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.)

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26 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jonathan on February 22, 2018 at 2:08 pm

    I think a lot of it is just subjective, whether Book A is objectively better than Book B probably doesn’t mean much if both are written by competent writers. If we could say that Book A was better than Book B it may still be the case that we prefer Book B because it resonates with us personally. We could probably say that Book A was better than Book C if the writer of C really didn’t know his craft so I don’t think it’s totally subjective.

    Reply

    • Hello Jonathan, and thanks for that.
      It seems to me that when we speak of “competent writers”, or “knowing [one’s] craft, we are assuming there exist objective standards beyond our subjectivity. I agree this is a reasonable assumption to make, but the problem is that this is something that is not possible to prove to anyone sceptical on the point. For instance:

      – This piece of writing X is superior to this other piece of writing Y.
      – Why?
      – Let us consider the sentence structure… (there follows an analysis of the syntax & rhythms)
      – Why do you think any of that matters? Why do you think these are important criteria? They aren’t to me.
      – OK, what about expressivity. Can you see that X expresses far more, and expresses far more subtle things, than Y does?
      – It may to you, but not to me.

      And there’s the impasse. Even when I think I am making an objective judgement based on certain criteria of excellence, these criteria themselves need not be accepted by everyone. If someone says “good is what I personally like, bad is what I personally dislike, and hence, all good and bad are entirely subjective”, there seems to me no reasonable counter to that.

      Reply

  2. When someone says, “Tell me, honestly, what do you think of my novel?” they want you to honestly, honestly, honestly love it. And to tell them so.

    I know what you mean about opinions being subjective, and all of us having opinions, and that since we live in egalitarian societies, your opinions about Bruckner and Dickens are no better or worse than the opinions of someone who’s never heard Bruckner or read a word of Dickens, and don’t you go saying otherwise, you elitist. Like you, I feel intuitively (I tell myself) that this view is wrongheaded. There is such a thing as expert opinion, as informed opinion, even about such things as the arts. One’s own evolving opinions, I think, are evidence of this. And greater knowledge of any subject matter gives one the ability to better understand the subject, yes? I’ve recently begun working on the violin sonatas of Beethoven and Mozart, and the more I read the scores and play the works, the more I understand them, the better I can compare them to other pieces of music, the more I appreciate (in both the sense of recognizing the worth of them and also in the more original sense, of seeing) what’s been put into the sonatas. One can (and, hopefully, does) do the same thing with literature, paintings, film, food, and other things that surround us. Eventually, we might stop thinking of art in terms of “what I like” and start looking at the art itself rather than focusing on the feelings we have about it. Which is where, I like to think, good critical thinking begins. You’re doing a pretty good job of that on this blog.

    Anyway, “what I like” is purely subjective in most ways, but as you say in re Bruckner, the symphonies are still there, unchanged by our fleeting tastes, and we can maybe look at them to see them as they are. I will say that, from that time period, I’d be more inclined to listen to Brahms than to Bruckner.

    I’m not sure I’ve actually said anything here, sorry.

    Reply

    • Posted by mudpuddle on February 22, 2018 at 7:53 pm

      Scott said it for me… learning, exposure and age determine what we think is good… as a six year old i thought Freddy the Pig books were the ne plus ultra of literature… i still like them, but i now believe they’re outdistanced by Melville, Henry James, et alia… I currently think one, or more, of the benefits of blogging is the exposure to varying pov’s and factual detail: i’ve learned a lot just by reading the opinions of others…

      Reply

    • Hello Scott, I remember our mutual friend Tom (Amateur Reader) saying somewhere (I’d link to it if I could remember where he said it) that merely expressing one’s personal likes and dislikes is no more than “making tally marks”. Neither “I love Bruckner” or “I find Bruckner boring” adds anything to the discourse. Quite the opposite, for such statements leave nothing further to be said. And I must admit I find myself thinking “so what?” It is particularly frustrating when these subjective viewpoints are expressed as objective judgements – when “I find Bruckner boring” is expressed as “Bruckner is boring”.

