What I’ve been Reading in February 2021

Paul Morely, A Sound Mind – How I Fell in Love with Classical Music (and Decided to Rewrite its Entire History): I picked up this one because the premise seemed right up my alley: An aging rock/pop critic writes about his late-in-life exploration of the classical music canon. I’m here for any non-traditional approach to classical music, anything that scratches at the veneer of the classical-industrial complex. Unfortunately, I had to stop reading after 100 pages or so. The writing suffers from idiosyncrasies that may be fine for a review in the New Musical Express or Pitchfork but I cannot stomach 500 pages of it. Take this opening sentence for a chapter on the Classics for Pleasure label:

When I was growing up, deep in the last century, the sort of comfortably lo-falutin and soft, accessible music presently found at the top of the current classical charts tended to be readily available, mostly in Woolworth’s and WH Smith’s, on the friendly, budget-priced, slightly camp and tacky Music for Pleasure label.

Morley is stacking the adjectives and subordinate clauses which jerks me, the reader, forward – except we’re not really going anywhere. It’s more like pogo dancing in place, kind of fun and then exhausting. To be rather honest, I may have a particularly negative reaction to this because it reminds me of issues I’m battling in my own writing …

Beyond these stylistic quirks I was turned off by the incessant namechecking. On a single page in the chapter on Frank Zappa I counted 35 (!) references to other artists and bands, mostly rattled off without much context. I happen to get that “Joni” (in a list between “Janis” and “Lennon”) is Joni Mitchell but when I can’t place the names I’m alienated. Again, this may be typical in music criticism but in long-form non-fiction I want less riffing and more exposition. Here it opens a gulf between writer and reader that I feel betrays a perhaps unstated intention of the book: creating a supportive environments for others to find their personal key to classical music.

Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles: When Houellebecq drops a new novel it’s bound to be followed by controversy. I’ve been aware of his shit-stirring tendencies ever since this breakout novel came out in 1998, though I never cared enough to understand what the fuss is about. Well, now I do, or do I? This has certainly not put me in the mood for more Houellebecq.

The novel follows the lives of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, whose mother abandons them, preferring to ride a wave of sexual liberation from France to California and back – this is a sort of original sin in the story. Not that the fathers care much more about their sons. Bruno grows up in boarding schools and is stricken with a hyperactive libido that will derail his life many times. In stark contrast, Michel is essentially asexual and aromantic. He’s raised by his grandmother and becomes a molecular biologist, uncharismatic but devoted to science.

At times Bruno reveals shockingly misogynist, racist, homophobic and borderline pedophilic views. I suppose this is where controversy kicks in. I can’t shake the feeling that Houellebecq planted those sections as provocations calculated to generate PR for the book. The fragments of Bruno barely add up to a real character; he is also a teacher, boringly and solidly middle class, prone to launching into monologues on literature and sociology. Some of his rhetoric, supposedly borne out of sexual frustration, reminds me of incel manifestos. On the other hand, he gets married, fathers a son and is actually quite adept at picking up women (in the social minefield of nudist vacation colonies, no less) – so not really an incel. After one mental break too many he checks into a psychiatric institution for life where he finds contentment in medication that amounts to chemical castration. Is he just all the failings of late 20th century materialism rolled up into one person? It comes across rather as sloppy construction, and it would likely work fine without the provocations.

In the end, I don’t know what to make of Bruno. I can think of another character that thrives on shock value, American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman. His utterly disgusting violence in that book (seriously – I’ve never felt so ill reading anything else) at least has a function: it’s laced with a litany of brand names and marketing copy to taint those tokens of consumerism in the reader’s head. It’s quite a neat cognitive trick. Houellebecq seems to throw bombs just because, which brings him uncomfortably close to endorsing Bruno.

