edited by D.F. McKenzie, prepared for publication by C.Y. Ferdinand
Shortly after the opening of John Vanbrugh’s comedy of 1697, The Provoked Wife, two ladies discuss what they would do if they discovered their husbands were unfaithful. The first lady declares that she would pay him back in his own coin, but the second protests that we are taught to …
We do not learn language by reading a dictionary, and we do not think or speak in terms of dictionary definitions. Meaning is always more fluid. Nevertheless, we are hemmed in, even trapped, by common usage. Senses we wish to evade entrap us. The greatest escape route is not only humor, but poetry, or art in general. Art does not, of course, liberate us completely from meaning, but it gives a certain measure of freedom, provides elbow room.
The bicentenary of Franz Liszt (1811–1886) follows hard upon those of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann, and he has conserved his place as one of the supreme Romantic composers. Nevertheless, his career as a composer was always cursed by the fact that he was also, it is generally agreed, the greatest pianist who ever lived. The major part of his work was for piano, much of it tailored for himself to perform, many of the pieces presenting a difficulty of execution almost never before seen. As a result, even today most performances of Liszt are generally intended not as a specifically musical experience, but chiefly to display the pianist’s technique.
A German pre-Romantic philosopher, Johann Georg Hamman, held that the sense of music was given to man to make it possible to measure time. The composer Elliott Carter’s fame comes partly from a reconception of time in music that fits the world of today (although there are many other aspects of his music to enjoy). We do not measure time regularly, like clocks do, but with many differing rates of speed. In the complexity of today’s experience, it often seems as if simultaneous events were unfolding with different measures. These different measures coexist and often blend but are not always rationalized in experience under one central system. We might call this a system of irreconcilable regularities.
The hostile review of Isaiah Berlin’s correspondence by A.N. Wilson in the TLS—which has set off a heated controversy about Berlin and his reputation—exhibited a misunderstanding of university life as well as of the nature of Sir Isaiah’s career. Wilson was unappreciative of Berlin as a historian, comparing him unfavorably with his close contemporary, the Oxford historian A.L. Rowse. Neither were truly major historians but Berlin was not really a historian at all, in the full sense of that word, nor was he exactly a philosopher. His field, largely untrodden and little understood, was the intersection of philosophy, aesthetics and history: in this, his achievement was very great, above all in his profound elucidation of the way that ideas like freedom, enlightenment and nationalism could appear, develop and be challenged in the politics and art from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
I have read that more books in the United States are now sold online than in bookstores, and have noticed—and assume a causal connection—that there are less books on the shelves of stores. Since I almost never want to buy a book until I have held it in my hands and riffled through the pages, this means that I shall be purchasing fewer books in the future. Just as well, I suppose, as there is no space on my shelves.