Friday, May 7, 2010

Human Accomplishment by Charles Murray

A book about what made the greatest works of art and discoveries in science come to be, and why; and why these came to be where and when they did, and at the hands they did. A book, at the end, about whether or not human accomplishment is actually declining, whether or not it is true, as Keats -- Keats! -- lamented, "the count of mighty Poets is made up, the scroll is folded by the Muses ... the world has done its duty" (Endymion, Book II, lines 720 ff).

Human Accomplishment is clear but still difficult, loaded with propositions and proofs drawn from statistics which, far from being "damned lies," show themselves as very logical and reliable tools to help explain how things shake out in the collective human experience. The book is also loaded with painstaking goings-over of every possible exception and argument that might be presented to everything the author says. That is not a fault, far from it of course, it's the sign of an honest and a rigorous mind trying to out-think you before you do. But you'll have to follow along closely in order to keep up with him, through five hundred pages and nearly three thousand years of world cultural history.

Charles Murray starts, as he started The Bell Curve years ago, by insisting that a few basics of his present study are beyond quibble, never mind laymen's quibbling. They exist. In The Bell Curve it was the fact of I.Q., and its measurability. In Human Accomplishment it is the fact of objective excellence in the arts and sciences, and its measurability.

To find and catalogue excellence in the arts and sciences, Murray does something that you or I could have done if we had thought of it. He consults mini-libraries of the definitive encyclopedias on all his topics -- dictionaries of music, of scientific biography, of mathematics, books of the Oxford-Companion-to- sort -- which chronicle the considered judgment of experts in all fields regarding the finest artists, scientists, and mathematicians who ever lived. If any person is important enough to be mentioned in half the sources, he merits inclusion as a "significant figure" in Human Accomplishment. (And as Murray reminds us, if you happen to paint just one canvas, or write one book, that people still look at or quote a hundred years after you die, you are already in a tiny and honorable human minority.) The very, the extraordinarily rare souls who are mentioned in many sources, or even in all, men like Shakespeare, Milton, Galileo, Mozart and Wagner, earn a kind of raw score -- 20, 50, 93, most rarely, 100 -- and are either "major figures" or simply "the giants."

To readers who would object that consulting encyclopedias simply means consulting and trusting the very fallible and prejudiced opinions of men passing on received tastes about great men, Murray replies, no. Excellence is not subjective. Everyone recognizes that difficult human pursuits have standards of achievement, and everyone can think of something in his life in which he is expert, some topic the amateurish treatment of which will bore him. Understanding and accepting the status of a Michael Jordan or a Jack Nicklaus, even if we don't know basketball or golf, means that we are intellectually obliged to understand and accept the status of Michelangelo, agreed upon among people who know art. Or, in everyday terms: you know how you react when a neophyte innocently expands upon some subject that has been the joy of your lifetime.

It's hardly my task to recapitulate Murray's book here, but I must also salute (in some detail) his dealing deftly with that other objection to one of the facts of excellence in human achievement, namely, the modern whine that the majority of the excellent in all the sources unfailingly turn out to be dead white European males, and that this can't be right. But it is. Even very up-to-date scholars who make reputations purporting to disprove it, to "set the record straight," don't actually do so. Consulting new mini-libraries of histories and encyclopedias loaded with carefully researched entries for ambitious but little-known women and non-Europeans still produces lists of the great which agree, statistically, with his lists, loaded in turn with the usual Bachs and Dantes. Murray's simple phrasing here can't be bettered. Looking at the revisionist books attempting to show that artistic and scientific achievement as great as Europe's has happened consistently outside Europe, and has been ignored, he says:
[Revisionist authors'] language evokes the image of an exaggerated European contribution without ever specifying that it is exaggerated. It is standard practice. ...

... Science and Technology in World History presents material on non- European societies. But [the authors] are also trying to present the substance of what crucial things happened where, done by whom. The ten people with the most index entries are, in order, Aristotle, Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Ptolemy, Kepler, Descartes, Euclid, and Archimedes -- a wholly conventional roster of stars. ...

The contrast between the packaging for the books and their actual texts is emblematic of our times. The packaging evokes the way that intellectual fashion says things should be. The facts reflect the way things really are (pp. 254-255).
At the heart of his argument, Murray thus comes to the question: why the preponderance of dead European males at the very pinnacles of literature, music, painting, mathematics, and science? What makes human beings -- what made those men especially -- create and discover grand things, difficult things which benefit mankind, or which still please and teach him centuries and millenia after the giants' deaths?

He carefully works out a formula. You need incomprehensible talent, for one thing. There must be talent of the kind that causes us to gawp at the Sistine chapel ceiling "and ask, how can a human being have done that?" You also need a "monomania" for work. Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven or was it thirty-eight plays, plus all the sonnets plus the long poems, and died at fifty-two. Keats died at twenty-five, Mozart at thirty-five. The poor health and medical care of previous eras is not the point. The point is what these men accomplished even in so little time. They were working, always working, and would have gone on working had they lived to be ninety-nine, as Titian claimed he had.

