Thursday, December 26, 2013

800 Words: Other People's Christmases

Oddly enough, the most connected I ever felt to Christmas was in Israel, in Jerusalem’s Old City, going to midnight mass, seeing the Christian pilgrims on their ways to church, taking in congregation after congregation, running into my cousin on the same journey, hearing various conversations and homilies in languages I’d rarely ever heard, talking at length with a cute and rather distractible German volunteer outside of a Lutheran church, hearing the various bells ring, getting harassed by Arabs in the Muslim quarter when I turned the wrong corner, hearing an eternity of gunfire in East Jerusalem. It was, without a doubt, the Christmas of a lifetime. Otherwise, Christmas always seems to happen apart from me, like some big secret to which I was the only person not in on. What the hell’s everybody celebrating?

I’ve spent Christmases at friends’ houses, I’ve trimmed trees, I’ve gone to Midnight Mass, but I doubt that there are many Jews, at least not many as unobservant as I, whose lives were so blithely unaffected by Christmas. Christmas is that parallel holiday when the rest of the world seems to go berserk while the world of my childhood stood perfectly still.

Pikesville, MD. A place more Jewish than Israel itself, has got to be the least Christian place in Christendom. There is nary a house with lights, nary a store with decorations, nary a Mall Santa at the department stores and nary a Salvation Army Santa on the street. I think it was after winter term of my senior year of college that my friend Il Giovine dropped me at my house on the way back to New Jersey. Before he left, I took him to the old Suburban House so he could do what we all did at the Suburban House, eat pastrami and watch old Jews yell at each other. Neither was disappointing, but on the way there he was aghast: “Where the hell are all the Christmas decorations? It’s like it’s any other time of year!”

I didn’t really know any non-Jews until I went to boarding school. So it was always a bit of a shock to see that there was this huge deal that the whole world seemed to care about except for everybody I knew. My world didn’t change at all during December, and yet the radios played Christmas music all December, the TV commercials were all about Christmas day sales, every TV show had a Christmas episode, every music teacher would host a ‘Christmas concert,’ and every adult got off work. I remember a couple of years when we used to go over to some Orthodox cousins of ours during Christmas, and thinking how odd it was that I was basically going to a Christmas party hosted by Orthodox Jews. Once we arrived, we would inevitably sit down to that most Christian of spreads, bagels and smoked fish, followed by giant, barely sweetened pastries.

I never felt particularly left out from all this commotion. How could I, being barely acquainted with the wider world of ‘Der Goyim’ which all the adults assured me was a bit scary and unhealthy? I knew stories about older Jews feeling isolated and scared because they had to sing Christian hymns in school and didn’t get any presents, or even occasionally get beaten up by Catholic kids (like my Dad, more on that story later…) and I suppose I felt vaguely jealous that these Christian kids whom I didn’t know and was vaguely intimidated by apparently got a holiday in which the very purpose seemed to be to spoil them rotten. But I wasn’t much like many other kids I knew, and not much like many other kids anywhere. The usual Christmas toys wouldn’t have provoked much excitement in me, and if anything, it would have been just one more source of anxiety in which I’d have to figure out yet another way of fitting in with other kids I had nothing in common with. There’s probably nothing that would have made 10-year-old Evan happier than a complete set of Bruno Walter recordings, and if I’d ever gotten them, I’d have only felt ashamed and depressed for wanting something so bizarre and having hardly anybody to share my eccentric interests with.

Christmas, Christians, Christianity in general, is so divorced from everything in my childhood that it took on a fascination in adulthood that I can’t help having. When Pope John-Paul II died, I glued myself to the television - watching the first Papal conclave of my lifetime with more interest than I ever exhibited in any of the dozens of Jewish studies classes I had. My roommate of the time worried that it became an unhealthy obsession. He once went on my computer to discover that I had ten pictures of the old Pope open on my desktop (don’t ask...), and told me he felt as though he’d stumbled upon a person’s bizarre pornographic fetish.

The only contact I’d had as a child with Christians was through music. For a number of years, my violin teacher’s base of operations was St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, which I think was the one on Loch Raven Blvd near Good Samaritan Hospital. It was a very weird transition to go from Pikesville, where there was a Synagogue on every corner, to the world of the music I loved, which then more than ever seemed intimately bound up with the extremely forbidden rites of the Church. One sabbath, I was supposed to sleep at my Day School’s synagogue for an event which we Day School Jews call a ‘Shabbaton.’ I had a rehearsal in the middle of the Shabbaton on Saturday afternoon, and my father made the mistake of telling the Rabbi in charge that it was at a church. It might have been a ‘conservative’ synagogue, but Rabbi was so scandalized that he nearly banned me from the Shabbaton altogether, telling my father that he was disgusted that my father couldn’t let his children ‘be Jewish for even one day.’

