Last night I posted to Facebook about how yesterday evening I was mopping the floor of my apartment to music written about a thousand years ago, and imagining that someday, a guy is going to find this ridiculously nerdy trait (i.e., my interest in early music) incredibly endearing. A friend commented: That isn’t pretentious at all. 😛
My immediate reaction was to apologize all over myself, realizing how snobbish and pretentious such a statement might come across as. Instead, I replied: Perhaps… but it’s unique!
After doing a little more mopping, I came back and added: Actually, no—it isn’t pretentious at all. It would be pretentious if I’d posted this to appear more cultured or sophisticated. But the truth is, I am listening to medieval music at this very moment while mopping my apartment floor.
Merriam-Webster defines pretentious: “Having or showing the unpleasant quality of people who want to be regarded as more impressive, successful, or important than they really are.”
Here I’m reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Proposes a Toast, in which the Senior Tempter and Undersecretary of his department in Hell is remarking on the importance of reframing democracy “as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power” in order to produce in people the feeling that “prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.”
Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food: “Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I — it must be a vile, upstage, la-di-da affectation. Here’s a fellow who says he doesn’t like hot dogs — thinks himself too good for them, no doubt. Here’s a man who hasn’t turned on the jukebox — he’s one of those goddamn highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were honest-to-God all-right Joes they’d be like me. They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic.”
The fact of the matter is that I’m a nerd—and a very specific type of nerd at that. Shortly after my family moved from Kansas to Minnesota, my father took me to a concert where the first of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos was on the program. By the end of the piece, I was madly in love with early music.
Some of the happiest moments of my teen years were when I was playing or studying Baroque music. I nearly majored in historical performance (which would’ve required going somewhere other than Northwestern).
I’m not even sure I can explain what it is about early music that so captivates me. As I’ve been musing on what it is that I love especially about medieval music, I figure it’s probably the same thing that attracts me to history—that though most of us live in a more sophisticated world than the vast majority of our ancestors; travel about in cars, airplanes, and even into space; and have access to technology and medicine that would have made us gods to earlier generations, we’re not that different from the people who lived ten thousand years ago.
Take the song I posted above. It was written sometime in the late 12th century by a woman known as the Comtessa de Dia (Die, a county in the High Middle Ages located in the southeastern part of France), or as just Beatritz. She was a trobairitz, a female troubadour. If you remember your music history, the troubadours were composers and performers of lyric poetry, usually about chivalry and courtly love. Compare this lyric from Ab joi et ab joven m’apais to any pop song written in the last hundred years:
I feed on joy and youthfulness
and joy and youthfulness content me;
since my friend is the most cheerful
I am cheered and charmed by him,
and because I’m true to him,
it’s well that he be true
to me; I never stray from loving him
nor do I have the heart to stray.
Sure, the sentiment is a little different, just as the clothes were different and people believed that demons were the cause of sickness and disasters, or that women were conceived because of weak male sperm or the direction of the wind at the time of intercourse. (No kidding on the last one. See Thomas Aquinas’ “On how a woman is to be born a woman” from the Summa Theologica. Crazy.) But it’s clear from the lyric that Beatritz is excited about being in love. It’s like a postcard from the 1100s.
In a way, I find in early music a link to humanity by composing my own music, the same as people have been composing music since the first humans joined their voices in song. I find a link to my humanity in housekeeping through images of excavated floors of Neolithic houses that show signs of having been regularly swept, or indentations in floors where someone knelt regularly enough while tending a fire to leave permanent marks.
I’m not interested in any of this because it’s “intellectual.” I’m interested because it fascinates me and captivates my imagination and my thoughts.
So it’s frustrating when I get labeled as “pretentious” for liking these things, for being a Classically trained musician, for not liking most of what’s on television or the radio or in theaters. Because I do have a love for music, for history, for good stories, for science (even though I don’t understand most of it), and for good literature.
And I’m hoping these qualities (e.g., mopping floors to mediaeval music) will be intriguing and endearing someday to the man I marry—whoever he is. That’s one of many reasons for leaving Minnesota for graduate school—wherever that is. Because having interests in obscure subjects is not a Midwestern virtue. It is something, however, encouraged in academia, where it’s becoming clearer that I belong.
As Alanis Morissette sings, “… what I wouldn’t give to meet a soul-mate—someone else to catch this drift.”