work, like ‘Rigoletto’, with its high notes and simple-minded sentiments, ‘Il Trovatore’ with its Anvil Chorus and witch-mother of virtue, and certainly ‘La Traviata’ about a woman of easy virtue that one doesn’t quite use the word ‘whore’ for because she is not being pimped out for money the way untold numbers of Parisians already would have, without even knowing the history of the rue St. Denis before the 20th century.

    ‘that he’s Byron the exploiter and not Byron the poet.’

    I’ve never read any Byron, other than a poem in high school. I wonder what his meditations on Casanova were. On the ballet board a while back, people were talking about Nureyev’s interest in Byron. I wonder if it has to do with this separation in Byron of the two types of man–the seemingly sensitive artist alternating with the sex symbol which is largely condemned in both Nureyev’s and Byron’s cases. But in Casanova, you find a completely guiltless whore who writes about it. Fellini hated Casanova and thought he represented more about a kind of National Italian Male Image that was abhorrent, rather than anything refined. But Casanova, however not to some people’s *taste*, is not unrefined in many ways, and can also write. I haven’t seen Fellini’s film, but Donald Sutherland is not the first who would have come to most people’s mind in casting the 18th century adventurer. In a smaller part, Marcello Mastroianni is the aging Casanova in ‘La Nuit de Varennes’.

    This is somewhat off-topic, but brings up examples of Whore Culture, and some variations on it. Main point really being is that a lot of Verdi is whore culture and very good whore culture–so that the ‘whoreness’ shared (at great distance, as I see it) by Julia Roberts and Marguerite) is less the truth of this failed film than it wants to be: The ‘whoreness’ is the parallel between the depleted whoreness of the film and the rich and sumptuous whoreness of Verdi’s opera. I am a serious fan of good whoreness, and find it very often preferable to the presumptuous virtue of the ‘Desert’ (not even getting into the appalling conditions of the Desert Fathers as they cultivated squalours). But the writers would have wanted the more superficial parallels of ‘whore-heroine’, I imagine, not the ultimate fact that their film had to be trash-whoreness to sell, whereas Traviata’s esthetic-whoreness had been able to sell without ever having to stoop to using a degraded product with whored-out actors (and since then, Gere has repeatedly proved that his talent is much less serious and intense than it appeared to be when he started out. He is ridiculous in ‘Chicago’ and the previews of that ‘Shall We Dance’ thing with Jennifer Lopez were quite enough.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 28 April 2008 @ 9:29 am

  38. If you’re able to reflect on a movie like Pretty Woman and draw insights from it, then you as viewer are able to transform it into material for high-cultural reflection.

    Yes, you can do that with anything, and that goes along with the ‘cine-musique’ discussion. Also, I shouldn’t probably call ‘Pretty Woman’ a ‘failed film’, it succeeds in the ways it intends to (crassness), and some of old arguments about the difference in the terms ‘film’ and ‘movie’ do come up. ‘Pretty Woman’ would never be a film back in the days of a lot of art-houses, although technically it is. An amazingly bankable star, that Ms. Roberts. It makes sense, just as Cruise’s popularity makes sense. They are old-fashioned stars and they radiate ‘Yes, it is just as wonderful as you imagine to be a big-time movie star’, which is amusing at a certain point.

    Thinking about Ben Brantley’s ‘everyman’s Garbo’ remark, I think I’ll retract that too. There’s no such thing, but he’d definitely think so, and such stupid formulations go write along with the rush to the middle of all things bright and mediocre.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 28 April 2008 @ 9:49 am

  39. hey guys…i think you might have missed the point of the pretty woman thing…but the moment has passed.


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 28 April 2008 @ 5:35 pm

  40. Recently I saw Julia Roberts in the sticky Steel Magnolias, which preceded Pretty Woman early in her career. She was endearing but her overacting was at times embarrassing. She was going to die eventually in the movie, so maybe she felt like she had to act like someone who is about to die, with ultra-intensity. She got more relaxed in later roles, but as you say Jonquille she’s a straight-ahead runner. What was Richard Gere’s recent gaffe, something about embracing a woman in a culture where that sort of behavior is taboo? Try as I might to cultivate extreme cynicism about whore-culture Hollywood productions, I am often charmed (or manipulated) by it. I really don’t remember much about Pretty Woman, but as I recall I was happy for Julia’s character in the end. Steel Magnolias though was just sort of oppressive. Maybe my tastes are changing; maybe my heart is hardening.

