Friday, April 25, 2014

800 Words: Imperfect Shakespeare

"Shakespeare never had six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven, but this does not refute my general assertion."

- Dr. Samuel Johnson

“It must be own’d’, that with all these great excellencies, he has almost as great defects; and that as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse, than any other”.

- Alexander Pope

‘His is a fine but untutored nature: he has neither regularity, nor propriety, nor art: in the midst of his sublimity he sometimes descends to grossness, and in the most impressive scenes to
buffoonery: his tragedy is chaos, illuminated by a hundred shafts of light”.

- Voltaire

“Would he had blotted a thousand lines.”

- Ben Jonson

“[Shakespeare and the other Elizabethans] ne’er knew the laws of heroick or dramatick poesy, nor -- faith -- to write true English neighter. [Shakespeare] is many times flat and insipid, his comic wit degenerating into clenches and his serious swelling into bombast.”

- John Dryden

Those lips that Love's own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said 'I hate,'
To me that languish'd for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
'I hate' she alter'd with an end,
That follow'd it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
  'I hate' from hate away she threw,
  And saved my life, saying -- 'not you.'

- Sonnet 145

Thanks to Professor Taylor’s poetry class during my freshman year, the example of Sonnet 145 stands out in my mind as especially bad Shakespeare. Professor Taylor told us not to worry about writing bad poetry, because even Shakespeare could write verse of incredible badness. He was absolutely right - that sonnet sucks. Nobody, not even anybody in love, ever died a thousand deaths after hearing the person they love saying ‘I hate’ in the instant before wondering if she was about to say ‘you.’ And instead of her hating someone else, it’s just ‘not you.’ This is pure sentimental sop. I don’t doubt it made a thousand corseted ladies of Jane Austen’s generation swoon, but it’s still bad poetry.

In the Age of the Internet, three thousand years of literature seems in danger of death by neglect. Shakespeare is the only literary writer of eminence in the last three thousand years whose survival through it seems completely guaranteed, and in our demotic, egalitarian age, we think of Shakespeare as the pinnacle of literary refinement. But Shakespeare was considered anything but refined for most of the last 450 years. Even those writers who loved him acknowledged his faults. Many of them particularly loved him for his faults. His promotion to ‘Greatest… Writer… Ever...’ was done by critics of the German romantic movement like Goethe and Schiller, Schlegel and Tieck and Herder, and they loved him particularly for his barbarism and his lack of artifice - precisely the qualities which, in today's public imagination, he lacks.

The fundamental problem of Shakespeare in our day is absurdly simple: he’s overexposed. Anyone with even a modicum of aesthetic curiosity knows his plays so well that we can never be surprised by them, and so the wider public views them as effete and pretentious. If you were to compare Shakespeare to classical music, Shakespeare would be a vast plurality of ‘classical’ literature personified. The power he has over literature and theater is the power of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Verdi, and Brahms combined into one figure. Somehow, even in our amnesiac age, Shakespeare is still valued as one of the greatest cultural touchstones. Chekhov and Moliere don’t even have a chance in the theater against Hamlet and Midsummer, Don Quixote, Pantegruel, and Montaigne don’t have a chance against Malvolio, Falstaff, and Hamlet.  But such is his hold over the public’s imagination that surely a generation will one day rise up and say that Shakespeare holds a tyranny over us just as people used to say that classical music and Classical education once did. Furthermore, most contemporary actors sound hopelessly incompetent when speaking Shakespearean verse, and if you can’t make the verse sound natural, the plays fall flat as a pancake. Shakespeare is clearly dying the same death as most Western Art, even if his death is slower. And once he’s dead to the public, will any of the Western Tradition still live for people?

The Shakespeare skeptics are manifold and well known, most famous among them being: Dryden, Pepys, Pope, Voltaire, Darwin, Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Shaw, T.S. Eliot, Tolkien, George Steiner. Some of them liked Shakespeare with reservations, many of them were legitimate. Others hated him. Tolstoy positively loathed him - he saw in Shakespeare, correctly, a base exploitativeness and lack of moral vision, with what he perceived as unbearable tedium in their place. He was particularly savage about King Lear. He regarded the character development as “artificial,” the plot “wholly unbelievable”, and the death scenes “absurd.” Ironically, four years after he wrote about King Lear, Tolstoy’s final act, spent as an 82-year-old man freezing to death in a train station after leaving his family in disgust, was an uncannily similar end to the famous King he so virulently dismissed.  

