Monday, May 25, 2020

Tales from the Old New Land - Season 1 - Events We Need to Cover

1895: Dreyfus stripped of rank - must take place in Paris
1896: Plessy vs. Ferguson - must take place in small-town American south
1897: First Zionist Congress
1898: Expansion of New York into Five Boroughs
1899: Dreyfus Pardoned - again in Paris
1900: Boer War - must take place in South Africa, Italian anarchists assassinate the King
1901: Death of Queen Victoria - anti-Jewish riots in Budapest -
1903: Kishnev Pogrom, separation of Russian socialists into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
1904: Russo-Japanese War - episode with Tolstoy
1905: 1905 January Revolution - St. Petersburg, Einstein and Nuclear Physics - episode in Zurich
1906: Gandhi and Satyargaha - South Africa, Dreyfus exoneration and reinstatement - Paris, launch of Dreadnaught - London
1908: Young Turk Revolution - Istanbul, King Leopold relinquishes Congo - another episode in South Africa
1909: Founding of Tel Aviv, Overthrow of Ottoman Sultan and Adana Massacre - Istanbul,
1911: Shirtwaist Factory Fire - New York,
1913: Woman's Suffrage Procession - Washington, Ottoman coup d'etat - Istanbul
1914: June - Assassination - Sarajevo, August - Belgian invasion by Germany, Battle of Tannenburg,
1915: January - Bromilow, February - Birth of a Nation - in the South, Palestine Locust Invasion, April - Armenian Genocide, Second Battle of Artois - development of No Man's Land, Ford makes a million cars - Detroit,
1916: January: Evacuation of Gallipoli, February: Verdun, May: Gas Attack at Hulluch, July: Battle of the Somme,
1917: Abdication of Czar Nicholas - St. Petersburg, Battles of Gaza & Beersheva & Jerusalem, Great Thessaloniki Fire, Balfour Declaration - London, October Revolution - St Petersburg
1918: Spanish Flu, Abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm - Berlin, Armistice
1919: Paris Peace Conference, Russian Civil War, Assassinattion of Rosa /luxembourg, Pinsk massacre, 19th ammendmeny=t,  Chicago Race Riot, Prohibiotion

Jews in the Land of Coronavirus - Prelude

In 2016, concerned my natural organizational confusion would muck things up, I was loathe to do volunteer work for Hillary Clinton, even as I exhorted people to the point of shame for not doing the same. But I think I've demonstrated ten thousand times over the course of my thirty-eight years that linguistic fortitude is my supremacy, dear reader, and to those who know me as anything other than a writer, I've demonstrated an exponent over ten thousand more that organizational efficacy is my death.
But committed soldier that I am to the American Experiment, on November 7 2016, T-minus one day, I packed myself into my car along with my customary too many snacks for the road, and drove up as part of a relatively large convoy to somewhere in Chester County or Norris County or Bucks County wherever it was around Philadelphia to knock on the doors of a couple dozen upper-middle class Italian-American swing voters in an effort to forestall the Fall of the Republic. After two hours of following more seasoned hands doing the barge-toting labor of making sure affluent suburbanites were fully aware of the stakes at hand (hint: they already were... or at least the ones were who came to the door...), the volunteer coordinator assured us we henceforth were fully trained foot-soldiers in the Army of Democracy: foot solders and much more. We each were allocated clipboards for our own responsibility, and subsequently allotted whole blocks, streets, even suburban thoroughfares, which were officially sanctioned to be our divisions upon which we were absolute battalion commanders.
Within fifteen minutes of getting that clipboard, adored reader; within thirty seconds of knocking on my first house, I'd locked myself out of my car with the clipboard still inside. My phone, withal, was all but completely out of battery, and had only enough juice to call headquarters, whereon I could but sheepishly ask them to call Triple-A, for had I to wait on hold, battery would be lost, and would I thereupon spend my remaining half-century in a cardboard shanty as a well-lettered vagrant in an unfortunate suburban Philadelphia front yard. The campaign coordinators could not, or at least they would not, call Triple-A at my behest. I surmise this was because suburban Triple-A employees are in the main not Clinton lovers, and could ostensibly wreak some havoc on this most sensitive day of American history if they knew where some Clinton volunteer coordinations were based out of (and lest that seem paranoid, beloved reader, once that day already in Baltimore, a Trump supporter tried to get a bunch of our cars towed and used his pickup truck to block us in in an attempt to disable our convoy); so they rather sent out other volunteers to find me, volunteers who by all rights should be knocking on the doors of "Dr. and Mrs. Russo/White/Age 49-65/Some Graduate School/she's a D he's an I/hasn't given money since 1996/believes in greater political civility but hates political correctness/believes in women's rights but opposes abortion/believes in more robust social programs but thinks their taxes are too high.' But as I was explaining my nebulous conception of my current location to the volunteers attempting to locate me, my phone battery, not unexpectedly, ran its course. Forty-five minutes later, two cars of campaign volunteers detected me and only then could I make the Triple-A call. But naturally, Triple-A doesn't think much of showing up if I don't have my information on me, and as might be expected, the information is in the car. In consequence, for well over an hour after the call is placed, I simply have to wait there, and because Triple-A might need to call me on the phone, a number of the volunteers have to wait with me rather than do the work they'd driven to Pennsylvania to do.
The moral of this story, darling reader, is that because I decided to volunteer and do as required exactly as other people do, Donald Trump was elected President. For the rest of my life, my failure to knock on those doors is a demerit upon my conscience. The fact that Donald Trump is our President is solely my fault, cherished reader, and mine alone. And all the consequent portentious events are exclusively due to my incompetence. One day, when Hashem renders judgement upon my life, the Heavenly tribunal will tell me what I have known all along - that my incompetence is the reason for everything bad that no only has ever happened to me, but that has ever happened to you, and to everyone you've ever known, and every future person yet born, and every event which happened before I was born.
In the Land of Coronavirus, I do not wish to look upon my hands and see yet more subsequent pools of blood upon them. Ergo, I believe the best job for which I can volunteer is to absent myself entirely from its relief efforts. In the ongoing, valiant, and still only progenitive efforts to rescue America's lives and welfare and entities and ecosystems and safety and interests and prosperity, no one should be cursed, dear reader, with relying on the abilities of the man whose ineptitude is the sole cause of Donald Trump's election.
All around us in this useless era, people are being useful, but of what use is the guy who's useless. We all have to think very hard in this era of confusion and privation how we can be of the most help. And how can I, precious reader, be of most help to you?

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Tales From the Old New Land - Bransk 1894 - Outline - Draft/Outline 1


Scene 1:
Begins with Cheder class: Where Rabbi/instructor is Reb Yaakov Charlap, who has to instruct distracted children in torah, hits the ones who don't pay attention and bemoans that this class of Cheder bokhers is nowhere near as committed as the classes which contained his children.

Scene 2:

Cut to four of Reb Yaakov's children, Shimon, Asher, Naftali, and Z'vulun smoking cigarettes with a copy of a Yiddish newspaper and juvenilely talking about the beginning of the Dreyfus case and how much the adults care.

Scene 3:

A pack of Russian shaget hoodlums advance on them, make fun of their ability to read, tell them these weird letters probably where they learn to turn Russians into mushrooms, when Shimon tries to defend them and talk back, he gets roughed up by the Russians while the other brothers run away "Your brothers are leaving you."

Scene 4:

Reuven and Levi are working for Jewish butcher in a barn. When Gad goes inside, Levi starts experiencing what's clearly a long series of hallucinations, and can't help imagining that the cows and chickens he slaughters are martyrs from Jewish history whom he is killing. 

Scene 5: 

Reuven goes inside to steal another piece of silverware from butcher, the overweight sickly wife clearly has a liking him, a candlestick falls out of his coat. He claims it was an accident and the wife willfully convinces herself that it's an accident and gives it to him as a present. 

Scene 6:

Gad works for Jewish farmer who is dissatisfied with his work and hits him with his farm implement. 

Scene 7: 

Issachar works for a farming supplier and sees the poverty and starvatio in which the peasants live and gives them his wages for the day. 