    Also Jonquille, I agree that your ability to extract interesting things from some pretty ordinary movies in Cine-Musique was a nice feat. It’s really true that I rarely hate a movie or a pop song, and sometimes I like them a lot. Maybe it’s laziness, that I let myself be carried along by those very emotions that the popular culture counts on for generating audience and money. I like a good hamburger too, but that doesn’t mean I’d prefer it if something better was set in front of me on the table.

    Now DS, the moment hasn’t quite passed — you must tell us where we went off the rails. I thought your point was that the movie was presenting Julia Roberts as a natural-born highbrow who loved opera on first exposure, thereby asserting her claim to a higher rung on the class ladder. This presentation reinforces the association between high culture and high class, and also connects money/power (via Richard Gere) to this operatic nexus. They have a RIGHT to the money because they are natural highbrows. Instead of, say, contending that high aesthetic taste has nothing to do with money/power/class, and that a lowborn gal like Julia is just as likely to love opera as any well-to-do aristocrat. Set me straight, DS — what were you going after in your observation?


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 April 2008 @ 9:36 pm

  41. Clysmatics, just for the record, I scored two new readers (both high quality) – The Vole Dyke and Skanskasgaard from Norway or Sweden,while in all this time you only scored one (Seyfried). This is just for the case you thought you could eventually beat me at the narcissistic count.


    Comment by parodycenter — 28 April 2008 @ 9:49 pm

  42. I looked at the Vole’s blog and his comments on Sinthome’s blog — he looks like a troublemaker to me. The Norwegian guy was I think trying to tell you the same thing I did, namely that Justin Timberlake and Timbaland are two completely different pop entertainers, whom you conflated into a single entity called “Timbalake.” It appears that the Parody Center is getting back up to full throttle again.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 April 2008 @ 10:14 pm

  43. Timbalake is the nickname of Timberlake among American youth, whilst Timbaland is a separate music writer or performer with whom Justin apparently cooperates. The imagined conflation however is interesting as an indicator of your early onset senility.

    Whatever the Swede was trying to say I sense that he’s a bit of a rebel, and I like that in a Scandinavian stud. Norwegians are a bit like Serbs, they said NO to the expansion of Europe and they still kill whales.


    Comment by parodycenter — 29 April 2008 @ 1:26 am

  44. I thought maybe Norway was more like Slovenia: they have a lot of money and don’t want to share it with the poorer members of the federation.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 April 2008 @ 5:56 am

  45. Norway said NO to Europe only because of its oil, didn’t it? Switzerland, because of its obvious wealth, never even considered it (thus far; things can change and the Swiss are past masters at getting nervous, with their suicide rate 2nd only to Sweden’s in Europe). I don’t know if it follows that Norway is like Slovenia, but it seems unlikely that Norway, not a war-torn country, would resemble Serbia, at least not in its reasons for refusing EU. All of the Scandinavian nations have been lucky in most of the day-to-day things for most of their history, and even when they were all Sweden. I’ve heard Slovenia compared to Switzerland, least interestingly by Soviet planned-obsolescent-object-collector Comrade Hatherley, adolescent absurdist par excellence.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 29 April 2008 @ 8:30 am

  46. —Set me straight, DS — what were you going after in your observation?—

    there is still enough time bro…so i suspect bits of this conversation will continue to reapear if we keep up a conversation.

    Anyway, what i found interesting about pretty woman is how it turns a notion of a ‘refined sensibility’ into a representation for a kind of ‘je ne sais quoi’ that is given transcendent proportions…a transcendence that the text and the bearer of good taste are shown to somehow participate in. Maybe we can again see mythology of eternal man here. But what intrigues me about pretty woman is that in this shit movie, a movie for the masses* (and certainly not a movie for a refined sensibility, even if the latter might still find something to comment on there), we find something of a paradox – the masses representation of good taste turns out to exclude their own tastes [‘the masses read people magazine and listen to Britney, but make a representation of good taste in reference to Shakespeare and mozart…because as every one knows, shakspeare and mozart are eternal’].