Voltaire liked Shakespeare, at least when the former was a young man, but constantly bemoaned his ‘barbarism.’ It’s true that Shakespeare emits gales of violence as the sea does waves, and uses his violence as a crutch so that we don’t have to consider deeper issues, but it’s better to accept melodramatic stage violence than to indulge real-life repression. Shakespeare’s fare is clearly unfit for the artifices of Rococo court life, and the artifices of the French court were repressive enough that it caused the entire continent to erupt in unprecedented violence a mere decade after Voltaire’s passing.

Bernard Shaw agreed aboiut the base exploitativeness, and even if Shaw was wrong about Shakespeare, he made his point well.

“Search [in Shakespeare] for statesmanship, or even citizenship, or any sense of the commonwealth, material or spiritual, and you will not find the making of a decent vestryman or curate in the whole horde. As to faith, hope, courage, conviction, or any of the true heroic qualities, you find nothing but death made sensational, despair made stage-sublime, sex made romantic, and barrenness covered up by sentimentality and the mechanical lilt of blank verse.”

Shaw was a realist who had nothing but contempt for the irrational, considering it a vestige of a bygone era (imagine the invective he’d pour on Game of Thrones…). But Shaw’s own life was an eloquent testament to the limits of rationality. He was as fierce a political polemicist as he was effective a playwright, and unlike many of his plays, he was distinctively idiotic as a newspaper columnist. He called the smallpox vaccination ‘a peculiarly filthy piece of witchcraft,’ he was a fierce supporter of Stalin and repeatedly called reports of the Soviet famine ‘slanderous,’ he endorsed eugenic projects, and loudly advocated for the exoneration of Nazi War Criminals. Without the humility which irrational speculation provides, these are the types of conclusions toward which pure rationalism leads us.

Some people call Shakespeare’s moral autism ‘cosmic artistry.’ They say that Shakespeare exists beyond worldly concerns, and perhaps they’re right. But we can’t deny that Shakespeare lacks the quality that makes so many other great artists great - a moral sense. Shakespeare is what Ferdinand Schiller would call a ‘naive’ poet, who derives his gift purely from nature and practices his art without any concern for what happens in the world around him. More ‘sentimental’ contemporaries of Shakespeare, who gained their artistic strength from observing the affairs of the wider world, met with terrible fates. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s great rival as a comic playwright, was tortured. Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great rival as a tragic playwright, was murdered. Shakespeare clearly commented upon world events, but did it so abstractly that no reader or audience member of his time could swear that the situation in his plays were analagous. How can anyone read Hamlet or King Lear and not see the elderly Queen Elizabeth in her declining years. How can anybody read King Lear or Macb*th and not see the specter of the Scottish King James VI; soon to inherit England’s throne and thought by many to have obtained it through corrupt means? How can any audience member of his time see The Tempest and not think of the first colonial settlers leaving for the New World.

But there’s little evidence that Shakespeare was issuing a critique of world events, even an allegorical one. Rather, he was shrewdly playing upon the fears and imaginations of his public as any master showman would, presenting an England and Scotland yet again torn apart by war, or presenting an entirely new world populated by all the magical beings which Francis Bacon’s science was disproving within their own.  

Indeed, to me, Shakespeare is at his best when he preserves the magic and mystery of the universe. In the high tragedies, his psychological insight is so keen that it’s almost clinical. The ferociousness of the characters are almost matched by their need to let us know every nuance of their thought. It is an unbelievable triumph of characterization but also its own worst defect, couching the excitement of the melodrama within pedanticism, crudely juxtaposing a scene of high tragedy with a scene with a scene of low comedy. In life, comedy and tragedy intermingle from the angle of viewpoint, and there are some artists: Mozart, Chekhov, Jean Renoir, Rembrandt, Stephen Sondheim, Kafka, who can blur the distance between comedy and tragedy with effortless ambiguity - every action can seem equally funny and sad. Compared to them, Shakespeare can be downright clumsy, because Shakespeare does not seek to create characters to whom we can relate. His characters may be ‘realer than us,’ but they are not lifelike.

He is, at heart, a completely unspoiled nature. His real identity has to be William Shakespeare, because no nobleman could write with Shakespeare’s lack of artifice. Only a man hugely acquainted with nature could write A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night. Only a man acquainted with earthy lowlives could write the Falstaff plays. Only a man well acquainted with uneasy access to sex could write Romeo and Juliet or As You Like It. And only a man well-acquainted with peasant superstition could have written Macb*th (surely his most effective tragedy) and The Tempest.

