A toast to … Marilyn Nonken

Last week saw the official publication of Identity and Diversity in New Music: The New Complexities, a new book from Routledge by my lovely wife, Marilyn Nonken. The title is pretty self-explanatory (except for that punning reference to one particular stream of contemporary music), but more to the point the book comes from an insider. Marilyn has been an important pianist on the new music scene since her 1993 debut recital; more recently, and while continuing to pursue a busy performance schedule, she’s been the Director of Piano Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School, where she’s Associate Professor of Music. Her book is a concise and thoughtful but honest and critical look at the roles of identity and diversity in creating new audiences and performers, based upon a survey of important twentieth and twenty-first century musical organizations from both aesthetic and organizational (as well as uniquely personal) perspectives. So a toast to her later today at Cafe Katja.

I’ve already read Marilyn’s book (twice, I think), so I myself am moving on to other books on my bedside table. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), which won the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction, is the first among a series of books exploring the failure of critical thinking in this country — and so explaining the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his supporters. I suppose it’s hopelessly idealistic of me to think so, but perhaps one day a survey course called “American Stupidity 101” will be added to some university’s freshman curriculum, and as a required course. The reading list selects itself: apart from Hofstadter’s book, there’s also Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Neil Postman, 1985), The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Susan Jacoby, 2008, updated to include an analysis of Trump’s victory in 2018), and Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (Charles B. Pierce, 2009). The most recent entries are The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Tom Nichols, 2017) and The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, 2018). Hofstadter’s book has stood the test of time; indeed, it enters the pantheon next May when it will be published in the Library of America, the American version of the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Hofstadter’s definition of intellectualism did not conceive of intellectuals as either pointy-headed pedagogues or nattering nabobs of negativism to be found in ivory towers; no, as Nicholas Lemann pointed out in 2014, it was a habit of mind. Lemann cites Hofstadter himself:

It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.

The last thing you could say, I think, about Trump and his supporters. Lemann adds, “It is a distinctive habit of mind and thought that actually forbids the kind of complete self-assurance that we often associate with very smart or committed people. You can see how the all-out quality of fundamentalist religion, or of salesmanship, or of ideologically driven politics, would have been anathema to Hofstadter.”

These books are grimly amusing, if you’re in the right mind. The same can be said of Nathanael West’s novels Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, which lies next to the Hofstadter book on my bedside table. West’s books are satire that transcends satire; both are set in milieux of popular culture (journalism in the case of the first, Hollywood in the second) and bitterly detail the trivialization of personal experience in American urban life. (West also took on a fascistic Trump-like figure in his more explicitly political A Cool Million, a parody of Horatio Alger’s self-help books.) Miss Lonelyhearts is sui generis; The Day of the Locust is one of my two favorite novels about Hollywood (the second being Terry Southern’s scurrilous and under-rated Blue Movie).

So I’ve got my weekend reading planned. If I don’t see you at Cafe Katja this afternoon, I’ll see you next week.

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