Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Year's End: A New Year Plea For the "Foxy"

In keeping with my general antipathy to year end resolutions and summaries in particular, and closure in general, this post shall be a late one in the new year. But its lateness is not only for reasons of precision and exactitude on my part: it is above all for reasons of alienation from the whole cultural business of such ways of viewing time and destiny. In short, there is nothing worse than a wrap-up. Everything about it is explicitly and implicitly infected, riddled with all sorts of fallacies.

One of these fallacies is a linear temporality that makes us servants to the future and enemies of the present. Another fallacy is a progressivism or historicism that thinks that there is a quantifiable measure of our many losses and improvements into a final verdict of decline, or as we are wont to prefer, ascent.

I remember one particularly obnoxious wrap-up that circulated through the mail from one of my many married acquaintances. The whole things was so glowing with prideful self assertion; it all but nakedly stated how great everyone involved had been over the previous year and how surely they were to be better in the forthcoming year. It read as an advertisement for a chain restaurant rather than a report on a family, though I would argue there is little difference between the two in our current historical moment.

Related to the wrap-up and though less egregious, yet still problematic, is the resolution.

People make resolutions not only because of the perennial cult of self improvement but because of a peculiarly linear temporality. This temporality admits of a straight line of onward and upward Progress, with History falling in line, in increasing maturity, wisdom, even enlightenment.

To clarify where I deeply stand on such matters I must interrupt with what may apparently be a digression but, as we shall see, connects to where I have been heading all along.

One of the most brilliant, most distinguished minds in legal (or indeed any other kind) philosophy, Ronald Dworkin, has just published a book called Justice For Hedgehogs. Now, given the fame of the author, there will doubtless be hundreds of responses to the book. The book itself is magisterial and as such I am only halfway through it, and there is much good in it and much with which I agree. Yet his central claim, and the book's title are most contrary to my disposition, as readers of my blog will undoubtedly see.

You see, dear reader, though Dworkin is a most brilliant mind and his book covers so much -from the question of free will through the role of the state and even aesthetics - he is on the opposite side to me since I am most deeply influenced by the late great Sir Isaiah Berlin.

This explains Dworkin's title. Isaiah Berlin wrote the essay "The Hedgehog and The Fox: An Essay On Tolstoy's Conception of History".

The Greek poet Archilocus said: "The fox knows many little things but the hedgehog knows one big thing".

While Berlin admits Tolstoy was a combination of the two as a thinker, Berlin himself was an advocate for the "foxy" position as he was a passionate defender of pluralism.

The title is incorrect in more than one way since hedgehogs don't need justice; we foxes, however do. Most of the world, like Dworkin, believes the world is one and that there is a right or wrong answer to most questions. They believer such unity is backed up by some sort of grand metaphysics. Ronald Dworkin is more modest and sophisticated than that: but like grand theorists before him, he aims to create a unifying and unified theory where all things go together.

The last highest and most noble attempt to present such a grant theory was John Rawls in A Theory Of Justice. Yet what made Rawls' theory notable was that it made space for subjective difference and diversity. It recognized irresolvable problems; that is why Rawls felt a need for a neutral space from which to govern.

Dworkin, on the other hand, wants more than neutrality; he seems to want to pronounce what the good and the true are at every turn; where any controversy or disagreement is but a cover for genuine error or misunderstanding of the facts, rather than irreducible, insoluble difference. If freedoms are sacrificed for social justice then there was not really freedom to be sacrificed to begin with, but, rather, a too narrow definition of freedom as license. (Which is how I do define freedom). Yet some freedom we must sacrifice if we are to prevent certain suffering. (The suffering caused by other's freedoms).

Dworkin would retort that we have been under assault from moral relativism, and thus, a variant of objective all inclusive theory like his is sorely needed to set the record straight and keep us safe from fashionable relativists.

But the world is as hostage to monism like Dworkin's as it is to relativism; indeed I consider relativism as serious a sin as Dworkin's monism. It has nothing in common with my or Isaiah Berlin's "Objective Pluralism."

Josh Cherniss states three propositions in his Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Isaiah Berlin:
  1. All genuine questions must have a true answer, and one only; all other responses are errors.
  2. There must be a dependable path to discovering the true answers, which is in principle knowable, even if currently unknown.
  3. The true answers, when found, will be compatible with one another, forming a single whole; for one truth cannot be incompatible with another. This, in turn, is based on the assumption that the universe is harmonious and coherent.
Like Berlin, I deny all three of these propositions which is why I am a thoroughgoing pluralist.