And, outside the person with talent, you must have a world that gives him a chance. It has nothing to do with a white male world giving a black man or a woman a chance. Talent and a monomania for work can show up in any person, anywhere. Human Accomplishment includes graphs and tables on Chinese painting, Indian philosophy, Arab literature, and more. Part of Murray's theme is that, given even a little time for each generation of humanity to look about it, sublime achievements are not ignored. To the question, for example, why do we not hear more of great women composers? the answer is, there really, really aren't any.

To have a chance, for the talented man or woman with a monomania for work, meant not to be born a subsistence farmer. To have a good chance meant not to be born into a culture which valued duty to family and community -- medieval Islam, Confucian China, even traditional Judaism -- above any inner duty to achieve a personal vocation at any cost. And to have a chance meant to know and contribute to artistic and scientific "structures," ways of working all ready or at least getting ready for the artist or scientist to fill in. The writer needs the structure of the epic poem or later the novel, the composer needs the structure of the symphony. The structures themselves grow out of what Murray calls "meta-inventions," huge mental leaps forward which gave creative people new things to do. In the West the secular observation of nature was one, the development of polyphony (several different lines of melody in one piece of music) another, the working out of linear perspective in painting a third.

And above all, Murray thinks, to foster great accomplishment the talented person needs to be encouraged by his culture to believe that an ultimate Truth, Beauty, and Good exist, which he in turn is personally valuable enough to uncover. Without that confidence, meta inventions don't necessarily happen, and structures can remain empty. It's a kind of double-whammy "aren't things divine/aren't I, too" attitude. It's a religious attitude, shared by hyper-achieving ancient (pagan) Greece and hyper-achieving (Christian) Europe, yet not shared with the same fervor by otherwise deeply religious cultures (Islam), and certainly missing from the modern secular West. Driven out by intellectuals like Freud, Darwin, and John Dewey, who have shaped our modern ideas of relativism and being non-judgmental even though we remain vague about their actual works (and anyway these men certainly did not intend to wreck Western achievement), it has been fiercely kept out by their intellectual disciples. These are the MFA professors who train artists and writers, the people who run galleries and edit poetry journals and would laugh out of court any protest that the creation of objective Beauty, say, is pleasing to God. And yet, strangely, the West suspected accomplishment was collapsing before "postmodernism" came along: recall our friend Keats and his folded scrolls.

Where a culture's elites, artists themselves or gatekeepers of the arts, deny the possibility of finding objective Truth or creating objective Beauty, great lasting art will not be made. The times matter; artists can't rise above their culture, and see what "pygmies" refuse to see. But this is difficult to accept. Shouldn't any real talent still know some sort of inner vision, exactly right, Beautiful, Truthful, and perfectly his in any age?

(Incidentally, scientists here are more or less off the hook when it comes to failing to achieve because their elites discourage the pursuit of truth and beauty. Scientific achievement has declined, but largely, Murray shows, because so much work of the greatest importance has already been done, and scientists know it. He describes science as a kind of jigsaw puzzle whose hugest pieces were fitted into place by men like Aristotle and Galileo. Their professional descendants, however gifted, appear to have little left to do but tinker, to help improve humanity's lot; if they truly were to fall into postmodernism's trap, and start doing bad science for some ideological cause, or because "truth is subjective," the result would only be error, which other scientists would be glad to pounce upon. We hope. Nevertheless, the pouncing scientists would have still to pursue the scientific method to begin with, and the scientific method itself is one of those meta-inventions which, once hit upon, cannot be stolen or lost, but can be forgotten.)

... an inner vision, exactly his, and beautiful in any age? Not particularly. If that were true, there should be hoards of art and literature from talented people who lived in cultures hostile for centuries to individual achievement. By the same token, there should be hoards of superb art from the last century or even the last fifty years, when we all understand that everything is relative and there are no right answers. There are no such hoards. If you would counter that of course there are, only Murray is a judgmental ass, he would counter-counter with the desert island question. It may seem trite, but it provokes honesty. If you were to be stranded on a desert island for ever, what books, art, and music would you pack in one suitcase? Now look carefully at them. What did that era of human accomplishment know that we refuse to know?

The reader can protest he won't recapitulate Murray's book and yet end up doing it, badly, because the work is so involved. It's really not the sort of book you can argue with, because he smothers you with proofs and that rigorous out-thinking of all your protests. Perhaps the best we can do is give ourselves a sort of pop quiz about the whole thing.

Let's see if we understand. Meta-invention: polyphony (France, 12th century); structure: fugue; human accomplishment: the "Little" Fugue (G minor). Creative giant: Johann Sebastian Bach, Germany, fl. 1725. Bach's index score, Western music inventory: 87. Compare to Beethoven (Germany), index score 100 -- i.e., mentioned in all sources, Schubert (Austria), index score 44, and Aaron Copland (USA), index score 7. Duke Ellington (USA) and Walter Piston (USA), index score both 2.

1 comment:

  1. Nice, lucid review of Murray's monumental task. Not for the 'secular relativist' I reckon.

    I bought his book a few years back and continue to refer to it.

    I attempted to review it on my own blog but could never find 'les mots justes' nor the energy to organize and articulate my thoughts.

    Rather, I took another route and focused on the statistics showing where all the great figures came from.