Scene 8:

Z'vulun goes to see a prostitute to whom he owes money, but charms her into another session which runs up his tab further. 

Scene 9: 

Judah meets with the girl next door he hopes to marry, she drops the surprise that her family is moving to Israel.

Scene 10:

Dina is pregnant, and is goes to a Jewish 'witch' who gives her a concoction to give her an abortion. 

Scene 11: 

Yosef goes to a gymnasium to be tutored by a goyisher instructor who practically orders him to leave Bransk and go into the wider world. 

Scene 12: 

Dan meets with the town Rebbe who is instructing him in advanced Gemara, the Rabbi tries to kiss him, it's clear that it's not the first time, Dan finally manages the nerve to confront him, the Rebbe breaks down crying about his 'weakness.'

Scene 13:

Asher ambushes one of the goyisher hoodlums who beat up his brother and beats him to a point the kid might be dead. Asher has to run away. 

Scene 14:

Naftali practices and drinks with klezmorim who talk about their rebellious pasts. 

Longer Scene 15: Eleven of the twelve children gather because Reb Yaakov's final son, Benyamin, needs a bris. They do a l'chaim and do the bris, and for this bris, nobody is invited but the immediate family because soon they'll need a lot of money to get through all the weddings. Reb Yaakov tells the story of how this family came to be and his covenant with Hashem which allowed him twelve sons.  Reb Yaakov explains that an angel appeared to him in a dream, and that so long as he named his children after the twelve tribes of Israel, Hashem would bless his house. Reb Yaakov has a rich twin brother in Warsaw who sends them money but notes in his speech that he wishes his brother was here for this day but they haven't seen each other in ten years because his wife doesn't like Reb Yaakov, who also limits the amount of money that their family gets to a pittance of what the sum should be. He tells them that after Shabbos, the shatkhan will be coming with matches for all of you. Very soon you will all be married and have kinder of your own, this is going to be a year of Simcheh. The brothers drink with Reb Yaakov. Reb Yaakov starts talking about the Dreyfus affair, but one reminds them that a Warsaw doctor brought by Yaakov's brother warned that he would endanger the health of the mother if they ever had another child. Just when the dancing is about to start comes into the room, Dinah enters to tell them that the mother just died, and it causes a bitter fight among the children with their father who said that Reb Yaakov endangered their mother. It becomes clear that Reb Yaakov concealed from them is that their mother has been sick all week. As they're yelling at each other, a letter arrives from Yaakov's sister-in-law that the brother in Warsaw died, their business is being repossessed and the payments must stop immediately. The family knows they must break apart. 


Scene 3: 
Gad works for a Jewish farmer who beats him
Reuven works as servant for a butcher, steals the silverware, and lies about it. 
Yosef goes to goyisher teacher to learn other subjects. Is ostracized by his brothers.
Dina is getting an abortion performed
Levi is schizophrenic who sees demons and angels, 
Dan is an illui who must dodge advances from his Rabbi. 
Judah longs for a beautiful teenaged girl, but her family is moving to Israel.
Zebulun is seeing a prostitute
Issachar works for farm supplier, is accused of cheating goyisher client. 
Naftali practices and drinks with Klezmorim 
Shimon is bullied by goyim
Asher fights back from goyim

A world of nature and magic, both spiritual and godly, but also erotic and pagan.

Some kids learning about science and literature and history on the sly. 

Overwhelming poverty around the family. Everyone is cold in the winter.

Some visiting prostitutes, some lusting after teenage yeshiva girls. 

Background animal noises, noises of hooves and wagon wheels, rustling of wind and leaves. 

An enormous, and extremely argumentative family - two thousand years of tension should be manifest in this family portrait. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians 5/22: David Hurwitz

And so in the midst of COVID-19, one of our many surprises is that David Hurwitz is suddenly popping up with alacrity on youtube, and of course, he has something like 50 videos in the first week.... For a certain kind of classical music obsessive, this is about as surprising as if Thomas Pynchon or Carlos Kleiber started a youtube channel out of the blue. This disembodied machine who prints review after review of cranky music criticism every day for twenty years finally has a face, a voice, and mannerisms. Whom does he turn out to be? Well, to perhaps no reader's surprise, he's a New York Jewish guy who could easily be mistaken for Rob Reiner.
For twenty years, on, David Hurwitz has churned out review after review of orchestral music like a one-man review machine, sometimes supplemented by a reviewer named Victor Carr Jr., and occasionally by Victor Carr Sr., both of whom seem to have roughly the same opinions as David Hurwitz so I'm not entirely sure Victor Carr isn't a pseudonym... Generally speaking, on piano literature, he's supplemented by Jed Distler (who's well known enough as a critic that he obviously does exist...), on opera by Robert Levine, on chamber music by Dan Davis, and in choral/early/sacred music by David Vernier. Lately, Hurwitz has been supplemented by Jens Laurson, a very fine critic and occasional twitter correspondent with whom I have a number of mutual acquaintances. Long may their partnership continue, but for the dozen of us around the world who might care, this is a shocking development because certain sentences in their reviews looked uncannily like anonymous sideswipes of each other.
It took Hurwitz perhaps three days of posts before his natural grouchiness got the better of him and he started lobbing all the same grenades as he did in print. But as a longtime Hurwitz reader, I'm surprised it even took three days. Perhaps Hurwitz has mellowed... His print voice set new standards for acerbic in the incredibly staid world of English language music criticism which I grew up reading - doubtless dominated by an Oxbridge cadre at Gramophone Magazine (sorry James but I'm talking about an earlier generation...) who were raised from the earliest age to be polite, their station in life endowing them with comfortable livings either within music or without, and perhaps therefore preferring polite, staid performances that have no whiff of anything that can be accused of 'vulgarity.'
Whatever problems one might have with Hurwitz as a critic, and I have dozens, the fact remains that Hurwitz is perhaps the era's single most interesting voice in classical music criticism. Whereas mainstream publications tiptoe around whatever they want to say, afraid of ruffling feathers, Hurwitz rams through his points like a bull in a china shop. I disagree with Hurwitz, at very least, 50% of the time. I sometimes think he has the aesthetic priorities of an automotive engineer. He approaches music almost as though it were a gadget - as though music were little more than a checklist: if you play all the right notes at the right time with the right balances captured in the right sound, you have a great performance. There's hardly any mention of that divine magic, the spark, the melos, the innigkeit. His aesthetic point of view sometimes strikes me as almost mechanical. The messy glories of old world conductors like Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Koussevitzky, Barbirolli and even Furtwangler seem largely to pass him by. He can surprise you: he has a very human fondness for sloppy but very musical conductors like Bernstein, Kubelik, Jochum, Munch, Harnoncourt, because these are musicians whose warmth gets through to anybody with a pulse. But generally speaking he prefers those old mechanical orchestral recordings of the variety that get everything right without capturing those ecstatic moments of performance greatness that for some of us make life worth living, because, god forbid, you may get a few things wrong along the way.
His big favorites among conductors seem to be the musical drill sergeants whose performances were often reflections of their personalities: Szell, Reiner, Toscanini, Dorati, Ormandy, Ancerl, and their aesthetic offspring like Levine and Dohnanyi and Blomstedt and Mackerras. These are all fine conductors, some of them are truly as great as Hurwitz tells us they are, but if precision is ultimately what you look for in performance, why music? Why not collect watches? The only modern composer whom I seem to remember his going out of the way to sing true songs of praise is for the inoffensive new age ramblings of Einojuhani Rautavaara - who honestly is a fine composer that deserves praise, but come on... A lot of composers are working very hard to get a powerful critic interested in their work, and for any critic of name willing to take the plunge, they could do an enormous world of good for a lot of unknowns. There sometimes seems not a single dull American conductor he won't shower with praise, and hardly a single modern European conductor for whom he has a kind word - he even seems to have soured on once-beloved favorites like Ivan Fischer and Osmo Vänska. I'm eagerly waiting for him to rip his latest favorite, Manfred Honeck (one of mine too), to shreds for the subpar Tchaikovsky 4 released just today.
And yet does it really serve anybody anything to read a critic who holds back his or her opinions? It's one thing when the critic is reviewing unknowns whose career they can break before they even have a decent shot - perhaps I was guilty of that when I was briefly reviewing at the Washington Post, and thank god I learned that lesson early. But against celebrities, critics truly have no power at all except to keep the celebrities honest and make them realize that they pay a price for ever giving less than their best. If a critic believes that a sacred cow of the field is nothing more than an Emperor with no clothes, what is gained by us not hearing their point of view? The best critics are not present to be agreed with, they're present to be argued with. Their writing refocuses your perceptions, sharpens them, deepens them, and on that count, there are very few classical music critics writing on Hurwitz's level, and except maybe Steve Schwartz, nobody writing record reviews at that level of insight.
What is it that makes Hurwitz interesting? Well, the fact is, whatever one feels about how he interprets his information, the amount of information at his disposal is worthy of an encyclopedia. He really, really, really knows his stuff, and it's there for all to see in his reviews. He goes into detail after detail about the scores, the dynamic indications, the tempos, the make of instruments, about which conductors honor which details of the score. Hurwitz is a good writer, and sometimes very funny, but there's no critical cliche of the 'opaque translucence of the winds' and the 'magisterial bath of strings' variety. No Osborne/ Seckerson grandiloquence, just a functional, tool-like precision of language that hammers the points home. I guarantee he speaks with more authority and homework done on these issues than the majority of the conductors he reviews. Major conductors should be consulting him to learn from his knowledge, and I guarantee they would have had he not savaged so many of them in print.
Like the best critics, he is a simple fact of the contemporary music world. You don't get his strengths without his weaknesses, both contribute to the figure he is and were he less flawed, he'd also be much less valuable. In this era when the very survival of the orchestral concerts is now in question, there is no need for an authority like Hurwitz who can render definitive summary judgements and performer fatwas. It would be such a shame were he just another record reviewer who reviews nothing but past performances. The music world needs Hurwitz's chopping block: musicians are better for stepping up to it, critics are better for his pointing out their errors, listeners are better for soaking in his knowledge. Long may Dave Hurwitz continue his service to us.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Tales From the Old New Land - Bereshit - Very Beginning Outline


