Sunday, February 24, 2013

Precision in language matters

It is deeply distressing to hear somebody who is highly regarded as a writer in whatever field using language imprecisely. I caught the beginning of Private Passions on Radio 3 today and they were repeating a programme from some years ago in which Andrew Graham-Dixon, the highly regarded art historian and critic (as well as public intellectual) was to choose his favourite pieces of music. (Yes, it probably is a supposedly more intellectual version of Desert Island Disks. I rarely listen to either.)

He started with a Wagner piece and burbled about it (there really is no other way of describing it) saying very brightly though ever so slightly sheepishly that  this is a revolutionary piece of music and, of course, Wagner was a revolutionary, which is important to remember as he is presented as a kind of neo-Nazi, which he was not really.

Wagner was not a Nazi of any kind though some of his ideas were lifted and greatly simplified by the Nazis. Would he  have liked that? Who can tell? The sheer vulgarity of Nazism might have appalled him. Or not. I have no views on that subject. BUT he could not have been a neo-Nazi. That, Mr Graham-Dixon is completely wrong. Neo, as you ought to know, being an art historian of some repute, mean new or young or, perhaps, renewed. At most, Wagner could  have been a proto-Nazi (which  he was not).

Furthermore, the idea that a revolutionary is something wonderfully good and as the Nazis were bad the two are mutually incompatible is tosh. The Nazis were revolutionaries. Their early history is as revolutionary as that of any other socialist, anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-constitutional group. They were great believers in street violence and acquiring power through that, an idea that was taken up by many others in the twentieth century, not least by Mao and the various urban guerrillas.

A highly regarded art historian and critic ought to be aware of all this and not misuse words in this ridiculous fashion.


  1. You have no idea how refreshing it is (no surprise from you though!) to see a fair description of Nazi! That they get such bad PR and the commies get a free pass really gets me! Thank you!

  2. Not from me the Commies don't. I am thinking of a suitable way of celebrating the forthcoming 60th anniversary of Stalin's death.

  3. Yes, it is very strange. A Marxist historian like Eric Hobsbawm could be highly regarded without ever publicly condemning the crimes of Stalin. Yet a man who maintained that the quantitatively far less murderous creeds of fascism and Nazism were, on the whole, good things in round historical terms and who never denounced the holocaust would rightly be a pariah.

    Of course, if Andrew Graham-Dixon had said "proto Nazi", he would have been nearer the mark. Language is his stock in trade so he is rightly chided.

    For myself, I mourn the passing of the correct use and meaning of the word "disinterested" - a lost cause, I fear!