    That is, notions like good taste and a refined sensibility, indexing the abridged version the western canon and defined in explicit opposition to the popular taste (after all it is ‘refined’), finds one source of its reproduction in the popular itself. My marxist brothers and sisters will no doubt here shout, “ideology”, perhaps someone might think dubord useful here as well, and one or two students of zizek might stain their shorts in excitement at having found an opportunity to say the same thing, again. But if i have a sense of a tension between my approach and your own, its centre is the fact that i can’t help thinking your understanding of a refined sensibility, for all the interesting questions that are asked (from the significance of complexity and tradition in a particular work, to circulation of the popular and high in the market), is not that different from the popular conception, since precisely what it seeks to retain is the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of good taste as the breath and body of the western canon. Your particular relationship to this canon is also by no means unimportant. In fact, the common you perceive between Lurie and yourself seems to be precisely a relationship to this canon [‘Coetzee writes a novel where the main character and narrator is a privileged white academician, arty and scholarly, sensitive, passionate, kind — just like me!’]. This comment then becomes anchor for a broader comment on identity that ends with you confessing that you ‘identified more with the Abu Ghraib jailers than with the Iraqi prisoners’. This common, stretched from the southern tip of africa, through new orleans, to abu garib, becomes the ground of of something like an identity, and a historical subject. This seems to me a beautifully post-postmodern in its sentiment. Western man reclaims himself as the subject of its own history…a history that loses none of it universalizing power [for instance, you write: “the reader’s identification with those whose privileged position in S. African society is threatened. It’s disconcerting, but it taps into a truth that’s hard to deny: we’re more likely to side with those we identify with, even if in theory we recognize this is unjust. It’s a gut-level reaction. Doesn’t mean we have to let our heads follow our hearts; but it is something worth knowing about ourselves.” It strikes me that is is only true if the reader participates in that same common that stretches from white south africa to abu garib. That seems to exclude me]. The western canon, which gives expression to western man as the subject of universal history, loses nothing of it power or importance in this, our discussion on good taste. Disgrace, a moment internal to that canon, is not read merely as a story about a particular man living through the political transition in south africa, but of refined (white) European man amidst the groping (black) masses. sacrificing nuance, could we say that what we find here is something like a historical type#: disgrace is to Empire, what Heart of darkness is to imperialism?

    It is not at all unlikely that i have seriously misunderstood the discussion. Like i said, i am a bad and impatient reader. but for me the challenge lies elsewhere – that is in trying to think value without canon, common without identity and taste in its proper multiplicity.

    * The masses, as the bearer of the the popular taste, turns out to be as elusive and indeterminate as an elite, as a bearer of a refined taste. the precise function of these terms must themselves be the subject of a critique of good taste…which is something i think might be useful.

    # note i am saying nothing about my own impression of the book


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 29 April 2008 @ 10:03 am

  47. —The Vole Dyke and Skanskasgaard from Norway or Sweden,while in all this time you only scored one (Seyfried)—

    so what am i?


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 29 April 2008 @ 10:09 am

  48. This is an excellent discourse, DS, and as you say it gathers together in one place various themes related to power, money, taste, identity. You want to keep all these strands bundled together, whereas I’m hoping to unravel them or demystify them. This was why I was trying to distinguish high culture from low in terms of technical proficiency, complexity, dynamics, etc. — trying to define the “quoi” that separates the two artistic cultures in terms of features of the artistic work itself. These phenomenological aesthetic features can never be completely pulled apart from the perceiver, or from the cadre of expert perceivers that lay claim to defining excellence and taste for a particular aesthetic community. But the mystification of high culture can be broken down and analyzed at least to a degree, snd made visible to those on both the inside and the outside of that aesthetic community. This is like Jonquille’s reference to “theme and variations”: it’s a feature of the music itself that can be described and that a listener can learn to identify, whether that listener is rich or poor, white or black, a classics aficionado or a pop music fan.

