Prog Rock Will Not Save Your Soul, and Other News


On the Shelf

The gatefold cover of King Crimson’s LP In the Court of the Crimson King.


  • Why prog? Of all the varieties of music that can or could exist, what made progressive rock come slithering out of the human mind and into the historical record? These questions haunt everyone but certain British and American men, who regard prog as their birthright: in the glittering virtuosity and nonsense mythology of bands like King Crimson and Yes, they hear the drumbeat of some distant utopia. Critics have tried and tried again to figure out why certain white men enjoy prog while the rest of us back away slowly from it. Reviewing David Weigel’s new book on prog, The Show That Never Ends, Kelefa Sanneh samples a few compelling explanations: “In 1997, a musician and scholar named Edward Macan published Rocking the Classics … Noting that this artsy music seemed to attract ‘a greater proportion of blue-collar listeners’ in the U.S. than it had in Britain, he proposed that the genre’s Britishness ‘provided a kind of surrogate ethnic identity to its young white audience’: white music for white people, at a time of growing white anxiety. [The philosophy professor] Bill Martin, the quasi-Marxist, found Macan’s argument ‘troubling.’ In his view, the kids in the bleachers were revolutionaries, drawn to the music because its sensibility, based on ‘radical spiritual traditions,’ offered an alternative to ‘Western politics, economics, religion, and culture.’ ”
  • Here’s some cocktail-party humiliation that’s sure to land with a splash. Ask a fellow partygoer, Which Cyril Connolly book have you been reading? If they answer at all, they very probably will not say The Unquiet Grave—and when they fail to say it, you can laugh at them mercilessly and then cite this Brian Dillon piece, which argues for The Unquiet Grave as an interesting flop: “If his friends are to be believed, Cyril Connolly was a monster of sloth and self-regard. And yet, what an endearing figure he cuts—if that’s the verb, with Connolly—through their letters and memoirs: maundering over failed affairs of heart or wallet, brimming with excuses for his books unwritten, ever ready to start afresh with the bubbles when the night wore on. Connolly’s narrow reputation now rests largely on the mixture of memoir and high literary journalism in Enemies of Promise (1938), and not on his single novel The Rock Pool (1936), or the several collections of reviews he later packaged in lieu of proper books. Fewer still today are references to The Unquiet Grave: the odd, fragmentary ‘word cycle’ he published under the pen name Palinurus in the autumn of 1944. But this is the book—an essay, an anthology, a complaint—in which the contradictions in Connolly’s talent and personality fail to resolve with the strangest, most seductive results. Here he anatomizes his worst traits: laziness, nostalgia, gluttony, hypochondria, some essential frivolity of mind that means his writing will always be summed up as ‘brilliant—that is, not worth doing.’ ”

  • In writers as disparate as Paul Celan, Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Robert Musil—all of whom lived in the territories of the former Habsburg Empire—Marjorie Perloff now recognizes a kind of shadow modernism. Adam Kirsch writes, “Perloff believes they share a certain sensibility, a way of thinking and feeling, that can be traced to their situation as legatees of a vanished empire. Modernism is usually thought of as being radical in all directions; whether they were politically revolutionary or reactionary, modernist thinkers strove for a new beginning in art and culture … For the Austro-Modernists, by contrast, the dominant spirit was irony, as Perloff explains … This preference for diagnosis over prescription, for retrospection over renovation, is so far from what we usually think of as modernism that it may not seem to deserve the name. But in her case studies, Perloff argues convincingly that post–World War I Austro-Hungarian literature—a literature named after a country that had ceased to exist—did share fundamental elements with the wider modernist project … The difference is that, while Eliot and Pound put their faith in various reactionary doctrines to repair the damage of the twentieth century, the Austro-Modernists remained poised in skepticism. To use a word that Perloff avoids, there is something liberal—in the sense of anti-utopian, anti-ideological—about these writers.”
  • David Pagel has some harsh words for a new Bernadette Corporation exhibition in Los Angeles: “Words, like those an eager student might jot down during a lecture, have been engraved, laser-etched and printed on aluminum and acrylic panels, some clear and others mirrored. References to Antonin Artaud, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are interspersed with narrative snippets and nods to Heliogabalus, emperor of Rome from 218 to 222, when he was assassinated at the ripe old age of eighteen. As a whole, the exhibition is far less interesting than any of its sources. Think of it as the visual equivalent of flatulence in a bubble bath. Only one piece does more than highlight its desire to be academic. It’s also the crudest. With a syringe for a beak, bent drinking straws for legs and a foam cup for its head, Gull Sculpture is an antidote to the overproduced nonsense that makes up the rest of the exhibition. This show would be better if it were forgettable.”