In case there’s anybody who cares (though I have no idea why you would) there is not a single matter of life on which I take a position that is anything resembling conservative, and and only a reactionary could mistaken me for one. This much has been true for me ever since I was an adolescent animal rights protestor who found himself defending all sorts of people he never wanted to defend, merely because God forbid the world should be viewed as something more complex than we, the forces of light and virtue, doing battle with they, the army of darkness who will triumph over us all if I occasionally eat a piece of pizza with unsynthetic cheese on it. Over and over again, I find myself feeling sorry for people I never wanted to feel any sympathy for, merely because the people on my side who trash them seem so stupid, so tonedeaf to the nature of problems, so unwilling to consider a point of view from any side but their own, that there’s no mystery as to why the world’s in bad shape: most of the people who believe the right things are just as dumb as the people who believe the wrong ones. What matters is that you come to conclusion through actual thought, and you entertain the thought that the people who believe differently from you might be right. So if not always approving of every radical solution to a probem is a conservative position, then fine, I’ll be a conservative. If not always trying to preserve every old institution makes me a socialist, then fine, I’m a socialist. But let’s not pretend that there is anything worth living for in a world where there is only one right answer to every question.
Over the course of thirty years, one meets many of these morons, and some of them are quite brilliant. Idiocy can take many possible forms, and just as people can be right and wrong at the same time, people can be utterly moronic simultaneously to being incredibly intelligent. No one has a greater capacity for self-deception than smart people, and no one finds it harder to resist simplistic explanations for a world too complex to understand. Dumb people might be taken in by religion, but smart people are the ones who lead the religions.
Your book, From Dawn to Decadence, gets most things utterly wrong; yet it is, beyond doubt, one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. An 800 page history of culture in the last 500 years and its decline, impeccably researched, spectacularly written, air-tightly organized, and thoroughly wise. You trace cultural developments from the Renaissance to the end of the twentieth century in a matter which shows that culture – that dirty word of our time – has been thoroughly exhausted, and can be traced from the romantic spring of the Rennaissance to the authoritarian black comedy (still a happy ending because it ultimately spread the reach of culture) of the Baroque to the bright comedy of neo-classicism, to the tragic crisis of faith in culture which befell Romanticism, to the decadent ironies of modernism. It is so erudite, so utterly well-supported in its arguments that I find it difficult to disagree with any of your conclusions. And yet your conclusions are thoroughly wrong, and I know it even as I read them. You go out of your way to praise writers like Montaigne, Bagehot, and William James whom you feel represent a ‘double vision’ that can get inside the heads of those whom they disagree with so that they might understand different conclusions. Yet you seem completely oblivious to the fact that you thoroughly lack this double vision yourself.
Like all attempts to interpret history, you reduce the unknowable course of human events to a series of biases that can’t help but be spectacularly wrong. Yet you realize that it does not alleviate you, or us, of the burden of the attempt. We either study our origins, and accept that we can only have a bad understanding of the past, or we forget the past and we doom ourselves to a future of ignorance. In the perfect society that can never exist, people like you are the loyal opposition – always present to remind us of what worked in the past even if you are incapable of looking toward the future. Woe betide the country lead by a person (there are many) like you; still living, and turning 105 this year, yet the world seems to have stopped around the time of your birth. The great achievements of twentieth century culture: modernism, cinema, popular music, graphic novels, Keynesian economics, international law, linguistic developments, have completely passed you by, and you dismiss it all with a simple wave of you hand. You only concede that a single 20th century intellectual, Jose Ortega y Gasset (never read’em) has an understanding of the world equal to the greats of the past. You are the very epitome of the brilliant idiot.
It does not occur to you that the chaos that is modern civilization existed in every possible antiquity – with corrosive social degeneration that is forever in conflict with progress and humanism. In every age, there are great humanist artists like Chekhov, Mozart, and Jean Renoir, and there are great (by some people’s definition) anti-humanists like Dante, Wagner, and Stanley Kubrick. Sometimes degeneration wins, sometimes progress does – and we have no way of being certain which side of any issue is progress and which is regression. All we have is unverifiable speculation and opinions – and we do the best we can to make our lives as good as we can. Great historians like are particularly susceptible to the idea that your field have a unified theory; whether it’s the conservative theories Spengler and Niall Ferguson, or the socialist theories of Eric Hobsbawm and Tony Judt.
Like you, when I see how people in our time, in my own generation, have so little regard for the great achievements of the past; who’ve never listened to the entirety of Beethoven’s Fifth, or seen a Breughel drawing, or are bored by Shakespeare, and it fills me with more than sadness; it fills me with disgust. Every time I see people watch Jersey Shore, or dance to Lady Gaga, it makes me wretch. I have no problem with their existence (I even once danced to a long stream of Lady Gaga songs at a wedding. My friends were a little too impressed....), only with their omnipresence. You can't escape either, and it's the sort of groupthink that makes a person somehow 'weird' if they don't want to listen/watch either or hundreds of other pop culture memes that are forgotten nearly as quickly as they become a craze. I don’t want to live in a world without entertainment, but there have to be periods in history when people were more interested in the sublime, the transcendent, the aesthetic bliss only borne of long study, than this one. I think of all the idiots who got a much better higher education than me without learning to appreciate a single thing that’s truly beautiful about the world, and it makes me want to throw something through a window, it really does (Y’all idiots use reality TV and the Top 40 like a crackpipe). But a world like the one for which you wish, in which everyone can resist the urge to indulge in the lower pursuits sounds every bit as hollow, as puritanical, and as unenjoyable as I find our current one. We are the victims of our own success. We live in a world where people experience so much comfort that many of them do not do experience enough life to require Mahler or Chaucer or Werner Herzog or Tom Waits. When every desire in life is so instantly available, what need is there for art that requires thought? Perhaps this is a triumph, not a defeat. But I find people who don’t need ‘the good stuff’ to be incredibly dull.
One day, perhaps I’ll get into all the uncertainties which this book provoked in me. But provoking uncertainty is not the aim of a book like this, the aim is persuasion. We are meant to see the world in a different light – your light. I can’t imagine I’d ever concede that you’re right, yet there is that 5% of me that gnaws at the back of my head, telling me that possibly, just maybe, you understand the world better than I do. And that is what it means to really study our origins. Thank you for that.
I will have a comment upon this passage tomorrow. In the meantime, I cede the floor to Jacques Barzun.
Let Us End with a Prologue
"The careful historian, before he ventures to predict the course of history, murmurs to himself 'Schedel.' It is not a magic word, but the name of a learned German who, in 1493--note the date--compiled and published the Nuremberg Chronicle. It announced that the sixth of the seven ages of mankind was drawing to a close, and it included several blank pages for recording anything of interest that might still occur during the final days. As we know, what occurred was the opening of the New World and all innovations that followed from it--hardly a close. With this risk in mind, I mean to set down what appears to me possible, plausible, likely, as our own era reaches an end.
Some of the descriptive labels: Age of Uncertainty, Age of Science, Age of Nihlism, Age of Massacres, Age of the Masses Age of Globalism, Age of Dictatorships, Age of Design, Age of Defeat, Age of Communication, Age of the Common Man, Age of Cinema and Democracy, Age of the Child, Age of Anxiety, Age of Anger, Age of Absurd Expectations
"Some writers have called our time the end of the European age. True in one sense, the phrase is misleading in another: it overlooks the Europeanization of the globe. Techno-science and democracy are far from ruling everywhere, and in certain places they are fiercely opposed, but together they grip people's imagination and inflame their desires. The whole world wants, not freedom, but EMANCIPATION and enjoyment. And the West is the corner of the globe whose peoles, borrowing freely from all others, have shown the way of achieving the one and given the means of possessing the other. [A book to browse in is Pandemonium by Humphrey Jennings.] The shape and coloring of the next era is beyond anyone's power to define, if it were guessable it would not be new. But on the character of the interval between us and the real tomorrow, speculation is possible. Within the historian lives a confederate who is an incurable pattern-maker and willing to risk the penalties against fortune-telling.
"Let the transitional state be described int he past tense, like a chronicler looking back from the year 2300. As the wise ancient Disraeli remarked, 'We cannot be wrong, because we have studied the past and we are famous for discovering the future when it has taken place.'
"The population was divided roughly into two groups; they did not like the word classes. The first, less numerous, was made up of the men and women who possessed the virtually inborn ability to handle the products of techne and master the methods of physical science, especially mathematics--it was to them what Latin had been to the medieval clergy. This modern elite had the geometrical mind that singled them out for the life of research and engineering. The Lord Bacon had predicted that once the ways and biases of science were enthroned, this type of mind would be found relatively common. Dials, toggles, buzzers, gauges, icons on screens, light-emitting diodes, symbols and formulas to save time and thought--these were for this group of people the source of emotional satisfaction, the means of rule over others, the substance of shoptalk, the very joy and justification of life.
"The mind was shaped and the fancy filled by these intricacies as had been done in an earlier era by theology, poetry, and the fine arts. The New Man saw the world as a storehouse of items retrievable through a keyboard, and whoever added to the sum ws in high repute. He, and more and more often She, might be an inventor or a theorist, for the interest in hypotheses about the creation of the cosmos and the origin of life persisted, intensified, from the previous era. The sense of being close to a final formulation lasted for over 200 years.
"It is from this class--no, group--that the governors and heads of institutions were recruited. The parallel with the Middle Ages is plain--clerics in one case, cybernists in the other. The latter took pride in the fact that in ancient Greek cybernetes means helmsman, governor. It validated their position as rulers over the masses, which by then could neither read nor count. But these less capable citizens were by no means barbarians, yet any schooling would have been wasted on them; that had been proved in the late 20C(entury). Some now argue that the schooling was at fault, not the pupils; but when the teachers themselves declared children unteachable, the Deschooling Society movement rapidly converted everybody to its view.
"What saved the masses from brutishness was the survival (though in odd shapes) of a good deal of literature and history from the 500 years of western culture, mingled with a sizable infusion of the eastern. Some among the untutored group taught themselves to read, compiled digests, and by adapting great stories and diluting great ideas provided the common people with a culture over and above the televised fare. It was already well mixed and stirred by the 21C(entury). Public readings, recitals of new poems based on ancient ones, simple plays, and public debates about the eternal questions (which bored the upper class), furnished the minds and souls of the ordinary citizen. This composer of longings, images, and information resembles that which the medieval monks, poets, and troubadours fashioned out of the Greco-Roman heritage. Religious belief in the two ages alike varied from piety, deep or conventional, to mysticism.
