The true path to innovation and invention is not forward but through the past.
-- Garrison Keillor, interview for BBC World Service, Jan. 10, 2010
What has been is what will be,
and what has been is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
-- Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NRSV)
When I went to college, my fellow students wanted “relevance.” By this they meant their studies should engage the world right now, as they presently knew it. Political Science was a fashionable major, but they didn’t want to learn the theory of politics so much as to intervene against politics. On a certain morning, at an intersection on the corner of the main square of our small Ohio town, some of them got noticed by Huntley and Brinkley because they resisted – passively – the arrival of a Navy recruiter on the campus. They were relevant. As best I can figure out, I was in a Philosophy class at the opposite corner of that square while they got themselves on the evening news. Or maybe not, but I might have been. I spent four years at the opposite corner.
I didn’t understand this demand for relevance. Somebody was paying $3,000 per year for me to go to school. (In those days $3,000 was real money.) At that price, why study what I already knew? For that kind of money I should learn things I had no clue about, things that I would never have heard of unless I had gone to college. For that kind of money, I should demand Irrelevance.
Nowadays professors of “Popular Culture” (no kidding!) get to say smart things on smart radio programs. (I once thought that “Popular Culture Studies” was a chimera dreamed by post-modern novelists, but now I know it’s real). Why should my taxes, or my tuition checks, pay the salary of a professor of popular culture? Hello! It’s popular. Get it? Whatever you’re talking about, doc, we already know. We already get the message. A rock band, a techno gadget, a sitcom, a t-shirt, a video game, an SUV, a millionaire pretending to be a gangsta, a new way of broadcasting forever to the universe what you’ll some day regret that you’re “doing right now.” Whatever it is, it doesn’t need a Ph.D. to explain it. The thing has already interpreted itself, has already come to light and power, and the brave professor hitches his toboggan to a sure thing for a free ride. What a scoop!
It takes guts to interpret what nobody can figure out how to use, at least for now. Nobody knows, no one can predict, what tomorrow we’ll really need to know. The really brave ones are the professors of Sanskrit, and classical Latin and Hebrew, and Arabic and Bantu and Xosa and Urdu and Pashtun and Gullah; the artists who discover how castrati really sang; the imaginers of galaxies and molecules; delvers in medieval marriage contracts; trash-divers under walls of ancient cities; historians of Moldova and Mongolia; logicians of non-Euclidean space; speculators in things not there yet, theorists of resonating strings, and all the others who preserve our possibilities.
The Preacher says there’s nothing new under the sun, there are only new iterations of what’s been said before, but said where no one thought before to say it. A radical is not a person who grows a new branch of knowledge. A radical is one who finds the root of the tree. Originality is only better imitation.
My relevance-demanding generation, college graduates of 1968 and the years that followed, have declared the music of Enlightenment irrelevant. Our radio network, born in preservation during the ascendancy of garage-bands, has fled its arriére-garde duty. When I came to work in New York City and to live nearby, the place was well-known for its several classical music stations; now the last one has sold itself to public radio, where it operates on a weaker frequency. I cannot receive it on my home radios. I have come to the center of American culture and cannot hear my music.
But the music should die, say my fellow liberals, leaders of my church and professors of my seminary; it’s the music of “dead white men,” and its preservation is unjust and oppressive. My friends, those are fighting words. I take this personally. Look me in the eye and say them. Look yourself in the mirror. Like many of you who say these things, I am a white man and in a geological moment I shall as well be dead. These words, in the mouths of so many dying white men who went to college in my day, are words of self-hatred.
Awake, comrades! Grow up before you die. Own your social location. Bear the guilt that was planted there, but carry as well the virtues there conceived. Accept the bitterness of your parents’ sour grapes, but accept as well the sweetness of the fig tree that they left in trust for all of us, for all our brothers and our sisters. If you’re not a reactionary marching for divine right of tyrants and bankers, then Enlightenment is your mother or at least your auntie, and her music is your lullaby. There are many now decrying Enlightenment who owe to her their rostrum and their voice. Adolescence isn’t just for teens.
The world has many musics, and most of them can support the voice of God. Dr. King wasn’t singing Beethoven in Birmingham Jail, it’s true. It was a different kind of song that led those marches. And Sibelius didn’t write the anthem of South Africa. But on the day when that new Republic was born, amidst the sacred songs and dances of many languages and cultures, they called in a European ringer.
I shall pray for forgiveness whenever I betray the dream that alle Menschen werden Brüder, but I shall never apologize for the dream. Almost any music can accompany those words of Schiller, but I know of only one genre that can enact it. Only one music learned how to journey from one place to another, stating a theme, uncovering its contradictions, inciting and surviving its conflicts, and bringing us out in a new place that looks back to where it came from. Only one music learned in a single breath to progress through many tempos and rhythms, tunes and tones, keys and modes, loudnesses and silences. A song is a short-lived thing, done in half a minute, prolonged only by repetition, leaving us where it started. But the music of Enlightenment, though it may contain songs, is not a song. It’s something else. A something else created to embody new life rising on the death of the old, to incarnate Brüderheit growing in the flesh of hatred, to play the leading role of freedom as it throws off slavery’s bonds. If there is another genre that attempts this mission, let me know about it. I’m not jealous. Then there will be two such musics, and they will both deserve preservation.
This “something else” has a social location. It was invented by educated rebels against the aristocracies of eighteenth century Western Europe. Like the rest of us, these inventors could sin, and they did so. Their sin was to draw too small a circle, keeping others out of the dream. Thomas Jefferson, American founder and second Unitarian president, said that all people are created equal, while owning and exploiting human beings. We honor what he said, and condemn his violation of it. Excluded others have kept drawing larger circles, demanding admission to the power. That’s why Beethoven and his Mighty Ninth Symphony were invited to the Republic of South Africa at its birth. Old walls had been blown up, and an oppressed majority, denied for centuries their human dignity by sinners against Enlightenment, now stood within a greater circle, their Menschenheit established beyond appeal.
I fear that on the next great day of human liberation, amidst the many songs and celebrations, an enactment of the New Jerusalem will be sought, and they won’t be able to find it. That’s the kind of moment when dreams go bad – when dreams come true, that is, and we forget the dreaming. My activist college classmates should be praised for their interventions in a sick world dying of lies. But they did not invent truth, or beauty, or virtue. These things are always to be discovered again, hidden in plain sight, at the root of things. I stand on my personal barricade. Vive l’Irrelevance!