Gad works for a Jewish farmer who beats him
Reuven works as servant for a butcher, steals the silverware, and lies about it. 
Yosef goes to goyisher teacher to learn other subjects. Is ostracized by his brothers.
Dina is getting an abortion performed
Levi is schizophrenic who sees demons and angels, 
Dan is an illui who must dodge advances from his Rabbi. 
Judah longs for a beautiful teenaged girl, but her family is moving to Israel.
Zebulun is seeing a prostitute
Issachar works for farm supplier, is accused of cheating goyisher client. 
Naftali practices and drinks with Klezmorim 
Shimon is bullied by goyim
Asher fights back from goyim

A world of nature and magic, both spiritual and godly, but also erotic and pagan.

Some kids learning about science and literature and history on the sly. 

Overwhelming poverty around the family. Everyone is cold in the winter.

Some visiting prostitutes, some lusting after teenage yeshiva girls. 

Background animal noises, noises of hooves and wagon wheels, rustling of wind and leaves. 

An enormous, and extremely argumentative family - two thousand years of tension should be manifest in this family portrait. 

Thirteen separate family portraits of each of the children, none more than three or at most four minutes, each story must assign salient characteristics to the characters.

Swamley Needs a Project - Part 1

Rabbi Swamley: Nu? All dese workaholics, dey doing de writing, de music, dey making videos, and you, you just sit on de toches doing bupkes.

AC Charlap (also known as Evan Tucker): I'm not doing bupkes, I'm trying to think of things to write very hard.

Rabbi Swamley: You're not tinking of dreck! You're eating ice cream and machting starts on fifteen tings so you dun have to do one ting.

AC Charlap: And what have you done with all this time?

Rabbi Swamley: Me? Vat I'm supposed to do? I'm just a Rabbi mit no vork!

AC Charlap: You're in public service and caregiving profession! You should should be volunteering all over Baltimore! Making an example for the entire local community!

Rabbi Swamley: I tried, nobody vants me to volunteer?

AC Charlap: Did you even ask?

Rabbi Swamley: I asked two places. Dey trew me out!

AC Charlap: Are those the places you used to volunteer at where you came home with the black eye because you kept telling the other volunteers they were doing it wrong?

Rabbi Swamley: (shouts) Dey vere doing it wrong! I'm supposed to just let dem serve food mitout making dem make deh homeless say tank you for vat ve're doing fa dem?

Charlap: Wait a minute, so you got banned from volunteering at a soup kitchen because you were trying to make the other volunteers make the homeless people thank them for things which they were doing to serve them.

Rabbi Swamley: Nu? Vat's wrong mit vat I did! Dey should be grateful ve help dem!

Charlap: So in order to make the homeless more grateful to the volunteers you yell at the volunteers.

Rabbi Swamley: Yeh! Vat's tzu understand?

Charlap: (Takes a moment to understand what he's hearing) Did it ever occur to you that they are not doing this for the gratitude?

Rabbi Swamley: Nu! If dey don't get deh gretitude dey got better tings to do mit deir time!

Charlap: Well isn't that their choice rather than yours?

Rabbi Swamley: Nu? It is deir choice! But vy can't I give my opinion about deir choices?!?

Charlap: What kind of nut are you?!

Rabbi Swamley: You're deh fucking nut! You have deh poifect opportunity to do tings and you hevn't ton bupkes!

AC Charlap: Shut the fuck up Swamley. You get all your kicks from criticizing anybody else so you don't have to do anything.

Swamley: I do tings! Vat I do is criticize!

AC Charlap: That's what you do!?!?!?

Swamley: Vy you getting mad? All I do is say my opinion!

Charlap: Fuck you Swamley.

Swamley: Vat I do? All I say is de truth Charlap! You ain't done dreck 'nd whose mit deh surprise about it?

Charlap: You are, without a doubt, the most loathesome, disgusting, repulsive human being anyone has ever met!

Swamley: How cen you say dat?! I'm a fuckin' Rabbi and I help people everyvere!

Charlap: How have you ever helped anyone in your life?!

Swamley: By criticizing dem!

Charlap: Your criticism helps them?

Swamley: Mitout deh criticism dey wouldn't know vat dey doing wrong.

Charlap: Get out of my house.

Swamley: You cen't trow me out!

Charlap: Watch me.

Swamley: I gonna call deh cops.

Charlap: The cops stopped taking your calls remember?

Swamley: So? Is dat my fault?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians 5/19/20: Ralph Vaughan Williams (yeah yeah....)

Eh, what the hell, let's do the great Ralph Vaughan Wililiams tonight.
The popular conception of Vaughan Williams is as confused as that of Holst. We know him for a handful of extremely atypical works that make us think he's a composer of lethargically pastoral works that have about as much to do with the real RVW as The Planets do with Holst or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik has to do with Mozart. Vaughan Williams is the subject of perhaps the single greatest compositorial putdown in music history, when upon hearing it, Aaron Copland is said to have commented that 'listening to Vaughan Williams's fifth symphony is like staring at a cow for forty-five minutes." Copland should talk.... Copland too is far more complex than just his pastoral classics, but Copland never truly ascended to RVW's ecstatic heights either.
The real Vaughan Williams was the English Bartok or Mussorgsky, who took the folk music of the British isles in its unadorned state and gave it a classical framework which smoothed nothing of its strangeness or its acerbicity.
Composing is one of the very few professions for which it is hard to predict a peak of a composer's powers. So many of the greatest died early, and so many lesser-known composers died early who might have become great. The morbidly obese Vaughan Williams was fully great by 40, but he did not truly hit the peak of his powers until the secure, calm and privileged world of wealth in which formed him was fully destroyed. He was already 60 or 70 by the time he wrote the greatest music of his life, an age by which the majority of the great names of music history had well since passed on. And as only true genius can, RVW rose to the challenges of a new era with an entirely new kind of music. This is not merely a writer of light music, this is one of the very greatest, most visionary composers of the 20th century, and a composer whom by 1940 had fully let go of the 19th.

