Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dancing in the Streets

Martha and the Vandellas. Amazing.

800 Words: My Cultural Heresies - History (part 1)

-          Harry Truman was entirely justified in dropping the Atomic Bomb. The war in the Pacific showed no signs of ending, and the historical evidence that Japan was on the verge of surrender is specious indeed. The two atomic bombs killed 210,000 people – an horrific death toll. The other option was an invasion of the Japanese mainland, which could have easily resulted in another million deaths on either side. One of Japan’s highest wartime officials, Kido Kochi, later testified that in his opinion, the atomic bombs saved another20 million Japanese lives.

-          Britain should never have gotten involved in World War I. Even if a response to German aggression was entirely justified, they should have just let the Germans get what they want and let bygones be bygones. Any amount of continued monarchy and imperial overreach would have been preferable to the seventy-five years of reverberations which World War I caused on the European continent.

-          There is currently a more than 50% chance that Barack Obama will lose the next election. That may change, but if what seems likely eventually happens, it will be an absolute shame. In time, he will be vindicated as one of the great figures of history – unfortunately, perhaps one akin to Walther Rathenau in Weimar Germany, who tried everything to save his country from the gathering storm before it was too late, even as his most fervent supporters deserted him. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, may be another Herbert Hoover, elected because he was an extremely intelligent businessman, but utterly without the vision it takes to find solutions to the precariousness of America’s economic situation  – which currently resemble nothing so much as 2008 Greece.

-          The French, Russian, and Iranian Revolutions were doomed from the very beginning. None of them overthrew their governments with any serious plans in place for enacting a liberal rule of law, and in each case the liberals thought that they could manage and minimize the extremist forces with which they worked to topple their moderately authoritarian regimes. It was therefore inevitable that the most totalitarian forces would rise to the top because they were the most ruthless and willing to commit more heinous crimes than anyone else to establish their rule. Let that be a lesson to the liberal revolutionaries of Egypt and the other liberal revolutionary parties of the Middle East – you may one day be misty-eyed for the good old days of Mubarak.

-          For all the terrors and over-reach which Vladimir Putin has visited on so many people, some of which we probably don’t even know about (the 2010 airplane crash in Smolensk which killed nearly the entire Polish ruling government seems almost too unspeakable to have been an accident), one has to give the devil his due. Neither America nor Turkey gave as much freedom to as many citizens 20 years after overthrowing an Empire’s rule.

-          African and Asian territories under 19th century British and French imperial rule should have considered themselves insanely lucky, unfortunately. Colonialism is a tragic fact of history, and one in practice long before Western Europe implemented it (and will be long after Western Europe ceases to exist as a prosperous part of the world). Had the British not arrived first, those territories could have been under the jurisdiction of the French, the Spanish, the Germans, the Portuguese, or worst of all – the Belgians. The British and French built roads, educated their subjects, prohibited slavery, and had many figures at the highest levels of government who stood up for maintaining human rights in their colonies (often unsuccessfully). The French even allowed an African colonial subject into its parliament. The imperial governments of these two powers, relatively, did not pursue violence against their subjects unless the subjects resisted rule. Compare this to Belgian rule of the Congo, where enacting slave labor was considered a privilege and duty of the White Man, and the colonial subjects were kept in conditions of famine and disease-ridden squalor when they were not conscripted into slavery or kept in concentration camps. During the 25-year reign of Leopold II, as many as 10 million West Africans died senselessly.

-          Considering oneself lucky to live in a relatively lenient authoritarian state should never be mistaken for condoning it. The true great men of history are the figures who maximize gains in liberty even as they realize they must make all sorts of heinous compromises in order to enact it. It gains neither a country, a leader, nor his party anything to stand on principle against the winds that will tear them all asunder. Along with a passion for justice must come a cold-hearted realism which recognizes that politics is the art of the possible. This is why truly great leaders are so rare in history – to have the mixture of warm and cold-heartedness, and to hold on to both when given the reins of near-absolute power is a nearly impossible task.

-          There is no party in any country who did more to establish more liberty for more people than the Democratic Party of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s. Between 1941 and 1965 they enacted the liberation and rebuilding of Western Europe, all the while forcing Western Europe to rescind their colonial holdings, and all that in addition to ending segregation laws in the American South. If America and Western Europe are still prosperous, we owe it to the liberal Democrats of that era. Tragically, our freedom came at all sorts of terrible prices, as freedom inevitably does – giving up Eastern Europe to Stalin, dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, and keeping good relations with military dictators around the world. Those of us lucky enough to be born into a free country with a good economy ought to realize that someone paid a terrible price, perhaps a price not worth paying, so that we are born into liberty and privilege.

-           The great American liberalism of a half-century ago has utterly shattered and may very well be beyond repair. The student revolts of the late 60’s were an incredibly dumb rebellion of entitlement by a spoiled student class which flattered itself into thinking that by resisting the draft and occupying student buildings they were acting altruistically to build a better world when in fact they were born into a world that was better than any the world had yet known. By acting as they did, however insignificant their actions seemed to the world stage, the disproportionate reaction to them of the American public set off a chain reaction that destroyed the postwar liberal consensus long before its time. The end result of the 60’s was half-a-century of conservative Republican rule and all the income disparities, neo-imperial foreign policy, and spiraling national debt that goes with it. Most of those liberals who did not join the progressive/protest movement become, in a sense, neoconservatives who were poisoned by as much resentment at the state of the country as their liberal foes. When neoconservatives saw the rebellions of the young, they decided that the country had gone much too far in allowing for civil liberties – to a point at which liberty was exploited, and they reacted accordingly: first Nixon, then Reagan, then the Bush dynasty. While I have absolutely no patience with the delusions, the resentments, or the militancy of the neoconservative movement, I can’t pretend I don’t understand why they believe what they do. Rather than join them, I despair at their overreaction and their utopian desires for America. Conservatives made America what it is today, but every liberal who stood on principle rather than make the compromises it takes to create change has done his/her part to create contemporary America.

