Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Rorem Agonistes

Yesterday I came into possession of an advance galley of Ned Rorem's latest collection of diary entries and other musical whatnots, scheduled for publication later this year. I glanced at a page or two, but — as always with these diaries — found myself perversely enthralled, and within an hour I had devoured the whole thing. It was like a big bag of moldy pistachios, noxious and smelly and somehow impossible to set aside.

My god, the whingeing, the moaning, the unbridled self-pity! These were always the dominant motifs, but now there's practically nothing else. Rorem has become the Eeyore of contemporary music.

One feels for him on the personal front, perhaps — the loss of friends and colleagues, the physical and emotional indignities of old age. But the endless keening about cultural matters is simply beyond the pale. This is a man for whom Shakespeare, Beethoven, Cervantes and Schubert (to name just a few) are "boring" and "incomprehensible" — and then he has the gall to complain ad nauseam about the "dumbing down" of contemporary culture.

His beef is obvious, of course: not that Shakespeare or Schubert are overvalued, but that he — Ned Rorem, dammit! — has not been given his due. He name-drops furiously, but art and culture in general seem to have no meaning for him any more. All that counts is his own work, his own struggles and the perpetual scandal of his underappreciation by the world.

The most sadly comic bit is this: "I am forever 'accused' of narcissism. But everyone's a narcissist — I just admit it." Well, no — many people are in fact not narcissists, and most of us understand this. But the mark of a true narcissist is his inability to perceive his fellow humans except as mirror images of his own narcissism. It's like the mot by the great recreational logician Raymond Smullyan: "Most people hate egotists. They remind them of themselves. I love egotists. They remind me of me."


At 8/16/2006 1:23 PM, Blogger Ciaviel said...

I really can't imagine the pain of losing a SO, and I've heard it's excruciating.

No question that composers (speaking as one) need a thick skin. But being confident in one's abilities is not the same thing as being an egotist. I've tried reading Rorem's writings on a few occasions, and I can't help but be disgusted by it.

At 8/17/2006 6:16 AM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

I read the Paris diary and maybe one of the others about 30 years ago, and found him scandalous and entertaining, but he wrote that material in what, the early 1950s? I was a teenager or barely out of my teens when I read the books; no wonder I was impressed.

Alex Ross commented in his current TNY article that Rorem prides himself on Francophile restraint, and you mention that he finds Beethoven (!) and Schubert (!!) incomprehensible: those two things explain an awful lot about his music, which frankly I find well-made and dull.

At 8/17/2006 11:14 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

Based on what you've described, I have a sneaking suspicion that any lack of appreciation, perceived or real, might have something to do with Mr. Rorem's personality.

At 8/22/2006 7:49 PM, Blogger Henry Holland said...

those two things explain an awful lot about his music, which frankly I find well-made and dull

Dang, Lisa beat me to it.

At 8/23/2006 11:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say, ANY blogger pointing their narcissitic finger at another person's narcissisim is hilarious, since blogs are by nature narcissistic, and I have yet to come across one that doesn't read that way.

I (narcissistically speaking, of course) find some of Rorem's music well-made and find some of it interesting. I pity those who can do no better than dismiss all of it as dull in one generalized swoop. Perhaps they haven't heard the full range of it.

At 8/29/2006 9:52 AM, Anonymous Gert said...

Anonymous must win award for lack-of-self-awareness comment of the week. Funny how te nihilist comments are always by Anonymous.

There is a big difference between self-absorption (sine qua non of blogging) and narcissism. Any sort of personal writing - diaries, memoirs, autobiography, lifestyle columns - will be to some extent self-serving. But the most interesting are also outward looking. If they reflect the personality of the writer perhpas that is because they are written from within.


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