Things to Come: See, Hear and Read in 2023

by Chris Horner

A look forward, and backward, to some ‘cultural stuff’ for the coming year, old and new things worth seeing, hearing or reading. Here we go:


Unless you have been cut off from all media in the last few months, you probably will have heard of this new movie from Todd Fields. Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, star conductor in the Berlin Philharmonic. She has a lifestyle of the celebrity conductor and as wee see her prepare to record Mahler’s 5th symphony we also see her life beginning to fall apart. It turns out she is not immune to the temptations of power that go with the role of Maestro.

Blanchett’s performance has been much praised, and it is indeed a tremendous thing: she must be near the head of the queue for an Oscar this year. It’s a great performance in a genuinely worthwhile and absorbing film. I don’t think it really expands our understanding of the themes it features: power and the exploitation young hopefuls by the (seemingly) all powerful star, the question of great art and flawed artists and so on, but it’s possible to come out of the movie thinking that it has. Blanchett’s performance has a lot to do with that. So a great performance in a very good rather than great film (assuming such categories can really be employed so neatly). Read more »

Seen and Heard

by Chris Horner

A choice of ‘cultural things’ I enjoyed in 2022 and which you might like, too. Some were from well before this year, but discovered by me in ’22.  Novel, non fiction, concert, recording, exhibition. Here we go:

  1. Novel: The Odd Women – George Gissing.

This is the kind of novel which when read makes you wonder why it isn’t better known and more widely celebrated. The late 19th century saw a wave of plays and novels dealing with ‘the New Woman’ – the educated, worryingly independent, vote-seeking, bicycling women of the late Victorian/Edwardian age. Examples include Victoria Cross’s Anna Lombard (1901), Ella Hepworth Dixon’s  The Story of a Modern Woman (1894) Many of  these were predictable rubbish: marriage or death solves everything. Exceptions among plays are Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession, and among novels HG Wells’ Ann Veronica (1909), but it’s the Gissing that is really the winner among novels. Gissing avoids most of the cliches and stereotypes and produces a narrative that is genuinely absorbing and a set of themes and characters one remembers long after the book is put down. Gissing is an odd fish: he has real empathy for the plight of the poor and the rejected (both here and in The Nether World and his more famous New Grub Street), but has an ‘official’ conservative ideology which, when he lets it, blocks him from being able to imagine how the agency of working class or (as here) mainly lower middle class women might work for their liberation. In this he isn’t alone: many great novelists have said more through their literature than their ‘official’ beliefs ought to allow them to do (think of Dostoyevsky) In The Odd Women, he largely lets his imagination take him places his philosophy could never encompass. The book emerges as a fascinating account of the situation of the ‘superfluous’ women of the 1890s – and shows how they either succumbed to or overcame the world that seemed to have no place for them.  Read more »

Music for Pleasure

by Chris Horner

No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures —Dr Johnson

Without music life would be a mistake —Nietzsche

Music started for me with whatever was blaring out of the radio, and later those 45 rpm ‘single’ records that were the main vehicles of listening pleasure for teenagers in the late twentieth century. I heard a lot of that rather than listened to it. Listening really started with the ‘long player’ or album: 40 minutes or so over two sides of a black disc with a cover that, if you were lucky, didn’t look too bad when you gazed at it.

The first album I owned was a birthday present: Abbey Road, the final Beatles recording. Having nothing else to play, this got a lot of spins, first through the big speakers of my parents ‘Rigonda Stereo Radiogram’, then with the earphones plugged into the back with the lights off. In a private darkness the music and the lyrics were undisturbed by the banality of our front room, and the thing became something I knew by heart, images and melodies imprinted like a recurring, waking dream. Only the pleasure principle mattered: I has no idea whether I was supposed to like this stuff, I just did.  Read more »

The Promise of Happiness

by Chris Horner

Beauty is nothing more than the promise of happiness —Stendhal

Colours of Lake Maggiore (Photo: C Horner)

How can beauty promise happiness? And what kind of beauty would this be? What sort of happiness? Happiness and Beauty have been central issues for thinkers since antiquity, and the question of what they really are, and whether we should even prize them as we do, have been subjected to sustained critique and discussion for millennia. I don’t intend to join that debate here. Happiness and Beauty: the more we try to get clear about them, the more they seem to recede from us. But, like Stendhal, we cannot do without them. 

The origin of the quotation at the top of the page is his On Love, in a footnote in about the possibility of loving that which is ugly. He gives an anecdote about a man who falls in love, not with a woman who is conventionally beautiful but rather one who is not good looking, is too thin and is scarred with smallpox. He falls for her because she reminds him of a past love. Stendhal’s claim here is that beauty isn’t based on physical perfection. The idea of beauty is distinct from the physical form of the thing we desire. This may seem an odd way of conceiving of beauty, but it has a lineage that goes back to Plato. Beauty is kind of message or sign of something else.

Happiness, it seems, is elsewhere. We recall it or anticipate it, and the thing desired is somehow Other to where we are in space and time. The pursuit is not necessarily pleasurable, as the recollection of past happiness can be painful [1]. For Stendhal it is prompted by an erotic encounter, but presumably anything might serves as a trigger: the smell of autumn leaves, the hills in summer, a piece of music. One is reminded of Proust’s Madeleine, and the onrush of unbidden memory in his In Search of Lost Time. We are a long way from conventional ideas of harmony of form, or pleasing combinations of colour or tone. It seems to be less about beauty as it is usually understood, and more about a longed for state of felicity, however it is imagined: for past loves, for home, for childhood. Read more »