-          A person’s feelings about the State of Israel are a stunningly reliable barometer for the person’s general connection with reality. I could explain this theory at length, but it comes down to this: the moment a person starts frothing at the mouth about how the “Israel Lobby” controls American foreign policy, I assume they eat their own feces too.

…to be continued at some point.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

800 Words: Why Early Music Sucks

When classical musicians say ‘Early Music’ they mean something different than other people. To the average American, early music probably means before The Beatles. No doubt, some Americans hear the term Early Music and assume you mean anything before Thriller. But to classical musicians, Early Music will always mean BB: Before Bach.

Bach as we know him today is an invention of the 19th century, not the 18th. He was the first classical musician to earn mass appreciation long after he died. In his own day, he was a well-respected composer better known throughout musical Germany for his temper and the brilliance of his organ improvisations. But I wonder if anyone who heard his music in his own lifetime would have guessed that so many musical experts would come to view him as the colossus who towered over all music before or since. In the decades after his death, only a select few musical connoisseurs (including Mozart and Beethoven) appreciated him for the giant he was. It was not until 1829 when Felix Mendelssohn performed his St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig to a packed church of listeners who openly wept that Bach began to attain his current reputation. Bach was perhaps the first composer to be more valued by another era than he was by his own. The reason for this is that the directness of communication in Bach’s music, the spiritual solace, and the massive profundity fit like a glove to the values and longings of 19th century Europe, yet it was almost completely out of step with the 18th century Europe of Bach’s day. Indeed, there are some decent reasons to doubt that Bach meant for his music to have the qualities which the 19th century so valued in him. According to the constant protestations of academic researchers, Bach’s music had been played for 150 years with forces too large, tempos too slow, rhythms too ponderous, and profundities too vast. According to them, Bach’s music should not cry out for the plight of the world, it should dance.

Is what they say true? And would that make Bach a lesser composer if it were?

As I’ve said in previous posts, the problem with the ‘academic’ manner of performing Bach is that it strips him of everything which made Bach’s music inflame hundreds of millions of imaginations. In such performances, he is no longer a giant, he is a second-rate Telemann. Even if it is authentic to what Bach wanted, it is not authentic to what his listeners desperately need.

But then again, the 19th century’s Bach is not our Bach. And the 19th century’s Early Music, is not our Early Music. Most people do not believe that we live in an era in which art exists to permit mankind to scale the heights of spiritual uplift – most people believe that religion or drugs do that much better. Most culturally active people don’t think they need Bach in the same way they once did, and like so much else which seemed profound to their grandparents, it seems to them boring and bombastic.

In most places, most places in America and Europe at least, Art no longer exists as a means to ‘better oneself.’ If you believe the Frankfurt School, that notion apparently died at Auschwitz, and professors influenced by them have been spreading Adorno’s idea to upper class students ever since. Even the music to which Baby Boomer professors listen seems too earnest for a generation taught to believe that self-betterment is a relative term. In today’s cultural world, with all its niches and options, the greatest indicator of artistic quality is its novelty: How new is it? How different? How original? And if you’re a little sentimental: How unique? Music and art can no longer save your soul, so it’s now just a commodity to be prized like a car or an i-phone. As it turned out, Adorno’s fears were entirely justified. But what he never could have forseen was that he was one of the primary causes of his fears coming to fruition!

It’s silly to even mention novelty when discussing the classical music world, which by definition prizes the old and battle-tested. But today’s classical music world, such as it is, is as much a part of our time as any other genre. We the classical music lovers of today prize newness and innovation as much as anyone else, and since – by definition – we can’t offer as much that is new, we offer more that is old.

And since it is far closer to the ethos of the contemporary world, early music is in some ways a much healthier culture than any other of the classical music world’s stale parts. Traditional symphony orchestras are lucky to retain their music directors for ten years, but period ensembles seem to keep their directors for life. Traditional performers can barely get a recording contract, yet there seems to be a new batch of recordings from the latest ‘visionary’ in the Early Music world every month. The fervor which greets performances of the great romantics (Chopin, Verdi and such..) is a mere nub of the popularity they experienced a century ago, yet many major opera houses now have as much Handel on their schedules as they do Wagner.

Why is this?

There simply aren’t enough new composers in our world to compete with all the innovation of the world’s bands, DJ’s, and performance artists…but there were… And if we can attract some new members into our ‘elite’ clique by opening our 1000 year back-catalogue, let’s do it,...or so we reason. It won’t matter if we have no idea how to perform it, and it won’t matter that until we do, all of it will sound somewhat alike. Even if it does sound alike to anyone who listens to it for more than an hour, it allows us to perform all sorts of completely new old instruments with new old sounds. It allows us to show that one particular era had different concepts of harmony and counterpoint than another, and therefore it allows us to contribute a little more to our modest part of the world’s multicultural rainbow.