The Sixth Symphony is, perhaps next to the second, my single favorite of his symphonies. Written in the years immediately post World War II, it can be interpreted as a seer's vision of World War III, complete with explosions, advancing armies, and air battles. But in perhaps the most extraordinary movement RVW ever wrote, it ends with ten minutes of an orchestra playing at no dynamic past pianissimo, perhaps a vision of post-nuclear holocaust, a world without life, when all is null and void.

But the second, the London Symphony, is perhaps his masterpiece, one of the very greatest symphonies ever written: programmatically depicting a day in the life of pre-War London, and yet even the London Symphony has deep intimations of what is to come. Vaughan Williams said that the quiet final moments are inspired by H G Wells's novel Tono-Bungay:
"The last great movement in the London Symphony in which the true scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up ... Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes."
RVW's second symphony was performed just a few months before World War I. It is almost impossible to historically minded readers to read those lines and not think of Sir Edward Gray's intimation on the eve of World War I that 'the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.' ...and of course, there's the Fourth Symphony, premiered in 1937, a half-hour long orchestral howl from the man who wrote Greensleeves. It seems odd to take Vaughan Williams of all composers to task for being too abrasive, but so unvaried is it in tone that the great miracle of the piece is that it's by the composer of The Lark Ascending and the Greensleeves arrangement. Or the 9th Symphony, which I've heard one major conductor describe over the radio as a description of the spiritual process of dying.

One can find similar intimations of a dark future in the ecstatic 1920's work Sancta Civitas, yet another choral work that sets the Book of Revelation to music, and yet sets it with a kind of hope and yearning that leaves the door open for the apocalypse to transcend its dark premise. And of course, there is Dona Nobis Pacem 'Give us Peace' from the 1930s, which alternates settings of the Latin Mass with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Or his final choral work, the Three Shakespeare Songs, which sets Ariel's creepy lyrics from The Tempest with appropriate otherworldliness. with but a few chords, RVW intimates Shakespeare's immortal mortality.

Vaughan Williams does not belong to England, he belongs to the entire world. Like composers from Beethoven and Mahler to Stravinsky and Bartok, Vaughan Williams dipped his pen into a deep river flowing with alchemical ink that let him see into the distant future simultaneous to the distant past. Like all those other masters, there are other sides to their music - genius is janus-faced and if you think you've mapped every facet of a truly great artist, you will inevitably soon discover another, but In this music, as in that of all the very greatest composers, there is the force of prophecy. And yes, Ralph Vaughan Williams belongs in any conversation of the all-time greatest, and one day, now or generations hence, he will be recognized for the depth and breath of exactly the musician of greatness he is.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Isolation Diary #3

There's that crucially unpleasant moment for some of us, the less satisfied ones, the lost souls perhaps, when we come face to face with what should be a very painful fact of life in time of coronavirus: a medium-sized part of us is rooting for the bug.
Don't get us wrong, we absolutely do not want you to die - and you particularly - we don't want you to experience a single cough, even the people whom we don't like, even the people whose deaths would benefit in our lives, careers, bank accounts.... We don't want any harm to come to them, or to anyone whom they love, or the people they love love and so forth to the full six degrees of Kevin Bacon... Even the part of us that feels a small pang of disappointment with every small potential improvement in the news, that inner sadist only wants people to get sick and die as numbers, people who are not actually people, just people who are statistical facts within a figurative vacuum.
But whether or not we admit it to ourselves, there is that small part of some brains which just wants those numbers up, and up, and up, and up, because it is to only to our advantage that you all are as scared and sad and hopeless as we are. If things go to shit, lives like ours suddenly have meaning. In moments like this, madmen like me get the satisfaction of saying that we saw something like this coming. Did we see the potential for something cataclysmic because we were crazy? Or did the potential for something cataclysmic make us crazy? Or does it matter at all? Either way, before all this, people whose lives just didn't work out the way they should have were regrettable aberrations. 'What a shame it is that he or she or they turned out that way, but the cost of changing anything is just too great.' Yet now, we are advance scouts who know the kingdom of madness in far greater detail than those who've just made its acquaintance, and if our well-being fell through the cracks a couple decades before everybody else's, perhaps that's just a sign that the ones who anticipated this hour of lunacy were the best of us.... And maybe, just maybe, if everything is leveled to the ground, everybody will start from zero again; we get the fresh start we made such hash of the first time around, and in this new messianic era of delirium, the mad shall inherit the earth.
But of course, this is its own form of madness just like the longing for madness to overtake others. In a level playing field, who has the competitive advantage? Is it the people who failed the first time around, or is it the people who already know exactly what success demands of them? After the fall of Soviet Union, who ultimately benefitted? The average Russian was plunged into chaos that was worse than The Great Depression (look up the statistics), but the mid-level KGB officers who knew all the secrets knew exactly who to talk to to get control of the state holdings, and now they're Vladimir Putin's oligarchy. After Europe 1945, The Marshall Plan did everything for Western Europe which America never did for Eastern Europe (or itself...), but however close to social democracy Western Europe ever came, at the top of their hierarchy was all the families who still held stock in the European companies who did business with America, exactly the same corporations who did business with the Nazis. The same once held true for whichever French aristocrats escaped Robespierre's guillotine, and even in the Soviet Union, all sorts of Russian aristocrats and bourgeois kulaks knew exactly how to pony up to Lenin and Stalin, who needed their knowhow to get industries working again (read or watch Doctor Zhivago....).
And yet, however irrational, this longing to level the playing field still exists in our minds. I have to venture a guess that whether that longing has bubbled up to people's consciousness or the unconscious cloaks it in virtue, this longing for destruction is precisely what millions of Americans have felt in the Era of Trump (and yes, of Bernie Sanders too). It is as though nature built a homing device within any civilization, perhaps any species, that grows so prosperous that they could master the circumstances of nature itself if only they properly applied themselves to understanding the situational context of their problems before they proceed to solutions.Millions of people wanted the level of change that now seems possible without their conscious selves acknowledging what every rudimentary history book already told them, and therefore what their unconscious already knows: that for societal circumstances to really and truly change, millions of people have to die. in this sense, we unleashed coronavirus on ourselves.
And yet, such are the potential delusions of human consciousness that if human beings have no enemies, the mind invents enemies. It's much easier for human beings to understand what we're not than what we are. The mind is much, much happier when fighting against an enemy than when it must acknowledge that its most lethal enemy is itself. And so if we're not happy, not definitively abused but if we've experienced a pretty thorough unhappiness; if we suspect we're unloved, if we need more money, if we're overworked, if we hear or think others demean us, if we're constantly watching the greater success of others, if we're haunted by guilt for past behavior, or if we're just bored, the humiliation of an unsatisfactory life is such that it is so much easier to assign blame, and far easier than to assign blame to individuals with their messy choices is to assign blame to groups: to minorities of all kinds, to capitalism or socialism, to white males, to women, to all manner of supposed cultures, to both social programs and to their absence, and yes, also to extremism too. And in this way, like original sin, no one is culpable and everyone is - or more to the point, everyone is culpable except for the people who think exactly as I do and thereby devote their lives to removing the stain of that original sin.
This is not a way of saying that you should all be blaming yourselves for your problems, you are probably the most dangerous person to blame of all, and once you rid yourself of that scourge, there is no one to whom you would not assign blame in order to stop that psychic bleeding. Rather, everyone's problems have very specific authors, most often from situations of powerful people very distant from themselves, who made very conscious choices that affected hundreds of millions. Roughly a third of those choices were tragic matters of necessity, another third were made in craven self-interest, and still another third was made in some nebulous mixture of the two. But in the anger that comes from ruminating on all those humiliations, it's very rare that blame is cast on the correct people or movements or social forces, and one of the most obvious culprits for our humiliations is all those people who incorrectly assign and apportion blame.
Misery loves company, and this is the first time in living memory that everybody is miserable, and many of us, whether we realized it or not, have prayed for this era before every meal for decades: the era when everyone finally become us. It doesn't make us proud that we long felt this way, but don't worry, eventually those of us who feel this blame consciously will feel agony from the guilt of it all, as we do about so many other episodes in our oh-so-dramatic lives long after the rest of you go back to your mildly satisfying ones.
Let's just say that, unlikely as it seems, the damage from coronavirus is over in a year or two, Biden or some other yet unnamed Democrat wins, Trump retreats with little fuss, the economy and public health restructure themselves with relative harmony, and like the beginning of the Obama era only moreso, we will feel as though America is at the precipice of a new dawn. I'll look yet again like a Cassandra predicting the end times with a sick part of me perhaps even longing for them. And yet, I'll probably still be the pest predicting long-term doom and looking like an unhinged moron; but so unmoored did America become, so close to the precipice, that you can't come this close without coming still closer the next time. The true effects of global warming have not even begun - causing a refugee crisis well past anything the world has ever seen, we will be ever still more trillions of dollars in debt, and two military superpowers have as much vested interest as they ever did in preventing us from becoming successful again. The time to really and truly stop these problems was 2016. Civilizations with a true lease on life don't experience a failure of this magnitude.
For some of us, chaos is what we understand: the loss of hope, the tragedy of losing things you didn't even know you had, the expectation of ever greater humiliations, the growing assumption that life will take everything from you until even the most infinitesimal specks are crushed by bludgeon until the atoms themselves explode as though you ever possessed something that could cause another Hiroshima. There are those among us who undergo every day expecting the worst possible news, and more often than people realize, the worst genuinely happens. What then is left but the hope that something eventually will happen that will make other people understand and sympathetic when they were not before? Maybe this is the moment that levels us all into a greater understanding, but what a horrible horrible price.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians 5/15/20: Gustav Holst

