Setting that certain feeling to music.May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I found an error in Ted Gioia’s new history of love songs. It’s late in this 336-page book, when he mentions that Simon and Garfunkel gave their 1968 hit “Mrs. Robinson” to the movie soundtrack for The Graduate. As it happens, the adulterous Mrs. Robinson was first a character in the 1967 movie, and the little koo-koo-ka-choo filler they composed for her they developed into a full song only after the movie’s success.
It’s telling that one has to go this deep into the text, and descend to this level of trivia, to find much wrong with Gioia’s assessment. Love Songs is the definitive work on the topic—and like all comprehensive and topic-establishing texts, the fun comes in taking the author’s work as the new “given,” the added premise, from which we have to proceed in all our thinking about art and culture—about music, in this case, and sex. Ted Gioia has reached behind Freud and Darwin, behind psychology and evolutionary biology, to suggest that the inherent structures of art are what shape experience.
The love song invents love, in other words. The seduction song guides the encounter it describes. The sex song forms the expectations we have of sex. Before music, there was certainly brute rutting; but after song, there was tenderness, awkwardness, unrequited longing, fulfilled dreams, broken hearts, and the Beatles singing, “I want to hold your hand.” Karen Carpenter bubbling, “I’m on the top of the world, looking down on creation.” Rascal Flatts moaning their way through “What Hurts the Most.” Bing Crosby charming his way through “Love Is Just Around the Corner.” And Ted Gioia working his way systematically through it all.
Not that Gioia is loud about such things. As a Roman Catholic and (mostly apolitical) conservative working in an art world that has resolutely turned against both Catholicism and conservatism, he has nonetheless carved out a niche for himself as a popular scholar of music, particularly with his acclaimed standard, The History of Jazz (1997). In Love Songs, he genuflects toward current scientific preferences with an opening discussion of how even birds do it, this evolutionary mating-call thing, and he saves himself a world of hurt by nodding toward current academics in ascribing the general origin of love songs to the marginalized, outcast, and oppressed.
Still, he captures the essential, almost Straussian, political point in it all, for history shows love songs consistently occupying a curious middle ground in culture. On the one hand, they are instruments for rebellious impulse: They push against manners, social control, and political power in the name of an emotion so strong, they claim, that it cannot be constrained. On the other hand, the songs themselves are constrained—and constraining. Love songs domesticate sex. They bring it under control and reform it into love by putting it in an intelligible and useful frame.
The result is that, to any one culture, love songs will seem radical and dangerous, taking exciting risks in edging up to the edge of taboo. To the sum of culture, however, love songs have proved profoundly conservative: They make civilization itself possible, and they reshape some of the worst of human impulses into some of the best. “The history of the love song is also the history of the repression of the love song,” Gioia writes. And yet, the love song has also successfully provided “the legitimization of romantic longing.”
The artists of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance—the troubadours, Provençal poets, madrigal writers, and, especially, Petrarch—are usually given credit for inventing what we think of as the modern love song of Western culture. Gioia points out, however, the oddity of that kind of romance, in which men sing of themselves as slaves, chained in bondage by their passion. The refreshing of Europe through the return of classical learning certainly helped the genre develop: The Renaissance love song doesn’t happen without the examples of Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid returning to cultural awareness.
And yet, Gioia notes, an even greater influence came from actual slaves. The qiyan, enslaved women performers in the Arab and Muslim worlds, converted their bondage into tales of love, the heart enslaved in sexual thrall. And, thereby, they taught even their masters to sing of love as slavery. The music spread through the Muslim presence in Spain and, from there, into Provence and eventually the rest of Europe.
The master, who needs to maintain the values of the dominant society, with all its sanctions and proprieties, is nonetheless fascinated by the transgressive possibilities that can only come from the slave, the outsider, the infidel.
Joseph Bottum, book burnerMay 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It took me six hours to destroy it all, that cold, wet winter day. Freezing rain coating the leafless trees and the slush of snow left from the previous days’ storms. A weak fire in one of the stingy, grudging little fireplaces they used to build in Manhattan apartments. And me, alone with thousands of pages of unpublished writing by Richard John Neuhaus, burning the record he’d kept of his life.