    Preference for virtuosity, complexity, nuance, dynamics, variation, improvisation, etc. over more simple artistic forms: is this the inevitable trajectory of anyone who immerses him/herself in any artistic genre? Probably not: I think about Neil Young’s one-note guitar solo on Cinnamon Girl as something that wouldn’t be improved with more complexity. As you say, what makes a good pop song also has a je ne sais quoi aspect to it as well, such that those who are fully immersed in the genre are better equipped to render these judgments even if they can’t describe precisely how they arrived at their decisions.

    At this point I’ll repeat my point about the marketplace here, then I have to go do something else for awhile. The simpler artistic forms are easier for the marketplace to produce and distribute en masse than are the more complex forms. So it’s in the market’s interest to persuade the mass market that their simple tastes are just as good as are those highbrows who insist on paying attention to things like theme-and-variation, that pop music/movies/fiction is the true voice of the people that’s been suppressed by the power of the elite, but that has now been released and valorized and catered to by the record/movie/publishing industry. By pumping out easy-to-duplicate cultural products for the masses, by cultivating mass tastes that it can predictably meet, capital is able to achieve enormous gains at the expense of the masses.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 April 2008 @ 11:47 am

  49. “so what am I?”

    You’ll observe that I refused to play this childish competitive game with Parodycenter about who creates or controls how many high-quality commenters. However, I’m afraid you have now exposed your desire for recognition to PC, which you can be assured he will refuse to satisfy.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 April 2008 @ 11:50 am

  50. Darling Adolescent Absurdist of the Year sounds like a great new Parody Oscar category and I have a hunch Comrade Hatherley might just win! I knew some Norwegian people here and they do have a similarly rebellious quality to them, much more Serbian than Slovenian, not to mention being the most attractive cultural product in Scandinavian lands. I don’t think they only refused to join because they have enough money, more because they disagree with the EU’s socialist self-management concept. But I have to investigate with Skanskasaarsgaard.


    Comment by parodycenter — 29 April 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  51. on the market, i am also not sure i agree with you, partly because, here the market tends to appear as an independent, and omnipotent, embodiment of conscious desire, such that it can “persuade the mass market that their simple tastes are just as good as are those highbrows who insist on paying attention to things like theme-and-variation”. but this is not decisive and i tend to do it myself. But, leaving aside that it is probably as easy to rip madonna as mozart onto cd, the market does in fact valorise high culture over popular culture… but in a very specific way – that is in relation to the original. So, while you may pay roughly the same price dale carnagy’s (sp) ‘how to win friends and influence people’ as you would for Aristotle’s politics, the original manuscript of the latter text (if one could be found) would be literally priceless. the same can’t be said carnegy’s bestseller. Here, a moment in ‘theme and variation’ as the internal pulsation and rhythm of western culture – precisely our “quoi” – is up of sale…a chance to own the eternal (albeit the eternal as spectacle).


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 29 April 2008 @ 1:48 pm

  52. I was about to return to your prior comment, DS, but briefly on original manuscript… Suppose Contempt attains canonical status in Western literature. This isn’t too far-fetched, since it did (as you pointed out) win prizes and the author is a Nobel laureate. Suppose Coetzee wrote the original of his book on a computer. His first printout isn’t the original, but merely a paper copy of the original that exists electornically. Now suppose Coetzee sent me an email with an attachment containing his “original” electronic version of the book. Is this electronic attachment closer to the original than is the first printout, since it preserves the original format in which the author wrote it? I.e., in Baudrillard’s world of simulacra without originals, does the valorization of high-culture texts become obsolete? There is no longer a singular manifestation of the great text that can be imbued with the plenitudinous spirit of the creator. This spirit, cut loose from the nonexistent original, is now distributed among all the copies as a sort of force field or aura, non-localizable, omnipresent, continually circulating. Or, without a tangible original, does the intangible fetshistic spirit of originality disperse altogether without a trace?


