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« Back-Home Accents | Main | Coming to Grips with Nietzsche, Part I »

November 20, 2003

Greats I Don't Get

Dear Friedrich --

Aaron Haspel's good posting here about Henry James and the movies (a response to some postings over at About Last Night, here and here) reminded me that, years ago, when I still had a little zip and fire, I looked into starting up a magazine of my own. I was pretty serious about the project and ditched the idea only when I learned what a horror it is to get a small magazine decently distributed.

But before crapping out, I'd thought the magazine through pretty thoroughly. One of my favorite ideas for it was also one of my smallest ideas. It was to feature in every issue a medium-sized boxed talk with someone prominent and/or interesting about great art he doesn't get -- kind of a reverse Desert Island Discs thing. A talk with Daniel Dennett about his inability to respond to Mozart and Kleist, for instance -- an entirely made-up example, by the way.

I was fond of the concept mainly for being mischievous and rowdy; there's little I like better than blowing stale air away from the arts. But there was a semi-serious idea at the core too, which was to convey the point that it's OK not to get some great art. This is art, after all, not science or history, and doin' the art thing is as much about exploring your own responses as it is about exploring the world.

I had a few subpoints in mind too: 1) You don't have to love everything you're told is great, 2) You don't have to claim greatness for everything you love, and 3) You don't have to dispute the greatness of the works and artists you dislike. Explore a lot of great art, give yourself the experience of it, have whatever response you have to it -- and then let it all go. What does it matter, really, whether you agree with the so-called experts? (I can get vexed when I see people try-try-trying, oh so very hard, to "appreciate" a work in exactly the way they've been told to. Why do they strain with such determination to have a particular great experience? Why not have the experience they're having instead, whatever it is?) It matters only that you give the work a try and take note of what the experience was like for you. But don't be such a self-pleasing fool that you avoid what's been deemed to be great. That's crazy too. Hey, it's cool and fun to challenge yourself.

Anyway, the rules of this game:

  • You aren't disputing the greatness of the artist or the artwork.
  • You can see the point of the work or the artist, and you understand what's there to be gotten.
  • You understand the greatness of it too -- the range of its influence, what other artists have taken from it, etc. It's impressive, and you're impressed.
  • And you've given the work or the artist a decent and earnest try.
  • But you've found that when you look at it, or you listen to it, or you read it -- the magic evaporates.

To kick things off, here's a modest Michael Blowhard "It ain't happenin' for me" list: Henry James. Dostoevsky. "Citizen Kane." Bob Dylan. "The Waste Land." Euripides. Mahler. Miles Davis.

Perfectly content that all these artists and artworks are deemed great. I got no problem with that at all. They just don't -- alas -- do a thing for me.

(Between you and me, I'm excluding much 20th century art and architecture because I'm betting that the 20th century's "greatness" list is going to be revised in the fairly near future. I'd bet, for example, that in 25 years Faulkner and Joyce -- both of whom I generally like -- will be largely forgotten. And don't get me started about "great" modernist architecture.)

What indisputably great art do you blank out on? Eager to hear from visitors too, of course.



posted by Michael at November 20, 2003


I don't get:

All jazz played since the great days of swing;
Atonical music;
Almost any contemporary novel with someone schooled in the arts as a leading character [Coetzee's books excepted];
Most poetry, and especially contemporary poetry [even though I own over a thousand poetry collections, there aren't that many jewels among the pebbles];
Ballet, though I admire the physical efforts involved;

Posted by: ijsbrand on November 20, 2003 06:55 PM

Henry James suffered from a seemingly minor but, to me, maddening technical problem of letting the relationship between his pronouns and their antecedents get almost indecipherably tangled. I have constantly to stop and try to figure out who is the "he" who is being quoted. It's like trying to debug badly written computer code. I could get paid to do that, but nobody is paying me to read Henry James novels, so I don't. Somebody should put out a new edition of his novels with just one change: fewer pronouns and more antecedents.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 20, 2003 07:45 PM

I am at your site for the first time... It looks very good. You website has a great design, color scheme, and layout.

I have visited so many blogs since I started my own a little over a year ago. I had not been to yours before, though. I like your blogroll... There are some good sites up there.

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Aakash on November 20, 2003 07:49 PM


Terribly sentimental - I gave up reading Oliver Twist after coming to the conclusion, during the scene with the gentleman and the books, that if the poorhouse governors had any sense of public duty they'd've drowned the brat and not just mucked around with near starvation.

I also found the books terribly boring, I only got through Great Expectations taking it and only it on a long bus trip. Dickens comes up with wonderful scenarios but there's something about the way he writes them that makes chasing convicts through marshland rather less exciting than watching paint dry. For me he's an anti-Austen. But that must be the bit that means other poeple enjoy him.

Posted by: Tracy on November 20, 2003 08:37 PM


I resist, I bite my tongue, I bite the bits of my fingertips, when I see that a few of the greats I think I get are on your list. For me--Dylan, Dostoyevsky, and certain works of Miles Davis.

I have a friend who's a music composer, and one of the things I treasure is listening to music he loves with him--for there are certain moments, in a Bach concerto for example, where he'll suddenly point out a certain texture, an elegant way that the melody shifts--a key that opens up the whole work to me in a revelatory way.

I can't claim sufficient expertise to do it with your not-gets, but as for Dylan, try this: The opening of Visions of Johanna in which he sings "Aint it just like the night/to play tricks when you're trying to be so quiet." The entirety of Mr. Tambourine Man in almost any version he's recorded. The great groove he sets up in Things Have Changed. Ah....

And you can't write off Miles Davis if you haven't listened to Ascenseur pour l'echafaud--a soundtrack he composed, an introspective, improvisitional recording which has the most contemplative and inquisitive tone, a great great album.

"Great" art that does little for me: in film virtually everything Steven Spielberg has done save Jaws. Music...Aaron Copeland. Eric Clapton--in a big way. Literature--Borges I guess.

And please one vote for a non-arts category: economics. Anything economics.

Posted by: Tom on November 20, 2003 09:15 PM

I get Dylan all right--though quite a few of his lyrics strike me as being out-and-out nonsense.

On the other hand, I mostly agree about jazz. There are a some post-swing discs and musicians I like, but even there they mostly play in an earlier mode. I quite like Claude Bolling, and I've got a Thelonious Monk album that's very strange but makes me smile.

Melville. I don't get Melville. I've read Patrick O'Brian from start to finish at least three times, but I've never managed to make it through Moby Dick.

I confess to not having tried the Brontes but those who know me and know them have told me that I shouldn't bother, as I'd just find them maddening.

Poetry. Poetry in general does nothing for me, which I think is a great pity.

So-called "Literary" fiction.
On one of the recent Internet Quizzes, "Which famous artist are you," I turned out to be Norman Rockwell, which I thought was surprisingly astute. In Rockwell's work, the technique is subordinated to the subject, and so of course he's denigrated, just as authors of genre fiction are denigrated. And yet genre fiction is what I like.

Posted by: Will Duquette on November 20, 2003 09:35 PM

I agree with Steve about Henry James--it's just too much work getting through page after page of (to my mind) prose that is ultimately obfuscation. Same goes for Joyce, except for Dubliners.

In poetry, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore suffer from the same problem: their poems would often work just as well if they had been written as plain ol' paragraphs.

Richard Strauss has never pushed any buttons for me, nor has Berlioz.

Interpretive dance eludes me entirely.

Posted by: Sean Nelson on November 20, 2003 10:02 PM

The prediction of the demise of Faulkner is troubling to one who has invested so many labor intensive hours reading, studying, and decoding. Though, I am inclined to agree with your assertion. Already his works are receiving less and less attention in high school anthologies.
Equally, I'm as anti-Melville as the next man. I just can't wade through the blubber to get to the whale.
My biggest let down in literature has to be Hawthorne. As a literature teacher, I dreaded "The Scarlet Letter" more than my students. It seems so tedious to me. As one of my students said, "My God, all she did was sleep with a guy." I did, however, love reading "Young Goodman Brown" each year.
Musically, I've only ever enjoyed a few Grateful Dead tunes and often felt like I was missing something when my friends would go on and on about their music. Luckily, I had my Pink Floyd albums and CD's to erase my sorrow.
The poetry of Maya Angelou leaves me feeling less than satisfied, though I love hearing her read.
Great topic for discussion. I may use it tomorrow in my classes.

Posted by: Roy on November 20, 2003 10:22 PM

Oy. Picasso. I love art -- I really do -- but Picasso doesn't touch me where he should. I stared at Guernica for a very long time, and I tried to like his vaunted Blue Period (always capitalized, please), but it's simply not happening.

I do like most of the guys who hung out at the Cedar in the 50s, however.

Posted by: Maureen on November 20, 2003 10:54 PM

I don't get (no matter how much my tastes and opinions evolve, how much I read, and how old I grow):

1. Miro
2. Cy Twombly
3. Dia:"fill-in-the-blank"
4. Most video "art"
5. Most "performance" art

Posted by: Lennox on November 20, 2003 11:59 PM

This game resembles "Humiliation," the game the English faculty in one of David Lodge's novels, I forget which. In Humiliation you name a famous work of literature you haven't read, and you score a point for every other player who has read it. Most points wins. In the Lodge novel an intensely competitive and universally loathed teacher of Shakespeare wins the game, and loses his job, with "Hamlet." I'm saving "The Old Man and the Sea" for when I get to play this game.