"As for social organization, the people were automatically divided into interest groups by their residence and occupation, or again by some personal privilege granted for a social purpose. The nation no longer existed, superseded by regions, much smaller, but sensibly determined by economic instead of linguistic and historical unity. Their business affairs were in the hands of corporation executives whose view of their role resembled that of their medieval ancestors. Not the accumulation of territories but of companies and control over markets were their one aim in life, sanctified by efficiency. Their The pretext was rarely borne out but the game prospered and the character of the players followed another medieval prototype: constant nervousness punctuated by violent and arbitrary acts against persons and firms. Dismissals, resignations, wholesale firings of workers and staffs were daily events. There being no visible bloodshed, wounds and distress were veiled. The comprehensive welfare system, improved since its inception, repaired the damage. Its decisions being all made by computer on the basis of each citizen's set of identity numbers, there could be few terrible grievances. Those due to typing errors would be corrected--in time. There was thus no place for the citizen voter and the perpetual clash of opinions that had paralyzed representative governments.
"The goal of equality was not only preserved but the feeling of it enhanced. Faith in science excluded dissent on important matters; the method brings everyone to a single state of mind. On the workaday plain, the dictates of numerical studies guided the consumer and the parent, the old and the sick. The great era had ended--by coincidence, no doubt--as it had begun, with a new world disease, transmitted (also like the old) through sexual contact. But intense medical research in due course achieved cure and prevention, and the chief killer ailment was once more heart disease, most often linked to obesity. The control of nature apparently stops short of self-control. But Stat Life, ensured by the many specialized government agencies, inspired successful programs and propaganda in many domains of the secure society. The moral anarchy complained of in the early days of the Interim rather suddenly gave way to a strict policing of everybody by everybody else. In time it became less exacting, and although fraud, corruption, seuxal promiscuity, and tyranny at home or in the office did not disappear, these vices, having to be concealed, attracted only the bold and reckless. And even they agreed that the veil is a sign not of hypocrisy but of respect for human dignity.
"As for peace and war, the former was the distinguishing mark of the West from the rest of the world. The numerous regions of the Occident and America formed a loose confederation obeying rules from Brussels and Washington in concert; they were prosperous, law-abiding, overwhelming, in offensive weaponry, and they had decided to let outside peoples and their factions eliminate one another until exhaustion introduced peaceableness into their plans.
"After a time, estimated at a little over a century, the western mind was set upon by a blight: it was Boredom. The attack was so severe that the over-entertained people, led by a handful of restless men and women from the upper orders, demanded Reform and finally imposed it in the usual way, by repeating one idea. These radicals had begun to study the old neglected literary and photographic texts and maintained that they were the record of a fuller life. They urged looking with a fresh eye at the monuments still standing about; they reopened the collections of works or art that had long seemed so uniformly dull that nobody went near them. They distinguished styles and the different ages of their emergence--in short, they found a past and used it to create a new present. Fortunately, they were bad imitators (except for a few pedants), and their twisted view of their sources laid the foundation of our nascent--or perhaps one should say, renascent--culture. It has resurrected enthusiasm in the young and talented, who keep exclaiming what a joy it is to be alive."
Always driven, always in the bite of
the blast --
Was the burden of life ever bitterer
Has harsher yoke pressed on calloused
The plough of dark Destiny cut deeper
Were death and dread ever quite so
And yet we are here!
And yet we lifted our foreheads over
And yet our songs of thanks, our
prayers and paeans mounted,
When air and light stole through a rift
of the mouldy dungeon,
They found us bowed on the book, at
God's work, the workers!
Our hearts did not break though our
lot was austere,
And yet we are here!
Terrible Fate, you bring weeping and
the lust to kill,
All day you crouch in corners, threaten
All night you gnash your teeth and
lurk by our pallet.
When we sobbed, swore, implored, it
was you who spoke.
Only Hatred replied with savage jeer
And yet we are here!
Yes, yet we are here, and must remain,
Sucking at pain as at honeycombs.
The others go -- are allowed to! Our
Once shall bloom from a fertile wound.
Then we shall know why He suffered
Then, when the trumpet's holy Yes
We shall be here!
I finally read the end of Don Quixote on Saturday. Before we go any further, I should probably clarify that ‘reading the end’ is not the same as finishing. There’s probably an entire half of the book that I’ve not read even once, there are also chapters I’ve probably read half a dozen times. Such is the life of an ADHD reader, constantly dabbling in books before another comes along to steal your attention. Perhaps the reason movies and opera appeal to me more than other genres is that there’s a guaranteed beginning and ending that simply involves you sitting in your seat and paying attention to whatever you like at whatever pace other people set.
I’m an autodidact who only earned a college degree by enrolling in a tenth-rate music program, and I’m hardly a natural bookworm. The act of getting through long books involves a methodical efficiency which I’ve always lacked. I’ve started thousands of ‘important’ books, and probably finished a few hundred at most. If I live another fifty years, I’m sure I’ll finish most of them. But for someone who keeps a blog which bloviates endlessly about intellectual topics, this is a terrifying thing to admit – no matter how many times I admit it on here. There’s an old joke which says that C-students become artists, the A-students become their critics – a different version of it is A-students in Law School become academics, B-students become judges, C-students become rich. But what happens when a D-student still demands entrance into the field?...
What I’m describing is why Don Quixote (at least what I’ve read of it) is still funny, sometimes hilariously so. Most of us (arguably all) are hopelessly stuck longing for things which we are absolutely ill-suited – be it in work, love, or the general state of our lives. There will always jobs we long for that we could never do, loves for which we pine that could only end in disaster, lives we ache to live that are completely ill-suited to who we are. We’re all hopelessly trapped, trying to make things happen for ourselves that rarely happen for anyone, and would be cataclysmic if they ever did. Life is the longing to achieve a state of Schubert, and ending up in a state of John Tesh.
As a young man, Miguel de Cervantes may or may not have fled Castille to the Spanish navy after wounding another student in a duel. He was wounded in battle himself at the age of twenty four – he demanded to fight while experiencing a fever and was shot three times, twice in the chest and once in the left hand, permanently losing use of it. At thirty-eight, he was captured by pirates and was a slave in Algiers for the next five years. During his time in Algiers, he organized atttempts to escape four times, and we can only imagine how he was punished for that. He only left Algiers when his family successfully ransomed him. After a stint in Portugal as a Spanish spy, he returned to Madrid with dreams of being a dramatist. He wrote twenty plays, every one of which is reported to have bombed. He then became a tax collector, only to be jailed twice for discrepancies in his accounting. Legend has it that it was during his second stint in jail that he began work on Don Quixote.
We have no idea how much of Cervantes’s personal experience inspired the book, though many people have alleged that the criminal ‘mastermind’: Gines de Pasamonte who keeps fooling the Don and Sancho to be a stand in for Cervantes himself. What we do know is that a quick glance at the details of the author’s personal life would indicate that he was well prepared to write a story about a person who aspires to greatness, only to fail so miserably that he could only be a figure of fun to others. Whether or not we choose to admit it, we’re all either that person or are terrified of becoming him.
Whether or not Don Quixote was crazy by force or choice, he followed the inner voice which told him how life must be lived so that it can be truly lived – and he paid dearly for it. If this book has a message, it is not that we should cower in fear against our deepest aspirations; it’s only that we’re powerless against them. Whatever our reality, we’re doomed to pursue happiness in whatever way we see fit for however long we’re capable. Even with all evidence pointing to the fact that we will never accomplish our dreams, we’re still doomed to follow them. We shall persist in our lunacies until our dying days, and everybody will think us an idiot for our troubles.
Don Quixote has been called both a wise book and a cruel book – as though the former state could exist without the latter. The reason it is wise is that Don Quixote acknowledges that truth which too many hallowed works pieces of art would never admit; cruelty can be really, really funny. Every time we laugh at Don Quixote’s good nature getting swindled, and the following mayhem in which Sancho Panza gets still more teeth knocked out, we are complicit in the violence done to them. Does this mean that we’d all be capable of laughing if we saw similarly awful things happen to strangers (or even friends) in real life? Quite possibly. Does this mean that any of us would visit the same violence on people if given the chance? Again, it’s quite possible. Laughter is not a benevolent sentiment; if it don’t hurt, it ain’t funny. Every time we laugh at an offensive joke, every time we play a prank, every time we make fun of a friend, we’re contributing to the potential damage of another person. Yet we all do it – the alternative is no fun at all, and therefore we’re probably having our fun at a more ethical person’s expense. We can either be an infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing, or we can take our share in life from others so that they’re unable to take it from us. Anyone who has ever experienced depression or addiction, even if only for a few days, would know that there is nothing a person in the throes of it would not do in order to stop it – yet it cannot be stopped. The self becomes divided by forces larger than our control, and we experience revulsion for our compulsions, even as we cannot help indulging them.
Like so many of us, Alonso Quixano became addicted to his pleasure – which was reading chivalric Romances. Was there true love in what these books made him feel, or was it simply infatuation? The romances told him of a world that exists with greater rewards, virtues, and excitements than anything that could exist for a shy retired gentleman of leisure like himself. Now fifty years old, his wits seem to atrophy, and he goes out into the world with the sole intent of being a knight-errant – playing at knightly adventure much as boys a tenth his age might pretend to be an action superhero. When kids do it, it’s supposed to indicate a healthy imagination, but when adults do it, it’s supposed to indicate insanity. Is Alonso Quixano insane?
If one can boil the power of a book so famous down to a single sentence, it would probably lie within the tension between what Don Quixote (as a standin for us all) would like the world to be against what the world really is. When Don Quixote sees a pretty farm wench, he transforms her in his mind into a princess. When he sees windmills with his eyes, he sees terrifying giants in his mind. When he sees monks accompanying a noble lady on a road, he believes them to be enchanters who have ensnared the lady – in the author's own time 'enchanters' would be equated automatically with paganism, ergo Men of God become Men of the Devil. In Don Quixote’s mind, every banal notion of what the world really is stood on its head so that the world can become a more exciting place in which the way by which a person can prove his virtue is simple.
And then there’s Sancho Panza, who is as stupid as Don Quixote is crazy. If Don Quixote is every dreamer who sees the world as something it’s not, then Sancho Panza is every hyper-realist who sees the world so close to what it truly is that he believes every single thing he’s told without thinking of whether or not it can be true. These two types need one another, there is a Quixote and a Sancho within every friendship, every partnership, every marriage, and every person. There always has to be a Quixote to tell us what the world is, and a Sancho to believe it.