A relativist, on the other hand, believes such problems are clashes of merely subjective points of view. At worst, the relativist denies the existence of true or false statements altogether, denies the existence of good and evil, however construed.

I believe such problems as the inability to answer the three propositions in the affirmative to be caused not by relativity but rather, ironically, by objectivity! It is precisely because we can see - most painfully - the truth of the various sides, and yet see the impossibility of fulfilling all sides simultaneously; it is because we can see the inevitable necessity of tragic choices that we pluralists are anything but relativists.

And, above all, because the world is not one in any systematic way, it is perfectly possible for there to be some answers that are clearly right or wrong, as in the science of gravity, Hitler's evil, Bach's grandeur, and so on, and simultaneously other answers that are undecidable, like trying to weigh the relative merits Japanese filmmaker Ozu in comparison with French filmmaker Robert Bresson.

Yet Ronald Dworkin wants to apply his monistic inclinations to a comprehensive legal theory. It is a curious thing to be reading a book in which I agree with so many of his conclusions (about issues of the day in the courts) yet disagree most vociferously with how he arises at our shared conclusions.

But I have said too much about this issue. Please enter this new year in the spirit of the fox. Be flexible. Don't be afraid of being called a dilettante if you happen to have more than one single minded interest. Take each day and each case, one at a time. Think for yourself. Not all situations are identical. No two people are alike. Respect the profound differences around you. Not merely differences backed by group identity and and pride of membership; those as of late have been more acceptable to tolerate. But pricklier and trickier differences: ones that reside in the innermost recesses of an individual human heart.

And that is all I can stand to say in anything like the spirit of a new year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holiday Memories: Childhood in the 1970s Part 12

My memories are as perceptual and as sensory, indeed sensual, as my current disposition. Before thought or even feeling can intrude to color my perceptions there is first and above all the sensation that enters my nervous system. And in the late 1970s there were plenty of impressions that could be most overwhelming.

Some of these sensations and impressions came in the form of quite odd characters. I had no idea where they came from or why they would come over for the holidays. It was not clear that they were close friends of the family; what was clear was that they appeared to be friends of the theater types with which my father was involved because of the children's theater shenanigans and my magic acts.

I remember of course very clearly the three girls next door (!) and their stage mother who was a loathsome woman and bore the most striking resemblance to Joan Crawford, so much so that she impaired my ability to appreciate and comprehend the work of that greatest of actors because I could not help but think of that high school theater teacher whenever I would come across Johnny Guitar on the late show.

Of course I was in love with two of the girls, but, alas, it was the youngest and most unappealing of the three - a girl who appeared to have such arrested development that she acted ten years old when she was in fact at least fourteen - who relentlessly pursued me, leaving much of my time spent avoiding her clunky, clumsy advances, my eyes set, of course, on the eldest who looked like a twin of Cybil Shepard and who was so enigmatic and arousing compared to everybody else around her. But their mother kept such a hold over them. In her authoritarian style, she was the most anti-1970s parent imaginable.

One of her favorite subjects was the relative unimportance of sexual matters and how deeply offended she was by the spectacle of males with their shirts off in Florida and how it was practically immoral to subject others to such exposure. I was always trying to play up to her and agree with her, thinking it would get me an advantage with her daughters that my friendliness would dissolve her guard. It was never to be. One time I was forced to take a state wide trip in a station wagon convertible with her and her girls. It was about a four hour trip and all four hours of it consisted of her preaching about the loose morals and values of the young. And this from a drama teacher!

During the holidays these people would drift in and out of our house without any apparent pattern or time. There was little sense of when meals were to start. What there was a sense of was the presence of adult intruders who were nevertheless invited.

Without a doubt the most colorful of these theater type friends was one Bobby Larue. I had never met anyone quite like Bobby Larue. He both frightened and fascinated me.

My sensory system was compromised by his personal effects. Here was a man, apparently without family or relatives, who would come over with a gold lame or faux leopard kind of cape (be aware that we are in the state of Florida) and for the bottom some kind of elephant bell denim slacks with contrast stitching in rust. Most shocking of all, he wore a different ring on every finger. He also had a very wide coiffed toupee with which he would fidget while conversing. I had never seen anything like it in real life other than the Liberace television specials which I was forced to watch and which I deeply hated (having fantasies of all the pianists I'd really prefer to be watching, if only the networks had the class and taste to feature them).

