Wednesday, June 11, 2014

800 Words: Delusions of Grandeur - My Unrealized Projects - Part 1

In Yiddish, we have a word which I suppose the Germans have too, but it’s such a colorful expression that I can only surmise that it went from Yiddish - a language of colorful expressions - into German - the language of functionality - rather than the other way around. The word is ‘sitzfleisch’, which literally means the flesh on your ass where you sit. When a Yiddish speaker says ‘er hat sitzfleisch’ they mean the fortitude it takes to sit down for mammoth periods of time to complete hard tasks.

Perhaps this is a delusion of grandeur in of itself, but when it comes to things I’m passionate about, I pride myself on having more sitzfleisch than 99% of the world population. But whether I have more than 99% or 1%, it’s still nowhere near enough. The failure is, I believe, not a failure of work, but a failure of nerve. It is very difficult for anyone to convince themselves to devote the best years of their lives to projects that require years and years of work for a product that may be mediocre, or worse. And so rather than stake my life on projects I’d really be passionate about, I content myself with short blogposts that can be finished in a few hours before the sitzfleisch might fall asleep.

But should I ever work up the nerve, the next few blogposts are probably going to be about the various projects I would do if I had the nerve to plow through the doubts about my ability to do them well. It's highly unlikely that a single one of them will ever be done, and perhaps its lunacy to think that I'd ever be able to accomplish any of them. But still, what follows are the projects I fantasize about doing every day.

Non-Fiction History:

The Atheist Reformation: Well, at least I’ve made a very rough beginning on this one. This project used to simply be a book about music in my head, then Alex Ross wrote a far more exhaustive book very nearly about the exact subject I wanted to cover called ‘The Rest is Noise.’

But the origin of this book is in Paris, at the famous English language bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., when I found a book I’d long been searching for in America to no avail - A Cultural History of the Modern Age. A history book which takes us through the modern world and its intellectual development from the end of the Black Plague in 1348 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Thanks to the great Clive James (long may he survive his leukemia) and his book, Cultural Amnesia, I learned about Egon Friedell - the cabaret performer and coffeehouse wit who began his adult life as a failed intellectual… sound familiar?... But in middle age, he wrote a three-volume book called ‘A Cultural History of the Modern Age’ which took the German-speaking world by storm. Apparently, every middle-class German household had a copy. In the ever-darkening climate of Nazism and Communism, this work became a symbol for Germans that learning, curiosity, humanism, and freedom are our greatest friends. When the Nazis marched into Vienna, Friedell was one of their prime targets. When they came for him, his maid stalled so he could commit suicide by jumping out of the top window of his townhouse, but not before calling out to passersby to get out of his way as he went down.

Given my excitement when I found the first two volumes in Paris, I couldn’t imagine that the actual reading would be even more exciting. But Friedell is one of the greatest writers I’ve ever had the privilege of reading - the square inch density of ideas he puts forth is only matched by the beautiful clarity with which he phrases them. Like all thinkers who have a million ideas, most of them aren’t very good, but why should that matter? What matters is their passionate profusion, and the vitality which so many ideas generate. As Friedell points out quite correctly, accuracy in history is a secondary concern. There is no empirical way of determining historical accuracy, there is only the ability to make these dead eras and people of our past live again. In the 20th century, there were as many great historians who were clearly anti-democracy as there were anti-democratic great philosophers - Spengler was a fascist German Nationalist,  Solzhenitsyn was a fascist Russian one, Eric Hobsbawm was an unapologetic communist to the end, A.J.P. Taylor a Stalinist fellow traveler, Jacques Barzun was openly anti-democracy, Niall Ferguson is a rank apologist for Empire and imperialism, Paul Johnson a theocrat and a fascist fellow-traveler. And yet all of them made towering contributions to the history of thought, perhaps contributions far greater than their philosophical counterparts, in no small part because their ideas are so wrong.

Philosophy is the study of questions, history is the study of answers. When dealing with life’s ambiguities, we all have to be as humble, timid, and and meticulous as we possibly can. One small misperception can lead to unprecedented disaster. But in the face of life’s certainties, we all have to be audacious, provocative, and cynical. What if our certainties are not as certain as we believe? We have to be certain of our certainties, or else we fall through the ground upon which we stand. The best philosophers are miniaturists, tinkering endlessly with the most infinitesimal possible material, because they know that material so small can create chain reactions that are positively seizmic. The great historians are maximalists, taking in as much of the universe within their grasp as they can, and prodding it endlessly to ensure that the ship upon which we float has no leaks.