I sometimes meet music lovers who are passionate about Early Music. I completely respect their right to be so, I just have trouble believing them. No doubt, this is obscenely hypocritical. I’ve spent most of my thirty years on this earth explaining to other people that yes, I’m absolutely serious when I say that I love and am obsessed by classical music, and you’re a douche for ever questioning that. To deny that other people can be equally passionate about a part of classical music which I don’t understand is more than a rudeness too far, it’s a slightly obscene form of retribution in which I get to discriminate against a minority within my own minority. I understand that people love Early Music, and that there is much to love within it. It’s just that I could scream.

Yes, the harmonies can be gorgeous, the rhythms can be invigorating. But after a couple decades of singing in choruses, and after a few years of directing them, I’d be hard-pressed to name fifty pieces of pre-Bach music which display a vision individual enough to describe without either resorting to theoretical music terms or generic descriptions about how the piece is ‘spiritual’ or ‘earthy’ or a half-dozen similarly boring adjectives.

This is by no means akin to saying that pre-Bach music is somehow lacking in greatness, or that mankind before Bach had not yet evolved to the point where it was capable of making great music. It is to say that we have lost so much of the oral tradition from these eras, and so few of the subtleties in their performance styles are accounted for, that we have no idea how to make a compelling authentic performance.

Authenticity has been a much-contested word in classical circles for the better part of a century. What is an authentic performance? Should performers always be absolutely true to the letter of the score? And if they are, have they done the entirety of their duty to the composer? It’s at least a question worth asking for living or recently dead composers for whom there is ample testimony for precisely what they want. But the further back the text goes, the less testimony there is. And the less testimony there is, the less the ‘authenticity’ question makes sense. When it comes to music pre-Beethoven, experts can’t even agree on the proper pitch. How the hell are performers supposed to recreate what the composers heard and wanted when they don’t even have the barest outline of what it sounded like?

It’s a cliché at this point, but the only authenticity is good musicianship. A boring performance can always hide behind the thought that perhaps the composer wanted it to sound as boring as they made it. But just as all classical musicians must ask themselves, Early Music performers still have to ask: if no listener is inspired, who cares what the composer thinks? It’s certainly a question asked more often now than the Early Music scene ever before did, but they still don't ask it often enough.

If Monteverdi heard his madrigals sung without any humor or sense of drama, he’d recoil in horror. If Handel saw the four-hour uncut snoozefests to which opera audiences are subjected – sung by so many wobbly voices with bad technique, accompanied by undramatic instrumental playing and faux-shocking stagings, he’d throw his hands up and probably issue a moratorium on his operas being performed. Even today, long after the authenticke brigade claimed to learn its lesson, performances and recordings of this music are hardly less dull than they ever were.

If we want Monteverdi and Machaut to capture the public imagination the way Bach once did, we have to stop trying to be true to their era and instead be true to our own. We need creative responses to this music that puts us squarely in our own day – not theirs. We need Dufay music videos and Ockeghem remixes. We need ways to approach English Renaissance which are deeper than simply recording Sting and his f-cking lute. We need musicians of vision who can translate this music for a public who will understand it instantly when they hear it played in their own language. We need today’s performers to do for for Josquin what Mendelssohn did for Bach. After all, if Bach were played in a truly authentic manner, we’d probably be listening to choirboys whose voices constantly cracked, violinists who always lose their place, and continuo which continually plays the wrong chords.

In the next day or two I'll  post of a list of recordings of early music which I love as much as any other type of music and precisely what makes them great. It's just a shame there aren't more of them!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

800 Words: My Cultural Heresies Part 1: Classical Composers

A list designed to be wrong and regretted tomorrow...

-          Most pre-Bach music, no matter how great, is nearly unlistenable. Performers and musicologists still do not have access to good enough research techniques to understand what made the music great, and all the prattling on about this Jesus fellow gets a little tiresome. If the world reverts to another medieval age in the next hundred years, music lovers will probably find it easier to listen to. As it stands, much of this music is quite pleasant, and utterly indistinguishable from one another.

-          Never in my life have I ever understood the appeal of Josquin.

-          Choral madrigals (secular) are almost invariably more interesting than choral motets (sacred).

-          Thomas Morley is inane.

-          Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, and the other motleys from the English Renaissance are interesting the way ingenious primitive video games are, when you play with them you’re astounded by the technique, but it's so difficult to get to the next level that you give up in frustration. Thomas Weelkes is preferable to any of them, but even few Rennaissance mavens would call him a great composer.

-          Mozart’s childhood feat of copying out the Allegri Miserere from memory, while astounding, is not as mindblowing as all that. It’s a pretty simple piece of music.

-          Palestrina makes beautiful sounds, unfortunately it’s the same sound 5000 times over.

-          Gesualdo is nowhere near as innovative as musicians describe him.

-          Monteverdi is the first composer whose music is reliably awesome. But even he gets monotonous sometimes.

-          I feel sorry for any era in which Lully is considered the great composer.

-          Scarlatti sonatas are fun, not great. Ditto Couperin’s keyboard pieces.

-          More than five minutes of Purcell generally puts me in a diabetic coma.

-          Vivaldi was a much more interesting composer after being taken up by the period instrument crowd.

-          Bach is a much more boring composer after being taken up by the period instrument crowd.

-          Bach, Wagner, Schoenberg, Messiaen, and Glass are all half-great composers. Utter geniuses of musical organization and all capable of stultifying boredom.

-          Bach is the Aristotle of music. His music provides models to later composers of how to write music because nobody’s yet come up with better solution. But it’s only a matter of time before some musician does.

-          I listen not only to Bach but also to Telemann, Buxtehude, Froberger, and Pachebel, and wonder to myself how a society could put so little value on a sense of humor.

