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Archive for May, 2002

A Mystery Needful Of Solution

Posted by acdtest on May 15, 2002

A Mystery Needful Of Solution

efore writing (manufacturing would be a more accurate term) my own, I never read a murder mystery all the way through. No need to. Got whodunit by page 50 or so. No point reading further. Or so I’ve elsewhere said on this weblog. Well, it’s not exactly true that I never read a murder mystery all the way through, but it’s an often-made-by-me slip, the reason for which will become clear by the time this little piece reaches its close.

Quite some years ago I was involved in a catastrophic motorcycle accident that left me bed-bound for almost a year. In an effort to ease my forced confinement, my then father-in-law brought a gift: The Doubleday edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Although I managed a smile of gratitude as I accepted the unexpected present, it crossed my mind that in buying me that collection of stories the not-so-old man had suffered a premature Senior Moment. A copyeditor for the New York Times, he and I had discussed literature often, and he was well aware of my distaste for, and contemptuous dismissal of, genre fiction in all its forms, yet here he was presenting me with two volumes worth of the stuff. Perhaps, I thought, it was a joke of some sort I hadn’t quite yet caught on to, or perhaps he’d not had merely a premature Senior Moment, but had gone stone-cold barking mad.

I wisely decided to defer immediate judgment on the matter. As I was a virtual prisoner with nowhere to go and nothing but time on my hands, what could it hurt to at least give the things a read, or a try at a read, as the case might be. Time enough later for a final decision on the question of my father-in-law’s mental competency.

So, beginning at the beginning, I turned to the opening novella-length story, A Study in Scarlet, and began to read.

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.

What odd but curiously pleasant syntax was the thought that crossed my mind, and the thought passed, I continued to read.

Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as assistant surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.

Just the names seemed to bristle with an exotic energy, and encouraged, I read on…for the next two days straight with almost no sleep, during which time I read all sixty stories — all 1300 pages of them — and then went back to start reading them all over again.

I wasn’t sure at just what point I’d become hooked, and even less sure of what it was that hooked me, but hooked I was, and the mystery of how that came about is for me today still a greater mystery than any Holmes and Watson ever undertook to unravel; one that even after all these years remains elusive of fully satisfactory solution.

One thing was certain, and for me still a source of some wonderment: These stories are surely not litraschur. Heart of Darkness is litraschur. The Dead is litraschur. The Half-skinned Steer is litraschur. But The Adventure of the Speckled Band, or even the almost-novel The Hound of the Baskervilles? No way. Not, at any rate, outside the halls of academe with its postmodern lit courses in which novels such as Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and Spiderman comic books are considered litraschur.

But there I was — and here I am. Hooked on…on…works of detective fiction(!). Genre fiction(!!). Prole-pandering-barely-worth-the-paper-they’re-printed-on pulp fiction(!!!).


So, how to explain it. I mean, it really does need some sort of explanation or other. But as I’ve said, I can’t explain it in any fully satisfactory way. Yes, it’s true Conan Doyle makes astonishingly real his two central characters and the milieu in which they lived and worked — so real that one finds oneself needing to ferret out, when they’re not explicitly given (and just to be certain, even when they are), the exact dates and physical locations of the stories’ action. One just feels a burning need to know that. And, yes, the stories chronicle a friendship rare today, and perhaps rare at any time. And, yes, the era of Holmes and Watson is wonderfully intimate, warmly romantic, and altogether appealing, especially to 21st-century Americans. And, yes, the totally self-reliant character of Holmes is individualistic and nobly aristocratic (nobly, that is, if one has escaped being contaminated by things postmodern and PC), and his consummate skill in, and dedication to, his profession superhuman even if somewhat unbelievable, all of which is laudable, inspiring and exciting of admiration. The Holmes-Watson canon is all these things. But that still doesn’t provide the explanation looked for, although it’s surely part of it.

The best I can muster as explanation — and I’m fully cognizant my best is thoroughly inadequate — is that the Holmes-Watson stories, even though technically detective fiction, each have the quality of being a chapter of a great and heroic if urbane saga; tales told orally around a pre-literate communal campfire which tell of a time when a man’s individual actions had comprehensible, direct and immediate effect on his environment and those populating it, without mediation, mitigation or intensification by technologies the workings of which are comprehensible only to experts; a time when one could “learn at a glance to distinguish the history of [a] man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs”; a time when “by a man’s fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs…a man’s calling is plainly revealed.”

Such a time is long past, and we know we’ll never again see its like. We feel a quiet sorrow at that, and mourn its passing, but know there’s nothing for it. We find, however, we can be granted a meaningful measure of solace and pleasure by a well-told saga of its days of glory, which is the Holmes-Watson canon. And that, I think, is the secret of the power of these stories, and an at least partial explanation for why a literary elitist such as myself senses something magic about them, and can find himself hooked by that magic. And, for me, that lifts them above, and makes them different from, all other members of their genre in my experience.

As I said, thoroughly inadequate, but the best I can muster.


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A Terrible Thing To Waste

Posted by acdtest on May 10, 2002

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

t’s always a cause for dismay when someone with an otherwise clearly brilliant mind utters in earnest the most patent sort of rubbish, and a cause for dismay as well as extreme distress when that rubbish reveals that mind working in the same mode as that of an ignorant redneck, or a desperate, politically correct academic in search of something startling to come up with that will gain him the attention and approbation of his colleagues.