Joseph Bottum refuses to convert.Mar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
It used to happen regularly. Some poor science writer for a magazine or newspaper would try to humanize an astronomy fact: The distance light travels in a year is enormous!
Joseph Bottum counts the days Jan 5, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 17 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
until after Christmas.
Christmas doesn’t really begin until Christmas—Christmas Day itself, that is. And I don’t mean just in the way the Christian churches lay out the season: the whole 12-days-of-Christmas thing, if you remember. And I know you do, because everyone remembers the song about the partridge in a pear tree, which is what our loves would give us on the first day of Christmas, if they were true.
Green in exchange for green.Dec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Speaking truth to power is easy—or easier, anyway, than speaking truth to money. We might resist a sovereign who commands us to preach his favored doctrines. But a sovereign who slips us a little cash on the side, just for a sermon or two on something we maybe don’t really disagree with all that much? Harder. Much, much harder. It was true back in 1717, for example, when Benjamin Hoadly preached a famous Anglican sermon in front of a receptive King George I—a sermon that called for church government to be taken away from the bishops and given directly to the king.
How it is that we once again find ourselves rooting out sin, shunning heretics, and heralding the end timesDec 1, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 12 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
1. The Return of Original Sin
Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Hazel Motes, the hyperanxious protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s great novella Wise Blood, finds himself so bedeviled by the demands of religious belief that he rebels by founding a religion of his own: The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. The mainline Protestant churches of the twentieth century, says our contributing editor Joseph Bottum, did something similar when the challenges of the secular world proved too much: They abandoned the inconveniences and discomforts of faith and became, instead, secular liberals.
A church father gets an ideological makeover. Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Vincent of Lérins was a Gaulish monk who lived and wrote in the fifth century. Little is known about him, really. It’s said that he was originally a soldier but gave up his military career to enter a monastery near Cannes, on the small Mediterranean island of Lérins (later renamed the Île Saint-Honorat, after the founder of Vincent’s monastery). He may have been a brother of the better-known St.
The evolution of forbidden language. Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
The early British and American reviews of this book are hilarious—hilarious, that is, in the sense of proving two of Melissa Mohr’s minor theses. In her account, the sex-based swear words so reviled by the Victorians have become almost commonplace: No real stigma attaches to their use these days, although certain classes may still feel a little antiquated frisson when they write or say them.
Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook is delighted to commend to readers a new ebook from our contributing editor Joseph Bottum.
The writer’s vocation in J. F. Powers’s correspondence. Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
One of the things you learn when you read the letters of great writers is how rarely great writers talk about literature in their letters. Mostly they talk about money. The letters of Henry Ford show more interest in big ideas and artistic principles than do those of James Joyce. When Joyce wrote a letter, it was usually a complaint about how expensive everything seemed—and would the recipient mind enclosing a small check in his next reply?
Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Early in 1659, a strong-willed woman named Sarah Chevers and an even stronger-willed woman named Katharine Evans arrived in Malta. By chance—or, as they insisted, Providence—they had been diverted, their Dutch ship chased into the port of Valletta by rumor of pirates and bad weather. And since Malta is where they found themselves, Malta is where they would stay, preaching God’s true Protestant faith—the Knights Hospitaller who ruled the Catholic island be damned.
The right man, at the right time, for Christendom. Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Most of the time, intellectual history is a tangle, the threads so snarled that the result looks like a skein of yarn after a dozen kittens have been set loose on it. That lump over there? The muddle that the Venerable Bede made of things. That twisted set of knots? The playful chaos that Thomas Carlyle constructed for us. That indecipherable web? It’s what was left of Western philosophy after Martin Heidegger got his paws on it.
Joseph Bottum, in mourning for peaceJul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I woke this morning to the gentle coo of a mourning dove on my windowsill. The gentle coo, the mellifluous murmur. You know that sound—mourning doves are everywhere in this country, over three hundred million of them across North America, calling out their woo-OO-oo-oo-oo in wistful sorrow at . . . well, actually, I don’t know at what. Their lost loves? Their absent parents? The sad condition of this fallen world?