I remember Bobby LaRue had one obsession to which he would keep referring and returning and that was his idol Charles Nelson Reilly. He would go on forever about the virtues of Reilly, why Charles Nelson Reilly should win every award, and be given every role, how he was so much better a performer than Paul Newman or Robert Redford, and how there was no justice in the world as long as Charles Nelson Reilly was relegated to the ghetto of comedy.

Bobby LaRue was one of the first encounters I had with genuine aesthetic disagreement. I remember when I first got a little upright piano. It was a Baldwin and was the first piano, or instrument, to which I ever had access. I had not yet had the advantage of a teacher. Out of frustration I would try and play keys to make musical sense. And I would do this for an hour or so, quietly so as not to bother anyone. Yet I was also listening a lot to the Miles Davis album Kind Of Blue, trying to duplicate on that piano the sounds I was hearing, but to complete failure, plunking my hands on the keyboard in frustration at my inability to hear well.

I tried to share my interests once at a Christmas party at which LaRue was present. I tried to praise Miles Davis and my father dismissed the music as heroin music "because it was played so slow it made you think they were on heroin when they played it" a reductionism that made me so angry. This was when Bobby Larue would become larger than life (as if he hadn't already started out that way) and complain that he "hated Miles Davis". That "was not real music". Real music was classic show music. (To be fair my father did at times like Miles Davis, but still claimed the music, at least in the fifties, was modeled after certain drugs). I remember his litany of virtues that told us when something was valuable: "it entertains, it makes you feel, it makes you cry, it makes you laugh."

Bobby LaRue was hopeless when it came to my musical tastes. He told me "real music" was Robert Goulet. And it was Julie Andrews and, after crossing himself, Ethel Merman and Judy Garland. I was not one to disagree with this list per se, though I was not crazy about Goulet.

I also made the mistake of saying I liked Paul Lynde, and Bobby Larue would get irritated, saying that Charles Nelson Reilly was more wholesome and for the whole family, and funnier. Like my neighbors, here was another plea for the family, for the virtuous and the wholesome. This immediately set up a feud comparing Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. Since I was a child I had little say in defending Paul Lynde.

I have little idea who Bobby LaRue was and from where he had come. My mother said that he used to be hit at dinner theaters across Florida, in his youth. I know he spoke with an exaggerated tone of voice and his presence always seemed an irritant because I was shocked that any man would leave the house dressed as he did and felt equally terrorized and mesmerized by all those ten or so rings, holding a glass of scotch, the kind of glass with little avocado or chartreuse daisies printed all over it.

The only matter on which we could agree was the soundtrack to A Chorus Line which he loved and would always assent when I offered to play it. I was always in charge of the record player; the one time I had any say over the music, when not hostage to my mother's favorite radio station.

My parents had an unusual system for gift giving. Basically I was given a certificate to the local record shop where I would buy a five dollar album. I could always pick the album and it was invariably some kind of jazz-rock fusion like Chick Corea and Return to Forever, or much to the chagrin of my parents, late Miles Davis in his early 1970s electric period. I never knew what a record was going to sound like since we never heard any radio but what my mother played. I went merely by what Downbeat had advertised and if I liked the graphics in the advertising, the more outrageous (the trumpeter lying on a sofa in the shape of red lips, a bassist in a cape flying through the air etc.) the better. The record would be a Christmas present.

My mother had a penchant for an easy listening radio station called JOY. And she would play that station practically 24/7, even while in her office at work. This was one reason why I had such little access to other radio. Sometimes I liked the arrangements, but more often I did not. Worse, I would argue against the music, attack and criticize the selections, getting great pleasure from hurting my mother in this way, perhaps as revenge for having to listen to it, perhaps out of darker motives from within.

Always on Christmas Eve the three of us would put ornaments on the tree. I loved that tree because it was a thick and fluffy white tree and made me feel special whilst living in Florida. My father would try and be clairvoyant or psychic and guess what was in his wrapped presents and he was always right, much to the chagrin of my mother, who felt offended and violated by his accuracy. It made me for a time a true believer in all things clairvoyant.

