Above, we see a picture of James Joyce and the person responsible for James Joyce being the literary legend we know today, Ms. Sylvia Beach of the bookstore / publisher, Shakespeare & Company in Paris, published Mr. Joyce and for that the world owes her an everlasting debt of gratitude. But that isn't the point I want to make.
What brings me back to the blog is an article by Mr. Terry Teachout appearing in the June 26, 2010 issue of The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Teachout, who I've bloged about before here, came across an academic paper that sparked an idea for Mr. Teachout's column about how Modern music, literature and other arts might be too complicated for us to understand. Observe:
Are certain kinds of modern art too complex for anybody to understand? Fred Lerdahl thinks so, at least as far as his chosen art form is concerned. In 1988 Mr. Lerdahl, who teaches musical composition at Columbia University, published a paper called "Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems," in which he argued that the hypercomplex music of atonal composers like Messrs. Boulez and Carter betrays "a huge gap between compositional system and cognized result." He distinguishes between pieces of modern music that are "complex" but intelligible and others that are excessively "complicated"—containing too many "non-redundant events per unit [of] time" for the brain to process. "Much contemporary music," he says, "pursues complicatedness as compensation for a lack of complexity."
"You have turned your back on common men, on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence," H.G. Wells complained to Joyce after reading "Finnegans Wake." That didn't faze him. "The demand that I make of my reader," Joyce said, "is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works." To which the obvious retort is: Life's too short.
I've been thinking, a lot, about Modernism lately and I'm starting to put these ideas down on paper. But for the time being, I want to write here that maybe it's still too soon to judge the lasting merits of Finnegans Wake or Eliot Carter. Perhaps. But part and parcel of that notion is that it's probably far too soon to summarily dismiss them.
Oh, and here's a link to the paper Mr. Teachout cites, Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems.