Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Harry Magnet Publishes His First Novel: The Next Beethoven

Updated February 25, 2020

I’ve published my first novel, entitled The Next Beethoven. Is classical music a dying art? If so, can it be revitalized? How come there hasn’t been a classical composer in recent decades whose music appeals to a wide audience, as did Mozart’s and Beethoven’s music? Are there aspects of contemporary society preventing great accomplishment in music composition, or more generally in the arts? The Next Beethoven explores these questions in a story about a fictional young composer with great potential.

David Green is a millennial virtuoso pianist and composer, who aspires to become a great composer. He also has the more ambitious goal of starting a Second Renaissance, and organizes a group of like-minded New York City artists who want to restore art to its European glory days. Clinical psychologist Bill Leornig is David’s girlfriend’s faculty advisor at NYU. As the Second Renaissance group unravels, and David becomes depressed, Leornig must decide whether to help David. The book includes the novel and four short stories.

You can find The Next Beethoven at Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other eBook stores. Sorry, there is no paper book. 

Art modernism has dominated Western art for over a century, and it is strange that it hasn’t been seriously challenged. It’s unpopular with the general public, and it has led to utter decadence. While early modernists such as Picasso, Stravinsky, and Joyce became widely known, in recent decades it has been associated with a triumph of dullness, where the mediocrities creating art in these styles are only known to experts in their fields, and are ignored by the wider public.

Where are the artistic geniuses of today? There are more people in the world than ever before, and more of them have access to education and middle class lifestyles. If genius is a function of a rare combination of genes and environment, we should be having more geniuses than ever before, as there is a larger pool of people to draw from.

The only explanation is that there are strong environmental factors preventing potential artistic geniuses from actualizing their potential. I discuss some of these factors in the novel. One is conformity to modernism. Art modernism has been dominant for over a century. Although it may no longer be called modernism (perhaps “postmodernism” or some other label), it shares the essential qualities of modernism: rejection of plot in literary fiction, rhyme and meter in poetry, melody in music, and representation in the visual arts. This makes it unpopular with the general public, so artists do their work mainly for other artists (or academics). Since virtually all mentors and teachers are modernists, it’s hard for a new artist to defy his teacher and do something completely different, in the absence of role models.

Another factor is having a career other than art. The decline in standards of art leads to the prestige motivation being worthless—a five-year-old could paint as good a painting as one that gets into MOMA, a ten-year-old could compose as good a work as a highly-regarded composer. People of high ability and intelligence will choose a career where financial rewards are more certain and they will be rewarded for their abilities—i.e. science, business, technology.

Other factors are 20th century or later philosophies and belief systems that did not exist during the golden age of European art. I talk about one in my novel—the Ayn Rand/Objectivist philosophy. This philosophy seemed very promising to bring about a creative revival, but after over 75 years since The Fountainhead was published, it clearly has not fulfilled its promise. In fact, Objectivism most likely has made things worse, by promoting hyperindividualism, the idea that creative accomplishment is an individual endeavor, which is best nurtured by leaving the individual alone. This doesn’t reflect the historical reality of creative achievement. Geniuses were part of a cultural and social milieu that was an integral part of their achievements. For example, Beethoven was taught by Haydn, had Mozart and Bach as role models, and initiated the early Romantic era of classical music, which included famous composers such as Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and others. Beethoven came from a musical family, and as a young man was part of the Viennese salon social scene. His biography, along with the biographies of other creative geniuses, bears little resemblance to the fictional orphans Hoard Roark or John Galt.

The idea from Atlas Shrugged that free minds and free markets promote creative achievement has no support in history. Charles Murray, a self-described libertarian, published a book in 2003 called Human Accomplishment. In this book, he talked about artistic and scientific genius, and did regression analysis to try to show social and political forces that promote such achievement. He had to admit that, short of totalitarianism, there was little correlation between political freedom and accomplishment. Most creative accomplishment was done by Europeans living under monarchies and other regimes that bear little resemblance to the contemporary conception of individual freedom. As political and economic freedom gradually advanced worldwide beginning in the late 18th century (with some notable setbacks in the 20th century), accomplishment didn’t rise along with freedom. Murray reported a mysterious decline in accomplishment (i.e. accomplishment as a percentage of people with opportunities) beginning in the 19th century. This decline has clearly accelerated in the last century.