The first time I fell in love was with a fundamentalist Christian girl. Amy S_____. I was seventeen, and I met her on a cruise boat on the Black Sea. She was my first kiss - yes, it was quite late, but if you have to have a late first kiss, then experiencing it under a meteor shower off the Greek coast is probably the way to go. She was a Californian, a red-head like me, but 5’11 to my 5’4 ½. She claimed she was solicited to become a model, and it was not at all hard to believe. I was too shy to go up to her for nearly a week, but the day before I left, I finally worked up the nerve when I saw her on the deck, and told her that if I didn’t speak to her before I left, I think I was going to regret it. We were inseparable until five-o’clock the next morning. As it turned out, we had a lot in common. We were both too smart for the situations we’d found ourselves in. We were both clearly itching to get out from underneath backgrounds we found too repressive, or at least that was my impression of her. I’d met her mother earlier that week, and her mother was a holy terror, bragging to anyone who would listen about how terrified her children were of her. And during those years at a rather draconian boarding school, my very mind was being warped from mere depression to outright delusion. For a year or two afterward, we kept in touch via phone and IM, and would occasionally swear our mutual love to one another. On New Year’s Eve 2000 we spent the night talking on the phone to one another about eloping. When I found out she wasn’t serious, it began (for many more reasons than that...) the worst month of my life. In retrospect, I wasn’t particularly serious either, but having fallen into a place as I did which literally caused me to experience manic delusions and hallucinations, I was looking for any way out, and desperate enough to think that underage marriage to a fundamentalist Christian was a legitimate option. Nevertheless, as I was (perhaps) still a potential marriage prospect down the road, or at least one to whom she kept declaring her love, she kept trying to ‘save me’, and getting me to see the rightness of Jesus Christ. The emotional disasters that followed were rather inevitable...

As the term ‘self-hating Jew’ is often thrown around, I often like to protest that my self-hatred and my Jewishness have nothing to do with one another. But the truth is rather the opposite. They have everything to do with one another. The tension between growing up rather Jewish and rather secular has defined just about everything in my life, for good and ill, and made me feel as though I don’t quite fit with either world, even if I (as so many people in my position do) often think I understand both worlds better than those who belong to either world much more neatly.

It’s one thing to be a Jew in the ghetto; whether it’s the nominally secular ghetto of Pikesville, MD, or the religious ghettos of Crown Heights and Meyah She’arim, you are among people who think and believe exactly as you think and believe. You don’t have to explain or justify yourself to anyone, and you automatically have the same feeling of belonging as any ‘goy’ would in their wider world. It’s another entirely to maintain a somewhat Jewish identity when nobody shares it. I often feel as though I’m the appointed Ambassador from Jewish Baltimore to Hipster Baltimore. Even if I’m entirely self-appointed and play the part to the hilt, I’m the man everybody seems to come to with questions about Judaism and Israel, the one who everybody has to tell the latest Jewish joke. I often feel as though my life is one long conversation about Judaism in which I spend half my life explaining Jews to goyim, and the other half explaining goyim to Jews. I find this role infinitely preferable to remaining in the ‘ghetto’ of my youth, but I still find it exhausting. I am a Synagogue of One, who finds no comfort in the traditional environs of last generation’s Pikesville, nor in the Tikkun Olam environs of Judaism’s Social Justice crusaders from my generation. I can’t help it if I wish there were more people around me who shared my views, but my Judaism doesn’t seem to exist for anyone else, it never existed for anyone but me, and I’m not even sure from moment to moment what the beliefs are. Like all good Jews, I can’t even call myself a Synagogue of One, I’m two synagogues of halves. I can’t even decide for myself whether traditions should be kept in spite of the fact that God clearly doesn’t care whether or not we keep them, or whether the State of Israel will in the long run do our ‘people’ more good than harm, or even whether being Jewish is not a burden too great to ever bring a child into this world. In lieu of definite answers, I’m sure I’ll do what I’ve always done, which is whatever is most convenient at any given moment. As I’ve said so often on this site, my religion is the religion of doubt and skepticism. There are no traits more Jewish than those, but no religion can be built on doubt alone. No wonder we Jews have such talents for suffering.

Friday, December 6, 2013

800 Words: The Lesson of Mandela

Nelson Mandela was no saint. He is every bit the ‘Great Man’ which posterity will assign him to be. But his greatness comes not from being without blemish, but from redeeming himself from his blemishes, and there were thousands. For most of his life, he was a militant, a fellow traveler to Communist brutality, a leader who advocated violence and had underlings who practiced it with what can only be termed ‘tacit consent.’ He was a man of his time and circumstance, and like all of us, did what he felt was right, and did so in a situation that was already morally compromised in the extreme.

Even today, Mandela is thought of by many South African blacks as a capitulator - a man who betrayed his own cause by preventing the perpetrators of apartheid from being brought to justice, and enabled South African whites to maintain their privilege. But the alternative to Mandela’s reconciliation was Civil War. Back in 1994, many liberals were still scared of what a President Mandela might do. He was a hero for what he endured, but he was not yet ‘Nelson Mandela.’ For  a long time, he was no Martin Luther King, he was not unlike Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian who bravely told truth to the tyrannical power of the Soviet Union at extreme personal risk, all the while motivated by an extreme nationalist ideology of a different type. When brought to power, he could easily have become a Mugabe, who would create a puppet democracy with a newly empowered black population given weapons so they could murder thousands at his bidding. Instead, he managed a transition from a particularly loathesome semi-democracy to a full, and peaceful democracy, in which whites and blacks (and Indians) all had a shot at opportunity. How many leaders of newly empowered peoples, from Mugabe, to Arafat, to Khomeini, to Castro, can we set against Mandela's example? How many disappointed the world by proving just as corrupt and tyrannical, if not moreso, than the leaders they overthrew?

However extreme Mandela once was, it can’t be denied that Apartheid was an unambiguous moral stain built atop older unambiguous moral stains, brought upon South Africa not out of fear of civil war, or threats to national security, but out of the same perverted racial ideology which pervaded so much of the world during the Imperial Age. It was a compromise made to preserve a privileged Dutch (Afrikaaner) and British class which should never have been allowed to immigrate to South Africa in the first place; its richest citizens afraid of losing their privilege for more than a hundred-fifty years after slavery was abolished by the British Empire in 1833.  

America has many of its own terrible blemishes which should keep any American who’s ever been interested in politics up late at night, and many worse than Apartheid itself. Such is the price of living in the Real World, in which moral compromise is an unavoidable state of being in its best days. Were the entirety of America’s actions in the third world justified? Certainly not. There is absolutely no justification for providing assistance to mass murderers like Suharto or Seko, who senselessly killed hundreds of thousands with brutality comparable to the worst of Soviet and Soviet backed dictatorships (from the ranks of which, one must admit, there was a far greater number comparable mass murderers). Actions like the support of a Pinochet, a Mubarak, a Chiang Kai-Shek, are severely grey even if they were done for the most prudent reasons (and there’s often reason to doubt that…).
Was there a way to combat the prospect of Communist dictatorship in third-world countries without supporting right-wing opposition which was barely less militant? There is no way of knowing, but not even Franklin Roosevelt, the most liberal president until Barack Obama, was willing to engender that level of risk. The only one who was was Jimmy Carter in who allowed the Sha of Iran to be replaced with Ayatollah Khomeni, and part of the result was the Iran-Iraq War, which killed well over a million people. Was the United States wrong to back the Apartheid government of South Africa? In an absolute sense, absolutely. But the world is a strange, complex place. Don't be quite so quick to judge American leaders who supported the South African regime with 100% condemnation, which included not only Reagan but every president from Truman until him, including Lyndon Johnson, without whom American civil rights for blacks would still be languishing far more than they still are. There are very few cases like Mandela’s African National Congress, in which a Soviet-backed organization turned out to be a force for freedom. Had Mandela been elected a few years earlier when the Soviet Union still existed, perhaps the story would have necessarily turned out quite differently if the Soviet Union demanded that he install a Soviet foothold in South Africa.  Against Mandela, one has to set hundreds of examples to the contrary. That Mandela turned out to be different from so many other communist allies only adds enormous stature to his greatness, but no sane person could have predicted he was as towering a man as he was.

Monday, December 2, 2013

800 Words: What Is This Blog?

By temperament, I am by no means a writer or an intellectual. The longer I keep up this blog, the clearer it seems that there is some element of sitzfleisch which I lack which would allow me to sit down methodically every day and grind out the once-a-day posts which was once my fondest ambition for this page. I’ve surprised myself by the sheer sitzfleisch I’ve summoned, but I had hoped that with practice I’d find still more. I haven’t.

However shy or bookish I often am, I’m a performer by temperament; perhaps a highbrow performer, but a performer nonetheless who craves attention, spotlight, and reaction - approval if possible, but settling a bit too happily for disapproval. Since there are so few readers as there have always been on this page, it’s become exceedingly difficult to work up the ability to work through the four or five hours of laborious boredom which a good post inevitably takes (to say nothing of the few hours of editing I should but never do…).

And this blog is, in so many ways, a performance. As I once discovered as a composer, I don’t think I have original ideas, and yet for a person who makes such a fetish out of skepticism as I try to, I find it alarming that I have thousands of opinions which I clearly burn with all too great a desire to communicate. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I even understand the ideas I espouse on this page - I just do the best I can.

Having the healthy ego of a performer which I do, the performance on this page is a performance version of me. I seem to find my inner monologue so fascinating that the idea of getting inside someone else’s head has, thus far, been almost impossible. Most of my few attempts at fiction on this page have been fairly risible, so in lieu of that, I explore the contents my own head. I’m an inveterate self-revealer, and yet I wonder if by sharing so much of myself, I’ve in fact obscured more than I’ve revealed. A blog, like a photograph, is a vision of a person frozen in an instant - a two dimensional rendering of a subject with three dimensions. The main difference between a photograph and a painting is the amount of time it takes - painting involves endless retouching. Painting and sculpture do not capture something which already is, it gradually becomes the thing it is - and therefore the best of it has an extra dimension of rumination which even the best photography (or blogs) find more difficult to attain - however many the other qualities which photography does better than the artform it in so many ways supplanted.

There are many unfinished multi-part blogposts I’d hoped to go back and complete, but I never have and have rarely tried. Many of them only make sense to me in the moment of their composition, and what I write about on any given day is whatever I’m sufficiently ‘burning with desire’ to say. It’s very hard to be inspired by a subject for days on end. The mind wanders from subject to subject, and few people’s minds stand still for long enough to burrow like hedgehogs, ever more deeply into a single subject. As I’ve said many times before, I can’t help viewing people with such minds with a mixture of boredom and alarm. We are all, to a certain extent, trapped by the obsessions of our own minds. How much more dangerous is it then to willingly give in to our obsessions? But one can’t help realizing that it is such people, blessed or cursed with such a weltanschauung, that get things done in the world. They have their overarching goal for which no pain is great enough to stop them from achieving, and therefore it is almost inevitably these are the people who move the world forward and backward. While their minds stand still, their persons are always moving, and while our minds are always moving, our persons stand still.

Perhaps there is a single prism through which a person can see the world, but how can you be so certain that you’ve used the right prism? Plagued by that most urgent of “Doubting Thomas” questions as I am, I often find myself in extreme difficulty with regard to precisely that problem on this blog. Writing these posts is often a mad scramble to finish, regardless of how excruciating the process, because I know that by tomorrow I’ll be thinking about something else, and unable to summon yesterday’s vision for today’s need.

