I’ve recently read two reviews that are highly pessimistic about narrative. Daniel Mendelssohn reviews 300, the film by Zack Snyder about the Battle of Thermopylae. He notes that the movie (which I have not seen) lacks a meaningful plot. Neither side seems to be fighting for any particular reason. Their characters and their choices have no discernible consequences. He compares the film to a video game, meaning a shoot-em-up game in which the hero mows down aliens or monsters. The popularity of “300” strikes him as deeply ironic since the first great original narratives of the Western tradition (Herodotus’ History and the attic tragedies) came soon after the Battle of Thermopylae itself. Mendelssohn suspects that the grand narrative of the Persian invasion stimulated the Greeks’ interest in meaningful stories. As they saw it, a Persian king of cruelty and hubris was defeated in a struggle against freedom and virtue. Thus ethos (character) and daimon (destiny) were meaningfully linked. That was the mainstream spirit of Western literature until–well, possibly until the movie “300.”
Meanwhile, Edward Rothstein reviewed Lawrence Kramer’s book, Why Classical Music Still Matters in The New York Times. Rothstein argued that the Western art music tradition produced complex and lengthy narratives in which the components were abstractions (melodies or themes). That was an impressive achievement, but it is dying with the manifest decline in classical music since 1950.
These two arguments are parallel, and they are both worth worrying about. I’m not actually too concerned about narrative in films and books. “300” sounds like a shoot-em-up video game, but there is nothing profoundly new about such entertainment. (There were very popular bear-baiting shows right next door to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.) In our time, fictional and historical narratives seem to be in pretty robust condition.
However, I agree with Rothstein that power and vitality is slipping away from the Western art music tradition, which includes not only classical music but also ambitious forms of jazz. That doesn’t mean that the future is barren; we could see a revival. But the Western art music tradition was much shorter than the tradition of meaningful text narrative. It started with the sung masses of the late Middle Ages but really flourished, as Rothstein says, during the “long 19th century” (ca. 1775-1914). There’s no guarantee that it will recover, whether in the form of jazz or any other style.