Until recently, there were strict informal social norms that limited individual freedom. These included traditional family and gender roles, respect for parental, teacher and clerical authority, shamefulness of divorce and illegitimacy, closeting of homosexuals, racial and religious prejudice, speech and dress codes, etc. For the vast majority of people, these informal norms affected daily life more than national or state politics. Despite major worldwide differences in political and economic systems, these informal norms persisted until the 1960’s. The Sixties social revolution resulted in the collapse of these informal norms in Western countries, resulting in an unprecedented amount of individual freedom. From the perspective of popular culture, there were some positive developments. I was fortunate to have grown up in a golden age of popular music, the Sixties through Eighties, which included an incredible number of talented artists in different genres. But that eventually fizzled out by the turn of the millennium. Modernism became more entrenched than ever in the fine arts, and there has been little accomplishment since the Sixties, despite all the freedoms we enjoy.

The factor that I talk most about in the novel is the link between creativity and mental illness/drug abuse. I think this is probably the single most important factor. Something in the environment since the late 19th century has been making potential geniuses mentally ill. Some of them commit suicide, others develop disabling mental illness and/or drug abuse that prevents them from accomplishing anything. So instead of having a golden age of creative accomplishment, we have thousands of people committing suicide, and millions of mentally ill and drug addicted people straining health and legal systems around the world. I believe the cause of this is the intersection of modern technology and human magnetoreception (as discussed in this blog, one of my most popular). I don’t discuss this in the novel mainly due to timing. I didn’t do serious research of my magnetoreceptive abilities until age 40, and wrote the first draft of this novel a few years before that. To try to insert themes involving human magnetoreception into the novel would break it.

Some may ask: who cares about art? I haven’t written much about art in my blog or website. The reason is that there’s not much to write about—contemporary art is terrible, so what’s the point? From the standpoint of the art consumer, times have never been better. Let’s take a fictional example of Joe Businessman, who likes traditional European art. Joe has access to pictures of virtually any classic painting and sculpture available online with a few clicks. If he wants to see the real thing, he can go to a local museum, or travel with his family to big cities. It’s never been easier to travel, especially for someone with money like Joe Businessman. If Joe Businessman wants to read classic literature, and likes paper books, if they’re not in his private library or the local public library, he can order on Amazon.com and get it shipped within 48 hours. If he’s OK with eBooks, Project Gutenberg has most classics available for free. Or he can download to his Kindle or other device for a few dollars. Live theater is available in most medium-sized or larger cities. Joe can also travel to bigger cities for more theater options. Joe has access to almost any music he wants online either via MP3’s he owns, YouTube, or streaming services. Live music, like theater, is available in most medium-sized or larger cities. Joe has access to virtually any movie or TV show he wants to see via streaming services like Amazon Prime or Netflix. Joe Businessman is in a better position to appreciate art than anyone living during the time that the great works of art were created.

The problem with not creating great art isn’t for the art consumer like the fictional Joe Businessman. It’s that not creating great art is a symptom of the decline of our civilization. Western civilization’s decline has been occurring for over a century, and we managed to get through the challenges of the twentieth century. But, two decades into the twenty-first century, it is looking questionable that our civilization will be flourishing or even exist by the end of this century.

There are related symptoms of our civilization’s decline. Lack of artistic creativity is associated with lack of scientific creativity. Although the sheer number of scientists and resources leads to scientific advance, we’re lacking in significant individual creative accomplishment. This kind of individual accomplishment is what produces paradigm shifts in science. Such shifts are sorely needed in sciences that haven’t accomplished much, such as the neuroscience of mental illness. Another related decline is in leadership. The reason why we were able to muddle through the twentieth century is that we had great leaders when they were needed, such as the Great Depression and World War II (e.g. FDR and Churchill). The reason why the twenty-first century has started out so poorly is lack of strong leadership, especially George W. Bush, and now Trump.

The decline of moral and artistic standards is another symptom of our civilization’s decline. This decline sped up in the 1960’s. “Anything goes” is basically how Western nations operate today. This led to an explosion of drug abuse and criminal behavior, which triggered the U.S. to become an “incarceration nation.” Money that goes to police, drug treatment, and incarceration is money that’s not available for constructive purposes like infrastructure, education, science, and the arts.

The explosion of mental illness, as discussed above, is related to the decline in creativity, and also results in lost productivity and societal resources that could be otherwise be spent to grow our economy.