Back to Michael's game. Mozart. Bruckner. Ballet. Any painting before about 1450. Dreiser. Hardy (the novels, not the poems, I get those). And Faulkner. A friend of mine once asked me to summarize "Light in August." I said, "Guy kills a guy and runs around the South." It was the best I could do.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on November 21, 2003 12:10 AM

Hmmm. I find Hemingway's novels jejune, although I like his short stories. I occasionally find Matisse seriously less compelling than his reputation. But I adore Matisse in comparison to say, Warhol or Rauschenberg. I would walk many miles to avoid reading anything by Pynchon. I like Thomas Mann's short stories, but I tried Dr. Faustus about three times before just giving up.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 21, 2003 12:31 AM

With Dostoevsky, everything depends on the translation. Pevear and Volokhonsky have produced the best English translation available; it brings the fire back to his prose.

Have you tried the new Woods translation of Mann's Doktor Faustus, Friedrich? If you haven't, give it a try -- it's still a bit of a slog (Mann is a very German writer, just as Proust is a very French one), but Woods's translation makes it well worth the effort.

Kafka didn't do much for me, either, until I read the new Harman translation of The Castle -- again, the translator made a major difference.

I couldn't understand Melville's Moby Dick when I read it in college, but after two or three more read-throughs, I find I love it dearly. It's probably the best novel even written that opens with a fart joke. The secret is to have fun reading it, just as Melville had fun writing it. Then again, maybe you have to read it several times to enjoy it fully.

I think Faulkner will be around 25, 50, 100 years from now. So will Joyce. Both these writers are much too good for us to give up; artists who expand their respective media just can't be tossed aside. Toni Morrison will probably be around, too -- I love her writing even when I don't much like it. Pynchon I'm not so sure about; even now his star seems a trifle dim.

Bottom line: Don't shut yourself off to the greats. This "It-may-be-great-but-I-don't-like-it" business may seem hip and assertive, even urbanely cynical. But you lose far too much by it.

Another thing: If you don't like the "greats" today, put them aside and try again later. Sometimes, if you can appreciate great art but can't respond to it, it means you're just not ready for it right now.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 21, 2003 01:39 AM

Me no get:

Michelangelo Antonioni
Ingmar Bergman
Bob Dylan
Federico Fellini
Jean-Luc Godard... look, why don't I just say I don't get many of the standard arthouse greats of the 1950s/60s?
James Lileks
Van Morrison, particularly Astral Wank... er, Weeks
W.A. Mozart
Glenn Reynolds

Collective things I don't get:

Ballet & dance
"Early music" (i.e. Renaissance and earlier)
Opera (in general, though I like some individual works)
Poetry (unless it's narrative, I don't mind a bit of narrative verse)

Posted by: James Russell on November 21, 2003 02:11 AM

Most definitely Melville. Definitely Picasso. Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury." Sylvia Plath. Billie Holliday. "The Godfather, Part II". Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven." And "The Graduate."

Posted by: annette on November 21, 2003 02:48 AM

Faulkner forgotten in the future? He wrote the most magnificent novels and it's up to us to expend the energy and concentration to read and think about them. If you don't get them, you don't get them. It's a shame for no one but yourself.

There are people in this world who think Shakespeare is over-rated. That's their problem. They're the ones who miss out. But maybe they get their literary satisfaction elsewhere, and I'd be interested to know from where they get it.

Some people think Stephen King is a great writer. I've only read snippets, so can't really say. Horror doesn't do it for me, I can't stand it. I'm too busy reading Faulkner, Janet Frame, Michael Ondaatje, George Eliot and all the other interesting authors with something to say about the human condition that doesn't involve dismemberment, to have time for writers like King.


Posted by: SueB on November 21, 2003 06:27 AM

Wagner does not appeal to me at all. I wouldn't say that I "don't get it." I get it, I just don't like it.

Moby Dick - I guess I sort of get the point but it's a long boring ride to get to that point.

I'm not sure if I could ever get The Illiad or not. I've never been able to finish it.

Thank you for making the point that you can recognize the greatness of something even though you don't like it and that you don't necessarily have to think everything you like is great. It seems like a lot of people define greatness as "anything my friends and I like."

Posted by: Lynn S on November 21, 2003 09:12 AM

I have to second Tim's comment to put aside what you dont get and try again later. I read Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse" in college and spent most of the time totally confused about what was going on. I reread 20 years later and was totally entranced by it.

My list of what I dont get but understand that I should:

Stevie Ray Vaughn
Jazz in general
Opera- I wish they'd stop howling at each other
Thomas Mann
Samuel Richardson
Russian History
Jackson Pollack
Tom Delillo
John Updike
James Fennimore Cooper
The "old" Oprah books

Posted by: Deb on November 21, 2003 09:36 AM

Hmmm. If the rule is "You understand the greatness of it too -- the range of its influence, what other artists have taken from it, etc. It's impressive, and you're impressed." Than I can't put Citizen Kane on my list.

*Hawthorne - HACK HACK HACK. Did I say hack? God, what a hack.

*Picasso (who was never called an asshole) However, I am fascinated with his ability to do humorous paintings that nonetheless convey the artist's own (bad) attitude about humorous paintings. That's a pretty good trick. Just once, I'd like to see a Picasso and get a sense of what inspired him.

*Virginia Woolf makes me want to call the men in white coats, and yet people keep giving me her damn nasty-bitch books as gifts. Ugh.

(My problems with Dylan and Hemingway and several other ungentlemanly men don't come under the rules of the game.)

Tim: Where do you come up with this stuff - "Bottom line: Don't shut yourself off to the greats." This little amusement assumes that players are widely read and enjoy much of "the greats." How can you expect people to respect your ideas about "great" works when you apparently can't read a simple blog post?

Posted by: j.c. on November 21, 2003 10:08 AM

Joyce Carol Oates
Koko Taylor
Stevie Ray Vaughn

I definitely support the "try again later" approach. If I can't get sucked into a book in the first 50 or 100 pages, I put it away - it must not be the right time for me.

Excellent game, Michael. Thanks.

Posted by: Dente on November 21, 2003 10:21 AM

I don't care what you don't get.

Posted by: cody on November 21, 2003 10:44 AM

What fun, many thanks to all. Pynchon: excellent.

I wonder if I was being clear enough, though. The game is that you have to "get" the work in the sense that you understand what it's about and why people call it great, and you have to have given it a semi-decent try. But at the same time you don't "get" the work in the other sense: try as you can, the magic doesn't work for you.

My Dostoevsky example: I've read a decent amount of him, in a bunch of different translations, and I've talked about his books with enthusiasts and have read some criticism about him. I know what's generally thought to be there, and could write a perfectly good term paper about him. Despite that, it doesn't work for me; the magic doesn't happen. What I experience as I read his books is an unpleasant seasickness, nothing more. Bob Dylan? I've given his music a decent try (growing up in the '60s and '70s, how could I not?). I "get" it in the sense that I've tried, I know what the case is that's made for him. But at the end of it all, I like maybe a half a dozen of his songs.

We all have blank spots. No one responds fully and personally to all the greats. And we sometimes respond much more personally and intuitively to non-great work. (So far as lit-fiction goes, for example, I've got much more feeling for Christopher Isherwood's writing than for Dostoevsky's, for example. But if the world wants to go on rating Dostoevsky as more important, that's OK with me.) You give 'em a try and see how you do. Dumb to avoid stuff just because it's great, but equally dumb to pretend you love absolutely everything that someone somewhere has decided to call great.

Hey, does anyone else notice what I do, that much of what we bunch of perfectly-intelligent people blank out on is a lot of modernist art? Hmmmm. Like I say, I'm betting that the canon of the 20th century is going to be heavily re-written in the not-too-distant future. I mean, if the bunch of us brainy and arty people don't groove on what's currently considered to be the great work of the 20th century, how many people can and do? And is that a big enough number to sustain and fortify that particular canon? I'm betting it isn't. Perhaps it'll continue as a micro-niche market.

For what it's worth, I tested out my little Joyce-and-Faulkner-are-going-down scenario on a wonderful poet and critic last night and he largely agreed, though he said he'd bet that "Dubliners" will go on being read. Also FWIW, I like much of Faulkner and some of Joyce and don't feel gleeful about this. I'm just looking around and trying to take note of developments in tastes and art habits. Given the way things are evolving, does anyone really see lots of undergrads eagerly sitting down to slog through "Light in August"? Some writing-school prof friends of mine already tell me that many of their students -- wannabe writers! -- haven't even heard of Faulkner.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2003 10:57 AM

This is all very interesting. But who is brave enough to post a list of absolute total crap that they DO get? This is what I would like to know.
Meanwhile, for the record, I do not get Stravinsky.

