Friday, July 27, 2012

800 Words: The Parallels and Paradoxes of Daniel Barenboim (part 1 of 2)


A spell of fatigue and dizziness barred me from tonight’s Beethoven’s 9th at the Proms. Nothing else could have, and certainly no suspicions that some nut would use the appearance of an Orchestra uniting native Israelis and Arabs at the Proms as an excuse to stage a political protest (or far worse) on the night of the Opening Olympic Ceremonies.

I wanted to go desperately. Not because I thought the performance would have been so wonderful, or because it’s an Israeli-Arab orchestra. Rather, it’s Beethoven, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Proms, three subjects I’m as fascinated by as anything in my life. If there ever were a concert tailor-made for me to go, tonight was it.

It certainly wasn’t Daniel Barenboim that pulled me there. Daniel Barenboim’s view of Beethoven is as fascinating as it is dogmatic. Whereas most other musicians of our day pay heed to the advice of musicologists to play close heed to Beethoven’s metronome marks and a chamber-orchestra complement of strings, Daniel Barenboim plays Beethoven as though it’s still 1932 - huge orchestras, broad and flexible tempos, weighty bass-heavy sound. There is no attempt made to play Beethoven as he saw himself, this is Beethoven as he was played accumulated after a century of accumulated performance tradition - with (nearly) all the moss and ivy unstripped from the varnish. It is neither Beethoven for the age of Beethoven nor Bjork, it is Beethoven for the age of Wagner.


No conductor in the world - not Thielemann, not Runnicles, not Gergiev, and certainly not any of the other major opera house directors - makes Wagner as exciting as Daniel Barenboim. With Barenboim, those inevitable forty minutes at a time of boredom and bombast can be cut down to twenty or fifteen. No conductor has ever made Wagner sound like every note counts, but Barenboim usually comes closer than any living conductor and closer even than most from more fruitful ages of Wagner performance.

There is clearly something in Barenboim’s temperament: a mixture of showman and intellectual, that responds very deeply to Wagner. Many musicians clearly have such affinities with particular composers; Bernstein had it with Mahler, Schnabel with Beethoven, Casals with Bach. In each case, it manifested itself not only in a desire to play the music extremely well, but to explain the composer himself - to put the composer within the context of his time, of music history in its entirety, and his relevance to our contemporary world.

It should then follow that a conductor who has such a deep affinity for a composer should want to perform it in his homeland. As it happens, that homeland is unfortunately Israel. To perform it there is to ask to become an outcast, and that is precisely what Barenboim has become in his homeland.


As so few Jews found themselves throughout history, Barenboim was uniquely situated to privilege. As a child, he lived in Israel full-time for only two years. His father was a great piano teacher in Argentina and close friend to Arthur Rubinstein, and Barenboim’s gift was nurtured as few others are from the cradle. At different points he found himself mentored by Rubinstein, Igor Markevitch, Wilhelm Furtwangler, John Barbirolli, Nadia Boulanger, Otto Klemperer, Isaac Stern, Gregor Piatagorsky, Edwin Fischer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and even that twice-over Nazi party member Herbert von Karajan. Did any other Israeli of his years generation that level of privilege in any other field? Any at all?

Barenboim is widely reviled in the country he still thinks of as home. He brought the opera orchestra he’s lead since 1992, The Berlin State Opera Orchestra, to Israel for the express purpose of breaking the Wagner taboo. He has not only criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the most strident possible terms, but also made statements to the effect that Israeli society has become sick and rotten at its core. As it happens, I agree with most every gesture and statement he’s made. And yet there’s still something about it that sits very wrongly with me.

Barenboim says that Israel has lost the sense of mission and moral purpose which he loved as a child in the 50’s. Does Barenboim have any memory what happened in Israel between 1952 and 1954? Israel had no more (or less) sense of mission nor moral purpose even then - the sole difference was that the country’s survival was far less guaranteed. Israel was in such fiscal danger that they had to take $3 billion in reparations from West Germany. Even then there were nearly a dozen lethal incidents in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some were government-sponsored, some civilian. Right-wing Israeli militants not only threatened violence against the government as they do today, they attempted to carry it out - like the 1953 attempt to bomb the Department of Education by the terrorist organization Brit HaKanaim.

Life in a tough neighborhood is always hard. It’s very easy to sentimentalize the scrappy underdog country which finds itself beset by problems on all sides yet still manages to pull through. But Barenboim himself lived in this underdog country for only two years, and since then has been able to look on Israel from the perspective of a Citizen of the World - welcome in every first-world country in precisely the way nearly all other Jews would not be (still). Israel has been faced with threats to its very existence from before it was even a country. Even if he doesn’t agree with every decision the Israeli government made, why should Barenboim begrudge Israelis for wanting a small portion of the security which he takes for granted?


There is a similar question which besets the biography of Barenboim’s now deceased bff, Edward Said. Said is, still, the pre-eminent Palestinian intellectual voice - and like Barenboim combined the role of intellectual with a showman’s flair for activism and agitation. But in Said’s case, as in Barenboim’s, there is a troubling question of how such well-off people can claim to speak for those less fortunate than they. How can a son of wealth who could simply live in his parents’ Cairo house after Israel took away his Jerusalem home have any idea what true exile from a homeland means? It not only discredited his authoritative-seeming criticisms of Israeli violence, it discredited his authoritative-seeming criticisms of Palestinian violence too.

The West-East Divan Orchestra may yet prove to be the cornerstone of both their achievements. I will never forget the tears in my eyes when I first heard their wind soloists in the slow movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K. 333. It literally felt to me as though they were describing a dream of a better world, a longing for the balance which still eludes everyone who lives in that region. Anyone who doubts that music cannot express concrete things must hear that recording.

Yet people as well-educated as Said and Barenboim must know that there is absolutely nothing which the West-East Divan Orchestra can do except make a futile, sentimental gesture toward the peace which the Middle-East clearly eludes. If it accomplishes so little for peace, then is there any point to it but self-aggrandizement - a kind of exploitative posturing that makes Barenboim taken more seriously as an intellectual and political, perhaps even musical, figure, but brings the conflict no closer to resolution. And if such an orchestra does not bring our world closer to peace, does it then mean that it brings us farther away?

But maybe, just maybe, on that 1% of 1% of 1% chance that some leaders will be so moved by the sight of Arab and Israeli musicians playing together in perfect harmony that they can imagine a better solution to the Middle East conflicts, it will have been an entirely worthwhile project. And if it is so, then even if the entire point of the orchestra is to massage Daniel Barenboim’s ego, it will have been entirely worth doing.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

800 Words: The Very Reverend Evan Tucker

(To the tune of “God Bless America”)

I am an Anglican,
I am CE,*
Not a High Church,
Not a Low Chuch,
But Apostolic, Catholic and Free.
Not a Lutheran,
Not a Presby,
Not a Baptist,
White with Foam.
I am an Anglican,
One step from Rome.
I am an Anglican,
One step from Rome.