Every person who’s ever made fun of another must often ask himself what it would be like to be that other person. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t feel the need to make fun of him. The reason Don Quixote is so funny is because we all dread being him – a person so out of touch with reality that we attract misery as magnets attract metal. Yet he’s so over the top in his grandiose aspirations that none of us can possibly be as awfully out of touch as he is. Yet we all fear that we’re far closer than we think we are – and how could it be any other way. We can either be mired in a Schubertian hopelessness, or we can aspire to something better. Perhaps such aspirations will make us feel more miserable in the long run, but we can’t help ourselves. The only alternative is to surrender to misery’s inevitability, and no person on earth would willingly do such a thing.
Just as one can make a comparison and say that Mozart is a better composer than Shakespeare is a writer, I can say with (not nearly) as much certainty that Cervantes was a better writer than Schubert was a composer. Schubert’s music, great as it is, seems like a dead end. Schubert’s music seems to accept the indignities of life as inevitable, and it feels as though he merely waits for death to carry him off. Cervantes may have lived a life of much misery, and he portrayed two characters who probably experienced more combined misery than any characters from ‘Great Literature’ short of a Dostoevsky novel. But both Cervantes and Don Quixote are testimony to the fact that there is a possibility that life, with all its bitter indignities and humiliations, is worth sticking around for until a ripe old age.
Cervantes also had more influence than Schubert on the history of the arts. Beethoven’s rough equivalent figure in literature – Christopher Marlowe – died when he was 29. In his absence, the idea that the author could be as important to a volume’s character and still portray characters of Shakespearean depth fell to Cervantes. Shakespeare and Cervantes lived their lives on calendars that were ten days apart, which created the illusion that they both died on the same day, April 23rd 1616, and together they make the twin poles of literature. Shakespeare, like Mozart, is virtually anonymous in his work – nobody could have much idea of either’s personality from their writing. But like Beethoven, Schubert, and Marlowe, Don Quixote is scrawled with the author’s commentary and force of personality on every page. In Shakespeare, like Mozart, the tragicomedy is in the characters. Mozart’s operas, like Shakespeare plays, teem with living, breathing characters. In Cervantes, like in Beethoven, the tragicomedy is in the author’s personality itself. Beethoven wrote one opera, Fidelio, which is more about ideals than characters. Cervantes’s novel has only two characters that matter, and the rest is simply carried along by the author’s grandiloquent personality. Shakespeare and Mozart seemed to draw characters out of thin air, but Cervantes and Beethoven couldn’t seem to create personalities outside of their own outsize ones, reflecting all their delusional aspirations. Who can doubt that when Don Quixote charged the Windmills, he was hearing the finale of Beethoven’s 5th in his head?
The early days of Facebook were much more fun. We didn’t feel coerced into giving our entire lives over to the public domain, and rather than fanpages, we simply made groups about whatever we wanted. It was much more fun, much more whimsical, and much less creepy.
I remember one group in particular that had a fun title: ‘Brahms Will Understand Me!’ - professing that even if your parents, teachers, and friends have no sympathy for your problems, you will one day talk to Brahms, pour your heart out, and Brahms will understand you with perfect sympathy … Who can deny, there are so many things about Brahms’s music that make its composer seem like an incredibly sympathetic person to other people’s emotions, but in Brahms’s personal life, he was anything but emotionally sensitive - forever taking glee in utter tactlessness. He once left a party by saying “If there is someone here whom I have not insulted, I apologize.”
Many of us need music with exactly the sort of compassionate sensitivity one finds in Brahms. Those of us who listen to classical music can find equal (some would say greater) doses of it from Bach, or perhaps also Handel and Beethoven in their more lyrical moments, occasionally even Mendelssohn, perhaps Chopin too, and Verdi, and Dvorak, and Elgar, and Vaughan Williams, and Copland, and etc. But that kind of spiritual understanding can just as easily be derived form The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, some might also say U2, or any Top 40 Country Song.... Some musicians simply have the power to make us feel less lonely. It’s one of the most (if not the single most) mysterious things which music does: it can describe to us our own emotional state in such an articulate way that we suddenly feel as though someone else has been through precisely what we’ve been, and therefore we do not travel upon our road alone. And after hearing it, our emotional states are transformed because we no longer feel the emotion which the music describes. The music, in this sense, plays us.
But I know of no musician, before or since, who plays us with more virtuosity than Franz Schubert. For me, Mozart and Beethoven will always be the very greatest composers because, in their different ways, they hold laughter and tears in such perfect balance. Beethoven, like Shakespeare, juxtaposes the two at every turn. Mozart, like Chekhov, creates a space where both are possible,and makes us do the juxtaposing for ourselves. But it is only for rare moments in artistic history that such ‘lifeness’ is possible, even the greatest composers can’t quite maintain that ‘sweet spot.’ Before Mozart was Haydn, and great as he is, Papa Haydn errs too much on the side of laughter. After Beethoven was Schubert, and fils Schubert errs on the side of tears.
Haydn is perhaps the greatest communal composer – pure dirty jokes and beer (it’s only with the accumulation of the centuries that this music seems refined – Haydn's spirit was pure Hungarian peasant). You want to listen to his music with an audience of strangers – secure in the knowledge that you’ll like each other more after you hear it. But you can’t listen to Schubert with anyone whom you don’t trust. Unlike many people, I don’t believe that Schubert either is the greatest composer who ever lived or the most talented, but I do think Schubert is the greatest composer to listen to alone – greater even than Bach or Brahms. There is a vulnerability and intimacy to his music that is not to be found in anywhere else in art. A nameless friend, once in crisis, heard me from the next room listening to Alfred Brendel play the slow movement of Schubert’s D960 Sonata and dissolved into helpless sobs. There is that now famous Arvo Part quote in which he declared in his broken English that Schubert’s pen was 50% ink, and 50% tears. Of what other composer can such a statement be said without making us think that this is the music of an unbearable narcissist?
The difference between Schubert and his predecessors is that Schubert thought nothing of writing the music reflecting his darkest thoughts – Beethoven also wrote music reflecting own emotions, and because he was perhaps the first to do so as a principle, it was an heroic achievement. Schubert took it for granted that he should confess his innermost thoughts to the page, and as such wrote music that sounded vulnerable to a point to which no other musician has ever arrived. Beethoven is made of rock, indestructible because he has struggled. Schubert is made of ether, and can blow away simply with a gust from the open window. Mozart and Beethoven will distance themselves from their darkest thoughts with humor and sweetness, not so with Schubert, who will follow his heart to wherever it leads him, regardless of how unpleasant.
But Schubert also differs from later composers in that there is nothing about his darkness which seems lachrymose or unearned. Who can listen to the opening of the Unfinished Symphony, the theme from the slow movement of Death and the Maiden, and so many songs from Winterreise and Schwanngesang without feeling as though you’re gazing into a spiritual black hole? Yet the black hole never sucks you in as it does with later composers. At Chopin’s worst, he’s like the teenager who thinks he’ll never fall in love again. There’s nothing wrong with Chopin that an old Playboy won’t fix, but Schubert sounds heartbroken from long experience, as though he knows that hope for love is truly lost. At Tchaikovsky’s worst, he’s like the couple who screams at each other at a bar, you want to tell him (them) to sober up and hail a cab. But whereas Tchaikovsky makes a scene, Schubert simply says ‘this is what’s happening to me’ as a good friend might subtly allude to the intractability of all his problems after dinner in a way that makes us both feel the sadness and regret that his life has to be this way. At Mahler’s worst, he makes us feel the weight and breadth of his spiritual anguish like that college professor whose every comment is TMI about his personal life. Schubert simply shrugs his shoulders and says ‘this sucks’ with an equanimity that tells you that he’s simply calling it as he sees it. And it’s Schubert’s equanimity which makes his tears all the more devastating, the moments of joyous respite more moving, and the moments of fun seem so genuinely earned – even if Schubert is less fun than either Mozart or Beethoven (let alone Haydn).
More even than Mozart, Schubert’s greatest music seems already bathed in the next world, and it sounds as though written by a composer who never reconciled himself to this one. There is something so fragile, so will o’wisp about Schubert’s music that it threatens to break apart. It was a terrible tragedy that Schubert did not live past 30, and we have every right to feel deprived of what he might have given had he lived merely as long as Mozart. But still more than Mozart, there is a sense that someone with Schubert’s temperament could not have lasted in our world any longer than he did.
Schubert was a manic depressive who could write eight songs in a single day yet could also go weeks without writing anything. For a few years, he isolated himself by living with his family and taking a job as a schoolmaster – a job for which he was completely ill suited. At no point in his life was he able to support himself without enormous assistance, and he relied on the generosity of family and friends for financial assistance. His sole consolations were the music he was able to produce, and the friends who appreciated his talent and did everything they could to sustain him for longer. Schubert may not have been well known to the Viennese public, but he was superbly appreciated by the people who knew him personally, and he wrote almost solely for them.
There seems to be a ‘movement’ to restructure the classical canon and put Schubert at the very top – in the last few years I’ve read/heard this suggestion from Clive James, Roger Scruton, and (the late) Peter Porter. No doubt, this is a much healthier attitude towards Schubert than the ‘pleasing tunesmith’ attitude which Germans had in the wake of Wagnerism. And there are some compelling arguments to be made that Schubert is the greatest: he excelled in as many genres as Beethoven and Mozart - including a few at which the two giants did not excel. Schubert has all the tragic force which Mozart seemed to lack, he is the equal of (perhaps superior to) any melodist, and his treatment of form was towering - albeit extremely unorthodox and much misunderstood. But for me, Schubert cannot be the greatest of all composers. He’s just too vulnerable.
Schubert’s music has a richer interior life than virtually any other music ever written, yet where is the exterior life? There is good humor in Schubert, but no humor. Schubert has tears, but no moving past them. Many people would say that invariant spiritual darkness of Winterreise is more true to life than the triumph of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It probably is for many people, but none of us wants to hear that we’re one of them unless we have to. Beethoven gives us hope that we can achieve something better. Where is that hope in Schubert? And even if that hope remains unfulfilled, can we learn to cope with that spiritual darkness? Are there things in Schubert’s black hole which make life worth living?
These are questions which Schubert did not live to answer. I have no idea if he could have. Perhaps Schubert took such bad care of himself that another illness could have just as easily carried him off, or perhaps the gift of this most poetic of composers would have burned out like Wordsworth or Whitman. Or perhaps he could have written all the great works Mozart died before writing. But it remains to be said, Schubert’s music lacks hope, it lacks curiosity about the wider world, it lacks the sense that even indignities are worth suffering, it lacks all those qualities which Cervantes has in abundance.
Let’s further imagine, that while Shakespeare died at 35, Christopher Marlowe lived well into his 56th year. Marlowe’s early plays were already noted for their violent appetites, their strongly political overtones, and their maximally dramatic rhetoric.The audience is seduced by Shakespeare’s language, they are assaulted by Marlowe’s.
