Occasional Notes: Political-Aesthetic Musings
Here we come to a turning of the season
Witness to the arc towards the sun
A neighbor’s blessed burden within reason
Becomes a burden borne of all and one
Decemberism: I’m enjoying the hell out of the Decemberists’ new album, The King Is Dead. It sits right in that gap that’s been annoying me since Toad the Wet Sprocket broke up. Yeah, it really has been that long. I’d never much liked the Decemberists’ other stuff, and when people say “Hey, you miss Toad too? Well, you’ll love this,” it usually misfires. Not so here.
So I went to their Wikipedia page, and — with apologies for a rude and possibly unfair shock — I found that they often play “The Horst Wessel Song” in concert. Nazi music. Revolting, no?
But actually I lied — they play the Soviet anthem, so obviously it’s okay.
By rights, I should find it revolting, and I do. As revolting as “The Horst Wessel Song”? Perhaps. The Soviets were killers — conscious, cruel, and methodical. The gulag was no more a failed, well-intentioned experiment than Auschwitz.
The Decemberists’ communism isn’t just a pose, either, not to judge by their lyrics, anyway. Yet they made a really great album, and I’m annoyingly helpless to feel otherwise. Theories:
- False Consciousness: Deep in my heart, I know the free market is a bunch of nonsense.
- Evolutionary Psychology: Our brains are adapted to an era when commerce didn’t pay, and when solidarity meant survival. That’s why slicing a pie equally is intuitive and why the law of comparative advantage — a better strategy all around — slips out of the mind if you don’t pin it down with a thumbtack from Honduras. The aesthetic sense comes from that early era’s lagging, slow-evolving brain, not from the influence of more recent events.
- Desensitization: Communism in art is, shall we say, nothing new.
- Cultural Relevance: Communism survives as an ideal in a way fascism doesn’t, and not necessarily because of liberal complicity alone. We can’t neglect communism’s significant roots in Christianity, either.
- The Star Wars Explanation: My tastes are bringing balance to the Force.
- The Ayn Rand on Velvet Explanation: Self-consciously free-market art just sucks. It really does. Trust me. You don’t even want to know how bad it is. I flee from it, and I end up here.
Self-consciousness ruins a lot of art. It’s why I can’t stand a lot of country music, although I like a lot of music that close to country. I can’t escape the feeling that a lot of the genre-identified artists are wearing their country on their sleeves. A lot of hip-hop does the same thing, I think.
(I also find it annoying that they are The Decemberists, and not The Decembrists, as their namesakes’ name is spelled. A quibble, but my fingers just rebel here.)
Edmond Rostand: My friend Timothy Sandefur put me on the trail of Edmond Rostand, the author of Cyrano de Bergerac. It appears that almost none of his lyric poetry has ever been translated into English, which is a shame, because it’s quite enjoyable in French. It’s strange at first to read the author of Cyrano writing poems about photo albums and electrified greenhouses, but the strangeness passes. Rostand looked his own century in the eye, too, and I’m looking forward to doing some translations in the months to come.
To Radley Balko: I stopped taking Balloon Juice seriously right about when they redefined intellectual honesty as requiring me to speculate publicly on my employer’s personnel decisions. Um, thanks, but no thanks.
Radley, you’re doing the most valuable criminal justice reporting in the country, and people like this don’t deserve a second of your time. Ob art tie-in: Just read King Lear, if you haven’t.
 Remind me to rant sometime about how I don’t really buy a lot of evolutionary psychology, because I don’t.