Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

BANNING MASTERPIECES

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A good deal of art has been banned on political (and while we’re at it, let’s include religious) grounds, but few works have been banned simply for being great. Recently, however, a renowned music critic suggested banning musical masterpieces lest they become hackneyed and lose their aesthetic appeal.

This poses all sorts of logistical problems, including the obvious one that not everyone will agree what is a masterpiece and what not. As well, how long do we ban these works and under what circumstances? Perhaps most importantly, it must be noted that not everyone has yet been exposed to every masterpiece to the point of boredom. For that reason alone, it sounds a bit harsh. How do we compensate all those four-year-olds running around bereft because they’re not allowed to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth? It’s a sticky issue.

Pianist and philosopher Glenn Gould argued that turning great music into “muzak” (by which he meant the sort of bland, generic versions of famous tunes we hear in elevators, casinos and shopping malls) was a positive step, a sort of unobtrusive musical education. Gould was a bit of an elitist, however, as much as he was charming about it. (If he could, he would have had us believe the Beatles, and even Mozart, were musical pabulum and bringing down the “tone”, as it were.)

On the other hand, statistics show that playing classical music in public spaces can help deter crime. (As an aural equivalent of insect repellent, it’s believed to be particularly effective in subways and 7-11s.) I’m not entirely sure I agree, however, as I tend to get a trifle violent whenever I hear the strains of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons starting up, a work as maddeningly over-familiar to me as, say, the rash of Christmas carols blared over loudspeakers every December. For this reason, I would insist on a corollary of banning works for their annoyance factor as well. I’d be more than happy to provide a starter list for anyone interested in pursuing this.

Taking things a step farther, I began to wonder about banning certain books. To be sure, this would have to be done on a personal and voluntary level, since no one makes us read, apart from schoolteachers and parents, that is. When I was a younger, more puritanical admirer of particular works than I am today (e.g. John Knowles’s A Separate Peace), I resolved to re-read my favourites at regular intervals for the rest of my life, to refresh myself with what I loved about them. The Knowles lasted till I was 30. Needless to say, other works have suffered a similar fate.

Still, I don’t deny myself the chance to become reacquainted with an old work if I think I might gain a fresh perspective on it. Recently, I went to the Met Live In HD performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, a piece I’ve long considered a hackneyed workhorse. I went solely to see the fabled stagecraft of Robert Lepage, while dreading sitting through nearly three hours of Wagnerian inertia. Lo and behold, Lepage’s technological innovations did something miraculous. They enabled me to stop worrying whether the Rhinemaidens are actually swimming, or whether Fasolt and Fafner are really giants, and simply enjoy the work. The cast, under the direction of James Levine, was magnificent. So much so that the stagecraft became secondary to my enjoyment. (In truth, you can’t upstage Wagner.) It felt like I was discovering the piece, if not for the first time, then certainly anew.

I think the reality is that we absorb what we need from a book or work of art, whether for aesthetic, educational or moral reasons, and then move on. It’s not as if we’re going to be able to read every book or see every film or view every painting in one lifetime, anyway. (Which is why God gave us reincarnation.) If we’re lucky, some stay with us.

There are some things I hope I never lose my love for: Nina Simone’s voice, for instance, or van Gogh’s paintings. Nor would I willingly part with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Still, the day may come when I no longer feel as moved or invigorated by these things as I do now. If that happens, I’ll mourn the loss even while I’ll be glad for the chance to discover something new. There’s always a masterpiece being created somewhere, if you look. Not reading a book or listening to a piece of music today won’t prolong its life. Better to enjoy them while you can.

2 comments

Re: resolving to re-read old favourites at regular intervals to refresh yourself with what you loved about them. A few years ago, I also decided to take up re-reading authors whose work I'd loved in my teens and twenties, starting with Hermann Hesse. Upon re-reading, many of Hesse's books did stand the test of time-- Peter Camenzind, Demian, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund-- though they weren't the books I remembered. I then discovered a delightful work of notes and sketches by Hesse about solitary walking-- titled Wandering-- a book that probably would not have spoken to me had I come across it in my teens. The one work by Hesse that completely faded upon re-reading was Siddhartha-- the little book that had drawn me in to Hesse's world of spiritual journeying in the first place. As you say, Jeffrey-- "we absorb what we need from a book [or work of art]... and then move on." What speaks to us at one phase and stage of life is likely to lose appeal at a later stage-- even if we still consider it fine writing.

Hi, Elana

Sorry I didn't see this note earlier. On the subject of revisiting the past, I think Lyle Lovett said it about as well as it can be said: "And when you find the one you might become/Remember part of me is you." (Simple Song)

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Jeffrey Round

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning writer and director. His most recent novel is The Honey Locust.

Go to Jeffrey Round’s Author Page