But nothing could have prepared his public for what followed. After Marlowe escaped an assassination attempt from the English government disguised as a bar fight and a host of following attempts, he went into hiding until the death of Queen Elizabeth I and for the next decade worked upon a cycle of plays which dramatize all the political conflicts from the ascension of Henry VIII until his own day as they were happening - including a number of scenes that either called for or dramatized the execution and imprisonment of many famous courtiers of this period. Shakespeare’s Henry VI was a three-play cycle, whereas Marlowe’s Henry VIII was a cycle of six full plays - one for each wife. Marlowe followed this with a drama called Thomas Cramner which documents the regency council of the Boy King, Edward VI and another called ‘The Nine Days Queen’, about the nine day rule of Lady Jane Gray.
The women of Shakespeare are generally stale - virgins or whores and too rarely anything between. They pale in comparison to the vital gallery of women drawn by Kit Marlowe. Each wife of Henry VIII is a personage to the flesh in her own right, their solilioquies all but upstaging the perhaps bombastic theater-isms of Henry. But still more astounding is the eloquence of Lady Jane Grey, whom many feel is the greatest character in fiction next to Hamlet.
By 1603, the dust had sufficiently cleared that Marlowe was not only considered such a lionized institution that he could walk freely around London, but for the government to assault him would cause a revolt. It was in 1603 that he began his series of four plays plays on the reign of Elizabeth I. The first was technically the Tragedy of Bloody Mary. Many scholars consider it a step backward after the metaphysical profundities of Lady Jane Grey, in which Marlowe resorts to the sort of Grand Guignol bloodbath which made his name - some scholars even dispute its authorship. The only truly fleshed out character is Elizabeth, Mary’s rival and half-sister - whose soliloquies and Machiavellian manipulation rivals Iago’s in subtlety of thought. Bloody Mary ends with her imprisonment and Elizabeth’s coronation. Elizabeth would become a leading character in the four more plays about her long reign. The first is called Robert Dudley - a romance about the Queen’s suitors and her unconsummated relationship with the Earl of Leicester - ending with his death in 1588 and the Queen’s decision to be a lifelong virgin. The second is Mary, Queen of Scots, which is really about the Babbington plot, and contains the great scenes between Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham, which many feel sum up 2000 years of accumulated knowledge of statecraft with the highest possible drama. The third, called Sir Francis Drake, deals with the battles against the Spanish Armada and of course has Elizabeth’s famous speech to the troops transcribed word for word. The last play, Robert Cecil, is a scathing indictment of the second Lord Burghley’s deviousness with James I and his rivalry with Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex whom he forced into open rebellion.
It was after writing Robert Cecil in 1520 that Christopher Marlowe died - it was probably due to natural causes, but at the time many people suspected foul play. Many historians feel it largely due to Christopher Marlowe’s final play that King James I was overthrown and beheaded. He was replaced by a series of military, theocratic, and oligarchical dictatorships, culminating in William of Orange’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and a constitutional monarchy for England.
In such a scenario, Christopher Marlowe would be considered something like a prophet, the epochal artist of his time and standard bearer for all drama which followed him. But Christopher Marlowe was stabbed in a bar fight at the age of 29 in what may or may not have been a government assassination. It was Beethoven who lived to be 56. Temperamental men like Beethoven and Marlowe would not have the constitution to thrive in a more restrictive era like Elizabethan England when diplomacy and tact was paramount. In 1600, the world was ready for a Shakespeare, but not for a Marlowe.
Shakespeare and Mozart both thrived from working within the parameters of patronage. Mozart might have bristled at the Archbishop of Salzburg’s strictures and he might have been unable to obtain many Royal Commissions from Emperor Joseph II, but at least gainful employment kept him alive. Had Mozart not tried to make his own way as a (in some ways the first) freelance composer, he might have lived long enough to give us the tragedies we needed. But in the era of the French Revolution, no patron was willing to take on a talent as explosive and challenging as Mozart’s. Had Mozart lived another ten years, he’d have found himself worshipped as a living God.
Beethoven had the great fortune of taking flight after the French Revolution. The artist was expected to be Individual with a capital I, Explosive with a capital E. Much of the aristocracy had by then accepted that they did not have the natural right to consider themselves greater than common men, and looked to prove their merit by virtue of their taste and generosity. A composer like Beethoven, who as an artist considered himself to have the highest possible calling, was like manna from heaven for the new generation of Aristocrats. For perhaps the first time in recorded history, it was considered an honor and privilege to patronize artists, and to patronize Beethoven was perhaps the highest of all possible honors.
But Marlowe did not live in such democratic times. Most scholars think that he was not assassinated by the English Crown, but simply died in a knife fight (see Shakespeare in Love for the bare bones details). But there are many other scholars who believe that he was assassinated. There is much evidence to show that Marlowe was a government spy, and these scholars allege that Marlowe was assassinated because of allegations of heresy. Marlowe described himself as an ‘atheist,’ a belief so revolutionary in his time that few would believe him. He would be suspected by Protestants for being a Catholic, and by Catholics as for being Protestant. These scholars ultimately allege that Marlowe was assassinated by the Crown for holding Catholic sympathies, and therefore being liable to give sensitive information to Queen Elizabeth’s enemies.
There are many conspiracy theories about Christopher Marlowe (including that he is the author of Shakespeare’s plays), but a brief glance at the facts and speculations about Marlowe’s life makes one thing abundantly clear: Marlowe was firstly a man of commitments, action, and ideals; only secondly he was a man of the theater. In 29 years, he managed to gather more of a verifiable biography than Shakespeare did in 52. The ever cautious Shakespeare never wrote anything which resembled contemporary events too closely, whereas Marlowe wrote The Massacre at Paris, a play about a Catholic mass murder of Protestants which occurred when he was already eight years old.
Marlowe, like Beethoven, could not help living dangerously. Caution was not in his nature, and if he wasn’t assassinated by the English Crown, it’s highly possible he would have been eventually. There was something in the historical era in which he lived that could not hold his talent for long, and perhaps something in the genre itself with which he worked. The Renaissance was not a democratic era, it was an era of enlightened aristocrats who needed to be flattered in order to make them act benevolently. Marlowe was not a man for this era.
Mozart was not a cautious man. But nor was he particularly political. When he adapted the Beaumarchais original play, The Marriage of Figaro, for opera, he downplayed all the play’s dangerous political elements. The reason Figaro appealed to him was because its political controversy made it all but a guaranteed hit. The ‘offensive’ political monologues were replaced with arias in which characters comment upon sex, love, and human emotion. Beaumarchais’s Figaro plays are great plays (and still funny), but Mozart took his play to still a higher level by replacing any transient political commentary with commentary upon human nature; commentary as relevant today as it was in 1786. When he joined the Freemasons in 1790, it was probably more an effort to network with wealthy and progressive noblemen than it was any philosophical conviction.
But in flattering aristocrats and despots, Mozart was no more a man of his era than Marlowe was of his. But no Austrian aristocrat of Mozart’s time wanted entertainment of Mozart’s quality. Emperor Joseph was a very thrifty ruler who decreed that composers only write Comic Operas because Opera Seria (serious opera) was much more expensive. Perhaps the Hapsburg Monarchy survived the French Revolution’s onslaught by not living as lavishly as the Bourbons in France.
Mozart trained his entire childhood for the sole purpose of pleasing aristocracy, but the aristocracy which he was trained to please was gone by the time he was an adult. And by the time it was considered the acme of enlightenment to patronize a great artist, Mozart was dead.
Then again, perhaps the relative success of these four geniuses was determined by the genres in which they worked. Theater is, first and foremost, an expensive undertaking - requiring lots of money to secure a performance space, rehearse actors, and pay reliable technicians. For hundreds of years, theater companies could only survive with the patronage of aristocrats (arguably they still can’t). Music, on the other hand, is democratic to its very marrow. A good melody only requires ears to be understood. It transcends all boundaries of ethnicity, social class, and even language. Theater requires enlightened aristocrats, so perhaps it was a given that it finds its greatest flourish in the era of Gloriana. Music requires a passion to communicate with other people. All it takes to produce is a single voice or instrument and no further expense. So perhaps it was a given that the first flowering of modern democracy would coincide with the existence of the two most universally known and beloved composers. But the lives of these four epochal artists were textbook demonstrations of what it took to succeed and fail in their particular times and places. Shakespeare and Beethoven were temperamentally suited to reap the benefits of their eras, Mozart and Marlowe were not.
(Aktu and Melota: Surely the greatest of all Operatic Tragedies)
B1. The Birth of Tragedy
Imagine signing up for an autumn college course in the Golden Age of Literary Tragedy. The professor gives you some Marlowe and Fletcher plays, and then assigns you Paradise Lost, and by the time you finish with Milton’s epic poem it’s already Thanksgiving. The professor has time to cram in one play by Cornielle and one by Racine, and then you have to take the final. At the Professor’s last office hours, you gather up the courage to ask him, ’is this really the best which literary tragedy has to offer?’ And the wizened gray professor, ever the monologist after thirty-five years with tenure, immediately replies: ‘Yes. And to perfectly frank, I’ve studied literary tragedy for half a century and I’m still not sure whether I care if it disappears tomorrow. It’s completely over the top and the problems of its characters are completely unrelateable for people of our era. I like it the way I like a B-movie double feature’ (for the 1950’s are still this professor’s frame of reference) ‘if you don’t take pleasure in the kind of bombast and absurdities you can find in any B-movie, you’ll never find John Milton worth your time. Not even the most the beautiful passages of his writing can redeem the silliness of it all.”
“But aren’t there a lot of people who take his writing seriously?”
“There most certainly are. And when you meet them, run away. Very quickly. They would invade Poland if they had the chance.
“I’d actually like to get back to the test questions.”
“Y’know I’ve always had a theory. I don’t think it’s implausible to believe that had Shakespeare not died a few weeks before his thirty-sixth birthday, he might have completely revolutionized tragedy. You’ve probably heard the apocryphal l story about a Shakespeare dictating his unfinished revenge tragedy, “Hamlet”, to Ben Jonson while lying on his deathbed.
“Well surely you’ve heard the rumors that Ben Jonson poisoned Shakespeare...’
“I saw the movie about it.”
“Well, the fragment we have of Hamlet is tantalizing, but everybody agrees that the John Webster completion is a ridiculous mess: a band of players gets the king to melt down in front of the court, Ophelia goes insane just as Hamlet did an hour earlier, a fencing match with poisoned swords and everybody dying before a Norwegian invasion that barely registers because the play ends just as it happens.”
“It does sound pretty ridiculous.”
