Some thirty years ago, the then head of CBS Records, Clive Davis, sent out a directive that no recording was to be undertaken if the recovery of its costs could not be projected within one year’s sale in the United States. Accordingly the plan to record Mozart’s Serenade for thirteen wind instruments with George Szell and members of the Cleveland Orchestra was canceled. One of the producers at CBS was properly indignant. “Doesn’t he know that we’re an international company?” he said to me. “The sale of classical music in Japan is twice that of the United States, the sale in Europe three times as great. We could have recovered the costs of this record in a short time with no difficulty.”
Thinking in terms of so long a time as a year was, in fact, unusually broad-minded in the American record business. Normally the goal was nothing more than a fast recovery of costs and a quick profit. A continuously growing profitability was also desirable since selling only the same number of records each year would neither please stockholders nor attract investment. Staying in business merely by sustaining the same level of activity was not commercially appealing. This is part of a general conviction that affects most activities today. Countries must attract more tourists each year, airlines must fly ever more passengers to more destinations, energy companies must supply—or appear to supply—more energy to more customers. This conviction, it seems to me, is less a principle of economics than an article of faith.
If the market does not grow fast enough, the most common commercial policy is not to try to sustain the level reached, but to cut back drastically. Canceling a respectable project if it does not promise a fast return is the easiest road to take. It is often deplored that the market for classical music is not growing or that it is even shrinking, although it is hard to interpret sensibly any of the figures sometimes given. The population in the parts of the world in which classical music is historically most at home—Western Europe, for example—is also shrinking. Part of the loss of interest in classical music may, however, be laid at the door of the record industry. At the time that listening to records was beginning to overtake going to concerts as the chief way of staying in contact with the classical tradition, the record companies consistently refused to make records freely or cheaply available to schools. Educating a future public would have meant planning in longer terms than the habits of thought of the modern business world are comfortable with. Nevertheless, this makes a coherent view of our cultural heritage in literature and music an awkward undertaking. Some educators have abandoned the idea as hopeless and even (sour grapes!) as unnecessary. Even the idea of a canon of great works of the past can inspire resentment today.
At the beginning of the third book of his Discorsi (a commentary on the first ten books of Titus Livy), Machiavelli writes, “If one wants a republic or a sect [i.e., a party or religion] to live a long time, it is necessary to bring it back often to its beginnings” (il suo principio). He puts it simply and dogmatically. With the passage of time, a republican system of government and a religious sect will need renovation: “It is as clear as light that without renovation, these bodies cannot last. The mode of renovation is, as I have said, to reduce them toward their origins.” These renovations can, he remarks, be brought about by extrinsic causes, as when attacks by the barbarians inspired the Roman state to “wish to be reborn, and in being reborn, to take on new life and new virtue,” but it is better when the return to the basic principles comes from “intrinsic prudence,” when the origins of the society are systematically rediscovered. “We can see,” Machiavelli remarks a few pages later, “how necessary this renovation is by the example of our religion, which, if it had not been returned to its origins by Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, would have been completely exhausted, since with poverty and the example of the life of Christ, they brought it back to the mind of men, where it was already exhausted.” The return to beginnings is, for Machiavelli, not only a rebirth but a way of finding new life and new vigor. The sense of a society’s origins is embodied in its tradition and guarantees its survival.
I have tried to ennoble these simple home truths by dressing them up with Machiavelli and his awareness of their practical value. It is interesting that he conceives them as having the greatest importance above all for the republican form of government (“He who wants to create absolute power, commonly called a tyranny, must innovate in everything”). Machiavelli is realist enough to understand that tradition is often an illusion or a fraud: “Whoever wishes to reform the government of a city,” he observes, “and wants it to be accepted and to maintain it to everyone’s satisfaction, will have to retain at least the shadow of the ancient ways, so that to the people nothing will seem to have changed although in fact the new laws are in all respects completely alien to those of the past.” A sensible opportunist will therefore fake a tradition when he has to.