He would place his right hand on the wrapped present and list what was within. "Shoes, grey socks, a book on Houdini, hardware tools, sky blue tie, umm.. Adidas sweater that zips up...I think it has brown stripes down the side of the arms..." he would rattle off, while feeling the wrapped presents for the appropriate vibes and divining, gleaning the surprise within. In cumulative anger over the years my mother eventually dispensed with all wrapping and said "here" with her rough, masculine grunt, that only she can summon, and dumped a bunch of unwrapped items on the floor at his feet.

The holidays too were a time for great religiosity. Not, of course in my household, never, that is, unless my preacher uncle was in town which was a rare invitation. (Indeed he wasn't invited; he just showed up suddenly, unannounced). But rather, all around us, in the Jesus and the Devil cartoon tracts, the Biblical bumper stickers, the presence of many thick men with fixed grins and abundant jowls, ready with a handshake and offer of Jesus for your troubles.

And that about "wraps up" my memories of the holidays from my childhood.

Here is a gem from Paul Lynde:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Blog: A Look at Emerson's Divinity School Address

On July 15,1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered what was to be one of his great orations; it is part essay, part jeremiad, a confession, an exhortation, and a marvelous work of theology all rolled into one.

Since this blog is supposed to be contrarian and since Christmas is fast upon us let us revisit a particular passage in the work:

In this point of view we become very sensible of the first defect of historical Christianity. Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love. But by this eastern monarchy of a Christianity, which indolence and fear have built, the friend of man is made the injurer of man. The manner in which his name is surrounded with expressions, which were once sallies of admiration and love, but are now petrified into official titles, kills all generous sympathy and liking.
Those words caused Emerson to be essentially banned from speaking at Harvard for thirty years. Emerson was also invited to speak at the bequest of the senior class rather than faculty.

A few words before this passage Emerson does praise the person of Jesus, but note the nature of this praise:

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.'
If only many of our contemporary Christians discussed Christ in this way instead of as a ruler who asks that you confirm or deny him as a kind of test, only to condemn you for all eternity if you deny him.

The address begins with one of the most beautiful passages in all of Emerson. As is typical of Emerson he begins the address with reflections on natural processes, since for Emerson process is all:

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse.
But no amount of pastoral and bucolic rhetoric could have prepared the listeners for what was to come.

When it comes to the person, symbol, myth, or holiness of Jesus Christ, it appears that today little has changed. One one extreme there are those, and they are legion, who feel Jesus Christ to be a a man and a god who in his omnipotence has the deepest held opinions on the sexual, dietary and other practices of the three hundred and eighty plus million souls who inhabit these United States. On the other extreme are the debunkers who are convinced Jesus never existed in the first place. In between lies a motley of degrees and variations, not many of them much better, in my view, than the extremists.

Actually, let us say the most offensive (in certain quarters) and most unthinkable thing: let us say that "Christ-Mythers" (to use an unfairly uncharitable term) are correct. That changes very little because in fact it matters little whether Christ was real in the sense that I am real typing this into the blogosphere and you are real as you read what I type. At its best, which isn't often, Christianity and Christmas are not propositional affairs. Rather they are eternal mysteries of human imagination and they exist in order that we may entertain what it would mean, for example, for a stranger to come to town in such a way and with such force that all is forever changed. Much power of certain Western (in more than one sense) art comes from this act. Equally some of the worst in human life (that is, after Christianity) comes from this attachment to pining all hopes on a single person or deity. This last problem was the problem Emerson was referring when he discussed, to use far worse yet up to date language, being "hung up" about Jesus.

In a larger cultural sense there is a split between, on the one had, the advocates of science, some of whom really do believe that the scientific method and only the scientific method can tell us with any accuracy about our lives, and on the other hand, those that deny scientific truths and live only for faith. On the science side, in the most extreme form one finds the proposition that we are nothing but our neurochemistry. On the other side are those who deny scientific values altogether, and read their sacred texts as if they were how-to manuals or maps of the planet earth.

We would all do well to read Emerson's address, conceived of and performed in the Summer, in this Winter season. I have only excerpted from it here. But all of it is a jewel whose brilliance hasn't dimmed a bit in the 172 years that have transpired since. Indeed, it has only brightened and deepened, and reading it makes the so-called seers and gurus of today's world seem themselves most dim.