Such a metaphor might make it seem as though history is useless, dealing with issues which are already settled and therefore of no consequence. Quite the opposite is true. The re-evaluation of events which already happened is how we plan for our futures. The more endlessly we examine past - the more endlessly we prod and probe its foundations, the more clearly we see what the future holds for us. Even if the logic of a historian is ultimately incorrect, the speculation is what’s important. The sweep of the narrative, the way the historian speculates how one event came logically out of another, is what makes history so useful. The idea that life is nothing more than simple game of chance is a concept that could only be espoused by a bad philosopher. The idea that nothing can be explained may ultimately be true, but contradicts so much evidence that it’s utterly counterproductive to believe. Furthermore, such nihilism is precisely what turns generations of kids off of history, and precisely why so many people in our generation are profoundly ignorant of where they came from.

But what of my project? My attempt to get wrong the history of the world?

Here is my idea. In roughly the mid-19th century, we finally began our ‘evolution’ to the next crucial conceptual step in human thought. Around the year 337, Emperor Constantine was said to have converted to Christianity on his deathbed, therefore Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, monotheism overthrew polytheism as the dominant worldview, and monotheism became the most dominant worldview of the world’s most dominant empires for nearly 1600 years thereafter. It took roughly three hundred years from Christianity’s gestation to the point that it conquered the world.

Just as monotheism was present in the world for many centuries before the death of Christ, atheism was present for many centuries (indeed, a number of millenia) before Darwin. But just as monotheism required the Gospels to become its pulpit so that it might transform into the Western world’s intellectual currency, atheism too requires a pulpit. Atheism’s pulpit is principally The Origin of Species, which gives us a mythology (even if it’s probably a ‘true’ mythology) that explains how the world came to be in a manner that doesn’t involve God. 200 years before Darwin’s book, Newton’s Principia Mathematica replaced God as the Cosmos’ primary mover with Gravity. But while God no longer had power over the heavens, he still had power over the Earth, a far more powerful weapon for the control of the human mind. But when Divine Creation was replaced with Evolution, God lost his primary reason for being the explanation for the world.

There is not a single part of the human worldview that matters more than a person’s view on how we were created. As Egon Friedell says in another one of his good ideas, a person’s view of religion lies at the center of his view on life itself. If you view the world as being made by a creator for an ultimate purpose, no other concept could ever color your worldview more than that.

The purpose of this book is to interpret all the various important cultural movements through that prism. So many of the movements of the next 150 years: Communism and Fascism, Psychology and Critical Theory, Emancipation from Slavery and Concentration Camps, Technological Worship and Hippie Primitivism, the Rise of the Atheist Movement and even the Resurrection of Religious Orthodoxy, can perhaps be best explained by this relatively new absence of certainty about God, and by people’s strenuous but (thus far) failed efforts to find a replacement.

History works in mysterious ways. It’s been 155 years since The Origin of Species was released to the public. It took 300 years for Monotheism to take hold in the world after Christianity’s appearance. No one can know precisely what the future can hold. But the world is always changing. Just as the appearance of Rome marked the second half of Classical Civilization’s domination, perhaps the appearance of America marks the second half of Western Civilization’s domination. Who would have thought that the most important legacy of polytheistic Greece and Rome would be monotheism? In the same way, perhaps the most enduring legacy of Christian Europe and America will be atheism.

Choral Music:

Complete Jewish Liturgies - Morning, Afternoon and Evening Services, Complete Sabbath Services, Complete High Holiday Services, Complete Psalms -

I don’t have a very sophisticated mind when it comes to technique. The only instrument I hear much of in my head is the voice, perhaps because I can sing whatever I think of out loud, and musical voices that aren’t my own are always ringing in my ears. But as I’ve documented a couple zillion times on this blog, I have a bit of an aversion to sacred music. One of the reasons I’ve bonded so well over the years with 19th century classical music is that I can understand music that is written to express the self, even if that self is very different from mine (like Bruckner’s or Franck’s), because that is how we humans communicate and understand each other. but to directly express a god that isn’t even the god I grew up with takes a bit of a leap to a faith I don’t have to a religion that is very distant from life as I’ve lived it. There is something about Josquin and Bach that isn’t in my DNA. There’s something in the music of the great sacred masters of the Western Canon that feels like a lie to me, as though they’re telling me that the suffering of this world is to a greater purpose. I don’t want to hear that our suffering was worth it, I don’t believe there is any great reward in suffering greatly. I want to hear that our suffering has been acknowledged, and that someone up there is working to alleviate it.