The problem with playing The Planets all the time is not that The Planets is a flashy showstopper, it is that, but listen just beneath the surface and the flash disappears: it's as profound and mysterious a work of art as you'll ever encounter in the concert hall, and we've been so incredibly lucky to hear played so many times a work whose meanings change on every new acquaintance and can make you think of everything from the newest science to our ancient ancestors to archetypes of human experience to the spiritual endowment of life to our insignificance before the cosmic infinities.
The world may not experience an orchestra large enough to play The Planets again for the rest of our lifetimes, and what a shame that will be. But imagine, for a moment, a generation of music lovers who'd experience it again for the first time: perhaps with no associations from John Williams scores, or from singing I Vow to Thee My Country in church, or from planetarium light shows. Imagine, perhaps, a generation, that only experiences The Planets for itself with no preconceived cliches. What would such a listener experience?
People always wonder why Holst never wrote a piece like The Planets again. I have no idea what the answer is, but the rest of Holst's music is little like Mars or Jupiter, it's quite mostly the austere and mysterious spirituality of Mercury, Saturn, and Neptune, and truthfully, those are probably the best movements of The Planets. If I had to take a guess, a work like The Planets probably took an enormous psychic toll on a man like Holst, who had to work every day for decades to increase his technical armor to the point that he could write with such adroit facility as he does in The Planets. The kind of stratospheric fame which The Planets brought him could probably not ever fall on a more otherworldly man less suited to fame. I cannot imagine that Holst would ever again want to undertake another hit like it. So rather than creating more Richard Strauss-like sensations, he retreated to the essense of what introverted composers generally love to do: small ensembled music for modest audiences.
Holst was a warm and well meaning sort, but he was not truly friendly like his BFF Ralph Vaughan Williams who wished to create music that expressed the longings of an English peoplehood. Holst was inspired not by the world but by the world beyond the world. He was a spiritual seeker who looked not just to Christianity for guidance but also to Hinduism, and, of course, to classical mythology. He was tail coin-side to Vaughan Williams's head. Vaughan Williams expressed the human longings of their place and time, Holst expressed their era's longing to transcend place and time.
It comes as an enormous surprise to many that most of the greatest music by such a magnificent orchestrator is for the voice. A work like 'The Evening Watch' has to be one of the perfect choral masterworks of the century, chords of fourths stacked one atop the other for five minutes without any consideration for establishing a tonal center for the singers to orient themselves - the effect of the overtones ravishes the ear. The Seven Part-Songs are not just beautiful - every major English composer writes beautiful choral music as their birthright, but utterly unique, filled with a kind of mysterious whimsical sadness cannot be found elsewhere in music - perhaps a true musical equivalent to the poetic tonalities of the English Romantics. The Hymn to Jesus is a work of ecstatic early musical modernism, in which choruses shout polytonal clusters. The early Ave Maria is another perfect miniature of music for 8-voice women's choir. And then there is the astonishingly creepy Ode to Death... And I almost forgot, his choral masterpiece: the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, which together make up a kind of Choral Symphony (There's the 50 minute 'Choral Symphony' in which Holst sets text for chorus through just about every moment of an orchestral work which is clearly both a symphony and an oratorio - sometimes magnificent, sometimes a tough slog...). Even more than The Planets, it is perhaps the zenith of his career, where his gift for expressing the transcendent finds its ideal outlet. Holst also has a number of great orchestral scores, I'm particularly fond of Indra and Hammersmith, and then there's Egdon Heath, which is usually the work everybody mentions when they talk about underrated Holst.
So many modern masters fall into the cracks because they write for chorus, the most useful and least sexy of classical music ensembles: we mostly remember Holst, Kodaly, Poulenc, Lili Boulanger, Bruch, for their marginal contributions to orchestralia, and therefore we remember them as good but marginal composers at the fringe of musical achievement, whereas were choral music the center of classical life rather than instrumental, it would be Poulenc and Kodaly holding center stage, while the music of Ravel and Bartok might regrettably live on the margins - imagine what we'd be missing and you begin to have some idea what we're already missing.
What makes The Planets uniquely great is precisely because Holst only had one work like that in him. What gives The Planets its mysterious beauty is the tension of a severe introvert writing a work for mass appeal. All Holst knew of the world was introspection, so whereas an extravert accustomed to the public eye like Richard Strauss would make a sonic extravaganza, or whereas an intellectual martinet like Mahler felt no discomfort in confronting audiences with the most daunting intellectual challenges, Holst had only one tool at his disposal, to use the infinitely colorful means of the orchestra to render a sublime cosmos.
(conclusion will be written later)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Isolation Diary #2

I'm amazed by how well I've done while being alone. Two months without speaking more than a few words person-to-person, and I'm frankly going less to pieces than I generally do when people are around me.
But it's increasingly become apparent to me that there's not a single person in the world I don't miss right now. I would talk to the biggest irritants in my life for six hours about all things life and death, I would hug all the biggest creeps, and I would creepily touch the faces of a thousand strangers just for the human contact.
The loneliness doesn't hit me all that often. I've lived alone my entire thirties, and if my years alone have taught me anything, it's that you either have to spend great amounts of time alone, or great amounts of time with other people, but flitting between the two indiscriminately is your fears' greatest enabler.
Some people just have a gift at being entertaining, it's an ability like solving a rubik's cube, and ultimately as useful. I was a salivating nerd in high school, but have now spent the better part of twenty years conversing at parties, eating and drinking in geometric quantity to forget the artificiality of it all, wondering in what circumstances the very people same people who laugh at every joke would turn on you and gut you like Sarah Palin field-dresses a moose. And once again, the thought hits you, after eight years back in Baltimore, you have a thousand acquaintances you see all the time, but your real friends are still the people from those initial parties you went to as a college student.
Once you leave the parties, you return home to your empty bed and thousand books and the one or two interactions may have potentially gone wrong take their place in line at the back of an endless litany of worries, and in private moments you spend much of your days in various states of horror and shame as all the great and small sins of your life replay on an endless mental movie: some might call it a form of post-traumatic stress, others would call it narcissistic self-flagellation, some might call it paranoia, anxiety, depression, psychosis, I call it Tuesday.
So yes, there is an element of being a shut-in that is endlessly relieving, as the mind quiets itself to once again contemplate ideas other than the moral abomination that is Evan Tucker. When there are no parties, there's correspondingly no anxiety about interactions with the people at them. Music is no longer a necessary constant companion to drown out the anguish, reading long books becomes easier again, silence becomes halfway manageable, even household chores get done occasionally...
But then there are the moments when the realization hits that you are in a cave of pure solitude, and it doesn't hit ever so slightly, it hits all at once - that day, after day, after day, you are a true island, that you will see and hear no one, that you will feel no one's physical presence, that the world is only present for you through a two-dimensional electronic digitality that approximates the real thing through a million pixels emanating from an artificial vacuum.
And that's the moment when you inevitably go to the computer again to get some words down on paper. Even if no one is talking to you, at least you can speak to yourself. Writing is the one place where all is calm and clean, where everything can be controlled, where you feel halfway adequate to the challenge of life's presence.
If you're about to see no one for another three years, this is the purest, most necessary writing you will ever do. You always despaired that no one would ever read what you write, well... now you truly are your own audience. So long as the page chatters at you, you will never truly be lonely.
Talk soon,