-          Handel is a very great composer of towering imagination. Nevertheless, anyone who performs him uncut deserves a restraining order.

-          Anyone who refuses to improvise in Handel deserves a restraining order.

-          Anyone who refuses to re-arrange Handel’s orchestration (to say nothing of pre-Handel music) should be given a restraining order.

-          Gluck wrote spectacular scenes, terrible operas.

-          Haydn, not Bach, is the foundation of all music that comes after him.

-          Mozart is exactly as great as everybody says. But his early works sound like they were written by an eight-year-old.

-          The opening movements of Mozart piano concertos can be really boring.

-          Mozart and Beethoven issued in a Golden Age of music that, whatever other glories music has, has ultimately never been bettered before or since.

-          On the whole, Beethoven is better when you follow the metronome marks.

-          Beethoven’s 9th is based on a really ghastly piece of poetry.

-          Beethoven’s late quartets are the most approachable music imaginable.

-          Rossini is delightful. But somebody needs to take a Battle Axe to William Tell.

-          I love Schubert, but that guy really needs to develop thicker skin.

-          I have no interest in either Bellini or Donizetti. Many would say the problem is me, not the music. I think they’re wrong.

-          Berlioz is awesome. But for all his literary pretensions, the pleasures of his music are almost completely vapid.

-          In the generation of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, and Wagner, the greatest composer was Schumann.

-          Mendelssohn’s travel music is like the diary of a 20 year old who thinks the world is interested in his every thought (irony duly noted).

-          Chopin's music is exquisite in small doses. But there is no emotion in Chopin’s music that youporn would not take care of.

-          Schumann’s insanity made a greater composer of him than any other musician of his time.

-          There are three Liszts:  slam-bang virtuoso, old visionary, and intellectual/religious poseur. The first is awesome, the second is interesting, the third is unbearable.

-          I don’t understand the big deal about the Met’s new production of the Ring Cycle and how awful it is. Most Ring Cycles suck because the music isn’t all that well-composed to begin with.

-          The only Wagner opera I would listen to for pleasure is Die Meistersinger.

-          Verdi is a great composer, but there are full hours of his music which I’d rather spend at the bar than listen to.

-          There are four operas of Verdi that are riveting form beginning to end: Aida, Otello, Falstaff, and the Requiem.

-          Bruckner is awesome – even if his technique sucks.

-          The mass appeal of the Viennese Waltz is only explicable when you realize that it’s a German person’s idea of fun.

-          Brahms is amazing – it’s his performers that suck.

-          If I ever met Saint-Saens, I’d have to resist the urge to punch him in the face.

-          Whatever else Tchaikovsky was, he remained a manchild his whole life, and his greatest music is seen through the eyes of children.

-          Had Verdi and Wagner died early, it would not have been half the tragedy it was to lose Mussorgsky and especially Bizet so young.

-          In this era of giants, the most remarkable among them are Beethoven, Schumann, and (maybe) Mussorgsky.

-          After Mozart, the greatest of all opera composers is Leos Janacek.

-          Puccini, on the whole, wrote better operas than Verdi.

-          The giants of twentieth century composition are (in descending order) Shostakovich, Mahler, Janacek, Richard Strauss, Puccini, and Ives, (Britten, Bartok, Stravinsky, and Schnittke get honorable mentions). From Elgar and Debussy onward, all others are ultimately of second rank at best.

-          Mahler was a great composer through his whole composing life. But his early music really is better.

-          Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is an absolutely first-rate piece of music by any standard.

-          Strauss was as great a composer as he was awful a philosopher. I can’t escape the feeling that when he created his programs, he was completely joking.

-          Had Gershwin lived longer, and had Bernstein not taken the job at the New York Philharmonic, they would have become giants equal to the aforementioned half-dozen.

-          Sibelius is a wonderful composer, but his music would have been better if he got out of the house more often.

-          Carl Nielsen is a fine composer, but stop trying to make the Nielsen revival happen. It won’t.

-          Ravel is a better composer than Debussy.

-          Debussy, great as he can be, is ultimately where classical music went wrong.

-          It will be a sign of a better world when Ralph Vaughan Williams is better appreciated.

-          Alexander von Zemlinsky is absolutely not underrated. Neither is Busoni or Franz Schrecker or Franz Schmidt or Egon Wellesz or Walter Braunfels or Hans Gal or Ernst Toch or Berthold Goldschmidt. These are all purveyors of second-rate gigantischemusik. Just because a composer writes for a large forces does not give him large vision.

-          Ditto all the British symphonsts people keep trying to revive.

-          Stravinsky launched a career-long battle to kill his own talent – adapting new styles rather than express what he truly was. As a result, he can be nearly as boring as the Bach/Wagner/Messiaen axis – but unlike them, he was not a natural bore. He had to come by his boredom honestly.

-          Bartok wrote music as great as can be written by a man who clearly had Asperger’s.

-          Berg should have grown a pair and told Schoenberg to go f*ck himself.

-          The influence of Webern on music for the last sixty years tells us everything we need to know about the screwed up priorities of classical music today.

-          Ernest Bloch threw away a first-rate talent to write second-rate Jewish musical kitsch.

-          Prokofiev and Hindemith are tacky, synthetic composers who compensate for an utter lack of interest in humanity with excessively flashy technique.

-          Carmina Burana is sickening from first bar to last. It’s a piece of Nazi propaganda adopted as an anthem by the most upper class members of the flower-power generation and preserved in the public imagination by movie trailers.

