800 Words: Friday List #20 Part II - The Confessions of Zeno, Les Miserables, The True Believer
Fiction: The Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo
Let us praise any work of art that has the courage to be about absolutely nothing. Let us praise Uncle Vanya and Waiting for Godot, Seinfeld and The (original) Office, Tokyo Story and Lost in Translation, The Adventures of Augie March and …. The Confessions of Zeno. The subject within each of these is as often as not the total lack of subject. Our lives pass us by without needing a particular story to make it meaningful, why should its art need one? As a result, the work becomes as much about everything as nothing.
But at the same time, to say that any of these works are ‘about nothing’ is a gross misrepresentation. A great work whose subject seems so unfocused is so for a reason – the subject of them is life itself. How do we pass our time, how do we cope with the slow crawl of living, how do we deal with the minutia of everyday life? I’m a sucker for any great work without a subject, because it’s that much harder to make it great.
If The Confessions of Zeno can be said to have a subject, it’s lying. Not conscious lying, but the unconscious unreliability of the way we perceive ourselves, and the nothingness of self-awareness that lies behind it. Italo Svevo is the pen-name for Ettore Schmitz, an Italian/Jewish writer from Trieste of German extraction. Zeno Cosini, like Schmitz, is a successful businessman, a model bourgeois gentleman; devoted family man and husband, interested in art, literature, music, and science. Yet by the end of the book, his appearance of passion for every one of these things seems like an almost complete lie; not because Zeno set out to deceive us, but because Zeno has no more idea of who he is than anyone else does. Like all of us, he evolves, and his beliefs and desires seem to change and shift so quickly that we can't keep up, and he is a different person on every page. After 460 pages of living inside Zeno’s head, we ultimately know Zeno less well than we did at the book’s beginning. He is the perfect example of how the more closely we study a person, the more unknowable that person becomes. Some desires completely conflict with others, people think they understand each other yet they’re completely mistaken; the harder people try to be competent at life the more they display their incompetence, and the luckier they are to be rewarded for it.
Pop Music: Les Miserables
Read what I wrote about it last year here
I know I know. It’s a total cheat. But since seeing the trailer for the movie version of the musical this Monday, it’s been in my head almost non-stop (except for when Mahler 9 ‘s been there…). How can you not be excited for a version that not only has Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Helena Bonham Carter; but is also directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, John Adams, Elizabeth I)? Some very good stage musicals become great on the screen, though Fiddler on the Roof is the only one that comes to mind right now…
Like so many fine operas of any period, Les Mis does not have particularly great music when taken on its own merits. It takes glee in skirting the line between art and popular trash, and errs more on trash end than most great operas ever dared. The shameless tugging at the heart-strings, the recycling of melodies, the vintage-80’s synthesizers, the incessant merchandizing all make you want to write it off as something tawdry. But the success of Les Mis did not come cheaply – it’s a damned good musical about the 19th century which recaptures all the outsize emotions and sentimentality of so much of the 19th century’s art. It is probably the closest experience which most music-theater audiences will get to a grand opera.
Perhaps this is why Les Miserables was the first piece of popular music I ever loved. I’d practically memorized it by the age of 7, and by the time I was eighteen I’d seen it four times though never since – easily the most unforgettable of them being a Tel Aviv production in Hebrew with direction that thought through and revised the original concept to a level no touring Les Mis in America could ever approximate. I went with my parents, my uncle and my Bubbie – all of us were in tears by the end.
Leaving aside the amazing marketing...there's clearly something about Les Mis that appeals to the entire world. Has any show in the history of Broadway grossed more money? No one can say for sure what the reason is, but I at least have a guess.
For all the lavish production values, this is a musical about poverty and deprivation. It is the perfect Reagan-era musical for the contradictions of an aging Baby Boomer and soixante-huitard crowd grown opulent in its tastes and desiring lavish entertainment that can nevertheless reassure them that their once-cherished passions for social justice are still aflame. It is, surely, one of the more noxious things about Les Mis's success, but no one can deny that whatever hypocritical elements it brings out in its fans, it brings them out brilliantly.
Non-Fiction: The True Believer by Eric Hoffer
(one of the most inspiring interviews I’ve ever watched)
Oh how I wish I’d read this book before I was sixteen. Understanding fanaticism is all too easy for anyone who’d ever escaped from its iron grip. But for those who have never been through an experience which seems like a revelation - whether intellectual, spiritual, or personal, only to later find everything of which you were so certain come crashing down, it is nearly impossible to understand the circumstances which make such dramatic beliefs possible; particularly because the people who try hardest to make you understand what it’s like to believe in something so fervently seem like stark-raving lunatics.
What Eric Hoffer does a better job of explaining than any writer I’ve ever read is the particular type of person who is susceptible to mass movements and extremism. It is neither poverty nor wealth, intelligence nor lack thereof, which compels fanatical belief. It is instead a divided self, lacking the self-esteem which a sure place in nature’s balance provides. Those who are poor and have known nothing else find it nearly as manageable to contend with poverty’s curses as those who have always been rich deal with the blessings of wealth. It is the newly poor and newly rich, the newly immigrated and the immigrant’s next door neighbor, who are most susceptible. When a person’s self-conception is uprooted, he becomes frustrated - a misfit who has no certainty upon which to base his conception of himself, and is therefore prone to belief in any movement which tells him that the self does not matter. It does not matter whether the movement is Fascism or Communism, Opus Dei Catholicism or Radical Islam, Revisionist Zionism or Pan-Arabism, (ahem) Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street. The person who is most susceptible to a mass movement is the person who feels the most need to believe in a power and purpose beyond oneself, and any one of those movements could switch members with the ‘opposite’ number listed, and their basic conduct would be almost completely the same. Their true enemies are not each other, they in fact have mutual enemies, and those enemies are moderation, scepticism, self-confidence, and security. It should come as no surprise that in the years around when Italo Svevo/Ettore Schmitz wrote The Confessions of Zeno were the years when Mass Movements like Communism, Fascism, International Socialism, and Falangism, were beginning to assert their stranglehold upon the world. After World War I, there was an epidemic in the loss of confidence for everything, every belief, every institution which people once held dear.
The story of Eric Hoffer is one of the most inspiring stories of American History - a lifelong longshoreman from San Francisco who became one of the great American writers and thinkers with no education credential but a library card. Hoffer was a lifelong outsider from any academic or intellectual circle, yet could outthink and outwrite nearly all of them. The only reason anyone has ever heard of Eric Hoffer is because Harper’s Magazine thought his first-hand account of life and work at a Federal Transient Camp was useful - a consideration only made possible because of programs from the Roosevelt Administration like the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), WPA (Works Progress Administration), NIRA (National Industrial Recovery Act), and the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority). Because none of these programs existed after The Great Depression’s End, it is a consideration that could never again be shown to another member of the American underclass. How many other potential Eric Hoffers are there about which will the world never know?