If I could have one honor in my lifetime, it would be to be called ‘The Very Reverend Evan Tucker’ as a title - I would even take that over wearing a terrible toupee that everybody’s too polite to ever point out.  Of all the absurdities in the English language, there can’t be many as absurd as allowing bishops and deans to hold the title ‘The Very Reverend.’ Calling someone “Reverend” is bad enough, it’s a subtle way of claiming a priest as ‘revered’, but uses a form of English grammar so antiquated that it probably went out of use by Shakespeare’s time. Obviously they know this, but to refer to your priest as ‘Revered’ is generally a lie. But by compounding it by calling a clergyman ‘The Very Reverend’ they compound its absurdity and its pomposity by an exponential figure  - nobody even remembers that ‘reverend’ is supposed to be an adjective, not a noun. Imagine a congregation where the clergy is called ‘The Very Rabbi’ or ‘The Very Imam.’

This was, of course, the thought which occurred to me yesterday afternoon as the Very Reverend such-and-such intoned a greeting to me over the Westminster Abbey Audio Guide. I say ‘of course’ because this thought occurs to me at least once every few months - usually more often. And once the sing-song voice of the clergy stopped (is ‘sing-song intonation’ a course requirement at divinity school?), it was replaced by the unmistakable rasp of Jeremy Irons as my tourguide. As far as tourguides go, it was not as good as the creepily bug-eyed rector with black hair and an albino face I had eight years ago, but having Jeremy Irons as a tourguide ensures that the Church of England still knows how to keep it creepy. 

Months ago, when I was booking this trip, I thought to myself that I did not want to have one of those inevitable American trips to Europe in which we cattleprod ourselves into reverend awe over the fact that such beauties can exist as one finds in the great European historical sites. Big vacations are too precious to waste on nothing but ‘great art.’ Beauty is amazing, but is fun on a vacation too much to ask? Would it be too much to ask that we Americans actually enjoy ourselves in Europe rather than merely claiming to? 

So like an alzheimer’s patient I’ve visited Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral in my first two days. Better to get religion out of the way first I suppose. And as I re-toured the many stunning chapels and tombs at Westminster, I could not help the fact that the most striking thing about it was the IKEA lamp box I saw peeking out from underneath the tomb of an 18th century soldier (of course, the name already escapes me...). We don’t live in a reverential (reverendial?) age, and after a certain point, one reaches a diabetes like numbness in the face of so much beauty. 

I understand why Westminster Abbey is a truly stunning building, but like all the churches I will soon see in France, it is a relic from a completely different age of humanity. The French churches hail from the anonymous age of the Gothic Cathedrals when anonymous architects and stone carvers made churches so large and ornate that they gave their worshippers a foretaste of eternal life (more on that in France...). But Westminster Abbey was begun in 1245, the Gothic Age was already half-finished. Unlike Notre Dame de Paris, the purpose of Westminster Abbey has always changed throughout the centuries. It is not a pristine Gothic monument to God, it is a monument to the English State. After 1550, it was no longer even a cathedral. God has so many cathedrals, surely the English Kings can have a church of their own... Rather than glorify God, Westminster Abbey exists to glorify England. And so it has the tombs of monarch after monarch, poet after poet, military leader upon leader, musician, artist, tax-collector, patent lawyer...

England has Westminster Abbey, God has St. Paul’s Cathedral. Kings and Queens marry and are crowned at Westminster, but their funerals are at St. Paul’s. Westminster is Gothic with a captial G, St. Paul’s is neoclassical. Christopher Wren designed the Cathedral with a challenge to Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s in Rome with its Parthenon-like columns and proportions clearly in view. Having been to both, I couldn’t see much contest at first. When I went to St. Pauls eight years ago, it was under heavy scaffolding, dirty, and much of it sectioned off from view. ‘What a dump’ was my first thought. It has since finished its cleaning - itself a ten year project! - and it has a kind of pristine glory that today’s Westminster (clearly in a bit of disrepair itself) lacks. Westminster Abbey reflects the infinite Gothic aspirations of Medieval times, whereas St. Paul’s is presided over by a Renaissance god who wants even religion to be at harmony with its surroundings. The building itself is every bit as friggin’ huge as any self-respecting cathedral should be, but somehow I wasn’t surprised that the original St. Paul’s was still larger by a third. And yet even in this miniature version of St. Pauls, and even after the cleaning, the cathedral is still too big. Parts of it already look dirty again, and one wonders if even after ten years they couldn’t get to cleaning all of it. Nobody should wear white. 

But the biggest shock came when I went to Choral Evensong at St. Paul’s. The Choir of St. Paul’s was unfortunately on holiday, so instead we got a local parish choir. Anyone who’s been to a local (white) church service in America would utterly roll their eyes at this prospect - an out of tune mishmash of unmusical kids whose parents make them sing and too-loud-singing adults who still think a singing career is still an option. But even the parish churches of England apparently have incredible choirs with perfect blend and diction, and the perfect ‘straight tone’ (no vibrato) English sound. It would be nice though if English choirs sang better music than the cheap 20th century Anglican knockoffs which pale as much in comparison to the great composers of the English Choral Tradition as America’s Episcopal choirs compare to their Anglican equivalents. 

I did not find any part of this spiritually inspiring, not even remotely. In our day, we needn’t take things nearly so seriously. Why is Westminster Abbey such a miracle when wikipedia can give us a virtual tour of it? We neither understand nor need the high seriousness of a Choral Evensong. But I can understand why someone else would.

It was before but a blink of an eye in the world’s history that reverential awe was the step forward. In an era that knew barely anything of instant gratification, great workmanship was a state to which all humankind had to aspire. Three hundred years ago, all citizens of Christendom could look from the floors to the walls to the windows to the ceilings of the great cathedrals and see a glimpse of infinity: infinite space and time, infinite soul, infinite beauty, infinite justice, infinite compassion, infinite workmanship, infinite patience, and infinite effort. In an age when all work was done with hands, the cathedral was the sum total of man’s achievement. When a family of stonemasons or woodcarvers went to Westminster Abbey, they could see for themselves what could be done with their hands, and we should never doubt for a second that the reverential awe they felt at such sites was as ecstatically real as ours is forced.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

800 Words: The Proms Wakes Me Up

Had I returned to London any year before this one, reacclimation would have been easier, perhaps instant. For seven years after I lived here for a mere summer, I had looked back on London as ‘my city’ with all the fervor of a spiritual home: in which the people are far better educated, more polite, friendlier, funnier, than any other place I’d ever been. Hell, maybe it’s even true. 

But I could far easier make a claim for ‘my city’ to be Baltimore, Washington DC, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, perhaps even New York or Bethany Beach, Delaware and not have to be one of those stupid Americans who thinks of Europe as a kind of magic dreamland which exists completely apart from reality. On the other hand, London really is my kind of town to a degree no other city has ever been; not even New York or Boston. All the cultural amenities of America - the TV, the movies, the music, are thriving here with a public that boils with enthusiasm and make themselves present to a degree that would cause any American to feel at home. But on the other hand, there’s the old-world veneration of those things about which so many Americans have completely forgotten: old music, straight theater, the written word, Art with a capital A. Certainly some American cities: New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, have those qualities as well, but none of them feel built to house both in tandem to nearly the same degree which London does. Perhaps Paris will, but whatever Paris holds, it will reveal some very different things from London. For me, London stands as the cultural watchdog between Old World and New, meanwhile becoming a playground for the best of both. Now if only I had unlimited amounts of money....

