I was dining on the Upper West Side the other evening with a composer friend (the one who sings Emily Dickinson poems to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme, as a matter of fact), and we got to playing a game that we dubbed “Canonical Death Match.” You play it by rating classical composers on a scale of zero to 10–comparatively. If Bach is a 10, what’s Poulenc? (Answer: 7.) Or Wagner? (That’s when we started throwing rolls.)
The comparative aspect of the game is what makes it interesting. The reigning cultural orthodoxy of the present moment states that all values are relative, so invidious comparisons are naturally discouraged on penalty of contemptuous sneers. But we all know the reigning cultural orthodoxy of the present moment is hogwash, even if we wouldn’t necessarily care to say so in the faculty lounge with our pants down. Of course Joseph Conrad is better than Toni Morrison–not just as far as I’m concerned, but period–and anybody who doesn’t know it or won’t admit it is a dolt and a buffoon. In the immortal words of W. S. Gilbert, “In short, whoever you may be,/To this conclusion you’ll agree,/When everyone is somebodee,/Then no one’s anybody!”
After disposing of a couple of dozen composers and a bottle of wine, my friend and I started playing the desert-island game. In our version, you can put five works of art into your bag before departing for the proverbial desert island, and you have to decide right now. No dithering–the enemy is at the front door, lasers blazing. What do you stuff in the bag?
The flavor of “In the Bag” is obviously somewhat different from “Canonical Death Match,” because it’s not about absolute values but arbitrary preferences. Yes, I grant you that Bleak House is a great book, but would I grab it if the building were on fire? Not a chance–I’m a Trollope man. And top-of-the-head answers are of the essence, lest you find the temptation to posture overwhelming. (Why, yes, I’d take Beethoven’s Ninth and War and Peace….)
In the interests of stimulation and outrage, I’ve decided to play “In the Bag” each Monday as a regular feature of “About Last Night.” You are welcome–nay, encouraged–to send in your comments, which may range from Nice list this week, dude to Are you serious? I never heard anything so pretentious in my life! I, in turn, do solemnly swear that my lists will be utterly unpremeditated and unsparingly honest, even if I look into my secret heart and realize that what I really want to see at the bottom of the bag this morning is a DVD of The Dirty Dozen. (Hey, these things happen.) I will also invite selected colleagues to play the game from time to time, so long as they agree to swear the same blood oath on a copy of The Secret Agent.
So here goes. As of this moment, my top-five in-the-bag list, subject to change at the drop of a hat, is as follows:
FILM: Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt
PLAY: Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler, Sweeney Todd
BALLET: George Balanchine/Paul Hindemith, The Four Temperaments
PAINTING: Paul Cézanne, “The Garden at Les Lauves”
BOOK: Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye