In today’s New York Times, Michael Kimmelman has a quite devastating review of a concert in which the pianist, Lang Lang “twittered his way through Chopin’s F Minor Piano Concerto.”
In making his point, Kimmelman quotes some reflections by the estimable Anne Applebaum:
It brought to mind what Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post columnist, wrote about interpreting history these days. Writing for The New Republic, she reviewed a book by Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke,” about the lead-up to World War II, which stitched together, without comment, hundreds of nuggets culled from newspapers, memoirs and other (often secondary) sources to suggest a case for pacifism.
“A series of pretentious, Gawker-like vignettes,” Ms. Applebaum called these orchestrated tidbits. “Ripped from their respective contexts each item has the same weight as the next. There is no hierarchy, no sense that one enigmatic anecdote might be more important than the next equally enigmatic anecdote.”
That’s not a bad description of what Mr. Lang did with the Chopin concerto. What Ms. Applebaum added is also true about music: “There are many legitimate ways to write history, even many avant-garde, nonlinear, novelistic ways to write history, as the historiography of World War II itself well illustrates.” But history persuasively told, like music interpreted, comes down to cogent arguments. The pianist Glenn Gould was an eccentric interpreter, but his interpretations, whether you liked them or not, had their own internal, neurotic logic. They made an elaborate case for themselves. The same could be said about playing by Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatoslav Richter.
Flashy passages strung together don’t make an argument. They make an assortment of fetishes. “Perhaps,” Ms. Applebaum wondered at one point about “Human Smoke,” “the whole book is a gigantic practical joke, a stunt intended to provoke.” I wondered the same thing during the concerto.
I take it that under “forms of thought” (Stanley Fish’s phrase, quoted in Matthew Boudway’s post below) one should include the ability to mount an argument in a coherent way, whether one is writing history or interpreting music. Diagramming sentences helped show the form of a sentence. But what about the form of a paragraph, of an essay, of a book?
In the current New York Review of Books, the philosopher John R. Searle makes an interesting observation:
It is much easier to refute a bad argument than to refute a truly dreadful argument. A bad argument has enough structure that you can point out its badness. But with a truly dreadful argument, you have to try to reconstruct it so that it is clear enough that you can state a refutation.
Form, structure, coherent argument — if we can’t bring back the nuns, at least bring back the ratio studiorum!