Ambushed by Derrida

September 14, 2011

I was searching for reviews of Furtwängler’s recordings and came across an article on Google Books with the following title: “Of Musical Headings: Toscanini’s and Furtwängler’s Fifth Symphonies, 1939-54.”  My two favorite conductors conducting one of my favorite pieces!  That sounded interesting!  I wondered what it was doing in a book entitled “Thresholds of Western Culture: Identity, Postcoloniality, Transnationalism.”  (Tangent.  I can’t even read that title without laughing.  Postcolonialism is ridiculous to begin with, but what on earth is Postcoloniality???  A tendency toward Postcolonialism?  Probably it doesn’t mean anything except that the authors are SO postmodern that they can’t even bring themselves to refer to a specific theory, but have to dissolve it into tendencies instead.)

Anyway, I’ll spare you an attempt at a synopsis of the article.  Basically, before I knew it, I had been attacked by deconstructionism and its prophet Derrida.  The article blathered on for page after page about Derrida, Heidegger, Derrida, Paul de Man, Derrida, Theodor Adorno, more Derrida, etc.  There was not a single mention of Toscanini, Furtwängler, Beethoven, or the Fifth Symphony.  The style of the author, one Herman Rapaport, is a sophisticated postmodernist joke that doesn’t even rise to the level of sophistry, sprinkled with a few contractions and personal anecdotes, apparently in an effort to make it seem like he’s not intentionally obfuscating.  Sample:

It’s here that L’autre cap‘s thinking on reunification has been extended somewhat, though already in L’autre cap it is apparent that Derrida is asking questions about how Europe is composed as a cosmopolitical space that is always capable of thinking its other at the limit of an infinite questioning that a priori has appeared to have exhausted itself in the name of a democracy to come.

Well, I’m glad that’s cleared up.

So this guy eventually got to Toscanini and Furtwängler, but what I read made only slightly more sense than the first few pages.  For instance, Furtwängler (who is, of course, praised at the expense of Toscanini) receives the following eulogy:

It’s precisely in this acknowledgement of another temporality, never before disclosed in the history of musical conducting, that Furtwängler crosses the limit line of the mercurial or the merely mad for the sake of encountering what Derrida calls the right-to-philosophy, a heading other than the heading in which we thought we were being directed.

Toscanini, on the other hand, is not so fortunate.

His music refuses the kind of atomization and alterity that would allow for a proliferation of hegemonic references.

Silly Toscanini!  You forgot to allow for a proliferation of hegemonic references!  Too bad you didn’t know Derrida (kowtow).

After skimming and struggling my way to the end of the article (I forget how it ended – it probably didn’t, it just stopped – I’m certainly not going to go back and check) – I looked up “Derrida” on Wikipedia.  After recovering from the slight shock induced by his photo, I learned that he “has often been the target of attacks by analytic philosophers.”  “Analytic philosophers,” it seems, is deconstructionalist-ese for “philosophers,” or “people who are at least closer to living in the actual world.”  I clicked on the link to “deconstruction.”  There I learned that although Derrida “carefully avoided directly defining the term” (obviously a writer wouldn’t want to let his readers know what he’s talking about …), deconstruction “can be described as an effort to understand a text through its relationships to various contexts.”  The key, though, is in the sentence before: “There is no truly objective, non-textual reference from which interpretation can begin.”

This is not only the key to understanding Derrida and Deconstructionism: this is a key to understanding all modern (=post-Reformation) thought.  Seen in this context – that’s the context of reality and of history – deconstructionism becomes simply the logical, if impotent and ridiculous, conclusion of modern thought.  Let’s look at this historically – the “evolution of modern thought,” if you like.

First step: 16th century – if you decide you will no longer recognize the divine authority of the teaching Church, you can pick and choose which of the Christian dogmas you like, come up with some of your own that allow you to indulge your personal vices better (Luther, Calvin, Cranmer), and finally apply to this fabricated mixture the reverence you formerly gave to the Church of God.

Next step: (17th century) – you, as a more or less devout Lutheran, Calvinist, etc., begin to think, “Hey, what’s so great about Martin Luther?  What did he know?  For that matter, what do I know?”  (Hold that thought, 17th century skeptic!)

Next step: 18th century: French philosophes – “Ecrasez l’infame” – obliterate Christianity, especially the Catholic Church, and set up a new way of life = revolution.

Then the 19th century, for which I will always have a soft spot.  Many decent men in this century were understandably a bit horrified at the logical and bloody conclusion of the 18th century and its principles, but had unfortunately forgotten how to think, and were unwilling to learn how again.  Thus we get the noble art of the Romantics, who realized, or – more accurately – sensed or intuited, that man is not made for democracy, but for truth and beauty and love and redemption and other good things like that.  Unfortunately very few of them made the connection to the source of truth, beauty, love, and redemption.  They had asked the right questions but didn’t know how to find the answer.  There were a few survivors among the Romantics into the 20th century – among musicians, interestingly, performers lasted longer than composers.  Furtwängler and Toscanini, the last truly great musicians, both stopped conducting in 1954 (the former died, the latter retired and died three years later).

Back at the end of the 19th century, more and more “thinkers” begin to think: “Well, the 18th century was kind of empty and unpleasant, and the Romantic movement doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  What’s the point of it all?  No one has any answers.  Nothing means anything.  God is dead.”  Whereupon the 17th century skeptic, having impatiently restrained himself for 250 years, bursts out: “I TOLD you we don’t know anything.”  To which the logical response would be, “Oh, ok, well then there’s no point in thinking anymore.  I guess I’ll go watch TV.”  Which indeed many people did.  But by this point some people were so confused that they didn’t draw this logical conclusion, and continued to think in ever-increasing complexity, lost at sea, no land in sight, weaving webs of words that eventually lost all possibility of meaning altogether.

