A lot of this is repetition of stuff I’ve written about. But I’m going to get in touch with many people very soon to contribute 10 of their own to this. As for me, some of these are very familiar from other posts, others I’ve never written about. But here, should anybody care, is a personal canon:
Mahler Symphony no. 3: This piece of music is my highest article of faith - it is everything in this world - nothing human or inhuman is alien to it. Period.
Singer - Collected Stories: My second article of faith. The world of my grandparents and great-grandparents, populated as they saw the world - full of superstitions, demons, and imps, where God’s arbitrary salvation is by no means guaranteed. The lost six million cry out from their lost world in these pages. Singer is not a writer of our time, he is a teller of folk tales with no more style than the peasants and immigrants he depicts. His art is his artlessness, and that makes his writing mean more to me than anything in Shakespeare.
Golijov - La Pasion Segun San Marcos: The work that showed me I could be a composer. Golijov is the only musician whom I know speaks the same language as me - deeply Jewish, but highly colloquial and secular, classically erudite but also immersed in popular genres. He is the first, and one of the only, composers to bridge the gap between classical and popular music without making you conscious of him doing that. He is, for me, nothing less than the resurrection of music.
The Rules of the Game/The Marriage of Figaro/Uncle Vanya/Children of Paradise: Four of the saddest comedies in existence, in which everybody has their reasons. Nobody is to blame, but nobody is above blame. Each work is like its own little democracy in which everybody gets their say, gives vent to the frustrations of their lives, and is forced to understand the frustrations of others. Every character is a different person at the end than they are at the beginning, by the end, some kind of stability returns and nobody’s happier than they were at the beginning, but hopefully we’re a little wiser for watching.
The Simpsons: Talk about it’s own little democracy… The Simpsons, at least the first eight or nine years, will live forever (and seemingly will be on forever too). But it would seem that there’s a divide between people my age and people even people five years younger than me. Friends roughly my age can recite whole episodes nearly by heart. But kids Jordan and Ethan’s age, exposed to cynicism at an earlier age, more comfortable with vulgarity, never had a period where their whole view of the world revolved around The Simpsons - they seemingly reserved that for South Park, great in its own way, but not coming up to their model’s ankles. The Simpsons, thought of as vulgarity itself when it was first on, now seems a relic from a more innocent age. It is the complete show - with every human emotion and sentiment underlying the comedy in a way every one of its successors can only dream of. South Park is satire, The Simpsons is everything.
Louis CK: Comedy is the only thing that ever truly tested my loyalty to music as the most important creative consolation in this world. It’s also the only thing that ever brought me back from heavy doses of overserious music, and Louis CK has got to be something approaching the greatest who ever picked up a mic. Still not 50, it would surprise me if in 10 years he’s not viewed as the single greatest. Not only is his material funnier than everybody else’s, it’s also more serious. No comedian ever felt so human, and when you consider that he also is the single author of one of the half-dozen greatest TV shows ever made during a period when great TV grows on trees, he becomes the creator who defines the period of my early adulthood.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being: The first so far on this list I’ve never written about. I have no idea what impact this slight and somewhat pretentious novel would have made on me on any period but the one when I first read it. But languishing at 21, ‘trapped’ in Prague, emotionally battered from a battle-scarred adolescence, feeling far too lonely for someone spending his 21st birthday in one of the world’s most beautiful cities; this book, with its advocacy of stoicism, its almost nihilist view of the helplessness of individuals to control their lives, and its savage inveighing against kitsch and its resemblance to totalitarianism, was like Manna from Heaven, and precisely what I needed to hear to truly begin mending in the years after I lived in a kind of authoritarian regime.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Thus far in my life, I have no patience for the stylistic headgames of Ulysses, and I won’t even try a page of Finnegan’s Wake. But Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an important book for reasons completely apart from the usual stylistic points that make people talk about Joyce. For any smart, sensitive kid stuck in a narrow place of origin which he wished was absolutely anywhere else, Portrait is an absolutely necessary read. Even if you leave, you can never truly leave it behind.