For years, I coveted acceptance from hyper-achievers. I saw myself, and perhaps I still see myself, as a displaced hyper-success from a world of privilege I never knew and probably never will know. I never necessarily saw myself as the smartest guy in the room (though, of course, I have all too often…, and occasionally people are dumb enough that I can allow myself a bit of justification in that regard :), but I’ve always seen myself as among the most curious, the most driven to understanding, the most filled with longing for knowledge. Even if I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room, or even if I’ve often been quite far from being so, it always dismayed me how satisfied so many other people were by incuriosity. I grew up going first to Jewish parochial schools, then to a boarding school for underachieving kids. Neither milieu was ever going to be anything resembling an intellectual Mecca, and I’d look on the honors students with enormous envy. Growing up in Pikesville, Maryland as I did, I knew many of these honors students, and a lot of them were morons just as idiotic as the learning disabled kids I knew, and less interesting too because they simply did what they were told with no questions asked. But were I more like them, I might have had a chance of meeting smarter people, making smarter friends, having smarter teachers, and generally having people at whom I could talk to without feeling like I speak a foreign language.  Perhaps my entitlement complex and ego are just that huge that I blamed others for my inability to feel like a regular kid and adolescent, but I don’t understood why I was made to feel ashamed of not being so.  

But by college and afterward, I started mingling in my own small way among the ‘smarter set,’ and I must say, I was invariably disappointed in the extreme by what I found. Rather than curiosity about ideas, there is passion for a single idea, and an unwillingness to consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of any worldview but one’s own. All those ideas which do not fit into a total worldview are viewed with hostile suspicion.

it’s fairly easy to come up with a cogent explanation for this phenomenon. Few low achievers are ever encouraged to satisfy intellectual curiosity, and they therefore don’t bother much with mastering subjects whose study they’ll never be rewarded. A low achieving person would rarely study with a particular goal in mind, only to have new things to consider. Whereas a high achieving person must have goals to accomplish and reasons to meet these goals. There must be an end in sight - something to achieve attain. People of action require not ideas, but ideas to prove.

I began college as a philosophy major, and I promptly failed introductory philosophy because I alienated my first philosophy professor with far too many questions and stopped showing up to class. Ever since I was a college freshman, I’ve proven to myself again and again that I have no real interest in philosophy. For years I’ve picked up its heavy tomes, only to put them down, singularly unimpressed by the knowledge I once was insatiably curious to learn. The whole idea that we beings of extraordinarily limited understanding can come up with a definitive explanation of reality is its own kind of hilarity. The few philosophers whose ideas have ever stirred me - Mill, Berlin, Eric Hoffer, John Locke, etc - are those who warn against precisely the dangers of such explanations. A few weeks ago, I had a very long conversation with a friend of mine who took precisely the opposite trajectory in philosophy. She’s a philosophy doctoral student at one of the world’s premiere universities, and we had a particularly long digression about Kant, whom she adores. In so many words, I told her (much more diplomatically) that it’s ridiculous to admire any philosopher so greatly who wanted to create a theory of everything, because such theories, even the most abstract (perhaps especially), have inevitable real world consequences. To which she replied “If you’re not going to try to come up with a total explanation of the world, what’s the point of philosophy?” What indeed?

Kant is hardly the most erroneous or dangerous of German philosophers. But Kant himself provided his best rebuttal in one of his rare moments of comprehensibility: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was made.” What Kant argues with the categorical imperative and the 'thing-in-itself' is a monstrous tyranny of reason, a replacement for God himself in which we are coerced to follow our own thoughts to their logical conclusion, no matter how dangerous or limited those thoughts are. It uses empiricism as a mere featherweight on which to pin a presupposition that our puny reason can understand the world well enough to act upon it with impunity. She countered this by saying that Kant ameliorated the categorical imperative’s harsh degree by admitting that considerations of human rights must be taken into account; indeed, that the 'categorical imperative' is a directive to act with the dignity of human beings in mind. But what if a person reasons his way out of consideration for human rights? What if people reason, as they often have throughout history, that certain human beings are less than human? It’s difficult to believe that Kant didn’t understand that problem, and it's more likely that he simply didn’t care. One of his other famous phrases was coopted from the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I: “Let justice be done, though the world perish,” It’s difficult to believe that Kant never read Rousseau, and like that of many enlightenment thinkers, his imagined world is a world where reason needn’t make any compromise. It is only one step from Kant’s Categorical Imperative to Schopenhauer’s Will, which we are imprisoned by and cannot contradict. In fact, Schopenhauer once declared that he discovered the 'thing-in-itself', and that thing is the all-conquering will. It's then one step from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche’s Superman, who wills the world into change by the force of his own powerful reason and will to power, whose reason is of course ‘better’ than the reason of others. and one step from Nietzsche to…

But Kant is no different than so many thousands of philosophers, working in a field that works with the most extraordinarily limited means in even its best moments. Most philosophy is antithetical to the the word’s meaning ( love of wisdom), and nothing more than a crude instrument plowing into a fertile, untrammeled earth; an earth which might yield more edible results if we simply left its mysterious processes alone. Perhaps one day it will yield better results, but by and large, philosophy has gotten us into an enormous amount of avoidable trouble.