And that is all I have to say this Christmas. On the subject of Jesus Christ, besides Emerson, I like what Kris Kristofferson has to say best:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review: HOLLYWOOD INCOHERENT: Narration in Seventies Cinema by Todd Berliner

I have a belief that reviewing and, moreover, criticism ought to be in part a dispassionate affair: that there ought to be in it more objectivity of appraisal and comprehension than the subjectivity of enthusiasm and censure. There are times of course when a special case and exception can be made, where subjectivity must, by definition, lead and flourish. Given that the subjects of Berliner's Hollywood Incoherent are cinema and the 1970s, two topics dear to this author's heart, and, given that the approach and style of the book is an aesthetic one rather than a theory addled or ideological one, upon completing this book it appears at times as if the book had been written with this reviewer alone in Berliner's mind.

Hollywood Incoherent is a much welcome and needed addition to the growing body of both 1970s and cinema scholarship. One of the virtues of it is that it puts style at the center, rather than political ideologies, identities and historical and cultural significance. In many ways Berliner (and to be fair, others must be mentioned in this regard, namely, Susan Sontag, Ray Carney, David Bordwell and a few others) is attempting to return criticism to a position somewhat close to the aesthetic and artistic concerns that had been dominant in the decades prior to the Theory revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet Berliner is unafraid of theory and uses it when necessary. Indeed his book takes the time to define David Bordwell's concept of "parametric narration", rather than assuming knowledge on the part of the reader, and also makes a good case for why such a concept is perfectly valid in understanding general trends in 1970s studio and independent filmmaking. Still, in the end, Berliner follows in the matter and manner of "close reading", which concerns how objects in the movies create the effect they do, and what the implications are of such effects on the emotions of audiences.

Two concepts that Berliner introduces that are helpful are those of "incoherence" and "perversity". These words are redefined not as negative states of personal or collective organization or psychology, but rather, positive states of works of art. Perversity is taken from critic Stephen Booth to mean in Booth's words, (in Booth's Precious Nonsense), "a usually gratuitous and potentially distracting and counterproductive extra system of coherence that rivals the narrative, polemic, or other ideationally essential organization of the work". One of the themes that crops up in practically every film made in the 1970s is this evenhanded and observational quality that is the effect of a certain disunity regarding closure concerning the morality or psychology of the characters on the screen and the causality and temporality of visual events as they unfold. In Berliner's words:

"Although all narrative films employ a degree of perversity (without turns there is no narrative), the relatively prevalent, pointed, and superfluous narrative perversities in seventies cinema do more than delay satisfaction and narrative resolution: The preclude the definitive and satisfying resolutions characteristic of more normative Hollywood movies."
Even in the case of ostensibly lower brow fare like The Exorcist, there is the same effect at work as in other higher quality films of the same period and this effect has cognitive value for spectators: "I propose that spectators leave The Exorcist having had an experience more cognitively eventful than the film's shocks, thrills, and thematic substance can account for".

Whatever one may think of The Exorcist as a film, Berliner's account of its specifically 1970s characteristics is consistently interesting.

Following in the steps of David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson, and, to go back even further, Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation, Berliner raises the question of style as opposed to meaning as a critical category. In a chapter of a close reading of Taxi Driver, for example, Berliner shows how stylistic effects can be as valuable as and different from meaning, as a way of comprehending a work of art. Moreover Berliner defends his case very well, especially given the weight of certain traditions in thinking "meaning" the key to art's purpose. In Berliner's book, each film is analyzed with exacting scrutiny, neither abandoning the text for dubious historical or sociological claims, nor viewing the films in isolation from the cultural context in which they were made.

Many of the big commercial films are discussed in this volume, specifically those prior to the Star Wars phenomenon that arguably ushers in the 1980s. There is a subtle reading of The French Connection as a violation of police genre norms.

One of the most valuable parts of the book is the chapter on John Cassavetes. Ray Carney has been and is the undisputed scholarly expert on Cassavetes' oeuvre. Berliner adds his voice to the discussion with a perceptive essay on real life dialogue and scripted and aesthetic dialogue and how the differences between the two are negotiated by a modernist master like John Cassavetes. The one chapter alone is worth the cost of the book. Noting the dilemma that any artist faces in confronting on the one hand the false and artificial effects of "trying" to be "realistic" and, on the other, the prison of traditional and classical conventions in representation, Cassavetes hit upon a brilliant third solution.

