The function of the intellectual in Western society has long been to deny the obvious and assert the outlandish. After all, there’s no point in being an intellectual if it’s only to say what everyone knows already.
As the schoolgirl puts it in George Bernard Shaw’s early, and very bad, novel, “The Unsocial Socialist,” “Shakespeare, silly old fool expects credit for saying what everyone knows.”
Shaw was an early example of the breed of celebrity intellectual who gained notoriety by inverting received wisdom and saying things that seemed outlandish at the time.
Of course, received wisdom is often wrong and needs overturning, but it needs overturning because it is wrong and not because it is received. There are, unfortunately, an infinite number of ways to be wrong, which gives ample scope for us to be wrong even when opposing error.
There is much that is ugly in the world and if destroyed would be no loss to it, but iconoclasts seldom pay any attention to it: They would hardly be noticed if they did, and since to be noticed is at least one of the objects of their iconoclasm, there would be no point in doing so. Instead, they smash what is beautiful or at least better than average.
One of their motives is to bring everything down to their own level. They feel that anything that is above them, beyond their ability to create or even appreciate, is an insult to them or at least a wound to their self-conceit (otherwise known as self-esteem).
Are we not all created equal? If you prick us, do we not bleed, if you tickle us do we not laugh? How, then, can you say that one thing is better than another?
‘Exclusion and Elitism’
A friend brought to my attention a passage about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the Vox website. It ran as follows:
“Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony starts with an anguished opening theme and ends with a glorious, major-key melody. Since its 1808 premier, audiences have interpreted that progression from struggle to victory as a metaphor for Beethoven’s personal resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness.
“Or rather, that’s long been the popular read among those in power, especially the wealthy white men who embraced Beethoven have turned his symphony into a symbol of their superiority and importance. For some in other groups—women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color—Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.”
An entire book could be written about the assumptions behind this passage, all of them foolish at best, most of them in bad faith and some of them malign.
Take just the last word first: elitism. This word is to the radical egalitarian (egalitarian in theory, that is, never in practice) what blood is to the bloodhound. But everyone in the modern world believes in elitism.
Everyone wants to be operated on—if operated on at all—by the best surgeon, who is a member of an elite among an elite. Every trainer of a sports team chooses the best players he can. Professional sportsmen are an elite, and no one finds this in the least morally problematic. To choose players on grounds other than their ability would seem to us bizarre.
It is true, of course, that classical music appeals more to the educated and the prosperous than to the uneducated and the poor. But this isn’t the same as saying it is socially exclusive. When I was a poor student, for example, living in conditions that would now be deemed “unacceptable,” I went to scores of concerts, taking the cheapest seats or finding those that were free.
Social exclusivity and elitism aren’t the same thing at all. In London, for example, the National Gallery is free of charge to all who want to enter, but it is a fair bet that those who do enter are predominantly in the upper half of the socio-economic and educational scale. This isn’t a matter just of class solidarity, but of knowledge and refinement of taste. No one stands at the door to keep the hoi polloi out.
The passage I have quoted assumes that musical purpose can be translated straightforwardly into propositional language: for example, that in his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven was trying to demonstrate his triumph over adversity.
But if that was all, or even a major part of, what he was trying to do, he might just as well have written, “I’m not going to let this get me down,” and left it at that. But it is obvious that a listener could be moved by Beethoven’s symphony without knowing anything whatever of his life.
When I hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I don’t think of my superiority and importance, quite the reverse, I am reminded of my littleness, and I doubt that anybody other than a pathological narcissist would react in any other way. I am reminded of what Bertrand Russell said when he heard Mozart: “When I hear Mozart, I feel such a worm.”
He doesn’t mean by this that he hates Mozart and would like to expunge him from the repertoire because he is humiliated by him. On the contrary, he acknowledges Mozart’s greatness and is grateful for it. Here is one of the most glorious accomplishments of mankind.
I don’t know whether some women, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color interpret or react to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the way alleged, and rather doubt that any proper survey on the question has been performed (that is, if surveys can ever truthfully reflect the state of people’s feelings).
The number of women musicians and attenders of concerts suggests that at the very least many women don’t interpret or react to the symphony in the way alleged, and the same is true of homosexuals. But even if some women, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color do share these feelings, there is no reason to give them any special attention just because they are women, LGBTQ+ people, or people of color.
They may just be common-or-garden variety philistines, who use their demographic features as a smokescreen for their laziness, bad judgment, and fear of what is greater than themselves.
The article in Vox was titled “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music.” It wasn’t Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: it was people who are obsessed with class, race, and sexual orientation.
Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.