Why We Still Need Beethoven, p. 2

The closely related teleologies of the Enlightenment and Romanticism together form the core of what post-modernism now scorns as the 'myth of modernity.' Not only are we deeply skeptical of the existence of a single, universal truth, but now we have convinced ourselves that the unity of subjective vision postulated by modernity is an absurdity. We can never transcend our individual subjectivities, both for purely epistemological reasons and because they are conditioned by particular historical factors such as economics, race, gender, culture, and so forth. We can never connect. In fact, the most we can aspire to is a multi-cultural society in which everyone assumes a consensual agreement to respect one another's autonomy.

Moreover, if history has taught us anything, the human progress heralded by Schiller's poem-so gloriously set by Beethoven-is a sad delusion. Modernity brought us Auschwitz and Hiroshima, thank you very much, and not some universal brotherhood in which we all join together and harmonize with God. In fact we can lay some of modernity's worst creations - nationalism, anti-Semitism, and fascism - directly at Romanticism's feet. It is no wonder that Beethoven's optimism has given way to irony and cynicism.

Or has it? Listening to Beethoven the other night, I found myself believing, even if only for the duration of that evening, in humanity, in progress, and in truth. More radically, I felt infused with confidence in the superiority of Western civilization. We have symphonies. We have liberty. We have science. We have the sublime. It's all true. Universal even. In other words, I felt modern again.

One might argue that my new-found modernism was nothing more than nostalgia. Perhaps nostalgia alone was what motivated all those people to pack the National Symphony Orchestra that night. We were there to honor the memory of modernity like aging baby boomers going to Crosby, Stills, and Nash concerts and telling their children about how they were once part of 'the movement.' This is a possibility. Has not our society been particularly hungry for a little reassurance lately?

I am convinced, however, that the secret to Beethoven's enduring power lies not in nostalgia but in the fact that the idealism embodied in his music resonates with our own latent beliefs. Modernity may well be a myth, but most of us are still under its sway at least some of the time. I think this is a good thing. As we presently are struggling with people who seek to destroy our culture, I think we would do well to affirm the ideals, hopes, and visions that define it while at the same time being cognizant of how we have often gone wrong.

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October 2002

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