Archive for February 22nd, 2018

On subjectivity

A great many years ago now, I used to love the symphonies of Bruckner. I saved up what little money I had back then to buy recordings of them. I was entranced by the magical opening of the 4th, transported by the sheer beauty of the 7th, awe-struck by the terrors of the 9th. On moving down to London some thirty years ago, and hence being close to more concert halls than I could shake a stick at (if that’s your idea of a good time), I was particularly drawn to concert performances of these symphonies. And I used to come out of the concert halls floating on a cloud of ecstasy.

But it struck me recently that it has been a long time since I last listened to a Bruckner symphony. Several years in fact. I couldn’t quite figure out when I stopped listening. I don’t think it was a sudden thing: it just, somehow, happened. So I dusted off the CDs I still have of them – conducted by such great luminaries of this repertoire as Eugen Jochum, Herbert von Karajan, Gunter Wand, Carlo Maria Giulini, and the like – and tried listening again. I started with the 5th. And after some twenty or so minutes, I found myself thinking “Gawd, what a bore!” I tried some of the ones I used to love even more – the 7th, the 8th, and the 9th, the last three. Yes, I got on with them a bit better than I had done with the 5th, but I still frequently found my attention wandering. Eventually I decided that I am not the man I had been thirty or forty years ago. Bruckner, I decided, was, most definitely, a bore.

And yet, there is nothing to say that my current tastes are any better than what they had been thirty years or so ago. “Gawd, what a bore!” is a comment not on the symphonies themselves – which remain as they always have been – but on my receptivity to those symphonies. Also, there are many whose understanding of music, whose discernment and refinement of taste, are beyond dispute, who revere these works. And they have done so over many decades: custom has not staled for them their love of these pieces. Very well, I say to myself, it’s all subjective. So let’s all agree to like different things.

It’s an easy way out. All of us, as individuals, have different perceptions, different receptivities, different tastes. And after all, what is this blog but a record of my own subjective impressions? There’s nothing I could think or write about the likes of, say, Hamlet or of Don Quixote, that hasn’t been thought or written about before. The only justification for my writing about such books – other than gratifying my vanity – is that I, as a unique individual (as we all are), must have unique perspectives on these works, and that records of these unique perspectives may, perhaps, be of interest to others. And no-one can really take issue with what I say because, well, you know, it’s all subjective, isn’t it?

But it isn’t though. The self-published novel of my friend (who fancies himself a novelist) is not as good as The Portrait of a Lady; my casual doodles are not as good as Rembrandt’s drawings; and anyone who thinks otherwise is, quite simply, wrong. How many times, back in the days when I used to contribute to online book boards, have I found myself gritting my teeth on being informed that Dickens was a poor novelist (“sentimental!”), or that Shakespeare was “overrated”, or that Anna Karenina was “boring”? There was no arguing against such declarations. “It’s my opinion and I am entitled to it.” As, indeed, they are. And these opinions, further, are not open to scrutiny, or to debate: if everything is indeed subjective, then there can be no room for debate. We simply declare our subjective opinions, and there’s an end to it.

And yet, in what way is my reaction to Bruckner’s 5th symphony – “Gawd, what a bore!” – any different from the dismissals of Anna Karenina as “boring” on online book boards? The answer, of course, is that it isn’t. To insist that all is subjective is to deny that there can exist any objective standards whereby The Portrait of a Lady may be deemed better than my friend’s self-published novel, or Rembrandt’s drawings deemed better than my doodles; it is to deny the very concept of excellence itself. I cannot argue against those who insist that such is indeed the case, but everything in me rebels against such a conclusion.

Much of this blog, I realise, is a fruitless attempt to square this circle. It is full of subjective perspectives, and yet I find myself insisting that no, all is not subjective. This is why I cannot join with the invective often dished out to various writers, artists, musicians: at the most, I could express my subjective reaction, making clear that it is subjective; but what possible value can there be in my declaring that “Bruckner is a tedious old bore”?

In the meantime, no, I am not giving away my Bruckner CDs. True, I have fallen out of love with Bruckner. But, given how much we change over time, what’s to say that, in a few years, I may not  fall back in love again?


(Postscript: the friend I mentioned earlier who fancied himself a novelist is not so close a friend any more. He asked me for my honest opinion – indeed, insisted that honest feedback was precisely what he wanted – and I was foolish enough to give him what he had asked for. I really can be quite socially inept at times.)