But this London, ‘my’ London, seemed almost absent for me on my first day. By the time I arrived early yesterday morning, my bleary-eyed self had barely slept in 24 hours. I spent the plane ride reading about France, failing to finish movies, and being woken up by crying babies and restless neighbors.

Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, but the alarming truth was that I spent an entire day in London without it entirely hitting me that I was back (poor me..). It was shocking how absent the frission was of seeing the city’s omnipresent green spaces, being back in the tube, walking around South Kensington, standing next to Royal Albert Hall... it was as though I’d completely forgotten what once thrilled me about this place. It just seemed so....white!

It’s just like the sense of entitlement a college student feels to see a place which resembles nothing so much as a fairy tale and decide that such a place is his birthright. But my first reaction was a sort of deadened hilarity at how homogeneous English people are. Certainly there is a large Middle Eastern and Indian population, but at first glance, the white population seems so secluded, so segregated from that population that it seems to affect them not at all - at least in America whites interact with blacks and hispanics by forcing them to serve as the underclass...

For a country so well known for its class system, today’s England is strikingly casteless. Interacting with today’s Englishmen feels not unlike interacting with the Americans of two generations ago. To a contemporary American, it can seem like a relic of the perfect (or perfectly dead) society which we will never know in which everybody gets a stunningly high base level of education, to a point which no cliques seem to have formed with each holding their own values and ‘languages,’ and everybody seems to interact one another with such security that nearly the entire country seems like an extended family. The different parts of English society have so successfully, seemlessly blended that there is hardly a melting pot of which one can speak. Compared to America, today’s England seems so secure, and so shielded from conflict, that it can almost deceive you into thinking it dull. Is this a sign that the country is on the precipice of an explosion, or a sign that it’s about to have half-a-millenium of uninterrupted peace?

It was only around 7:15 yesterday evening, upon us ‘prommers’ being led into the gallery of Royal Albert Hall after roughly hours of standing in a queue, shepherded into the most crowded imaginable space like Muslims on the Haj into the Grand Mosque to see Daniel Barenboim conduct two Beethoven Symphonies and a ‘modern’ work by Pierre Boulez, that I began waking up to an overwhelming sense of culture shock.

I was standing exactly four rows behind the conductor’s podium. And around me in that gallery was a panoply of ages, and at least half a dozen simultaneous conversations about classical music, all knowledgeable and completely audible. Two rows behind me was a young man talking up a beautiful woman and seemingly trying to impress her with his knowledge about Charles Mackerras’s career. One row behind me to my left was a man and a woman clearly on a date, both in their late fifties, and telling each other about the most memorable orchestral concerts they’ve seen in the last few years. In front of me was an older gentleman, telling an older lady about how Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven stacked up to all the other Beethoven cycles he’d seen. My friend, The Harris, and I struck up a conversation with another guy there; in his fifties, my height and vaguely Jewish looking (we were the only two people there under five-and-a-half feet tall) and spoke about Barenboim for some minutes. Near me was a German couple in their thirties, and from whatever little German I have I picked up that they were very excited for the Boulez. Next to me was a still more beautiful woman than the other who seemed to have come to a Proms concert completely alone. Near me another guy, early twenties and looking like an American popped-collar frat boy, standing completely on his own. Another guy in his twenties stood alone, and was reading some sort of music book. Clearly the older generation seemed more knowledgeable on the whole, but here was a city where classical music still clearly has a future.

It was only at intermission that I worked up the nerve to do what I barely had the nerve to do eight years ago - I spoke to nearly all of them. The kid reading the music book was a doctoral fellow at Kings College in Medieval Literature who hated Wolfram von Eschenbach. The ‘jock’ was an enthusiastic amateur violinist who loved playing Beethoven in semi-pro orchestras. The beautiful girl standing alone was a French girl with barely any English, but she played Beethoven on the piano and wanted to hear the symphonies. The German couple were jazz music lovers who wanted to determine if Boulez sounded like free-jazz, or if free-jazz sounded like Boulez (they also gave me some delicious olives). Of the couple on the date, I learned that the guy had been going to the Proms every year for thirty years and had been going to concerts of the Liverpool Philharmonic since he was a child, and of the woman I learned that she has a personal, not musical, hatred of Roger Norrington.  

The Proms is the greatest music festival in the world. Period. There is nothing in any other genre in any city which compares to the coordination it takes to assemble a different orchestra from a different part of the world every night for two months in a venue that can house six-thousand people with standing room 5 pound tickets in the front of the hall. It is now in its 117th year, and the seasons show only signs of growing in size and scope - there’s even an additional chamber music festival now at Wigmore Hall.

In America, a festival like this is utterly unthinkable. In order for The Proms to happen, there needs to be a massive government subsidy from a national broadcasting organization (in this case the massively funded BBC) which thinks classical music is in itself a public good - and they therefore produce, distribute, and advertise the concerts throughout the entire world. The whole idea that classical music, or even music itself, is a public good would cause many Americans to laugh themselves senseless - and perhaps rightly so. There is very little evidence that much good is done for the public by putting a hundred or so classical concerts. But ultimately, that is why The Proms are so awesome. Artists thrive on risk, and the best art is neither made when artists have too little money nor a too stable source of income - neither situation inspires people in the arts to their best. What inspires them is that tenuous middle ground where the funding to survive can be taken away at any moment - and they therefore must beg, borrow, or steal the money they need to fulfill their dreams.

Many music lovers in the UK protest the fact that the Proms, and the organization who produces them, are being irredeemably dumbed down (how spoiled can you be?). But unlikely as it sounds, should the economy of Britain crumble to the ground tomorrow, what program will be hacked up first? The Proms or the National Health Service? Its the very fragileness of a festival like the Proms that makes it such a miracle. I’m not sure if I believe in God, but I believe in The Proms.

Monday, July 23, 2012

800 Words: I Need a Vacation

In recent vintage, the posts on this blog have gotten darker and still darker, more and still more self-revealing, less and still less well-advised. I’ve tried to make it a rule for this blog to keep some kind of balance. Something dark must be followed by something light, something serious by something frivolous. If it can be helped, no writer, and no person, should ever edge too far in any mental direction without returning the other way. If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you; if you avoid the abyss, the abyss no longer gives a shit.

Even as I’ve felt no less happy in the last month (if anything, rather happier than usual), I’ve found my thoughts on these pages gravitating toward bleaker and still bleaker sentiments. The longer an anxious person goes without feeling anxiety, the more he feels anxious about the anxiety to come. And the more premonitions he has, the more likely he is to allow them to come true.

I’ve had two separate friends tell me that this blog is coming to resemble a Dostoevsky novella, one of whom said it weeks before I even mentioned Dostoevsky here. Lest you think I’m being overly egotistical by bringing this up, please understand that I often seriously question whether Dostoevsky is not an absurdly overrated author – and I don’t doubt that they meant it in precisely that same spirit. I can love Dostoevsky for fifteen minutes at a time, and then invariably get absolutely tired of him. But the sentiments in Dostoevsky, the long-windedness, the narcissism, the constant hysterical confessions by total strangers, the glorification of suffering, the proto-fascist longing to be told what to think by a higher power….those sentiments are all beginning to sound a little too familiar... I never wanted to write bad Dostoevsky, I wanted to write bad Chekhov and bad Pushkin. Ideally, this blog was meant to house well-proportioned writing which mingles every possible emotional state at a length that never outstays its welcome. Blogging, like life, seems to aspire to a state of Chekhov but ends in a state of Dostoevsky.

