When Intellectuals Go to War (updated)

by Corey Robin on May 27, 2014

On the recommendation of my colleague Shang Ha, I’ve been reading Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. There I came across this letter from Arnold Schoenberg to Alma Mahler, dated August 28, 1914. Ross only quotes a snippet, but here’s a lengthier excerpt:

Meanwhile, you have certainly already heard of the glorious victory of the Germans against France, England, and Belgium. It is among the most wonderful things that have happened. But it does not surprise me: it is not any different from the war of the Greeks against the Persians….My friends know it, I have often said to them, I never had any use for all foreign music. It always seemed to me stale, empty, disgusting, cloying, false, and awkward. Without exception. Now I know who the French, English, Russians, Belgians, Americans, and Serbians are: barbarians! The music said that to me long ago.[...] But now comes the reckoning. Now we shall send these mediocre purveyors of kitsch back into slavery.


Schoenberg was hardly the only artist to support his team during the First World War. But what strikes me in his stance here is something you often see when intellectuals go to war: their tendency to interpret the war in the most parochial terms imaginable, that is, as an expression of their own causes and concerns, no matter how alien those might be from the state waging the war. Not only did Schoenberg see German war aims as the defense of German/Viennese culture (again, he was not alone in this), but he saw it more specifically, and improbably, as an extension of his own battle against retrograde tendencies in modern music. As if the Kaiser had read Harmonielehre and decided to march into Belgium on behalf of atonality.

Schoenberg’s letter reminds me of a wonderful moment in the run-up to the Iraq War. Charlie Rose had Michael Ignatieff and Jonathan Schell on to debate the war (I can’t find the video but apparently you can buy it on Amazon). Ignatieff was being especially nasty, mocking Schell for saying something like “the peoples of the earth” had said no to the war. Which, given the international character of the protests of February 15, 2003, wasn’t wide of the mark. But then Schell gave it right back to Ignatieff. After Ignatieff did his thing of describing the war as the second coming of Isaiah Berlin, Schell gently reminded him that, however much he might wish it were otherwise, he wasn’t in fact the commander-in-chief of the country that would be fighting the war. Whatever aims the United States would ultimately pursue in waging war on Iraq, they would have little to do with the concerns of Michael Ignatieff.

A state goes to war for its reasons. It takes an especially potent form of imaginative power to assume that the academic question that happens to be on your mind at the moment is somehow shared by the men and women leading that state. Ordinary citizens, of course, are hardly immune to seeing themselves in that war and its exploits. But when it comes to the narcissism of war, as the example of Christopher Hitchens reminds us, no one has quite the self-deluding capacity of the intellectual.

Happy Memorial Day.

Update (May 27)

Taghi Amirani, a producer/director in London, just sent me notice of a documentary his production company has made, “We Are Many,” about the February 15, 2003 international protests and their long-term repercussions. Looks great.

{ 86 comments }

1

jazzbumpa 05.27.14 at 1:19 am

A state goes to war for its reasons.

And aren’t those reasons fundamentally always economic, in some sense? Doesn’t the aggressor country always want to take what somebody else has – wealth, land, natural resources, a population to be enslaved, a beautiful princess?

2

Tabasco 05.27.14 at 1:27 am

“the commander-in-chief of the country”

The President of the United States is not the commander-in-chief of the United States. He is the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. If you are not in the armed forces, he doesn’t get to order you around.

On the intellectuals, is it just war where they think it is all about them? Many intellectuals think that everything is about them.

3

LFC 05.27.14 at 1:44 am

Not only did Schoenberg see German war aims as the defense of German/Viennese culture (again, he was hardly alone in this), but he saw it more specifically as an extension of his own battle against retrograde tendencies in modern music. As if the Kaiser had read Harmonielehre and decided to march into Belgium on behalf of atonality.

I don’t know a whole lot about Schoenberg, but it’s a little odd in a way, isn’t it?, that he pronounces an anathema on *all* French, Russian, British, American, and Serbian composers. There must have been some avant-garde composers outside of the Central Powers. Charles Ives was certainly writing before WW1 (though Wikipedia informs me that the great Concord Sonata was composed in the period 1916-1919), and I wonder whether S. is just inflamed by patriotic passion, or didn’t know as much about non-German music as he thought, or disliked everyone who didn’t use the 12-tone scale, or what. Anyway, an interesting post (Jonathan Schell died quite recently, btw).

4

LFC 05.27.14 at 1:49 am

p.s. I’d also be interested in hearing Corey’s opinion (when he’s arrived at one) of The Rest is Noise, which I haven’t read.

5

shah8 05.27.14 at 2:09 am

You know…Tony Judt spent a lot of time talking about this, mostly about Western intellectual support for the Soviet Union during the Cold War in his book Postwar.

6

Main Street Muse 05.27.14 at 2:12 am

The widespread intellectual defense of the need for our “proactive” attack on Iraq is a terrible moment in American history.

Nearly 100 years ago, Robert Graves signed up for the Great War in the hopes it would postpone his move to Oxford. From his memoir, Good-Bye to All That:

“I had just finished with Charterhouse and gone up to Harlech, when England declared war on Germany. A day or two later I decided to enlist. In the first place, though the papers predicted only a very short war – over by Christmas at the outside – I hoped that it might last long enough to delay my going to Oxford in October which I dreaded.”

It most certainly worked to delay his trip to Oxford.

7

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 05.27.14 at 2:16 am

“The President of the United States is not the commander-in-chief of the United States.”

Tabasco, that fact has been disappeared in the last couple of decades.

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

And we got neither hope nor change.
~

8

godoggo 05.27.14 at 2:28 am

I don’t think he was really referring to the “battle against retrograde tendencies.” I think it was more about the German tradition, of which Schoenberg’s modernism, with its severity and its strict rules of organization, some of them borrowed from Bachian counterpoint, was really a part.

9

Corey Robin 05.27.14 at 2:30 am

godoggo: If you read Ross’s book, it’s clear that he was in fact referring to the retrograde tendencies of modern music.

10

godoggo 05.27.14 at 2:31 am

I read it a long time ago..

