Sunday 21 May 2023

Words and Phrases - an Occasional Series

 In the London Review of Books, Jo Moran writes:

"Relatable [is] a word I have been trying to get students to stop writing in their essays for at least a decade. Again and again, they commend a text, character or theme for being relatable, meaning 'easy to relate to'. Relatable to what? I gruffly write in the margin. The word seems to demand that literature should always mirror our own lives, instead of illuminating the strangeness of other lives."

Related to Moran's observations (although not at all relatable) is this piece pointing out that while Leonard Bernstein had to defend himself from fierce criticism when, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he allowed Schiller's Ode to Joy to be performed with the word "joy" replaced by the word "freedom", now in America the impulse to make stuffy old works by Beethoven, Schiller et al "relatable" is depressingly routine and any amount of fiddling with text is allowed to pass without an eyebrow raised.

Here Heather MacDonald, the author of the article in the link, articulates the case against relatability very well:

"In revising works to match contemporary sensibilities, we diminish, not expand, our human possibilities. No one would write Schiller’s Ode to Joy today. That is precisely why it should be performed intact. Its elevated rhetoric belongs to a lost aesthetic universe of romantic idealism, classical allusion, and exacting formal craft. It speaks to a now-alien way of being in the world that we can nevertheless dimly sense through close engagement with its language."

I pray we will emerge from the strange times we are living through and regain our senses - most particularly our understanding of and ability to appreciate (and possibly even create?) beauty.


  1. Quillette is I gather dedicated to the proposition that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket. There's plenty of evidence, but when hasn't there been? For two centuries, Colly Cibber's version of Richard III was performed in preference to Shakespeare's.

  2. The fact the world and its hand basket has never reached that awful destination may be thanks to pushback?

    1. I think I won't tempt fate by speculating