Friday, April 21, 2017

Fox and Hedgehog

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
                                                                        -- Archilochus, 700 BC.

There is an old line occasionally whispered around the ivied halls of academia in its rare moments of honest self-evaluation: that academic politics are such a nasty business because so little is actually at stake. It is a (rare enough) recognition that, though the pursuit of accuracy and the love of knowledge are worthy and significant pursuits, the institutional maneuverings incident to any such foregathering of competitive souls inevitably trivialize an otherwise honorable enterprise.

Intellectuals have always furnished easy marks for humorists since Aristophanes skewered Socrates. And when academics arrived on the landscape, like hedgehogs who, being close to the ground, must ignore the big array and endlessly rootle the one thing at the end of their noses, then Rabelais and Cervantes, Sterne and Swift were swift to follow with the guffaws. It's been the way of the world ever since, the sages and brahmins tweezing out the dwindling crumbs and gnats of wisdom to the evident merriment of the imps and the Great Unwashed.

So it seems almost foreordained that the posh little liberal arts school down the street should offer up  a symposium on "The Music and Lyrics of Billy Joel." Billy Joel, whose name conjures the kind of ham handed piano banging and the trite imagery (an elderly barroom piano player!?) that shouts 'Tin Pan Alley!"

From a Slate profile ("The Worst Pop Singer Ever"): "No career re-evaluations please! . . . . He was terrible, he is terrible, he always will be terrible. Anodyne, sappy, superficial, derivative, fraudulently rebellious. . . . Billy Joel's music elevates self-aggrandizing self-pity and contempt for others into its own new and awful genre: 'Mock-Rock.'"

“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”: The Music and Lyrics of Billy Joel
Now playing in a grocery store near you.

The music department's overheated blurb describes the event as "a scholarly symposium" on "the consummate singer-songwriter whose compositions translate larger cultural concerns into accessible and compelling musical narratives . . . . aim[ing] to share academically oriented insights . . . in an accessible and approachable manner." 

All this over the course of 30 separate "academic" presentations and a live phone conference with Himself. I am not certain what all this means; would "Mammy's little baby wants shortnin' bread" translate cultural concerns into a compelling musical narrative? How about that anthem for the era of legalized weed, "Love Potion Number Nine," in which the protagonist "didn't know if it was day or night"?

Then there's the honors history course on the life and times of Dolly Parton, offered without apparent irony by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. "I think there are some stereotypes associated with the area, especially in rural Appalachia," admits the student body president without apparent irony.

L'il Abner -

It's probably worth noting that Dolly is now 71 years old and so has become a legitimate object of merely academic interest. I suppose this brand of painless curiosity and effortless intellectual endeavor does no one any harm, but it does seem like the sort of material one might find covered in an Elderhostel class. It's a way to seem to get an education but still allow the moral imagination to remain untouched.

While we're on the subject of trivial pursuits, there will always be the unfolding historical panorama of the U.S. presidency, which continues to invite close study.

In the weeds, Mar-a-Lago

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