11

Rakesh 05.27.14 at 2:32 am

I am guessing that this whole special issue will have a lot of interesting material on the philosophical aspects of intellectuals’ and artists’ disturbing support of The Great War and what was called, in Germany, Kriegsideologie: “Bergson, l’Europe et la Première guerre mondiale”, Annales bergsoniennes, tome VII (forthcoming)
Interesting too how the war against fascism led to such sharply opposed criticism of Bartok by Adorno and Lukacs.

12

Darius Jedburg 05.27.14 at 2:32 am

That quotation is amazing. It puts a lot of Adorno’s ravings about Schoenberg’s politically-inflected aesthetic merits in perspective.

However, my main purpose in commenting is this. Whenever I see a reference on a blog to M Ignatieff, and especially to his opinions on the Iraq war, I feel an obligation to link to this, which is, in all honesty, one of the funniest things I have ever read. When I feel I need cheering up, I have a repertoire, probably all too limited, of ways of dealing with it. But this is one that never lets me down, and which I allow myself recourse to every year or so, for fear of its power being diminished by excessive frequency.

13

marcel 05.27.14 at 2:37 am

It takes an especially potent form of imaginative power to assume that whatever academic question happens to be on your mind at the moment is somehow shared by the men and women who are leading a nation to war.

I don’t know about the imaginative power required. I remember a handful of lectures in graduate school (by people quite prominent in their field) that gave the impression that they had checked their mail on the way to class, and something important there had driven all other thoughts from their mind, including the lecture scheduled on the syllabus. Without any reflection, they lectured on that.

I would say it requires a very weak imagination to do this; more than that and you’d easily be able to imagine yourself into the position of others.

I think that Tabasco is onto something: Many intellectuals think that everything is about them, although a procrustean bed may need to be applied to the word “intellectuals” before applying the word itself to many of these people.

14

Sandwichman 05.27.14 at 2:59 am

“As if the Kaiser had read Harmonielehre and decided to march into Belgium on behalf of atonality.”

That was precisely the Kaiser’s rationale for marching into Belgium.

15

X 05.27.14 at 3:00 am

The criticism cuts all ways. The coalition every academic I knew supported in opposition to the Iraq war was international ANSWER. ANSWER stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. Racism!?! All of Bush’s sane critics said stuff about oil, or general pacificsm, or pointed out the lack of WMDs. Only a race obsessed academic or journalist would think that the war was about race. Yet it was the one that got all the media attention and academic support.

16

Bruce Wilder 05.27.14 at 3:02 am

I agree with LFC: it does seem to be more than a bit odd to be throwing the Americans into the soup in August 1914, when they wouldn’t pick sides in the war until 1917. He doesn’t decry the Italians, the one Central Power, which did not join Germany in August, but he’s far-sighted enough to reject the Americans.

17

the other dsch 05.27.14 at 3:04 am

@LFC
There were definitely avant-garde tendencies in France and Russia, but to Schoenberg in 1914, they represented retrograde tendencies within modern music–he was particularly critical towards Stravinsky, who he thought was merely dressing up old material in new clothes, without advancing tonality at all. Earlier, though, in the Hamonielhre, he cited Debussy, Busoni, and Puccini (?!) as some of the most harmonically interesting composers of the time. As for Ives, Schoenberg didn’t learn about him until many years later, and wrote some highly appreciative comments about him in his personal journals. From my own readings of Schoenberg, I’ve had the impression that, per Corey Robin’s thesis, the war really brought out the worst in him.

18

godoggo 05.27.14 at 3:05 am

I don’t think support for ANSWER had much to do with their ideology – aren’t they a front for the Socialist Worker’s whatever, and supporters of N Korea? – but just because they were particularly good at organizing protests.

19

Bruce Wilder 05.27.14 at 3:06 am

My own favorite quote of this ilk is Siegfried Sassoon on his feelings at the outset of the war: “France was a lady, Russia was a bear, and performing in the county cricket team was much more important than either of them.”

20

roy belmont 05.27.14 at 3:35 am

David Rees:

…and sent its buckshot tearing into Iraq– tatterdemalion, sanction-wracked– and the rocks behind were splatter-stained with a crimson decoupage like some chromatic inversion of all that is holy and lawful. I kindly reckon we just shot the shit out of Iraq, Ignatieff said. And Friedman said, Lets move in to get a better look at her. And they tried hailing a cab with an anecdotaholic driver but they couldn’t find one because they were stranded in a featureless semantic apocalypse, meaning-raped and apostropheless…

Thanks for that link, Darius Jedburg .

21

godoggo 05.27.14 at 4:07 am

Alex Ross also has a great blog, also called The Rest Is Noise.

22

bad Jim 05.27.14 at 5:45 am

I would hesitate to call the sort of people whose wisdom is published daily in places like the New York Times “intellectuals” because, as we’ve seen, few of them think for themselves. In the instance of the Iraq war, their cogitation seems to have been limited to determining the attitudes of their fellow opinionators and aligning themselves accordingly: my place is to the right of Z and the left of X. Krugman comes across as an oddball because he doesn’t play that game.

La Trahison des Clercs isn’t a general phenomenon. Those whose life is the mind are certainly apt to go off in odd directions, but they’re more likely to buck the trend than the sensual man-in-the-street.

Schoenberg’s influence has been, from what I’ve read, extraordinarily disproportionate to his appeal. Musicians have been complaining for generations about being taught serialism, as if it was the last word, though audiences have always rejected it. Even in my right-wing Southern California backwater, we much prefer minimalism and lionize Adams, Glass and Reich.

23

godoggo 05.27.14 at 6:07 am

What you mean we, white man? I’m not generally a huge serialism fan, but I enjoy Schoenberg.

24

godoggo 05.27.14 at 6:10 am

Although my SoCal backwater isn’t all that rightwing, so it’s presumably not yours.

25

Bruce Baugh 05.27.14 at 6:11 am

Agreed with godoggo about ANSWER. All those folks who found ANSWER’s awfulness too much were free to organize protests of their own. Not many did, to put it mildly.