Michel takes on less of a profile until late in the book. There is a kind of sci-fi subplot woven into the novel that only fully plays out in the epilogue. Michel develops the foundation for a transhuman science and philosophy which directly leads to the replacement of mankind with a new race of clones, free from the agonies of love and sexual reproduction since they are all genetically identical and immortal. (I guess those are the two options for man’s redemption – this or the loony bin.) Michel’s arc strikes me as the more original one, and I might have enjoyed a short story based on that more than a whole novel constructed around it.

What I’ve been reading (January 2021)

Priya Satia: Time’s Monster – History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire: I’ve been living in London for almost a year now, and despite exposure to British culture throughout my whole live I don’t really get the UK. From my experience as an immigrant to and eventual citizen of the US I know that it takes years immersed in a foreign country until a deeper understanding of national character and contradictions and traumas starts to set in. Sure, we can all stereotype Americans as gun nuts, but what conditions shaped that nuttery? Unhelpfully, few natives are able to assume the disinterested perspective required to investigate such questions. Fish can’t tell you much about water.

Maybe it takes Priya Satia, an American-Indian historian, to fill in some of my gaps when it comes to British imperialism in particular. In Time’s Monster she examines British empire through those actors who saw themselves as keepers of history – historians mainly, but also administrators, poets, philosophers and the like. Picking up on the other keyword from the book’s title, a major theme is how they put forward different theories of history and progress over time to placate a national conscience in the face of the inherent ethical challenges of empire: conquest, subjugation, racism and so on.

I’ll come out and say that this was probably not the best choice for me. A history of the discipline of history itself necessarily adds a level of indirection that hurts accessibility. The writing is knotty at times, straining to bridge the chasm between conventions of academia and popular non-fiction. The density of argument and information on each page made it hard for me to absorb the material. Nevertheless, the book is dotted with jolting bits of analysis, such as this couplet:

The harsh reality of conquest, slavery, and industrialism was accompanied, indeed significantly driven by, the search for imaginative relief from the dehumanization they caused: the addictive magic of tobacco, opium, coffee, cocoa, sugar, and tea. In addition to the jinn, angels, goddesses, and shape-shifting creatures that remain with us culturally, binding us to earlier eras, the modern era produced new chimera: mythical concepts like nation, progress, and race.

I’m interested in British imperialism because I’ve been sensing that the UK is still harboring nostalgia and something like pride for its lost empire, perhaps uniquely so in Europe. I don’t get the impression there is a reckoning with even its recent world-historical fallout, like Partition in 1947 (the division of the Indian colony into an independent India and Pakistan – at least hundreds of thousands killed in the process). How come? Satia turns towards this question in the last chapter:

Still, the idea that [British imperialism] opened the floodgates of modernity and progress for all, despite some understandable growing pains and a few scandals here and there, remains seductive. And that is because without this idea, we would lose our sense of history itself. The stakes for remaining invested in some positive notion of empire are high.

I feel there may be more prosaic reasons as well, having to do with geography. The soil of the isle of Great Britain only ever saw the fruit of empire, never the violent labor. It’s so much easier to divorce history from reality here and now when history happened on the other side of the globe. Even more so since, as Satia points out, the UK doesn’t have a single museum dedicated to empire.

In 2019, a few months before I was to take the oath to become a US citizen, I took a field trip to Washington DC (where I’d never been) as part of a quest to better understand this new identity I was going to adopt. Right there in the center of power and memory, on the National Mall, sits the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

(It’s not America if an oversize pick-up isn’t ruining your shot)

The museum is a curatorial marvel that celebrates achievements of black culture in overground galleries and memorializes the atrocities of slavery in harrowing subterranean ones. To be absolutely clear, the US has a long way to go towards fixing racial injustice, towards accepting even the self-evident Black Lives Matter, but at least there is a loud discourse about the role of slavery and racism running through the media, politics and institutions. In contrast, the British appear mute about empire.

Further up the Mall in DC I also visited the National Museum of the American Indian. It’s an odd place, far less popular and far less vibrantly curated than its fresh black cousin. In a way, it reflects native peoples’ marginal status in the country today. With enough time, it turns out, bloody history fades from present consciousness even if it soaked this soil right here.