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 April 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  53. “we find something of a paradox – the masses representation of good taste turns out to exclude their own tastes”

    What’s to keep the masses from becoming opera fans? Do they believe that they don’t deserve it? I’d say that most of the people of my acquaintance regard opera as something that nobody could really like, that it’s an affectation of the cultural elite who “appreciate” opera without really enjoying it viscerally and emotionally. Opera is something to be respected and honored, like a corpse at a funeral. It’s the product of an old and static culture: the same music played again and again for centuries. By contrast, likable music isn’t a body of canonical eternal works; it’s a continuous flow of transitory and nearly interchangeable “hits.”

    It seems to me that this sort of music is very similar to any other sort of commodity in late-modern capitalism. The object of pop-musical desire is continually in motion: it attaches itself briefly to a hit, then moves into the future where another hit is taking shape. You can listen to a hit compulsively for a week or two, but it’s not substantial enough to fulfill your desire. It’s because the object of desire isn’t in the record, or even in listening to the record, but in the movement. The movement is a circulatory one, as hip people converge on their favorites, and a forward-leaning one, as everyone tries to be the first one to jump on what’s next, to share in that aura of hipness.

    A canonical musical work is imbued with a kind of timeless plenitude that resists fashion and rapid replacement. The pop crowd can regard this timelessness as a pompous affectation or a symptom of reactionary elitism, but the fact remains that the timelessness of cultural artifacts isn’t readily exploited by the marketplace. It is exploitable, as you say, for original manuscripts or paintings. But as far as I know there is little aftermarket for the original tapes from recording studios. All the money for recorded music is in reproductions, so the faster the turnaround the more money there is to be made by the record companies. Consequently it’s in the interest of the music business to dismiss canonicity as an undesirable artifact of classism and to replace it with transiency as the true manifestation of “the people’s” tastes.

    I’ll try for more later this evening.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 April 2008 @ 2:44 pm

  54. I didn’t read the entirety of this, but my fleeting two-cents:

    “What’s to keep the masses from becoming opera fans? Do they believe that they don’t deserve it? I’d say that most of the people of my acquaintance regard opera as something that nobody could really like, that it’s an affectation of the cultural elite who “appreciate” opera without really enjoying it viscerally and emotionally. Opera is something to be respected and honored, like a corpse at a funeral.”

    Ah, but lest we remember that many arias (or operas, whatever), especially “Nessun Dorma” – to which a pudgy Welsh nobody sung (Paul Potts) to win Britain’s Got Talent – have inherent connection with human emotions. Possibly an atypical victory of a class entitlement over good tastes or what-not, or something less intellectual like impressionable register: it’s good, and even my angsty teenage sister loves it. She does, really. But nevertheless, opera is impervious to modernization; the recent backlash over the Chinese’s re-imagination of Turandot suggests its reverence would rather withstand the insularity of racism than put in the hands of Far Eastern artistic liberty (it was harmless, really).


    Comment by Seyfried — 29 April 2008 @ 5:19 pm

  55. But nevertheless, opera is impervious to modernization; the recent backlash over the Chinese’s re-imagination of Turandot suggests its reverence would rather withstand the insularity of racism than put in the hands of Far Eastern artistic liberty (it was harmless, really).

    Not at all impervious to modernization, just almost always temporary because has nothing whatever to do with the original, which is what people are interested in. OF COURSE the racisms and xenophobias should be kept in old works, otherwise you don’t even see them as what they are. Chinese can do stuff with Turandot, but nobody cares very long, because it is an Italian opera. This has gotten somewhat peevish, so I’m going to just cut to the chase on what for me is too long a number, and say if we demand a ‘je ne said quoi’ and it’s elitist western and there’s also populist ‘refined sensibility’, I’ll flip the coin in favour of the elitism, which has at least proved itself.

    Nobody wants to see a Roman version of Peking Opera either.

    The problem with modernizing opera is that new operas are hard to come by, but currently ‘Elmer Gantry’ is becoming quite the rage after 15 years of total devotion by its creators.

