Once in a while, an article is published that is so deliciously elitist that to read it is like shooting up heroin. In this case, the article to which I am referring is “Who Cares if You Listen,” by Milton Babbitt:
“Granting to music the position accorded other arts and sciences promises the sole substantial means of survival for the music I have been describing,” Babbitt wrote. “Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.”
How could such an article possibly exist! Yet, it was published in “High Fidelity,” a classical music magazine, in 1958. Its central claim is that, in classical music, at least a subsection of the modernist avant-garde, composers should not care for how an audience receives their pieces. The point is that their work is intended to generate new tools, to push the medium forward, and if everyone else is too far behind to understand the resulting squeaks and giggles, who cares.
Today, this argument is out of vogue. It was brought down by a new generation of classical composers, the “minimalists,” whose position was that art need not be difficult (reduce music to the fundamental harmonic components!); that being accessible to a wide audience was a virtue, and did not represent a lack of sophistication. Mozart, after all, was accessible (elegant, the melody, if boring for some people, is easy to follow). The idea that art should challenge the listener, that it should tax the listener to the utmost, is a twentieth century invention (it was Eliot who said that “poets must be difficult,” not Shakespeare and certainly not Homer).
I have just ended a paragraph with the following names: Eliot, Shakespeare, and, worst of all, Homer. I could have ended it with Schoenberg, Baldwin, and Boulanger, and the problem would be the same: few people know any of these names, and even fewer are intimately acquainted with the works associated with them. Lord knows I’m not—not enough to use the names as freely as I have, throwing them around (“hmm hmm, Eliot, hmm hmm, Homer, hmm hmm”). Yet I do, and I appear, for most people probably, like I know what I am talking about—at least somewhat. The key: I likely know, or appear to know more, than you. And this frightens me: that in talking about an area that interests me as a dilettante, I make people feel out of place, lesser—less well-formed, less cultured, less well-educated—even when attempting to be self-effacing (“an area that interests me as a dilettante”). Yet for half of you, I may have provoked feelings of inferiority. Perhaps I am being overly pretentious, in the same vein as this avant-garde movement in classical music. Perhaps I am being challenging, but in an unproductive way.
How can I predict what is going on in your mind? Because, when I find myself in comparable situations, these are the thoughts that go through my head. Do I know three languages? No. Yet many students do, were taught Spanish, French, German in high school—in high school! Imagine! Once I was at dinner talking to a few friends, all of them multilingual. And while I sat there numbly twisting my pasta with my fork, phrases of different languages ricocheted around me. Were they showing off? No. They were just having fun. Their faces were amiable and bore none of the loathed expression that communicates “ah, how great I am at this.” To the contrary: they were taking pure joy in speaking a foreign language—a foreign language I had no idea how to speak. And though they had no idea they were making me sad, and though they were entirely unpretentious, I felt nearly as bad as I have in the truly memorable interactions where someone begins throwing about names of obscure European philosophers.
Feelings of inferiority were soon followed by jealousy and anger: “they have got what I have not! Do they deserve what they have? How much better would my high school grades have been if I’d had access to the resources and guidance they have! How much smoother would my life have been?” (Of course, in this dubious fuming there is next to no consideration for how smooth my life already is.) I begin to make rash statements in my head, to formulate poorly thought out opinion articles, attack in a sadistic and vindictive and unproductive manner whatever happens to tick me off: “Abolish the New York quasi-private schools! They’re segregated and racist! Abolish the private school system in the United States—force the intellectuals to do farm work with the rest of us in the public schools—a policy with the soundest Maoist roots!” All ridiculous, and all wasted energy.
We now arrive at the central point of curiosity. There are students whose motto is “Who Cares If You Listen” (i.e., the pretentious ones in the classic mode, so classic that you think people like this ought not to exist, but do.) But they are actually not that much of a problem. We spot them from a mile away, and apprehending them, assume towards them a detached curiosity (“so this is what bluebloods are like!”) If they are the subset of person who is not only pretentious but whose jargon is not only accessible but meaningless—pure bravado—we eventually learn how to spot these people as well, and we can ignore them with ease. “They are vain. They are pretending. They are immature. I am right, and they are wrong.”
But it is the student who does not understand that they are being pretentious that is a far more puzzling problem. Students who are having fun, and just happen to talk with French philosophical jargon, and do so with no pretension but with pure fun, at worst mixed in with a little confidence and pride at the academic achievement of having learned—what are we to do with these people who mean no harm? Should we pretend that they are doing none, that I am being oversensitive? I do not know. The best answer I have come up with is to try to learn from them; and if they strain your patience, to persevere.
Trent Babington is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached on twitter @trentbabington and by email at email@example.com.