-          Poulenc never wrote music quite as great as someone with his talents should have.

-          Aaron Copland wrote good music for about a dozen years, and wrote crap on either side of that line.

-          I don’t know how Aaron Copland developed his great period. There were at least half-a-dozen American contemporaries who were just as talented.

-          Aram Katchaturian is a scandalously underrated composer.

-          How screwed up is classical music in our era? The greatest composer of the last century is Shostakovich, a composer trapped inside a totalitarian regime.

-          Olivier Messiaen, like Bach and Wagner before him, writes beautiful music with a noxious whiff of bullshit about it. But compared to his followers, he was the personification of great music.

-          Elliott Carter has spent the better part of a century creating music that nobody will ever care about.
-          Conlon Nancarrow is interesting, but interesting is different than good.

-          Lutoslawski was a much more interesting composer in the 50’s. His turn to modernism was disastrous.

-          The only composers of the original Darmstadt generation worth listening to are Ligeti and Berio.

-          Ligeti is best when he’s pranking away. Berio is best when he’s cutting and pasting other people’s material.

-          Gyorgy Kurtag is better than either, including at their own games.

-          Xenakis is fun, but he probably didn’t intend his music to be fun.

-          I look forward to getting to know the Henze operas better. I still think I won’t like them much.

-          The rest of the Darmstadt school is the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the musical public.

-          Boulez and Stockhausen are decent musicians who mastered the art of publicity far more than they ever did composition.   

-          Morton Feldman’s primary objective is to bore the audience.

-          Sofia Gubaidulina is a composer we all want to like, yet nobody seems to.

-          Alfred Schnittke is the only composer of the past fifty years who has nothing to fear in comparison to the giants of the past.

-          Rubber Soul is better than any classical composition of the last fifty years save late Shostakovich.

-          No amount of pot will make Terry Riley sound like a great composer.

-          Holy Minimalism is stupid.

-          Philip Glass is a truly gifted composer. He’s put that gift in the service of writing some of the most boring great music ever written (and a lot of the most boring bad music).

-          Steve Reich’s early music was dumb as hell. But he keeps getting better and better as he ages.

-          Calling Louis Andriessen the greatest living composer, as a surprising number of experts do, is akin to calling Elgar the greatest living composer a hundred years ago. It’s a perfect judgement for the fashions of today, and will seem utterly dumb in a mere ten years.

-          Even if he isn’t a giant on the level of Beethoven or Shostakovich, John Adams writes some fantastically great music.

-          No one would know who John Luther Adams was if he didn’t share John Adams’s name.

-          Kaija Saariaho may one day soon join the Bach/Wagner/Messiaen club as a great composer of less-than-great music.

James MacMillan is an authentically great composer. But even now that hes over 50, it remains to be seen if he's in the Schnittke class.

Thomas Ades is improving and becoming ever-more expressive, but for most of his career he didn't show much ability past musical irony.

Nico Muhly seems poised to become the Next Big Thing in American music, but his music pales just as Ades does next to his contemporaries in the non-classical world.

-          Osvaldo Golijov’s compositional block is an absolute tragedy for music.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

800 Words: Why Religion Always Wins - Part III

(Orson on Chartres…go to 1:09)

“…Our religion is not yet a horrible restless doubt, still less a far horrible composed Cant; but a great heaven-high Unquestionability, encompassing, inter-penetrating the whole of Life. Imperfect as we may be, we are here, with our litanies, shaven crowns, vows of poverty to testify incessantly and indisputably to every heart, That this Earthly Life and its riches and possessions, and good and evil hap, are not intrinsically a reality at all, but are a shadow of realities eternal, infinite; that this Time-world, as an air-image, fearfully emblematic, plays and flickers in the grand still mirror of Eternity; and man’s little Life has Deities that are great, that are alone great, and go up to Heaven and down to Hell….”

Thomas Carlyle - Past and Present, writing about the 12th century.

Everyone with the opportunity should go to the great churches of the Middle Ages. Don’t just go to those Renaissance Italian Duomos which glitter like affirmations of gorgeousness against Lutheran austerity. Go to the French eglises, go to Notre Dame, go to Chartres, go to Saint-Michel da Aiguilhe, buildings from the era when eternal affirmation seemed like the ultimate progress – from an era when there no doubt was entertained that human progress was on the side of God Himself. Imagine yourself a Parisian peasant of the 13th century, preserved by the Cloth in deliberate squalor and shit, told that your miserable existence is but a brief trial before the glories that await you in exchange for your complete submission to their will. Your life is toil and grime, yet from the moment you first gaze upon Notre Dame, a cathedral your grandfather or his brothers died building, you know that your life has none but the greatest purpose and meaning. If God can grant something so beautiful, so heavenly as Notre Dame to our world, then how grand and glorious must Heaven itself be?

The great Italian Cathedrals are conservative statements. They preserve a particular Christian tradition against the encroachment of a new dogma. But the great French churches are progressive statements of eternity itself. In this era when Western Man lay perpetually in darkness, when the light of truth was sequestered in monasteries – preserved for the few who could intercede to a deity who seldom shows mercy on behalf of a wretched laity.