“Had Shakespeare lived to complete it, he’d have come up with a far more coherent ending.”
“I always kind of liked the ending of Hamlet.”
“Well the language is good enough that lots of scholars wonder if Shakespeare completed more of it than we have verified in his hand. Certainly, there are passages in the Webster completion that are better than anything in The Duchess of Malfi or The White Devil. It’s difficult to believe that Webster could write “To be, or not to be” or “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquies.”
“That reminds me, are we going to have to remember the dates of composition for the final?”
“If only Shakespeare had another ten years to write, he might have revised everything we ever knew about the possibilities of literary tragedy. Maybe all those later writers would write better in his wake.”
BII. Shakespeare or Mozart?
(not the music of a lightweight)
Obviously, Shakespeare did not die before his thirty-sixth birthday, Mozart did. But had Shakespeare died at that age, we’d be deprived of the string of great tragedies that immediately followed: of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macb*th, Anton and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Pericles Prince of Tyre, and Timon of Athens. The mature Shakespearean tragedies (and the Romances that followed) would have never materialized, and the single most important bedrock of our literary tradition would never exist.
It’s impossible to create an exact Shakespearean chronology, but some scholars allege that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night in 1599 - which perhaps means that it would have been the last work he completed had he died in early 1600. We would have all the Histories, but more importantly for this comparison, we’d The Taming of the Shrew and Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labours Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, and it’s quite possible that we’d have As You Like It and Twelfth Night. We’d have many examples of what Shakespeare could do with tragedy, but the backbone of Shakespeare’s achievement would be overwhelmingly comic.
In such a scenario, Shakespeare would probably be remembered as an incomparable talent. Many people would still contend that he was the very greatest writer of all time, but there would still be some mistrust of him. Surely the greatest of all writers should have written a more serious output. Whether one believed Shakespeare the greatest or third-greatest writer of all time, there would be a giant, gaping question mark whenever his name is mentioned as to what the Bard could have done with more time. People would regard Shakespeare as the greatest pleasure giver among writers, but his name could never invoke the gravitas of Dante or Dostoevsky. He would be regarded exactly as music lovers today regard Mozart.
Like the young Shakespeare, there are plenty of premonitions of a Mozartian tragic style to come. All one has to do is listen to the fortieth symphony, the twentieth and twenty-fourth piano concertos, the Requiem, the g-minor piano quartet and string quintet, the Masonic funeral music, the A-minor piano sonata, and the beginning of the Great Mass - to say nothing of more than a dozen famous operatic passages - to see that Mozart was more than up to the demands of tragedy.
But Mozart was simply more talented a composer than Shakespeare was a writer. Lest that comment seem like comparing apples and oranges, let’s look at the sheer diversity of achievement. Shakespeare wrote roughly 38 plays (of which we know), and depending on the person you ask: somewhere between a dozen and two dozen are considered indisputable masterpieces. He began writing the plays around the age of twenty-four, and wrote roughly two plays a year for a bit more than twenty years. That is an astonishing level of productivity. Mozart, on the other hand, wrote twenty-two operas, and ‘only’ somewhere between four and seven of them are considered masterpieces. Mozart, however, began writing operas at the age of eleven. From the time he was eleven onward, he also found the time to produce an opera nearly every year of his life until its end, he also wrote well more than forty symphonies (if one includes the unnumbered), twenty-two piano concertos (11 of which he produced over two years, each of which is considered a masterpiece), at least five violin concertos (six if you count the sinfonia concertante for violin and viola), four horn concertos, six other concertos for wind instruments, eighteen piano sonatas, roughly a dozen books of piano variations, seven sonatas for for two pianists to play together, sixteen violin sonatas (those are just the mature, completed ones), twenty-three string quartets \, six string quintets, more than a dozen masses etc. etc. etc.
Not all of this music is worth getting to know well, but let’s say that a mere third of this output was written at Mozart’s highest level. That is a stunning range of masterpieces. Against Shakespeare’s best dozen and a half plays (to pick an arbitary number) and the best of his 154 sonnets, Mozart produced roughly two hundred masterful works in every musical genre of his time in addition to inventing a few of his own. To find an equivalent, Shakespeare would have to produce masterpieces in every literary genre of his time, and then invent a few to produce more in. Had Mozart died like Shakespeare on his fifty-second birthday, he would have had sixteen more years to produce at this level. He might not only have created the definitive masterpieces of music, he might have also created the definitive masterpieces of theater.
To fancy a scenario in which Shakespeare ended his career with Twelfth Night draws an especially interesting parallel. There are enormous similarities between Twelfth Night and The Magic Flute. Not just between the characters (Monostatos and Malvolio could easily switch plays - unfortunately Monostatos seems racist but Malvolio displays just as much bigotry against Puritans). Both works are pitched almost perfectly between farce and elegy - mourning the stupidity of human beings while laughing at them all the same.
The similarities between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Marriage of Figaro, which are both complexly plotted farces in which people pursue their love for one another with intentions that are not entirely good, are also stunning. One could perhaps also draw parallels between Cosi fan Tutte and Much Ado About Nothing, or the character of Don Giovanni with Sir John Falstaff (give or take a few hundred pounds).
Granted, I can hear the thinking of anyone who’s read this far that Mozart only provided the music, and the genius of music has nothing to do with the plots of his operas. Well, if that’s what you were thinking, you’re both right and wrong: the plots of Mozart’s operas have no more to do with the quality of Mozart’s music than the plots of Shakespeare plays have to do with the quality of Shakespeare’s language. The point is that both provided a framework for stunning achievements. With the exception of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s plots were little more his own invention than Mozart’s. But both of them seemed inspired by the same tragicomic themes - themes that, to my thinking, make them more perfectly placed to capture life’s essence than nearly any other dramatists before or since.
The previous post was just a few of the many things you got wrong....in case anybody hasn’t figured it out yet, this list is deliberately provocative. You have neither an idea as what the world’s greatest art is, nor would you know how to determine it. Moreover, you’re pretty sure no one else does either. You just thought it would be fun to think of your own personal experiences and try to tally them up as a way of saying why The Marriage of Figaro means more to you than any other work of art save La Regle du Jeu. You’re fairly sure that no one else would know how to judge art properly either, you just want to say what works you tire of the least. And looking at this list, it’s clearly quite inadequate to the task. Just in the last two days, you’ve watched Simpsons episodes from both Season 4 and Season 5 which were simply not as good as you remember them (the Cape Feare episode was particularly disappointing next to the work of absolute genius you remember).
But a trip to Barnes and Noble around 5 this afternoon made you that much more considerate of works you missed. Among books, how could you miss My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk - never did you think that a fictional retelling of the 16th century transition of Turkish calligraphers to Western printmaking could be so affecting, or so funny. Because it’s technically a memoir, you left of Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness. But how could you leave off the book that perhaps moved you to as much laughter as and more tears than any other you’ve ever read (finished)? And how could you leave off Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? And you remember your beloved Stefan Zweig (oh how much less of a bore is he than Thomas Mann....) and you try mightily to square the circle and remember a truly comic moment in his books - but you just can’t do it...And for that matter, you wonder if you were too hard on Candide... but there just isn’t room for a misanthrope like Voltaire on a list that makes you want to get up every morning. But then you remember Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and with all it’s sprawl, is still the equal of any triumph in opera or music theater in the 20th century. It’s a masterpiece: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hurl. And even then, you still can’t cover everything great about West Side Story....
And then your mind turns to Graphic Novels. You’re extremely new to the Graphic Novel world. You’ve just met Will Eisner, and you’re slowly making your way through Alan Moore. You think about picking up a Frank Miller, but you worry that it’s simply too violent for your taste. You’ve really tried with Harvey Pekar, and while he has exactly the correct sensibility - he seems to utterly lack talent. From the little you’ve read of American Splendor, you have no idea why anyone would want to read this shit. But you picked up some Robert Crumb, and you’re baffled by the sheer vitality of the drawing. The book of Genesis may need an editor, but after six chapters you’re beginning to wonder if all it needs to get near the top of this list is an illustrator like Crumb.
But the truth is that you’ve barely made a dent in the ‘essential canon’ of graphic novels. You’re certainly impressed enough to read more, but very few things yet seem to be on the very highest level. Eisner is too intensely serious, Alan Moore even moreso - God only knows what you’ll make of Frank Miller. But if there’s a single book you’ve read from the Graphic Novel canon that deserves to make it, surely it’s Maus. You’ve just reread it for the first time in fifteen years, and it’s every bit as absorbing as you remember. You wanted to do a whole post on it, but it turned into the ‘trivialializing the Holocaust’ post a week or two back. There was too much, and too little, to say about Maus except that the dysfunction of Holocaust survivors is surprisingly funny - you should know, you were babysat by two lovely ones for the first ten years of your life every Saturday night while your parents went out. Maus and Maus II are genuine masterpieces - as complimentary to one another as the two Godfather movies.
But when it comes to actual Comic Books, you haven’t even scratched the surface. You’ve never read a Marvel or DC comic in your life, and you probably wouldn’t know how to judge it if you did. It’s not your world. Perhaps one day it will be, but not yet...What you do know is newspaper comics, and you’re absolutely sure about the inclusion of two comics: Peanuts and especially Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin and Hobbes could easily have been listed in the top dozen - it is everything a great work of art should be : formally perfect, alternately funny and moving - sometimes simultaneously so - and about subjects as diverse as the stars in the sky. If Calvin and Hobbes did not contain artistic masterpieces in its output, then art has no meaning.
...no doubt there are still more you got wrong. But you can't keep going back to this....
So when you make an intentionally bad list of the greatest art ever made, obviously you need a lot of skill. There are all sorts of TV shows that belong on this list about which you’d forgotten completely: among sitcoms, where is Frasier, Louie, Taxi, Everybody Loves Raymond, How I Met Your Mother? Where are the Apatow TV comedies like Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared (neither of which you’ve seen)? Where are dramas like Breaking Bad (also not seen) or Big Love (seen every episode). None of these suggestions will break the hold of either early Simpsons or I, Claudius, but you realize that there are enormous TV problems with this list. For a self-professed charter member of the TV generation, you’re not entirely happy with where TV has led us. And besides, you have no idea how you could have believed that Season 4 of The Simpsons is the third-greatest work of art in World History when it’s plainly clear that Season 5 was better.
You’re equally miffed about putting The Canterbury Tales on this list. Do you remember how much you couldn’t stand certain parts of it - there were certain tales, not just Sir Thopas, that were written to be intentionally tedious. Even if you haven’t finished it , you’re quite certain that Eugene Onegin belongs on this list before Canterbury, much as you love The Miller’s Tale and The Wife of Bath and (in your perverse way) the Prioress’s Tale.