I have no brain for math and science, and while I hope eventually to remedy it, my understanding of even the most basic theoretical stuff is not unlike a kindergartener trying to read Ulysses. If I’m in any sense a true pointy-headed ‘intellectual’, then my subject is History. I’m the son of a ‘failed’ historian, I come from stock shook by many of history’s greatest upheavals, I have a Rain Man-like mind for dates and quotes. More and more, I find myself cracking open the history books - as best I can, I want to know how our world came to be the way it is. And so I do my darndest to disappear into Hobsbawm, Spengler, Barzun, Taylor, even Niall Ferguson (ah, the sins of one’s youth…), And yet each of them, however informative or well-written, is every bit the ‘totalist’ which one gets from the most dogmatic philosophers. Each gives us a tantalizingly conjured key to all realities that disappears at the slightest critical approbation. I long to find some large, well-written, historical work in which history has no end - only a series of theories expressed on the page, and taken as a given that the next epoch will prove it utterly wrong, with the mystery and folly of the world preserved intact from age to age.

No, I don’t much like facts. Don't get me wrong, I love the most useless of them, and have a great mind for useless trivia. But I don’t much like the idea that the world is a simple place that can be contained by explanations. I like reading about the follies of the explanations, and perhaps there is an explanation out there which can contain the world’s contents, but I’d rather not know about it. It simplifies the world to a horrible degree and takes the mystery, and therefore the fun, out of living. It’s taken me thirty-one years to get it, but for all the insatiable curiosity I’ve tried to will myself into having, the world does not exist to be understood - it exists, to the best of our abilities, to be enjoyed. There is no point in a greater understanding of the world unless you can enjoy that understanding.

My most particular, and intense, enjoyment comes out of expression - not in intellect, not in emotion, but in the messy blend between the two which increases our experience of both. To interest me, it’s not enough to display emotion or cold logic. The emotions must feel revelatory because they’re complex and conflicted, and the thoughts must be suffused with a human dimension. And not only that - a person has to be willing to share them with others, regardless of how difficult; like an intense and rewarding conversation with a close friend or family member you love, in which by the end you know the person better than you ever did before. You’ve captured a part of their mystery, their perception of their own mystery, and their perception of yours, in a completely new way which adds to the mysteries which life holds, and you therefore love them even more.  

Few things can beat the pleasure of conversation. But for me, the arts come close, or at least they do some of the time. I love those romantic/realist painters from the early 19th century like Delacroix, Goya, Courbet, and Turner who manage to create the most innovative techniques (in some ways, painting never moved beyond them), yet marry all those magnificent innovations to emotional expression. Contrast that to the decadent pleasures of impressionism, or the ascetic coolness of modernism, and you’ll immediately see the difference. By the time of the impressionists, a painter like Van Gogh and had to swim against the current and was driven to suicide. By the time of modernism, a painter like Chagall with a personal vision was completely poo-poohed by the obsessive art lovers who should have loved him best. For the same reason, I love early 20th century Post-Romantic composers like Mahler, Janacek, Richard Strauss, Carl Nielsen, Sibelius, Elgar. Poor Britten and Shostakovich were born too late, poor Brahms and Bruckner too early, and though all four achieved great notoriety in their lifetimes, they had to bitterly persist in pursuing their own personal greatness against forces which wanted nothing more than for their greatnesses to be rejected. Or post-production code Hollywood movies from the 70's - Bonnie and Clyde, The Producers, The Last Picture Show, The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Annie Hall, Raging Bull, The Right Stuff, etc maybe even Nashville... - that eschewed dry European 'formalism' for good old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling. Even so, the stories they told were challenging, personal, unpandered, and unspoiled by bottom lines and focus groups - a truly popular art. To be sure, there are greater painters and composers and moviemakers than those mentioned - not a single Mozart or a Rembrandt or Welles among them. But, in some ways, the work of these ‘late’ masters suffered because they all aspired to a higher metaphysical aim than it ever occurred to the greatest masters to express. They aspired to things which their artforms could not do, and therefore failed nearly as often as they succeeded. Some find all this work I’ve mentioned insufferably bloated and too intense. But I love its excess - sometimes these creators fall off high rungs, but they do so because they risk so much, and often reap rewards beyond which even Mozart and Rembrandt can attain. To the best of their abilities, the whole world is contained within their creations, and nothing is alien to them.

If I had to categorize myself and the point is of this blog, it’s to capture my very limited portion of the world, and my attempt to understand it. The best philosophy, however amateurish, is wisdom-writing. And as an extremely limited follower of essayists like Montaigne and Emerson and Orwell, I’m trying to understand the world and make sense of it in an extremely unscientific, warm-hearted way in which no answers are to be found - only new questions.

This is where I have to admit, a person with such a proven record of being the very opposite of wise has no business writing anything related to wisdom. But perhaps its that very need for wisdom, and my follies in obtaining it, that necessitates the writing, and has enabled me to sustain it in some manner for nearly two-and-a-half years. This blog is the canvass on which I, to the best of my limited ability, portray, capture, and express myself.

Monday, November 18, 2013

800 Words: The Goldberg Variations Ideal

“...two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof.” - Sir Thomas Beecham

It can be done on the harpsichord, or the clavichord, or the clavecin, or the clavicembalo (I still can’t figure out if those four are just the same instrument…), just please, for God’s sake, don’t play it on the fucking piano. The piano is just too boring for Bach. I know, I know, everybody hates the harpsichord, and justifiably so, because the harpsichord sucks. But the instrument to play Bach can’t simply be a harpsichord. It has to be one of those mid-20th century harpsichords big as a battleship with ‘16 stops, pedals, terraced dynamics, and expanded keyboard ranges. The Goldberg Variations require the ecstasy of a church organ and the sensuality of a guitar. The work is actually far more difficult to play on the piano than on the harpsichord, and Bach did not write the Goldberg Variations for a modern Steinway he could never have imagined, nor did he write it for a harpsichord, an instrument whose limitations he was always complaining about, Bach wrote his greatest keyboard work for an ideal keyboard instrument that still doesn’t exist; an instrument which makes the mountains dance with the valleys and rides the music of the spheres to the source of our giant cosmic vibration (wow, have I been taking acid?...). He wrote the Goldberg Variations to be performed on something in between a DIY accordian and a franken-lute.