But all good blogs are good in the same way, all bad blogs are bad in different ways (I know, I know, that’s Tolstoy). When this blog is good, I like to think that in its small way it gets the whole flavor of experience. From day to day, I have new ideas for all sorts of subjects whose thoughts seem to write themselves, and they run the gamut from serious to silly, sad to happy, heavy to light, smart to stupid. When this blog is bad, the mental acuity slows, and I very much feel like I’m agonizing to think of every word. When that happens, the emotions gravitate more toward one end of those scales and forgets the other. Needless to say, lately it’s been gravitating more toward seriousness, heaviness, sadness, perhaps even stupidity…

Fortunately, the past year of writing’s experiences far number more in the former category than the latter – I’m damn proud of the writing I’ve done here, and would never take back a word of it (except the grammar mistakes). Like any writer who finds the process easy, in my best moments I don’t feel like it’s me who’s writing. It’s only in my worst moments when every individual word feels as though it must be sucked out of my brain and I have to tap into things which I probably shouldn’t’ be sharing on this blog in order to keep the writing at a pace.

I do not regret becoming what many bloggers call an ‘oversharer’. If you want to write, then to a certain extent you have to draw on personal experience – where else can you draw? If people want to understand each other, then they unfortunately have to expose information to one another that might not be well-advised to expose. My red flags used to go up instantly when I saw someone share the private details of their lives online, as though somehow that was indicative of a person being particularly volatile or insane. But then I realized, who the hell am I to pretend that my bodily emanations don’t stink? And what the hell do I have to lose? I’m not particularly special, I’m just a nerdy kid from Baltimore who in his own way has led a fairly interesting life.

And then I remembered, this is what most if not all decent writers do – no matter how well a writer conceals the details of his life, all writing, even all fiction, is a variation on autobiography. Even if your unconscious dictates your material, that’s autobiography; even if you’re inspired to write something by what you read, that’s autobiography; even if you’re inspired by the details of someone else’s life – a friend, a famous person, a person you meet at a bar – that’s autobiography. In each case, it's you who has to process the information, and at least in that sense it's happening to you as much as it's happening to anyone else. Some writers are clearly more upfront about this process than others, and it makes little difference to the quality of their work whether they conceal the details of their lives in their work or share them – different processes work for different writers. But so long as human beings do the writing, we can only write based on what we perceive.

I’d like to think my perceptions are about to change rather drastically. Tomorrow, I’m headed to France and England for a month. This will be the biggest vacation I’ve been on in thirteen years and the first time I’ve been back to Europe in eight. Eight years ago, I lived in London for a summer – and in so many ways that was the summer which defined all the choices I’d made since then. It was in London that I began writing a blog, and blogging has been the most consistent activity I’ve had since then. I had the most horrendous internship with a British musical organization imaginable (not telling which), and it’s soured me towards office work ever since (not that I’ve successfully avoided it in recent years). I was in what is still my favorite city in the world, yet all I could think of was how much I missed my friends back home – friends who are still among my closest. Every night I heard new pieces of music and theater that made me want to stay in this city forever, and it made me broke three separate times during that summer – a financial state I became intimately acquainted with as the years went by. 

Like all Americans of some cerebral bent, I still put a cache on Europe that probably isn’t entirely deserved. To Americans, Europe is the place where fairy tales are reenacted. It’s less true than it once was, but Americans don’t understand history. The idea that we are who we are because other people got us here is completely antithetical to an American self-image. We believe we are masters of our destinies, hatched from our mothers’ wombs sui generis, and view the entire world as an orange to be squeezed. America has always been a vast, uncharted space of opportunity – a blank canvas on which we can all paint our own mural. Europe is a collage on which millennia’s worth of people already made their own forms. European cities seem as chaotically organic as any natural forest, on which thousands of years of growths collide, clash, and overtake one another – each generation splattering a new seed and pollen into the ecosystem. American cities are like planned forests, in which the buildings seem like trees planted in a straight line – no American city is more than 300 years old, and it’s impossible to obtain the diversity of style and spirit which each age added to the most mythical European cities.

Americans view Europe with a confused mixture of intimidated awe and the irritation with which young people have for nagging parents who try to shame their children in an unconscious effort to stop the kids from achieving more than they ever did. But Europe is even more confused by America, and their stereotypes are hilariously inconsistent. Americans are fat, yet obsessed with health. Americans are lazy, yet obsessed with work. Americans are warm and friendly, yet could not be more obnoxious. Like an older generation viewing a younger one, they dotingly observe everything about their ‘kids’ yet can’t understand a single thing they see, and just like when old people try to imitate the habits of the young, their oft-made attempts to be more like Americans are rather hilarious. To take some famous examples, no American would place the value the French do on Jerry Lewis, or the Germans on David Hasslehoff, or the Russians on McDonalds. Every person interprets other people through their own filter, and Europe and America continue to talk at each other in a series of blackly comic misunderstandings that grow more unstable every decade. Once upon a time, German physicists were imported to Chicago and New Mexico to work on a nuclear bomb; today American physicists tele-commute to Switzerland work on the Higgs Boson particle research. From the new American liberalism of Roosevelt partnered the imperial conservatism of Churchill, the Atlanticist political relationship evolved into the imperial conservatism of George W. Bush partnered with the old American liberalism of Tony Blair. Fifty years ago Americans flocked to movie theaters watch the Hollywood-influenced artfilms of Truffaut and Fellini, today Europeans buy DVD’s by the gross to watch European art-film influenced TV shows made for American cable in their own homes. Europeans once envied Americans for their social programs and efficient government…you know the rest…

Europe is different than America. I plan on enjoying every one of those differences for maximum contrast and updating this blog as often as I can to chart precisely how weird it is to be an apple pie American again on the strudel continent. If posts have gotten quite dark lately, I have a feeling (though can in no way guarantee) that balance will be restored, because the tone is about to get lighter in kind.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Friday, July 13, 2012

800 Words: The First Anniversary

A year ago today, I posted my first 800 Word topic, a review of V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River - it's the one of only true book reviews I've posted this year because my reading habits are so haphazard that I rarely read a book from start to finish. I often even find that I have more success finishing books if I read them backwards, starting with the last chapter and letting it progress in reverse order. In the meantime, my deceptively illiterate self has written hundreds of thousands of words on topics as diverse as Aaron Sorkin, Leos Janacek, Bashar al-Assad, Mad Men, Homeland, Ray Bradbury, Religion, the Euro crisis, Billy Crystal, Clint Eastwood, Thomas Quasthoff, Diablo Cody, Handel's Messiah, Christopher Hitchens, What constitutes a "Jewish" movie, what the 21st century 'classics' are, The Beatles, Occupy Wall Street, Christopher Columbus, my generation, Jewish music, Bach, Sibelius, Lieber & Stoller, the American Prairie, Joseph Epstein, the Orioles, Barack Obama, The Simpsons, Johnny Cash, Jon Stewart, The Producers, Twitter, La Regle du Jeu, Vanya on 42nd Street, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Johnny Cash, Harry Potter, China, and the differences between Baltimore and Washington. I've shared all kinds of details from my private life - the type of which I always poo-poohed when other people did the same. God help me, I've even tried my hand at some fiction. And most amazingly to me, I feel only as though I'm just getting warmed up.