Art and music followed suit – “art for the sake of art” (what other purpose can art have, if nothing means anything?); Picasso, Stravinsky, Schoenberg; the article “Who cares if you listen?” by the coincidentally remarkably unpopular Milton Babbitt, people getting paid fortunes for exhibiting a urinal or a bunch of trash bags and calling it “art.”  Then of course there were commentaries, and analyses, and analyses of the commentaries, and commentaries on the analyses, and philosophies of philosophy.  Influences were traced, theories proposed, terms introduced and left undefined; careers were established, chins (and egos) were stroked.  But people had forgotten the reason for thinking.  Thinking had become an end in itself, because, as the skeptics had shown us, there was no other reason to think, and yet somehow people had this strange habit of continuing to think.

This finally reaches the stage where, not only do the thinker’s words and sentences no longer mean anything, but the thinker denies the existence of reality.  Selectively, that is.  My food and clothes are real, and probably luxurious, and very important, but, on the other hand, history, philosophy, art, and basically anything that does not directly affect my bodily comfort has become completely independent of external reality.  I can make things mean whatever I want them to mean!  It’s so exciting!  I’m FREE!!  (Make sure you thank Martin Luther!!)

Where was I?  Oh right, deconstructionism.  This is the most revolting fruit of the process described above.  Why is it so revolting?  Because it ignores reality, or rather directly attacks it.  It is the ultimate system by which I can make words mean anything and nothing, including the exact opposite of what their speaker or writer intended, and get away with it, because nothing is “objective.”  It is perfect, not only for ensuring that no one who comes under its influence will ever have a meaningful thought, but also for destroying the meaning of perfectly logical thoughts that have been handed down to us (“tradition”).

It’s a relief to know that there are many people who have enough common sense to laugh at deconstructionism and postmodernism.  I was surprised to find that Richard Dawkins, the atheist fundamentalist, is one of them.  I found an article of his called “Postmodernism Disrobed,” and agreed with every single thing he said.  He attacks the postmodernists for “playing games,” and implicitly rejects their rejection of the idea that “there is no absolute truth” … “no point of view is privileged.”  (He makes the insightful remark that, if they’re just “playing games,” why do they get so upset when someone plays a joke on them? – like, for instance, Alan Sokal in his famous faked postmodernist paper that got published in a prestigious journal.)  And yet this is the same man who wrote a book entitled “The God Delusion.”  How confused he must be.

Anyway, what struck me about my latest encounter with Derrida and Dawkins is that I realized Dawkins is a better philosopher than Derrida, and is much closer to the truth, even though he doesn’t know it.  First of all, he admits the existence of truth: Derrida, like Pilate, would ask, “What is truth?”  (Except he takes forty books to say it instead of three words.)  Second, Dawkins is aware of the importance of God.  Why would he be so frustrated and furious with what he thinks is the meaninglessness of religion, unless he thought that religion was supposed to mean something, and was deeply troubled that, as far as he can tell, it doesn’t?  A man in such a state of mind is far closer to finding God than a man who writes reams and reams of meaningless words and, if he addresses the idea of God at all, simply (or rather complicatedly) swallows it up in his non-existent “theory” of deconstruction.  (God apparently has something to do with the “undeconstructible” – what a horrible word – which makes sense, but this “God” is apparently very weak, which makes considerably less sense.)

In the midst of all this modern madness, it is important to recall the truth.  The truth is that we are alive because God created us, and God created us because He loved us.  He has no need of us.  He was already perfectly happy in the infinity of time when only He existed, because He is Three Persons, whose mutual love is literally beyond comprehension.  Every single human being who has ever lived, is living, or ever will live, has been chosen and willed to exist by Omnipotent Love; has been loved with an intensity, a continuity, and a faithfulness that is beyond all imagining; has been redeemed by the Incarnation, the entering into His own creation, of the Second Person of the Trinity, and by His Crucifixion, His death by torture to satisfy for our sins against so good and loving a God.  He wants each one of us to spend eternity in heaven with Him, enjoying Him forever.

Heaven is not a place where baby-faced cherubs float around strumming harps.  It is a place where the blessed see uncreated goodness.  If that doesn’t sound exciting, think about all your favorite things in the entire world – a piece of music, a memory, a friend, a sunset, a chocolate bar – add them together, multiply by as large a number as you like, and you will not have gotten anywhere close to an idea of the happiness the vision of God gives.  Add to your favorites the favorite things of all the people who have ever lived and multiply them by a trillion.  Still not close.

God has given us the freedom to choose whether we want that happiness.  He gave the angels one chance.  He gives each one of us countless chances.  When we run away from Him, He follows us.  He wants to save us more than we want to be saved.  But we have to let Him save us.

To let Him save us, we must imitate Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who came into this world, suffered and died in order to merit for us eternal happiness and to demonstrate the immensity of God’s love for every person.  This means we must deny ourselves, take up the cross, and submit to the sweet yoke and light burden of the commandments of God.

Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  Christ said, “Once I am lifted up, I will draw all things to myself.”  I pray that everyone will let God draw him to Himself, so that he may say with St. Paul, “I wish to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified,” and so that on the world’s last day he may hear his Savior saying to him: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of thy master” – an infinite joy that has no end.

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One Response to “Ambushed by Derrida”

  1. Laura K Says:

    Came by your blog on my way to Jerome’s preface to the Pentateuch. Thank you for that, and for this lovely blog.


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