I’ll admit, I expected it to be something like The Wire: New Orleans. But it’s–well, perhaps not more than that, or less, but certainly other. I’d recommend Treme (or at least the first season, which is all I’ve seen) to anyone fascinated by The Wire‘s bleak portrait of the modern city… but, perhaps even more so, to anyone interested in New Orleans jazz, or in the meaning of artistic performance and improvisation more generally.
Is it surprising for the creator of the supposedly hyper-realistic The Wire to make a show about such recondite subject matter? Nevertheless, Treme does seem to me a true sequel to The Wire, and watching it has brought out for me just how inadequate the term “realistic” is as a description of what The Wire accomplishes.
We could put it this way. The Wire offers a comprehensive vision of what it is to live in Baltimore, that is, to be a human being in the modern city: cops and drug dealers (season 1), and longshoremen (2), and politicians (3), and public schools (4), and newspapers (5), are all enslaved to Moloch, god of misaligned incentives. Either they act as the systems of the world bid them act, and live successful, meaningless lives; or they try to buck the system and do meaningful work, and are destroyed. Treme takes that vision for granted, and asks a further question. For those living in a heavily musical neighborhood in post-Katrina New Orleans, a neighborhood full of professional jazz players and street performers and high-end chefs: what does all this artistic activity signify, in the face of the utter devastation New Orleans suffered when the levees broke? That is: what has “pure” art, art without any practical object, to do with the world of Moloch? Is the escape it offers true or false?
Given all the heady interpretations attached to improvisational jazz by those who would see in it the proper artistic response to late-modern atomization and loss of traditional meaning, it makes perfect sense that Simon would take New Orleans as the setting for a show answering such a question. “New Orleans,” in the world of this show, is the name given to the belief that art can save. Not just a name, of course–an atmosphere. Several minutes of every episode are devoted to watching the characters play music. These aren’t just music videos; the point seems to be for us to recognize the presence (or absence) of what Auden (in “Sext”) calls “that eye-on-the-object look,” the look of total absorption in an action, the look that shows the artists are “forgetting themselves in a function.”
The irony, of course, is that, as one watches, one inevitably wonders: are the actors really playing the music here, or are they only pretending to play music? And so, by a strange transference, one wonders about the characters: is this life they live, this life of absorption in music, only a pretense? And so “New Orleans” becomes a name also for pretense; for the kind of decadent Catholicism the city is so well known for, a Catholicism of surface aesthetics only, with no content underneath. This life of pretense is the perpetual fear of every religion of art–until it is finally embraced. Treme so far at least has not quite embraced it, nor condemned it utterly; it seems more interested in examining its every facet, and searching for what in it might be worth saving.
While I do think this way of describing the series is accurate, it necessarily leaves out much, including the specific racial and economic tensions that complicate New Orleans life. This is all, of course, fascinating, just like The Wire‘s attention to detail. But, though there’s always more to be said, as an introduction to Treme this will have to do.
Since I have it stuck in my head at the moment, (and indeed it was the proximate cause for writing this post), I’ll end with a performance of “Iko Iko” from the 1950s. “Iko Iko” is one of the pieces of “classic New Orleans music” that shows up throughout the show. It’s not, though it might at first sound like it, a nonsense song; it’s about one of the more obscure New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions, the “Mardi Gras Indians.”
Happy Fat Tuesday.
[Vaguely listening for a half-remembered theme.]
Three brief anecdotes.
1. In the early 1760s, the Scottish poet James Macpherson published a number of “Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language,” which he eventually collected in the 1765 The Works of Ossian, named after the epic cycle’s putative author. “Ossian”‘s poetry was immensely successful, greatly influencing numerous Romantic poets like Walter Scott, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Johann Gottfriend Herder, as well as numerous painters and composers. Many others, including Samuel Johnson, disputed the works’ authenticity, and the consensus nowadays seems to be that The Works of Ossian were really the works of Macpherson, although based loosely–“inspired,” perhaps–on various Scottish Gaelic ballads. Ossian doesn’t attract much interest nowadays, except as a curiosity.
2. In 1958, the Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto published an “Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ, on Two Thematic Ideas and on a Figured Bass by Tomaso Albinoni,” a lesser-known Baroque composer. The piece has been wildly popular ever since its publication, showing up on the soundtracks of numerous films, and in compilations with titles like “50 greatest pieces of classical music”. Though originally credited as “composed by Albinoni, arranged by Giazotto,” the piece was not, Giazotto eventually admitted, written by Albinoni at all; rather, Giazotto reconstructed the piece based on a few bars of a melody and basso continuo found in a manuscript fragment. Doubts lingered as to whether even this story was true, until (after Giazotto’s death) an independent transcription of the lines from Albinoni was discovered, apparently confirming Giazotto’s account.