It has often been observed that revolutionary movements generally claim to be restoring the past, to return to an as yet uncorrupted state, an age of innocence. Martin Luther’s ideal, like that of Saint Francis, was to restore the earliest decades of the primitive Church; the Jacobins of the French Revolution wanted to return to the naive virtue and courage of the Roman Republic; the early Romantic poets wanted to restore to poetry the simple clarity of everyday speech. The appeal to tradition is useful both to sustain the system in power and to destroy it. This is because a tradition, if it is to function practically, is malleable, not rigid. Returning to one’s origins in a moment of crisis will alter the origins, and literally transform the past to fit a new sense of desperation or hope.
A democratic society—at least, a society with democratic elements—functions most cohesively when there is a general knowledge of its laws, its history, and its artistic inheritance. In eighteenth-century England and America, the only part of the literary heritage that one could take for granted as shared by almost everybody was the translation of the Bible, but during the nineteenth century a wider knowledge of fiction, poetry, and drama began to work its way into layers of the population. Since the fifteenth century a knowledge of Roman and Greek literature was the standard way of appearing to return to one’s cultural origins. Athens and Rome were the mythical sources of modern society and a superficial acquaintance with their classics provided a certificate that one was a gentleman; even women were reluctantly allowed to acquire this distinction at times. It was, however, female taste in the vernacular literature that was the most powerful force in fixing the criteria that determined the status of writing in English. Eventually an informal canon of serious literature in the vulgar tongue was formed and imposed by education.
The essential paradox of a canon, however—and we need to emphasize this repeatedly—is that a tradition is often most successfully sustained by those who appear to be trying to attack or to destroy it. It was Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky who gave new life to the Western musical tradition while seeming to undermine its very foundations. As Proust wrote, “The great innovators are the only true classics and form a continuous series. The imitators of the classics, in their finest moments, only procure for us a pleasure of erudition and taste that has no great value.”1 Any canon of works or laws that forms the basis of a culture or a society is subject to continuous reinterpretation and to change, enlargements, and contractions, but to be effective it is evident that it must retain a sense of identity—it must, in fact, resist change and reinterpretation and yield to them reluctantly and with difficulty. A tradition’s sense of identity is dependent on the way it is transmitted, on what kind of access to it is made available to the members of the society concerned, and on whether the transmission makes the canon too rigid or too yielding.
To illustrate the strange problems in the definition and the diffusion of tradition in the arts today, I must begin by descending from these grand generalities to personal anecdote. Last summer I was in Oxford and thought this would be an opportunity to buy a volume of the early philosophical works of Francis Bacon published by Oxford University Press as part of an ongoing complete critical edition. This was not stocked by most bookstores since the press had decided that it would henceforth publish this kind of book only for libraries and accordingly put an exceedingly high price on it, way beyond the means of most students, teachers, or book lovers in general. (This policy started about twenty years ago and coincided unfortunately with the moment in England and America which most university libraries found themselves strapped for cash, so it became beyond their means as well.)
I went to the store that the press keeps in Oxford and asked for the book. “Not all the volumes of that edition are available,” I was told, but the salesman helpfully looked up the edition on his computer. “That’s the volume I want,” I said, pointing to the item on the computer. “We have zero stock of that volume,” I was told; “perhaps you can find it secondhand.” This was a strangely defeatist attitude from a publisher—above all since, even in Oxford, secondhand bookshops are closing permanently with the inevitability of leaves falling from the trees in the autumn.
In any case, it has become common enough to find that when the fifth volume of a new, complete, and at least temporarily adequate text of a classical author appears, volumes one to four are already unavailable. It used to be the boast of Oxford University Press that they never let a book go out of print. We can understand that economic pressures in the modern world would not permit such a grandiose policy to continue, but the British university presses have no longer any pride in providing the best possible version of the English classics. These are made available today in the most haphazard fashion, and usually only if each volume is heavily subsidized by institutional funds.
A good deal of writing is intended for a quick sale of six months—or two weeks, a single day, or even a few hours. Modern publishing is geared for the most part to the short term, and in general properly so, although publishers are naturally pleased if a book sells for a longer time than they thought they had any right to expect. (The insane policy of some governments of taxing publishers on their unsold stock makes printing for long-term sale impossible.) However, a short-term policy makes no sense with a volume that presents a classic like Bacon or Dickens in a new text based upon years of research, and doubly foolish when the publication is part of a large project which requires some years to reach completion.
In his article "Classicism and Romanticism."↩
In his article “Classicism and Romanticism.”↩