The Wages of Narrative

By John Durham PetersFebruary 1, 2012

The Wages of Narrative

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand
The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross

"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. Narrative pleasure comes from recognition of the familiar. Fun is conservative.

Take their canny use of acknowledged historical landmarks. Menand starts with the American Civil War as the great shattering event whose national pieces the pragmatists picked up, and ends around World War I with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s great decisions and dissents that helped put the First Amendment on its modern footing. Indeed, this story of America-barreling-into-modernity is a key part of American culture itself and has been told a hundred times before by novelists, painters, historians, filmmakers, and poets. Much of the pleasure of Menand's text comes from his knack for keeping the reader in suspense — amid charmingly digressive side trips to places such as Antietam, Dartmouth, Brazil, and Burlington and witty tales about wacky characters and notions — about how we will finally arrive at a destination that was never really in doubt, namely, modern, pluralist America. The Americanist point of view secures his materials narratively, though it neglects the messier but crucially important trans-Atlantic context for the birth of pragmatism. It also clues us to his politics, as does his category-bending inclusion of Holmes alongside James, Peirce, and John Dewey. Menand is clearly more comfortable politically with Holmes's triumphant pluralism than with the paths-not-taken of the other pragmatists: anarchism (James), communities of inquiry (Peirce), and democratic socialism (Dewey). Holmes not only sets up Menand's interest in the marketplace of ideas but provides narrative closure. We end up with where we are or at least where we should be.

Ross's central narrative device is to run political and musical turning-points in parallel; he does so, quite necessarily, on a more international stage than Menand, although America remains the clear center of gravity, with almost all of his composers being drawn into its orbit at one point or another. (Jean Sibelius alone remains stuck in the Finnish woods.) Ross starts with an epoch-making performance of Richard Strauss's Salome in 1906 that drew a star-studded audience of musical and political elites that may have included a 17-year-old Adolf Hitler. The die is cast for the book: thereafter, musical revolution and political menace always accompany each other, from Salome to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fortunately for Ross the artistic scandals and manifestoes were just as dramatic as the wars whose rhetoric they sought to mimic. Though his story is more ambiguous than Menand's, in part because the later twentieth century deprived everyone of the dream of progress that so moved most of the figures Menand writes about (not James), both use a fresh point of view to outfit well-known historical trajectories and to cast new light on old scenes. Neither book leaves us long beyond familiar historical bounds.

Both authors take enormous narrative profit from the splendid weirdness of the human beings they write about. There is never an innovation without an anecdote. The great can never pass by without a foible. As Ross and Menand treat them, people are the first point of access to ideas, as if the former were easier to understand than the latter! These books season big ideas with dish about the big egos that begat them. We learn from Ross that Gustav Mahler sulked from Strauss's slights and that Schoenberg raved at Marta Feuchtwanger in a Los Angeles grocery store about his syphilitic portrayal in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus; in happier moments, Schoenberg drove a Ford sedan around Hollywood, played a mean game of tennis, could be a "funky" dresser, and was a fan of UCLA football. Benjamin Britten's dentist father worried about money and enjoyed a late-morning whiskey; Pierre Boulez, an elegant dresser, once shouted "Vous êtes merde!" at his teacher; and Karlheinz Stockhausen claimed — among a great many other outlandish things — to have been born as an extraterrestrial. Catching men behaving badly, especially when they are great geniuses, is evidently one happy formula for readability.

Menand is not quite as gossipy, but he too has a keen eye for the telling personal detail. James's expedition to Brazil exposed him to mosquitoes, his own acedia, and opportunities for using his artistic skills to depict the natives (Menand provides his portrait of a mestiza young woman, eerily looking out at the reader with either accusation or blankness). Peirce could simultaneously write a mathematical problem with one hand and its solution with the other, had a facial neuralgia, and was a womanizing connoisseur of the late nineteenth-century pharmacopeia. The young Dewey was regularly quizzed by his mother if he was right with Jesus, had a shopkeeper father who liked to quote Milton, and was named after his dead 2-year-old brother, who died in a tragic accident almost exactly nine months before he was born. (No one before has ever dared hint any resemblance between Dewey and Elvis, and Menand wisely leaves the similarity unremarked.) Holmes's multiple civil war wounds are movingly sketched as the point of origin for the whole movement.

Democratic culture seems to like its heroes best as seen through the eyes of their valets. Both books adhere to the formula sketched in a brilliant 1944 article with the unprepossessing title of "Biographies in Popular Magazines" by the sociologist Leo Lowenthal. Lowenthal, member of the Frankfurt School and refugee from Hitler's Germany, thought the celebration of "idols of consumption" in American print culture a sign of the disappearance of work ethic and its stoic vision of the self. Careers were a matter of lucky breaks; personalities a matter of quirky habits. Starlets and athletes, he thought, were replacing great artists and thinkers as our culture heroes. Menand and Ross of course do not neglect artists and thinkers; they just subject them to the same biographizing inspection as celebrities. Menand certainly has warrant for this strategy in pragmatist philosophy, which always argued for the lived, personal source of all thought. But genuine inspiration is the most mysterious and shattering thing that can ever happen to someone. Composers and philosophers know how the music and ideas seem to come from somewhere else. The most wondrous thing about a great work is the way it makes its authorial source irrelevant. Epoch-making works reveal something about the universe. Need we focus on the few flecks of epidermis still clinging to these chunks of truth? 