So I suppose it’s fitting that right as I approach the one-year anniversary of my beginning this 800 words thing, I should get hit with a minor case of writer’s block. The whole point of this exercise was to prevent writer’s block. No matter what the quality was, or what the subject, I would issue 800 words a day on whatever topic I could. If I have not managed 800 words a day on whatever subject I like, it’s because my ability to conquer writer’s block turned out to be successful beyond my wildest imaginings.

In the last year, I’ve written 190 of these 800 Words posts, but on average each post is probably about 2000 words long. I’ve had a number of posts that well exceed 4,000 words, and the subjects just keep coming. And that doesn’t even count all the various posts I never finished – at least a quarter of the ones I begin exist in an unfinished state on my computer. How the hell did I write so much?

I hope that when I say ‘writer’s block’ I mean it entirely tongue in cheek because there is no such thing. It’s not that we ‘writers’ should all have endless facility and craft, it’s that to even call myself a writer would be incredibly presumptuous, as I suspect it would be for anyone to define themselves with such a specific identity. For years, writing was something I compulsively did as I pursued other activities. As the failures began to stack up – as a poet, actor, theater director, film director, philosophy student, composer, conductor, violinist, journalist, newspaper critic, political operative, and investor – I couldn’t help noticing that writing was something to which I kept coming back. I began to wonder, what would happen if I just wrote for myself? Just me and a keyboard, no trying to compete with the world, no trying to garner any sense of outward accomplishment. Even if nobody else knew that I was doing something really well, I would know. And thus was this project born.

I could, of course, try something other than self-publishing and attempt to market myself to magazines, newspapers, websites, group blogs, but that runs the risk of another disappointment setting in. No longer would I have the time to do as much writing as possible, and no longer would I be able to keep this part of my life completely separate from all life’s other disappointments. Such an act would be a fool-proof recipe for “writer’s” block.

Growing up, I never set out to be a writer. I wanted to be an orchestra conductor, and over the years I tried my hand at all those professions I listed above with varying degrees of success and less varying degrees of failure. Frankly, my disorganized self was not well-matched for any other calling than this one. Writing is the most basic artform there is, and the most learning disabled person can become a great writer. If you can talk ,you can write; and oh my, how I can talk…

I recently met a rather interesting person at some social functions. Like me, this person is clearly a marathon talker, but he’s also everything I’m not – tall, thin, extraverted, self-confident. Unlike me, he’s clearly supremely good at selling himself and frankly has already gotten me to go to some parties to which I didn’t even want to go. He’s also an accomplished writer, with long articles published in some of the most famous newspapers and magazines in the world. A few days ago, I saw him again and asked how much writing he does aside from what’s published – and his answer, while disappointing, was in no way surprising. The morbid egotism of the writer’s life apparently holds no appeal to him, and he would much prefer a life of action to the isolation which a writer’s life requires.

What sane person wouldn’t prefer a normal life to the writer’s life? No one has an obligation to develop their talents, and if a person is capable of an easier, more enjoyable life by doing something other than creative work, why would they subject themselves to the endless toil, frustration, and misunderstanding which defines an artist’s life? Great artists are made, not born. The talent must be there, but there has to be an endless series of setbacks to make a person believe that retreating to solitary confinement for hours every day to dwell in a private world of their own making is a good idea. ­­­­There has to be a bottomless source of existential angst to make a person want to wrestle with weighty subjects rather than merely entertaining ones. Nobody grapples with the unanswerable questions of existence unless life forces them to do it. For any person to whom life’s been unceasingly kind, the weightiness of life’s real problems is a stupefying bore. Some of these people may become writers, musicians, filmmakers, but they only know how to strive for entertainment, not enlightenment. Their sights are lower and they do not crave a greater understanding of the world, because all they know about it is how to enjoy it.

Whatever I’ve accomplished in the last year on this blog is for other readers to say (if I have any…), but I will be arrogant enough to say that what I do on this blog is art – good art, bad art, it doesn’t matter. I have now done an average of more than 800 words a day on this blog for a whole year and for the first time in my life, I can say with a clear conscience that I am finally an artist.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

800 Words: The Aaron Sorkin Problem - Part 4

Seventy years ago, Aaron Sorkin would have been screenwriter to the giants - a writer who can write eloquent dialogue beyond our wildest imaginings, capable of fusing humor and sadness together as firmly as a diamond; capable in the right mood of Shakespearean eloquence and Chekhovian pathos. Seventy years ago he would have been a  creenwriter of choice to Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Hawks, Capra, Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor, Huston, Minelli, Ray, Sirk, and would have made better movies for them all (Oh dear, I sound like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay).

The studio system was far from perfect, it was a factory which churned out product for a focused grouped audience on schedule. Whether good or bad, the product must come out on time. No envelopes were pushed except by mistake, and studio heads did everything they could to drive difficult talent out from the industry. But Golden Age Hollywood also nurtured talent from cradle to grave - if you exhibited talent, there was always steady employment. In 1935, a young writer with Sorkin’s talent would be personally supervised by Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick, and producers like them would consider it a mission for him to create the best possible product for their pictures. The studio system did not produce most of the greatest movies ever made, but they cared about their product in ways most studios today can never be bothered with, and as a result produced a stunning amount of damn good movies. Some greater movies may have been made later, but so did a lot of far worse ones.

How many contemporary writers of Sorkin’s talent find those types of opportunities? Today’s screenwriters, like everybody else in Hollywood, are free agents; forced to claw their way to the top because there is no mechanism in place to ensure that talent will ever get the opportunity it deserves. And when a talented person is lucky enough to be promoted up the food chain, there are scant people to navigate him on the journey to utilize his talent.

In so many cases, Aaron Sorkin teleplays can be viewed as recreations of the studio system - or any other functional workplace. His shows derive their interest from watching benevolent places where authority figures can always tell us what is right, and derive their danger from less benevolent people standing in their way. Would that Aaron Sorkin worked in the studio system..., a screenwriter and script doctor of genius who could write on order for whatever situation Hawks and Hitchcock demanded.

Aaron Sorkin writes romances about people who do bold, innovative, extraordinary things. Yet the manner in which he writes about them is as artistically timid, conservative, manipulative, and formulaic as words can possibly be. Through television, artists like David Chase, Matthew Weiner, and Larry David may have created the American literature of our age and expanded the capacity of human thought in ways we still can’t imagine. Aaron Sorkin uses his gift to recreate a formula best used seventy years in the past. He is an extraordinary artisan, perhaps the most extraordinary wordsmith on television, ever, or on any screen. Yet like any competent artisan, he is in dire need of a great artist’s guidance.

One can’t help noticing a steady trend in every one of his shows as the reviews get worse and worse. The trend is not the reviews, the trend is the shows, and they’re absolutely steady. Aaron Sorkin has applied precisely the same formula to every show he’s ever done - whether the workplace is a TV show or a political office or an administrative building or some melange of all three, there are absolutely consistent archetypes at work - the brilliant but arrogant young men, their benevolent father figures, the women made ditzy by emotional damage, and...of course...the snivelling moral midgets who remind the other characters that the real world exists. Sorkin’s shows have been almost completely consistent in their brilliance to idiocy ratios - it’s the public that’s finally tiring of it.   

