"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

12 November 2011


There are people in Australia who uphold the virtues of the didgeridoo, an unprepossessing hollow log with a smallish bore. Composers earnestly write passages for it in chamber works. But again, if didgeridoos were really the equivalent of other wind instruments, and their monotonous woofling was written about in a way that exhausts the critical vocabulary of high musical esteem, what is there left to say about Mozart’s horn concertos? Returning to that old piece of bone: Does Neil MacGregor actually believe that Donatello, and what used to be daringly called primitive art, are in some way culturally equivalent? Is that where the argument is leading?

Donatello, Equestrian Monument of Gattamelata, 1453

Also from long, long ago comes a rough stone chopper from Kenya, and we are told that “not only human beings but also human culture” began in Africa. As a beginning, this has its anthropological place. But the incessant reiteration of what becomes a wearing mantra seems odd, as is the statement that “every one of us is part of a huge African diaspora—we all have Africa in our dna and all our culture began there.” All our culture? Surely the thing about human culture is not how it began in the Stone Age; it is how it flourished afterward in several high civilizations around the world. On the whole, it seems to me a rather good thing that our ancestors did walk out of Africa 60,000 years ago (I’m certainly glad my family did, and one notes that people continue to walk or run or swim or fly out of Africa if they can), but it is what their descendants produced afterwards in Europe, India, China, America, and elsewhere that is the truly significant human story.

Read the rest at New Criterion.

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