26

Harold 05.27.14 at 6:11 am

Well, there are similarities but also differences. Ross says that Schoenberg soon regretted what he called his “war psychosis” and writes that although most academics and artists were caught up in it, composer Richard Strauss didn’t go along and refused to sign a manifesto denying that the Germans had committed atrocities in Louvain. In our country it was not so much academics and artists who were caught up in war psychosis, but very well paid political pundits, and few of them subsequently have had the honesty to admit, much less regret (like Schoenberg) their former insanity, not to speak of the financial and career rewards that it brought their way.

A few years ago I read several books by Fritz Stern about pre-World War I Germany and had the impression that in contrast to the Iraq war and the Vietnam war, in Germany professors, artists, and writers at that period overwhelmingly supported the German monarchy and its bellicose foreign policy and, indeed, as a group, German academics tended to be even further to the right than their students (whom they routinely incited) let alone the population at large. In this context Leo Strauss’s infamous 1933 letter to Karl Löwith about opposing Nazism from the right, without recourse to what he called the “despicable” principles of human rights is unremarkable: “the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us [i.e., Jews] says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme, to protest against the shabby abomination [i.e., Hitler].”

27

John Quiggin 05.27.14 at 6:50 am

Responding to X, there’s a huge asymmetry here. In opposing the war, I could make common cause with pacifists, international realists, anti-imperialists, ANSWER and others with all sorts of different reasons for believing that the war should not go ahead. If our efforts had been successful, we would all have got the desired outcome.

By contrast, the supporters of the war amassed a coalition that included the desire to:
* Protect the world from WMDs
* Promote democracy in the Middle East
* Produce a reliable ally for Israel
* Promote a pro-Western version of Islam
* Introduce majority government in Iraq
* Keep pro-Iranian Shias out of power
* Throw a small crappy country against the wall to show we mean business
* Test out the new lightweight military
* Get access to cheap oil

etc. etc. All of them (not just intellectuals, but players much closer to the C-in-C) assumed that the war would produce the results they wanted. But since these results were obviously inconsistent, they were deluding themselves.

28

bad Jim 05.27.14 at 7:38 am

godoggo, Dana Rorabacher is my congressman, and for what it’s worth Verklärte Nacht gets a friendly reception in my neighborhood. I’m not sure anyone’s going to believe this, but I’ve actually heard a performance of Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet which actually sounded good. Nevertheless …

I actually object to the assertion that “A state goes to war for its own reasons.” Invading Iraq did America no good. I suppose it made some sense to our former president and those in his circle, as well as the New York Times and the Washington Post, if not to the Los Angeles Times or nearly half the public. There was general acquiescence in this fiasco, initially, but the enthusiasm was far from universal. Kerry came within a hairsbreadth of defeating Bush in 2004, and Obama cruised to victory in 2008 as the only reliably anti-war candidate.

“L’ État c’est moi” certainly characterizes Bush’s thinking, though it’s unlikely he could pronounce the phrase.

29

Harold 05.27.14 at 8:08 am

Our writers and artists — I am thinking of the transcendentalists — generally opposed the Mexican War (which was basically fought to expand slavery, which Mexico had outlawed, into Texas) on the “despicable grounds of inalienable human rights,” and as a result were virtually marginalized, or at least their political opinions are seldom mentioned.

I am always amazed that modernist composers like Schoenberg and also Charles Seeger didn’t like Stravinsky — or Nadia Boulanger, for that matter. I guess there were rival schools.

30

J Thomas 05.27.14 at 8:26 am

“Invading Iraq did America no good. I suppose it made some sense to our former president and those in his circle, as well as the New York Times and the Washington Post, if not to the Los Angeles Times or nearly half the public.”

I don’t know the real rationale among high government leaders. But the plan that I saw leaked was that we would quickly defeat the Iraqi army, quickly establish a democratic government that would defer to the occupiers, we would get the sanctions lifted and particularly the oil quotas, we would bring in US (and other) oil companies to efficiently produce oil, and the tremendous revenues from the oil (and the many oil jobs) would make Iraq a fairly rich nation with a large middle class, they would not rebel against prosperity.

Maybe it could have worked. But I think when they took Baghdad and looked at the Iraqi Oil Ministry records, they found that the claims that Iraq had the second-largest reserves in the world were only Saddam’s lies. The oil companies refused to do much to develop Iraq’s oil, which they probably would have done if there had been as much oil as Bush etc thought. Suddenly it went from a quick project which might provide the USA with cheap oil for ten years or more and revitalize the economy, to an expensive tar baby we couldn’t get unstuck from. It was still expensive even though we tried to run the occupation on the cheap, cutting corners on everything that would otherwise have reduced Iraqi dissatisfaction.

31

maidhc 05.27.14 at 8:27 am

Of course, once Schoenberg got going on the twelve-tone system, he not only developed retrograde tendencies but inversion as well!

godoggo: If you read Schoenberg’s books about music theory, he takes a lot of examples from Bach. But his early compositions show a certain Brahmsian influence.

I did a quick survey flipping through “Structural Functions of Harmony” (1948): Wagner, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Strauss, Bach, Haydn, Bruckner, Wolf …

but then Bizet, Franck, Debussy

Reger, Wagner again (lots), Chopin, …, Tschaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Liszt …

Most Germans but not all.

Darius Jedburg: Thank you!

Harold: Your point about German academics is demonstrated very ably in “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

32

reason 05.27.14 at 8:51 am

jazzbumpa @1
No
Mostly, but not always. (Think for instance about the first world war or Granada). Humans are not always so rational, and the evidence is that it in principle never pays.

33

reason 05.27.14 at 8:56 am

Or going back further, the horrendous 30 years war (Reformation) in Central Europe, which wasn’t really terroritorial in the strict sense at all.

34

bad Jim 05.27.14 at 9:27 am

J Thomas, I remember the Tinkerbell mentality current at the time. I also remember that Iraq was considered an existential threat, which was the most pervasive and probably the most persuasive argument for bombing the hell out of a poor beaten up hollowed out desertified paradise.

The story wasn’t that we’d profit by invading the country, but rather that horrible things would happen to us if we didn’t. Unfortunately, to a majority of my countrymen, this argument was persuasive, and a disturbingly large number of countries arguably less deranged elected to go along with this delusion.