Is The Newsroom really as bad as everybody says? No, it’s not. The first three episodes have some genuinely good moments, but few people can watch it without noticing that the good stands next to moments fully as cringe-inducingly horrible as anything on TV (Studio 60 for example...). No one will ever accolade this show with the plaudits of The West Wing or The Social Network, but it takes an effort to not notice that it’s at least better than terrible....though perhaps not too much.

The entire Sorkin approach is grounded in screwball comedy - the fast paced repartee, the unconsumated sexual tensions, the elegant social mores, this is all the Golden Age Hollywood which anyone can watch in Bringing Up Baby, Some Like It Hot, The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story. Even The West Wing has its roots in the old Hollywood talkies in which great writers who could never get a novel published tried to fit a script the length of a novel into ninety minutes. But whereas Preston Sturges fit Huck Finn into ninety minutes, Aaron Sorkin could fit Moby Dick. Sorkin isn’t writing screwball comedy, he’s writing eightball comedy (speaking of cringe-inducing...). But the pleasures of verbal sparring seem superficial to most people, it seemed superficial to many people at the time. Many famous classics with this approach used a sermonizing tone to assuage their guilt that perhaps this pleasure of watching people talk fast was too substanceless and morally lax. The result was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 12 Angry Men, On The Waterfront and the entire career of John Wayne. Art, and particularly movies, do not exist to create sermons. Sermons are meant to simplify the world and create the idea of a particular action for the listener to enact. But unlike sermons, art is not a hammer with which to bang society into whatever shape we see fit. Art is about contemplation and making our perception of world more complex, or at least it is in my world. Everyone has reasons to act the way they do, and a worldview which frames characters either as beacons of moral strength or as moral midgets sending us to Sodom and Gemorrah is simplistic at best, and fascist at worst. But if all this is true for the speed of the sounds emanating from Golden-Age Hollywood, how much truer is it for the light speed of an Aaron Sorkin show?

If the talent of Aaron Sorkin can be divided into something similarly simplistic, it would be ‘fair’ to say that the better angels of his talent reside within his sheer verbal enthusiasm. Like Hepburn and Tracy, Bogie and Becall, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, Sorkin’s characters exist solely for the sake of verbal sparring.  The entire Aaron Sorkin experience is grounded in the idea that it might be fun to watch His Girl Friday on cocaine; and when the high comes down, it might be nice to put on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington again to put your conscience at ease. Within Sorkin’s personality is a Mozart of dialogue, yet that same brain houses a Jonathan Edwards worth of fire and brimstone.  

...more as this story develops....

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bad Religion by Frank Ocean

An extraordinary song. And an extraordinary moment in popular culture.

h/t Le Malon

Quote of the Day

The Hicks: you know Evansometimes I think you would have made a happy Bede
 i think you would have liked saving civilization with a quill

Monday, July 9, 2012

800 Words: The I-Word

(with lots of help from Eric Hoffer’s The Ordeal of Change…)

Stop and think for a moment: what is the dirtiest word in the English language, the word that makes the most people stop everything they do, quiver in fear, and go in precisely the opposite direction from where they were headed before? We’ve long since overcome our taboos against the so-called curse words like fuck, shit, asshole and such. It’s still all too dirty to say slurs like ‘faggot’ and ‘nigger’, but there’s far too much advocacy and awareness about how hurtful such words can be for us to say that any prejudicial slur is anywhere nearly so fear-inspiring as it was a generation or two ago. What is the one word in the English Language, the one accusation, the one insinuation, against which there is no defense, no argument, against which all possible refutations are considered ultimate proof of the accusation being true. 


Some insults are so serious that they can never be taken back. Many blacks and gays take pride in words like ‘nigger’ and ‘faggot’ so that they repossess them from those who would do harm, but among people alleged to be intellectual, there is no such movement. To be intellectual or an intellectual in America is to be the outcast’s outcast because there is no other insult for which any refutation you make is proof positive that the accusation is true. ‘That refutation took a lot of thought. Now we KNOW you’re an intellectual.’ *

I suppose it was as predictable as any development, but the very moment when education became more available to more people than ever in world history was the very same moment when education became something no longer highly prized. After the GI bill and World War II, education ceased to be something for a privileged few, it became democratic and available to anyone who wanted it. Therefore, any claim to erudition is no longer a sign of social status, it’s a sign of weakness. If the greatest source of your pride is based upon your intellectual acumen, that advertises that you have no claims to status in any arena that in which few other people can compete: like physical acumen, moneymaking ability, sexual attraction, longevity.

No doubt, it’s highly wrong to pretend to know more than you do. I try not to, but I catch myself on this blog making exaggerations of my knowledge all the time, sometimes weeks after I’ve already posted. It’s a particularly active fear of mine, in part because that’s the nature of a blog about intellectual subjects, but in part because we all look at intellectual pretensions with a special kind of revulsion. People lie about other sorts of prowess all the time – physical feats of strength, sexual performance and opportunity, age, weight, salary, etc.  But I don’t think it’s a mistake to think we view the exaggeration of intellectual acumen as something particularly awful. People don’t want to seem smarter than they are, and anyone with any degree of social skill goes out of his way not to seem too smart. To the extent that I can say I have social skills, I do exactly the same.

The best possible evidence for this problem is the fact that I honestly don’t view myself as an intellectual. I currently have seven books out from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I probably listen to at least five hours of classical music every day, I spend nearly every free moment reading magazine articles that keep me abreast of current events and issues, and I have a blog on which I can claim knowledge of virtually every intellectual topic without any credential for expertise: yet I don’t consider myself an intellectual.  Intellectuals are over-educated, whereas I have a bachelor’s degree in music. Intellectuals are shielded from the real world, whereas I work in finance and real estate. Intellectuals are humorless, whereas I just have a bad sense of humor. In our day, intellectual is synonymous with ‘buzzkill’, and in my social life I like to think of myself (perhaps wrongly) as anything but a buzzkill. I’m damned entertaining company, and no intellectual is.

So not only do I not view myself as an intellectual, but I can’t help feeling a twinge of horror at the likelihood that others probably do. When I hear other people steering the conversation towards something particularly intellectual at a party, I try to roll my eyes just like everybody else does. I can’t help it, like many others I’ve long since been conditioned to feel revulsion at intellectual pretensions. Having so often been the buzzkill in my early years who ruined everybody’s fun by bringing up politics or literature in the middle of a perfectly harmless conversation about sports, I can’t help it if part of me thinks I deserved whatever followed. Whether in high school or the workplace, there’s no quicker way to become a social outcast than to bring up intellectual topics too often, and no easier way to fit in than to make sure you don’t seem like a nerd. Any serious conversation about learning is too detrimental to the act of making friends to have too often. All intellectual conversations are too redolent of stressful associations like homework, term papers, and class discussions for anyone to view such topics as fun in an age when everybody gets some form of education.