Among books, there are all sorts of regrets you have already. Saying that Tolstoy is lacking humor is a stunningly ignorant statement, even if the humor is usually quite dry. You wish you could find it in yourself to put down Jane Austen, since her little world contains precisely the balance of poignance and humor which you so claim to value, yet you’re bored stiff by Jane Austen and her trivial tales of women gossiping in drawing rooms. You wonder if other women like Willa Cather or Virginia Woolf, or even Katherine Mansfield (the last of whom you’ve never read a word of) belong on the list: My Antonia is a beautifully elegiac book - an absolutely gorgeous celebration of life on or off the prairie, but you can’t remembe a single comic moment in the whole thing. Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse might be laborious reads, but they are amazing, deeply felt considerations of the passing of time. They don’t belong on the top list, but they certainly bear mention.
The list of writers you never want to read again goes on for pages: it includes (but is hardly limited to) Dante, Milton, Goethe, Thomas Mann, Nietzsche, Proust (I’ll give him a few more chances), Alexander Pope, Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, TS Eliot, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson, the Rosettis, Faulkner, Whitman, Flaubert, Borges, Blake, Nabokov, and Dostoevsky. The sad part is, you probably will read many of them again, if only to be reminded of how bored you are. Reading ‘great literature’ is a sad process as you realize how much you have to actually read merely to earn the right to say you don’t like it.
Feeling as comfortable as you do with the classical canon, you realize that you’ve said all you need to say about it. But it’s ‘popular’ music on which you feel you’ve failed. Not so much on recent pop music as the ’old-timey’ stuff. How could any list of funny-poignant not include Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Flanders and Swann, or those comparative young’uns, Lieber & Stoller? How could you not think of Duke Ellington or the Gershwins?
You did a reasonably good job with theater, though you might have included Death of a Salesman or Mother Courage. You might have been a little hard on Beckett, who can ‘move’ if you’re in the right mood, in Endgame as well as Godot. Perhaps Angels in America belongs on this list too - certainly no other American play in our generation compares to it. Perhaps Look Back in Anger belongs there too - which people write off as a dated play but strikes you as something fit for a real revival. Were you too hard on Albee? You remember being on the verge of tears by the end of The Goat while you were living in London - and you can certainly understand how people might find Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to be a moving play, even if you think it’s meant purely as a piece of pretty delicious nastiness. Perhaps Thorton Wilder bore a mention too, certainly Our Town does, which is as great an American play as The Glass Menagerie or Angels in America. Again, does Noel Coward bare a mention here? You’re really not sure, and you don’t remember Private Lives well enough to say. And what about all those wonderful contemporary British playwrights who are simply too intelligent for mainstream Ameican success? Surely Democracy by Michael Frayn has to belong on any list, or The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Stoppard is too clever for his own good (though you did enjoy reading Coasts of Utopia and The Invention of Love - though you’d wonder if Stoppard has anything human to say about someone who isn’t a famous writer). And certainly there has to be at least one or two by August Wilson....OK, you did a horrible job with theater.
And then there’s visual art: which you left completely off the list. Der Koosh was right to complain, but how can a colorblind guy with shaky hands possibly judge a medium he’s incapable of participating in himself? Certainly there are many whom you’d like to put down, but for you, there is so much art that is too larger-than-life. You look at all those great Italian Rennaissance paintings and you’re undeniably impressed by them, but you feel like you have to suppress the urge to scream out ‘Yeah Baby!’ There must have been a time in history when those ostentatious displays of wealth were considered classy, but you’d have a hard time believing that any of these works are worth more than ten minutes every couple years in a gallery. More to your taste is the more human work that you can live with. As the Yiddish speaker you were raised to be, Isaac Bashevis Singer is your favorite writer, and Chagall is your favorite painter. But Chagall has something approaching a real sense of humor, not quite, but close. You find the understatement of Rembrandt and the overstatement of Goya a much more human response to painting than most anything in Rennaisance art, except maybe Michelangelo and Bernini - like George Costanza, you were always a secret architect at heart. You always wanted to live in a house like Monticello, without slaves of course (though it would be nice to have 200 unpaid workers). You certainly loved all those 19th century painters: Turner and Van Gogh, Munch and Delacroix once upon a time, but much of their work now strikes you as intensity for its own sake - get over yourself!..you want to scream.
But even if you don’t necessarily love either the Rennaisance or Romanticism, you retain a soft spot for the old Northern Europeans like Bosch and Breughel who have that darkly comic sensibility you like - yo’re not sure if they’re just over the top manic or if they mean it tongue in cheek, but you prefer to view it through the latter. In a completely different way, you’ve finally begun to warm to pre-and-post impressionists like Matisse, Manet, Cezanne (whom you always liked), Toulouse-Latrec, Degas and especially Renoir, whose work used to seem embarrassingly trivial, but now seems endearingly human. Other painters are engaged in an arms race for who can make the most larger-than-life scenes, but these are Renoir is only interested in what we humans can do.
These are just some of the many things you got wrong....no doubt you got some of these wrong too.
Let’s just say, for the moment, that you’re me. And whatever fine or less-than-fine qualities you possess, you are the kind of person who obsessively makes lists.
Not lists of groceries to pick up or things to do today - that would be entirely too practical and self-beneficial, and therefore repulses you. Instead, you make lists of your favorites: your favorite movies, favorite pieces of music, favorite books, favorite TV shows, favorite episodes of TV shows, favorite musical/literary passages. Eventually these lists extend to ranking your favorite friends, relatives, exes, unrequited loves. Then once you’ve exhausted these lists, you begin to subdivide them - judging works of art for their formal perfection, expressiveness, humor and pathos - all those other unbearably pretentious qualities which it takes to actually talk about art. Then, when you’ve gotten through art and sports (just baseball, in my case), you move onto your personal life. You start ranking friends for reliability, humor, and emotional supportiveness. Then you start ranking crushes and loves over the course of a third-of-a lifetime, requited and (more often) unrequited, for talent at banter, lack of neediness, and most particularly beauty - or call it ‘hotness’ if you feel like being honest with yourself. And if you’re feeling especially pretentious, you start moving onto lists of ‘bests’ - as though you’re capable of determining anything objectively but your own preferences.
The difference between bests and favoites is that favorites are personal, ‘bests’ are an attempt to make the personal into something universal. Ranking favorites is always loads of fun - you get to delve into the minutia of your experience and savor every detail of all the things you love. Determining ‘bests’ is an agonizing endeavor, something necessarily laborious and grandiose - in which you try to judge things by universal criteria than might have nothing to do with your own preferences.
Ergo, You’ve decided that from now on, you will dispense with the problems of determining bests by simply stating that your bests are your favorites. And since you start with art, let’s determine you favorite (ergo: the best) works of art.
You’ve going to dispense with most visual art. Not because you don’t love it, simply because you are an obscenely unskilled nearly colorblind visual person. You can barely remember the details of your own apartment, let alone the details of visual works of art. The exception to this is architecture, which you think you understand for two simple reasons:
1. It’s too big not to notice.
2. Because it’s bigger, there are far more fun details to take in than on a painting canvas.
You’re not a micromatician. You have a mind that loves macro complexities and gets bored far too easily with simplicities. You realize that the problem is yourself, and that you’re missing out on lots of beautiful things. But you can’t help your own preferences. For you, bigger is generally better.
But there’s a proviso in that previous statement. Bigger is better not because of the size but because of the variety. You don’t love largeness of it’s own sake, you love largeness because of the flexibility it provides. Within the giganticism of a Mahler Symphony or a Kieslowski film series is hundreds of startlingly intimate moments, the grandiosity is only there to puncture the intimacy and provide contrast that makes the intimate moments seem still more intimate. Granted, with the best artists, that can be done on any scale, but it’s simply easier to do when you work on the largest scale.
So when you begin to make this list, you realize that while you’re not fit to comment on most visual art, but you can pontificate to your heart’s delight about matters cinematic, literary and musical. You know movies, you know music, and you know books (or at least you know them as well as anyone else in your woefully illiterate generation).
Now what are the criteria by which you judge all those books, movies and music? How much you love them? Well, yes. But it also has to do with how much you’re impressed by them. There are some pieces of comedy like stretching from Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantegruel to Richard Pryor routines in which no matter how often you return to it, you’re forever bowled over by how funny it is - but the genuine pathos within them is in short supply. On the other hand, there are works like Verdi’s Otello and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure which strike you as so sad that you can almost not bear to return to it, yet you do, only to feel that exquisite sadness all over again.
But then there is that sweet spot between tragedy and comedy where life exists - it’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s hurtful, it’s compassionate, it’s exciting, it’s boring, and usually all at the same time. Art should be everything life is, except boring - and you’re not even sure that it shouldn’t be boring. You forget who said that art is ‘life without the boring parts.’ But that strikes you as the best possible definition of what art should do - as Hamlet said ‘hold the mirror up to nature.’
So what works of art have the best ‘lifeness’, and show us what it means to be born, go to work, have sex, eat food, fall in love, pursue hobbies, have children, use machines, get drunk, endure war, and watch ourselves be unkind to each other.
So you start with poetry, because like many intellectually engaged teenagers, you once fancied yourself a poet, and used to swallow it by the volume. Yet at this point in your life, you can barely remember a page of it. And then you realize all too quickly, of all those ‘great’ poets, there aren’t all that many whom you’d ever want to go back to read. Why? Because good poetry can be really boring for people over the age of 18. Most poetry is so inwardly focused, so narcissistic, so earnest, so ‘goyish,’ that it can barely come to life outside the realm of a prep school English class where you’re taught to believe that You are the Center of the Earth. Life is not nearly as serious as most poets want us to believe, yet the ones who allege that it’s silly have trouble alledging otherwise, and they’re not that funny (anybody who believes that Lewis Carrol or Edward Lear are funny needs to get out more). In your experience, most poetry is so ‘elevated’ that the give and take between the poles of moods which life’s fabric demands is utterly missing. When you tally up all the poems you’d really like to read again, you realize that it encompasses The Canterbury Tales, Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (though you’d have to finish them both first), maybe certain ones by Frost, William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson, some Phillip Larkin, a couple international poets like Brodsky, Milosz, Szymborska and Amichai, and yes: Billy Collins - the great American poet of our era.