I even visited a number of them subsequently, and their denizens didn’t seem especially deranged. As far as I can tell, invading a far-off country isn’t the sort of thing that bothers the average person.

35

Ebenezer Scrooge 05.27.14 at 11:14 am

@bad Jim
There were several stories. The official story was that horrible things would happen to us if we didn’t invade Iraq. Of course, it had to be the official story–we have a Department of Defense, not a Department of War. Aggression is bad, after all.
Then there was the wink-wink nudge-nudge story about oil, told sotto voce. And a whole bunch of others, never publicly articulated, but on everybody’s mind. Most of them seemed related to a sense of national manhood, or perhaps the Book of Revelations.

36

Barry 05.27.14 at 12:07 pm

John@27, I’d discount any concern for human rights or democracy from motivations for the war supporters. Offhand, I don’t recall any of them who seemed to be bothered when the ‘liberation’ turned into hell.

37

Alex K--- 05.27.14 at 12:11 pm

My impression was that German (writ large) composers used to labor under the assumption that “German music” was music, and the rest was ethnic humstrumming. “I have made a discovery that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years,” Schoenberg proclaimed in the 1920s.

38

jonnybutter 05.27.14 at 12:20 pm

Remarkable too that some intellectuals always seem so keen to parade what they wrongly believe to be solid understanding of music even when it’s not the subject of the OP. I wonder why?

no one has quite the self-deluding capacity of the intellectual.

Artists often say one thing explicitly, and ‘say’ something much more radical – and often completely different or even opposed – in their work. But for the non-artist intellectual, all there is is the former. How sad for them.

39

James Wimberley 05.27.14 at 1:46 pm

OP: “.. something you often see when intellectuals go to war …”
Schoenberg himself didn’t go to war. Nor did the pundits supporting, or opposing, the Iraq war. The anecdotes about the young writers who actually did go the front in 1914 suggest somewhat greater realism, though not much.

Intellectuals are not like other people. Tolkien, a conservative catholic, opposed the Nazis because they were lying about Norse myths, which he knew everything about, so he concluded they were probably lying about other things. This was sound reasoning but the converse doesn’t hold: the Nazis were right about tobacco and cruelty to animals, which isn’t evidence they were right about the Jews. Did anybody support them on those grounds?

40

Harold 05.27.14 at 2:02 pm

I don’t see how anyone can say that the subject is not also music, where we are talking about Schoenberg and Alex Ross.

Schoenberg’s early work, which is quite wonderful, would have been Brahmsian, because the champions of Brahms praised him an exponent of “pure”, absolute music (represented by the sonata and symphony), as opposed to the musical dramatists Lizst and Wagner (whom they considered “programatic”, or literary composers). This was still the deeply-held unexamined modernist dogma of the “intellectuals” of my parents’ generation, who stood for “purity” and abstraction in everything. All these composers now just sound “romantic” to us.

There are lots of really brilliant people about today, but I think we must have passed “peak” intellectual. Over the decades the word has become progressively meaningless.

41

LFC 05.27.14 at 2:13 pm

the other dsch @17:
Thank you, v. interesting

42

Harold 05.27.14 at 2:22 pm

By “retrograde tendencies of modern music” Schoenberg would have meant Wagner and the inventors of then “new” genres as the tone poem and music drama.

Leon Botstein writes:

Brahms managed to bring new life to forms which Wagner insisted were dead: the piano sonata, the string quartet, the song, and the symphony. Brahms’s example and achievement became an inspiration not only to composers in Germany, but throughout Europe and America, regarding the adaptability of classical and early Romantic traditions of music writing. In the twentieth century, Arnold Schoenberg reinvented Brahms as the father of modernism and of a progressive approach to musical composition. This radical revision of Brahms’s historical role has found many defenders. The “artwork of the future” need not turn out to be the music drama and tone poem exclusively. Brahms’s influence on Dvorák is comparable to Brahms’s influence on a wide array of turn-of-the-century composers, including Schoenberg, who saw the Wagnerian example as more daunting and less encouraging than the inspired achievement of Brahms, who, in his own time, despite staggering success and world-wide renown, suffered the misfortune of being branded a reactionary.

43

Harold 05.27.14 at 2:22 pm

such as

44

Corey Robin 05.27.14 at 2:31 pm

James Wimberley: “OP: ‘.. something you often see when intellectuals go to war …’
Schoenberg himself didn’t go to war. Nor did the pundits supporting, or opposing, the Iraq war.

I meant going to war in the ideological sense. I assumed every knew that Ignatieff et al never picked up a gun.

45

Ronan(rf) 05.27.14 at 2:40 pm

” I’d discount any concern for human rights or democracy from motivations for the war supporters. Offhand, I don’t recall any of them who seemed to be bothered when the ‘liberation’ turned into hell. “

Well, with respect, then you’d probably be wrong. You can’t discount it *for every* war supporter. You could discount it as a primary reason *for* the war, but there were plenty of people who supported it primarily on those grounds. (Mainly among liberal hawks and even some neo-cons)
Where ‘wanting to transform the Middle East/change regional politics/ remove a specific type of regime’ ends AND ‘support democracy and human rights’ begins is very difficult to divide out at times (imo) but discounting completely concepts of democracy and human rights promotion in US foreign policy really leaves out a lot.

46

J Thomas 05.27.14 at 3:01 pm

Bad Jim, I’m interested in what the important people might have thought. I can understand the pundits easily. There was maybe room for a couple of anti-war pundits so they could prove that there was no censorship, but everybody else pretty much had to support the war or stop being a pundit. “Where a man stands depends on where he sits.” “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” I expect there were “important” pundits who decided they were against the war and who I mostly stopped hearing about, but the ones we pay attention to are the ones who found a way to reconcile their brains to necessity.

It’s possible that Bush etc were playing some deep game to determine the course of societies over decades. I don’t believe it.

It’s possible they were working for Israel and didn’t care about the effects on the USA. It isn’t particularly safe to discuss that possibility, so let’s not go there.