And because intellectuality has so many bad connotations for so many people, nobody should be surprised that intellectual people become extraordinarily resentful, disgusted with the world around them and a contemporary society which guarantees them no secure place in its firmament.

Every piece of empirical data shows us that the society in which we live – meaning the First World society of the United States, Canada, North-Western Europe and a few other outlying countries around the world – is the most effective, most secure, most provided for social contract in the history of mankind. Yet the 20th and 21st centuries have been loaded with intellectuals who want to see this pricelessly amazing social contract burn to a crisp because the results are simply not good enough. It is within living memory that a plurality of Western intellectuals advocated en masse for us to show sympathy and understanding to the Nazi cause, to the Communists, to the worst excesses of Imperial rule, and now to the worst excesses of Islamic law. To them, because our social contract does not solve every problem, it must be prevented from solving any problem. Whether it is Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao, or Saddam, or the Ayatollahs, or anyone else who kills hundreds of thousands, there is the same reason to excuse them – they all may be brutal, but every one of us living in privilege is responsible for creating the conditions which made their rule possible, and therefore we must absent ourselves from their decisions and respect that these people solve their problems in their own way. The more foreign aid the first world gives, the more peace it brokers, the more lives it saves, the more resentful First World intellectuals grow of First World prosperity. The more we give, the more they demand, and the less forgiven First World governments are for the lives they didn’t save. And the less the first world saves, the more attractive demagogues seem who promise that every life will be saved under a different kind of regime – the same demagogues who inevitably provide butchery when given the reins of power. The reason for this intellectual prejudice, sadly, is all too simple. It is not the conduct of the first world which is hated, it is the first world’s very existence.

Intellectuals, like all other people, can only relate to what they’ve already experienced. In eras when the capacity for book learning was scarce, intellectual pursuits were given great credibility and honor. Intellectuals therefore were feted by all facets of society, given a distinguished seat at the table of power as advisors, judges, and administrators. The poet-warrior had a special mark of distinction in all pre-modern eras, and to be esteemed both as a man of action and a man of contemplation was considered the highest possible honor.  

But today’s intellectual has no such glories on his horizon. In the best of circumstances, he is given a job which boxes him in an obscenely narrow specialization. At worst, he must either ‘sell out’ by taking job for which his temperament is completely ill-suited, or must struggle his life-long for a career with no rewards from society – miniscule pay, no power, no glory, no esteem. If he can at all help it, he will not socialize with any non-intellectual person, because he may very well be subject to the bullying which all weak people are. Even the most successful of intellectuals in a first-world country are rarely if ever granted access to genuine wealth or any elite hall of power.

Like all other people, intellectuals are primarily motivated by social status – and any intellectual who claims otherwise is either lying or stupid. In our day, we tend to think of intellectuals as being people of the Left. But the eras of monarchy and feudalism are not too long ago, and in those societies, intellectuals were fundamentally a conservative phenomenom. Kings and noblemen were a guaranteed source of patronage for the humanities and were advised by their most well-read subjects. Until the fall of European monarchies in World War I, it was by and large true for entire millenniums that more university professors and students, more writers and teachers, more artists and musicians, respected tradition over innovation and authority over democracy. In their particular society’s version of it, intellectuals were a phenomenon more of the Right than of the Left or Center.

But the intellectual’s recent neglect has not stopped him from trying to claim his share in this world just as any other person would. In every major world revolution since the Renaissance, we’ve seen the intellectual at its vanguard – only to be brushed aside once his revolution is successful by more practical types who have devoted more of their lives to understanding people than ideas.  Now that he sees that nation-states have failed to recognize his value, he reasons that perhaps socialist states, anarchic states, perhaps even Islamic states would value him more.

In his famous 1955 book, The Opium of the Intellectuals, Raymond Aron famously observed “Intellectuals want, more than anything else, to be taken seriously, and Communism is the sole party to grant them any importance – if only by putting them in prison. It is the United States which takes intellectuals least seriously, even while paying them fortunes.” In democratic societies with secure economies, there are all sorts of contingencies in place when crises happen, most having once been thought of by intellectuals, so there is no sense of urgency for intelligent thought to contribute to society’s maintenance; whereas in dictatorships, dysfunctional democracies, and failed states, there is little but a series of crises with no contingencies in place. Whether or not they consciously acknowledge it, there is a vested interest for intellectuals to either dismantle a functioning modern society, or to make people believe that their modern society is inadequate.

One doesn’t see the end result of this problem in America or Western Europe, or even China and Russia. One sees the end result among the newly educated classes of the developing world, where the only experience possible of these differing ways of life is whatever they read in books and magazines. And when they see that democracy and capitalism inspires so much contempt, how can they believe that such a state is preferable to authoritarianism and planned economies? For the most part, western intellectuals were spurned by American governments. But Stalin and Fidel never ceased to court them and make them feel as though their opinions were listened to, and as such they trounced America in the war for ‘hearts and minds’ in the third world. Not because what they believed was correct or even well-intentioned, but because America didn’t even show up for battle.

In times of particular economic despair, revolution is always a possibility; and as ever before in recent history, it is the intellectuals who would lead it. The direction of such revolutions is yet to be seen, but we currently see their beginnings in the Middle East. When revolution is in the air, it is the intellectual, and only the intellectual, who has the capacity to inflame the public with new or old ideas. If the First World’s men of action believe, truly believe, that democracy is preferable to authoritarianism, that well-regulated capitalism is preferable to planned economies, then they have to convince others of this fact. It is a particular arrogance of our time that people believe that the benefits of capitalism and democracy speak for themselves and need no advocacy – one which you would think the Bush administration would have tempered, but to no avail. It is at best difficult to believe that the current  First World way of life will survive into the twenty-second century unless the intellectuals are won over and brought back into the mainstream of contemporary life. And that means far greater patronage of the humanities in all its facets. Everyone involved in the humanities from educators to practitioners must be supported by governments as though what they do is absolutely paramount to national security, because it still may turn out to be exactly so. We may have revulsion of intellectuals, but overcoming it may prove to be the only thing which can save society from an ultimate downfall. It may be true that a society who gives  teachers, scientists, artists, musicians and writers something like the reverence they give to athletes and movie stars will be an unhealthy society on the brink of collapse, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Intellectuals may seem ineffectual, but if the society in which we live crumbles, they may again show themselves out to be the most lethally effective people of all.

* not that any non-intellectual would use a word like 'refutation', witness Sarah Palin for the results of that...

Thursday, July 5, 2012

800 Words: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate Poetry

July 4th is important in America for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s the anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass’s first edition in 1855. It is the ‘inauguration date’ of American poetry, and to some it doubtless marks the publication of the greatest, most influential, and most significant of all American books. Oh how I wish I was still one of them.

As an eighteen year old boarding school student who covered up insecurity with insufferable intellectual pretensions (how little life changes...), I suppose it was a given that I’d take to American poetry like a fish to water. At the Hyde school, we were surrounded by the lovely dark and deep green coniferous trees of rural Connecticut, a landscape that seemed to radiate the folksy severity that’s defined New England life since the Puritans. No doubt, many if not most of the kids at Hyde used those woods at some point to smoke pot, but when I walked through them, I could convince myself that I was breathing the same air as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Longfellow, Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Cummings, and Elizabeth Bishop.

