Happy 200th, Mr. Chopin!
He was born just two long lifetimes ago, but he seems ages distant now. Polish-French Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin would have been 200 years old today, if only he had lived just 161 years longer than he did. I can’t imagine the melancholy young gentleman celebrating anything as mundane as a birthday, but I toast him all the same.
Civilized people remember Chopin, of course, but I suspect they find his music too delicate, too tubercular, too sentimental and Renoir-pretty for their hardened postmodern tastes. He’s a Dresden china figurine marooned in a gaudy video arcade, a forlorn emblem of all we’ve trashed in our libidinized, commercialized, terminally snarky millennial culture.
Chopin’s poignant nocturnes, waltzes, ballades and preludes burn with pale ethereal fire. Yet, unlike a lot of serious music, they’re immediately accessible and even charming. The problem these days is our general indifference to (and even disdain for) beauty. Like celestial dog-whistles, Chopin’s works are simply pitched too high for ears that have been pummeled by half a century of rock, rap and all other manner of willfully degenerate cultural effluvia.
I’m beginning to suspect that finely tuned sensibilities like Chopin’s are unsustainable in the long run. After all, we’re just a species of higher ape that managed to conquer a small blue-green planet; we’re not a race of poets and aesthetes. Perhaps it’s only natural that we find ourselves sinking back to our ancient simian roots.
Classical music still has its uses. Today, in Britain, clever cops blast it from loudspeakers to disperse unruly crowds of teens. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle. What does it say about the state of our civilization that, for the generation currently ripening to maturity, the world’s most gorgeous manmade sounds are the auditory equivalent of tear gas?
Our flight from beauty seems to be accelerating with each passing decade. It alarms me that we’re losing touch with something noble and transcendent, something that left its imprint on generation after generation of receptive hearts and minds. Now the chain is about to be broken.
What does all this have to do with politics, and centrist politics in particular? Simply that our uphill struggle to restore balance in society shouldn’t be restricted to affairs of state and commerce. Yes, we moderates need to monitor the ongoing hijinks of legislators, lobbyists, radicals, Wall Street honchos and corporate potentates. That much goes without saying. But our movement needs to address the soul, too.
Political activists typically deal in the currency of short-term strategic gains for their own team. For them, life is an eternal game of football: making end-runs around the defense, racking up yardage, tossing hail-Mary passes in a desperate bid for a quick score. Nobody in public life seems to be offering solutions that satisfy our deeper spiritual cravings. Nearly all of us are addicted to crass commercial fast-food culture, and we wonder why we’re starving in spite of all the calories we consume.
We can’t legislate culture, at least in a free society. (The Soviets used to legislate it, of course, and we’d rather not follow their example.) But as enlightened moderates, we need to build a movement that speaks to people’s souls as well as their pocketbooks. We should aspire to inspire, invoking the eloquence of the past while peering bravely into the future. Lincoln and Churchill did it magnificently. So did both Roosevelts. So did John F. Kennedy. Even Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin offer their frightened followers balm for the soul, though without a trace of magnificence.
Surely we can aim higher than Beck and Palin. We wouldn’t be promoting religion or even cultural preferences. We simply need to recognize that men and women can’t live by politics alone. Out of our way, wretched lobbyists! Begone, all you partisan obstructionists! We could use less filibustering and more music, less cacophany and more Chopin.