“Nominalist in ontology, relativist in epistemology.” In one short statement, Anthony Esolen sums up everything wrong with art and society in the modern world (“Ut Plures Sint,” View, April). This is what I love about Chronicles: Every month there are observations that illuminate far beyond the particular topic that is being discussed. How many times have I stood in front of a class attempting through music to illustrate the difference between nature and ideology only to have someone breathlessly affirm that beauty and art are all in the eyes and mind of the beholder?
Worse, this statement is made as a sort of “that’s all there is to it” claim, when it is actually the place where the conversation could get most interesting. You know, all subjectivities must be equal, simply because each person has his own inner life. What Jeff Dahmer mused about is equal to what Mother Teresa mused about, simply because they are musings. The music of the 1910 Fruitgum Company is equal to that of Bach or Manuel Ponce simply because they are both examples of music. Who is to say which is better?
In Paul Hindemith’s book A Composer’s World: Horizons and Limitations, he observes (in the late 1940’s) that everyone feels as though he has a “right” to be a composer without the necessary talent and training, and that this has created a situation in which we will lose our musical lingua franca. Further, he goes on to illustrate how the musical culture has been politicized by people who think that one comes to be a composer by taking a few required courses in theory, history, and orchestration, after which he is ready to go out and create masterpieces. If you broach the topic of aptitude with some of our more “progressive” sorts today, you will be reminded of the veracity of Joe Sobran’s observation (in “The Cost of Abortion”) that “Plain language has become taboo; those who use it are extremists who want to impose their views.”
Today’s diversitarians have assured us that there are parallel common tongues, and the only thing we really need to watch out for is that narrow window of Western society, art and culture. To take these people seriously is to advocate for the idea that ants are the highest form of life simply because so many of them are doing the same thing—more so than any other creature.
Sitting in one of those interminable faculty seminars about the need to get more “world” music (how about music from Neptune or Venus?) into our curriculum, I overheard one fellow say that, “when you look at the sheer size of the world and compare that to Europe, that is a pretty small musical landscape.” What timing! I had just finished an incredibly beautiful hike in the Grand Canyon—great monsoon thunderstorms every day; wildlife; the sights, sounds, and smells of the end of the summer; mooching beer off of river parties. All of that subjective beauty! Listening to this banal chatter about size and inclusivity being the totality of all things good, it occurred to me that, by this logic, if you take the sheer square footage of places in the canyon like Thunder River and Elve’s Chasm and compare that with the square footage of all the trailer parks in Phoenix and Tucson, Thunder and Elve’s don’t quite measure up.
Professor Esolen’s remarks on nominalism and the nature of being—with today’s sickness of “relativitis” being regularly applied by leftist intellectuals to the philosophy of how we come to know things—are spot on. I am reminded of an Ed Abbey quotation: “The vanity of our metaphysicians: imagining that they create reality by talking about it.”