Posted by: stephenb on November 21, 2003 11:35 AM

Ditto to Wagner. A lot of "folk art." And Thomas Hardy? Hardly!

Posted by: Michael C on November 21, 2003 11:53 AM

Hey, all you folks who find that post-swing jazz doesn't do it for you: have you ever tried reading Philip Larkin's "All What Jazz?" It's a fabulous collection of essays and reviews (by a fabulous cranky poet) about jazz, by a guy who can't stand much that's post 1950 -- the best cranky, curmudgeonly writing about jazz I've ever run across. He likes it when it swings, and he thinks (or thought, he being dead) bop was the end of the jazz he loved. And he did love early jazz. You don't read him thinking, hey, this is a guy who just hates jazz. You read him thinking, this is a guy who really loves early jazz and is heartbroken about what's happened to it recently. Superworth reading. He gets in some enjoyable slams at bop and postbop along the way too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2003 11:59 AM

Good thread. It feels like the negative space to accompany earlier threads about Guilty Pleasures--works of art (movies in this case) that individuals really enjoy despite the public canonization of them as crap.

Two wonderful articles that should accompany the Philip Larkin essay "All What Jazz": Philip Lopate's wonderful "Against Joie de Vie", a brilliant and passionate defense of being curmudgeonly--a great explication of why he rarely feels the same giddy joy at the publicly sanctioned activities of giddy joy as others. And I wish that an early essay of Paul Rudnick in Spy Magazine many years back were available online: the gist of it was "Why It's Okay to Hate Opera, Poetry, and Ballet."

Finally, speaking of Philip Larkin (a "great" poet I love), it seems to me a shame that so much poetry is on this list. Not to change the argument, but I would hope that all the folks who don't get the "great" poetry have a poet, or at least a few poems, that they call their own....

Posted by: Tom on November 21, 2003 12:20 PM

Right. With any luck the game isn't about dissing the greats. It's about being honest about your response to 'em.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2003 12:29 PM

Here's a link to "All What Jazz." Out of print, but get-able if you're willing to pay...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2003 12:31 PM

Stephen Sondheim, post-1970
Jean-Luc Godard

Great, but they do nothing for me (except occasionally annoy).

Posted by: Kari on November 21, 2003 12:44 PM

Hmm. Can't jazz get a little love here? I have this theory: one's ability to appreciate jazz is innate. Some sort of brain chemistry or brain structure you either have or don't. The first time I heard Charlie Parker I was in love, but 9 out of 10 people are just baffled by it. I mean really, I was in love, I can remember it 10 years later.

It helps if you understand the song form (AABA etc.) can hear harmonies. . . are cool with a multidirectional beat (not a traditionally Western thing). Helps to be a musician yourself.

Posted by: dude on November 21, 2003 12:50 PM

Forgot my list:

all those impressionist painters - yes, they're quite pretty, but, eh


T.S. Eliot - nah, read Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens instead

Faulkner . . . actually a lot of the "important" 20th century novelists make me snooze

Never could get through a thing by Dickens. Dante is pretty tough sledding too but I did read the whole Comedy in college. Yowza. Goethe.

Posted by: dude on November 21, 2003 01:00 PM

oh - forgot one! a BIG one!

All those earnest folky dudes with acoustic guitars singing about stuff . . . I HATE folk music.

Note: there is an exception for Bob Dylan

Posted by: dude on November 21, 2003 01:08 PM

Larkin's book is a must-read, but it shouldn't be mistaken for real criticism (he was himself quite forthcoming about hating virtually everything that came after "Tiger Rag" -- not an admission that should give one much faith in his ability to be open to new ideas). Myself, it took me a long time to get into Bop, and I still have little taste for most of what came after the mid-Fifties, though I do try to push myself a bit.

As for Joyce, whose name came up a few times above, it may well be worth spending a moment considering the revealing difference between liking Dubliners and, say, Ulysses: one is meant to be read, the other dissected.

I don't get:

William Gaddis
"Sketches of Spain"
Pynchon (God knows I've tried: I love his sentences; it's his paragraphs I can't stand)
Single Malt Scotch
"American Beauty" (Oh, the horror!)

I do get:

Larkin's poetry, and Ted Hughes's, and James Merrill's
Jonathan Franzen
"Kind of Blue"
Martin Amis
Single-barrel Bourbon
Citizen Kane

Posted by: Lewis Emstoffsky on November 21, 2003 01:43 PM

The Beatles

Posted by: cks on November 21, 2003 01:52 PM

Ulysses. Oh gods how I've tried! Can't get past chapter three.

Virginia Wolf. Her prose is beautiful but i just can't go all the way.

I have my doubts about the greatness of the Beatles. I like some of their later work (White Album, Srgt. Peppers) but I don't get their first half dozen albums or why they were so fawned over by my parent's generation.

The exact inverse holds true for Elvis. His early stuff is amazing but by the time you get to the karate and sequined jumpsuits, all the cadilacs and prescription drug induced paranoia, I'm baffled to say the least.

Jack Kerouac. I think he gave all his punctuation to Alen Ginsburg in a peyote ritual gone awry.

MobyDick. Maybe I can handle it on the fifth attempt...

Dickens, for all the usual reasons.

Poetry "Slam."

Posted by: Keith on November 21, 2003 02:21 PM

The Beatles? Wow. That is original. To each his own, baby. And, I have join j.c. on the Nathaniel Hawthorne thang, but I'm breaking the rules, coz I don't see what's great about him at all, and loathe his stories.

Posted by: annette on November 21, 2003 02:43 PM

"Hey, does anyone else notice what I do, that much of what we bunch of perfectly-intelligent people blank out on is a lot of modernist art? Hmmmm. Like I say, I'm betting that the canon of the 20th century is going to be heavily re-written in the not-too-distant future. I mean, if the bunch of us brainy and arty people don't groove on what's currently considered to be the great work of the 20th century, how many people can and do?"

Michael, I'd not make the inference you're making. It's like asking people who sleep overnight in front of the box office to get tickets to see the first showing of Matrix Revolutions whether they think The Matrix was a great movie and then drawing some inference about the popularity of the Matrix movies from that. You've gotta remember, you Blowhards are the cranky anti-Modernists. That's going to determine your audience to some extent. If one is a big Modernist, one probably won't hang out on the 2 Blowhards site much. Unless you're a cranky anti-anti-Modernist like me and you want to drop in now and again just to try to give grief to the anti-Modernists.

Me, I love Matisse and Picasso and T.S. Eliot and Joyce and Faulkner and Citizen Kane and bebop, post-bop, and most of all hard bop (and yes I love Miles).

But I guess I'll play the game, too; what I don't get:

Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, Robert A.M. Stern
Contemporary classical architecture (I guess Stern fits in that category)
The artists Tom Wolfe loves, like Bouguereau and Frederick Hart

And there are some modernists I just don't get:
Most of Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams
Arnold Schoenberg

And I definitely don't get video art or performance art. But maybe these things don't fit the game's rules. Because I don't get why any of this stuff is supposed to be great, or even good.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on November 21, 2003 03:05 PM

Things I do not get:

Joyce: Can anyone read this man!? I had a Joycian scholar as an english prof in college and she loved him. I think I'm going to be sick!

Salinger: I gave "Catcher in the Rye" a go and I could not make myself finish it. The main character grated on me and, while I might have found it amusing as a teeneager, a few years into my twenties just makes me want to smack him.

Modern art that is a canvas of a single color and such nonsense - who come up with that crap?

The genre in fiction that contains middle aged women bemoaning their crap lives and yet refusing to fix them in a productive way. I am a woman and I struggled through a couple of these and think, "Why do people read this depressing dribble?" Are other women really moved by accounts of women who spend their later years whining about all the horrible things that have happened to them instead of finding an iota of joy in their bleak existences?For examples see pretty much any book on Oprah's old book list.

And an example from popular fiction:
The Left Behind books. I challenge anyone to find a series of books that contains more incomplete sentences, poor diction, and idiocy then these books.

That's my two cents.

Posted by: Newbie Libriran on November 21, 2003 03:24 PM

Screwing up the courage to say, I do not "get" (no matter how brilliant):
Philip Glass
"American Beauty"
James Joyce
Saul Bellow
Shelley Jackson's "Skin" project
"Pulp Fiction" (book & movie)
modern dance
fusion cuisine name a few.

Posted by: roggey on November 21, 2003 03:37 PM

Rap. I understand it, I know why the greats are considered great. I also think it was a valuable communication tool in the 80s. There are many great rap performers, I can hear that they are great and supremely talented. But the "magic", that inside good and understanding feeling, doesn't happen for me with that genre of music.

Posted by: James Reynolds on November 21, 2003 03:43 PM

Yes, they're great/important/beloved by many, but they ring no bells for me despite my efforts:

Frank Sinatra
Italian and French Opera (though I do like Mozart and Chinese Opera)
Classical Ballet
Arthur Miller
T.S. Eliot
Lord Byron
The New Testament
Jack Lemmon (except in Some Like It Hot)

On the other hand, it seems I like/get a lot of the rejectees - Moby Dick is my bible, I'm very into bop and post-bop (esp.the classics - Diz, Monk, Miles, Bird, Trane, all of whom swing - I don't know how self-styled jazz lovers could say otherwise, like the music or not), love Astral Weeks and Dylan, find something of true delight in almost anything by Picasso or Matisse, and have read both the Dickens and Dostoevsky shelves with great pleasure.