Kafka: At 33, there are three writers that stand in my soul above all others - Singer, Chekhov, Kafka - Singer, bard of the supernatural, Chekhov, bard of everyday banality, and Kafka, bard of the systems and absurdities that keep us from being the people we want to be - all three are short storytellers, and all three have no patience for art in their storytelling. All that’s left on the page is what’s relevant, which burns like fire. It wasn’t until Kafka that we see how powerless we are against forces much too powerful to be reckoned with. There’s no need for a God to blame in Kafka’s world, we’re doing fine keeping ourselves in prison without Him, and long as we stay in prison, there isn’t much need for human individuality either.
Mad Men: But what can be more individualistic than Mad Men? Leave aside the immaculate decor and focus on that central mystery: Who is Don Draper? Really? A good man or a bad man? A self-made man or an imposter? A genius or a lucky sonofabitch? Is he even anybody at all? Is he America as we once were, or is he the nightmare we all don’t want to admit we still are? This is what it means to depict human personality and individuality - a part of ourselves we can neither know nor understand, so don’t give us answers as to who a person is, just ask the question.
Janacek Cunning Little Vixen - Or are we just animals, beholden to the same nature, life cycle, milestones, needs and desires to which every animal is beholden? The only great opera ever made from a comic strip, this anthropomorphic view of the world is what both music and theater exist to show us. It tells us that we’re all doomed and foolhardy with misspent priorities, but because life always carries on with all its tragic stupidity intact, it is a magnificent thing.
Les Noces: I’ve fallen back in love with Stravinsky this year. For all his misspent later years where his music dried up into something emotionally arid, was there ever a composer, in any period, who began with so much vitality pouring from his very seams? The stuff of life, in all its teeming, disorderly vitality, is perhaps more consistently beating within the young Stravinsky’s music than in any period of Mozart’s or Bach’s, or even Beethoven’s.
Haydn Creation: And here is a piece that is about the origin of life itself. Short of Mahler 3 and Cunning Little Vixen, there is no music in all the world I love like this. Haydn’s retelling of the Old Testament’s Creation myth is life itself as it first begins.
Tokyo Story: But what comes after? Here is a small, oh so small, Japanese fable full of universal reverberations about precisely that question. Elderly parents in a small town go to visit their children in a big city, and find that their busy children have no time for them. They go home disappointed, and shortly later, one of them dies, and the children cry because they never truly got to know the person they should have known best. So simple, so artless, but so infinite.
L’Enfant et les Sortileges: What is being a child really like? This very brief opera by Ravel attempts to answer that question. A child is sent to his room for misbehaving, throws a temper tantrum, and all the objects in his room come to life. The boy stretches his imagination to its fullest height, and the more imaginative he becomes, the more he understands why he should be nicer.
Fanny and Alexander: What is being a child really like when adults don’t offer you the privilege of imagination? Fanny and Alexander seem blissfully happy in a loving though hardly perfect family where the vitality of life roams at its fullest. But when the father dies, the mother remarries soon thereafter to an ascetic, abusive, priest. Everything that was once rich and full about their childhoods is taken from them in the cruellest possible way. But life, as always, finds the most improbable of ways to assert itself. Watch the three-hour version, even Bergman himself admitted that the five-hour version was inferior.
Woody Allen: It’s a shame whenever a kid spends his formative years imbibing an artist who turns out to be such a slimeball - especially because Woody, unlike Roman Polanski, seemed obsessed by precisely the sort of moral questions that one might think his behavior would preclude. I know we’re supposed to separate the art from the artist, but I just can’t in Woody’s case. I can understand how a moral gargoyle can make Chinatown, or The Cosby Show, or Psycho, or The Ring Cycle, but for all the weakness for young women that’s scrawled around his movies, I don’t know how a man, even a very intelligent one with a capacity for deception, can make Radio Days or Hannah and Her Sisters - so suffused with warmth and human decency, so compassionate when people can’t live up to decency even as their failures are not excused - and act the way Woody has almost clearly acted. It’s just beyond my understanding.