I Think My Logic Is Beyond Reproach

First off, John, thanks for pointing out that you’re kind of a contrarian. Based on your posts earlier this week that attacked typical American villains in Atticus Finch and checks and balances, I was afraid you were going too mainstream. I was waiting for your next post: “How To Strangle Puppies.”*

*With special co-blogger… that’s too easy.

Second, it is interesting to note, as I did oh so long ago, that it’s far easier to hold the stance you do—that some things’ greatness is ineffable—when those things are considered great by the general populace. It’s not often that one really challenges you on your love for The Beatles, Dylan, Shakespeare, The Godfather, or The Wire. They are all part of the cultural canon by now, perceived as the best of the best. (It’s also notable that another work of culture that you once explained in your typical terse “You just don’t get it” manner, Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” didn’t make this list; maybe because it’s not considered part of the canon, and you know how ludicrous it sounds now to claim that the song is great because it just is.)

The point is it’s a lot harder to say these things about less beloved artists; someone along the lines of, oh I don’t know, Barenaked Ladies. Individuals with non-conformist tastes are forced to defend them far more often; how many times have you or Josh condemned my preference for BnL? And how many times have you been condemned for your disbelief in God?

Let’s run with this latter example. John, you are an atheist. Atheism is not the default position when it comes to religion in America, and I imagine that your atheism has been challenged by many people. Atheism is not beyond reproach, and so you have been forced to defend it. Consequently, you have been forced to “think critically” about it and formulate a coherent philosophical justification of your atheism. If I asked you, “So, John, why do you hate God?” you would know how to proceed, probably in logical steps.*

*It’s why you win most arguments with religious folk, who look at God the way you look at your favorite artists, i.e. as beyond reproach.

With things like Dylan, Shakespeare, and The Godfather, you’re not really put on your heels. It’s hard now to experience these artists without knowing the backstory; i.e. that most everyone thinks they’re really really good. Tell me, before I came along, how many people asked you questions like, “Honestly, what makes The Beatles so ‘good’?”* It’s the kind of question that, because of The Beatles’ ubiquitous popularity, doesn’t merit asking, and who formulates answers for questions they’re never asked? Now if you were to suddenly decide that, while you liked The Godfather I and II, neither gripped you as much as The Godfather III, you would immediately be confronted with comments like “Are you serious?” and “Explain yourself!” My guess is you would be forced to come up with some kind of reasoning behind your taste because it goes against the grain.

*Want to know how to write a great pop song? Sing a cliché a couple times, then invert the subject and object! Voila! “All You Need Is Love”!

This isn’t to say that this is the sole reason you have difficulty explaining why you love something. Fact is, everyone feels this way—at least for a time. It’s hard for me to explain the greatness of The Simpsons beyond “It’s funny” or The Brothers Karamazov beyond “It’s…about…everything.” I think part of the reason for this is that preference usually comes before justification. You like something first, then think to explain it later. And even if you read/watch/listen to something because you’ve heard it’s good, you can’t really know why it’s good or why it appeals specifically to you beforehand (because we, as contrarians, are inherently distrustful of other people’s opinions).* Furthermore, as a contrarian, you want your reasons for liking something to be somehow better or more intelligent. It’s the whole, “Other people like The Hills for that reason, but I like it for this more profound and enlightening one.” And maybe this is why our arguments for our favorite things fall flat: The reasons we like them are all too simple and obvious. Shakespeare is an articulate and versatile writer; Dostoevsky has really good plots and characterization. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that great works do the best.

*Just think of your reaction when someone tells you that they think you’d “really like” a movie.

The question becomes if there are any works at all that are fully beyond reproach, and I guess that depends on your definition of the phrase. I’ve always looked at it as implying perfection, but that’s probably an unfair standard to apply. After all, The Godfather cast Talia Shire and The Brothers Karamazov’s prose is a little loose. I’m not quite sure all of us are charmed by these quirks as you are, but we are at least more apt to overlook them for the sake of the whole.

It would be nice to conclude that there are works of art that are completely beyond reproach, but artistic tastes are really too idiosyncratic to allow such an interpretation. The bottom line is that what’s beyond reproach for me or you probably isn’t for someone else, and, as in all good discourse, the best way to construct your own justification is to be confronted with this kind of discord.

Because deep down, John, most of us self-proclaimed intellectuals are contrarians (how else to separate us from the philistines?). And when everyone agrees on something, a contrarian has nothing to say.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dan on August 22, 2009 at 1:29 AM

    I need to know why I like something not because I need to defend it to others, but because I need to defend it to myself. Furthermore, knowing these reasons also help me determine what I like in other artists. To those of you who would say something is ineffable, doesn’t not knowing make you unsatisfied (i.e. don’t you think to yourself, “what is it that is so special about this artist/song/book/movie that I currently cannot describe?”) and doesn’t your curiosity drive you to figure it out?

    I have no problem explaining why the Beatles are my favorite rock band and why their music great [and Tim, I must vehemently object to you characterizations Beatles songwriting].

    Perhaps when something is part of the “cultural canon” one does not feel a strong need to introspect and determine the reason behind his preferences [not pointing any fingers here …].