3. In 2014, a friend of mine entered an “atelier,” i.e. an art school seeking to revive the nineteenth century Academic tradition (think the illusionistic naturalism of William-Adolphe Bouguereau). His training includes meticulously copying other drawings and paintings and working from a live model. Excellence in painting in such places is associated with such things as “the highest standards of draftsmanship,” “discipline gleaned from careful study,” and “practical application,” and opposed to things such as being enslaved to “intuition” and lacking “direction, clarity, and purpose.” Needless to say, traditional ateliers are highly eccentric by the lights of the contemporary art world, their numbers seem, if anything, to be growing. Many of these people do manage to sell paintings; some of them, apparently, even make a living doing so.
A fourth anecdote.
4. Stanley Cavell once (in “Music Discomposed”) asked the question “Why can’t one still write like Mozart?”, and suggested this answer:
No one does now write that way. But perhaps somebody does, living at the edge of an obscure wood, by candlelight, with a wig on. What would our response to him be? We wouldn’t take him seriously as an artist? Nobody could mean such music now, be sincere in making it? And yet I’ve been insisting that we can no longer be sure that any artist is sincere–we haven’t convention or technique or appeal to go on any longer: anyone could fake it.
Modernism, for Cavell, means no longer being sure what criteria we have for knowing what is “authentic” art and what isn’t. In other words, modernism means no longer being sure what, if anything, art, and our calling it “art,” is good for. If we knew what it was for, we would be able to tell (even if the telling took some time) when it succeeded, and when it didn’t.
The existence of people like Macpherson, Giazotto, my friend the painter, is a symptom of artistic modernity. In other words, none is imaginable in an artistic world that is pre-modern in Cavell’s sense. Each in his own way instantiates Cavell’s would-be-Mozart, and each in his own way demonstrates that we can and do take such people seriously as artists–whatever that means. They tell us nothing, however, about whether we should. Should we?
Well, surely the answer will have more to do with the particulars of the case than with the birds-eye-view observation that he’s trying to resurrect an “antiquated” form. Does it matter how, exactly, the desire for past greatness finds expression? Perhaps–there are differences between deceiving your audience, misleading your audience, and creating your own counter-audience. Does it matter whether its poetry, music, or painting? Perhaps–to take someone seriously as a poet, a composer, and a painter, needn’t be the same thing. Does it matter that one is made by a friend, one a piece I like, and one I’ve never read? Perhaps–apart from half-remembered doctrines of artistic “impersonality,” why think that it’s desirable, or even possible, to make artistic judgments abstracted away from the particulars of your own life?
5. W.B. Yeats, in his youth, wrote a poem called “The Wanderings of Oisin” (Oisin being Ossian before his name was Anglicized). It’s full of the pagan spirit of the (eighteen) nineties, the sense that, whatever beauty was once in the world, it has faded like a dream, and all art can do is recall its memory with intricate spells and decadent harmonies:
Sad to remember, sick with years,
The swift innumerable spears,
The horsemen with their floating hair,
And bowls of barley, honey, and wine,
Those merry couples dancing in tune,
And the white body that lay by mine;
But the tale, though words be lighter than air.
Must live to be old like the wandering moon.
Oisin speaks these lines, and in his mouth they mean that the memory of happy youth finds its consolation in the recounting of that youth. The spears, the horsemen, the bowls, the couples, the body: these things are rediscovered as the tale is retold.
Yeats, too, however, speaks these lines, and in his mouth they have a very different meaning. He finds it sad to remember, not the spears and horsemen themselves–Yeats, born in 1865, never knew a world with traditional mounted warfare–but the “spears,” the “horsemen,” the “body”: the fact that poetry could once, without self-deception, speak of such things. Once we knew what art was for: glorying in the swift innumerable spears; now, sick with the weight of innumerable years, and with the failure of art to fulfill any of the messianic prophecies it made for itself, we have no use for it but to remind ourselves that art was once possible. Thus Yeats.
Today, it is far from obvious that there is anything–even itself–that art is good for.
Virtue, then, is a habit involving deliberate choice, consisting in a mean relative to us and determined by reason as the practically wise person would determine it. It is a mean between two vices, one of excess, the other of deficiency. (1106b-7a)
The humanities class which I’m TAing for is currently reading the Nicomachean Ethics, and we’re about to get to Aristotle’s “doctrine of the mean.” The doctrine of the mean baffled me when I read the Ethics as an undergraduate, and I’ve only recently, I think, begun to understand it; my interpretation, however, is highly speculative, so I’m a bit hesitant to share it with my students; but it’s interesting enough, I think, to be worth posting here.
To begin with a question: how many ways are there to lack a virtue?