The oil is what I have left. If they thought they could spend a lot of money building Iraq up and bribing Iraqis to put up with them, and that would pay off quickly in cheap US-controlled oil, then the rest works out. That would let them *afford* anything else they wanted to do.

If Bush thought of it as a game of no-limit poker, where he’d dealt Saddam a bad hand, that would be an explanation. I don’t see that the war particularly helped Bush in domestic politics. It didn’t help the US balance of payments, it didn’t particularly stimulate the US economy, it used up a lot of oil, it gave us a whole lot of deficit spending that Bush did not use well, etc. The US public would not have demanded we invade Iraq if the administration hadn’t gone to great lengths to persuade them. If it didn’t benefit Bush, or the GOP, or the government, or the nation, who did it benefit? Not particularly the hi-tech military research guys. They got funding cutbacks while we looked for better mine-resistant trucks and better boots etc. Nobody benefitted except Israel, and Sharon told us to invade Iran first because they were the real threat.

Since nobody got much of value out of it, I think it was a mistake. And the obvious mistake for them to make was to believe Saddam’s estimates of his oil reserves.

Of course I could be wrong.

47

Wonks Anonymous 05.27.14 at 3:07 pm

If states went to war for economic reason, that would at least impose some kind of constraint. Hell, the economically rational thing is for both sides to avoid going to war since the expected net value is negative. And yes, I know the Coase theorem just highlights the importance of transaction costs, but the death of settling military disputes with side-payments before they grow too large is part of my point. At least an ignoramus could imagine that Iraq had enough oil to pay for in invasion, what resources did Afghanistan have to justify the USSR and US dumping resources into it?

48

jonnybutter 05.27.14 at 3:29 pm

I don’t see how anyone can say that the subject is not also music, where we are talking about Schoenberg and Alex Ross.

I thought the topic was the intellectual’s relatively enhanced capacity for self-delusion.

but..

By “retrograde tendencies of modern music” Schoenberg would have meant Wagner and the inventors of then “new” genres as the tone poem and music drama.

Some of these little skirmishes, and the silliness and parochialism thereof, might illustrate the topic of the OP, now that you mention it.

However, there are reasons for all this German Stuff, and I would say the chief one is the legacy of JS Bach, under whose shadow all the big name Germans – including Beethoven and Mozart, not to mention anybody else in Western tonal music – labored. In some ways, Bach left a burnt up field, and so forever after, composers were obsessed with being perfectly ‘systemic’ and organic and international/catholic like Bach; to create music that sounded as good as it ‘analyzed’ just like Bach’s. You think those early 12 tone guys weren’t obsessed with Bach and fugue? The best composer of them (Webern -IMO) definitely was. They all were.

Really great highly sophisticated music, like a great Bach fugue for example, can give you what might be called an ‘intellectual orgasm’. That sort of exaltation is what Schoenberg and others were after vis a vis the German Line; not abstraction for its own sake, but also against the idea that music ought to be something too verbal, or too literal, or too trivial (e.g. ‘painting a picture’). They were after brain orgasms.

Whether they were foolish or not to feel this way is another argument.

49

Harold 05.27.14 at 3:48 pm

@48 Agreed. Basically. Though Bach was often heard through mediators, or not at all.

50

Harold 05.27.14 at 4:45 pm

Busoni’s versions of Bach fugues do sound rather bombastic to us today; and we know, too, that Bach’s music was not really “abstract” and “mathematical”, in the way the modernists perceived it, but deeply influenced by two highly emotional 18th century phenomena: Italian opera and religious Pietism. (Moreover the Bach family was not originally German but Moravian — though everyone here knows that.)

51

Darius Jedburg 05.27.14 at 6:25 pm

One of the happier orchestral arrangements of a Bach fugue is Schoenberg’s own of the St Anne fugue BWV 552

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the other dsch 05.27.14 at 6:56 pm

@39
In fact, Schoenberg did go to war (at the age of 42!). Of course, he never saw combat, and was discharged after a year. He served again briefly at the very end of the war.

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roy belmont 05.27.14 at 7:01 pm

Quiggin:

But since these results were obviously inconsistent, they were deluding themselves.

Not all of them. Just the ones whose results didn’t happen.
The ones who wanted a destroyed and irreparable country – self-metabolizing, wretched, torn asunder – made of Iraq got exactly what they wanted.
Nothing delusional about that at all.

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Harold 05.27.14 at 7:06 pm

I like his arrangement of “Funiculí, funiculá”, too.

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shah8 05.27.14 at 8:10 pm

You know, all this talk about Bach and Schoenberg is making me think of jazz transitioning into post-bop and then transitioning into all sorts of fusion styles. That this happened under the weight of the Vietnam War gives me impulses towards questions I can’t form right. Something about wars and searches for authenticity.

Maybe during wars, intellectuals want to be authentic, even at the expense of being wrong, no matter how that reduces the quality of said authenticity. And they rant at all the newfangled styles that threaten the righteousness of their own.

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godoggo 05.27.14 at 10:13 pm

I dunno what Schoenberg said about Wagner (maybe there was something about that in the book, but it’s been back on the liberry shelf for quite a few years now), but it just seems to me that the latter’s music is very chromatic, very non-repetitive, often without a clear tonal center, often with unresolved dissonances, and these are just the qualities that serialism was extending and systematizing (although what appeals to me about Schoenberg is that the system wasn’t the point; I imagine he’d still be considered fairly important even if he hadn’t abandoned tonality). I’d imagine that the sort of modernism he’d object to might have been things like early Stravinsky’s folk-influenced music, or what some consider the flaccid music of the Impressionists.

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J Thomas 05.27.14 at 10:17 pm

“If states went to war for economic reason, that would at least impose some kind of constraint. Hell, the economically rational thing is for both sides to avoid going to war since the expected net value is negative.”

People don’t go to war because both sides believe they will profit. Well, maybe sometimes. They go to war because they don’t have an agreement, and typically both figure that if they don’t fight they will wind up very bad off without even trying to stop it.