Thursday, May 14, 2020

An Overrated Underrated Musician: Leon Botstein

Today we're going to talk about an overrated underrated musician, one that's frankly stuck in my craw for years.
Leon Botstein performs a valuable service for the music world. He is one of the few musicians with both the means and desire to think about what classical music will be after the deluge. He is furthermore one of the few musicians with the platform to help rebuild the long demolished bridge between music and intellect. Bless him for that.

But just listen to him. If there is a musician in the world so full of shit, I have yet to discover him. This is an intellectual prodigy born to privilege, whom, rather than actually learn how to conduct, spent 45 years running Bard College, a radical chic school for rich hippies that contributes as much value to the discourse of education reform as Phillips-Andover. Half a lifetime ago, he wrote an article ripping Leonard Bernstein to shreds for being such a magpie and wasting his talent. Well, unlike Botstein, Bernstein clearly had talent...
Listen to Botstein's recordings. Over and over again, he chooses exactly the kind of repertoire that should be featured on this page, and manages the distinguished feat of neutering them of their musical interest. Who could possibly understand what's compelling about this music from a Botstein performance? Perhaps if he spent less time pontificating about American education from the vantage point of being a lifetime University President and former intellectual prodigy who clearly hasn't a clue what young people go through in high school, maybe he'd find the time to do his musical causes real service rather than damage...

In the arts, there are often all sorts of figures whose individuality stand out not because of their quality, but because their approaches are so unique: Stokowski, Celibidache, Norrington, Sinopoli, Currentzis, these are conductors of varying quality, but if their musicmaking is variable, it's because they tap into certain aspects of music that are clearly lacking from the mainstream of musical discourse, and because no other musician had a similar approach, no one was able to tell them when their ideas veered off into bullshitry. Stokowski and Currentzis are extraordinarily gifted musicians, but would classical music pay more attention to showmanship, the wider world would see their worst gaucheries for what they are. Celibidache and Sinopoli were brilliant intellects, and had musicians taken any care at all to be intellectually literate, we'd probably have been spared when their findings veered them off into idiocies. The same goes for soloists like Ivo Pogorelich and Nigel Kennedy... So if anybody else were speaking up for rare repertoire in the manner which Botstein does, Botstein would be forced to either work harder to be a better conductor, or he'd have to give up and go back to pedaling bullshit educational theory.
So if you're looking for rare repertoire, go on spotify or youtube, enter a search for Leon Botstein or the American Symphony Orchestra, find the most interesting looking rare pieces, and then search for different performers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

ET: Almanac

"And if great reasoners are often maniacal, it is equally true that maniacs are often great reasoners. . . . If you argue with a madman, it is extremely provable that you will get the worse of it, for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgement. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything but his reason. The madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory . . . . His mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle . . . . In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large . . . . Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark fo madness is this combination between a logical completion and a spiritual contraction . . . . He [the madman of experience] is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. . . ."
- G. K. Chesterton

Monday, May 11, 2020


I don't know how I got so lucky to get Mom as my mom, and I have absolutely no idea how such a level-headed pillar of amiable strength got such a stark raving maniac for an eldest son, but she was the best piece of luck I ever got in my life, and while I'm reasonably sure that many people already think she is a saint, I can assure them that her saintliness is only more miraculous if you ever got to know her better. Somehow she has born all the lumps of the giant personalities surrounding her with complete equanimity for nearly seventy years. Most of us don't deserve her, and if god forbid coronavirus took her rather than us, a bunch of us would probably fighting over the shovel to bury ourselves in the plot next door.
She's almost seventy now, facing down the era of coronavirus during what should be the era when her herculean labors reap their ultimate fruits. Last Sunday she should have returned from a twenty-day trip to Panama and Columbia that was to be my parents' first vacation since she had to start ministering to Bubbie, now 99-years-old and sadly losing a step since an elective operation eighteen months ago wiped part of her memory. However unlikely it is, Bubbie is facing the small chance that she may never leave my parents' house ever again except for a stroll around it. Dad, of course, goes to the store at the drop of a hat, refuses to wipe down the groceries, goes to the office, and is constantly making noises about coming down to the beach house for a weekend, just tonight he mentioned it again during a Mother's Day family zoom: "Will you go to the store?' I ask him: "Of course." "Then I'll physically block you from coming in." "It's my house!" "Then you can have me arrested!".
...And yet Mom bears it all, as she bears all things, with sensible advice for every occasion we'd all do well to take more often, and a seeming go-with-the-flow ease which conceals a will of iron - an absolute determination to be the person the crazy people around her need her to be. Whether it's her mother and her century-long need to get her way, or her husband and his 75-year need for every spotlight, or her oldest son and his 40-year pendulum of mental states. Mom is there for it all, and bears it with the equanimity of the hidden righteous; a mother worthy of a Nobel Prize, an Abraham Lincoln of mom's who balances the needs of a team of rivals so deftly that her premature absence could set a whole country back by a hundred years.
Her unhinged eldest son, almost 40, who never married, and for whom it would be inadvisable to give her the grandchildren who'd love her as much as the rest of us do; her eldest for whom it all went wrong so long ago that barely anybody remembers what he once was, whose gifts were praised from birth as though everybody was his mother; whose extreme brain seemed to go off the deep end for a decade at a time with no return date listed, and therefore sentenced to an adult half-life of disgruntling limitations, a son only a mother could love.
And yet, what question has there ever been? Mom is my best friend. The person whom whatever the state of things, I make sure to speak to for an hour or more every day, who laughs at my jokes, who will listen to my ranting no matter how inconsequential, whom I know that whatever the differences of opinion the love is deep enough that anything said in the heat of the moment is just a momentary lapse in judgement (and of course, said far more often by me). She has always been Mom, the Mom without which my continued life would have been impossible so many times, and I can't help but worry would be impossible again in the future. I don't deserve her, and she most certainly does not deserve me.
I've always had the sense that Mom is worried that she never made enough of an impression on people, that she was always Mollie's daughter, Jack's wife.... 'that asshole's poor mother...' but nobody with a stronger personality makes the gigantic impression she does. So many of the quiet ones go through life thinking that nobody sees them, they think that they'd just fade in the background and nobody notices their absence, but if people like me faded into the background, the world would note the difference, and parts of it would consequently breathe a sigh of relief. But if people like Mom were truly in the background, the world would fall apart tomorrow, and people from every walk of life would howl in the streets. People like Mom are the ones who hold the world together. They inspire nothing but love in everyone whose lives they pass through, and somehow, I was lucky enough to be the son of a person like this.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians: 5/9/20 - Peter Maag