Well, de gustibus and all that...

Posted by: Striver on November 21, 2003 03:46 PM

Tim: Where do you come up with this stuff - "Bottom line: Don't shut yourself off to the greats."

There was once a professor who, at the end of a standard "great books" course, asked his students the following question: Which one of these books did you not like, and what does your reaction tell you about your own shortcomings?

This little amusement assumes that players are widely read and enjoy much of "the greats."

I'm not sure it does, though I hope that's true in your case. Rather, this little game seems to encourage facile dismissal of works that -- for better and for worse -- have created and shaped our culture. It may also suggest that the art which affected our forebears so deeply has nothing to offer us. (As Pope put it, "We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow / Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.") Both tendencies, I think, ought to be resisted.

How can you expect people to respect your ideas about "great" works when you apparently can't read a simple blog post?

If I expected people to respect my ideas, why the devil would I post them here? ;^)

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 21, 2003 04:16 PM

My big "don't get" is Opera. I like the one song by Pucini with the crying clown (even though I might have the reference wrong) heard constantly in commercials, and I like the snippet from "Lakme" - but other than that, it's just a bunch of hollering, to my ears.

My small "don't get" is Rap. It's tuneless, toneless, profane, and it's not even good poetry. I just dinna get it. I can understand why teenage boys would get a snigger out of somebody conjugating "motherfucker" and the horrid "n" word to a stolen or canned beat, but then once they've had a yuk-yuk, why not turn up some Pink Floyd, Beatles or Foo Fighters? Hell, even Nora Jones.

I don't get William S. Burroughs, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oats, Terry McMillan, Saul Bellow, or John Updike.

Movies I don't get that everyone else loves are:
- Driving Miss Daisy
- Shawshank Redemption (though I like King's novella)
- Chicago
- A Beautiful Mind
- The English Patient
- Moulin Rouge

My controversial one is "gay culture humor" like "Queer Eye", "Will and Grace", "La Cage aux Folles / The Bird Cage", drag queens, etc. Everyone else seems to think it's funny and campy. I don't have anything against it, nor am I a homophobe, but so-called "gay humor" leaves me awash in ambivalence. It's just not funny to me.

Finally, I don't think this last one is a matter of me not getting it, but a matter of the emperor being buck nekkid: most abstract painting and sculpture. I have a visceral reaction to Miro that I don't understand, but other than that, it pretty much seems like infantilism and lack of skill and/or talent. So there.

And most humble apologies, as I know this is not the point, but I just wanted to comment on Mr. Michael's "don't gets":

- Henry James. -- I agree. In his day, he was cutting edge, but his particular innovations have been absorbed or improved upon, so all his fire and relevancy is gone.

- Dostoevsky. -- I enjoyed his complexity whilst an English Lit. undergrad, but I wouldn't pick him up today. I think reading one of his while you're young and have to read it for a class is about enough.

- "Citizen Kane." -- Much like what happened to Henry James, this has been so completely digested into the movie lexicon, it itself seems trite and dull. But, compared to the films of it's day in context (as I saw it in a wonderful movie survey class) - like, wow. It was the Star Wars or The Matrix of its day.

- Bob Dylan. -- This is the one I wish I could change for you. I didn't get Dylan for a long time, but when I did, it was tantamount to discovering sex. I was recovering from a major bad romance dissolution - she done squarshed my heart flat, ground on it with the stiletto heel of her pump, and then tried to feed it to a dog who just sniffed it and walked away - when a buddy of mine put on "Blood on the Tracks". So much of Dylan's work is nasal, atonal braying, that you wonder if he needs medical attention (or less, given his predilection for weed). But the song cycle of "Blood on the Tracks", tunes like "One More Cup of Coffee", "Mozambique", "Most of the Time", and "Everything is Broken" are just wonderful, because he's really singing - in a decent voice - and the songs are just haunting. Still, if ya don't get him, ya don't. But this is the one in the list I would claim is a true loss.

"The Waste Land." -- I hate, hate, hate T.S. Eliot. Hate him. He was a poser. You don't get him because THERE'S NOTHING TO GET! And don't let any lit snobs tell you otherwise. When the footnotes take up more space than the freakin' poem, that's abject failure as a poet. I've always loved the delicious irony that his most famous poem's title (here) is also an apt description of his work and talent. (In a way, his stuff has the exact same problem that abstract jazz does: only other poetry trivia buffs get his references - see the next paragraph.) Did I mention how much I hate the prissy bastard?

Miles Davis. - Yeah, only "Kind of Blue" is OK. And only if you like lite jazz percolating in the background. And if you like lite jazz in the background, you're better off getting one of the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown collections. His classic, "Bitch's Brew" is unlistenable (at least while not stoned or incapacitated in some way that prevents escape). Jazz, I think, is the ultimate inside joke of music, meaning only musicians really get a true bang out of it since they know the language and actually detect and understand the deviations from norm, or can appreciate the truly stylish phrase. For the rest of us it seems like a guy on a horn who has somehow lost his way in the song.

Things from other's people's lists I agree with - I don't get them either:

- Ballet
- Dickens
- Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard - "look, why don't I just say I don't get many of the standard arthouse greats of the 1950s/60s?" EXACTLY!
- Most "performance" art (see my post on this, btw)

This is fun!

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 21, 2003 04:57 PM

Ouch. To see some of my heros (Sondheim!) leave folks so cold....yet to each their own. Two quick thoughts--perhaps we might distinguish between the entire body of work of certain folks and specific works? Joyce seems to be a favorite, and granted, I find Ulysses unreadable--but the difference between that book and Dubliners is huge.

Second, given that this is all about opinion and not fact (although the person who hates post-70's Sondheim is wrong, just wrong, and scientifically so), maybe some of us who love the downtrodden could suggest a few redeeming portions of the great-but-not-loved...

I.e. Dickens: the first two paragraphs of Bleak House
Joyce: The Dead, from Dubliners, particularly the beauty of the last two paragraphs.
William Carlos Williams: a short gleeful poem titled Danse Russe
T.S. Eliot: Prufrock. C'mon, Prufrock. And Four Quartets.
Sondheim: Sweeney Todd (all.) A Little Night Music (all). Sunday in the Park with George (all.) Into the Woods (all.) Follies (all.) Etc....

Couldn't agree more with American Beauty. Just didn't get the greatness of that one. And speaking of filmmakers that are great but I never got: Mike Nichols. His work (with the exception of Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf) has always struck me as schlock.

Posted by: Tom on November 21, 2003 05:02 PM

This reminds me of the only Latin proverb I ever learned: De gustibus non disputandum est. There's no disputing matters of taste.

If you don't get Joyce, or Melville, or whatever, it's for the same reason that my brother doesn't like chocolate: he just doesn't.

Of course, there is the matter of an acquired taste. Sometimes the more you learn of something, the more it grows on you. That's why we force kids to take courses in literature and such.

Anyway, I suppose I must play too. Don't gets: opera, most ballet, Henry James, Thomas Hardy's novels, avant garde jazz (sounds like squirrels rustling around in dead leaves). Surely there's more, but I can't think of it now.

Posted by: Ben on November 21, 2003 05:18 PM

I notice that no one's trying to talk me into revising my opinion (er, my lack of response) to Euripides ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2003 05:57 PM

The things that once moved you fade out eventually as you get older and grow up or out of it or whatever. There are many things that I get and used to move me, but now just seem really sophomoric. Anais Nin is probably the best example. I was very big on anais in my freshman year of college, but halfway through a biography of hers, I just felt like slapping her and saying "get a hold of yourself woman!" what was once mysterious eventually became melodramatic with understanding. Henry Miller, on the other hand, really had something going that Kerouac et al lost pretty early on.

Posted by: Jess on November 21, 2003 06:44 PM

No fancy comments, just:
Henry James, Anton Bruckner, Clifford Brown, Thomas Mann, Krzysztof Kieslowski
Basquiat, Joyce Carol Oates, Gustav Mahler, late late Coltrane, John Updike,
Duke Ellington, Jim Carrey.

Posted by: fyreflye on November 21, 2003 07:14 PM

I intend no disrespect to those who like the stuff below, even when I make dismissive comments; I'm just reporting my reactions, not implying that you should have the same reaction.


Most of J.S. Bach's work. I've listened at length, I understand the mathematical complexity of the music and the skill required to play it; I don't even dislike it. It's pretty good background music, but I don't really enjoy it. It seems to be difficulty for its own sake; sort of a "Fox in Socks" for the hi-culture* crowd.

Nearly all of the Rolling Stones work. Yes, it was ground-breaking, but so is a backhoe. I understand their importance, but I suspect that I'm about five years too young for it to really work for me.

Both modern dance and ballet (though I like much of the music.) Extraordinary athleticism, but I just don't connect with any of it.

Most non-representational art. It tends to remind me too much of the form studies of freshman architects.

