Confessions of a Philistine

Fair is fair.

Just as I guiltily relish certain forms of trash, some enumerated here, there are those high- and middlebrow pleasures appreciated by thoughtful, astute people but that try as I might, I can’t seem to appreciate myself. Here follows my partial list.

Mozart. Everyone raves about his perfection. To me he sounds like a perfect music box: tra LA la la, trippy skippy. Too many notes. I do like his later symphonies and the requiem better, when he gets darker, but for the most part, after years of listening to and playing Mozart from time to time and waiting for the light to dawn, I still don’t get him. (As a child I thought of Mozart as an inexplicable grown-up pleasure, like salmon or a preference for conversation to outdoor play, that would surely seize me in adulthood. Now I like both salmon and conversation, but Mozart has never taken. Maybe in my forties?)

Haydn is worse. I could do without a lot of the twentieth century as well. I’m afraid that when it comes to music I’m positively reactionary: I almost consider it an open question whether any good music has been written since 1750 (or, at any rate, I like to say this to scandalize).

See here for snippets from other anti-Mozart curmudgeons.

Jazz. I know it’s the great American art form, our true classical music and all that, and once in a while I’ve stumbled across something I like (Pat Methene) but in general, I don’t get it. So sad when I turn on public radio and the Bach I think should be there has been preempted by someone named Count Basie?

Opera. Same thing. There are arias I love (“Caro Babbo Mio” from Gianni Schicchi, and there’s a fabulous one in the middle of Verdi’s Otello that I’m too ignorant to know the name of) and I have friends who are opera singers, but I don’t really get the whole thing all put together–the music, the acting, the costumes–it seems wildly overblown. My husband, on the other hand, will go to extraordinary lengths to attend any performance of La Boheme he can reach, which is one of the things I love about him.


Musicals. I simply don’t understand why people onstage should suddenly, for no apparent reason, burst into song, usually just when the plot’s getting interesting. However, I did like Into the Woods, and last year my husband dragged me to what I have to admit was an outstanding performance of Oklahoma!, so I may be educable on this point.


Cooking for fun. A few months ago, at a gathering at a professor’s house, everyone started talking about how much they enjoy cooking to relax. I do realize food has to be prepared, and I’m deeply grateful to anyone who prepares it. I just can’t seem to find any intrinsic pleasure in preparing it myself, though I like good food and I have no problem eating too much of it. (For what light it might shed, I come from a line of women who don’t like to cook. My mother doesn’t. Neither did my grandmother.) On this blog, I think S and Melyngoch may be the only people who cook for fun, although I’ve seen both Kiskilili and Lynnette produce some truly exotic dishes (Baloney-Os, anyone?). I love to organize things, and I’d rather clean than cook. It’s hard to make too many mistakes doing the dishes, but cooking offers endless possibilities for disaster.

Home decorating. On this score, once again I’m fortunate to have a husband whose strengths compensate for my weaknesses–a man who drools over the Pottery Barn catalogue, who once subscribed to Better Homes & Gardens, a man who can be pried from CSPAN only by HGTV. I appreciate the end result, but left to my own devices, I’m afraid I wouldn’t bother.

Alexander Pope. Maybe I’ve just heard him quoted in too many church talks. (Vice is a monster of so frightful a mein, etc.)

Chess. This, I’m convinced, has to do with a deficit in processing visual information. Last time I tried chess, my husband got my queen in five moves. However, I have been seduced by Settlers of Catan, so maybe there’s hope for me on this one as well.

On a slightly more serious note, a while ago I read somewhere (I’m still looking for the reference) about a literature professor whose final included an essay question in which students had to write about the literary work they disliked the most and what deficit in them that dislike revealed. I was enchanted by the question, partly because I’ve graded so many student responses in recent years consisting of observations such as “This was boring. I couldn’t get into it,” but also in considering my own literary tasts and the personal limitations they may reflect. I hated, despised Wallace Stevens when I encountered him in high school–I adore him now. Mediocre teaching may have been somewhat to blame, but the flaw was definitely in me. So what does it say about me now that I don’t like Paradise Lost or Pope or those dreary naturalists?

Are the faults in the stars, or in ourselves?

11 thoughts on “Confessions of a Philistine

  1. 1

    I’m with you on Alexander Pope and the naturalists. I’m sort of with you on Mozart (give me Bach or Rachmaninoff any day), though I do love the Requiem, and when Mozart is played really well on the piano, I can be won over. I *adore* cooking for fun and musicals, though I’m not sure I would classify musicals as high-brow. Sondheim, maybe, but not musicals in general.

    I like your professor’s question. I think the fault is often in ourselves, but I don’t think I would use “fault” in the moral failing sense of the word. More in a our-bodies-have-aesthetic-preferences-that-stem-from-our-experiences kind of way. Maybe I’ll assign that question to my own students someday. 🙂

    P.S. Can I move in with you? I’ll do all the cooking (and I’ll make anything you like, even if it takes hours and hours), and you can do the organizing and cleaning (though I’m willing to pitch in from time to time). 🙂

  2. 2

    Ohhh, I guess you won’t be attending the performance of the opera I intend to write, “The Magic Didgeridoo,” in which the Queen of the Night, who shall be named Lilith, stars as the protagonist? 😉 She’ll sing a mean aria, I promise!