The German Romantics were right, Shakespeare’s greatest gift was for his portrayal of nature and the irrational. His greatest psychological portrait is, in fact, in one of his last and slightly less known plays - The Winter’s Tale. Far more than Hamlet or Iago, Leontes is a true portrait of human beings - working themselves up into a fury over completely irrational fears which they acquired for completely irrational reasons. It was as though Shakespeare finally gave up in trying to explain human behavior, and showed us in all our irrational, messy glory. Shakespeare’s irrationality, not his rationalism, was his greatest gift. If we can compare him to a contemporary figure, it would not be a refined artist like Stephen Sondheim or Martin Scorsese or Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe, it would be to an impeccable showman whose theatrical magic always plays to the gallery even as he tries (and often fails) to please the highbrow critics. It would be Steven Spielberg. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare dispenses of twenty scenes in the time it takes most playwrights and directors to get through a single scene. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare has an uncanny eye for melodrama and the cosmically irrational while more fastidious playwrights and filmmakers are hung up on the particularities of their characters’ behavior. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare raised the technique of his particular craft, be it theatrical language or cinematic visuals, to its absolute zenith. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare has an odd double taste for both excessive violence and excessive sentimentality. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare had little taste for polemic or social critique and practiced his art as a master showman. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare excelled in nearly every genre to which he put his hand. Like Spielberg, Shakespeare is endlessly discussed, but ultimately unknowable, seeming to have no personality outside of his work. And like Spielberg, Shakespeare was far better loved as an entertainer than respected as an artist in his own day. Who knows what Spielberg’s reputation may be in two-hundred years time (or twenty..)? But it’s entirely possible that critics living in a less ironic age will find in Spielberg a cosmic artist for all-time - certainly he’s already the most influential artist of our day, and the artist whose absolute genius is agreed upon by the largest number of audience members.

Is Shakespeare the ‘Greatest… Writer… Ever…’? Well..., no. He’s certainly in the first rank, but is there truly justification for calling him a greater writer than Chaucer, or Chekhov, or Moliere, or Cervantes, or Montaigne, or Tacitus, or Kafka, or Ovid, or Homer, or Tolstoy, or Rabelais, or Joyce, or Voltaire, or Aristophanes, or Turgenev, or Pushkin, or Yeats, or whoever wrote certain books of the Bible, or surely many others whom I’ve either not yet read or don’t yet see them for the proper value? How can you possibly rank giants like these? Surely there isn’t such a thing as the ‘Greatest’ in Art. You can’t quantify artistic greatness, you can only qualify it and say ‘this is why it’s great.’ In Shakespeare’s case, he surely designed the greatest linguistic tapestry I’ve ever read, and put it in the service of creating characters of stupendous interior life, placed in scenarios of unbearable excitement, juxtaposing pathos with humor as only a master showman could. Even if he was too bombastic and melodramatic, even if he padded his plays with boring passages, even if he’s over-exposed, even if he gravitates too readily to emotional extremes, even if his fans obsess over him to the point of a cult, even if his plays aren’t particularly relatable, even if he wrote much clearly bigoted material, even if he mistakened psychological insight for moral vision, even if he so often exploited our baser instincts, we should forgive him all his gaucheries. Like we would any greatly valued friend, we forgive Shakespeare his flaws and celebrate his strengths, because a person of such cosmic value should be appreciated for exactly who he is.  

Saturday, April 19, 2014

800 Words - Jonathan Chait - Liberal Martyr?

Jonathan Chait is the greatest writer about American politics of my generation. Period. Case Closed. End of story. You can find indisputable proof of this unassailable fact here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here (written in 2002, when Bush looked like he would be one of the most popular presidents in history), and especially here.  If you disagree with him, there is a more than 98% chance that it’s you who got it wrong, not him. He is an unassailable liberal, and like any great advocate of liberalism, free of dogmatic cant, free from apoplectic derangement, and possessing a mind unclouded by the usual high-horse resentment you get from the vast majority of the younger “liberal” punditocracy. It also helps that he’s genuinely hilarious.

It’s almost a foolhardy thing to take on Ta-Nehisi Coates when it comes to analysis of racism. Coates is one of the greatest writers in America in any field, and it hardly needs repeating that no American journalist of our time writes as powerfully when it comes to issues of race, because it’s a universally acknowledged truth. But Coates’s analytical skill is not on Chait’s level, hardly anybody’s is, and between them has begun yet another moment which I fear will tear the always fragile left/center-left political alliance asunder before it can have enough meaningful impact to truly change American life.