Most surrealist art. One of Robert Heinlein's classified jokes into three categories: not funny, funny once, and funny always. Surrealist art usually strikes me as "funny once". I can understand the conceit of the piece, but I can seldom get much more on later viewings.

Ray Bradbury. I've read most of his work, but can remember almost none. I can see the response in others, but I'm afraid I've got nothing.

Poetry that has neither rhyme nor meter; it's just playing tennis without a net.


Doug Sundseth

*I wonder whether hi-culture has enough currency to remove the hyphen? 8-)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 21, 2003 07:48 PM

>I notice that no one's trying to talk me into revising my >opinion (er, my lack of response) to Euripides ..

Well, dear boy, you know you can't really *judge* unless you've read him in the *original*.


Posted by: fyreflye on November 21, 2003 07:49 PM

As to Greek drama: I saw a nice production of Medea some years back. Euripides' surviving dramas are grim, but they work well on a stage. I wish I had more opportunities to see them.

Reading drama is like studying sheet music: So much of it depends on performance.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 21, 2003 08:04 PM

Oh yeah:

Nietzsche (thanks FVB!)
Six Feet Under

Posted by: Tom on November 21, 2003 09:43 PM

I agree with the comments about jazz; it doesn't do a lot for me, but yes, I have Kind of Blue and enjoy it.

Pretentious, wrongheaded D.H. Lawrence, with the exception of the ranch scene in St. Mawr.

Richard Serra. Oh wait, he sucks and people are hauling away his rusting piles of steel.

Virginia Woolf. Great sentences, but I get so blown away by the technique I forget what she's talking about.

E.M. Forster's Howard's End. Loved A Passage to India; couldn't get through Howard's End.

Posted by: Bill on November 21, 2003 09:52 PM

Euripides' Trojan Women can be very effective, but it's very hard to pull off (much like all of Shakespeare's work.) However, that's just about the only really great extant thing he wrote imho.

As far as getting something, but not _getting_ it: Goddard. I love the idea of what he does. I think it can be fantastic, but god there is no soul there. I once worked with Derek Wolcott on a production of Macbeth. He got me so jazzed about particular elements of the poetry I fiddled with the idea of doing a deconstuctionist version of the play, where the witches interrupt the story at various points to hammer home particular elements of Shakespeare's genius choices.

I think Goddard was trying to do the same sort of thing, but it's a different thing altogether when you're stopping the story to say, "look at me, ain't I a genius for constructing this story?"

Posted by: nushustu on November 21, 2003 10:33 PM

Well, here's a confession...


Posted by: gina on November 21, 2003 11:28 PM

I just want to second Tim Hulsey's comments--even though (I guiltily admit) I earlier jumped in and played the game. This from Tim sums up my intial reaction, and upon reflection, my current reaction as well to this whole game: "There was once a professor who, at the end of a standard 'great books' course, asked his students the following question: Which one of these books did you not like, and what does your reaction tell you about your own shortcomings?"

Tim's quotation may sound prissy, but I think it's exactly right. There's something about our current culture that seems to hold that showing that we aren't swayed by received opinion about the greats reveals us to be independent minds, superior to those who defer to the greats that tradition has identified.

The problem with this current notion--which may hold a kernel of truth--is that generally all it is is a way of aggrandizing ourselves for being lazy and unwilling to challenge or change ourselves.

I think none of the comments posted here reveals this better than Yahmdallah's on Eliot and Miles. I'll be happy defend this claim when I have a bit more time--assuming anyone is interested.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on November 22, 2003 12:23 AM

Don't get: Fellini, Pynchon, Gaddis. I'm still trying on all 3, though. Apparently, David Foster Wallace draws numerous Pynchon and Gaddis comparisons, but I found Infinite Jest to be infitely more readable than Mason & Dixon, Crying Lot of 49, or JR, the only books I've read by the above authors (I'm still scared to try Gravity's Rainbow -- I want to be at the point where I can *enjoy* it when I read it).

I once had a conversation with a friend in which I mentioned that I couldn't finish any film I've ever tried to watch by Fellini (tried both La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2) but that I'm hoping to learn to enjoy them (however I can, whether from reading critisism or finding somone who does get it to watch it with me). I could see the light bulb go off in his head when I said that. This guy, who couldn't understand my taste in music (tends to be instrumental rock-based stuff...Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emporer, etc., along with early American folk music and 50s/60s jazz...esp. Miles Davis, Sun Ra, etc. ... sorry...), film, or literature had assumed that either you "get" it or you don't and there's no point in trying to change that. Seems to be an assumption that would lead to a rather bland life, I think...

Oh yeah...while I think I get some of John Zorn's stuff, I can't imagine how anyone could possibly enjoy listening to The Classic Guide to Strategy.

Posted by: david on November 22, 2003 01:18 AM

Tim Hulsey quoted an old professor thus:

Which one of these books did you not like, and what does your reaction tell you about your own shortcomings?

Leaving aside entirely the evident assumption that the artwork itself cannot be and therefore never is at fault, only the person's response to it, my reactions to the items I listed tell me that I fail to connect with the works of these creative artists and these art forms, and that I fail to find enough in them to make further explorations worth the effort. If that's a failure in me, too bad.

Mike Kelly added:

The problem with this current notion--which may hold a kernel of truth--is that generally all it is is a way of aggrandizing ourselves for being lazy and unwilling to challenge or change ourselves.

This is something I object to strenuously. I've made the effort with Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Mozart, etc. Instead of just saying "God, these people bore me", I've tried to understand why they don't connect with me. I saw Taxi Driver seven times to try and understand why I didn't like it. (The at least partial answer, if anyone cares, is Cybill Shepherd.) I've tried to read War and Peace (which I forgot to put on my list) twice, in two different translations, one of them the one that Tolstoy himself approved. Couldn't do it. I sat through seven or eight hours of Sergei Bondarchuk's film of the book, too, to see if I could at least get into the story if not Tolstoy's actual book; I was bored to tears but determined to make it to the end and try and get something out of it, something that I'd been missing... and in the end I still didn't get it.

I set out to challenge myself and find new things all the time. Sometimes they work for me, other times they don't. When they don't work for me I want to understand why, and I will usually continue to make an effort with it until I reach the point where it becomes counter-productive. (And I sometimes return to a thing after some time away from it, and discover this time that it does work for me after all. This is why I now enjoy the films of Powell and Pressburger.) I certainly don't make facile dismissals, as Tim calls them.

Something else Tim said:

It may also suggest that the art which affected our forebears so deeply has nothing to offer us.

But why should it necessarily have anything to offer us? We are not our forebears, after all. What moved them need not move us in the same way. Anyway, that's not the point of this whole post, which I seem to recall was about great art that we don't get as individuals, not about what we think is irrelevant to humanity as a whole.

Michael's right in what he said at the beginning, it doesn't matter if you agree or not with the experts. I don't care how many critics think Bob Dylan is the shit, his music says nothing to me. If other people dig him, that's fine, and it may well be my loss... but it still doesn't change the fact that I don't like him. In the end, all we have are our own tastes, experiences and aesthetic responses, and we gain nothing from trying to deny them...

Shutting up now.

Posted by: James Russell on November 22, 2003 05:57 AM

Another thought on why we don't care for the fiction we're supposed to.
An old English prof of mine once told a group of us that he never read fiction any more, only history. "After a certain age, fiction is just silly."
I've never forgotten that remark. Perhaps the problem is that most of the books listed here are *fiction* and that real grownups just don't read (or read much) fiction.
You have to be of a certain age to read fiction enthusiastically. I was already too old at the time of Tolkien Boom 1 and though I read the Illuminatus Trilogy 3 or 4 times 20 years ago I can't get into it for another read now. But I do reread many of the history books of my youth and I read a lot of science.
It's true that you can learn much about human nature reading great fiction but if you haven't learned it by the time you reach 50 you never will, and reading will not help you.

p.s. I can't enjoy a lot of the great films of the '50's and '60's I once loved either.

Posted by: fyreflye on November 22, 2003 11:26 AM

To James Russell:

In the sentence you quote from me I said "generally"--generally the sort of exercise we're engaging in here, of saying "me no get Mozart and Fellini, etc.," is little more than an act of lazy self-aggrandizement, of failing to challenge or critique ourselves. But I didn't mean to imply that such acts are always this. If you've worked hard to understand and appreciate certain artists or works that have very widely been considered great and you still don't respond, that's certainly not laziness.

Also, I don't mean to imply that one should never say that others are wrong to think a certain artist or work is great. The fault isn't always within us; it is sometimes in the work and in the critics who have praised the work.

My objection is primarily to two things: First, there's a sort of smugness that permeates many of these "me no get" announcements, a smugness that seems to say, "I don't get what's great about these works, and that's anybody's fault but mine." Second, there's the notion that there's no disputing matters of taste, as if art were as simple a thing as the taste of chocolate. Maybe, but just maybe, it doesn't make sense to dispute whether chocolate is good (as a taste), but to say that one can't dispute the value of something that has the representational, ethical, and socially cohesive--or disrupting--qualities that art has, or can have, is maddening nonsense that trivializes art.