As I’ve written at length about before, I am an avowed Bach-skeptic. For all his obvious greatness, there are enormous swaths of his music which I find a chore to sit through. I often can’t help holding with Thomas Beecham’s view of Bach: “Too much counterpoint; what is worse, Protestant counterpoint.” Along with all the great beauties in Bach’s music comes the endless note-spinning and prattling on about a God in whom I don’t believe. Considering the seeming universality of his appeal, I can understand why Bach felt justified in writing the way he does. But Bach takes it as a given that you’re going to buy what he’s selling, and he’s usually uninterested in engaging with the concerns of difficult customers. Doubt and human longings can be found aplenty in Handel and Monteverdi, but in Bach you barely find it. Even so, The Goldberg Variations is not just another Bach piece. For me, it’s the ideal house for Bach’s furniture. It has all his weaknesses; there’s plenty of note-spinning in a long-form piece with nary a dissonance to find, but the formal structure is so intensely ironclad that the piece (in a good performance) grows as one listens. Every variation builds upon the last to create an edifice of universal appeal.

But even in this most secular of Bach works, nothing is more important to its vitality than its Lutheran grandeur. Bach may have written this work for the drawing room, but there is little in Bach’s biography to suggest that he was ever comfortable mingling with aristocracy (Handel, on the other hand…). Bach is often thought of as the world’s most practical musician, but he was constantly in trouble with authorities because he could not sufficiently tailor his music to the desires of his intended audiences. Most of The Goldberg Variations sound little different from music he wrote for Church services, and unless the keyboardist can get his instrument to have an organ-like quality to complement the rhythmic vitality which comes so naturally to every keyboard instrument except the organ, the performance will not capture Bach’s particular musical ecstasy. The ecstasy of Bach involves neither the aristocratic sensuality of Monteverdi nor the martial grandeur of Handel, it is an entirely bourgeois ecstasy from the land of Luther. It resounds with the sense of pride which Bach’s contemporaries got from having tilled their fields for 17 hours every day before they spent six hours posing for a Rembrandt painting so they could sleep at night for a half-hour and spend three minutes around midnight impregnating their wives. What Bach expresses is the peculiar Protestant ecstasy of the early reformed Church, in which the possibilities of history were yet again fresh and unspoiled. This is the spiritual need which all Bach performances must convey. There can never be more than a hint of the decadent in Bach, because were there anything decadent about Bach’s music, the early protestants would have repressed it.

There is something about the piano which is simply too louche, too polished, too refulgent, too ‘pretty’ for Bach. The most famous piano recordings of the Goldbergs, (obviously except Glenn Gould’s), are much too conventionally pretty. Murray Perahia, probably more praised in this piece than any pianist since Glenn Gould, has the dubious distinction of making the Goldberg Variations sound like Mozart - everything is limpid and lithe, and much too elegant for a work written by Bach’s organ-sausage fingers. Andras Schiff, their nearest “rival,” is a little better, but still wants everything to be beautiful. There is little more exuberance in his world than in Perahia’s, and the air the performance breaths is vacuum-packed. Wilhelm Kempff plays, as he always does, beautifully, with masterful pacing and great feeling, but where’s the fun? The humor? The high spirits? Simone Dinnerstein plays with assembly line efficiency in the fast sections, just getting through them as quickly as possible so she can bask (beautifully) in the slower, quieter stuff.

And then there are the piano recordings that are just plain bizarre. Rosalyn Tureck recorded it six times, and from what I can bear to listen to, they all sound like Bach preserved in embalming fluid - ultra-reverential, overcontrolled, and slow. By far, the most interesting conception among pianists I’ve heard is Daniel Barenboim’s. As often happens, Barenboim has a musical conception which is leagues ahead of his rivals, but the conception is almost completely wrong for Bach. Rather than dance ecstatically, he tries to coordinate the music to change color with every harmonic shift - but how many colors can you get out of a piece in which the same harmony repeats itself 32 times every 32 bars? Unlike Perahia and Schiff, there’s fun to be had with Danny, but the conception is always more important than the music. Never does Barenboim, however perceptive he is, give himself completely to Bach’s torrential flow of ideas. Jeremy Denk recently wrote a piece for The Guardian in which he claimed that until recently, he hated playing The Goldberg Variations, and his recording makes it sound like he still does.

In many ways, the best piano recordings come from the beginning of the recorded era. No doubt, the pianism of the young Rudolf Serkin and Claudio Arrau was considered the height of austerity in the pre-WWII era because they performed the entire Goldberg Variations in Bach’s own arrangement, but in the hands of these blooming soon-to-be-giants, The Goldberg Variations sounds like a Beethoven sonata or a Liszt showpiece. It’s so unbelievably wrong, and yet so fantastic.

Nearly all the greatest recordings: Wanda Landowska, Helmut Walcha, Igor Kipnis, Karl Richter, George Malcolm, Anthony Newman, were done by harpsichordists who predate the period practice movement’s most rigid dogmas (or, in Newman’s case, was severely  controversial within it). By the time history arrived at historically informed performance ‘Giants’ like Gustav Leonhardt and Trevor Pinnock , the doors of perception were closed, and the Goldberg Variations became just another dusty ‘masterpiece’ which you appreciated without feeling any true passion for it (Ton Koopman is better, more on him in a moment..).