True to form, when the slightest fissures opened last week between the Left and the left-center, the left-of-center shrugged its collective shoulders, while the Left worked itself up into a state of hateful outrage. In the past few weeks, the Left has descended on Chait like a pack of ravenous wolves - all but writing him out as a perahia from progressive thought - painting this 42-year-old as the journalistic equivalent of an old and out of touch white privilege neo-liberal of the Clinton/Bloomberg variety who has, at best, a tin ear for modern America, and at worst is a willfully naive scion of the old guard. Jonathan Chait’s writing is the very embodiment of mainstream liberalism in the Obama era, and if his is not a sign of greater American progressivism, then neither is the entire movement of which he’s the world’s greatest spokesperson. One might as well say that Paul Ryan would be no more conservative a president than Barack Obama. A person of the Left might well believe that, but I’d like to see what they’d think after eight years of Paul Ryan. The last time the left and center-left had this argument, we ended up with the Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Gore.

Their ‘public intellectual death match’ was focused on one particular assertion - the idea that there is a ‘culture of poverty’ within the black community. It should go without saying that I am no great public intellectual, but to me the answer is so obvious as to be a non-starter. Of course there is a culture of poverty in America, and none of us should think for a second that it is unique to America’s black community. 46.7 million Americans are on food stamps. 65% of those on welfare are on welfare for more than a year, 45% for over two years, 20% for over five years. Poverty is perhaps the world’s most difficult position, and it is forgivable that so many give up on lifting themselves out of it when the road out of poverty is so horribly fraught. But so long as people are not looking for work every day, it remains a culture, and the government has a responsibility to encourage people to do what they can to rise up out of it. This is President Obama’s point of view with regard to poverty, and President Clinton’s before him, and it was President Johnson’s before them. It is out to lunch to believe that the cultural/structural/historical forces which shaped American poverty did not encourage the well meaning impoverished to give up on self-improvement and encourage others to do the same. No black man, none, is any more lacking in the virtues of virtues of family, hard work, and citizenship than those hailing from any other ‘race’ or gender. They are, however, due to forces beyond their control, tested for fealty to such concepts as perhaps no other American demographic is. The rest of us would come up just as statistically short were we subject to their trials.

But during this exchange, Coates made a particular assertion that was brazenly, almost unforgivably wrong, when he declared that there is little fundamental difference between Barack Obama’s views on poverty and Paul Ryan’s. Paul Ryan believes that the culture of poverty is to exploit the government for handouts, Barack Obama believes that the culture of poverty is to simply ‘give up.’ The latter is sympathetic to poverty’s plight, the former presumes malicious intent.  

As Chait pointed out, this is simply a debate from the 1990’s, rehashed as though it was never fought. People may still be bitter about Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, which made it significantly harder for recipients to stay on it. But they tend to forget that Clinton incentivized going off welfare by raising the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Would that minimum wage were living wage, but Clinton’s reforms were ultimately worth the tradeoff, and lead in no small part to the most prosperous across-the-board American economy since the Nixon Administration by every meaningful statistic. Had George W. Bush (or Al Gore) continued Clinton’s policies, the economic boom may never have ended, and the prosperity for all involved would have done far more to promote American welfare than any social welfare program.

There is a culture of poverty, and nothing which Ta-Nehisi Coates argues can change this. It is in no sense unique to America’s black population, but unfortunately it affects them disproportionately. To deny that is to traffick in precisely the same politics of resentment which deposited liberalism in the political equivalent of 'bumblefuck' and allowed Conservative Republicans a clear shot to the dominance of all three branches of government for the better part of fifty years.

And this is the position where Coates went from being simply wrong to assertions that are truly unrecognizable from the Ta-Nehisi Coates of five years ago. Coates denied Chait’s assertion that America’s gradual progress on race is a sign that the African-American experience can ever be told as a (far too gradual) story of triumph and empowerment, in which African-Americans are gradually attain the opportunities denied their forerunners for so long. When Coates made this denial, a coterie of leftist bloggers crowed with victory as though Emperor Nero just converted to Christianity.

It was truly sad to see Coates descend into such misrepresentation (and frankly, into such political extremism). This point of view he suddenly espoused runs counter to everything he’s written in his extraordinary career. In the face of Chait’s invariably cool logic, Coates dissolved into the same tropes that caused a half-century of wheel-spinning. Many further left writers than Coates used this moment to hold Chait up as another manichean example of white privilege that  endows blacks their rights so slowly because they view the rights of African-Americans not as a responsibility, but as a gift. If Coates really believes what he’s said in recent weeks, and if he’s right that there is no truly meaningful difference between the racial attitudes of Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, then all the progress which this country’s made is for naught. We might as well have a President Paul Ryan with all the accompanying gutting of social programs, and all the rampant banking infractions gone amok.

And if this weren’t enough, Chait released a long-form magazine piece which was full of all the good sense he’s ever espoused, but the piece was on the origins of why race relations are politicized as they’ve ever been in living memory. Any explanation of this phenomenon is bound to make people angry. But by responding as many did, all the Left has done is to prove Chait's explanation exactly right.

The ‘offending’ passage was when Chait referred to Democrats’ idea that Obama-hatred is race-based is, in his word, insane. And Chait is absolutely right. Even though there is enormous, terrifying racism against President Obama, to refer to the root of Obama-hatred as race-based is utterly blind. Unfortunately, Chait forgot to make the second part of his argument.

As he’s argued so many times before, conservative Obama hatred is still more insidious than racism. It’s idea-based, and based on the worst idea to come out of America since Manifest Destiny. That idea is libertarianism - an atom bomb of intellectual simple-mindedness, consisting in equal parts of Marxism-on-the-side-of-the-bourgeois, which looks on the idea of keeping the underclass permanently underclassed with extravagant approval; and coupled with a Nietzschean Will to Power that justifies the most immoral acts in the name of self-glorification - it is a strength-worshipping, class-based utopianism, in which the entitled are always deserving and justified; and just the kind of insane ideological delusion used by history so many times to presage every stripe of authoritarian state. 

To call the foundation of Republican opposition to Obama race-based is the kind of counterproductive lunacy in which only Republicans should traffick. It boxes any chance for rational discourse with Republicans into a corner from which they can only retreat into still more extreme views. It demeans the threat of Republicans' larger project, and it demeans the thousands of actual entreaties to racism which modern Republicans use.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

800 Words: Game of Thrones - The New TV


Last night, Mad Men premiered its last season and nobody notices, they were too busy recovering from King Joffery’s poisoning at his own wedding. One show prides itself on belaying audience expectations, going at its own pace, and giving the audience what it needs rather than what it wants. The other show plays to our basest, most primal bloodlust. One show presents humanity in all its slow-burning existential messiness, the other is a freak show.

King Joffery’s death wasn’t even the most disturbing moment in the episode, it wasn’t even the second-most. The second-most disturbing was to watch a beautiful girl chased through a forest like a hunted fox by nobles until the nobles ordered her torn apart by their wild dogs. But at least the actual tearing apart was off-screen, even if we had to listen to her choked screams. The most disturbing was to watch King Stannis order the burning of his wife’s brother at the stake, and by this point, Stannis’s wife is such a religious nut that she’s happy about it. She claims she saw the Lord of Light claim his soul after the fire cleansed it. I’ve occasionally had nightmares about medieval torture since I was a child, and that moment shook me so profoundly that I’m actively contemplating giving up the show - it’s not the first time such a moment caused me to.

Nevertheless, I love watching Game of Thrones. I also love watching youtube clips of idiots jumping into cactus patches. We all have a part of ourselves - the Id - that wants to trivialize other human beings, that wants to treat others as our playthings, that makes us feel triumphant in our relative security to the savagery brought upon people in inferior positions to ours. We may superficially mourn the loss of the Starks, but our primary emotion at their demise is excitement and delight - delight at an exhibition that alleviates us of civilization’s veneer and excites us with its barbarism. Game of Thrones conjures a world of medieval inhumanity, and is a spiritual descendent of the Auto-da-fe, during which medieval humans laughed and cheered uproariously as they picniced to the soothing screams of heretics burned and disemboweled - heretics who may well have been their neighbors. We want to think our sensibility more evolved, but we’re a mere few centuries away. The reptile part of the brain is still with us, and for all our civilization, all it takes is to watch Joffery Baratheon turn purple to momentarily turn us into Joffery Baratheon.

In the history of Television, there is not a single show, not Seinfeld, not South Park, not The Sopranos, not Breaking Bad, that has shaken the world to the extent Game of Thrones has. Each of those shows felt utterly shocking in their heyday, but none of them seem to shock people in the manner which Game of Thrones does. Every episode is an event, because people can’t wait to find out to what new inhuman depth the show will bring us.

It has long been the privilege of costume drama, of legend, of fantasy and myth, to act out those situations which would seem completely unbelievable in reality. In dreams, many people may well perpetrate all those acts of violence and lust which we see on a show like Game of Thrones, but thankfully few could ever do in reality until a war happens. What Game of Thrones does, what Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby do, what Titus Andronicus and Richard III do, what Salome and The Ring Cycle do, what Breughel’s Triumph of Death and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights do, is to bring us closer to those horrible instincts which fester in the unconscious of every human. It is not the thinker or empath within us which loves such work, it is the Id, that Freudian sadist in every one of us which delights in seeing the suffering of others without fear of reprisal; and equally, it’s our anxious superegos, momentarily relieved that it can let down its guard because we no longer have to worry about breaking certain taboos. In reality, murder is rarely if ever funny, but in certain fictions, murder can be hilarious, it can be exciting, it can be delightful.

It was sometimes said about Alfred Hitchcock that he shot scenes of love as though they were scenes of murder, and scenes of murder as though they were scenes of love. This, more than any other reason, is why Alfred Hitchcock is still the most influential movie director of all time - many would even call him the greatest. After Hitch, there was no going back; movies were no longer about anything but voyeurism. The most salient quality of most great movies was to show you disturbing things that dared you to look away. For all its strengths in storyboarding, acting, production design, Game of Thrones is not worthy of Hitchcock. It does not display anything like the wit or character inwardness or philosophical profundity present in Rear Window, or Psycho, or The Birds, but it is a spiritual descendent of Hitch nevertheless because it shares his most influential quality. With Game of Thrones, television has now gone over the cliff to that exact same place. Will it eventually be remembered with all the veneration we now give to Hitchcock? I sure hope not, it would say something terrible about human beings. But it’s certainly possible.

And because Game of Thrones has brought TV to that new place where our every desire is met, TV itself has entered a new age. The years 1967 to 1983 - Bonnie and Clyde to The Right Stuff - were a sixteen-year golden age for movies when Hollywood cared about Art as much as Money. Movie directors were not merely artisans who created products to order, they were artists whose creativity was limited only by their imaginations. But the Star Wars Trilogy killed all that, because studios saw that by putting the focus on special effects rather than human beings, they could take in much more at the box office. Young men interested in technology would see movies over and over again, beleaguered adults interested in escapist fare rather than challenging work would wander in, knowing that they could turn their brains off; and they could bring their children too, secure in the knowledge that the children wouldn’t be exposed to anything too offensive.  

In the same way, the end of Mad Men in 2015 may mark the end of a golden era of American Television that began sixteen years before with the launch of The Sopranos. During these sixteen years, the showrunner was king, and the talented among them were free to pursue their art to the fullest extent of their potentials. For my entire adult life thus far, TV has been the most exciting thing in the world - an artform awakening to its fullest infinity. To see Mad Men or Seinfeld or The Simpsons or when they first air is a pleasure not altogether different from being present at the Globe to see Hamlet and King Lear. In every other artform, movies included, the revelations of what’s possible have mostly been revealed. Nearly every movie, novel, play, painting, sculpture, poem, and song is a footnote to work already created. But the history of TV is still being written, or at least it was until Game of Thrones.  We know that we’re the first people ever to experience revelations which no audience before us has ever experienced. Is there any greater privilege of being alive in the era we are?

Game of Thrones is a beginning. Good as it is, it is probably the beginning of TV’s decline in an internet age. Netflix, the corporate halfway house between television and the internet, is the most seismic shift in American culture since Ted Turner started distributing Basic Cable in 1976. A year later, Star Wars was released, and a trip to the movie theater became a special event rather than a way of life. The American Way of Life became television. But Game of Thrones has made us so accustomed to adrenaline and immediate gratification that it changed American TV into something like movies. Just as Star Wars was the first movie whose merchandising tie-ins were mass-marketed on television, Game of Thrones was the first show to gain its popularity through viewer feedback on the Internet. Game of Thrones is such a success because it gives its viewers what they want, unconsciously or consciously. The gratification on Game of Thrones is visceral and instant in a manner no show before it ever was. If a show wants to be successful in its wake, it will have to respond to its audience’s demands in more basic ways than even Game of Thrones ever needed to. On-demand viewing allows shows to be watched whenever people want, and however often people want. If a show makes demands on the audience, they can simply watch something less challenging. Every niche will have shows which cater exclusively to them, and television will very quickly become a less interesting place.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

800 Words: Not Bach, Mahler!


I love Bach, I just don’t believe in Bach. I’ve prattled endlessly on this blog about how that final level of greatness to Bach seems to elude me while blessing everyone else. There’s an endless amount of music by him which I love, and two endless amounts which bore me to tears.

I should admit, I have a bit of an allergic reaction to church music, but that can only explain so much of the problem. Bach’s religious belief was not the core of his problem, it was, like Wagner’s anti-semitism, merely a symptom of the real trouble.