    I’m annoyed at John for other negligences, though, but I’m concluding my part in this particular discussion. There’s a point at which the old ‘privilege’ is still called upon to rule unless it’s overthrown and even then ancien regime personnel has to be used, because the populists were full of ignorance and didn’t know how to operate the new, less colorful bureaucracies.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 29 April 2008 @ 5:34 pm

  56. “Pretty Woman” the song by Roy Orbison is about as canonical a piece of popular American music as has been produced in the past fifty years; it’s “classic rock.” It’s a completely transparent presentation of sexual attraction based entirely on visual stimulus (“no one could look as good as you… pretty woman look my way”). The song structure is formulaic: a couple verses, a bridge, a final verse, a coda. The tune and the words are easy to remember, plus there’s that cool growly noise Roy makes. You could listen to this song a hundred times and not get much more out of it than you got the first time. I like this song a lot.

    Though I don’t remember the opera scene from the movie, I suspect that it was presented as a spectacle: lovely gowns and tuxedoes, a beautiful opera house, high glamor. The director probably exposed his audience to no more than a minute of the actual performance: what’s important is to show Julia’s enraptured countenance as for the first time she’s exposed to this high cultural scene. Isn’t it mostly about Julia being more than a one-night stand for Richard Gere — that even though she’s hot she’ll last as long as Roy Orbison’s song in Richard’s affections, a classic babe who’s worth not just his hourly cash but his long-term investment?

    There’s no question that Coetzee writes Prof Lurie as a “classy” guy: a professor of Romantic literature who writes chamber opera. There’s also no question that Coetzee represents Lurie as a wielder of “refined” power that, once stripped of its niceties, isn’t all that different from the power exercised by the crude robbers/rapists. He who has habitually been on top finds himself on the receiving end: imprisoned, burned, humiliated. So the main thrust of the book is to reveal power in its nakedness, that Lurie’s refined aesthetic tastes in women merely disguise a craven exploitation, perhaps even a hatred of the women he uses for his pleasure, that his acts of “lovemaking” aren’t really all that different from a dog peeing to mark his territory. By the end Lurie sees himself as not much different from a dog. So I think I get it.

    But… what about the high culture itself? Is Byron’s poetry just a fancy way of expressing his lust for pretty women? Is opera’s passion not really any different from Roy Orbison’s? Is he unable to write a moving opera because his libido is shriveled up in his disgrace? I think that’s part of the ambiguity: there’s a mournfulness about the decline of a long and deep Western civilization, but is it something real or just a thin veneer disguising the slaverings of a pack of dogs?

    It’s like tha Abu Ghraib jailers: they’ve disgraced themselves and the nation they represent by wielding power in this obscene way. There is no question that the victims of the jailers suffered far greater indignity and pain than did the jailers who so disgracefully inflicted it. But I’m a member of the dominant culture, a beneficiary of the Empire, and so in both a moral and an aesthetic sense, from my privileged position on the sidelines, I turn my face away from this tasteless performance. But… is this obscene cruelty really all that Western culture and America ever really amounted to? Or has there been a decline from a prior height? And can anything be restored from this shambles? Or must I renounce the entirety of my culture as a sham and help to bring about its destruction?

    The novel presents an us-or-them dilemma. Is there a common ground or identity to be forged between the two sides? Lurie’s daughter is going to have a child, but I don’t think she sees this as a source of reconciliation — more as a fee she must pay to stay alive. Is there an African culture, low or high, that Lurie or his daughter can participate in? They don’t see any evidence of it among the Africans. The book gestures toward a future where the roles will be reversed, and where perhaps in fifty years some black man will be standing in Prof Lurie’s shoes, representing whatever it is that high African culture turns into, wielding power over the disenfranchised European whores. This isn’t how it has to go, but I believe this is what Lurie sees unfolding.

    I think the disgrace in this book is two-sided. The most obvious is the disgrace inflicted by the Africans on Lurie and his daughter, a disgrace that drains all the vitality out of them and marks them as all-but-dead. But there’s also the disgrace that Lurie brings on himself, both personally and as representative of the educated, refined, Western white male affinity group, a disgrace that signals his own decline and that of his culture. This construal makes it HIS culture, not a universal cultural asset available to everyone — as if Africans could never possibly appreciate Byron or opera. Lurie can’t get out of his cultural boundedness, can’t reach across the boundaries, can’t imagine an African culture or refinement. He sees only death of culture generally. So he’s a tragic figure in that regard as well.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 April 2008 @ 5:38 pm

  57. ‘But… is this obscene cruelty really all that Western culture and America ever really amounted to? Or has there been a decline from a prior height? And can anything be restored from this shambles? Or must I renounce the entirety of my culture as a sham and help to bring about its destruction?”