So, if you think that some work of art widely thought of as great is NOT great, and you've given it a try, listened to the arguments of those who call it great, struggled with understanding and appreciation, then go ahead, say it's not great. But don't decide that it's not great just because it doesn't "taste" good to you (even if you've given it several taste tests). Art isn't just a piece of chocolate. (Oh, but to reveal my perverseness--even with a hunk of chocolate, I believe that there can be legitimate disputing of tastes.)

Posted by: Mike Kelly on November 22, 2003 12:12 PM

My, this has gotten preachy, hasn't it?

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 22, 2003 12:52 PM

I guess my take's a little different. If a work is one of the "greats," and I give it a try, and I get it, but it still doesn't really sing to me, I don't dispute its greatness, I just say, Well, I guess it's one of the greats, and I'm glad I had a wrestle with it, but it doesn't sing to me. I don't really see the point of disputing a work's "greatness" -- the "greatness" decision is made by so many factors (popularity, reputation, luck, consensus, time, etc) ... No one individual has any control over it anyway. So why worry about it? But on the other hand you're free (necessarily) to respond to it as you do, and why not be honest about that? Why not allow for the coexistence of two clauses (It's great; it doesn't work for me) rather than try to force the event into one (I didn't like it, thus it's not great)? I find that easier on my soul, anyway.

For my own mental health, I try to keep one footnote in mind where this kind of thing is concerned, which is that the farther back in history the "great" comes from, the more secure I consider its "greatness" ranking to be, not that anything's totallyabsolutelyonehundredpercent absolute ever anyway, but you know what I mean. So: Shakespeare, Plato, Machiavelli -- pretty securely "great," and super-worth a wrestle, no matter how I respond. Antonioni? Let alone Willie Nelson? I love 'em or I don't, but their "greatness" is still a provisional thing.

And, to have the fun of repeating myself, I do consider what's currently considered to be the 20th century's canon to be totally up for grabs. Over time I've come to see it as a kind of mass delusion put over by a bunch of (often brilliant) nuts. And I really wouldn't be surprised to see it drastically revised in the next few decades.

Hey, a couple of thoughts and questions, for anyone who's still checking this thread out:

* Is anyone else as surprised as I am by how often Dickens got mentioned? I'm no Dickens fanatic, but I always found him one of the easier greats to love -- not too difficult, fun and rewarding (although "Hard Times" was a terrible drag).

* I'm not surprised by the way so many of us look askance at many works of High Modernism. Is anyone else? I was trained in High Modernism, so I "get" nearly all of it in an intellectual sense and am fond of a certain amount of it too -- I've semi-got a taste for some of it.

The thing that always struck me about the canonization of High Modernism, though, even during my indoctrination, was that it's a very, very special taste. Unlike my profs (and unlike a lot of critics and such still around today), I always thought it was a little weird, as well as downright absurd to hold it up as anything much more than a special taste for a tiny clique.

Of course, now that modernism has percolated down and kind of merged with popcult, that's all moot anyway.

* And does anyone else find it as interesting as I do how often the high vs low debate seems to crop up? Often unbidden, too. Seems to be one of those scraps that still has some juice in it. I wonder why. Any thoughts from anyone on this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2003 01:40 PM

Phillip Glass
GB Shaw

Gabriel GarcŪa MŠrquez
Ralph Ellison - all message no style

Miles before Bitch's Brew was a giant, from BB on he was often unlistenable but mostly just irrelevant.

Delillo although I very much liked the "Pafko at the Wall" prologue to "Underworld"

Martin Amis' fiction

Rodgers and Hammerstein (adore Rodgers and Hart however)

Lou Reed

The Rolling Stones

Posted by: grandcosmo on November 22, 2003 08:58 PM

Michael, I noticed how often Dickens is mentioned. He's one of my favorites and I don't care what those other Philistines and Hittites say. ;o)

Fortunately at 46, I still have a few years to read fiction in order gain understanding of the human condition before I, according to fyreflye, dry up into an intellectual husk and might as well bag it in favor of non-fiction.

And dont feel bad, Mr. Russell, Dylan leaves me totally bewildered.

Posted by: Deb on November 22, 2003 09:48 PM

Deb sez:
"Fortunately at 46, I still have a few years to read fiction in order gain understanding of the human condition before I, according to fyreflye, dry up into an intellectual husk and might as well bag it in favor of non-fiction."

No, according to fyreflye, if you actually were to read him, by age 50 more or less you would hopefully have grown up suffficiently to no longer need bedtime stories to keep you entertained and would have matured into the kind of person whose intellectual curiosity and desire for understanding would lead you to use your reading skills to begin finding out something about the world you live in before you're required to leave it permanently.

Posted by: fyreflye on November 22, 2003 10:44 PM

I think one reason "highbrow vs. lowbrow" keeps coming into the picture, is because these "me no like" posts (thanx for the name, Mike) are an angry reaction against a perceived "critical establishment" which sets up "highbrow" culture in opposition to the "lowbrow" stuff mere clods like us enjoy.

(I love the Internet because I can write tangled sentences that could never get printed in a newspaper.)

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on November 22, 2003 11:04 PM

Angry? Who's angry?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2003 11:47 PM

I'm sorry - I'm sorry.

I just can't get into Harry Potter.

Posted by: Molly on November 23, 2003 01:37 AM

fyreflye: It is not necessary to read Euripides in the original to get him. I've read him in Greek and in English and find him compelling in both.

Gina: I couldn't agree more about Radiohead. Leaves me completely flat.

Posted by: Sean Nelson on November 23, 2003 02:11 AM

Great topic! (I linked here from Bookslut.)

Some of these might be disputable as great, but certainly Iíd describe them all as, at the very least, well respected by many.

Off the top of my head, I donít get:

1) Ingmar Bergman. Iíve managed to fall asleep during every movie by him that Iíve tried to watch. Seriously. Iíve never made it through a whole Bergman movie fully conscious, so I canít comment on his merits as a director. As an insomniac, Iíve considered purchasing a DVD of The Seventh Seal to help me sleep.
2) Most performance art.
3) Moby Dick. I owned this book for about thirty years and tried to read it as many times. I never got past the first 20 pages. I decided earlier this year that, like War and Peace, it wasnít going to get read and gave it to a friend.
4) Diane Wakowski, John Ashberry, and Charles Bukowski. They have the Bergman effect on me. (Iíve been at readings by both Wakowski and Bukowski and they had the same effect on me in person.)
5) Live opera. Iíve only attended one performance of La Traviata so I supposed I shouldnít comment, but I donít think another performance of an opera by a different composer would make any difference. Iíll stick to recordings.
6) ďThe Blue Boy.Ē Iíve even seen it in person. And I donít care.

I decided about ten years ago that life was short and getting shorter (Iím 52 now). I enjoy many other ďgreatĒ books, works of art, movies, and musical genres. I decided that if I didnít get something, that there was no point in beating myself up about it, and to just move on to another great that I did get.

Posted by: waimeawahine on November 23, 2003 04:11 AM

Gee....fyrefly sounds pretty damn angry. He/she also seems to be setting him/herself up as one of the "authorities" who knows what others should read. Fyrefly: why do you not like fiction, and what shortcomings does that reveal about yourself?

Posted by: annette on November 23, 2003 08:32 AM

"fyreflye: It is not necessary to read Euripides in the original to get him. I've read him in Greek and in English and find him compelling in both. "
Sean Nelson: developing a sense of humor may not enhance your reading of Euripides but will do wonders for your apreciation of Aristophanes.

Posted by: fyreflye on November 23, 2003 11:08 AM

?Gee....fyrefly sounds pretty damn angry. He/she also seems to be setting him/herself up as one of the "authorities" who knows what others should read. Fyrefly: why do you not like fiction, and what shortcomings does that reveal about yourself?"

Go grow a brain.

Posted by: fyreflye on November 23, 2003 11:18 AM

I understand his historical value, but Andy Warhol does nothing for me.

Posted by: Ben Weeks on November 23, 2003 11:31 AM

I think one problem with not "getting" a work can be as simple as missing the jokes. Citizen Kane, Fellini, Dylan, Melville, and Joyce all have great lashings of comedy about them - having a laugh, fooling around with the medium, kicking up one's heels just for the hell of it - and if someone doesn't recognize this or isn't looking out for it these Greats might well seem peculiar.

For me: I used to not get D. W. Griffith but now I do. I recognized somewhere during the third hour of Intolerance that I was trying too hard to "get it" and that I should relax and go with the flow of the imagery. It was sort of like when you finally drop the subvocalizing in a speed reading course. Made me a better film-viewer overall I think.

Posted by: Brian on November 23, 2003 12:32 PM

Hey fyrefly: I don't think I'm the one who's lacking one, dumbshit.

Posted by: annette on November 23, 2003 01:32 PM

Don't you just hate it when people get bitchy? What started out as a great game and an interesting look at other people's perceptions of what's "great" and why has unfortunately turned into a WWE-like slamfest.

Please, people (you know who you are) get back to the game and leave the schoolyard namecalling to the children.
Your punishment should be forty lashes with a copy of Moby Dick or Great Expectations.

