Muse by Craig Ranapia


The High Aesthetic Line

I'll tell you a little secret about Russell Brown, our gracious host.  He's remarkably persuasive, and more than a little mad.  In his position, I can't say a bad tempered Tory who hates the sound of his own voice (you in the back, stop sniggering) would have been my first call for Public Address Radio.

It being an election year and all, when PA Radio returns next month 180 Seconds... will be full of not suffering fools, and making fools suffer with barely safe for work snark, but Muse is going to be a slightly different beast.

One of my best pieces last year was written in response to the Pike River tragedy, and its core was a reading of Philip Larkin's majestic poem The Explosion.

Now you may ask, what use are fancy words?  As Larkin’s near contemporary W.H. Auden noted, all the fine poems he wrote in the 1930’s — some of the best ever written in the English language, in my opinion — didn’t save a single life, or shorten the Second World War by a second. And Auden’s right.

 But Larkin’s unsentimental empathy — the act of human connection from a university librarian to people and experience so foreign from his own — reminds us that we may be born alone, and die alone.  But our dreams and sorrows — the ordinary moments and small grace notes — are shared alike.

I believe every word of that, but that comes with the risk of turning culture into sociopolitical cod liver oil.  (Swallow your national identity, or I'll have to get out the enema kit of art!) I wish I could be a little more high-minded, but I had my sense of womder kicked into gear in a dark cinema at the age of five:

Star Wars is remarkably easy to snark now - and the prequel trilogy felt like increasingly bad pity-sex with that annoying ex who hasn't improved with age.  But it's hard to be cynical while remembering that moment with John Williams' bombastic score at full pomp, as the Star Destroyer slid on the screen and just kept coming.  Even the campy robots, the scary dude with asthma and Princess Bagel-Ears seduced with the brutal will to entertain.

"Culture" is one of those slippery terms better minds -- and more over-confident ones - than mine have tried to define. In the end, Russell has set me the most irritating remit of all: "Write about anything you want.  Yes, books, music, films and art remind us of human values and common experience.  But the pleasure principle is nothing to sneer at either.

I'll start off with a rather useful set of rules John Updike laid out for reviewing books, which strike me as valid for cultural criticism and commentary in general. The money quote:

 Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never [...]  try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

I've a few rules of my own:

1. Everything here is my opinion, and mine alone.  This is too much work to indulge in being contrary for its own sake (which is every bit as banal as following the crowd), trolling for a fight or C.K. Stead-style feuding.  You're perfectlyt entitled to disagree with every word I say; just assume I'm saying it in good faith.

2. More often than I like to admit, I am completely full of shit and prone to drivel on about subjects that I know nothing about. So are you, come to that, so let's call it even and move on.

3. I lace my prose with not-so-subtle smut, lame puns and spicy Anglo-Saxon vernacular. Don't bother pissing and bitching about it, or I might really get grumpy. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

4. As a rule, I don't care what you think about me or my opinions. What I do care about are passionate, informed people who will bring their own views to the table. With stablemates like Jolisa, Emma and Russell -- and the Public Address System Massive including one highly opinionated Booker Prize-winning novelist, several film-makers and more arty-farties than you could shake a lily at -- I'm expecting the Algonquin Round Table on P.

5. I try hard to be all the way up front about my blind spots -- I probably won't cover a lot of live music because I find gigs literally painful, and there are others (like Russell, Graham Reid and Damien)  who do it better. 

Muse is also operating under practical constraints.  Yes, it's going to be very Dork-land centric unless I work out some serious sponsorship that allows me to travel.  I'll also be covering television, films and books a lot because that's in my wheel house, as the kids say.

6. The plan is to publish three posts a week, but that's open to negotiation dependent on how often I take a Douglas Adams-ish approach to deadlines.  If there's more to write about -- and I've got anything worth saying about it -- there will be more.  Or less.  Please feel free to e-mail tips, comments and suggestions via the dongle at the bottom of the post, but put MUSE in the subject line, otherwise the spam filter gets all clogged up .

COMING UP: Wednesday's post is a joint review of The King's Speech (on general release now) and a rather odd adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's Nights in the Gardens of Spain (which screened on One, Sunday night).  I'll be musing on how to do high-lactose melodramas well, and whether I'm just too hard on local drama.

And to end with a fine Public Address tradition, here's a charming but only marginally relevant You Tube video on how to shine in the high aesthetic line.  If you catch me acting like this, hit me with a stick. Please.

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