For the essence of belief is not belief, the essence of belief is doubt. The fervor of a person’s belief is directly proportional to his insecurity – finding in God that which he can’t provide for himself. Religious fervor was the acme of progress in the Late Middle Ages because out of the chaos that was Europe after Rome and Byzantium, no institution but the Church could provide unity of purpose. Thanks to the Church, scholars all throughout the European world spoke the same language and could therefore exchange ideas more freely than ever before. The literature and art of the age was rife with symbolism, and since all men shared the same belief, the symbols were universally recognized for what they represented. Wars of this era were no longer merely blood feuds, they were matters of honor, determiners of dynastic succession, and fulfillment of religious obligation – holy missions of nobility ordained to reinstate the world’s proper order. And no matter how bloody the war, or how hypocritical the blessing, the clergy could bless both sides in their cause, and because they spoke with the word of God, they could not be contradicted – even if they contradicted themselves. Make no mistake, there was an era when suborning one’s personal will to a mass movement was truly progress for mankind, but it is 800 years in the past.

But that has not stopped the endless yearning of mankind to be eternal. We have been trying to recapture the tantalizing simplicity of this vision ever since. From the moment the world first encountered Dante’s horrible vision of a world with only three choices, our artists tried to find ways of recapturing the utter simplicity of Dante’s vision. Milton seeks to justify the ways of God to Man, Goethe sells Faust’s soul to the devil in exchange for a moment of perfect simplicity, Dostoevsky demonstrates that only Alyosha Karamazov’s submission to the Will of God and his Perfect Church will provide a life of purpose and meaning. Even in our own centuries, we can see the striving for this transcendental simplicity, from Bob Dylan’s yearning to find the answer blowing in the wind, to Don Draper’s wish to create a perfect American family, to Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud – they may not be religion, but in each case they are the same longing for the pure, undivided self.

It should strike us as ironic that these great anonymous Cathedrals of the Middle Ages - which were created purely as temples to the Glory of God, with no thought as to the glory of man - were mankind’s greatest shelter, and we have not found a more welcoming shelter since. The agony of doubt which disturbs us did not disturb Medieval Man. However unlikely, we at least have to allow for the miniscule possibility that mankind has never been happier than it was during a period of abject squalor, with no doubts as to what life held in store. The boundaries of good and evil were clearly demarcated, and those with particularly evil intentions could generally find a clergy, somewhere, to sanctify their malevolence. The isolation and loneliness of every man’s private moments was not felt in an era of such unity.  There was a deity who saw your problems as they were happening and would reward you for your travails. Man had no divided self, and life, with all its messy emotions and entanglements, was a mere rehearsal. For the true life has no division, no complexity, no confusion. In the true life, there is merely Paradise, Purgatory, and Perdition - and reading Dante is the closest we will get to understanding their worldview.

But even the vision of Dante is presumptuous to the medieval mind. To the average 13th century Christian, it would be very near the ultimate heresy for a mere man to claim foreknowledge of the afterlife's contents and assign people to their stations - that is the job of Christ Himself. To understand the purity of his vision, all we have is those churches - those massive upward bridges to the divine, in which no light is can be let in except by reflected sunlight and fire.

I'm looking forward to France this summer...

Quote of the Day

Ethan: What I lack in height I make up for in beard.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Quote of the Day:

Jordan: Always go to people's funerals, if you don't, they won't come to yours.

Sight and Sound Movie List: The Manning

Having read all the wonderful contributions thus far, I've decided to throw my hat in the ring. It also may have something to do with being informed by Evan that "the list is life".

My current thesis is that everyone actually has two movies lists. The first being their actual favorite movies, and the second being the movies they claim are their favorites in order to seem more interesting. I'll start with the second.

(Editor's Note: Guilty as charged. He's probably right.)

"The Wine List" (in no particular order)

1. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962).

I’m glad I waited to see this on the (very) big screen at the AFI in Silver Spring. This is the quintessential “epic” film: panoramic, lengthy, and breathtakingly beautiful. David Lean was a ridiculously talented director, also responsible for Dr. Zhivago (1965) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). I almost put the latter on this list simply for the amazing performance by Alec Guinness.

2. High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952)

John Wayne said this was the most Un-American film he’d ever seen. It’s a Western that forgoes nearly all of that genre’s tropes about heroism, action and adventure in favor of a sober examination of duty, community and cowardice. Fun fact: Gary Cooper (the star) later sold out Zinnemann to the Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC.

3. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

The brutality of the early Franco regime serves as the backdrop for this riveting tale of dark fantasy. At turns beautiful and gruesome, this film grabbed me by the brain in a very primal way.

4. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

Mickey Rourke gives an amazing performance as a lonely, battered and broken hero. I cried a lot whilst sitting next to Der Schreiber.

5. Hable con Ella (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)

Okay, so this movie is really weird. And I probably enjoyed it more than I would have otherwise because I first saw it while living in Madrid in 2003. That being said, it’s an amazing example of a director crafting some extremely sympathetic characters.

6. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)

Just go watch it.

7. Nueve Reinas (Fabian Bielinsky, 2000)

This Argentine movie about two con-men straddles the line between wine and beer. I’ll defer to Roger Ebert on why it’s great: “Nine Queens is a con within a con within a con. There comes a time when we think we’ve come to the bottom, and then the floor gets pulled out again.”

"The Beer List" (in a particular order)

1. The Big Lebowski (Coen Brothers, 1998)

I can recite the whole thing from memory. I’ve won a costume contest by dressing as Walter Sobchak. There’s no way I can put anything else at the top of the beer list.

2. Star Wars (Lucas, 1977-1983)

La Menichelli being legitimately interested in watching these 3 movies with me was a significant moment in our relationship.

3. Field of Dreams (Robinson, 1989)

Ray. People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn into your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,” you’ll say, “It’s only twenty dollars per person.”

