March 9, 2008


At the forest’s edge (Anthony Daniels, March 2008, New Criterion)

In his essay, The Empire of the Ugly, the great Belgian Sinologist and literary essayist Simon Leys recounts the story of how, writing one day in a café, a small incident gave him an insight into the real nature of philistinism.

A radio was playing in the background, a mixture of banal and miscellaneous chatter and equally banal popular music. No one in the café paid any attention to this stream of tepid drivel until suddenly, unexpectedly and inexplicably, the first bars of Mozart’s clarinet quintet were played. “Mozart,” Leys says, “took possession of our little space with a serene authority, transforming the café into an antechamber of Paradise.”

The other people in the café, who until then were chatting, playing cards, or reading the newspaper, were not deaf to the radio after all. The music silenced them, they looked at each other, disconcerted. “Their disarray lasted only a few seconds: to the relief of all, one of them stood up, changed the radio station and re-established the flow of noise that was more familiar and comforting, which everyone could then properly ignore.”

Here is the conclusion that Leys draws:

At that moment, I was struck by an obvious fact that has never left me since: that the real philistines are not those people incapable of recognizing beauty—they recognize it only too well, with a flair as infallible as that of the subtlest aesthete, but only to pounce on it and smother it before it can take root in their universal empire of ugliness.

Thus philistinism is a positive, and not merely a negative, force: something that Leys was well-placed to recognize, having been almost alone among western Sinologists in pointing out the militant and vicious philistinism of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2008 7:40 PM

I fear Mr. Leys, whom I have long admired, has misunderstood the event.

The café had been "furnished" with standard radio music and blab, and that was what many of the patrons were used to as background noise. No doubt Mozart was an improvement for Leys, and even objectively (and rationally) "better." I'd prefer it myself. Still, it's wrong to condemn the patrons for wanting it switched back. It changed the atmosphere, being a higher quality sound that demanded more attention and ceased to be the background sound they expected.

Imagine a ballpark or picnic where hot dogs were snatched out of everyone's hands and replaced with better food, say healthy gourmet salads of baby organic vegetables in a nice vinaigrette. Even people who might appreciate the salad at another time might well want their hot dog back, and that doesn't make them philistines.

Or more to the point: no one doubts that the Parthenon is finer architecture than Leys' café. If the café had suddenly changed into the Parthenon, would only philistines want it switched back?

Posted by: PapayaSF at March 10, 2008 12:34 AM

No, I must go along with the thrust of the Leys observation. I have found that fine music is actually painful to the vulgar and disordered. They recoil from it, like Dracula from a crucifix.

Perhaps they perceive it as a reproach to their our disorder and rebellion, or there may be a racial or ethnic component to their ressentment, or they might feel envy and hostility toward whoever may dare to play fine music within their hearing. It may be any of these causes, or a combination of all of them.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 10, 2008 4:23 AM

Great music is spiritual, be it blues or Bach, and convicts the soul of spiritual illiteracy. Truly great music lacks the regularity that numbs the soul like "vulgar" music. (Perfect word, Lou.)

2Ch 23:13 And she looked, and, behold, the king stood at his pillar at the entering in, and the princes and the trumpets by the king: and all the people of the land rejoiced, and sounded with trumpets, also the singers with instruments of musick, and such as taught to sing praise. Then Athaliah rent her clothes, and said, Treason, Treason.

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 10, 2008 5:51 AM

You never heard Robert Merrill sing the Anthem at Yankee Stadium? Even the louts put down their beers..

Posted by: oj at March 10, 2008 6:14 AM

I suspect the 'philistines' are afraid. It doesn't seem that they embrace ugliness for its own sake (although pride may drive them to do that, like most moderns and post-moderns). They just can't allow themselves to consider anything different. It's too daunting.

Remember the 'ugly' dwarves in the final book of Narnia ("The Last Battle")? They were eating a gourmet meal, but they tasted only straw and mud. They could not acknowledge what the children saw so clearly. And because they could not 'see' Aslan, they could not taste the meal.

I used to play Sibelius in my dorm room at Penn State - I got a few puzzled looks, a couple of beatific looks, and a lot of razzing. Of course, these were typically guys who thought only of T&A, and could not appreciate a woman in any deeper way (which is its own version of philistinism).

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 10, 2008 12:57 PM