Music lovers of a certain age can be forgiven for wondering what happened to Peter Maag, the Swiss conductor who seemed earmarked for a star career, complete with a recommendation from Wilhelm Furtwangler himself, when he deliberately shot his career in the foot to retreat to a series of monasteries. The prestige of his career never truly recovered, and he seemed to want it that way. He spent the next forty years being a fine journeyman conductor, going from town to town, leading the Mozart and Mendelssohn which once made him famous. A New York Times profile from the 80s makes him out to be a true eccentric belonging to the 19th century, whom even as the 21st neared was constantly interrupting the interview to take another pinch of snuff.
But Maag was very, very good, and improving right up to the end. If you track down the Mozart, Mendelssohn, later recordings, made with such august orchestras (...) as the Orquestra Symphonica de Madrid, the Orchestra di Padova et Veneto, you hear a level of involvement in the details of phrasing, balance, and harmonic tension, that thinks so much more deeply about the music than most star conductors ever think about Mozart symphonies, works that repay enormous musical satisfaction, but never reward conductors with tumultuous ovations. The orchestral virtuosity isn't much, and yet they do everything Maag asks of them perfectly well.
The big problem for Maag's musical outlook seemed to be that the authentic performance brigade moved in on his core repertoire. Right up to his death in the mid-2000's, Maag was performing 'Dresden doll' Mozart on completely modern instruments with slow tempi and leaden minuets. And yet an approach that under Karajan and Giulini sounds like a boring ersatz imposition sounds riveting under Maag - performances that sound like no one else's, but at the same time, the concept is completely unimposed that merely draws out from the music what was already there.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Isolation Diary 1.3

