Heaven knows I admire Richard M. Weaver.
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.