Poor Richard’s Inconsequential Idea

Heaven knows I admire Richard M. Weaver.ideas

The great Southern scholar and philosopher hails from my neck of the woods.  He grew up in Weaverville, NC, just up the road from my mother’s people in Leicester.  His Southern Essays is a book I hold almost as closely as the Bible; it reminds me of who I am and where I come from.  It introduced me (before Russell Kirk) to my early American political hero, that colorful, bull-whip cracking intransigent, John Randolph of Roanoke, with his special blend of “social bond individualism.”  Weaver shaped my understanding and thinking in ways that will ever remain with me.

His most famous book is Ideas Have Consequences, a tour de force in traditional conservative thought and social commentary.   Weaver saw the rejection of universals as the harbinger of a disordered mind and disordered society.   Symptomatic, in his view, were certain elements of pop culture, notably jazz music.  On this score, just as Randolph broke with Jefferson, I have to break with the great intellect.

Edward Feser wrote a fantastic 2010 blog post that took Weaver’s ideas on jazz to task.

Weaver and I agree that it was a catastrophe to abandon realism about universals, to deny that things – including, most importantly, human beings – have essences which define an objective standard of goodness for them. But realism comes in different forms, and the different forms have different moral, theological, cultural, and political implications.

Feser draws a distinction between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies and finds Weaver defaulting to a Manichean view of music.

[Weaver] tells us that jazz is a mark of modern civilization’s “barbarism,” “disintegration,” and “primitivism.” Why? His reasons seem to boil down to four: First, jazz evinces “a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement” and an eschewal of “form or ritual”; second, its celebration of the soloist’s virtuosity is a mark of “egotism” or “individualization”; third, its appeal lies in “titillation” and its themes are often “sexual or farcical,” appealing to the “lower” rather than “higher centers,” so that it fails to raise us to “our metaphysical dream”; fourth, it is “the music of equality.” Obviously, what he says about jazz applies also to other elements of modern pop culture.

Let’s consider Weaver’s concerns in order. First, it is, of course, by now a commonplace that to accuse jazz of formlessness or lack of structure is the height of superficiality. From swing to bop to modal jazz to fusion to acid jazz, it does not take much listening to discern the order underlying even the freest improvisation. Even free jazz has structure, though as I indicated in my previous post, it is so abstract that it can (in my view, anyway) only ever be of purely intellectual rather than aesthetic interest. It is hard not to see in Weaver’s criticism the Platonist’s impatience with the messiness and complexity of the real world, a desire for all form or order to be simple and evident enough to be accessible from the armchair. As the Aristotelian realizes…to know the essences of things we actually have to get our hands dirty and investigate them empirically, in all their rich detail. If the structure of jazz is complex and unobvious, it is in that respect only mimicking the world of our experience.

To which I say, “amen.”  Certainly this applies to progressive music as well.  Perhaps none combined fusion elements better than a band that came up in Weaver’s back yard, the Dixie Dregs.  Begun as a lab project at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, the Dregs engaged one another in complex musical conversations that exemplified a flair and swagger secured in its own kind of social bond individualism.

At least I have to believe the audacious John Randolph would have celebrated the Dixie Dregs, even if Richard Weaver would have been freaked out.

So here’s to ideas and their consequences — to getting our hands dirty —  from the appropriately titled Dregs of the Earth.

3 thoughts on “Poor Richard’s Inconsequential Idea

  1. carleolson

    Richard Weaver! Jazz! Ed Feser! Dixie Dregs! Love it! Thank you for the great post.

    I think very highly of Weaver’s work and I think he was quite brilliant; specifically, I think he rightly points to nominalism/voluntarism as a key factor in things going haywire in the West, a point that Benedict XVI took up in more nuanced fashion in the (unfairly) maligned but brilliant Regensburg Address. Weaver and Chesterton both get jazz wrong, and do so in rather embarrassing fashion (I’ve argued with my friend, Dale Ahlquiest, Prez of the American Chesterton Society, about this). I took that up in a 2011 post on the “catholicity of jazz”, in which I wrote:

    But I would also insist that outside of liturgical settings, good jazz is good music, which means it is an artistic expression in keeping with Catholicism, which prizes and recognizes all that is good, true, and beautiful. Personal tastes differ, it goes without saying, and I can only take a little bit of Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor before I turn to the Blue Note albums of the 1950s and ’60s, or the trio albums of Keith Jarrett, or the recent works of Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Roy Hargrove, and so forth. Great jazz, to my mind and ear, is a marvelous combination of structure and improvisation, where intelligent musical conversation takes place upon a chosen, mutual theme, revealing both the individual thoughts/voices of those participating, as well as the deeper meaning and heart of the piece they are playing. It is a music that recognizes and honors and draws upon tradition while speaking about and within that tradition in the here and now. In my mind, jazz bears a certain analogy to the human condition: we are creatures endowed with great freedom, but freedom is to be exercised in pursuing the good, recognizing and respecting the limits and boundaries of our nature and of creation as established by God the Creator.

    I “discovered” jazz around 1993 or so, but I was into the music of Morse and the Dregs years earlier, mostly because of his work with Kansas on “Power” and “In the Spirit of Things” in the mid-eighties. I’ve enjoyed his solo work, but it doesn’t have quite the same range and delightful eccentricity of the Dregs. Anyhow, thanks again for the fine post.

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  2. chuckicks

    Thanks for sharing those great insights. When I was in high school Kansas and the Dixie Dregs were neck and neck my favorite bands. When Steve Morse joined Kansas I thought it was a logical fit; but music had changed during that time, Livgren and Hope had moved on, and the musical ideas were more mainstream (although “T.O. Witcher” from In the Spirit of Things is among my favorite Morse tracks).

    A friend, after taking a look at this post, has recommended Jacque Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. “The function of art is to create its own object in freedom and for beauty’s sake.”

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    1. carleolson

      I think “Power” is decent, certainly much more mainstream, as you note; the band clearly was following in the footsteps of bands like Journey and the Moody Blues, who had ditched their more fusion and prog-oriented roots to pursue hit songs and bigger paychecks. But I’m of the opinion that “In the Spirit of Things” is one of the 3 or 4 best Kansas albums ever made (heresy, I know!), and, in a strange way, actually sounds better now than it did in 1988, in the sense that it has held up really well and rewards repeated listens (unlike, in my opinion, “Power”). It is the last album in which Steve Walsh still had all of his vocal powers, it has some very interesting lyrics (shot through with a deep themes personal loss and spiritual questioning), and Steve Morse just plays the heck out of it. I still get shivers when I listen to “The Bells of St. James”! I’m planning on writing a piece about that album soon. As for Maritain, I far prefer his writings on art/poetry to his writings on politics, and “Creative Intuition…” is a classic.

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