  3. 3

    I’ve seen both Kiskilili and Lynnette produce some truly exotic dishes (Baloney-Os, anyone?).

    Um, that was Amalthea; I produced the Death in a Pot, Leviathan Bait, and Taun-Taun Fodder. (I don’t know how you can forget these things!)

  4. 4

    First, I would like to state for the record that I have never made a Baloney-O (which, if anyone is curious, is an Oreo with baloney inside.) The extent of my involvement with the dish was in paying Melyngoch $1.00 to eat one.

    But moving on to the point of your post . . . I always feel like a bit of a fake as a grad student because I don’t listen to NPR. Actually, I find that not having a car means that these days I don’t listen to the radio much at all. But if I did, the radio would likely be tuned to (gasp!) country music.

    I’m with you on the opera and the jazz. My list of things I’ve yet to learn to appreciate would also include Shakespeare, and most poetry written before the 20th century. But I’m really intrigued by that question about what that might reveal about me.

  5. 5

    What a fun site Zelophehads Daughters is! I’m definitely with you on the jazz. I dated someone for one year and got dragged around to jazz performance after jazz performance. I kept waiting for the love, but it never bit me. But, I like the outfits that jazz lovers wear, so I can pose with the best of them.

    One thing I don’t like that I’m supposed to is Schindler’s List. Granted, I was a teenager when it came out, but all the other teenagers in my school liked it. Truthfully, I was kind of bored. I like (Maybe like isn’t the right word–is any movie about the Holocaust really likeable?) or appreciate other movies, dramas, museums, productions that present the horror and awfulness of WWII and the Holocaust, but the List just doesn’t do it for me.

    Thanks for the fun post!


  6. 6


    I have lots of respect for you, and I admire your ability to think and express yourself so clearly. So I hope you understand how much pleasure I get from hearing you don’t like opera and are therefore irredeemably lowbrow. I love it – it is such an overwhelming spectacle. But, I gotta admit, I also like the opry. Wagner and Waylon, my heroes.

  7. 7

    s, I’d love to have you move in! People like you and people like me really should be paired up. (I had a great deal with many mission companions: they cooked, I cleaned.) My husband and I seem to have covered most bases between us except…cooking. It’s a problem. But if you lived next door, then I’d be very happy to organize and clean both houses if you handled the cooking for both.

    Kiskilili, I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss seeing Lilith and the Didgeridoo have it out for anything.

    Kiskilili and Lynnette, sorry, I always get the family histories wrong–but I knew Lynnette was involved somehow! Peddling Baloney-Os to younger sisters. Oh, the shame. Lynnette, I think your lack of interest in NPR and your fondness for country music is a lovely illustration of the complex expectations surrounding aesthetic pleasure, which is never socially innocent.

    Spiritmists, glad you stopped by, and I hope you will again.

    Mark IV, thanks for the kind words. My brows definitely go low! I’ve heard several different people say that opera grew on them over time, so maybe it will eventually grow on me.

    A question I’ve been considering in relation to this is: how long should one try to like something? I’m one of those people who has a hard time abandoning boring books or movies, gripped by the terrrible optimism that surely, surely they’ll get better! Sometimes they do, but more often, they don’t.

  8. 8
  9. 9

    Eve, I find opera is enjoyable in part because it is “wildly overblown.” The overblown sets, overblown costumes, and, sometimes, overblown singers–oh, the delightful absurdity of it all! My favorite example of a ridiculous situation in opera is Madame Butterfly: the Japanese geishas and American military officers are somehow able to communicate with each other by singing in Italian. I mean, that’s just funny.

  10. 10

    Anna, so that’s it! I need a new genre theory–it’s farce. This could finally be my opera ticket!

  11. 11

    I disliked opera until I saw one particularly good performance of Iago in Othello. He was so good that I suddenly “got it.” I don’t like the argument, “If you don’t like something it’s just because you haven’t tried/seen/heard it done right,” but in this case it worked for me.

    Ballet is the big one on my list. I’ve tried–really tried–but I just don’t have any appreciation for it.

    By the way, chess is not a game. It is a demonstration of who can make the least mistakes. Your disdain for this form of punishment has nothing to do with visual processing. The fact that you like Settlers of Catan means that you’re judgment is trustworthy.

    Re the question in #7, “how long should one try to like something?” I would say, in proportion to the amount of time one expects to be forced to deal with that thing. My wife loves sour cream, but it used to turn my stomach. I decided to try it, little by little, until I liked it. (Think iocaine powder ala Princess Bride.) Now I eat more of it than she does. Ditto with avocados, cheese, mayo, etc. (Still working on cucumbers and–shudder–cauliflower.) There are two major benfits: 1) fewer occasions when I have to pick something out of my food, 2) a greater diversity of flavors/sensations to enjoy.

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