It’s an odd thing about Bach that the two most celebrated players of his keyboard music are a pianist who made the piano sound like a harpsichord, and a harpsichordist who made the harpsichord sound like a piano. Glenn Gould will get his own paragraphs, but at this point in history, it’s almost impossible to talk about Wanda Landowska without talking about Gould too. Gould was a creature of the 20th century, and delighted in Bach the contrapuntalist, the rhythmatizer, the virtuoso. Under Gould’s hands, the sheer overflow of Bach’s invention is enough to make you giddy. If Murray Perahia’s achievement is to make Bach sound like Mozart, then Gould’s great achievement is to make you think that Mozart himself is playing Bach.

But even if she played the harpsichord, Landowska was a creature of the 19th century. She clearly loved Bach the Christian, the celestial harmonist, the life-affirmer. Listening to Landowska at her miraculous best is to listen to the very process of catharsis. Her harpsichord had as many stops on it as some organs, and she was unafraid to use them to create the grandest possible sound. The celestial ‘ring’ of Bach’s musical overtones was never heard more pellucidly than in her performances. Listening to Gould is like listening to delight, but listening to Landowska is like listening to joy. I’m elated and exhausted by the end of either Gould recording, but at the end of either of Landowska’s recordings, I’m consoled and hopeful. And yet even Landowska, this amazing force of nature, didn’t record the greatest harpsichord recording of the Goldberg Variations (more on that in a bit).

Some more iconoclastic players, like Ton Koopman and Anthony Newman, err on the side of too much flash. Both Koopman and Newman (Dutch and American) are somewhat controversial within the ‘early music’ community, both of them are staggeringly virtuosic keyboardists whose performances are so laden with ‘ornamentations’ (improvised extra notes) that they drive other scholars crazy. Next to the forbidding austerity of their authentic performance practice godfather, Gustav Leonhardt, the effervescence of Ton Koopman must have been the most direly needed breath of air in Holland since they switched off of windmill power.  But Koopman rather overdoes it, and his Goldberg Variations feels like a kid on a sugar rush. The spiritual import is gone, and there is nothing in its place. Newman is a somewhat better, but his performance can be downright gawdy. It is an amazingly fun, almost ‘rock’n roll’ performance (pardon the stereotyping…). The virtuosity is so unbelievable that even Gould has to take second place, but intellectually his footing is nowhere near as solid as Gould’s, and therefore it seems a bit like empty (though thoroughly delightful) gymnastics. Both Newman’s and Koopman’s Bach has plenty of personality, but why would you ever want to imprint your personality on a work which is already so perfect?

Other players, more stolid German players like Helmut Walcha and Karl Richter, get a little closer to Bach. In the mid-20th century, there were not two men alive more associated with Bach than these two. Neither was best known as a harpsichordist, but both were known as the ultimate authorities on their repertoire.

(Helmut Walcha playing my other favorite Bach piece…)

Helmut Walcha and Bach organ music are virtually synonymous. No keyboardist has ever achieved easier access to the calm center of Bach’s storm. Every phrase in Walcha’s playing feels so unbelievably right and natural, there are very few ornaments, and every variation has a moderate pulse which stays as close to absolute as humanly conceivable. This is the kind of playing which allows Bach to speak for himself, and no one ‘speaks’ in the language of notes as fluently as Bach, but there’s still something missing. Surely Bach - the great improviser, the world’s most practical musician - wouldn’t stop at a simply perfect rendition of music he already wrote. If he’d already achieved perfection, he would muss it up so he might plumb new depths.

(Karl Richter leading the St. John Passion old school. Sorry, but the St. John Passion kicks St. Matthew’s ass.)

If Walcha was synonymous with Bach and the organ, then Karl Richter was synonymous with Bach and the large ensemble. To be sure, Karl Richter was a great organist in his own right. But he is, by far, best known for conducting the Munich Bach Orchestra and Chorus - a mostly amateur organization which is the only major ensemble in the history of major record labels which I’m convinced comes close to the spirit of Bach’s music. Like Bach on the piano, professional orchestras and singers are far too seasoned, mannered, and lacquered to view Bach on his own terms. Bach went to such artful lengths to craft his works so that his extremely amateurish performers wouldn’t have to perform with any artfulness at all. Bach’s music is the definition of music for skillful amateurs - pure in intent, serious in their passion, and earnest in their feelings. Richter’s performance of the Goldberg Variations transfers this earnest feeling perfectly, and perhaps too perfectly. Until his death from a heart attack in his mid-fifties, Richter was a heavy smoker in terrible health for much of his adult life, and perhaps his performance of the Goldberg Variations is indicative of that. It abounds with wrong notes, slowed up rhythms, and even a bad memory lapse or two. It doesn’t matter much. His feeling for Bach was amazing. Think of it as a fantastic but rusty piano (harpsichord) teacher playing in your living room.

(George Malcolm, the closest to ideal you’ll find on youtube.)

And that leaves two. Two that trump even Wanda Landowska herself. The English keyboardist and conductor, George Malcolm, is one of the forgotten heroes of Baroque music. He, understandably, hated the modern harpsichord, and pledged himself to the newer model harpsichords with modern accoutrements. No harpsichord, not even Landowska’s, sounds like this. In his 1963 recording, is none of the percussive hardness which usually pervades baroque keyboard instruments. The notes on this instrument sound as though they’re being plucked by human finger, in a sound that is the perfect mix of harpsichord, organ, guitar, lute, and piano. Oh… and the interpretation ain’t bad either.