Whether or not that love was real, I certainly believed it was. I felt as though I loved poetry, and I think I even understood some of it. But whether I did or I didn’t, I couldn’t get enough of it. I wrote at least 300 poems of my own, and I held ‘poetry readings’ at the school where I would try to get other Hyde students who exhibited even a glimmer of intellectual energy to get their thoughts down on paper.

I’m 30 years old now, I’ve long since lost touch with virtually everybody from Hyde and can’t say I particularly miss too many people from that period. Those poems of mine currently exist somewhere in an accordion folder, no doubt boxed up somewhere in my parents’ attic. Most of the poetry I once loved seems to me a colossal waste of hormones - an exalting of an inner life and that doesn’t really exist and an escape from dealing with the actual complexities of living. But I miss feeling that way about poetry.

The whole idea that art can bring us into a special world - an inner world of ecstasy and mysticism in which art and philosophy can feed the ‘spirit’ and the ‘soul’ - now seems like the dumb musings of upper class twits who know too little of what life really is to ever reach it. Art is no better than religion at soul-feeding, and all we have to do is look at the sophisticated aesthetic tastes of atheist mass murderers to see that art can be just as dangerous: Hitler was a Wagner-loving painter, Saddam wrote novels in his spare time, Stalin and Mao were both poets in their younger years. If we look to art as a substitute for our baser instincts and fanaticism, we may do no better than we did with religion. Art, like religion, is hopefully a way to pacify our baser tendencies, but there’s no guarantee that either does. In some, art inspires greater humanity and humility. In some, art inspires less. If music or poetry inspires you to listen to other people more attentively, to be more considerate in what you think, to be more skeptical toward the beliefs with which you agree and more charitable to those with which you disagree, then culture can truly be said to have a beneficial impact on people. But is there any truly quantifiable way to measure that? And if we do, what happens if we find out that art affects people’s ability to become better people not at all, or makes people worse?

There is lots of poetry I still love, but most of it is much less grand in intent - small-scale poems by Philip Larkin or Billy Collins meant to make us laugh or cry, without abiding ambition to capture any greater meaning than the emotions we feel every day. The ecstasy of poetry, the feeling that you were reaching some higher level of inward consciousness and aesthetic bliss, no longer seems real to me. The days when Whitman or Dante or Milton or Goethe could bowl me over have likely passed on forever.

Furthermore, I’m not even sure anymore why people should or would read it. Twelve years ago, I certainly thought of myself as a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, but even then I used to bristle at the idea of resenting Dead White Males for writing better poetry than everybody else. To my 17-year-old brain, puffed up in many cases on the Harold Bloom filter rather than the texts of the books themselves, the thought that we’d ditch Milton for Maya Angelou was an abomination. But as I started to carry my own version of precisely that same resentment: the Dead White Goy.

Even until today, the whole concept of the “Dead White Male” never made any sense to me as an aesthetic concern. It makes very little sense for students to read a book by a particular writer because of the ethnic group he or she is from. Supposedly, the best art is created for all of us to appreciate; and if we want our students to be well-educated, then we must have them read the best books - regardless of who wrote them. And unfortunately, for most of human history, White Males were the only people in the world with the time and money to cultivate a highly developed aesthetic sense. Practice makes perfect, and the fact that there’s no equivalent to Tolstoy among Zulus is not a question of racial prejudice, it simply has to do with the unfortunate dumb luck that the vast majority (though hardly all) of people born through history with enough privilege to practice their art were White Males. Most other civilizations lived through far too much hardship to worry themselves about any art that wasn’t expediently made to serve a utilitarian purpose.

But the Dead White Goy is a very simple concept for me - and it was years before I realized that this complaint of mine is precisely identical to the Dead White Male for other minorities (I certainly didn't call it the 'Dead White Goy' until I saw the similarity). I'm a conservative Jew born and raised among other Jews in Northwest Baltimore. What matters is not whether the books I read correspond to reality, but whether the books I read correspond to my reality - the only reality I know. How could a kid raised in my milleu ever hope to understand what makes The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost, or The Brothers Karamazov a transcendent experience? I like to think I know more about Christian history and doctrines than many Christians, but my experience of Christianity is almost completely abstract: I know relatively few believing Christians, and I can probably count the times I've been to a Christian service on my hands. How am I supposed to understand why these beliefs mean so much to certain people? Furthermore, how could a person with a childhood like mine appreciate works that are shrouded in Pagan Mythology? How could Faust, or Ode to a Grecian Urn, or the Lady of Shallott, with their classical allusions and/or Norse/Celtic mythological references mean anything to me?

Christianity vs. Paganism is not my fight. Whether Christian or Pagan, all those reams of allegedly great literature which harps on the worlds of the spirit mean very little to a kid raised to believe that within a year of their death, every person gets into Heaven; a place so boring that the only thing to do for all eternity is to study the Torah. The idea itself of the spirit world is an extremely goyisher concept, almost completely at odds with any Jewish mindset I know (Isaac Bashevis Singer being an extraordinary exception to this rule). Judaism, a religion I was steeped in from the earliest age and whose outlook permeates every aspect of my life - whether I like it or not - is a religion of laws, ethics and customs. It is a supremely practical religion, concerned hardly at all with questions of the afterlife and only with how we conduct ourselves in our own world.

But if I, a shy bookish kid who had very little he loved more than to read, could not relate to this literature, how much less relateable is Tennyson or Dostoevsky to the existence of inner city kids from the projects who are barely exposed at all to the written word? If we want to make as many of them into readers as possible, then they need literature that speaks to them as much as Franz Kafka or Saul Bellow speak to me. It's a trial and error process, and we may not like the books which they love.

So why do we hesitate in allowing for these differences of mindset? To my mind, that can only be explicable by the 'Halo' effect - not the video game, but the pretentious cathedral-like reverence that surrounds certain works of art that makes us feel that we should appreciate them even if we don’t. It’s the hush of Milton and Wagner, Bob Dylan and Stanley Kubrick (we kid ourselves if we think such sentiments don’t exist in popular culture as much as aristocratic), in which the self-conscious loftiness of their work dupes insecure people into thinking that dreary loftiness of aim is the same thing as intelligence. a.k.a. This is boring and grandiose, therefore it must be amazing.

This is the hush of the high school English class, in which we read precisely the same books our grandparents read in their English classes (...except for Death of a Salesman), and 16 year old versions of us are expected to appreciate precisely how the work of a 19th century transcendentalist describing the flora and fauna of the New England springtime applies to our everyday life. How is a sixteen year old kid supposed to have enough life experience to relate to Song of Myself? Or The Scarlett Letter? Or Moby Dick? I’m now thirty, and I still don’t relate to them.

And yet I can’t deny that there is something comforting in the very unrelateableness of that literature. The fact that it speaks of a world about which I knew/know nothing was part of its very appeal to my adolescent self. I went to a school I hated with lots of kids I couldn’t stand and no hope of getting out of there before graduation, and here was a world completely unencumbered by reality - a world which tells you that a completely separate reality is but a page away. Today, I don’t think much of the idea that books exist to take you out of yourself - that seems all too much like an excuse to act like an ass in your real life. But I can’t deny that, occasionally, perhaps that’s a necessary sentiment. And perhaps I’ll see more reason for it again as the years go on.