      But if expressions of pure subjectivity are pretty pointless, pure objectivity seems to me impossible. Even when I think I am making an objective judgement based on specific criteria, those criteria themselves have been moulded by my subjectivity, and others are under no compulsion to accept them.

      On a different tack, I have had no musical education and can barely read music, but I do love dearly those ten Beethoven violin sonatas. The Mozart violin sonatas I confess I am less familiar with: it’s high time I got to know them properly!

      Reply

  3. Posted by Tony on February 24, 2018 at 5:29 am

    Just rereading Thomas Bernhard’s ‘Old Masters’ – if you think you’re down on Bruckner…

    Reply

  4. Posted by Tony on February 24, 2018 at 5:30 am

    P.S. I once observed two teachers doing the same lesson as part of my TESOL Graduate Certificate many moons ago. One was excellent, one was awful – guess which one wanted ‘honest feedback’? 😉

    Reply

  5. Posted by Carl on February 24, 2018 at 5:56 am

    Interesting post. I’m a pianist, so get to choose what I will learn to play. I was enamored of the music of Chopin as an adolescent and I laid much groundwork at that age. I then grew away from Chopin, thinking his music was too “young”. I suppose I needed to develop other tastes like the music of Beethoven with its grand universalities. Over the years, I’ve explored other modalities, and now, at the age of 72 and having had one close brush with death, I’ve returned to Chopin once again. I figure if I may die soon, I’d like to spend more of my final moments with this wonderful lyricist. And I no longer think of Chopin as an adolescent musician at all and am able to build on much of the groundwork I laid when I was younger.

    I suppose there are those who think I’m pursuing a selfish goal or that my thinking is entirely subjective and it is. But it’s my life and I am finding much joy in my pursuits.

    Reply

    • Hello Carl,
      I have come to Chopin rather late. I didn’t listen to him as an adolescent, and even in my thirties and forties, was happy to dismiss him as a salon musician. But, having had a close brush with death myself, I too find myself listening to his music. (Unlike you, I cannot play them.) But I don’t think my love of Chopin is purely subjective. I know it is impossible to argue for objective criteria in these matters, but there’s surely more, much more, to this music than “It’s good for me because I think it is”.

      A story (true story, as it happens) of the importance of music, and, indeed, of the arts in general. The day after my heart operation lately, when I was still in intensive care, with all sorts of drunks being injected into me through drips, my family came to visit me. I have no memory if this at all: I was (I am told) barely aware of their presence, and was rambling away incoherently to myself. Fortunately, I did not (again, as I am told) say anything incriminating, but apparently, at one point, I said “Beethoven, Missa Solemnis”. As I say, I have no recollection of this at all, but can only surmise that the music of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was going round my head at that point.

      In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t say “Christopher Lee, Dracula Prince of Darkness”…

      Reply

      • Posted by alan on February 25, 2018 at 10:34 pm

        I know I’ve quoted this before, but it does seem appropriate in this context:

        “Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.”

  6. Posted by Linda Stormonth on February 24, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    Brilliant and very honest post. It is a question that bedevils me regularly, particularly when discussing the latest at our Book Club or reading some fawning critical revue. (Why is it that once having made their name, no writer ever seems to write a bad book subsequently? )
    Last summer I did a FutureLearn course called How to Read a Novel, organised by Edinburgh University. Any superior notions I had of my university degree in English making this course superfluous, were quickly dispelled. It was based on novels nominated for the James Tate Black Memorial Prize. I had read reviews of the books and, frankly, didn’t fancy any of them. However, the course, the comments and discussions allowed me much greater insight into an appreciation (or otherwise) of the novels and the writing. My prejudices were challenged and, as in your excellent post, made me question my assumptions and judgements. I read, and enjoyed, the winner, a book I had previously dismissed out of hand.
    However. I still did not like some of the others. Partly, because the subject matter left me cold, and partly because I understood better what it was I did not like about the books.
    All of the above, still does not resolve your original questioning of subjectivity. I can’t relate to Bruckner, now at least, and Henry James makes my brain freeze. So, could we say maybe there is a Middle Way? That content and technique have to be married into a harmonious whole? But that still doesn’t solve anything…..