Bach’s true religion was order. He believed in a joyful, Leibnizian God who runs the world as though it’s as perfect as a grandfather clock. All the suffering of our lives is just the briefest test we must undergo to prove ourselves worthy for the joys that come from an eternal world. A God of an eternal heaven must run the world in such a way that his infinitely complex greatness is always manifest, even if the ways he displays his glory can be elusive in the extreme. Bach’s music was a mission to discover the extremely elusive glory of his god, and in order to expose such glory, his music had to be craft itself.

Form is what gives music its physical definition, and when it came to creating the finite limitations which gives music its substance, Bach’s craft is truly infinite - a craft never beaten in any artistic realm, and probably not equaled (Dante?). Just as Newton discovered the formal patterns and possibilities of physics, Bach laid bare the formal, contrapuntal, and harmonic patterns and possibilities of music - he marked the end of a counterpoint-dominated music and the beginning of a harmony-dominated one. He also marked the end of an old concept of form, but he did not mark the beginning of a new conception. That was left to the next generation.

Because when it came to the infinite, ineffable possibilities of music - melody, instrumental timbre, rhythmic variety - Bach was thoroughly human, seeing little need to hear his music in a fourth dimension. There are plenty of great melodies in Bach, but they are the exception that proves the rule. For a musician to have created so venerated great music, and for so few a percentage of them to contain melodies we remember for all time, tells us that there was something limited, or limiting, about Bach’s genius. The same goes for instrumentation; most of Bach’s music can be played on an infinity of instrumental combinations, and while that demonstrates his universality from a certain angle, it also demonstrates his lack of thought about tone color and timbre.

Many composers have died too early, but Bach died a different death. The Church was always at the center of Bach’s inspiration, but Bach was so committed to the church that his last twenty years were by-and-large spent not composing. Until the flowering of his final three years, he spent his more venerable years training and educating his choir boys and simply recycled his church music for the next time it was required for performance. When Bach exchanged the court instrumentalists for the church choir, the quality of his music already took a step back from the ‘divine’. Whereas his music could once stretch out to the infinite with instrumental suites and partitas, it became beholden to the dogmatic strictures of whatever Biblical lesson he had to impart for that week’s homily.

Imagine if Bach could have taken a step back from his Church obligations and become a bit more liberal in his secular sympathies as he aged. Imagine if he were not quite so intractable about the idea of polyphonic forms and allowed himself to write in the new styles. Perhaps we could have Bach symphonies, Bach operas, Bach string quartets. Like many great classical musicians of our day, Bach had a tin ear for new developments, and the loss to music and posterity is incalculable.  


I recently heard an interview on television which beautifully summed up the difference between Christianity and Judaism as follows. Christianity is a religion of denial - their Messiah has come, but he left and the world appears no better, so they say he will come again and do right what he did wrong last time. Judaism is a religion of depression - their Messiah has never come, they wait, and wait, and wait, and yet he never arrives.

Judaism can be every bit as insular and denial-ridden as Christianity. But for Mahler, Judaism was merely the beginning - a springboard for his cosmopolitan consciousness through which he could spring into the entire world. In Mahler, history finally arrives at a composer whose vision is compromised neither by religious dogma, political dogma, nor practical consideration. We’ve arrived at a composer with both the intellectual means of articulating a worldview through music and the musical means to translate his worldview into sound with absolute freedom of thought.

I don’t understand how people draw so much spiritual sustenance from Bach. His music is like the beautiful and dangerous lies which religious people tell lonely potential converts who crave a community at their meet-and-greets. We’re all insecure, we need assurance that someone has heard our suffering, and if we’re not careful, we’d all be willing to believe that we’ll be rewarded for it. But the probable truth remains that nobody will reward us for our tribulations, and we all have to keep going in spite of it. How do we do it?

In all likelihood, our existence precedes our essence, and we need music and art that doesn’t lie to us about that. We need composers who reject the lies of the insular community and reach out into the wider world with all its diversities and dangers.

If I had to make a list of pieces which articulate a whole worldview in sound, it wouldn’t be a long list: Wagner’s Ring, Haydn’s final two oratorios, Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Beethoven’s Ninth, Mozart's Da Ponte operas (at least when taken as a whole) perhaps Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Ives’s Fourth Symphony or Shostakovich's Fourteenth or Berio's Sinfonia or Kurtag's Jatekok or even Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Sufjan Stevens's Illinoise. And if you limited it to visions of the world uncompromised by dogma, you’d have to take off Wagner’s Ring, Haydn’s Creation, even The Rite of Spring. But above all other ‘worldview’ pieces, one head and shoulders above all others.