"Cassavetes' dialogue, more than conventional, tightly scripted dialogue, prevents spectators from easily distinguishing his actors' improvisations from the improvisations of Cassavete's characters, who, like the actors playing them, appear to be composing their lines as they are speaking".
Though Berliner is aware of dimension of authorship and refers to the hand of directors and writers (and no hand is more authorial than Cassavetes), he is always keen to note that 1970s cinema is a continuum, that the films in the period all share similar features, some more than others, and that they have a certain family resemblance, that, though they do influence current cinema - (Berliner notes Eastwood's Unforgiven and P. T. Anderson's Magnolia as being particularly seventies in feeling) - they are unique in being rather unlike anything to have come before or since the 1970s.

If there is anything to the concept of a 1970s aesthetic in film and if it can be understood to have coherence, then Todd Berliner's Hollywood Incoherent is a useful introduction to such a concept.

There is much here for fans of both 1970s scholarship and cinema studies in general. In my view, Berliner's book deserves a rightful place alongside previous classics of 1970s scholarship like Bruce Schulman' The Seventies and Thomas Hine's The Great Funk. As a work of film criticism it is a welcome corrective to the excesses of theory found in other film studies. More constructively, it is a good application of the "cognitive neo-formalism" of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. It succeeds in applying the ideas humanely, staying lose to the films in discussion, and being faithful to art as having a value more than that of mere utility.

Hollywood Incoherent, Todd Berliner, University Of Texas Press, 2010

Monday, December 6, 2010

Brief Propositions on Qualities and the Subjective/Objective Distinction

Inspired above all by an all too brief conversational encounter, with one of the most brilliant minds I have had the good fortune to encounter, I am moved to set down some brief and explicit propositions on what is objective and subjective about taste in things and culture.

As Mark Edmundson remarks in his glorious - and notorious - piece in Harper's Magazine in 1997, "On The Uses Of A Liberal Education," a course at Columbia University used to ask the following two questions to its students of literature.

One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?

Looked at in the form of this question, some things in life are objective, they are in fact so good - so meaningful and valuable and so on - that resistance to these things, in this case books, are subjective failures to grasp objective value. I heartily endorse the question and cannot believe it would or should be seen as tyrannical or elitist, if we were to ask it of students today. At the very least we would get some deep self reflection, at least among those students with enough humility, or lack of entitlement, to approach the question with honesty. Of course I still leave open the question and possibility that such a pedagogy may well be problematic, (perhaps for reasons of psychology), though I do admire it in these lines.

Thus my first proposition is that some things have objective value and that this value is intrinsic. Moreover this value is finite and unevenly distributed. Appraising and evaluating such value is a matter of entering into the text at hand with at least a partially open mind, heart, perhaps even soul and spirit, while we are at it.

This first proposition is complicated by my second proposition. This is the doctrine of pluralism, whereby the differences in kind between one value and another, and, in the case of the arts, one style and another, can be so great that we are left with no Archimedean vantage point from which to choose among them, thus left to what would seem to be taste, mood, personal proclivity, inborn temperament, learned experience. In a word, subjectivity.

A lot of complications and tensions in life are a negotiation between the first two propositions.

My third proposition is that works of art have two dimensions, many times in conflict with one another, (but not always in conflict).
One dimension is immediate pleasure, or structural entertainment. That is, a quality of supporting, aiding, and reinforcing certain likes that are universal among the world's peoples. These would include things like jokes, interest in and sympathy for other people's stories and motivations, both triumphs and pleasures, pain and woes. Certain delight in this regard is formal pleasure, an excitement at watching a couple dance or love one another in representation, an excitement at reading for a plot that is suspenseful, and an attraction to art that is manipulative of our capacities for fears, longing, or shared passions. Much music, dance, and certain visual arts operate purely at this level. There are many gradations of quality in what, for lack of a better word, I call entertainment. Some entertainments are most excellent, so excellent, in fact, that they incorporate my second dimension.

This second dimension is that art can be a form of knowledge, much as physics is or other non artistic fields are. (Ray Carney and John Dewey have written about this second dimension rather well. It is borrowed from them.) In undergoing this form of knowledge we undergo an experience that will always hurt a bit (since being knowledge, there is some effort involved that is not chiefly pleasurable. Though for those with higher than average curiosity this experiencing of knowledge can itself be pleasurable in an entertaining sense. It is to this second aspect of "art as a form of knowledge" that Columbia University's question to the students was addressed.

