by Sam Buntz
The now deceased poetess, Adrienne Rich, once wrote a poem entitled “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood At Last as a Sexual Message.” While possessing some rhetorical ability, the poem is a deeply repulsive piece of nastiness—yet, it represents a certain attitude on the far-far-far-left that I’ve discussed before to some extent, and one on which I’d like to expand. (For the record, I consider myself a moderate liberal—though a pretty disengaged and dispassionate one, admittedly). Rich’s poem revels in a fellow human’s disability, namely deafness—reminiscent of a Fascist railing against the weak and disabled, but from the other side of the ideological spectrum, praising the pain inflicted by nature on a white, rich, talented, German male. Ms. Rich delights in the supposed fact that the Ninth Symphony is the music of “a man in terror of impotence or infertility, not knowing the difference…the beating of a bloody fist upon a splintered table.”
This is, for one thing, a moronic interpretation of music that expresses the very opposite of impotence—supreme creative triumph and joy in life, the surmounting of all trials to finally say, “Yes”. More importantly, listening to Beethoven’s music entirely (or even mostly) as the product of a supposedly impotent or infertile, white, German man is beyond ridiculous. It’s like being entirely hung up on the fact that Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life was written, sung, and performed by a black guy, and keeping that at the forefront of your mind the entire time you listen to the album. Doing this would be truly racist, in my view—it’s better to approach all music, from The Beatles to Prince to Aretha Franklin to Mozart to Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Joni Mitchell to Kanye West—with the same carefree, calm joy we take in any aesthetic splendor. Don’t dig (or not dig) the skin tone or the genitals—dig the music, because, otherwise, why are you even listening to it? Obviously, being hung up on an artist’s various identity labels is not a very healthy method for appreciating any creative work, be it one by a black, white, green, or blue person—it’s (what else can you call it?) a diseased, paranoid, and resentful way of engaging with art, not to mention with life.
But the consciousness that creates is distinct from race—its racial, sexual, and class background exists as something of which it is conscious, something that conditions how it is conscious, but not something that it is. Anyone who rejects this view, who believes ethnicity and sexuality are super-essential, seems to me to be arguing that Hitler and all the other far-right purveyors of hate in human history were basically right, but were simply on the opposing team—that there really is such a thing as essentially “Jewish” art or essentially “Aryan” art, and that nothing is allowed to just be “Art.” Obviously, this isn’t to deny that there are rich distinctions in the diverse styles and art-forms produced by all cultures, affluent and impoverished, black and white and beige, or to deny that we should be really grateful for that diversity, or to defend the way that privilege has benefited so many rich white males above others throughout history. Rather, it’s an argument against getting stuck merely at that hyper-superficial level of interpretation, making racial and sexual conflict the lens through which everything is perceived. If there were no underlying humanity or soul in art, then all African and Asian music would be incomprehensible to Americans—it would just be a bunch of incoherent squawks and buzzes. But that so totally isn’t the case—music easily crosses borders because of this underlying soul, which generates everything that we humans have ever created, though cloaked in a million disguises that both reveal and conceal it.
Quite frequently, we’re not locked in these different conflicts, we’re just existing—and these assorted identities become more like trappings and trimmings, not the real Identity. Adrienne Rich was never able to understand this—she confused what William Blake called the “sexual garments” (and the racial garments) with the soul. (Blake was able to imagine an afterlife in which white and black people would no longer exist—they would only exist as souls free from time and space, free from “white cloud” and “black cloud”, as he put it.) Rich’s like-minded cohorts are just as confused as she was, even more so in certain cases. Rather than living life with a profound yea-saying—like Blake or Whitman or Prince—people who engage in this kind of identity politics frequently fall into a form of cultured hate, hating anyone racially or sexually associated with historically more powerful classes (regardless of whether the specific individuals in question actually were rich or poor or prospered or did not prosper while living under those classes) and pretending not to be haters by couching their arguments in jargon. Rich typically did this, but her poem on Beethoven allows her hate to emerge fairly distinctly.
Of course, I’m not saying that white men are a persecuted minority or anything stupid like that—clearly not, a thousand times! But I have noticed a strong tendency in the left-wing websites I read to nearly always interpret art through the prism of racial and sexual conflict. I’m not trying to make any sort of profound point—I’m just saying that this kind of ideology doesn’t fit with our experience, doesn’t jive with how most of us engage with art. You need to keep that ancient American imperative—which is also a universal and cosmic imperative—in mind: you gotta have soul.