And they’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk off to the bleachers and sit in their short sleeves on a perfect afternoon. And find they have reserved seats somewhere along the baselines where they sat when they were children. And cheer their heroes.

And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick; they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray.

The one constant through all the years Ray, has been baseball. America is ruled by it like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

4. Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)

Ridley Scott is amazing. Over 20 years later and this film still holds up as one of the greatest works of science fiction in film.

5. Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993)

When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.

6. The Hunt for Red October (McTiernan, 1990)

Let them sing.

7. Ronin (Frankenheimer, 1998)

One of my favorite DeNiro movies, and hands down the best car chases from any film ever.

Click Here for The Treff/Liang's List
Click Here for Il Barone's List
Click here for The Hicks's Epic List of the Awesomely Bad
Click here for Der Gronowski's List
Click here for The Hicks's List
Click here for La Kozak's List
Click here for Die Grimes's List
Click here for Richard Nixon's List
Click here for The McBee's List
Click here for Der Koosh's List

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

800 Words: The Eurasian Faultline: Part 2 - Athens (Part 1)

Athens: At the moment, Greece is still more complicated. And in order to work through that complication, we must take a brief and not completely welcome trip to France.

I am not one to lightly throw support to any government affixing a ‘conservative’ label to their affiliation. But as it usually does, a large portion of the European Left scares me as much as a large portion of the American Right. Many Europeans would have us believe that Nicolas Sarkozy was everything liberals hate, allegedly as bellicose and undiplomatic a leader as the world saw during his era. Yet there is not a single world leader in the last five years with his diplomatic accomplishments. Not even Barack Obama.

Sarkozy formed a bi-partisan government with Socialist leaders who trusted him enough to join his government in spite of being expelled from their own party. He supervised the negotiations the FARC group in Columbia that led to the release of a group of political hostages that included Ingrid Betancourt in exchange for the release of FARC’s leader: Rodrigo Granda. He negotiated the release of a group of Bulgarian nurses from Libya in exchange for providing greater aid to Libyans for health-care and immigration opportunities. And when Moamar Gaddafi threatened the same Libyan people to whom Sarkozy's France provided the aid Gaddafi wouldn't, Sarkozy formed a multi-national coalition to prevent Gaddafi's army from potentially committing a massive democide against the very people he ruled for over forty years. You don’t have to like Nicolas Sarkozy, or even support him as the lesser evil, but any subscriber to liberal values who is not a reactionary poseur has to acknowledge that he created an admirable list of diplomatic accomplishments which every world leader should try to emulate. In his place is Francois Hollande, a Socialist Party stalwart whose principle campaign promise in the midst of an economic maelstrom was to lower the retirement age.

What’s happening in France is just another version of events all around Southern Europe, in which a high standard of living is considered a guaranteed entitlement for which nobody needs to work too hard to sustain. The results of Greece’s recent election were inconclusive because most of the Greek voters cast their vote for whichever single-issue minority party best promised to uphold their particular special interest – is there any reason to expect that the June 17th election will be any better? Youth unemployment is now over 50 percent in both Greece and Spain and around 30% in Italy and Portugal.

Whether or not America averted another Great Depression in 2008-9, it’s very much a Great Depression in Southern Europe. The European Central Bank cannot possibly print up enough money to buy all its Southern members’ debt. This is a situation that practically cries out for populist demagogues to tell these countries that they can simply opt out of the euro zone (meaning whatever countries operate under the euro) with no repercussions.

So let’s do what they won't, let's walk through the repercussions of this action:
1.     1. Whoever opts out of the euro zone will have a currency valued so low as to be nearly worthless – and any worth it still has will quickly be washed out by hyperinflation.
2.      2. If a country pulls out of the euro zone, the Euro itself has potential to go into free fall twice over:
a.       Any country who pulls out will do so with the express intention of defaulting on their loans -  thereby saddling the European Central Bank and the European Union with a gaggle of junk bonds which that country would probably never have the money to pay back.
b.      If one country pulls out of the Euro, so can any other – thereby terrifying worldwide investors in European companies who see a European investment as a guaranteed money loser.
3.      3. A Europe without a common currency would then be a union having neither a political nor a financial reason for existing. Russia, China, America, and the Middle East could practically dictate their own terms to a Europe in economic freefall. Any of the civil conflicts raging to Europe’s south could come up north, and there is no vested interest for the short-sighted politicians of any European country to involve itself in the problems of any other. Nobody knows where or how far the civil conflicts of the Middle East can spread.

There is, of course, one country which can still save Europe – but Germany simply doesn’t want to do it. They may have their house in order, but they’re no more willing to compromise their good lifestyle than Southern Europe was. Some figures say that this whole mess would be solved if Germany simply distributed 8% of its yearly GDP to Southern Europe – but no German wants to do that if they don’t have to. Once can certainly understand why they wouldn’t want to do it, but a Euro in free fall will ruin everybody’s party – even the Germans’.

There’s an even more practical solution which even (especially?) now few politicians are bold enough to suggest: A strong, unified, European Federation in which all countries have the same polity, the same legislators, the same army, and the same debts. But apparently it’s still too far fetched to imagine. Some policy makers suggested an intermediate baby step: the Eurobond – which pools together all European investments for a 10-year yield. If issued, it might be a convenient short-term solution. But even this baby step towards cooperation is so controversial that it may never appear on the market at all. As it always has been in Europe, national rivalries seem too bitter to ever overcome. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Quote of the Day:

Der Koosh on Robespierre:  The real hint everyone should've picked up on was that he took his tea with milk AND sugar.