Both books happily ignore recent academic doxa such as the impossibility of grand narratives or suspicion of canonical white men. Michel Foucault's stern dictum that the individual can no longer be a pivot for writing history wilts before these genius-rife books. After all the canon wars in academe, both books tell a fairly canonical tale, each stretching the canon in their own directions (Britten for Ross, Holmes for Menand). Ross's gallery of photographs includes only white men — an act that in some quarters once would have been seen as treasonous (the sexual exoticism of many of them provides immunity). There are of course people of color and women in The Rest is Noise, but they are always interacting with the men. There's Alma Mahler and Pauline Strauss (a possible source for Richard Strauss's series of compelling female characters), the adulterous Mme. Schoenberg, and the tragic Ruth Crawford Seeger, a composer whose career was wrecked by sexism and cancer. Otherwise, the book is a pretty homosocial enterprise. My point is not to play policeman of the pantheon; it is to note that canon-bashing wrecks narrative, and that narrative predestines politics.

Schoenberg wrote, "I strive for: complete liberation from all forms, from all symbols of cohesion and logic." Negation, as Theodor Adorno, Schoenberg's philosopher-exponent, put it, was the watchword of his musical modernism. There was to be no coddling of the listener's lust for the pay-off. Ross writes about aural assaults, the militarized sound of helicopters, drones, and acoustic catastrophes in an immensely pleasurable way. He does not strive for complete liberation from all forms; he employs them brilliantly. Ross's appreciation for radical formal experimentation is boundless, but the art he practices — dancing about architecture — is formally conventional, even if always embroidered with new surprises. His vocabulary for describing music, though often visually based, draws on many registers and is endlessly inventive. Part of the thrill of his writing is the way he regularly takes us to the brink of the indescribable and spans the abyss with language. Music rarely read so well. Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder begins with "a great steam bath of E-flat major"; Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movementsconcludes with "trudging and swinging rhythms, exuberant whoops in the horns, and, at the end, a splashy, souped-up, self-confessedly Hollywoodish chord of victory — the sound of America on the march."

The Rest is Noise, I confess, left me longing for Adorno, who sought to pay tribute to the spirit of modernism in form as well as content. He was an uncompromisingly atonal critic of art and society who thought that the only way to write about modern music was to match its challenge to convention with a style that paid no homage to what we already know. (Adorno makes his cameo in Ross as — fairly enough — an acidic Schoenbergian and musical consultant to Thomas Mann.) Adorno thought that music could reveal the secret of existence. The right kind of music offered a brief homecoming where every part fit dynamically into every whole, where time stood still or at least the sting of its vanishing was transformed into bliss. The success of great art stood in judgment of a failed society. Art was the dream of a just world, a faint signal from atop Mount Zion. Ross nowhere states the grandeur of music's saving mission so bluntly. Though his love of music is patently obvious, he is much cagier about ultimate things than Adorno. Adorno has a sincerity and pathos of mission absent in Ross, who would never state that music can solve the mystery of human existence. On this count, at least, Adorno is clearer than Ross. Adorno is not afraid to lay down the law, and people hate him for that, but the high stakes of his thought are never in doubt.

And The Metaphysical Club, I confess, left me longing for James and, especially, Peirce. When Menand tells us about Peirce's ideas of probability, he slights the metaphysical depths of what Peirce called "evolutionary love" — one of the great and wild ideas to emerge on American soil — and instead provides a brilliant set-piece of how Peirce deployed these ideas in his stint as an expert witness in a famous forgery trial. The trial gives Menand the full ready-made toolkit of the nineteenth-century novel — family fortune, disputed inheritance, forgery, and the courtroom. Menand underplays Peirce's wonderful notion of "agapasm," a concept envisions an evolving universe that stretches from slime-mould to God via agap? and eros alike. No obvious narrative format could contain agapasm (except perhaps Paradise Lost); a concept so original and strange leaves a chronicler bereft. As it should: any concept that rethinks the history of everything puts us in a state of grappling for form. Peirce, like Adorno, sought to make "a guess at the riddle" of human existence; he thought metaphysics held the key to life and death. His notion that "man is a sign" wanted to unsettle all our fondest illusions about ourselves. Peirce's thought strains narrative technique. Menand shares Holmes's wry temper and preference for secular sanity to partisan fervor. Menand's theme is the victory of toleration, the jostle of the marketplace of ideas, the sound of America on the march. For him pragmatism is the idea that ideas are usually taken too seriously; his choice is a liberal pluralism that turns down the heat. "Certainly, if it were possible to believe in agapasm without believing it warmly," said Peirce, "that fact would be an argument against the truth of the doctrine." Menand's climate, both narrative and political, is ultimately too cool for such things.

The Metaphysical Club and The Rest is Noise rarely treat the ideas of their wonderfully entertaining but cranky visionaries as if they could inflame the mind or derange the soul. Indeed, one of the things that makes Schoenberg or Peirce, Mahler or James, Strauss or Dewey seem so amusing is the absolute seriousness which with they took their work compared with their all-too-human lives. (Holmes is perhaps the only figure in either book to take on a tragic, larger-than-life, stature.) To be sure, both books admire the achievements of their subjects, but ideas are pretty much a spectator sport here. The books do nothing to keep us from feeling slightly smug as we review some amazing people and antics. We are left on our readerly perch, happily dining on prose garnished with adjectives as rich as butter. The books leave intact what their greatest heroes wanted to shake up: "man's glassy essence" (Peirce), the comfort that our place in the world is secure.

To instruct and delight the chattering classes, Hollywoodish chords of victory seem the music of choice. These books are like narrative cinema, though at the very high end: they give you a lot to think and talk about, but let you carry on your life as before. They are big, generous, endlessly fun and informative, but they never venture near the upset that they chronicle. To have self and world thrown into commotion, we'll have to go to the original works. Are big narratives always funded by conventional wisdom? Is truth always at odds with popularity? These books not only examine the dilemma of serious art and thought in democracy; they also embody it.


LARB Contributor

John Durham Peters teaches media studies at the University of Iowa.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!