Monthly Archives: April 2006

links for 2006-04-19

Exquisitely mean

Over at Crooked Timber there’s a fine foodfight going on in the comments to a posting on mean reviews. The bit that caught my eye was quoted from a Philip Larkin hatchet job on jazz modernists:

For sheer mean-spirited, grossly unfair (not to say misguided) but nevertheless well-written and funny attacks on worthy targets, you can’t beat Philip Larkin’s criticism of modernist Jazz, especially his stuff on John Coltrane and Miles Davis. He thought Coltrane was “possessed continually by an almost Scandinavian unloveliness.” For example, here he is reviewing A Love Supreme:

It is of course absurd to suggest he can’t play his instrument: the rapidity of his fingering alone dispels that notion. It would be juster to question whether he knows what to do with it now that he can play it. His solos seem to me to bear the same relation to proper jazz solos as those drawings of running dogs, showing their legs in all positions so that they appear to have about fifty of them, have to real drawings. Once, they are amusing and even instructive. But the whole point of drawing is choosing the right line, not drawing fifty alternatives. Again, Coltrane’s choice and treatment of themes is hypnotic, repetitive, monotonous: he will rock backwards and forwards between two chords for five minutes, or pull a tune to pieces like someone subtracting petals from a flower. Apart from the periodic lashing of himself into a frenzy, it is hard to attach any particular emotional importance to his work.

And on Miles Davis:

He had several manners: the dead muzzled slow stuff, the sour yelping fast stuff, and the sonorous theatrical arranged stuff, and I disliked them all.

But it’s really worthwhile to look through the argybargy in the comments…

On progress

Two quotations presaging the Kuhnian, from Crooked Timber (and repeated here to save the mouseclicks, but see the comments on the two posts):

Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories. They are habits, predispositions, deeply engrained attitudes of aversion and preference. Moreover, the conviction persists – though history shows it to be a hallucination – that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternativesthat the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them.
John Dewey, “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy” (1909).

In a philosophical view, consistency is a certain level at all times, maintained in all the thoughts of one’s mind. But, since nature is nearly all hill and dale, how can one keep naturally advancing in knowledge without submitting to the natural inequalities in the progress? Advance into knowledge is just like advance upon the grand Erie canal, where, from the character of the country, change of level is inevitable; you are locked up and locked down with perpetual inconsistencies, and yet all the time you get on; while the dullest part of the whole route is what the boatmen call the ‘long level’ – a consistently-flat surface of sixty miles through stagnant swamps.”
Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man (1857).