Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Advocatus Diaboli

It seems pretty clear that there are a number of intense struggles going on at present in the world, and this is happening in a variety of fields and locations. Obviously Europe is experiencing a massive migration of people from the Middle East and Africa and the consequences of that are likely to be--are already--dire, but their magnitude is still unclear. There is also a very long-standing conflict between what used to be called Oriental despotism and the Christian West, but both of those entities are a little different from what they used to be. There is yet another struggle, sometimes called a "culture war" going on in many Western nations, though perhaps most discussion and description of it centers on the United States.

All these conflicts inspire writings and, based on the fact that it dealt with music to a considerable extent, I just purchased a recent book on the culture war by Michael Walsh titled The Devil's Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. I was particularly won over as he took his title from a very early Schubert opera, Des Teufels Lustschloss, D84. Alas, the book is deeply disappointing. A lot of readers at Amazon gave it five stars just because he offered opinions they wanted to agree with, some others gave it one star because he offered opinions they wanted to disagree with, vehemently. My problem was that I noticed how poorly the book was organized and how weak the arguments were. If conservatives want to take back some ground lost in the culture wars, then they need to do a much better job than this.

Here are some of the problems with the book:

  • The argument is shockingly poorly constructed. Even though the book begins with a preface labeled: The Argument, it simply does not hold up as one. It begins plausibly enough with the coming to America of members of the Frankfurt school of cultural Marxists. Yes, they did achieve a lot of renown because of the aura of Continental intellectual sophistication that hung over them, but then he notes that they understood pop culture very poorly, so how was it that their Long March through the institutions was successful not only in the educational institutions, but also in popular media like film, books, music and television? Instead of taking up that question, the author simply jumps to some of the things he will talk about, such as Milton's poem Paradise Lost. Yes, it is just that disjointed. This magpie-like looting of any cultural examples whatsoever is a chronic fault of the book as the author constantly tries to win us over by mentioning things we have heard of: Lascaux cave paintings! Chanson de Roland! Goethe's Faust! But he does this because, despite the fact that his heart is in the right place and he is on the right side of a lot of issues, he simply has no idea of how to construct an argument.
  • The devil, as always, is in the details. And one gets the sense that a life spend doing music journalism has not quite prepared the writer to deliver a book like this. It is worse than just getting details wrong, even musical ones (a singspiel is NOT a "song-cycle", it is an opera in German with spoken dialogue instead of recitative), it is that he does not know or understand the intellectual background or foundation of so many of the issues at hand. For example, in the same preface he says, "Art, as I will argue in these pages, is the gift from God, the sole true medium of truth." Setting aside the theology, of which I am not an expert, it is simply not the case that art is the sole "true medium of truth". That is awkwardly put and demonstrably false. For example, music without words, instrumental music, is simply incapable of presenting us with propositions of any kind. Therefore what it cannot be is either true or false. It simply is. But I doubt that the author has any sense of the philosophical literature on this question.
  • Perhaps the most annoying aspect for the reader is the willy-nilly jumping around that keeps you constantly off-balance. On the very next page, for example, the author jumps to a truly incomprehensible discussion of the speed of light, time travel and the Big Bang. Why? I have no idea as it has nothing to do with the argument, such as it is, either before or after the passage. The way to write a book is not to throw all the spaghetti at the wall over and over again.
  • There may be an argument here, or bits of one, at least, but it is confused and diluted by the constant digressions into irrelevancies (that the author does not realize are such) such as Joseph Campbell and the ur-Narrative, Aristotle on story-telling, Homer's Odyssey, critical theory and the 9/11 attacks. And that is just in a couple of pages. Reading this book makes your head swim because the author is constantly throwing something new at you without either connecting it to what came before or explaining its place in the argument. Lots of people "argue" like this because they have no training in constructing an argument, but it is dispiriting to read a whole book put together this way.
  • The real problem is that points made, opinions expressed and conclusions reached by these hopelessly inadequate methods are doubtful at best. You might have sound positions on a number of these issues but by the end of the book, be doubting all of them!
At least we know the devil did not inspire this book, because if he had it would have been much better written. The devil is seductive and shows us many glittering things. Not cobbled-together fragments like this one.


Let's try and find a suitable envoi for all this. Aha, I know. How about the overture to the Schubert opera, Das Teufels Lustschloss, D84:

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