Literary Fiction (we’re not even getting into Non-Fiction):
Far more indicative of ‘life’ as we know it is the novel and its subsidiary genres. But there are plenty of literary works you love that certainly don’t fit this definition. Is it too much to ask that a work of literature make you laugh out loud? Apparently it is, because very few novelists fit this definition. Fabulists like Kafka, Singer, and Saramago could never make it, you love their books, and they certainly have humor, but it’s far too dry. That dryness of humor also excludes books you love like A Bend in the River, Fathers and Sons, The Great Gatsby, everything by Kafka - they all have humor that can charm, but you can’t imagine that it makes anybody laugh. Then you have the writers who are simply lacking in humor: Milton, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Melville. Dostoevsky has humor, but his jokes are horrible. There are also those literary that works that have humor in abundance, but have a certain dryness of spirit - a misanthropic lack of compassion - which excludes them. On this list you’d have to put 18th century works you love like Candide and Gulliver’s Travels. You’d have to put Nabokov (of whom you’ve never been fond anyway), and Gogol (of whom you are very). You must add And there are a number of other novels you’d like to put somewhere on this list, but many of them - like Don Quixote or Middlemarch or Great Expectations or Huck Finn (no, I never finished it, and got into trouble in high school for it) - you haven’t even finished reading once. Were they really that boring? No they weren’t (maybe...), but like so many people of your generation, you found your concentration ebbing in spite of your best intentions. There was always another Simpsons episode to watch. But there are some novels, ones you’ve completed, that you’d certainly put on that list: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners, Animal Farm, perhaps Lincoln by Gore Vidal, or The Human Stain by Philip Roth, or Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera (yes, all three are that good) and maybe even some isolated fragments of Saul Bellow novels, though never a whole novel, the construction is far too loose (and is there anyone else my age who reads Saul Bellow?). And finally, one of your underrated, favorite writers for years: Bohumil Hrabal. You wonder if the fact that nobody’s heard of him is half the fun, but his books are so funny and so poignant that occasionally you wonder if he’s the only 20th century writer worth reading. Long as you’re making a literary list, you’d like to include the Book of Genesis too - though you wish it had a better editor. As sprinkling you could add some Chekhov short stories and perhaps some Maupassant too. And perhaps there are a few books which belong there which you’re aware are plainly beyond your intelligence, like As I Lay Dying, Remembrances of Things Past, and Ulysses.
You’d also like to put down some of your beloved classical music. But again, you run into similar problems. Bach, Schubert and Brahms are all too bathetic to compete for this (you may send complatins to email@example.com), Rossini and Haydn (his last two oratorios notwithstanding) almost exclusively comic, Stravinsky’s too in love with irony, and Wagner’s too in love with himself. If you wanted to make a list of the composers who can make you laugh and cry in equal measure, it would be a surprisingly short list: Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Janacek, Puccini, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Ives, Shostakovich, and Schnittke, arguably Handel, Ravel, Mussorgsky, and Britten belong on this list too, but we’ll leave them off because while you can see why others might find elements in their music to be laugh-out-loud comic, you don’t really. Richard Strauss usually keeps his humor and pathos seperate, except in one work - Der Rosenkavalier, which is both funny and moving. Puccini, ever the superb entertainer, always punctured his tragic operas with comic moments - but only in La Boheme does the comedy and tragedy move concurrently. Schnittke is possibly the funniest composer since Haydn, but his serious side isn’t moving so much as it is disturbing. Ives at his most serious is not so much moving as he is awesomely spiritual. Beethoven could absolutely be funny, but it was hardly ever in his symphonies, which were far too grand for that. In some ways, the most valuable works are the string quartets and especially the piano sonatas, where Beethoven could unbutton his vest and let out some humor in between all that profundity. Schumann was also at his best in his piano music, particularly the Carnival, is genuinely comic and also quite moving. Janacek also makes this list easily, The Cunning Little Vixen is one of the funniest and most moving operas ever written, and From the House of the Dead is barely less. Mahler can also be incredibly funny, nowhere moreso than in the Third Symphony, which is my candidate for the greatest ever written - somehow I always prefer his odd-numbered symphonies to his even (rather the opposite of Star Trek movies). His songs, particularly those Des Knaben Wunderhorn, could also easily reach the top of this list. But the two champions of putting pathos next to humor are Mozart and Shostakovich - both of whom wrote reams of music in which these two crucial qualities stand next to each other in perfect equipoise. Mozart wrote at least four operas which pitch them both perfectly, The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute - as close to perfect music as music can become, for over three hours each at a stretch. Even if Mozart hadn’t written hundreds of other wonderful pieces (including at least three amazing operas not on this list), this would be enough to guarantee him a spot near the very, very top of the list. Shostakovich’s humor, unlike Beethoven’s, is usually reserved for his grandest works. Working in the Soviet Union, his small scale works which he reserved for genuine seriousness. His symphonies are massive works, entertainments meant to captivate the Soviet masses. But they also manage to contain bitingly moving truths, a double-edged vision that is the absolute definition of what life is. For me, the best of them all is one of his most derided works. The Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, has been a critical bete noir from the day it was premiered. But it is both one of the funniest and most moving pieces of music I know: written during the Siege of Leningrad, it is a moving paean to human resilience almost unequalled in art’s entire history. And then there is the Ninth Symphony, the greatest of all Ninth Symphonies - precsely because it’s the opposite of the world-embracing profundities of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler nines. It is one giant a middle finger to Stalin and Hitler, it is music’s ultimate celebration of life. We’ve survived the great war, so screw Stalin, screw Hitler, screw Beethoven!
But this point, you have to be honest with yourself and say that words alone can be slightly limiting. Absolute music and words on the page cannot convey everything about the human spirit with the deadly accuracy of more dynamic genres. I love concert music, but for my own preferences (which are of course, ‘the best’) it simply can’t compete with the dynamism of a live performance that synthesizes many of the arts like opera. I love books, but they can’t compare with the excitement of theater and movies. There is simply more to which you can pay attention, more possibility for variety, less limitations. So opera will go on my top 5 or 10 list, nothing from concert music will. Complain if you like, it’s my list.
So to point up the greatest operas, and also for the hell of it - here is a list of the most entertaining operas, through which (in a great performance) no one could ever be bored (assembled in five mintes):
1. Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro
2. Mozart: Don Giovanni
3. Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen
4. Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte
5. Sondheim: Company
6. Verdi: Falstaff
7. Janacek: From the House of the Dead
8. Puccini: La Boheme
9. Wagner: Die Meistersinger (the only opera of his that seems written by a human being)
10. Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
11. Mozart: The Magic Flute
12. Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
13. Sondheim: Sunday in the Park with George
14. Ravel: L’Enfant et les Sortileges
15. Mozart: The Abduction from the Seraglio
16. Weill: The Threepenny Opera
17. Bizet: Carmen
18. Britten: Peter Grimes
19. Sondheim: A Little Night Music
20. Verdi: Otello
Honorable Mention - Monteverdi: L’Incorrazione di Poppea
Theater is simply more fun. There’s more interaction than in poetry, it’s more compact than a novel, and I think it’s frankly harder to put on a good show than to write a good book. Intelligent people know that if they want to achieve a singular vision, their best bet is to stick to books. In theater or movies, you have to convince other people (often stupid people) that your vision is better than theirs. How much more of a surprising achievement is it to see actors (generally not the smartest or the most stable people) be guided to act well than to see that an intelligent person can write well? For me, the greatest plays have all the inward focus of novels and poetry, but with a dynamism which no book can equal. But once again, we have to find the playwrights who have that equality of temperament that can both entertain and move audiences.
Strindberg, Ibsen, O’Neill and Albee are far too grim (though I love Albee’s sense of humor), Moliere, Oscar Wilde, and Shaw too frothy. The greatest art needs that melancholy wit. And for that quality, Greek Drama is absolutely out, we simply don’t understand it well enough to appreciate exactly how it was written to be appreciated. In order to appreciate the Greeks, it takes an absolute visionary of a director - and those are, as ever, in short supply. But even when we have it, it is painfully pompous theater larger-than-life but without the human quality that I need for this list.
The playwrights you have left are (of course) Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett, Tennessee Williams. Waiting for Godot is a great play, better than anything else you’ve seen of Beckett - and it really is funny, but it’s a strain to say that it’s ‘moving.’ Tennessee Williams at least wrote The Glass Menagerie, which you’d put on any list of the world’s greatest plays, but from there it was all downhill slope: every play of his is worse than the last (you call this The Mel Brooks rule).
Shakespeare is Shakespeare, writer of most of the world’s most moving and the funniest scenes in theater history. The problem with Shakespeare, if it is a problem, is that they were never particularly funny and sad at the same time. Shakespeare was a master of juxtaposing tragedy with comedy from scene to scene, but it’s rare that you get both at the same time. Still, there are at least a dozen Shakespeare plays that would vie for this list. None moreso, for me, than the works he wrote at the very beginning and very end of his career. Late Romances like The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale (exit Antigonus, pursued by a bear) have lots of real comic moments that stand out from some of the most moving moments in theater (Prospero’s last speech is a wonder, a perfectly fitting capstone to Shakespeare’s career, not that anyone should doubt that Shakespeare could have written one). But still more miraculous in some ways is what’s generally called the ‘Second Tetralogy’ of Histories, which have tragedy at its beginning with Richard II, the Falstaff comedy in the middle in the two parts of Henry IV, and ending in the blazing and bombastic triumph of Henry V. Some might call it the first novel, you might call it a model for a Beethoven symphony or string quartet.
But still more amazing to you are the final three Chekhov plays, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. In a great production (how few are they?) can skirt the line between comedy and tragedy so finely that you have no idea which you’re watching, except that you’re almost unbearably moved. Like Shakespeare, he seems to have an equally sympathetic ear for lower and upper-class characters. Unlike Shakespeare, he forces them to interact constantly. It’s difficult to say that Chekhov is a better playwright than Shakespeare, but sometimes you wonder.... And for the purposes of this list, he definitely is.
And then there is musical theater....you don’t hate musical theater, you just hate most things in it. Most of the time, music theater is a byword for inane singing and dancing, with very little desire to portray anything that isn’t adorable. Music theater takes all the greatness of opera, the dynamism and the inward expression, and boils it down to a playground for spoiled rich girls too narcissistic to be bothered with the stuff of what life really is (can you tell you’re bitter?). Even the best works of musical theater (which can be as powerful as anything in Chekhov or Shakespeare) can be ruined by people who want nothing more than to trivialize life into something stupid. What are those works usually ruined? Well, the list starts with Stephen Sondheim. Why Sondheim? Because he is the greatest dramatist of the 20th century (assuming that Chekhov is the 19th). Even Chekhov has to take a back seat to him - Chekhov only wrote 3 or 4 masterpieces (never seen or read The Seagull). Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics to Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, and Passion. Every one of them is funny, every one of them is moving. All of them belong in contention. There’s only one problem with Sondheim: he’s too in love with Upper-Middle Class angst. Are there enough truly lower class characters (not lower class characters in classily exotic places like 19th century London/Paris/Japan) in Sondheim to exceed your fingers? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much. It only matters because you’re talking about the ten greatest works of art.