    No, of course not all its amounted to. That’s Arpege’s number.

    The reason I decided to put one more comment on this is because I found it curious that you DO find the ‘appallingness’ of the torturers of Abu Ghraib more upsetting than the sufferings of the victims. I don’t, because appallingness occurs everywhere, and there is plenty of American obscenity. For some reason, in our both being a part of the dominant culture, I do see this one thing differently, and only don’t think about it more because I am not exposed to the literal situation more. We are exposed directly to neither jailers nor victims in this case, and only can deplore it from a distance; but even if I think that Iraqia are not particularly ‘my own people’, I still am somehow at least more concerned with those tortured than those doing the torturing, because it does not really seem that different from previous outrages. And Iraqis and Middle Eastern nations in general are themseelves past masters of brutality and torture. American obscenity at Abu Ghraib is, in fact, shocking only because it is not associated with the same degree of animal brutality that has long been found in a different form in, say, Mexican prisons, authoritarian regimes, Chinese and Khmer tortures and genocides. All the boring people who are furious at American torture are just like 9/11 survivors, insofar as the actual practice IS not an accepted part of the culture in the same way that it is in Iraq, as under Hussein, who was doing versions of it on a daily basis. Marxists are easily the stupidest on this matter, because it is really just about who’s got the power, much less ‘who’s doin’ the cruelty?’ Everybody knows that forms of cruelty change with degree of power, so the real crime is considered having the most power. This is because most people are too guilty to realize that this is what they wanted all along, and everything has its price. If you get power, you have to be strong enough to see that plenty of others ‘won’t have it’. It doesn’t necessarily follow that you use power cruelly, but this is that endless sort of thing again, I think people either get comfortable with power of all kinds or other, or they don’t even if they could, or they also sometimes didn’t ever have any, or also that they just thought they didn’t, and also that people really did then die without having ever tasted the delights of life. Does that mean you shouldn’t? Yes, if you don’t know how to enjoy them. In that case, refined taste can be turned toward social work or Marxist hobbyism as is practised on the blogs.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 29 April 2008 @ 5:57 pm

  58. I suppose I find myself identifying with the jailers because I feel complicit in their perversions, that I share their guilt in perpetrating these crimes. Regarding complicity, I read today that Hillary supporters favor McCain 3 to 1 over Obama, while Obama supporters faveor McCain 3 to 1 over Hillary. This is just nuts: there’s hardly any policy differences between the two Democratic candidates, so this antagonistic rivalry can only be about personality cult. I’m betting that McCain wins, warmonger maniac that he is.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 April 2008 @ 6:14 pm

  59. didn’t finish the parallel with 9/11–seems a bigger deal for the U.S. because never attacked in that way. U.S. torture, as at Abu Ghraib, associate with more bestial cultures like Iraq under Hussein or Saudis with hands chopped off, etc. Death penalty in U.S. ghoulish, but considered much worse if a mass murderer gets the needle than if masses of middle-class kids get killed by starving hordes, etc. So the outrage is somehow never pointed out for its ‘brand-newness’ in a certain way in contemporary U.S. culture. it is accepted most other places, Europe and Canada excepted.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 29 April 2008 @ 6:16 pm

  60. I suppose I find myself identifying with the jailers because I feel complicit in their perversions, that I share their guilt in perpetrating these crimes.