Daniel Leeson — former IBM executive, professional classical musician, and one of the world’s acknowledged scholarly authorities on all things Mozartian — in answer to a question posed to him on one of the Mozart lists concerning the blaming of Richard Wagner for the evils of the Third Reich, had this to say on the subject of Wagner’s operas:

I am afraid that you may not be aware of the issues involved. No one is blaming Wagner for anything (except perhaps his maniacal attitude on the subject [of race]). The issue is not one of blame but one of content of at least six or more of his operas where his attitudes became part and parcel of the plot and are woven into the warp and woof of the opera.

Of the Ring, three of the four operas contain specific and repulsive antisemitic [sic] content, as does Parsifal and, to a much lesser degree, the Flying Dutchman. The most unnerving of his operas is, for me, Meistersinger[!], which contains vicious medieval slanders in almost every scene, though before I became aware of the subtleties of the stage action and plot line, it was one of my favorite works, one that I always enjoyed playing because it is a magnificent musical statement.

I am not blaming Wagner for the actions of 1939-1945. I am blaming him for placing his disgusting racist ideas into the very fabric of his operas. And it is for these reasons that I neither play Wagner, listen to him, or go to any performances that contain his music.

To a great extent I feel the same way about Ezra Pound, except that he was mentally unstable and his repulsive writings may be understood and excused for that. Wagner was not unstable, he was simply a monster, though I would not be in this position solely for that. Anyone can think what they wish. But his art contains his personal hatreds and that I cannot tolerate.

He then went on to detail in a separate post the “vicious medieval slanders [against Jews] in almost every scene of Die Meistersinger [!].”

Leeson’s position on this matter is, unhappily, not unique, nor is his grossly in-error thinking concerning Wagner’s “racist anti-Semitism.” The same sort of tendentious, delusional thinking can be found today in a majority of academia’s humanities departments, and in the works of such writers as Robert Gutman, a Wagner biographer and the fons et origo of this sort of Wagner-slander; Marc Weiner; Barry Millington; and in the lunatic ravings of the hate-besotted Paul Lawrence Rose and Joachim Köhler, which ravings in their poisonous expressions of hatred for Wagner and all things Wagnerian must surely be without modern parallel in a scholarly work. While the charge that Wagner was an anti-Semite is indisputable, the charge that he was a racist anti-Semite is insupportable. Those two evils marched side by side, arms inseparably linked, in the Third Reich, but not within Wagner’s thinking. His anti-Semitism was principally cultural, not racial. That surely makes it no less contemptible, but one ought to be more — lots more — careful with one’s taxonomy in a matter such as this.

But to return to the business of Leeson’s remarks concerning Die Meistersinger specifically, let me attempt to put the matter in proper perspective by approaching it from a different direction (the approach would be valid for all Wagner’s operas).

It seems to me the very first question that needs asking is: Even if, as Leeson alleges, such racist anti-Semitic coding exists in Die Meistersinger, does it in any way vitiate or intrude upon the artwork itself?

Answer: Clearly it does not, is virtually invisible, as Leeson himself unwittingly all but admits (“…though before I became aware of the subtleties of the stage action and plot line [of Die Meistersinger], it was one of my favorite works, one that I always enjoyed playing because it is a magnificent musical statement”).

It’s also clear that those “subtleties” of which Leeson slowly became aware would never have been perceived by him as racist anti-Semitic coding had he not worked backwards from his knowledge of Wagner’s notorious and justified reputation as a rabid anti-Semite (but not, as I’ve noted, a racist anti-Semite; a distinction clearly lost on Leeson), and his knowledge of Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitic prose writings (most repulsively prominent in Wagner’s twice-published article, Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music)). If some other composer had written Meistersinger using the very same text the entire imbecile “coding” business would never have been so much as even imagined — not by Leeson, not by even the fevered brain of the most desperate PC academic.

Well, I don’t want to belabor this, and so I’ll not go into certain other problematic points of this coding theory (such as, but not by any means limited to, So what, if such coding really did exist). At bottom, Leeson’s and certain others’ “analysis” of the alleged racist anti-Semitic coding in Die Meistersinger adds up to nothing more than a manifest and classic case of the obscenity being in the mind of the beholder not the work beheld, which work is itself entirely blameless. The proof is that it required the assiduous “researches” of a small band of Wagner-hating zealots to “discover” the nefarious and pernicious “coding,” and this after almost a century and a half of the opera’s constant public exposure, prior to which time the supposed evil coding was not even so much as suspected. The bottom-line question then becomes: If such coding really does exist, for whom, and for what purpose, was it originally intended?

If a satisfactory and verifiably correct answer to that question is ever found, then we can all put some faith in this theory of racist anti-Semitic coding in Wagner’s operas. Until such time it can only be looked upon as nothing other than the lunatic imaginings of zealous professional Wagner-slanderers, and therefore safely dismissed as the arrant rubbish it clearly is.

worthwhile reading (discovered after the fact, and with thanks to Derrick Everett for the heads-up)

Posted in Cultural Commentary | Comments Off on A Terrible Thing To Waste