There has been a good deal of merited attention given lately to Christopher Hitchens’s new memoirs, Hitch 22 — deserved, that is, by the description within its many pages of a number of incidents that are amusing, and often in words that are entertaining. Different people approve and recoil from different parts of it, but it seems everybody is talking about it.

One of the things that “everybody” will have his or her own viewpoint on is the the rightness of his many attacks: how we feel about his savaging of Kissinger, Mother Theresa, Clinton, or God will depend entirely on how we feel about each of those entirely incommensurate subjects. Even some of us who are willing to let him rail against the Deity, however, will bridle at this, as flagged in a thoughtful review:

[Hitchens] also relishes Kingsley [Amis]’s insistence that the only critical tool anyone really needs is the word ‘good’ and its variants (running from ‘bloody good’ to ‘some good’ to ‘no good’ to ‘absolutely no bloody good at all’). So Jane Austen, both men agreed, is ‘not all that good’. The reason Kingsley gave, with which Hitchens concurs, is that she had an ‘inclination to take a long time over what is of minor importance and a short time over what is major’.

Could there possibly be a more egregious example of simple-minded criticism? Such a charge against a writer, if true, would seem to indicate the possession by that author of a literary virtuosity of the first rank. Hitchens all but boasts of his lack of musical taste or interest. Could any musician or lover of music mistake number of words for a hierarchy of values? Can anyone who dismisses Jane Austen’s artistic sorcery — which is perennially compared, and not entirely fatuously, with that of Mozart — based on a mere counting of words, be blamed for being wrong about anything else whatsoever? As my elderly Southern relatives would have said, casting their eyes down to the floor, “He just doesn’t know any better, bless his heart.”

Perhaps part of the point for Hitchens pertains to the issue of virility — one about which he is alternately defensive, defiant, and refreshingly enlightened in his memoir. But, if that is his hangup, let this commenter from a blog be the sufficient answer:

I’m a 64-year-old married male, a retired Navy pilot and Vietnam vet, who was first introduced to Jane Austen in high school and have reread all of her novels annually ever since. I always start with Mansfield Park, the work that continues to generate the most questions, and finish with Pride and Prejudice, the most enjoyable. Jane was a genius whose understanding of men was equal to her understanding of women. Her heroes were as manly as her heroines were womanly, and she treated the wimps, the hand-wringers, the cowards, and the effete with disdain. Any real man would love Jane Austen.

There is a story of an 18th-century English gentleman who was showing off his newly redesigned garden in the fashionable style of Capability Brown (a landscape artist who leaves many tracks in literature, from Jane Austen to Tom Stoppard).

“And here, Sir, we come to my Ha-Ha. We call it that because the surprise of suddenly coming upon it causes the stroller to cry, ‘Ha ha.'”

To which his visitor asked: “But what, Sir, do you call it the second time you encounter it?”

The fine science blogger Jonah Lehrer, who has been cited here before, has lately been writing about music and our psychological pleasure in it. A Harvard music professor has written this to him:

If we derive pleasure from anticipating potential connections – and especially being surprised by thwarted expectations – then it becomes difficult to explain why we would want to listen to a piece more than once: the novelty factor wears off, the uncertainty factor becomes less pronounced. In principle, the piece should get less interesting each time we hear it. Experience, however, shows that this is not the case: we greatly enjoy re-hearing familiar pieces. The whole recording industry makes a lot of money on the basis of this phenomenon.

Which leads Lehrer to ask, among other things:

This, of course, raises the larger question of why certain pieces of music don’t go stale. Why are we still listening to Bach’s fugues, or Beethoven’s symphonies, or Kind of Blue? What is it about these particular soundwaves that allows them to evade the corticofugal boredom?

Today is the Super Bowl. While most viewers of it are all caught up in the excitment and suspense that mostly hinges on the outcome, a higher level of appreciators of the game are much more involved in the process. The highest level of connoisseurs of football may watch the game, or certain plays, for weeks, months, or years, with pleasure and understanding.

I think a Bach fugue enjoys much of this quality — besides many others, of course. The person who is musically equipped to do so — or just curious and perceptive or focused (or just lucky) — will be so interested in the process that, as may be the case with a few tennis matches in history, it is a source of unending pleasure. Surprise becomes the least of it.

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