We might think that there are two: being excessive, and being deficient. And we might think that this is because, in any given situation, there is an excessive response, a deficient response, and a correct response. On this supposition, it is impossible to act both cowardly and foolhardily because it’s impossible to run away from a battle and charge out in front of the phalanx at the same time. Well, that certainly is impossible, but not every situation has an excessive and a deficient response available.When courage requires one to lay down one’s life, what would it mean to respond excessively? And if not every situation offers a spectrum of possible responses, on which the proper one is in some sense in the middle, what sense does it make to talk of a mean? This was the confusion over which I stumbled in undergraduate.
The solution to this difficulty is to recognize that it is not the response to any given situation which ought to be a mean, but the actor’s virtue, that is, his habit. The virtuous habit does not seek the mean; rather, it should itself be a mean between two possible extreme habits. The virtue of courage governs, among other things, when to take risky actions, and it should be a mean between taking them too often and taking them not often enough.
This means that we can view a “habit involving deliberate choice” as something like an subconscious test of whether or not to Φ. This test returning false positives, i.e. inclining me to Φ when I ought not to Φ, is what Aristotle means when he refers to a habit being excessive. The rest returning false negatives, i.e. inclining me not to Φ when I ought to Φ, is what he means by a habit being deficient. The worst risk-related habit would be one that told me to take the risk either every time, or never; these would be like, respectively, a test for cancer that always said you had it, and a test for cancer that always said you were healthy. If you trusted either, it would have pretty bad consequences.
But almost all tests return both false positives and false negatives! And, when we consult our own experiences, isn’t the same true of habits? The world isn’t divided into people whose habits are always excessive and people whose habits are always deficient. Often I’ll find myself worrying that, in one situation, I had spoken too quickly, while at the same time wondering if, in another, I hadn’t been too slow. We are all cowardly and foolhardy, stingy and spendthrift.
Aristotle can easily acknowledge this; any particular vice can be characterized by both excess and deficiency, and we simply call it by that which characterizes it more strongly. After all, while most tests return both false negatives and false positives, most also lean one way or the other. For example, an easily administered test for cancer will have a lot of false positives and few false negatives, and we’ll use it to decide who should get more extensive screening. So a vicious excess is a habit that errs on the side of Φing (even if sometimes it errs by not Φing), while a vicious deficiency is one that errs on the side of not Φing (even if sometimes it errs by Φing). Someone who often fails to take a risk when he should, and who rarely takes a risk when he shouldn’t, we call cowardly, even though sometimes his behavior is foolhardy; and vice versa.
When we look at habits in terms of tests, we realize that they can do more than err on one side or another: they can fail to tend towards proper action at all.
Consider, along the lines discussed earlier, Alice who always Φs, and Bob who never Φs; and a new figure, Carol, who Φs as if by chance: one ought to Φ half the time, and she Φs half the time, but half of those times she should not do so, and half the time when she doesn’t Φ, she should. Half her positives are false, as well as half her negatives. Alice, Bob, and Carol are all vicious in different ways, but they all have something in common: their habits are totally worthless; they’re not just extraordinarily excessive, or extraordinarily deficient, or both, but it’s as if they don’t understand Φing at all.
This is not, however, to say that none of them have any thoughts about Φing. Alice seems to like it rather a lot, and Bob to rather dislike it; and Carol seems to think it has something to do with flipping a coin. It is to say, simply, that their thoughts have no correlation with ethical reality, as we understand it. None of them knows the first thing about when to Φ. Anyone teaching them virtue would have to start from scratch. Their are not simply vicious; their ethical habits are alien to our form of life.
So, to return to the original question, habits can fail to be virtuous, not only through excess and deficiency, but through being more or less aimless. A perfectly aimed habit would have an error rate of zero; a completely aimless habit would be the habit of a madman.
Next week will see a return, finally, to our regularly scheduled programming.
I’ve recently picked up Ezra Pound’s Personae and begun reading through it. I’ve come across a number of worthy lyrics, but so far it’s the early poem “Threnos” that’s stuck with me. It’s something about the irregular rhythm of the repeated phrases, and the persistent negations, and the echoes of Dante’s hell of the lovers…. I take it to be something like a minimalist modernist revision of the Arthurian poems the Victorian period.
The subject matter, for those wondering, is the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult; “Tintagoel” is a variant spelling of Tintagel, the castle from which, “some say,” Iseult’s husband Mark ruled as king.
No more for us the little sighing.
No more the winds at twilight trouble us.
Lo the fair dead!
No more do I burn.
No more for us the fluttering of wings
That whirred in the air above us.
Lo the fair dead!
No more desire flayeth me,
No more for us the trembling
At the meeting of hands.
Lo the fair dead!
No more for us the wine of the lips,
No more for us the knowledge.
Lo the fair dead!
No more the torrent,
No more for us the meeting-place
(Lo the fair dead!)