1975 (1984 minus 9) by Hans Keller

Dennis Dobson Ed.




This book's 288 clearly-printed and well-spaced pages offer an unhappy new year to all its readers, who are now even closer to 1984. As society tumbles helplessly downhill to its doom, here comes Hans Keller to cast a few pearls before us poor Gadarene swine. His brief autobiographical preface is followed by a moving and memorable reminiscence of Nazi brutality to Jews in the Vienna of 1938; the unpopular moral is that it can and will happen here, if we're not vastly more vigil­ant. Next we have impressions both verbal and visual (the ten striking sketches by Milein Cosman are fully as graphic as the text) of a 1975 visit to Prague, where the writing on the wall seemed to spell out the selfsame message. Chapter 3 offers fifty pages on the degradation of psychoanalysis from an individual cure into a collective disease, exemplified by the proceedings of a 1975 London congress. By far the most substantial contribution (136 pages) is a detailed and technical treatise on modern music and its development, with special reference to Schoenberg and the current crisis of communication. This chapter is designed to dispel the delusion that ours is an individualistic musical Society; the final eighteen pages perform an analogous service for football.

   None of these five essays is wholly new, and Chapters 2 and 3 are straight reprints. But although the pearls vary so widely in size, weight, appeal and novelty, they are all strung, however loosely, on one central thread; and this the reader is exhorted to test. It is displayed on the dustjacket (a use­ful way of trailing one's coat) for all to grasp and tweak, thus: “unless we regain the power to think and feel for ourselves, in all intellectual and emotional situations, and unless we show total respect for that power in other people, and total contempt for all attempts at conversion...we shall lose the dignity of being human....” All very fine; but the thread soon starts snapping in both senses. For this, Hans Keller has only his own two selves to blame.

   It is worth separating Jekyll from Hyde, because Dr Keller has something profound and urgent to say, which Master Hans wants to shout down and spoil. If the former is not a PhD, then (to adopt his own idiom) he jolly well ought to be. Among theorists of music, his name ranks with the best in the business, such as Rosen and Meyer. After nearly twenty years with the BBC, his practical experience of music and its administration is unrivalled ; he is especially authoritative about twentieth-century composition and performance. As this book makes clear, his sensitivity and probity are exemplary, and he has one of the very few recognizably personal prose styles in current journalism. In sum, Dr Keller is a leading artist-individualist of our time, and hence in theory exceptionally well placed to advise on truths and values.

   Unfortunately he has himself been so ill-advised as to co-opt kleiner Hans, wish-fulfillment fantasist extraordinary and general enfant terrible. On page after page this character is warmly self­indulgent about his own avowed eccentricity and loudly con­temptuous about the slack conformity of minor minds. I fear that these features will do little to efface the unfair public image already reflected in Private Eye, namely that of a bullying and arrogant egg­head speaking and writing in a thick Viennese accent. If you do not always experience music as pure sound, for example, but associate it with verbal ideas, then you are a cripple who needs a crutch; so up runs Hans and kicks you in it. If you fail to agree with him, he yells "fool" in your face. Those who have failed to unravel some knotty point about Schoenberg are called "psychotics". But that is a comparative compliment ; most listeners are merely "mind­less". Furthermore, most people are "ready to hire out" their moral integrity; Christians are among humanity's leading inhibitors of thought"; and so on. Everyone is in step but our Hans, and it is a goose-step towards totalitarianism.

   Now what was that again about showing total respect for the thoughts and feelings of others ? And how is this to be reconciled with a clarion call for “total contempt”? Alpha individualists des­pise epsilon collectivists; that's surely a slogan to make the 1984 doomwatch start ticking like a time-bomb. This dangerously divisive credo brings its own brand of double-speak. Thus on page 239 Dr Keller mentions the European Broadcasting Union working party, whose distinguished chairman he is. As he explains, with characteristic modesty and reticence, "I refuse to call it 'my' working party". Of course not; that would be anathema to so conscientious an individualist. So it must be his impish alter ego who on page 270 calks it "my working party".

   One can sympathize with such a split if, as I imagine, it stems from a deep and unhealed wound. The victim of Nazi beating and browbeating fights back by high-browbeating everyone else; and his head is certainly a formidable weapon. But what exactly is he fighting for? Presumably "the power to think and feel for ourselves". Well and good, but why not admit that this power is itself conditioned, even conferred, by col­lective endeavour? That fact could hardly be more compellingly demon­strated than by this very book. The undeniable intellectual heights it commands, the gifts and delights it deploys, are avowedly bestowed by the Viennese Schoenberg (b 1874), the Viennese Schenker (b 1867), and the Viennese Freud (b 1856). Of course the football fervour grew from the same home ground. No wonder that such individualism sounds like a Vienna dualism, divided we stand, united we fall. But it wholly lacks the light top dressing of tolerance, com­promise and restraint needed to make it truly fruitful. Meanwhile the bright sharp edge of style and intellect that can plough through the many fields at such depth may well continue to damage or destroy its own crops as well as other people's.



Times Literary Supplement, Feb. 1978 © the estate of eric sams