It's been seven weeks since I've had the company of a human being's corporeal presence for more than four words at a time. What, pray tell, have I done with all this time besides shitting it away (not that I'm even doing that, as for the last two weeks I've had a bout of constipation)? For seven weeks I've planned and planned and planned and fantasized and fantasized and wished some ostensible 'great work' into being which my deeply embedded mania whispers to my ears I have within me to write or compose. How can someone like me ever be lonely with his massive ego for company?
And yet for all this narcissistic aggrandizement, never here have I embarked upon more than a page or five of outline, the high of the brainstorms too stratospheric to willfully bring my focus down to earth and the brutal mundanities of endowing physical form to a presence in my brain so sublimely ethereal. I embarked upon the beginning phases/phrases of half a dozen attempts, but isolation over-plowed it into drought soil.
It was, perhaps still is, a foot crushing work of historical fiction, an inner history, THE inner history, of the Jewish experience with their neighbors, potentially as long and varied as the Bible, populated with Jews migrating place to place from generation to generation, century to century, as they work and wait and work and wait, but always ejected and exiled from every old new land, and so too will we eventually from here. In nation after nation, city after city; some neighbors had to be there to welcome Jews in, some neighbors had to embrace Jews and promote them to prosperity's apparent zenith, some neighbors had to be there to resent Jewish success, some neighbors had to be there to blame Jews when things went wrong, and some neighbors had to be there to drive the Jews out, to beat and torture them, and eventually to kill them, and surely there must be some god who works his unvoiced machinations upon our world to preserve the lifespan of our improbable community in circumstances through which we would long since be better off dead.
Jewish history is the ultimate epic. For anyone able to set their imagination so loose to capture it all upon a page or screen, the work would dictate itself to the mind. I made what I thought was a decent beginning of it in 2017, yet so rambled I that it captured none's attention but mine, and rather than speed the plow through history's length and breadth, I, believe it or not, got it into my head that I could earn readers by borrowing liberally from the life-stories of people I knew in manners for which I have little right. I didn't even get that far. In autumn 2017, as all at once my life came undone yet again, I scrapped it and deleted from the internet all evidence I'd ever even made a start, except various drafts on a personal blog nobody reads.
We seem to live in an era of hyphenated identities, so for any writer identifying themselves as a "Jewish writer," such a work can seem a kind of Holy Grail, a work of works destined clearly to be written: not just a James Michener bestseller about Jewish history that ties itself to a fictional town in Israel, but a work of fiction that circles the globe and captures the whole giant wheel... pendulum... spiral... tetragrammaton... of history. And someone, anyone, who can open their imagination to the literally millions of vivid scenes from our endless scroll of history, will be the person to write this book of books, drama of dramas, show of shows, and therein lies the problem.
There is something incredibly un-Jewish about its spirit. Jews exist within a religion that, at least since the Talmudic Sages, expended every effort to accommodate itself to reality's needs rather than establish yet another monumental imposition upon history, for once upon a pentateuchal time, Jews made history's ultimate imposition. For better or worse, we foisted upon the world a god sovereign to all humanity; not yet another spirit of a river or valley, but an infinite presence of imperium occupying all space, all time, all being; and year by year over millennia's course, He established the dominion for which we longed upon everyone, everywhere, every-when. So powerful was our idea of god that he became lord of the world.
A portion of our cup is fire and brimstone, and in every generation, it seems that Hashem is simultaneously the greatest and the worst thing that ever happened to us. He is blessing and grace, he is curse and reproach; the source and salvation of every problem. He, or rather, His absence, is always present.
Nation after nation gets their turn for the bird's eye view above history's shitshow, only to be dumped back into existential sewage within a mere generation. It took only one generation between David's glory to reach the bifurcation into Israel and Judea. It took only one generation from Alexander the Great's unification of Greece and the accompanying intellectual golden age to collapse into partition and forty years of war between Alexander's successors. It was only one generation between Rome's peace of the Ausgustan Age and the tyranny of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. It was but one generation between the conquests of Muhammed and the Shi'ites who believed Ali Muhammed's appointed successor and the Sunnis who elected Abu Bakir. Only one generation between the Elizabethan Age in England and the beheading of Charles I. One generation between Bismarck's unification of Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm's pointless entry into World War I (and we needn't remember what came next...). And now there's one generation between victory in the Cold War and the election of the stupidest head of state in world history.
So why does it keep happening? What is it about humans that even in the best of times, our ability to be satisfied, live in peace with ourselves, accept that this is as good as it gets, is completely absent from our neurons?
In one sense, the answer is obvious. Even at its best, humanity is shit, and even golden ages beset us with all the same struggles and blows of fortune; what makes a golden age golden is that, for once in our lifetimes, we beat the odds. But victory is so much easier than defeat that it's very easy to get accustomed to believing that we'll win again, and once we get too well-acquainted with winning, winning ceases to amaze us. We forget just how hard it was to come so far as we did, we forget how chaotic is the world as everyone but us experiences it, and the ways in which the world still isn't satisfactory metastasizes through our heads like a brain tumor. And so in moments like these when we're all the freest fate ever allows us to follow our bliss and become our best realized, most unique vision of ourselves; we bifurcate ever more neatly into exactly two individuality-surrendering mass movements who believe that the solution to all the remaining problems of life are obvious, and so deprived are both sides of the oxygen of life's realities that we honestly believe that this mirage of a better world is just behind the next sand dune. Once upon a time, these two sides were Fascists and Communists; once upon a time, these two sides were Protestants and Catholics; once upon a time, these two sides were the followers of Rehovam and the followers of Yerovam.
For the moment, there's only true one side of extremity. Republicans don't just control all three branches of government, all three are controlled by the most dictatorial arch-reactionaries. However much you may loathe both conservatism and socialism, to say that there's any sort of moral parity between Trump and Sanders, or even Johnson and Corbyn, is morally dangerous in how it gives cover to upper-class twits who have always meant harm, propelled from the wind at their backs by sinister conspirators far more cunning than idiots like they ever hope to be.
But my god... should we lose in November what ghost of the future gets unleashed?
No dictatorship can ever raise itself without raising opposition, whether at home or abroad in absentia, every new generation is birthed in opposition to its parentage, and the opposition birthed by an American dictatorship would increasingly feel as though they've tried democracy, and democracy works no better to achieve liberal aims than it works for conservative. From moment to moment it may not seem so, but yes, 'both sides' DO grow apace: more militant, more extreme, more deadly. Old conservative regimes were thrown over in France, in Russia, in China, in Iran, in a dozen African countries and well over a dozen around Asia; Americans watching the news attentively saw this show so many times on television they've forgotten all the details and only remember the formulaic template of the script: in every one of these countries, liberal democrats thought they could collaborate with the Hard Left, only to end up in front of the exact same executioners who shot the reactionary regime a year earlier.
These firing squads would never be commanded by Bernie Sanders or 99% of his followers, they wouldn't even be commanded by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or 99% of hers, and I think Ilhan Omar would only nod in vague approval. The Bernie movement was never truly dangerous in itself, only dangerous in what it raised for the future. It simultaneously enabled the Trump victory and enabled its own most militant disciples, both here and abroad. What liberals, or even conservatives, would have to truly fear was never a Sanders or AOC presidency, it is a quadruple rotgut turbo version of the Sandersistas - the type of soft socialists thrown into jail after protesting at Standing Rock or Zuccotti Park, who then emerge from prison beaten into hard communists, or whatever their 21st century equivalent turns out to be.
In the chaos that follows the overthrow of an eventual long-term vulture capitalist Trump or Kobach or Bezos/Brian L. Roberts regime, who would re-establish a permanent state? Would it be democrats of moral backbone who would hesitate to shoot their rivals in the definitive chaotic moment because of their correct notions of due process, legitimacy of authority, and rule of law? Or would it be a fringe sect of expelled grad students, drunk on critical theory and intersectionality, unhesitant to take all those ideal visions of a society of soft-power and melt them into flint hard weapons just as once-fringe Christian sects used to turn Jesus's message of love into death? None of us have any idea what the future holds, but should democrats and/or Democrats not regain our foothold somewhere around 2020-22, I'm willing to bet that any future progressive American state in our lifetimes, even a progressive splinter state in part of America, more resembles that illiberal latter scenario than the former, because liberal democrats, progressives, social democrats, even socialists, are never willing to make all those ugly compromises to their souls in a moment when nobody's life is safe. In the winds that blow through a country with a toppled government who can no longer provide its most basic functions like policing and education, even for a couple weeks, the race is to the swift, the battle to the strong; the victor is the ideology with an unbreakable will to power.
But that potentiality is obviously quite long down the road and by no means written in stone. The imminent cataclysm is a world carrying two lethal infections: Coronavirus and Trump, when it can only handle one of the two, and if both remain with us in 2021, the lethal viruses will multiply exponentially. Get rid of Trump, and Coronavirus is over three weeks after he leaves office, and so eventually too will all its aftereffects, at least after some more years that vaguely resemble the last five.... Remain with Trump, and Coronavirus unleashes a mass throng of other lethal filths, most of which have already unhatched from the sewage and grow every day closer to their full Godzilla size.
Not even Trump would willingly throw hundreds of thousands into a viral meat grinder unless he's been convinced of what every economist knows - that America stands on the precipice of unprecedented economic ruin. Coronavirus is, from its inception, an entirely unnecessary tragedy that probably didn't have to claim more than a few hundred lives, but after this much incompetent mismanagement, it will hit us all before it ends - there won't be a single American who doesn't know someone who died from it. But even that is no apocalypse. If half-a-million Americans die, we will always be devastated by the loss, but life still goes on. The great cataclysm of coronavirus is not the virus.
Even more than 9/11 seemed at the time, Coronavirus seems an end to an America we recognize. Certainly 9/11 was more shocking, but shocking because it was an outlier event; all that changed was that everything already bad got worse - just as little changed after the Great Crash of 1929 or the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But there are other moments in American history, a little further down those same roads, like Pearl Harbor or Fort Sumter, so long-heralded that the only shock was in taking so long from fermentation to fruition. These moments are the great openings of Pandora's Box: liftings of a lid that look so solemn through the gaze of the present that much of their future impact is instantly understood. These are the moments when all those those long contained micro and macro-organisms lurking in the sewage un-hatch and secrete their poison.
Whether acting of his own aggrandizement, or acting in the employ of Russia's FSB (and I have a hard time believing someone as stupid as Trump would know how to do what he does without thorough coaching), Trump somehow knew the location and contents of all the pipes containing America's rawest moral sewage, lanced the pipes open, poured the sewage into containers and flooded the moral waste into every American town square and city center. The only antidote against toxicity is a dilutive solution containing toxicity's complete absence: which in this case means a united front of collaboration between principaled conservatives and progressives, principaled socialists and moderates, four ideologies that feel nothing but loathing for one another, all four of whom must be as flexible in their accommodations to each other as water itself.
If Churchill, the arch-imperialist, and Stalin, the arch-communist, could collaborate to overthrow Hitler, then anything is possible. But victory is only possible in a moment when millions realize there's no alternative to collaborating with all sorts of people you despise, fear, and completely mistrust, and that is only possible if there is a Roosevelt of political talent supervising it all who can assuage all those disparate moving parts of a collaboration otherwise doomed at the creation.
Joe Biden is the opposite of that.
That, however, is what Elizabeth Warren still might be, and if Joe Biden has any political sense at all, he will defer everything in his campaign, his policies, and in 2024 his presidency, to either Warren or some even more talented statesman (though I'd be hard-pressed to find one), and avails himself of her judgement to an exponential extent from how even Bush availed himself of Cheney. Alternately, our destuction is a foregone conclusion, but to maintain a fifty year career, someone as stupid as Joe Biden has to do some very smart things along the way.
Whatever is true about Biden (and I seriously doubt the worst is), it's self-evidently absurd to delude ourselves that he has the political talent this moment requires. 2020 requires a Roosevelt, a Lincoln, and whatever Biden's virtues or vices, he is so obviously not that; he's not even an Obama or Jefferson. But our country's history has an honored place for very good Presidents who did the best they could in a job for which they clearly weren't meant, yet whose performance far exceeded their natural capacities. Presidents of ordinary abilities like Harry Truman and James Monroe did damned well, and eventually realized they were not equal to the enormity of the job, so they ceded the floor to more qualified successors.
Make no mistake, this is an era of death, and will not end with Coronavirus. We don't know what shape the new era will take, but no country survives this level of chaos without coming days even worse than the ones we experience now. From Pandora's Box steps horrors we've never seen and would be unable to fathom until we have, but we seem to have one last chance to close the box up before truly everything escapes.
And yet, if we don't close the lid, well,... that would make sense.... wouldn't it?
Historically, there are just so many moments like this, the moment just before a fall, when like autumn, this much diversity in a society's ecosphere is not an indicator of a society's health, but of its cyclical death. Perhaps history, like nature, has no room for any society unless the vast majority of its citizens conform like leaves on a tree to a pretty but vaguely totalitarian consensus of green. Maybe it doesn't matter what any society believes, so long as there's an unspoken agreement that the vast majority of us believe in the same things, and therefore get along with each other. Perhaps no society actually believes in the consensus according to which it acts, but a society largely afraid of rocking its consensus is one that lives to the next generation. Maybe it doesn't even matter what any society believes, so long as the society has an overarching belief system from which divergence leads to the outliers experiencing quite mild but unmistakable consequences.
Prophets like Micah and Ezekiel and Jeremiah were wrong: the reason powerful civilizations self-destruct is clearly not that we neglect God, that much is clear from eras when ideological hubris infected everyone from Martin Luther to Tomas de Torquemada. And God knows, it's even more clear that civilizations don't self-destruct because they neglect the rights of the individual, which, at least as we think of it, is a fairly recent phenomenon. The problem, as always, is the hubris of believing that we have a solution, and by thinking we have any solution at all but a temporary one, contingent on life's always shifting and ambiguous realities. Solutions are temporary, problems are eternal. The key to society's continued life is hedging their bets: always providing some kind of insurance for the speculation nobody wants to hear - what if you're wrong?
A good society builds through consensus, but a successful consensus doesn't position itself at the arbitrary middle point between any two points of disagreement, that's how society after society ends up with a far right establishment that demands ever more while the humane liberal center concedes compromise after compromise. A successful consensus rigorously critiques every side of an argument to find the objective truth as best it can, and through a complex mixture of trust that reason will speak for itself, and pandering to incurious masses and ideologues, goes about the business of always incorporating the maximum possible information so that the consensus which stabilizes a society evolves to reposition itself with every new balance.
The act of living is almost synonymous with the act of evolving. And just as individuals and families do, all superorganisms must evolve: countries, societies, communities, polities. There are constantly new births and new deaths, new communities moving in and old communities moving out, new demographics with new customs that more established demographics must accommodate even as they work to assimilate the new communities; so too old notions must always synthesize themselves with new ideas, because if politics fails to accommodate these evolutions peacefully, then people who love their beliefs more than they love life itself will try to impose their beliefs through death.
(more this weekend)