The more I listen to Mahler’s Third Symphony, the more it seems to me the most spiritual piece of music ever written. It’s a piece whose grandeur is very easy to dismiss. Here is what Alan Rich, one of my favorite music critics, wrote about it:

I love all that masquerading in the Mahler Third: the fake blood that oozes constantly in the first movement while Mahler giggles up his sleeve, and the delicious pomposity at the end, where the crowd really ought to be forced to its feet singing patriotic verses as white doves are released. It’s all a great con;

The first time I heard the Mahler’s Third Symphony was during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. My parents somehow had an extra ticket to hear Yuri Temirkanov conduct it with the Baltimore Symphony. To my astonishment, I’d still never listened to it. I went to the music library and took out Jascha Horenstein’s famous recording. As I was with virtually all the Mahler symphonies, I was utterly blown over. But nothing could have prepared me for the concert itself.

My mother and I both started cackling during the famous ‘marching bands in a storm’ sequence during the first movement. Mahler was so hell-bent on drama that he’d gone utterly over the top. It was absolutely impossible to take seriously, and yet the more we heard of what happened afterward, the more it seemed that lack of seriousness was the point. And yet, by the end of the final movement, all three of us were awash with tears.

Many people call it Mahler’s worst symphony, I think it’s his greatest - the one where Mahler’s imagination was in fullest flight, the one in which he literally articulated a philosophical worldview from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and completely humanized their rather anti-humanist conceptions of the world.

That said, of course it’s a kind of con. You absolutely can’t take the philosophy in Mahler’s Third Symphony completely seriously, and I sincerely doubt we’re meant to. Mahler, unlike so many artists of an intellectual bent, realizes that he’s an entertainer first and an intellectual second. The dramatization of his ideas is more important than the ideas themselves. When he calls his first movement, ‘Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In’, summer is announced with a bunch of military marches that sound as though they belong in the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. It’s impossible not to hear what he’s depicting, but it’s also impossible not to enjoy it on its own terms. When orchestral instruments play so many weird sounds that clearly sound like animal noises, how can we take it completely seriously? How can we be meant to take it seriously?

Far more than Wagner ever did, Mahler takes Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will to life and sets it to music - depicting six stages of evolution over ninety minutes. He begins with nature itself, moving on to the beauties of plant life, to the animal kingdom, to mankind, to the angels, to love itself.

(“O Man! Take heed!” Mahler’s rendering of Nietzsche)

It's interesting that when Mahler arrived at the fourth movement, entitled ‘What Man Tells Me’, he reached for Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra to express mankind’s plight. After the amazing third movement, which depicts the animal kingdom as though it’s a low-rent circus, he expresses something that sounds like the lowest possible spiritual darkness. Here is Nietzsche’s text:

“O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
"I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity—,
—seeks deep, deep eternity!"

If this setting is any indication, Mahler understood Nietzsche better than Nietzsche understood himself. Nietzsche’s image of a dead god and a will to power is one of utter nihilism, which, as Nietzsche admits here, is a world that seeks an eternity it can never find. Is Nietzsche right? Perhaps, but we’d all better hope he isn’t.

But after this spiritual darkness and longing for light comes the light itself in a movement entitled ‘What the angels tell me’ - replete with treble instruments, boy choir, and bells. Here is its text.

Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!
And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: "Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!"
"And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!"
"If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy."
The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.

Imagine the audacity of following a Nietzsche text with an utterly Christian one in the 1890’s. Whose side in this great debate is Mahler on? Has he taken a side? The answer, if there is one, is seen in the very last line of the fifth movement’s text.
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.
“Eternal bliss to all mankind?” If this is a Christian text, it flies in the direct contradiction of every piece of Christian dogma. This is clearly not the Christianity as most of history envisioned it. This is the Christianity of the sinner pleading for heaven's acceptance, the Christianity of that universal longing for higher joys than our mundane lives endow us. It says that we should all believe in the possibility of eternal joy, even if hardly any of us receive it. Because it is the belief in the possibility of eternal joy which gives us the power to experience joy at all.

And that joy is to be found in the last movement, a roughly twenty-two minute orchestral prayer called ‘What Love Tells Me.’ Love, not God or Will, is Mahler’s thing-in-itself. 

Mahler Three has become my highest article of faith. It is a battle cry, a prayer, and a love letter which tells me that life is always worth living. That it could come from a man like Mahler with such a great talent for suffering could have composed it makes it all the more meaningful. It is, to me, the most spiritual piece of music ever written. It does what music seems meant to do to me better than any other piece I know, and therefore it may even be the greatest piece of music I've ever heard. Throughout all its oddities, and perhaps because of them, it has given me all that solace that Bach never could.

(The best performance of the first three movements I've ever heard. Shame about the sound...)