Like, for Afghanistan, the implicit US position was that if we didn’t stop the Afghans from supporting international terrorists, the international terrorists would do 9/11 to us every day and we couldn’t stop them. And we certainly weren’t going to pay them to not allow international terrorists. They could set the price at whatever they wanted. And every other third-world hellhole would also want to be paid.

Of course, in reality third-world hellholes are not good places to train terrorists to slip through first-world security. But ignoring the details, lots of Americans thought we could not allow Afghans to do anything they wanted to do to hurt us.

Similarly, Afghans were faced with unacceptable demands. What would we have done if the USSR said that George Soros was responsible for some horrible crime in the USSR so we had to give him to them for punishment? No proof he’d done it, but they said they had proof they wouldn’t show us. If we gave them Soros would they come back and demand we give them Bill Gates or the Koch brothers? Once they make unreasonable demands how do you decide where to draw the line and disobey them? It would probably have been cheaper for them to give in and do whatever we wanted, compared to what we did to them when they didn’t, but people tend to fight rather than just accept being enslaved.

Traditionally people lost a whole lot when foreign armies came through and lived off the land. They were willing to pay to keep that from happening. It’s cheaper when your army is living off the land somewhere else, keeping a foreign army from invading, than when you don’t have an army and the foreign army is here. In the very old days castles were expensive, they took a whole lot of work that could have been put into something productive. But it was better than the alternative. Without a strong point to hide an army in, foreign armies could wander through your land spread out however they like, taking what they wanted. With an army encysted, they can only pass through your land in numbers large enough your army won’t come out and attack them. So you lose less.

Later, with artillery that could knock down castles, fortifications got even more expensive and places there was sufficient wealth people paid for them anyway.

People don’t have armies to make a profit. They have armies so they won’t lose everything. And then sometimes it used to be cheaper to keep their armies in somebody else’s country than their own. Not free, not break-even, but cheaper. Even that isn’t true any more. While we were fighting in Iraq, our military cost something like 4% of GDP in direct costs, and the war cost around another 2% of GDP. More expensive, but not that much more.

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jonnybutter 05.27.14 at 10:29 pm

Busoni’s versions of Bach fugues do sound rather bombastic to us today;

They sound a little grotesque (always!), yes.

and we know, too, that Bach’s music was not really “abstract” and “mathematical”, in the way the modernists perceived it, but deeply influenced by two highly emotional 18th century phenomena: Italian opera and religious Pietism.

Regardless of whether either characterization is appropriate, being abstract and being ‘deeply influenced by two highly emotional 18th century phenomena’ are not opposite things, which is the point I was trying to make before, sort of. You can do a formal analysis of an exemplary piece of Bach and the abstract integrity (whether you call it math or whatever) is all there – like examining a leaf under a microscope. And it also *sounds* beautiful.

Music hides nothing – it’s all there in ‘plain sight’, as it were. But it’s beyond the merely verbal. It’s ‘influenced’ by all sorts of things, but what matters is the result – which is quite as unpredictable as other kinds of influences. For example, one of Debussy’s favorite composers (supposedly) was Weber – yes, as in Carl Maria Von. But look what came out of Claude. Debussy admired Weber’s orchestration technique. I hate to sound snooty about it, but music is its own thing, not a branch of politics or letters or anything else. I am not saying it should be verboten to talk or write about, but…take care!

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Corey Robin 05.27.14 at 10:41 pm

godoggo gets much more closely to Schoenberg’s relationship to Wagner (and, by extension, Mahler and Richard Strauss, both of whom he saw as inspirations, particularly Strauss’ Salome) and hostility to Stravinsky. The latter hostility, incidentally, was developed more thoroughly by Adorno, who saw Schoenberg and Berg as his teachers; I think Berg in fact was a teacher of Adorno.

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some computer guy 05.27.14 at 11:40 pm

RE: economic justifications for war, see Norman Angell.
In 1910 he published a book called “The Great Illusion”.
He is sometimes cited as saying that economic integration had made war impossible, right before WWI started.

What he actually says is that economic justifications for war don’t hold up. The corollary being; don’t expect economics to keep the peace either.

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jonnybutter 05.28.14 at 12:22 am

I’d imagine that the sort of modernism [Schoeberg] object[ed] to might have been things like early Stravinsky’s folk-influenced music, or what some consider the flaccid music of the Impressionists.

I’m pretty sure Adorno and AS both *really* objected to neo-classicism in Stravinsky. Listen to the Igor music of that period – Rake’s Progress being a nadir – and you don’t need any elaborate theory to understand why! It sounds bad and is patently empty and bad ‘ideologically’.

I would add to Corey @59: Adorno was a lot more hostile to Stravinsky than was Schoenberg. I believe AS actually defended – in his way – Stravinsky from Adorno. And AS’s relationship to Strauss was also ‘complicated’.

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jonnybutter 05.28.14 at 12:33 am

Just to wrap up: I know that Adorno objected to early Stravinsky ballets – *Le Sacre* and *Petrushka* and maybe *Le Noce* – because they were pastiche-ish and ‘bourgeois primitivism’ and had the pretense of objectivity, and all the rest of it. But I’m pretty sure the more active musician (Schoenberg) couldn’t help but like some of it – I know Schoenberg liked some Stravinsky pieces. I’m not sneering at Adorno, but I still like Petrushka even though it has a bourgeois whiff.

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bad Jim 05.28.14 at 7:24 am

J Thomas, in response to your comment at 46, I don’t think the decision to invade Iraq was rational. In 2002 the authorization of the use of military force seemed to be an unusually cynical political move to boost the Republican vote in the midterm election, and was successful in that respect.

It’s pretty easy now to say that the pundits were idiots. It’s not much of a stretch to conclude that the administration wasn’t much better. In the marketplace of ideas at the time, sanity was deeply discounted.

War for no good reason isn’t especially unusual. Hell, the Vietnam war almost seems reasonable in comparison to the Spanish-American War, either World War, or Operation Iraqi Freedom. Hanlon’s razor applies. Sure, you can imagine all sorts of reasons why the powers behind the throne will profit, but there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to think the people who make the decisions are actually competent.