    Reply

    • Hello Linda, and welcome.
      I think we all have the right to like or dislike whatever we want. We all have different receptivities, different temperaments. And what’s more, these change with the years.

      But we shouldn’t, I think, confuse our personal subjective response with critical judgement. Critical judgement really should look beyond our personal response. But how well can we separate the two? I really am not sure.

      I really don’t think statement of purely subjective response adds anything to discourse; all too often, online discourse on literary matters does not get beyond “I like this and don’t like that”. But then, I don’t think any critical judgement can be entirely objective either. So we end up with this messy situation where the subjective and the objective seem inextricably wound up together.

      This is why I feel discourse is important. Not a simple “I like X” and “I don’t like Y”, but attempting to go beyond that, trying, at least, to aim for an objectivity as best we can, while remaining aware of our subjectivity. And seeing how other readers try to aim for objectivity from their necessarily subjective perspectives. And being open to other’s points of view, and prepared to absorb their views into our own. That is dialogue. A mere statement of likes and dislikes, and some mark out of 5 stars – as if works of art can be given marks – really don’t take us anywhere at all.

      I remember trying to initiate discussion on a book board once on how we should talk about books, but it all came down to “It’s just a matter of opinion”.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  7. Posted by Linda Stormonth on February 24, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    Oops. Spelling. Blame the iPad. Review.

    Reply

  8. Posted by alan on February 24, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    Did you just compare yourself to Hamlet and your self-published novelist friend to Ophelia ?
    Was the postscript really an afterthought?
    (Very good piece by the way.)

    Reply

  9. Interesting point about Bruckner. I discovered his music in my teens and couldn’t get enough of it, and when I was a student in London I planned my concertwas,- going primarily around performances of Bruckner (and Mahler too). 30 years on I don’t listen to my recordings of the Bruckner symphonies nearly as much apart from the Eighth, which still gets a regular airing.

    As I’ve got older I find that have gravitated to “quieter” music such as Mozart and chamber music. Perhaps I’m not so bowled over by Bruckner’s thunderous brass chorales as I once and I tend to get impatient when he repeats one of the themes pizzicato for the nth time. I don’t think I’ve gone off Bruckner as such – a couple of years ago I went to a performance of the Fifth conducted by Daniel Barenboim which was quite revelatory and left me stunned for several days afterwards. Perhaps Bruckner is better seen in the concert hall as a one-off occasion than played repeatedly on the stereo at home?

    Tastes do change with the years. There was a time when I loved real ale (too much!) – now I can’t drink the stuff at all. Who’s to say at which stage in our lives we’ve “got it right”? That’s where subjectivity vs objectivity comes in, of course.

    Shame you fell out with your friend. I’ve learned from bitter experience that when people we know ask our opinion about their work, what they really want is approval. I tend to make encouraging noises and let someone else take the flak!

    Reply

    • Some of the word order in my post seems to have got jumbled up – bleeping computers. Hope it still makes sense.

      Reply

    • It’s interesting how our tastes change. And that just one person can have, quite legitimately, different tastes at different times, with the later tastes in no way superior or inferior to the earlier tastes, should alert us to the huge role played by subjectivity in matters of aesthetic judgement. But while accepting this very strong element of subectivity, I am trying my best to resist the slide into the position of “everything is just a matter of opinion”.

      I read music critic Michael Tanner (whom I respect) say once that Bruckner’s 8th symphony is the one piece of music he values most. It makes me wonder afresh at the difference in individual perceptions.

      I too sometimes think that I am gravitating away from big works into smaller scaled, chamber works. But then I find myself entranced by, say, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, or Mahler’s 9th symphony, or Strauss’ Elektra, or whatever.

      (As for my friend, this was several years ago – decades ago, even – back in my student days. And I shouldn’t have said “self-published novel”: I should have said “unpublished”. I too had some drafts of an unpublished novel back in those days. Then I made the mistake of reading over what I had written, and … Well, I have been reconciled to my mediocrity since then!)