    But this is bad. Tim makes the point, “It’s why [John] win[s] most arguments with religious folk, who look at God the way [John] look[s] at [his] favorite artists, i.e. as beyond reproach.” It is for exactly this reason that you shouldn’t think of your favorite artists (and certainly not god) as beyond reproach. Nothing is beyond reproach. And as Jane’s comment on John’s last post demonstrates, by being intellectually lazy and claiming something is ineffable, you create a hole in your logic and allow religionists to make you look like hypocrite. Worse perhaps you also create that hole in yourself, and allow god to seep in.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tim on August 23, 2009 at 8:09 PM

    Well Dan, remember: All you need is love.

    Reply

  3. Posted by John S on August 24, 2009 at 1:41 AM

    I think it’s interesting that point most people took from my post was “John doesn’t feel the need to defend any of his opinions, ever.” That (I hope) is not the case. What I was trying to get at with the whole “beyond reproach” concept is the idea that people have certain things they love so much that they don’t even view as flaws what they would view as flaws in lesser works.

    For example: “Fitter Happier” is probably a stupid song. On a lot of other albums, it would seem silly, melodramatic, boring and, most importantly, sonically repellant. Since, however, OK Computer is a great album, “Fitter Happier” just seems like a logical inclusion; I never skip the song when listening to the album, since it serves as a great bridge from Karma Police to Electioneering. Now, I can give plenty of reasons for why I love the album, and I can even justify its inclusion of Fitter Happier, but I would never say that it is a great “song.” I’ve a heard from a lot of people who otherwise like Radiohead and OK Computer that they cannot stand Fitter Happier and think the album would be 100 times better if it weren’t for its inclusion. Now, I can’t really ARGUE with that because, as I said, “Fitter Happier” is barely even a song. But, for me, OK Computer is beyond reproach. I wouldn’t change anything about it.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Dan on August 25, 2009 at 1:08 AM

    Sure, you love OK Computer as a completed piece. As such, it always had Fitter Happier and it always provided the bridge between Karma Police and Electioneering. But if it never had that song, you would still probably love it just as much.

    My skippage of “Fitter Happier” depends whether I am too lazy / fast enough / close enough to change it before its over. It does serve to mark where I image side A and B would have been, and certainly radiohead has created less listenable material later in their career.

    and the Beatles practically invented that type of bridge nonsense song (see “Wild Honey Pie” or even “Revolution #9” or, slightly more songish, “Dig It” “Maggie Mae” and “Her Majesty”), the latter three I really like and wish would have been made into full songs, the second I don’t think I’ve ever made all the way through, and the first I am relatively indifferent to. Would the White Album be better without the Revolution #9 (depends, I don’t listen to it as it as, and its position in the album certainly allows one not to let it detract … the album certainly would not have been worse off if it was excluded).

    All of this has nothing to do with my point. I think in your comment, you’ve fully justified why you like “fitter happier” on OK Computer. and you didn’t even resort to an ineffable sublime feeling to do so (bridge in middle of album). I also think its a valid point to say that for your favorite works / when evaluating the work of an artists you previously respect, its easy to think of flaws as quirks and part of the genius. This is a valid thing to bring up and discuss. However, this is very different than:

    “I often find myself in this scenario when I’m asked to explain what I like about Bob Dylan. I end up saying really stupid things like, ‘He’s just so awesome’ or ‘His lyrics are so profound'”

    This has much more of the flavor of ‘John doesn’t feel the need to defend any of his opinions …’, what allowed others to create god, and what I objected to. My point is, nothing is intrinsically good (nor is a supreme being intrinsically there), there is always a context to the good and one can always find a reason why. So come up with a reason for liking Dylan, and we can put this to rest.

    Reply

  5. Posted by John S on August 25, 2009 at 2:23 AM

    So I went back over my original post just to confirm this: At no point were the words “ineffable” or “sublime” used. I have reasons for liking Dylan just like I have reasons for liking Fitter Happier. My point is mainly that it’s hard to be fairly critical about the flaws of certain things when those flaws simply do not strike you as such. The reasons for forgiving certain flaws in one instance and not in others are not necessarily objective and rational: I couldn’t tell you what makes FH a good bridge song and Revolution #9 such a shitty one. It’s probably just because OK Computer is a better album than the white album.

    Btw, this thread has proved that I do have a god and his name is Bob Dylan.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Dan on August 25, 2009 at 2:47 AM

    I think I was always making a point about how other people were interpreting you making a point.

    Revolution #9 is a bad bridge song because it isn’t a bridge: it connects Cry Baby Cry with Good Night (which i never listen to). For all effective purposes the white album ends with Cry Baby Cry. Also, #9 was 8 minutes and Fitter Happier is only 2. Length matters.

    Finally, perhaps OK Computer could have been a better album had they included say, Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong (one of my favorite, if not my favorite Radiohead song), which only ever made it on a EP 2 or so years before (or Nude, which was written at the time and held back until In Rainbows). However, Fitter Happier does tie in with the theme of the album etc,etc, …

    Reply

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