Monday, May 21, 2012

800 Words: The Eurasian Faultline - Part I: Istanbul

Barely a hundred miles from either side of the collection of small seas and straights that separate the Mediterranean Sea from the Black Sea lie the world’s two most important cities – the two outposts of different civilizations that forever stare at each other across the faultline and bloodily demarcate the eternal divide between Europe and Asia. On the Western side lies Athens; cradle of European Civilization and an eternal capital upon which Rome, Paris, Vienna, London, Berlin, and Washington all modeled themselves. On the Eastern side lies Istanbul, the heart of Byzantium and the Ottomans, always either the Westernmost capital of Islam or the Easternmost capital of Christendom – the city which all Central Asian empire­­s from the Caliphates to the Mughals built their cities to emulate. If Islamic empires wanted to extend their domination into Europe, they first had to capture Athens. If Christians wanted to conquer Asia, they first had to capture Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called).

Geography is as large a determiner of history as any other force, and it rarely if ever changes. The strategic importance of these two cities is as important today as it has ever been to world history. Where they go, history goes. And as ever before, Athens and Istanbul determine the our fate, our ancestor’s fates, and our descendants’ fates.

Istanbul: Much has been made of the Greece’s economic reservoir drying up, but very few people have heard that slices of Turkey are similarly dry (sorry…). Indeed, Turkey’s current deficits are no smaller than Greece’s, projected at 10% of their current GDP. Whereas emerging market currencies like Brazil and Russia soar, the Turkish lira has seemed in on the cusp of a complete free fall. Unlike Greece, Turkey controls its own currency and devalues it further and further as a means to control its deficit. But how much more can the lira be devalued before the deficit has to be paid off and their currency spirals down into a hyperinflation?

But the main difference between Greece and Turkey is that while Greece serves as a negative model for Europe of an indolent welfare state living off the largesse of harder working neighbors; Turkey is an absolute role model for the Middle East and nearly all of Asia and Africa. By emerging third-world countries, Turkey is seen as a model of a democracy which successfully integrated Islamist religious parties yet maintained its democratic character, a booming economy, and ever rising international power. Per usual, reality and perception are on mutually exclusive terms. As of December 2011, Turkey had imprisoned ninety-seven journalists, thousands of opposition figures, banned roughly a million websites, disqualified the Kurdish separatist party from serving in the Turkish parliament, bombed Iraq with collusion from Iran in flagrant violation of international law, and killed as many as 56,000 Kurds (admittedly, the actual total of the latter is probably less than half that…). Turkey refuses to renounce its claim on Cyprus, and has occupied half of it as a conqueror since 1974. Prime Minister Erdogan continues his attempts to push through a new constitution that would increase his power at the expense of the press and the judiciary. The whole of the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge the Ottoman Empire’s attempt at genocide which resulted in the murder of 1.5 to 2 million Armenians. This refusal has the backing of most Turks and when the great Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk (everyone should read Snow and especially My Name is Red) denounced this refusal, he was placed on trial for “insulting Turkishness” in a case that went all the way to the Turkish Supreme Court – he was found guilty and would have probably been sent to jail had there not been tumultuous pressure from the international community to not imprison him.

Like the rest of the Islamic world, Turkey faces the twin problems of a baby boom and the flight of non-Muslim peoples to more tolerant parts of the world. Much of contemporary Istambul would like to think itself similar to Athens, a modern European city whose country can easily take its place among the sovereign nations of the European Union. But in the event of so many clampdowns on civil liberties and so much intolerance of minorities, it’s not surprising that Turkey's EU membership was forestalled indefinitely.

There are all sorts of theories about where Turkey is headed. Perhaps Turkey will continue on its 2000’s path toward true democracy and economic boom. As late as the first quarter of 2010, the Turkish economy grew 11%. But the last few years make that possibility seem rather more unlikely than it once did. Some pundits believe that Prime Minister Erdogan is aiming for something approaching a revived Ottoman Empire in which Turkey becomes the benefactor if not the outright satellite governor of every Islamic state within a 2,000 mile radius. In some ways, Turkey is perfectly poised for that position. It stands at the precise northern center of the Islamic world, a potential nexus (perhaps the only potential nexus) of stability while the entirety of the Islamic world surrounding it engulfs itself in civil conflict. All these countries are practically crying out for a strongman to rule them like a colonial empire. Through its proximity to European stability, Turkey is almost ideally equipped to supervise Islamic Africa to its southwest and Islamic Asia to its southeast. No one doubts that if Turkey could prevent Islamic civil conflicts from spreading to Europe or East Asia, then the world superpowers would look the other way if Turkey ran the Islamic world like its own fiefdom. If this turns out to be the case, then Turkey would take its place with the United States and China as one of the world’s dominant superpowers.

Other pundits tell us that Turkey as we know it cannot sustain itself and must fall – potentially separating into at least three different countries – one European, one Islamic, one Kurdish, and all with massive potential for civil war. Should contemporary Turkey fall into pieces, then the only predominantly Islamic country of world importance that does not potentially look on the brink of a long civil war is Indonesia. The truth however remains that no one knows what the future holds in store for Turkey. But either of these two scenarios would yet again bequeath the fate of the world to Istanbul’s hands.

Update: Der Koosh correctly points out that I had in a previous draft misspelled the name of the city as 'Istambul'. I suppose that this misspelling begs the question: 'why should you trust someone to opine on a city which he can't even spell correctly?' The answer: you shouldn't. But I'll opine anyway..