I spent most of Wednesday evening massively pissed off by a book that I read. This is an opera blog, not a history blog, so suffice it to say that it was one of those books that claims to be doing something new and exciting by arguing that historians of the specific topic at hand have relied too much on quantitative approaches and too little on the subjective experience of the people involved; the author goes on to argue that the subject in question is in some way outside of our capacity to narrate.
Now, of course numbers can lie. Numbers can mislead. They’re like words in this way. They do what you tell them to. But plenty of other people have investigated the non-quantitative, qualitative/descriptive side of this topic. Debates about the value of quantitative history and its relation to this topic have been going on for years. The author, for her part, has mustered a phalanx of genuinely interesting qualitative questions, clothed them in the language that is likely to appeal to people who like concepts like “disciplining the body”, and proceeded . . . not to answer them. (There was one part where she said she would discuss the thought process by which X group of people came to be doing Y, which I would actually be very interested in hearing about – but she never actually gets to the explanation.) She has an evocative name for her way of thinking about the topic, but the evocative name doesn’t come with a lot of substance. (Oddly enough, the reviewer of the book in the WMQ fixed on the same points that I did, even some of the same quotations, but the reviewer thought that they were wonderful.)
This sort of thing infuriates me. There are limits to what we can know about the past, but arguing against historical intelligibility without offering a good alternative option is like throwing up your hands and saying – well, we can’t really know if Handel wrote every note in this opera, so let’s not work on that performing edition of Alcina. This is one of those books that talks bigger than it walks. It’s not awful. The author is a good writer, and some of what she says is genuinely interesting. But just when you think you’re getting to the good stuff, she’s off to something else. And then in the last chapter she’s like, “well, this type of experience is basically outside of our capacity to narrate.” Maybe so, but we can at least try. We can give it a shot. And if we don’t get all of it right, we can do better next time around. Are we historians, or what?
This was the thought process that occupied much of my evening. And then I had one of those JESUS CHRIST EARWORM NO ONE CARES* moments and I decided to have a gin and tonic and listen to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Schumann instead.
Oh, and if you’re into the Bach B minor mass, I hear there’s a new recording out with the NY Phil and Anne Sofie von Otter and some other people.
*I do not actually address myself as “earwormopera.”