We still use “Crusade” to describe an admirable campaign, which is a bit like describing a placard-waving demonstration as a “lynching”. Going to war is somehow a default setting. As an American, whose military could defeat every other force on the planet, I’m reminded of the Far Side cartoon in which one bear remarks to another, “Look at these teeth. Look at these claws. Are we supposed to live on nuts and berries?”

Also, Schoenberg may have been objecting to jazz. Else why mention America?

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godoggo 05.28.14 at 7:40 am

Well I know Adorno thought jazz was worthless. I also recall that Schoenberg was dismissive of Weill. Presumably the jazz influence had something to do with it. Whatever. His music still sounds better to me than John Adams.

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bad Jim 05.28.14 at 8:22 am

Don’t we all know the stories? Gershwin went to Europe, and asked Ravel, perhaps, for lessons. They compared their respective incomes, and Ravel suggested that he ought to take lessons from Gershwin. (Wikipedia suggests that the same story is told about every musician of that era.)

Jazz took over immediately. We nitpick about serialism because it’s completely irrelevant. Jazz is also no longer mainstream. I’m bemused by the continuing appeal of the rock music of my youth. Sure, I loved it at the time, but was it actually that good? Is it just the sheer size of the boomer cohort that keeps Dylan and the Beatles around?

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godoggo 05.28.14 at 8:59 am

Irrelevant is whatever I don’t listen to.

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J Thomas 05.28.14 at 11:01 am

“J Thomas, in response to your comment at 46, I don’t think the decision to invade Iraq was rational. In 2002 the authorization of the use of military force seemed to be an unusually cynical political move to boost the Republican vote in the midterm election, and was successful in that respect.”

Looking back, it was pretty stupid. Long-run bad results for at best a transient political win.

I don’t know what they were thinking. I guess you’re right that it doesn’t really matter, it was crazy thinking whatever the details.

My problem with Hanlon’s Razor is that after you attribute everything that anybody does to stupidity, which does seem to fit the available facts, what do you do for an encore?

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Barry 05.28.14 at 12:05 pm

Pleas note that the expected net value to the people making the decisions is different than the expected net value overall. A lot of people profited immensely from that war.

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J Thomas 05.28.14 at 12:22 pm

#68

A relatively small number of people profited immensely from the war. I knew military contractors whose income was cut because they weren’t making the things the war needed. The war slowed our efforts toward hi-tech military R&D.

It would have been much cheaper to find the people you wanted to profit from the war, and just give them the money. Far, far less overhead.

70

reason 05.28.14 at 12:49 pm

Wonks Anonymous @47
” And yes, I know the Coase theorem just highlights the importance of transaction costs, but the death (sic) of settling military disputes with side-payments before they grow too large is part of my point.”
(I guess you mean dearth).

I think the Coase theorem, assumes a legal framework, where contracts are binding, this is not the case the military disputes. Paying someone not to invade, just encourages them to threaten you again.

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stevenjohnson 05.28.14 at 2:47 pm

Hanlon’s razor? It would be charitable to say Hanlon evidently never went to public school. If Hanlon had, Hanlon would have seen that the number one defense of miscreants is “I made a stupid mistake.” The phrasing differs of course. I suppose “I didn’t know!” might be the most common. The uncharitable thing to say would be that Hanlon has thieves’ honor, and won’t queer another grifter’s pitch.

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Harold 05.28.14 at 3:30 pm

@69
Giving people money directly — isn’t that how Petraeus settled things in the Iraq war? Not that they didn’t do that all along.

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Harold 05.28.14 at 3:42 pm

@65

Musical comedy also continues to be very popular/lucrative.

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bad Jim 05.29.14 at 6:59 am

My unreliable memory supports the impression that I had an inkling of Hanlon’s razor back in the days of the Nixon administration. I remember my shock at finding out I was wrong, that they were as malicious as we’d feared. I continue to think it’s a useful heuristic, but it’s necessary to keep in mind that malice and incompetence are frequently found together.

I love Sondheim’s lyrics, but for musicals I always go back to the comedic stylings of Da Ponte and Mozart.

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Bruce Wilder 05.29.14 at 4:12 pm

J Thomas @ 57 In the very old days castles were expensive, they took a whole lot of work that could have been put into something productive. But it was better than the alternative.

A small quibble, but castles were a technology of occupation and pillage, not a defensive means for the common people. The invading Normans, for example, put them up as a way of becoming a permanent alien ruling class in Britain. They protected the earls and barons from one another, and from rebellious serfs, but they did not protect the common people, nor were they intended to.

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Harold 05.29.14 at 6:20 pm

(As long as we are having afterthoughts)@58 wrote “Regardless of whether either characterization is appropriate, being abstract and being ‘deeply influenced by two highly emotional 18th century phenomena’ are not opposite things, which is the point I was trying to make before, sort of. You can do a formal analysis of an exemplary piece of Bach and the abstract integrity (whether you call it math or whatever) is all there – like examining a leaf under a microscope. And it also *sounds* beautiful.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the statement above — to the effect that emotion and formalism are not incompatible, but, in defining “absolute music” Hanslick specifically referenced Bach’s *instrumental* music. Bach’s fugues were admired because they were *not* programatic — as also was Brahms’s music (although it is sometimes rumored that Brahms’s instrumental compositions had a secret program). Hanslick even admitted that audiences found Bach’s vocal polyphony wearisome and remarked that many would find the text for say, “Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death,” “quietly irritating.” (Kevin Karnes, Music, Criticism, and the Challenge of History : Shaping Modern Musical Thought in Late Nineteenth Century Vienna [Oxford, 2008], p. 70). For Hanslick the spirit of Bach’s music needed to be translated for modern audiences; and he thought ideal composer to accomplish this was Brahms.

At the same time, however, composers and serious music lovers of the late 19th were everywhere finding that the tempered scale that Bach had done so much to perfect and exploit had become a confining prison of convention, hence the experimentations with chromaticism and tonality (in the vein of Wagner).

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J Thomas 05.29.14 at 8:05 pm

@75, agreed. And yet I think my thinking is true also — an army that was not strong enough to establish a full-scale siege could not live off the land thoroughly when there was a reasonably strong army holed up in fortifications. They could pass through, but the areas that were already pillaged wouldn’t provide much. And if they tried to ship supplies through without an army to protect them, they might not make it.