(Igor Kipnis)

But the greatest, closest to ideal of all, is Igor Kipnis. Kipnis didn’t play harpsichord seriously until he was nearly thirty, and while he’s no technical slouch, he does not quite have the easy virtuosity of a Landowska or Anthony Newman. But in its place, Kipnis has that one extra element which no other keyboard player uses to nearly the same extent - improvisation. Bach, who could write a perfectly formed work as easily as the rest of us could sweep a floor, couldn’t possibly be satisfied with a merely perfect rendering of his pieces. In his compositions, he so often mined the same basic musical material for different results that it’s impossible to believe he didn’t do the same as a performer and improviser. And like voodoo magic, Kipnis always has a new way to shock us into hearing differently a piece the world knows so well. He’s never too excessive in his divergences from the score, and were he, it wouldn’t be nearly as shocking. There is just enough diversion from the score to surprise us expertly at every turn. Save one, Igor Kipnis realizes better than any other keyboardist that the score is only the beginning of understanding Bach. And in so doing, he channels the spirit of the master as no other performer ever has in this most Bachian of works.

But what if there are conceptions which are greater than the ideal? What if a musician comes along who completely changes everything we’ve ever known about a work in a manner that could never be duplicated - and turns a work of art into something still better?

This is the accomplishment of Glenn Gould. No work was ever associated with him more than the Goldberg Variations. Under his fingers, the Goldbergs were no longer a forbiddingly austere behemoth, it was a work of pure delight. When Glenn Gould was 23, he set down a version of the Goldbergs so legendary that it’s moreso than the piece itself. Many other players take nearly 100 minutes, but Gould gets through the whole thing in 37! No repeats, and at top speed, with not a single use of the damper pedal! Under every other pianist, The Goldberg Variations is an epic journey, but when it becomes the Gouldberg Variations (sorry), it becomes an exercise of pure counterpoint and exuberance - as though filtered through the mind of a pure genius who assimilates everything at top speed. Murray Perahia makes the work sound like Mozart, but Glenn Gould brings to mind the image of Mozart himself playing it.

But even Gould’s 1955 performance must take a back seat to his 1982 rerecording. Glenn Gould, a few months before his early death, shows us what real genius is when he manages to play the entirety of the Goldberg Variations in mathematically related tempos - sometimes bizarrely slow, sometimes disturbingly fast - but never had this piece ever sounded this beautiful or exciting or unified or masterly under any other pianists hands. Only Gould could do it; is this Bach? Or is it, dare I ask?... an improvement on Bach? Regardless, the result may be the greatest recording of Bach ever made.

No keyboard player could sound like Gould, even if they tried (and many have). Whatever his secret, it’s his alone. Like only the very greatest re-creative artists can, he took the raw material of a piece that was already a work of genius, and transformed it to something even higher. Everything in music is a matter of taste, but there are some classical performances for which the appeal is so obvious and immediate - Pavarotti doing Bel Canto, Furtwangler in Bruckner,  Horowitz playing Liszt, - that if you don’t hear the greatness, I question whether you have a pulse. These moments are more than simply great, they’re moments in which human limitations are clearly transcended in a manner they’ve never been before, and never will be again. None of the above examples, including Gould, are doing precisely what the composer asked, but if anything, they’ve improved on the original. Horowitz completely re-arranged Liszt’s 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody to get those effects, no acceleration is written in the score during the closing pages of Bruckner’s 5th Symphony, and those nine high-C’s which Pavarotti tossed off were originally written with instructions to yodel, but what these performers have done is more than simply realize what the composer wanted - they improved on the composer’s music.  

The two greatest recordings of the Goldberg Variations were, of course, done by a pianist. Glenn Gould is the alpha and omega, the north star by which this piece will always be navigated. Don’t let anyone tell you that his recordings, either of them, are overrated. They are, if anything, still underrated. They are the most profound musings left to us by a genius who uses his imagination to reshape the curvature of the earth to his own design. For whatever reason, the mid-century was full of those artists - Gould, Horowitz, Richter, Cliburn, Dinu Lipatti, William Kapell, Julius Katchen, Leon Fleisher, John Ogdon, Menuhin, Josef Hassid, Michael Rabin, Genette Neveu, Nikolai Golovanov, Sergiu Celibidache, Ferenc Fricsay, Guido Cantelli, Carlos Kleiber, Bernstein, Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Alban Berg, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaff, Jerome Robbins, Bird, Coltrane, Brando, James Dean, Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles, Arthur Penn, Erich von Stroheim, Jean Vigo, Grace Kelly, Carole Lombard, Lauren Becall, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Nicol Williamson, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Isaac Babel, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak, Paul Celan, Albert Camus, George Orwell, Anne Frank, Sylvia Plath, Richard Hofstadter, Loraine Hansberry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Margaret Mitchell, Jack Kerouac, Flannery O'Connor, Nathaniel West, J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Norman Mailer, John Kennedy Toole, Joseph Heller, Ralph Ellison, Otis Redding, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, Patsy Cline, Brian Wilson, Bob Marley, John Lennon, Elvis Presley- performers so absolutely gifted that our confused, compromised world had no way of accommodating the true breadth of their talents, and therefore we only have mere glimpses of their genius stretched its fullest plumage.