      Reply

  10. I found the piece you mention above. The tally marks are of course of great personal use. How wonderful to discover a critic / book blogger / etc. who reliably recommends art that is exactly to my taste. We should mostly spend our time with art we enjoy, and should not worry much about why we enjoy it.

    But as you argue, none of that has much to do with how good or bad something is, how valuable it is, what other artists have done with it or might do with it. All of them (I declare, subjectively) interesting questions.

    Reply

  11. You’re probably a better judge of serious music now than 30 years ago, by virtue of your experience as a listener. If you find Bruckner boring, at least you’re in good company. Brahms compared Brucker’s symphonies to boa constrictors, and someone else to family arguments on endless replay. But what about the Sixth, “die keckste”?

    Reply

    • Yes, Brahms was quite rude about Bruckner. (Except for the Te Deum: he apparently applauded that enthusiastically.) But then again, there have been other luminaries who have been rude about Brahms. Britten, for instance.

      The 6th is the most traditional, I suppose, of his symphonies. I heard Herbert Blomstedt conduct that once at the Edinburgh Festival, with the Rotterdam Phlharmonic. Maybe I should give that another try…

      Reply

      • Bruckner said “die Sechste ist die keckste” – the Sixth is the cheekiest (or the sauciest, or the loveliest, or the brashest, or the most audacious) of them all. It may seem conventional because, in the words of Robert Simpson, “it has a mastery of classical form that might have impressed Brahms.” Not at the expense of creativity: “Its themes are of exceptional beauty and plasticity, its harmony is both bold and subtle, its instrumentation is the most imaginative he had yet achieved…” Tom Service had an excellent piece on the Sixth in The Guardian in 2014. There’s a lovely video on YouTube of Juanjo Mena conducting the symphony at the 2012 BBC proms – I’ve grown quite fond of that performance.

      • I really enjoyed Tom Service’s series on symphonies in the Guardian.

        (I have criticised the arts that paper often enough in this blog for its with-it trendiness and pseudo-intellectual posing, but I should be fair: alongside all the nonsense, they also have some excellent writers, and Tom Service is amongst them. His series on symphonies is an object lesson on how to write for a general public about difficult matters without speaking down to them.)

        On Bruckner’s 6th – yes, perhaps: but there are times when one has to accept that one can’t like everything, and, although I guess I should give it another try, I don’t know that it is at the top of my priorities right now. But yes, the 6th – the most unBrucknerian of the Bruckner symphonies – may well be my way back in. I have Otto Klemperer’s famous recording of it. I’ll give that Tom Service piece another read, and listen to the excerpts.

  12. I am fascinated by this blog entry and by the various responses. When I look back at my life, somewhere in my mid to late teens my tastes began to gel. The poetry of Poe, which enchanted me at age 13, suddenly seemed jejune (and I am sorry to cite Poe, but he’s the only example that comes to mind). The writing of Virginia Woolf, which had annoyed me at 14, suddenly seemed brilliant when I was 20.
    And so I have gone on for many decades continuing to love what I once loved at 18 and expanding the list with new items; new names.
    Sometimes I am in the mood for Bruckner and want to hear him. I doubt that I have gone more than a year of neglecting his music. It took me a long time to appreciate the experience of sitting with a Rothko. But I can always tap into the particular joy that artists once gave me and find it renewed and deepened and strengthened.

    Why have I not broken up with anyone I once fancied since Poe? Does nostalgia colour my tastes? Or am I easily able to return to the “splendour in the grass?”

    Reply

    • It’s strange how these things vary from person to person, isn’t it? What one loves or hates in one’s teenage years one often thinks about differently later: that is only to be expected, as one’s tastes are still developing when one is still a teenager. (Although, having said that, there are still many things I started liking as a teenager that are still dear to me – Shakespeare, the 19th century Russians, Mozart and Beethoven, and so on.) But I find that, although most of my likes and dislikes are now fairly settled, there are nonetheless certain artists, certain works, whose works I value more or value less than I had done only a few years ago. Which is, I suppose a good thing … I’m really not sure! But even some of the posts I have written a few years earlier on this blog I can now only read with embarrassment!

      Reply

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