And yet when it comes to the sacred music from my own ‘tribe,’ the “Chazzanus,” I’m all ears. Even if I don’t much care for the texts they espouse, the worldview of this music is my worldview. And yet the picture of Chazzanut which we have is utterly incomplete. We couldn’t record the great Cantors in their services, we’ve lost the vast majority of their oral tradition, and even what we have is a pale shadow of what it once was.

The great sacred composers of the Renaissance composed masses and motets in the same way later composers composed symphonies and sonatas. For a composer of that time, it was the ultimate musical statement in a God-fearing era which just discovered that eternity can better be expressed through the greater complexity and permanence of printed music. And yet this revolution bypassed Judaism almost completely. Except for Salmone Rossi, there was not a single Jewish composer of eminence who could make the sacred Jewish texts sing ecstatically in a ‘Western’ manner until the 19th century, when secularism became the most important part of every learned person’s cultural aspirations.

Some Jewish composer needs to turn back the clock. In the same way that Stravinsky, Britten,  Poulenc,  Arvo Part, Alfred Schnittke, Frank Martin, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov,  Gorecki,  Penderecki,  Gubaidulina, Randall Thompson, John Tavener, conjured mythic visions of Christianities past through a contemporary lens, we need a composer who can do the same for Judaism and create a modern compositional liturgy - pieces which the layman can listen to in awe that will move him away from the ecstasies of fake religious revelations to the profundity of silent contemplation.

We’ve gotten bits and pieces of this kind of attempt from a few: Osvaldo Golijov and Steve Reich are the most obvious examples, and I suppose before them came Bernstein, Ernest Bloch and Schoenberg. But we still don’t have any great Jewish composers, not even John Zorn, who want to take on the religion wholesale after the manner of past masters. But in this era of ours, when religious belief is clearly back on the rise, how can Jewish composers of promise resist the call for this demand for much longer? Christians have the enduring monuments to their sacred texts many tens of thousands of times over, but what have we?


The “Bible” - I don’t have any other foreign language well enough to ever try my hand at Dante, Homer, Ovid, Pushkin, Montaigne, Cervantes, Kafka… I’m not a WASPy classics major or a well-traveled private school Fulbright scholar. I’m a Jew who went to Jewish day schools, who lives a twenty minute drive from the house which he grew up in and still sleeps over there once a week. I grew up learning Yiddish and Hebrew and did my best not to pay attention as I was learning it. Insofar as I have a ‘book’ and an ability to translate it, that ‘book’ is ‘The Bible’, or at least the ‘first half.’ For me, its importance is well past even Shakespeare. Shakespeare is universal, but even within Shakespeare I feel a bit like an interloper to a culture I don’t understand. Why is it all so… dramatic? I don’t quite understand the long-winded rhetorical bombast, I don’t quite understand the fascination with great men and royal intrigue, I don’t quite understand the obsession with sexual jealousy, I don’t quite understand the cynical nihilism of his characters, I don’t quite understand the unconcern with moral questions. But The Bible is about little people, outsiders, weirdos, people like me, and how people so isolated as I can still find their voices. The Bible tells its stories with near-absolute concision (if The Bible seems long, just think of how many stories are told within), near-absolute evenness of tone, and near-absolute infinity of vision in its pages. Even more than Shakespeare, any event is possible within its cosmos. Even if I disagree with an enormous amount of the Bible, I understand it.

It’s one of the great ironies of The Bible that no writer in English can ever surpass the King James Version - a version mostly written by William Tyndale, a writer who lived a half-century before Shakespeare and who Shakespeareized the Good Book - making it far longer-breathed, far less colloquial, far more rhetorically ornamented. Perhaps it’s Shakespeare who simply ‘Tyndalized’ the theatre. The King James Bible is a work of absolute beauty. it is also a work completely of its time and place - of extreme practical use to a State which wanted to wrest English church from the control of its Latin-speaking clergy. We need a Bible for our time, and all these minimally changed new versions rendered by committee for every splintered religious sect simply doesn’t cut it.  It’s well beyond time that a ‘good faith’ effort was made by an army of translators to release The Bible from general religious use for a more secular age. I don’t want to translate the whole thing, “God knows,” it’s a horrific waste of people’s time to read Leviticus and Chronicles. But even with my rusty Hebrew, it would be an amazing adventure to try to uncover the exact meanings of what the J-writer and the Elohist meant. To re-place The Bible in the context of its origins, and by doing so, make it as close to absolute the work of revelatory literature it is rather than the work of ever-more mundane religions it’s become.

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