I don’t know much about opera. I don’t know much about Broadway, either. I listen to the former; I don’t often listen to the latter. I mean, when I say listen, this essentially amounts to letting xyz recording play in the background while I do other work. Most of the best operas are in German or Italian (or sometimes French or Russian), so I never really understand what anyone is saying in them. There are often subtitles available, but again, I’m not usually someone to listen closely. At least not all the time. Sometimes, I do listen closely, but I don’t really understand anything formally about how these pieces are put together. One can detect the form of the individual numbers—sonata, rondo, etc.—but how it all fits together into a coherent dramatic work stumps me now and always has. Sometimes I think about reading a book about opera. I own two—well, when I say own, what I mean is that I came across two wrinkled old editions of a mass-market literary companion to the medium. I found them at a table on the fourth floor of Fisk Hall where the German department appeared to be giving away the contents of a small library. (If you’re interested, they’re mostly gone now, save for a few German language editions of Brecht’s plays and other miscellaneous criticism.)

But I haven’t read any of those books, neither the ones on opera nor the others that I, owing to my general lack of restraint, took over the course of the next four months. I’m sitting here in my room writing this, and lying on my shelf is: “Ten Short German Novellas”; “Budenbrooks”; “The Death of Tragedy” by some man named George Steiner; and a collection of German poems in translation. The cover of the last is blue, and the font is the sort of serif font you don’t see any publisher willing to put on a book, either for consumption by the general public or by academics.

All of these books sit on my shelf. All of these numbers from operas sit in my YouTube history. And I wonder: What on earth am I ever going to do with them? With the books: Will I ever read them? With the pieces of music: Will I ever dive deeper into them? With the books, any further action, beyond the occasional scanning and then putting down is somewhat less likely, as I tend to read more fiction than I can stand during my English classes in the semester, and returning home for break often find myself so fatigued and exhausted that I can scarcely manage more than one novel in a month. But with the operas, because of the easier prose style of musicians as opposed to literary critics, there is more hope. But not much more.

Here’s the thing: I don’t really know if I like opera. I mean, I appreciate it. But it raises an interesting question: If I have all these books on the subject, but never read them; and if I listen to these works of art online, but in a cursory manner that requires nothing more than to click on the videos YouTube suggests to me, not having to pay anything for a Spotify subscription in the process, if that’s all I’m doing, how can I know if I truly like or don’t like something whether that be art, or anything else for that matter?

It’s a pressing question, because I think so often we find ourselves, in this world where so much is easily accessible—whether that be the droves of music, from the most gratuitously popular to the most ostentatiously obscure available on YouTube, or the novels, playscripts, “high-brow” films, etc. that this college seems to constantly throw at us with a vigor that always astounds me, especially when I consider how little of it I would have come across had I not, by a great many contingencies summarized more as “luck” than “hard work,” wound up going here (exactly what contingencies we have no time to discuss)… 

I realize at this point that I have lost the origin of my sentence, and wandered off on a productive, if unrelated and (for the reader) syntactically infuriating thought. The question now becomes: if I could not come to admire something without all this institutional force getting behind me, without all this community of support (workshops, clubs, free giveaways, effusive professors, etc.) assisting me in the process of developing such admiration for opera or fiction or whatever, can I really be said to love it? 

In other words, can my interests in xyz subject area be said to be the natural thing for me, if I have not encountered it on my own, without any assistance or guidance; and without anyone smoothing the path for me. That last bit really gets to me: We all talk a great deal of sacrifice and commitment; but few of us have been Quentin Tarantino (to use a well-known and probably apocryphal example) working at a video store for five years until he could “break into the business.” And it makes you wonder: If so many, left to their own devices, would hardly have gotten as far as they have, what an army of “true” talent, true passion, is being lost! And, perhaps more profoundly: What a strange thing it is to live in a culture controlled by those who, without help, would amount to little more than mediocrities but which, one way or the other, whether you think it detestable or not, often wind up not being hacks.  

This is a strange line of reasoning, and probably not one worth pursuing. At least not in the way I have articulated it. But the basic idea is worth considering, if only for its (probably miniscule) “grain of truth”: If I have found myself a fan of something, if I have found myself attached to something, but only because of the precise luck of other people having made that attachment possible, and not because of my own volition or natural aptitude, is it wise to say that I am authentically the fan of this or that? It is a question that scares me, though it probably shouldn’t. And to a certain extent I worry that, in having it published in this paper, I may seem judgmental (“a culture controlled by those who, without help, would amount to little more than mediocrities”); because many of my previous articles (the one on Canada Goose stands out in this regard) have taken that bent—have come off as wildly serious and angry and all the rest, have made me appear insensitive or a bad person (or so people have told me). But I leave it here for you to read, because it is a question that has become something of an obsession; and because, again, I lack restraint. 


Trent Babington is a member of the class of 2021. He can be reached at tbabington@wesleyan.edu or on twitter @trentbabington.