Posted by: roy on November 23, 2003 06:35 PM


Did you see "Brazil"? If you did, prepare for the storm troopers to drop through a hole in your ceiling any moment. ;)

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 23, 2003 07:19 PM

seriously, though. For people as well read as Fyreflye and (presumably) Annette, you guys sure are amateurs at the whole flame war thing. I mean, c'mon. "Go grow a brain"? How pollyanna is that?

Look, insulting someone over the web can make you look witty and be fun to read, too. But not the way you guys are doing it. I suggest you go check out one of the more "lowbrow" sites like, say, Ain't It Cool and look at some of their ongoing flame wars. Muchos funyos. Then come back over here and slam the hell out of each other.

Or you could try trading barbs in Latin, a la Val Kilmer and the other guy in Tombstone.

Ta ta.

Posted by: nushustu on November 23, 2003 08:29 PM

Awe shucks, I'm missin out ... I'm gonna have to go back to reading this blog regularly. Forget the dishes, the children, the man, I was a Blowhard devotee! Now I'm all washed up, a has-been. :-(

Hmm... in order to play THIS game, you have to be good with names. Hmm ... not my strong suit, but I'll try.

I don't get:

The Mona Lisa (But, seems like there was an old Blowhard post with an airbrushed, augmented, bleached Mona that I loved)

Modern Architecture

Max Lucado

Melville (so glad to read I'm not alone)

Most soprano soloists in opera

Modern dance costumes

John Wayne

Primitive art

Good wine (What happened to my taste buds for wine? Oh how I've tried.)

Oh, and may I ask, what's not to like about Ballet? I mean, it's beautiful, graceful, like a sunset right? What's not to like about a sunset? Hmm ... so funny.

Posted by: laurel on November 23, 2003 08:40 PM

Wow. Great idea for a posting. I love reading all these... makes me feel all nice and glad to be on the anonymous internet.

things I don't get:


the simpsons (yeah, fine there are a couple zingers every now and then, but come on. yeah, i liked it much better when it was live action and called all in the family)

discovery channel: i don't know. i guess I just don't like animals. heh, who knew?

reality TV: yeah i hate reality

Fox News: nielsen says a lot of people seem to like it? i feel im watching the weekly world news

comedy central: where the hell is bill hicks? or richard pryor? or how about, the FUNNY? crank yankers is for idiots...david chappelle is disguisting, and you can't watch stripes with commercials

TV I do like: the akward-nails-on-blackboard-feeling I get from curb your enthusiasm, the englishness of the office, the aburd anguish of buffy, the scenery of carnivale


uh, all punk music after the ramones
Elvis Costello
Beach Boys
John Zorn- what the hell is this crap?
brian eno
brit pop- champagne supernova in my eye!

music I do like:
turn of the century blues and jazz
most of detroit's music scenes

Posted by: j'onn j'onzz on November 23, 2003 09:32 PM

Whoa! Momma goes out for the day and when she returns spitballs are flying in every which direction!

Hey, what do y'all say we call it quits on this particular thread? This has been a lot of fun and I for one have learned a lot.

But: no more comments, please. If anyone puts one up after this one, I'm going to be a strict Momma and delete it. Besides, why not join in with the posting above about Nietzsche? Surely you've got some thoughts and ideas about Nietzsche? Yes? No? And, if not, how about Stephen King and Shirley Hazzard? All you devotees of the high/low wars should feel like jumping into that one, right?

But like I say, no more comments here, por favor. And many thanks to all for a fun and energized conversation.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 23, 2003 10:55 PM

Milton. Vergil. Spencer. I like Homer, and adore Ovid and Ariosto and Byron, but epics of consciously serious intent repell me. Worthsworth's "The Prelude" was marginally palatable.

Tho' of course, my generalization falls down when it comes to contemporary long poems. I liked not just Seth's "Golden Gate" and Burgess's "Byrne," but also Linde's "Alamo," Turner's "New World," and Walcott's "Omeros." Of course, even those serious ones all have much play, especially with imagination. It does hold for the modernist long poems like "Paterson," the Cantos, and H.D.'s long thingie.

But I can't read 100 lines of "Paradise Lost" before giving up. Bleagh. Style alergy.


Posted by: LNH on November 24, 2003 10:58 AM

A 'great' who I do not get:

Faulkner. Seriously. Wait, not just Faulkner, but the whole great southern nostalgia encompassing the likes of Faulkner, Conroy, Wolfe, Percy, etc. I am so over their 'love affair with language.'

Posted by: mingaling1 on November 24, 2003 11:05 AM

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Maya Angelou,I mean, seriously.

Dickens may have been worth something a hundred years ago. Not today.

Star Wars: The most atrocious waste of Hollywood money and America's time. I defy anyone to find five redeeming qualities about that self-absorbed work of garbage.

Indiana Jones: trash.

Tupac Shakur: all image no meaning.
I despised Conrad's Lord Jim. Waiting to try Heart of Darkness.

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: What a one-note, disappointing work.

mingaling, I understand your repulsion to "love affair with language" but I cannot help but respond to all the dumping on Faulkner. William Faulkner is a truly great author. We may not like his grandness or literary clunkiness, and his plots may...well...suck, but he stands alone, if only as a yardstick to measure other authors by.
Moving right along...

Miles Davis: Man, so Boring.


Herman Melville: His detractors would do well to read his short story titled
"Bartleby, the Scrivener."

Posted by: Fayez on November 24, 2003 01:47 PM

Let's start by defending poor little Henry James. I don't think his innovations have been absorbed by other writers so much that he's become a dead great. The Turn of the Screw still makes any other ghost story look, er, dead. The Wings of the Dove still makes any other soap opera look, well, soapy.

Sorry, but I can't get into the trenches for Dickens. Stupid, obvious writing about stupid, obvious characters. Oh phooey, maybe his complete mastery of stupidity makes him great.

Greek drama looks goofy to me on the page and on the stage.

Why must my tax dollars support the Public Broadcasting System? Pretentious, dull, endless. They can't even interrupt the junk with enough commercials.

Dylan. Cripes, man, you can't sing. Why embarrass yourself?

Abstract art. Cripes, guys, you can't draw. Why embarrass yourselves?

Posted by: Casey Abell on November 24, 2003 04:20 PM

I do not get:


only tried a little.

To get Joyce and Ullysses you have to struggle and read it. Joyce makes it hard because it is hard what he is trying to do, capture one day in his life. He busts his ass, does the craziest shit ever in lit and he never succeeds. You cannot recapture the past. I read it over one summer 21 years ago (I am an engineer) and it is a part of me. The deep sadest masked by the technical display. I met some friends at a bar the other night and I told a single image from Ullysses that has stuck with me: Stephen imagininge the umbiblical cord as a telephone line that stretches back to eve. "Hello, Eve?" Then I described how that freak Joyce gets better over time. Since his death (not at his time) phone cords got that spiral, that twirl that gets twisted it up as you talk. Then DNA, then the fact that through DNA they have traced back to Eve. Time magazine cover.

Moby Dick: best opening and closing lines in a single novel. "White", the dark rowers, the scene standing on the whale harpooning the sharks. Another one I read 23 years ago.

Don Quixote: best vomit scene in literature.

Picasso. He did impress me til I saw the real Guernica, again 21 years ago. Its size, its limited palatte, its creation of at least 3 or 4 new icons. And his real achievement: his ability to transform a real atrocity, essentially in realtime, without falling into the temptation of making it about Guernica, that event with swastikas and airplanes and technology. He performed a logical impossibility, successfully generalizing from the particular. Using a single instance he created a universal truth. And that's why they covered it up at the UN. All his other work is just cool sometimes.

Faulkner. Giving voice to the retarded. But, read "As I Lay Dying" Very short, funny, horrifying. Again I read it over 20 years ago, images still there.

I'm an engineer. I do not have an English degree. But these books and works of art help make me human.

Now something I challenge you to get, "The Matrix". Just the first movie. Every scene and line of dialogue is necessary. It needs nothing else. It has no errors. It is complete. It is True. I have seen it sneered at many times by people that do not get it. It is not just the real world/fake world. Ignore the violence and special effects. It is a Trojan Horse for teenage boys. In 100 years people will stil be talking about it.

Lord of the Rings: the ring has no power, the ring makes you disappear, then whatever is left enters into a delusional world. Sauron gathered all those armies to get the ring. If he got it he would have been a panhandler in six months. The entire quest and wars are built on a hoax, on a dream of nonexistent power. Does that remind you of anything.

Posted by: cheney_usa on November 24, 2003 06:37 PM

Beowulf. Has anyone said Beowulf?

Milton. I know I should be able to appreciate him, but I Just Can't.

Irigaray. Cixous. Anyone who says "authentic" female language has to sound like Finnegan's Wake.

Speaking of... I thought Dubliners was amazing. I appreciated Ulysses (parts of it I adored, parts of it I slogged through, parts of it, I'll admit, I flipped past). But Portrait of the Artist just didn't connect with me. (OK, all of the parts of Ulysses I skipped were about Stephen Head-up-his-*ss.)