    Yes, and that is what anti-Americanism, particularly the most ignorant Marxist kind, does want you to do. All these people know how primitive and cruel Shariah Law is, but they DO NOT expect ‘ordinary Iranians’ to ‘feel responsible’ for their idiotic and stupid regimes’ crimes, because it is not Ahmedinejad’s or anybody Iranian’s fault that they committed these vile crimes: Those are AMERICAN crimes as well. I am so sick of such retardation, but you need not suffer because of your refined taste; I am all for it, of course, and do not consider you perpetrated Abu Ghraib because you once recited the Pledge of Allegiance and may not think the Danish cartoons were worth giving a fuck about. The Muslims really are full of crackers extremism, and those are NOT things America and Europe forced on them.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 29 April 2008 @ 6:22 pm

  61. k…this was a very interesting discussion that will no doubt continue elsewhere. I have a difficult relationship with disgrace. For one i have the greatest respect for Coetzee, and have truly loved his work. Disgrace however cuts close to the bone, and concerns an event that is, in some sense, still unfolding. And yet i really enjoyed it…history being what it is, i have my own account of the event unfolding, and an idea of where disgrace fits into that event. So if i get time to look at it again i’ll write about what i liked out the novel, and also the stuff that bothered me.

    If i am at times a little obscure, it is because i am still working out what i think about these issues…so thanks for the space to think about them in common. later bru.


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 29 April 2008 @ 6:23 pm

  62. jonquille, outside of anything (and everything) said here, why do you hate marxists?


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 29 April 2008 @ 6:30 pm

  63. I don’t hate all people who call themselves Marxists, but I do hate Marxism as anytning other than what Dejan calls it–a critique of capitalism. Other than that, the only thing that could interest you about my anti-Marxism is how my view might be altered by you, so you hereby understand that for anything beyond what I have just said, I appreciate your interest, but will forgo explanation of something I consider needs no explanation.


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 29 April 2008 @ 6:45 pm

  64. no, no i understand. i just wondered cause it appears as the object of scorn about a dozen times in your comments. Don’t get me wrong. I’m with you on this one. For let it be known, i too hate those pesky marxist. In fact, the only people more stacked with ‘cracker extremism’ than marxist are The Muslims (who are anyway more dangerous for their ‘bestial cultures’). The only thing more fucked up would be a Muslim marxist…haha, can you imagine, a marxist named Ahmed. now that would be extreme, dude.


    Comment by dionysusstoned — 29 April 2008 @ 7:10 pm

  65. The only thing more fucked up would be a Muslim marxist…

    Oh, monsieur, you haven’t been around these parts enough–the Muslim Marxist by now is quite Garden Variety!


    Comment by jonquille de camembert — 29 April 2008 @ 7:24 pm

  66. DS, I hear you about Disgrace. I too have difficulties with it. Thanks for engaging in the discussion, and we’ll surely find something else to talk about soon.

    I just got finished watching The Kite Runner, which I might or might not put up screen shots from (depends if I wake up thinking about it tomorrow morning). It’s about a wealthy Afghani guy and his father who flee when the Russians invade. The father has no use for the mullahs or for the Russians. Eventually they end up in San Francisco without much money. The son goes back to Afghanistan eventually to retrieve his orphaned nephew (this is in 2000). The Afghanis are presented as a people who value generosity, loyalty, modesty and honor. The Russians and especially the Taliban are portrayed in this movie as rapists and murderers, while the Americanized Afghanis, Muslim and secular alike, act like they’ve found the promised land. The movie leaves the impression that America must have done a wonderful thing by clearing those Taliban criminals out of there. Maybe it’s true, but at one point while the Russians are in control some Afghani remarks that they’ll surely leave eventually because this country isn’t kind to occupying forces. Overall though it’s the movie is almost apolitical, which is weird when the movie is about Afghanistan. It’s as if the writer just wanted to tell a small personal story and it happened to take place in this war-torn place. Kind of disappointing.

    I’m always interested to hear the perspectives of any Muslim Marxist I might happen to encounter, and I hope vice versa…


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 April 2008 @ 9:10 pm

  67. Greetings from Carolina! I’m bored to tears at work so I decided to browse your blog on my iphone during lunch break. I enjoy the info you present here and can’t wait to take
    a look when I get home. I’m amazed at how quick your blog loaded on my cell phone .. I’m not even using WIFI,
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    Comment by Svayambhut Ghosh — 15 August 2012 @ 11:48 pm

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