Monday, September 30, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

Forgive me but, for the second week in a row, I must begin in autobiographical and anecdotal mode.

Recently my eldest daughter and her husband invited me to a fund-raising quiz evening, being held by their local primary school. They thought (probably wrongly) that I might be good at general knowledge and arcane historical and literary stuff. But then they heard that the quiz was going to be based on music. Okay. I would at least be able to answer for their team some of the questions on opera and orchestral music and jazz and even some of the older specimens of pop and rock.

The evening was being billed as “The Ultimate Music Quiz”.

But what did this “Ultimate Music Quiz” turn out to consist of?

It consisted of a chap who fancied himself as a DJ playing brief clips of pop and rock drawn exclusively from the last twenty years, and basically recognizable only to people who have recently left teenager-hood. So bang went my hopes of showing my brilliance by identifying the key in which the Rhenish Symphony was written, saying who played the vibraphone in the Benny Goodman Quartet or naming the librettist for The Daughter of the Regiment. To make matters worse, teams didn’t have to guess what the music was, but simply voted by electronic doo-dah whether it was A or B or C or D as suggested by the wannabe DJ.

As a quiz, it reminded me of a dumbed-down multi-choice exam, as opposed to a real exam.

Needless to say, I found it a long evening. So did my daughter and son-in-law, who were somewhat apologetic about roping me in. The only time I contributed anything of value to the team was when I was able to give (from a multi-choice selection) the correct date of the first publication of The Great Gatsby – a question presumably asked only because there has recently been a terrible film adaptation thereof, possibly as bad as the one made in the 1970s, but appealing more overtly to those who have only recently left teenager-hood.

Rumour says that the team which won the evening’s “quiz” had at their table an Auckland publication’s pop music “critic”. I can’t get grumpy about this winning strategy, however. I am not an habitual attender of quiz-nights, but about fifteen years ago, when I was still a regular film reviewer, I do remember being invited by some colleagues to join their table at a Trivial Pursuit night when they had been forewarned that there was going to be a special round on movies. On the team’s behalf, I answered all the cinematic questions correctly, we won the night by a whisker and each member of the team went home having won $30 and a bottle of wine. A good evening’s haul.

So I’m not complaining.

But as I went home after the “Ultimate Music Quiz” I was filled with dark and terrible thoughts. “What a horrible waste of intellectual energy,” I thought, “memorising the names of garbage like the pop music of the last twenty years. Who cares what the name was of the group which recorded one piece of mediocre rubbish indistinguishable from another piece of mediocre rubbish?” People who bothered themselves about such things were obviously much inferior to me on the cultural scale. I thought in the same terms of tales I’d heard of fanatical sports fans, memorising and quizzing each other on the winning scores of Ranfurly Shield challenges, or the winners and losers and dates of the Paris Open.

So, grumpily, I went to bed, convinced of the degeneracy of the fund-raising quiz night I had just attended.

But when I woke the following morning an obvious thought occurred to me, which had been blotted out by my dyspepsia the previous night.

After all, it takes no more wit, insight or intellectual energy to memorise the names of Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry, Booker Prize winners, characters in the novels of Balzac or Proust, rationalist or empirical philosophers, or creators of great works of art than it does to memorise the winners and losers of tennis matches, the songs that were on the Top 40 ten years ago, the exact date of the death of Amy Winehouse or what Lady Gaga’s latest million-seller was. Memorising names, dates and facts is a fairly mechanical process. The people who could key into the pop and rock music of the last twenty years were no stupider than me. They just had different interests.

There’s another side to this too. Eons ago, there used to be (and for aught I know may still be) a conservative American publication called Films in Review, which gave embarrassingly silly reviews of films but which contained excellent retrospective articles on directors, actors and so forth, complete with filmographies and dates. One of its early features was a column called (I think) “Coffee, Brandy and Cigars”, being quizzes on who directed or starred in or scripted what classic films and when. The very title suggested that this sort of quizzing was really the idle chatter of people with spare time to burn and long evenings to fill.

In my life, I have known at least some people who think that the recall of such things is real cultural capital. They can say what novel was adapted by which director into which classic film and what actress was called in at the last moment to star when what other actress was unavailable. Having a strong and retentive memory is a good thing, and certainly helpful if you are going to synthesize your memory knowledge into a logical argument or thesis of some sort.
I resist people who foolishly object to academic examinations because they are mere “memory work”. A well-stocked memory is essential to any academic learning. But the memory of discrete data alone is only the first step in real reasoning or thought.

So, says my mature judgement, a factual quiz on ephemeral pop music is no more nor less intelligent a pastime that a factual quiz on Booker Prize winners. But it probably does say something about the cultural company you keep.

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