A result of the decline of moral and artistic standards is that some people will turn to fundamentalist religion to escape this decadence. Fundamentalist religion is incompatible with modern, Western society and government. It doesn’t respect the separation of state and religion. It doesn’t adhere to scientific guidance on how to run society and guide behavior. Both Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. and Islamic fundamentalism overseas are extremely dangerous to the future of our civilization.

It’s amazing, looking back, that we were able to get through the challenges of the twentieth century while in a state of decline. Two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear Armageddon, the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s—there were a lot of things that could have sunk us. But a combination of great leadership when it was needed, science, technology, and luck helped us pull through. In fact, things looked pretty good by the start of the new millennium, at least on the surface. The U.S. had won the Cold War, Russia and Eastern Europe were experimenting with democracy, IT had transformed the economy, and the U.S. even had a rare budget surplus. But beneath the surface, the symptoms of civilizational decline that I described above were ready to drag us under.

9/11 was a warning, a sign of a possible religious fundamentalist dystopian future if we continued our decline. The two wars that resulted drained America’s treasury and unleashed more religious fundamentalism. The Great Recession wiped out much of the middle class in the U.S. and Europe. Brexit and the Trump election were additional warnings, indicating that two of the most stable democracies were now in grave danger of meltdown. We’ve had democracies around the world change into dictatorships, and the Chinese dictatorship become more Orwellian.

Two major challenges of our century are wealth inequality and global warning. Both require a collective response that is difficult to generate when your civilization is in decline. Inequality requires that nations and states or provinces within nations come together to adopt a policy to tax the rich and corporations. It also requires the rich and corporations to be willing to submit to taxation for the common good and stop avoidance schemes. Global warming requires a collective response from nations to reduce emissions, along with creative scientific and technological solutions that can help reduce the cost of the transition to clean energy, and also remove carbon from the atmosphere. Collective action requires strong leadership, and the willingness of people to sacrifice for the common good. We’re in an advanced state of decline now that prevents strong leaders from emerging, and makes people focus on their immediate needs and desires, and discard the long-term national or global interest. Also, we’re not seeing creative geniuses who could provide scientific and technological advances needed to make green energy practical on a large scale.

A civilization in decline lacks the energy to generate new intellectual movements. The last major intellectual movement was the 1960’s cultural revolution. We are long overdue for another movement. The mind-boggling level of corruption and decadence in contemporary society screams for such a movement. Obama had promise as a great leader, but there was no intellectual movement to support him, so he failed on most of his goals. Artists played important roles in past intellectual movements like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In the 1960’s, think of how popular music and movies helped unite and motivate the young people of the times to fight for change. But the hyperindividualistic undercurrent of the Sixties sowed the seeds of its destruction, and helped paved the way for our contemporary decadence. It has led to a major split between the American liberals who control academia and the arts, and conservatives who control most state governments, and part of the federal government. The liberals embrace social libertarianism, i.e. unlimited personal freedom and autonomy. This has led to unstable family life, massive drug abuse and addiction, and lack of respect for authority. It has also led to political correctness and identity politics, which divide groups of people. Conservatives have embraced economic libertarianism, i.e. free markets, and have advocated tax cuts for the rich and corporations, lower regulations, and reduction in union power. This has led to massive inequality. The two sides have become more extreme in recent decades, and nothing constructive gets done any more.

I think a future major intellectual movement will need to involve a partial return to tradition. The Next Beethoven is about a return to European traditionalism in the arts. It ignores much of the political controversy of our time. The idea of contemporary artists making a return to European traditionalism seems far-fetched. So does a major intellectual movement, like a Second Renaissance, that manages to unite and motivate people. It’s why I am pessimistic about the short and medium term. There are tough and dangerous times ahead of us. But if we can survive these challenges, there is hope for the future. Although I don’t discuss it in The Next Beethoven, I think that a new understanding of human magnetoreception will allow potentially creative people to actualize their potential, instead of killing themselves or becoming drug addicts or psychiatric drug zombies, like they are doing today. As I previously blogged, human magnetoreception research is now resuming after 30 years of neglect. It will take time for this research to make a difference in people’s lives (which could be a lot shorter if scientists take a serious look at my ideas), but it does promise a better future.

In summary, great art will not directly solve our problems, but its emergence will signal a change in our civilization that will also include things such as scientific creativity and leadership that will more directly impact us, and help us successfully respond to the challenges of our century. The lack of artistic accomplishment will signal that we are continuing our decline, and that we will probably not survive as a civilization much longer. Hopefully we choose the former.