Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

LAURIE Taylor

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

LAURIE Taylor

Article excerpt

It's galling to see your carefully constructed arguments rebuffed by a mere Anecdote

You know the scene. You're sitting with a few friends at midnight, after having drunk six times the amount of alcohol recommended by the Health Education Authority as a safe weekly intake, when an argument breaks out. A moment ago, Tom was looking like a candidate for the camp bed, and now suddenly he's hurling points around the room with all the demented enthusiasm of a five-year-old tackling his first dartboard.

At such moments, I'm always aware of being on what the sociologist David Matza once called the "invitational edge". I may have no interest whatsoever in the particular - do I really care whether "Strange Fruit" was Billie Holliday's finest and most memorable song or merely a sentimental and overblown lyric thrust on her by white, lefty intellectuals who wouldn't know a good jazz singer if they stumbled over one on the Kremlin steps? - but I know that, at any moment, I'll be the recipient of a pleading gaze from one of the participants which indicates that they'd welcome me on their side. I am, after all, the only academic in the room and, although that may not count for a bag of marbles in any other circumstance, it potentially makes me a useful ally when the going gets especially partisan. ("All right then, don't bother to listen to what I'm saying. Listen to the professor. Listen to the fucking professor!")

I also know that events never work out quite so simply. No matter how calm Jam when I finally enter the fray, no matter how meticulously I assemble my own case, there will come a moment when I'm fatally. shafted by a mere anecdote. I may have the whole room nodding in reluctant approval as I carefully argue that Billie Holliday's ability to transform such an unconsidered but popular trifle as "I'll Be Seeing You" into a mesmeric reminder of the hallucinogenic consequences of personal loss must surely count as a greater artistic achievement than her performance of a song such as "Strange Fruit", in which the emotion, however powerful, is preordained. …

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