"You cannot expect the Form before the Idea, for they will come into being together."
— Arnold Schoenberg
LOUIS MENAND'S THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB and Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise make intellectual history into page-turners. Though different in subject matter — Menand writes on the founding generation of American pragmatist thought and Ross on the twentieth century as heard through classical music — the books are similar in their decades-wide sweep, their accessible recounting of two otherwise highly rarefied art forms (philosophy and composition), their fluency in high-level gossip and interest in personalities, their voracious curiosity about contexts, and their eventual acclaim (Menand won the Pulitzer Prize and Ross was a finalist). Both authors are New Yorker writers, the key "platform," as the insiders say, of the U.S. publishing industry, and are certified masters of that magazine's mode of using snappy prose to explore large themes spiked by human drama. Menand even supplies a blurb praising Ross's book for, in effect, being like his. Both books are stuffed with tasty material, a full meal, a near century between covers. They are as compendious-without-being-ponderous as a Google search. I have immensely enjoyed both books, recommended them, given them as gifts, and assigned them in class. Yet they both leave me wanting. They entertained me and informed me, but I wanted them to shake me.
The books are exemplars of a particular genre: the chronicle of a cultural theme-and-variations for a literate reading public. Genres, as film and literary scholars tell us, are not just ways to classify the style, look, sound, and feel of a work; they are also modes of production and ways of packaging audiences. Every genre works within a range of expectations, varying them enough to entice new viewers or readers. And every genre — lyric, epic, apocalypse, tragedy, chronicle — comes along with a ready-made politics and world-view.
The cultural chronicle, as practiced here, is largely happy to accommodate things as they are. Using conventional narrative forms, Menand and Ross tell the story of people who wanted to shatter all philosophical and musical forms. Not every message needs to match its medium, but in this case, the irony takes its toll. These two books are about two revolts against formalism, but neither revolution has the slightest impact on the form of the books themselves. At his most severe, Schoenberg, a central character in Ross's book, wanted to deprive the musical ear of what it most craved: the assurance of a tonal center. In similar ways, William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, central characters in Menand's book, sought to shatter the idea of a self-contained ego. But the tonal centers and personal packages of these two books are never in doubt. They build on preexisting historical frames; anchor ideas in biographies; and never let the radical subject matter yank readers out of their security or the books out of their social relations. Narr...