A vague analogy — our missile silos do nothing to protect our people, but only protect the missiles that might discourage attack.

My bigger point was that the society paid whatever it cost to not lose, provided they could afford that much. If not, they lost.

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Darius Jedburg 05.30.14 at 1:39 am

Harold — On the basis of a large minority of his works Bach qualifies as one of the most ‘chromaticist’ of composers. Chromaticism tends to undermine the sense of being in a particular key, which was central to the musical language of classicism and, to a lesser extent, of early romanticism. The late (Wagner, Mahler) and certain earlier (Chopin) romantics’ and early modernists’ experiments with chromaticism, and the latters’ with atonality (Schoenberg straddling both groups),were reactions above all against *classicism* (and perhaps certain mainstream currents in the baroque): chromaticism and atonality in classical music is rare enough to stick out like a sore thumb (Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ quartet; slow movement of his F major piano sonata K533, interestingly described by Alan Hollinghurst in The Line of Beauty as ‘Bach-like’). They were emphatically not reactions against Bach, whose music, more than that of any other composer ever, was unconfined by genre, stylistic language, and even historical period, ranging as it did from uncanny pastiches of archaic paradigms (BWV 669, opening chorus to BWV 121), to futuristic avant-la-lettre modernism worthy of Stravinsky (opening aria of BWV 54, 4th of the canonic variations for organ on the Christmas carol ‘Von Himmel Hoch’ (all later arranged for orchestra by Stravinsky)). On the contrary, these prominent features of late romanticism and early modernism were partly inspired by Bach and self-consciously harked back to him, as indicated by eg Schoenberg’s and Stravinsky’s orchestrations of organ works and Berg’s chorale quotation in the last movement of his violin concerto. It was all a bit like Eliot’s version of literary modernism: back to the future.

Later audiences would unsurprisingly have been irritated by the morbidly Lutheran texts for the cantatas but they were liturgical bread and butter to the congregations that constituted their original audiences. But perhaps you weren’t denying that.

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Harold 05.30.14 at 2:41 am

I only quoted Hanslick as illustrative of the mood of his times. I do agree that Bach is the alpha and omega of music and that he experimented with chromaticism.

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Darius Jedburg 05.30.14 at 3:24 am

Fair enough Harold!

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Harold 05.30.14 at 4:13 am

And his vocal polyphony is the most exciting thing of all time, pace Hanslick! The rhythmic excitement of jazz has helped us appreciate it, IMO.

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Harold 05.30.14 at 4:31 am

They were reacting against stale and restricting conventions, not against musical genius.

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godoggo 05.31.14 at 5:51 pm

I’ve been going back and forth about commenting here again because, well, never mind, but anyway, the kind of chromaticism you see in Bach tends to be stuff like chromatic passing tones or cadenced-based modulations, so it’s still essentially coming from scales, although things can get pretty weird when, say, he makes a fugue out of very chromatic theme, like that one in The Musical Offering for example. There are some places in there where it starts sounding a bit like Schoenberg to me, not so much like Wagner.

In late Romantics, you often have things like adjacent chords that are related only by a common tone. When somebody like Beethoven did that it was a surprise, but with Wagner or Brahms it becomes a basic part of the pallett. I don’t think Bach did that, although I suppose somebody could dig through his work and find an example. I bet you could find it in Gesualdo…

Anyways, I think the main influences of Bach on serialism were non-repetition i.e. long melodic lines, avoidance of parallel movement, and some of the devices used for developing a motif, although I think for Bach some of the latter tended to be less like compositional rules than like little math games he liked to play. Kind of how Schoenberg viewed the rules of serialism.

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Ed Herdman 05.31.14 at 7:01 pm

I suppose the only thing different about Schoenberg and a person like “Gérard Duval, the printer” is that the Schoenbergs of the world not only take the opportunity to search out and compare things in nationalistic ways, but they are rewarded for it. Given the opportunity, a printer or a baker may well compare the state of the art in French typesetting or ovens vs. the German equivalents. If it were not for the special attention and mystique given to the “chattering classes,” we might find just as many similar sentiments among the personal letters of people who are not considered intellectuals, yet these beliefs probably contributed just as substantially to public support for that war.

Mass-media magnification of ‘the intellectual view’ doesn’t mean that the actors seeking their own ends actually get what they wanted (as John Quiggin says) – but being given their time in the sun is not exactly a punishment either.

In Shoenberg’s time, though, I am not sure what significance a private letter would have except as a reflection of the view of elites, in their private world. Yet I would think that one finds similar sentiments being magnified, and providing much popular support for the war, among the apparently less studied views of private tradesmen and laborers. This raises the question of whether more modern mass media capabilities tend to amplify or diffuse these elite-but-not-paramount viewpoints.

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godoggo 05.31.14 at 10:24 pm

Well, yeah, Schoenberg’s letter does seem reminiscent of the views of a certain obscure corporal with not-very-intellectual artistic leanings, although the latter would prove to be no great fan of Schoenberg’s own work for a couple of reasons.

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Ed Herdman 05.31.14 at 11:16 pm

To belabor the point unduly – that again shows how sometimes the process of Stuff Happening effectively short-circuits the imagined importance of cranky professionals, artistes, etc. in swaying public opinion. Re-reading the original post, I realize this is basically a restatement of Corey Robin’s point. Kultur was crowing about the intellectual potential of the German establishment – but not in any way that would help the intellectual elites.

And actually the Corporal is an example, I think, of where the close contact of many different “intellectual” types can breed real problems, even when it doesn’t obviously fit into the established power structure, simply by giving support and cover – various people taking a shine to him based on his willingness to promote their theories (on national identity, on Jews, and other issues), reciprocated in various ways culminating with the spectacle of the looting of a continent and its prim gardens and apartment rows being flattened into jagged lines. Very atonal, and jarring as well. But it also presents an accident of history where one of these angry fellows was mostly left alone, while the other was built up to the ruin of empires.

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