More ‘popular’ forms of music should also come into question. For all the same reasons as absolute classical music, you’ll have to do without most jazz. But much of the best pop music is a kind of performance as well. But once again, there are people you have to discount. Bob Dylan is much too serious, Elvis is much too frivolous, Neil Young much too earnest, John Lee Hooker much too inwardly focused. Much as it pains you, most of the great soul artists like Otis Redding, James Brown, and Ray Charles have to be discounted beacuse there’s too little variety. On the other hand, there are artists like Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong who made truly amazing, diverse, funny/moving art. But most often, they didn’t write their own material (Cash and Armstrong were obviously quite a bit more responsible for it than Sinatra). Their shows were truly great art, but the art was as much their personalities as their skill.
But then there are The Beatles: Yes, they belong in the very top echelon. No, they weren’t objectively great musicians from a technical standpoint. No, it doesn’t matter, not at all. No, their studio work was not necessarily an improvement - too much hallucenagenic stuff by then. Yes, retiring helped keep them together for three years, and that gave us much more great music. For me, Rubber Soul will always be their best album, perhaps the only perfect album in existence (though Pet Sounds comes close). The White Album is the worst, simply because it keeps going and going and going and going. There are a number of others that could make the cut, but Revolver is ultimately the album which belongs in the company of Mozart and Chekhov - formal perfection, humor, pathos, and variety.
The truth remains that there are only two art forms of which you are positive you will never tire: Opera, and Movies - because they are an amalgam of all those artforms you love and even some that you don’t. They are the ultimate in variety and brilliance. And while you know that that’s an incredibly childish way of reasoning, you don’t claim to be smart, only that you pretend to be.
And since opera and the movies are you favorite things, they’re also the best. And what are the best examples of these best things: Just to name the ones you find from Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies list: Annie Hall, The Big Sleep, Bonnie and Clyde, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Casablanca, Chimes at Midnight, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, City Lights, Crimes and Misdemeanors, E.T., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fanny and Alexander, Five Easy Pieces, The 400 Blows, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas, Groundhog Day, The Last Picture Show, M, The Manchurian Candidate, Manhattan, Network, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Prairie Home Companion, Rear Window, The Right Stuff, Romeo and Juliet (Zefferelli), The Rules of the Game, Schindler’s List (it does have comic moments), The Third Man, Three Colors Trilogy (especially White), Tokyo Story, Vertigo, and The Wizard of Oz. To this you’d also like to add a list of other eccentric favorites which you think belong on any list of the greatest movies even if no-one else does: like American Graffiti, Back to the Future, Casino, Closely Observed Trains and I Served the King of England (movies from Hrabal books), F for Fake, Forrest Gump, Hannah and Her Sisters, His Girl Friday, The Lavender Hill Mob, Mullholland Dr., Ninotchka, Pleasantville, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Shadow of a Doubt, Shakespeare in Love, Slumdog Millionaire, To Be or Not To Be (the original), and The Cat Returns (very nearly the only Anime movie you can stand to watch twice). And making this list only reminds you of all the movies you still haven’t seen. The list of movies you have seen is overwhelmingly dominated by Hollywood, but you don’t care. You look at it, and the list seems like enormous fun to you.
But since there are so many movies which belong at the highest echelon, let’s be especially merciless and eliminate a few of these right away: some of these movies are simply too grim and misanthropic to be reach the exalted top of this list: Schindler’s List obviously, but also the Godfather movies, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Chinatown, Casino, Vertigo, The Third Man, M, The Manchurian Candidate, the Three Colors Trilogy, and Shadow of a Doubt, all have to go for precisely that reason. For the opposite reason: too light and bubbly - we have to eliminate quite a few: The Cat Returns, Raiders of the Lost Ark, His Girl Friday, Back to the Future, American Graffiti, Groundhog Day, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Big Sleep, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and City Lights (with some reservations about that last one). Then we can take out the movies which lack formal perfection: which deprives us of Chimes at Midnight, Ninotchka, To Be or Not To Be, Closely Watched Trains and I Served the King of England (sigh), Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Goodfellas, ET, Casablanca, Shakespeare in Love, and yes, Citizen Kane. Each of these movies is not as structurally sound as the very greatest movies should be - you can tell that different scenes were written or photographed by different people, that there are errors in plausibility, and that various scenes have much too little to do with one another.
This leaves us with Annie Hall, Bonnie and Clyde, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fanny and Alexander, Five Easy Pieces, The 400 Blows, The Last Picture Show, Manhattan, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pleasantville, A Prairie Home Companion, Rear Window, The Right Stuff, The Rules of the Game, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in Love, Tokyo Story, The Wizard of Oz, Forrest Gump, His Girl Friday, Mullholland Dr., and Slumdog Millionaire. Admittedly, this is an extraordinarily weird list of the greatest movies ever made, but it’s your list. Again, we can whittle it down by eliminating the overly frivolous and serious on this list. Annie Hall, Manhattan, Eternal Sunshine, Five Easy Pieces, A Prairie Home Companion (that one pains me), Shakespeare in Love, and His Girl Friday deal with issues that are ultimately a little too frivolous for the very greatest art. Of the remainders, I have to take off Forrest Gump and Pleasantville for being a bit too ‘Hollywood,’ and Romeo and Juliet for being a little too ‘stagey.’ Even if no intelligent person is supposed to include them on their ‘greatest’ lists, I love them both. Yet even I have to admit that there’s something a little to slick about their treatments of characters, plot and history. So we’re let with thirteen movies, a baker’s dozen ‘greatest’ of all time. You’ll cut through the bull and make your final, extremely eccentric list:
The Baker’s Dozen Dozen “Greatest” Movies of All Time:
1. The Rules of the Game
2. Fanny and Alexander
3. Tokyo Story
4. Rear Window
5. F for Fake
6. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
7. The Wizard of Oz
8. Mullholland Dr.
9. Bonnie and Clyde
10. The 400 Blows
11. Slumdog Millionaire
12. The Right Stuff
Honorable Mention: The Last Picture Show
You don’t have the time or the desire to say exactly how one ranks perfection against itself. So you’ll simply say: there it is, a list equally for fun and spiritual guidance through a lifetime.
Why The Movies Are Better Than Opera:
The Movies are ultimately better than opera, because whereas opera needs every type of analog artist, the movies requires just as many digital artists who can frame the results. The Movies are the greatest, most vital artform yet invented. TV is not quite as good (for reasons you’re about to get into) and nobody knows what will be made of video games in the 21st century.
And finally, we come to TV: teacher, mother, secret lover (that alone should tell you what’s next). TV, the machine that raised our children, might be an idiot box. But what an idiot box! Days, months, years of endless entertainment. Is it all interesting? Not particularly, but we’ll never know because we’re too busy watching TV.
Given how quickly TV’s prestige has snowballed in the last twenty years, it’s possible that in two hundred years, the idiot box might be considered the most prestigious, highest of all art forms. Perhaps there will be a ‘Great TV Shows’ curriculum which St. John’s/DeVry College teaches. The artform once condescended to as something only an idiot could love is now the most high-fallutin’ highbrow artform the world currently has. No contemporary literary work is held in as high esteem by so many intelligent people as The Sopranos or The Wire.
But here’s the problem: most recent TV is linear, not episodic. In the good old days before TV had ‘substance’ they could simply entertain, and if an episode was boring, they could drop that plotline and start over. Now that TV has linear plots, it is beholden to all the longeurs of novels. Everything it gains in weight, it also gains in fat. So very few shows can have that prolonged journey through the profundity/entertainment, funny/poignant manner of the greatest art.
The only show of which I’m sure had that sort of prolonged journey through it is The Simpsons. It helps that The Simpsons is the funniest show ever made, but it was also a moving consideration of people’s resentments, aspirations, hatreds, and loves for one another. Few if any works in any genre have ever been so articulate about so many different facets of life. But so much of The Simpsons’ humor is based on cultural references which will date very quickly, will anyone be able to watch The Simpsons in 50 years without footnotes? And will anyone want to watch anything after year 10?
Other shows had something approaching that journey through the humor/pathos region: among comedies, certainly Cheers did in the Sam/Diane years, so did Rosanne. Many people would say that All in the Family and MASH did as well, but the humor on those shows has so dated so quickly and clearly that it’s difficult to take any claim that they belong here seriously. But most comedies are incapable of quite the same broad view of humanity that either early Simpsons or early Cheers had. Any list of the funniest shows has to probably include Seinfeld, Larry Sanders, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, South Park, Curb Your Enthusiasm, the British Office and Arrested Development. But they were funny because they were, one and all, savagely misanthropic views of humanity. None of them belong on this list. The only television comedy which I think stayed on the humor/pathos axis for the entirety of its run was King of the Hill, but King of the Hill was a one joke show:
Bobby: Hey Dad!
Hank Hill: LLLLLLLLLLL? BOBBY!
It’s amazing that this joke never fails to be funny, but we can’t pretend that King of the HIll has the variety of the greatest pieces on this list.
Finding funny dramas is a little easier, but most of them also have the same dull spots which novels do. The Sopranos, The Wire, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Mad Men even Star Trek The Next Generation all have more hilariously funny moments than I’d ever be able to remember. But each of those shows could be variable in quality (The Sopranos and Mad Men less so) and don’t have the high quality of the very best.
In a completely different way, the BBC miniseries, I, Claudius was a fantastic example of the ability to entertain and movie simultaneously. For all the cheap production values, for all our distance from the events of Roman antiquity, I think it just might be the most consistently funny, moving, and rewarding TV show ever made. I’m convinced that anyone who watches it will feel similarly.
So here it is, because this is already thousands of words too long, and because this is your list: the top dozen greatest works of art ever made:
1. The Rules of the Game: dir. Jean Renoir
2. The Marriage of Figaro: by Mozart and Lorenzo DaPonte
3. The Simpsons: Season 4
4. The Cherry Orchard: by Anton Chekhov
5. Rubber Soul: by The Beatles & George Martin
6. I, Claudius: BBC Miniseries
7. Too Loud a Solitude: by Bohumil Hrabal
8. Fanny and Alexander: dir. Ingmar Bergman
9. Shostakovich: Symphony no. 9
10. Shakespeare: Second Tetralogy
11. Tokyo Story: dir. Yasujiro Ozu
12. The Canterbury Tales: by Geoffery Chaucher
Honorable Mention - Don Giovanni: by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart/Lorenzo Da Ponte