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One’s lyric is another’s trash
by Jake Highton
Apr 17, 2010 | 632 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
De gustibus non est disputandum.

(There is no disputing tastes.)

One of the most enjoyable intellectual jousts concerns judgment of books, plays, art and movies.

I think James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is the best novel ever written: challenging, brimming with erudition and full of apt literary and historical allusions. But a professor friend, with an IQ at least 25 points higher than mine, thinks it unreadable.

Some of my friends say Mozart is greater than Beethoven. But to me, Beethoven is like Shakespeare: incomparable. With Beethoven it is Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), heaven-shaking music mixed with lyrical compositions and bagatelle gems like “Für Elise.”

Yet a music department chairman once told me I would prefer Mozart “when I grew up.”

At 79, I don’t have much time to grow up. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to believe that the late quartets of Beethoven are the most profound pieces of music ever written, that the chorale movement of the “Ninth Symphony” is Olympian.

Grant Leneaux, my dear professor friend, says Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” is a deeply “moving elegy over the death of Jesus.” Grant is a fiery intellectual solidly grounded in the arts. But I am not moved by the Bach work. He listens to the words. I do not.

My preference in religious music is “Messiah.” I have listened to it for decades. By now I half listen to the words. But they don’t mean anything to this raging atheist. What I am moved by is the Handel music: driving, joyous and magnificent.

Opinions, opinions. Movies? The field is vast but I choose “Citizen Kane” as the best American film. The best American play is “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” The best novelist ever: Dostoyevsky. The best opera composer is easy: Verdi.

Opinions, lots of opinions, all challengeable. Supreme Court Justice Harlan said it best in 1971: “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

It comes down often to political outlook. I love van Gogh’s “Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries.” Red, green, blue, white, brown, orange.

But the one van Gogh painting I would buy, if it were on sale and I a Croesus, would be “The Potato Eaters.” The Dutch peasants have a simplicity, a humanity, a purity. They are, in the words of poet Edwin Markham, “stolid and stunned, brother to the ox.” It’s a socialist’s painting.

But again, as the French say: “Chacun à son gout.” (Everyone to his own taste.)


Question for some friends: Do your recall an article, column or book that changed your mind about a substantive matter?

Andy Barbano, Sparks Trib columnist: “A syndicated column by Georgie Anne Geyer in the mid-1980s pointing out cases of U.S. media self-censorship of documented torture in Israeli prisons. It altered my thinking that Israel should always be viewed as the good guy.”

Dennis Myers, news editor of the Reno News & Review, says he began to think like a feminist after reading an article in Psychology Today.

Leneaux, UNR western traditions professor: “It wasn’t a single article. But when I was a student in Munich in 1968 during the great student uprising, I was converted to Marxism by reading the German press.”

Deidre Pike, journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno: “I was anti-abortion but a series of columns by Anna Quindlen of the New York Times, well-argued and beautifully written, changed my mind.”

For me it was an article on the atomic bomb by Gar Alperovitz. I had thought the bombing of Hiroshima was essential to hasten the end of World War II, avoid an invasion of Japan and save countless lives.

But Alperovitz made it clear that dropping the bomb was unnecessary: The Japanese were on the verge of surrender. Nevertheless, the realpolitik of the powers that were dropped the bomb to show the Soviets that America had the ultimate weapon.

An iconoclastic book also changed my mind: “The Missionary Position” by Christopher Hitchens. I had assumed that Mother Teresa was a saintly nun, ministering to the poor of Calcutta, India. Not so, Hitchens makes clear.

He skewered her as “a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer” and an admirer of tyrants. He asks what she had ever done to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. As a reactionary Catholic, Mother Teresa raged against abortion, a ridiculous position to urge on the poor and downtrodden.

Hitchens concluded that she was “one of the few untouchables in the mental universe of the mediocre and credulous.” She was a master of public relations. Her photo ops with world leaders, the rich and powerful, gave her cachet — but false cachet.

Jake Highton teaches journalism at UNR. He can be contacted at
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