T.S. Eliot's essays. Sooooo pedantic. But I liked The Wasteland.

The Corrections. I didn't understand what was so groundbreaking about it. And the farce scenes felt forced.

Gertrude Stein. She's great for three pages. After that, I feel like I'm reading the same three pages over and over again.

As far as the Matrix goes... eh. Wasn't all of that simulacra stuff hot philosophical property a couple of decades ago? To me, it feels recycled. You would think the point would be a Marxist revolution, but instead, the solution is a leather-clad Messiah figure with a Real Big Gun.

I'd put it with "Fight Club", movies that sorta critique contemporary Western life without exactly offering a solution. Superman is not a solution. (Nor, IMHO, is Marx, but that's beside the point.)

Posted by: emily stephens on November 25, 2003 01:12 AM

How about Joseph Conrad? Reading Lord Jim is like opening a freight box full of nothing but packing peanuts. Thomas Mann stymies me, too. I couldn't get but a third of the way up the slope face of The Magic Mountain.

And will someone please expose the Strokes, White Stripes, and Hives for being sad sack shadows of hack garage bands like the Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders, who at least pounded out moronic rock and roll back when it was still a little transgressive to do so?

Posted by: charlie on November 25, 2003 02:44 PM

Andy Warhol? What's so special about him?

As for all Matrix-bashers, here's a request. I request that you put your purty heads together and find one movie, just one...that packs So, SO many things into itself, as the Matrix. Find me a movie that has kung fu, breakthrough fx, free-will vs. determinism, simulacrum within simulacrum debates, breakthrough fx, man vs. machine, interpretive religion(heh heh) and so much more, all rolled into one. The Matrix sequels were the first movie(s) to have shown sympathy for machines. A lot of ink has been spilled about how Reloaded and Revolutions have little human emotion. News flash: they are as much about the machines as they are about human beings. The intersection of the idea of choice with the determinism of mechanical operation remains fascinating, at least for me.
I could go on but I suppose I'll wait for other people's response. If you didn't get the movies, believe me, they're pretty simple, they're just original ideas presented in highly original fusions.

Posted by: Fayez on November 25, 2003 05:10 PM

Magic Mountain:

That was a tough one: the English translation of German, and then the conversation with the Countess is in French! Doh!

Made it to the end. Hans grows and becomes a mature person only to: -SPOILER-
Obey the call of his great leader to run into the WWI meatgrinder. Uneven but chapter on Hans studying music should be required reading: how did people react to recorded music. Before always needed live musicians, remember. Interestingly, he compares the case to a coffin I think. Read it in summer of 81 while I was working as a shortorder cook and going out every night drinking with the boys.

Posted by: cheney_usa on November 25, 2003 11:58 PM

Bob Dylan.
Sonic Youth.
Frank Lloyd Wright.
Dave Eggers (no, wait, I just think he's totally overrated).
New York City.
And the one that has me kicked to the couch every time it comes up: Shakespeare.

Posted by: Catty on November 26, 2003 09:01 AM

Hello, there. I love the site.

I must say that I am open to a lot of things and consider myself a pretty intelligent person, but I just *don't* understand the following:

Casablanca (I fell asleep during it. Twice.)
Raymond Chandler (except for The Big Sleep)
Daniel Handler (excluding the remarkably witty Series of Unfortunate Events books, which are, of course, "kid lit")
Celebrity autobiographies (ghostwritten books in general, I guess)
The Smashing Pumpkins
Marvel superheroes
Todd McFarlane

Posted by: written_image on November 26, 2003 02:37 PM

Fayez: But, to me, the concepts were not original, the breakthrough fx were mostly laughable -- sure, it all looked cool, but it was mostly pointless, and seemed to be breakthrough fx only for the sake of breakthrough fx.

The movie just didn't mean much to someone who'd already seen (and loved) Equilibrium.

Posted by: NeoMatrix on November 29, 2003 01:16 PM

Oh come now, Equilibrium cannot hold a candle to the Matrix, seriously. Sure the concepts are similar, but that movie is just inferior in scale and vision the Matrix. My point was that sure, we've come across the ideas before, but The Matrix is remarkable in its presentation, and more than that, its synergy of diverse concepts.
As for the fx, if you put it that way, they're all superfluous, in every movie, because they're not real, of course. I just thought they were unlike anything we saw before, and advanced the central ideas in unique ways. And maybe the 100 Smiths were a bit claymationish, maybe the orgiastic dancing intercut with Neo's lovemaking went too long. But overall, this trilogy stands as the most ambitious fusion of philosophy, technology and the philosophy OF technology. This is the first movie I've seen that dared to tell a machine's story, that dared to let the humans lose, for the sake of balance. Because in the end, it's all about balancing the equation...human choice is an illusion created by those who have power for those who do not, so says the Merovingian.
P.S. Yeah, the music sucked, though.

Posted by: Fayez on November 29, 2003 02:33 PM

American Beauty was just crap, one should not feel shame for disliking it. So some blowhard critics praised it. You were right they were wrong.

How about this - what are some works of art that you didn't get at first but upon subsequent viewings you did?

for me; Grand Illusion - nonsense when I saw it as a teenager, but WOW how age has changed this. I'll take it over Citizen Rosebud any day. Also The Searchers. And an overlooked 80s band, the Replacements.

Posted by: edwin on November 30, 2003 03:51 AM

Emily Dickenson.
Henry James.

And my college Renaissance Lit professor who said that the poets weren't misogynists, women really were just stupid at the time.

Posted by: Maggie on November 30, 2003 06:09 PM

Don't Get:

Toni Morrison.


Posted by: Jennifer on December 1, 2003 06:44 AM

Great thread, too bad I'm a week late to the party. No one has mentioned Hemingway, I find his writing flat, it seems he refined the life out of it, I see the effect he is struggling to achieve rather than feeling it, although the Macomber story is excellent. Concur on American Beauty, do not know what the big deal is on that one. Citizen Kane likewise, the praise seems partly directed to the technical breakthroughs, but I didn't find the story terribly interesting.

Posted by: Pat on December 6, 2003 10:55 PM

I can't stand Henry James. I've tried, but his characters drive me nuts. They all need to get jobs. And women who live in a society in which divorce is impossible should be more careful who they marry.

On the other hand, I love Dickens. He's so damn funny, and you just have to live with the sentiment and corny plots. I get Dosteovsky too, even though reading him is like taking a hallucinogenic drug. Their books are so full of life.

I don't get Marques, but I respect him.

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs on December 8, 2003 03:39 PM

I don't get B.B. King and the rest of the genre. I don't get Country music at all (even 'the greats'). I don't get Toni Morrison and Angelou either, but that may be because I'm white.
Farenheit 9/11, I understood, but didn't appreciate. "What, a book about a fireman whose job is to burn books? Gee, I wonder what it could be about." That book was as subtle as a placard carrying hippy.

Posted by: Geoff Matthews on December 8, 2003 04:22 PM

Jasper Johns. Enormously influential, but to me his art is just plain dull.

Hamlet, sort of. It's a good play, but why oh why do people say its one of Shakespeare's best? It's a play that people enjoy analyzing far more than they enjoy watching.

Followers of this thread might enjoy "Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without", a catalog of overrated works. Hamlet, The Sound and the Fury, and Moby Dick all made the list.

Posted by: Peter Caress on December 9, 2003 12:26 AM

I am late to this thread but I will add my two cents

I never got Hemingway - just boring he man shit badly written.

I never got The Beatles or Stones, the Who and Kinks were so much better.

Never got the Beach Boys - I like them well enough just never got the genius label.

Moby Dick was unreadable,
Abstract Art - way beyond my reasoning

The whole 60's reveolution - exactly what was accomplished again because I have missed it.

Radiohead/Rage Against the Machine


What I do get
The brilliance of Toy Story
Citizen Kane
Tootsie -

The brilliance of Adams/Jefferson et al

Piers Paul Read a Married Man
Maria McKee

Posted by: Kevin on December 9, 2003 11:25 AM

R&B - yuck! (oh, I admit that some songs are tolerable or even funny, but the majority...)

I don't get most literature. I like scifi and fantasy - HP's okay, but only at so so-level - but in most literature there's just nothing there. I'm not sure how to explain it. I think there is something in Stephen Donaldson's books, or Patricia McKillipp. But literature to me is mostly dead.

Posted by: Rik on December 9, 2003 01:47 PM

Most of Segovia's guitar playing.
Beethoven? How can this be? I love Bach, Beatles, and Blues. Beethoven, though, hits a numb spot.

Posted by: Pete on December 10, 2003 12:43 AM

A big hello to my competing neighbours above and below! Beastiality DVDs rule!

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 07:11 PM

The thing that you people lack is that you are not saturated with the Bible. You lack knowledge of the holy. So you miss the point of Dostoyevski, Dickens, Melville, Hawthorne, and others who were either believers themselves or were influenced by a culture that believed.

The best writer other than God Himself in the Bible is John Calvin explaining the Bible. To me you're not educated if you have not read THE INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION by John Calvin.

Posted by: Tom Muldoon on June 8, 2004 12:35 AM

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