[REPOST] Not Even Wrong

The title of this post is a phrase famously used by physicist Wolfgang
Pauli (1901 – 1958) to characterize theories that were so completely
misconcieved that it was not possible to isolate a single, crisp flaw in
them. The customary techniques of logical validation failed to give an
answer; not thumb-down, but a shrug.

The dangerous thing about not-even-wrong theories is that they may be
generously larded with plausibility. Where supported by passionate
advocacy, they may cause confusion at multiple levels, including the
meta-level of the purpose of the scientific enterprise.

By now you have guessed that I am going to pivot to Wagner.

Stravinsky is reported (never mind, in this context, with what degree of
authenticity) to have deprecated Richard Strauss in conversation, to
have been challenged to specify, and to have replied “I do not like the
major works, and I do not like the minor works.”

The error here, of course, is the supposition that it could matter to
anyone what Stravinsky liked. Similarly, it cannot matter to anyone
what I like, which is therefore not why I say that I do not like
Wagner. I say it so that I can paraphrase Stravinsky and expand that I
do not like the early works, and I do not like the later works.

Although both horns of that dilemma are intrinsically irrelevant, it is
still an important distinction, because I at least understand the
early works, whereas I cannot understand the later works. By that
token, it cannot matter even to me whether I like the later works. I am
not entitled to say this even to myself.

Wagner’s post-Lohengrin works baffle me utterly. I apply to them all
of the techniques of musical understanding that I have ever learned, and
have applied successfully to vast corpora of other music, and none of
them shed any light whatever – beyond the occasional match such as,
provably, must eventually be found between any given pattern and a truly
random signal.

Harmony? Melody? Counterpoint? Tonality? Form, on any scale from
micro to macro to mega to myriagiganta? I got nothin’, people. My
instruments do not register. There is nothing on long-range sensors and
all I see in the microscope is the retina of my own eye (h/t Thurber).

I cannot say it is bad, for the same reasons I cannot say it is good.
It is not even bad. (I wonder whether Pauli liked Wagner.)

There is no other body of work of which I can say this to the same
extent. Ives comes to mind; I can frequently see what he is trying to
do – leaving on one side whether he actually does it or whether it would
have been a good thing to do. Ditto…who? Sorabji, maybe? We can talk
about the reasons why a fugue subject ought to change direction at least
once. Yes, we could have that conversation. Let’s not – but, we could.

I had a scarring experience early in my academic career, being exposed
to a professor of almost Wagnerian self-confidence, who reasoned thus:

MINOR PREMISE: Wagner’s operas, taken as Gesamtkunstwerke, are in bad

CONCLUSION: Wagner’s compositional armamentarium was ill-chosen.

MAJOR PREMISE: Music that has any technical commonality with Wagner’s is
in bad taste.

Supported, as it was, by passionate advocacy, this …ah, formally
distinctive syllogism caused confusion at multiple levels, including
the meta-level of the purpose of the creative enterprise.

Let’s try another syllogism, shall we? (You’re supposed to say “all
right, let’s.”)

MAJOR PREMISE: Human beings have an instinctive tendency to take
megalomaniacs at their own estimation of themselves (likewise their
work, etc.).

MINOR PREMISE: Wagner was a megalomaniac.

CONCLUSION: The received judgment of the quality of Wagner’s work is
probably strongly inflated.

Those who accept the conclusion are crushingly outnumbered by those who
accept the two premises but deny the conclusion. So there is somethin’
happenin’ here, too, and what it is a’n’t exactly clear.

Irrespective of my intentions when I set out to write this post, what I
have concluded is that I ought not try to talk about Wagner; but, in
order to justify that position (so transgressive!), I have had to talk
at huge length about Wagner.

This has been today’s example of infinite regress; but fret not thyself,
as the next installment will prevent itself from being written.

(originally posted 20 August 2015)

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