Sunday, 21 December 2008

The skull beneath the skin

The bad news is that the Christmas number one in the UK is a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah by the winner of the X Factor (a factory pop reality show; I can’t help feeling that that’s so much less good sounding than a Factory pop reality show might have been). In previous posts (here, here, and here), I’ve - possibly tediously - worked through my intuitions to decide that whilst there may, in extreme circumstances (and nearly everything about Rolf Harris spells danger), be some kind of risk of blasphemy (no doubt why as a typical teenager fundamentalist I had no time for them), cover versions set up a dialogue with originals which is often fascinating. And I had an excuse to mention Wittgenstein’s discussion of children playing trains, which is always useful. So why is it such bad news about Hallelujah?

One of the other things Wittgenstein says in this area is that one form of aesthetic judgement is a) a form of comparison in which one b) sees or hears something as something. Now hear this as the conclusion, one is told, for example. That prompts the kind of worry that motivates moral particularism, however. Why, if one’s focus is, or should be, on this case (moral or aesthetic), should one look away at the key moment to other examples? Why isn’t that the wrong direction of gaze? Further, if aesthetic judgements were to work by such comparisons then the comparisons would either have to be with other aesthetic or with other non-aesthetic aspects (or past judgements). This leads to two bad choices. It seems unlikely that present aesthetic judgements could merely turn on non-aesthetic features. But if they depend on past aesthetic judgements, then that threatens vicious regress. How did those judgements get off the ground? But let me put that worry aside for the moment and return to the case at hand.

Let me declare my view that the best version of the Cohen song is the one by John Cale on I’m Your Fan (a cd I insisted on playing having retired to spin the – generally mellow – discs at the end of London dinner parties in 1992). The Buckley version is horribly over the top. (The chart topping version isn’t worth comment.) But with the judgement-as-comparison thought in play, then surely having exposure to these versions will simply provide me with indirect access to the fine Cale version, in memory at least? Surely it’s no bad thing? In fact, however, I’m going to avoid music radio for a couple of weeks because of another comparison.

The Arts Centre at the University of Warwick used to serve only one real ale: Charles Wells Bombardier. It served this in such lamentably poor quality that rejecting pints became second nature. That, however, was a comparatively good result. One had at least tried to buy a decent real beer, failed, and thus bought a hugely expensive bottle of, say, Old Hooky but one could meet one’s bank manager in good faith. The problem was with the penumbra of doubtful pints that were not so screamingly awful that they violated the Sale of Goods Act but would still bring no pleasure. Repeated exposure to these taught one to taste every stage of the degradation of a beer (like the scenes of speeded-up decay in the Peter Greenaway film A Zed and Two Noughts). Thus, in a merely poor beer, one could anticipate its final vile state, two days later. And then eventually, one could taste in even a good pint of Bombardier those flavours that in its death throws would carry the final reek of oxidation.

Did that comparison reveal the essential structural weakness of Bombardier? Or was it a distortion that should have had nothing to do with its flavour for those with a luckier choice of pub? I’m not sure. And I’m not sure what the result of listening to a dreadful rendition of Hallelujah for the next two weeks. (Revellation or distortion?) But I’m not prepared to take the risk.