Fourth proposition: since art can be a form of knowledge, ignorance of this knowledge is tantamount to real objective losses for those who express ignorance or resistance to works containing that knowledge. When many young people today tell me, much to my astonishment and dismay, that they dislike Emily Dickinson and prefer a more contemporary or "relevant" poem, they are actually robbing themselves of wisdom. The reason for this is that works of art are most particular. The line and meter and rhyme is set precisely in this way and not another, and the meaning cannot be found in the summary or plot of it. There are actual bits of knowledge contained in a Dickinson poem that cannot be gleamed in any other poem, however close the ideas might be to Dickinson's poetry. Moreover, they cannot be gotten in any other way than in her particular lines, stanzas, and overall formal strategies.

To not read Dickinson on grounds of personal taste, while understandable because humans do not always have the taste that would lead them to pursue things of higher than average value, is to exercise a mistaken reason. Whether on grounds of individual choice, individual sovereignty, or even cultural identity or priority, that failure to read Dickinson is to miss the greatest opportunity for undergoing rather specific kinds of knowledge. Nobody else can quite do the same thing for you, not even another poet - when we consider at least only those things which only Dickinson possesses. (This is not to claim that Dickinson is the greatest poet, but rather to claim that for the things she and only she does well you will profit from them. If you want something more nakedly erotic or frank with edgy attitude you can read Frederick Seidel. Seidel's qualities are important qualities too, but they are also perhaps overvalued at this particular historical moment.)

Since works containing the knowledge can only be gleamed from undergoing the experience of the works in question and cannot be fully comprehended in any translated or summarized form, (say in the form of propositional points taken from the work), works containing such knowledge are essential since the specific styles and choices of the work are what make such knowledge possible.

All the following leads to my fifth and final proposition. This is that quality in art has at the very least an objective component. It was created and exists in the world for others to see or read it. And by experiencing its effects one can gain or grow from it, not unlike physical exercise for the body. This quality of knowledge can be akin to a spiritual value, irreplaceable and integral.

These five propositions might culminate in QED.

But we have a confusion over the word taste. In one meaning it is a descriptive term for what somebody is liable to like or dislike. In another meaning it is a moral term indicating that certain tastes are at the very least more worthy of pursuit than others. We say that there is objectively good and bad taste, on the one hand, and on the other, talk of a plurality of tastes, my taste as opposed to someone else's taste, and how "it is all good".

Moreover there is always a subjective dimension to reality. This subjectivity is not all of reality as certain New Age mystics and Idealists claim. Neither is it unreal and this subjectivity does always, already influence the reality we share.

This sense of there being something or someone on the inside that feels, or experiences, or senses in a most special and irreducible way is one of the few things in life of which we can be sure, and yet, ironically is also one of the things to always be subject to perpetual incredulity, dismissal, and skepticism, especially among the scientific community.

I shall use myself as a particularly curious, if not peculiar example. I have written before on this blog about the domain of things that are above average. Things that I don't dislike and don't love yet I think have some merit. It is not common that I love something. I may have many likes but I really do reserve the sentiment of love for special things: for Tarkovsky and Antonioni movies, for Proust, for Fred Astaire, and for the late Freddie Hubbard.

Here is the trick to all of this talk of values and merit. Those names I mentioned are all objectively valuable, in part for reasons having to do with my five propositions. Yet there is a way of regarding them that is purely subjective. We may not unanimously love them or recognize them as supreme for purely subjective reasons, having to do with our personal sense of values and how we like to spend our time. The same is true, of course for our dislikes and our hates. We might hate something unworthy of our hatred, indeed, that we, like the examples of those who reject Emily Dickinson, hate to our own diminution. But we may well have no choice given our experiences, and how our brains are wired, and so on.

There is also the very real distinction between kinds of value. There is the irreducible value to simple pleasures, or what may be called craft or entertainment, as there is the irreducible value to spiritual growth and knowledge. The two may coincide, but not always.

It seems to me that it is only in setting down these matters in a clear form as I have here, can we being to have a fruitful discussion about these questions of quality. Above all, I hope to create better questions the next time around.