Thursday, May 26, 2016

Go Back to the Play?

Play 1:
Setting: Baltimore Jewish Home, Weekend After Thanksgiving 1995 - Three Weeks after Rabin was Shot

Grandparents Generation:

Senile Greenie/Dead Greenie Wife
Holocuast Survivor Guest
Social Climbing Retiree/Dead American
Low Class Brother-in-Law of Retiree

Parents Generation:

Family 1: Greenie Businessman/Conservative Homemaker
Family 2: Neocon Washington Commuter/Hebrew Teacher
Family 3: Sellout Scientist/High-Ranking Private Practice Doctor

Children's Generation:

Family 1: 
Decadent Social Justice Leftist
Jap/needs stupid husband who makes money
Bar Mitzvah Age Boy

Family 2:
"With the program" Success/needs well-meaning husband
Zionist who moved to Israel
Ultra-Orthodox Frum Girl

Family 3:
Wall Street Broker/needs wife
Playboy Lawyer
College Age Kid who works in Tech 

It could be a series of plays. 

Play 1: Shabbos Dinner
Play 2: Shabbos Morning: Bar Mitzvah of Close Family Friend, outside of the synagogue sanctuary with Bar Mitzvah Age boy and friends.
Play 3: Shabbos Noon: Kiddish after the Bar-Mitzvah, the remaining Holocaust survivors eating around a table. 
Play 3: Shabbos Afternoon, The Young Adults Get Together
Play 4: The Bar Mitzvah Party: The Parents Mingle with Contemporaries
Play 5: Sunday Brunch - Action goes on in the other rooms while one by one, there is dialogue between no more than two characters at once. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/22: The Dangerousness of Game of Thrones

(massive spoiler alert)

One by one, my remaining defenses against Game of Thrones as a great work of art are dropping as quickly as its characters. Game of Thrones is still incredibly melodramatic, its violence is gratuitously barbaric, the two-dimensionality of its characters is unmistakable (though that's better than one-dimensional characters), and the way the characters express themselves alternate between terrifying eloquence and laughable woodenness. But until tonight, my heart has never truly been touched by Game of Thrones, and this was probably the most sublime moment in the whole show thus far. As I watched tonight's episode with my mother (obviously never a good idea with this show, but she has HBO and I don't...), she literally broke down in tears at the end, while I sat perfectly still in my seat without moving for what must have been a whole minute. In the moment when you see Hodor meet his destiny, you are touched at levels both emotional and spiritual. You're heartbroken for a beloved character killed twice, perhaps you're weeping in sympathy for a boy cut down at the beginning of life and unwittingly betrayed by the very person he cares about most, and yet you're also awed by the cosmos ordaining a literally superhuman heroic sacrifice, and awed at how a lifetime can meet its destiny in an instant that takes decades to make sense, yet you're also devastated that you'll never know if this act of destiny will ever make sense to Hodor.

None of this will make sense to you either if you haven't seen the last episode, I think that all of it will make sense if you have.

I have no doubt at this point that if Game of Thrones will not be remembered as the greatest television show of all time, it will at very least be remembered as the greatest TV drama up to this point. This depresses me  As far as art goes, Game of Thrones has to be the most degrading artistic spectacle in the history of this country. I don't think I'll ever be able to resolve for myself if Game of Thrones is great art to contemplate or exploitative trash that exists to drive its viewers mad. We Americans have a pornographic (warnographic?) fascination with the show. Nineteen million Americans watch it legally, and untold millions more pirate it. I doubt they tune in merely for the violence, they tune in for how the violence manages to stay shocking because it inevitably advances a story. The fact that we're still shocked by the omnipresent violence is tribute to GoT's storytelling. Five-and-a-half seasons in, a moniker much higher than entertainment cannot possibly be denied it.

I've spilled enormous amounts of ink (bytes?) in this space about the awesome and troubling achievement that is Game of Thrones. I can't help it. There's just so much to say about it. Any discussion of contemporary America, or the world at large, that doesn't mention Game of Thrones does not understand either America or the World.

Art, among its many other precious qualities, is a societal seismograph. When the world is fundamentally in balance and secure, the world consumes art that reflects its balance - works that are elegant, engaging, seemingly simple. In this Age of Television, the fact that the world attached itself as it did in the 90's to Seinfeld - and the younger generation to The Simpsons - said something good about it. Yes, it probably signaled that our worldview was hopelessly immature, but it also showed that we were a country which could bare looking at the darkness of life with humor and resilience. A large part of Seinfeld's appeal comes from its formal perfection - not a single unnecessary word, not a single wasted moment on the screen. So even when Seinfeld was at its most shockingly misanthropic, it was executed so perfectly that you couldn't help but be shocked by how calmly you accepted it - "don't take anything too seriously" it seemed to tell us. The same went for The Simpsons, which mastered tone in precisely the same way that Seinfeld mastered form. Every foray into seriousness was immediately followed by humor, every foray into cheeriness was followed by darkness, every highbrow nod followed by a fart joke. Just as the relative optimism of the Clinton years curdled into the dark pessimism of the Bush years, the p erfect tonal balance of The Simpsons curdled into South Park's misanthropy. The perfect formal balance of Seinfeld careened into Arrested Development's baroque formal experiments.

It was only a matter of time before serious drama, dark drama that spares us nothing of human nature's full depravity, took its place. The Sopranos and The Wire were dark shows, but they were realism personified, trying in their different ways to portray well-rounded humans as they are, and always leavening their darkness with humor and philosophical distance. They were followed by dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which took the realism of their predecessors into a kind of cinematic hyper-realism. Breaking Bad was perhaps an obvious predecessor of Game of Thrones, trying to drive audiences into madness with the depravity and gloom of its realism, making us crave new episodes like a narcotic addiction. Mad Men, on the other hand, was a master of both form and tone. To my thinking, it was, and could always be, the zenith of TV Drama - as close to perfection as so many hours of TV film can approach. Every gesture, every movement, every nuance, is freighted with incredible meaning and soul. It was, in its twisted way, a declaration of optimism during the Obama Era. "We needn't be nostalgic for a past that had to end," it seems to tell us, and therefore perhaps that our best days are ahead of us.

But it is precisely the unbelievable example of balance and perfection of shows like Mad Men that makes Game of Thrones so effective. It aims not for perfection, but infinity, and to cast its viewers into as many directions and dimensions as possible. The objective of Game of Thrones is to locate all those rules of storytelling which we've long cherished in the TV age, and burn them all.

When reading history, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the more art a society consumes that shatters the balance, the closer that society moves to its own world shattering. It's as though Jung's collective unconscious perceives threats before they happen, and part of art's function is a warning system to make us aware of those threats. Only a life without balance would crave pleasures that make our senses fray and our nerves electrify, and it's probably much easier to keep the world in balance than to bring a world back to balance. If we're gripped by dark art, we will probably be gripped before long by dark things far realer than Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones has never reached so far into the artistic sublimity as it did tonight, and I worry it never can again. The world expanded and expanded and expanded for five-and-a-half years, but with Hodor's unconscious act of superhuman bravery, we have reached the zenith of how large the world of Game of Thrones can become. It was always a legendary world that transcended the normal constraints of place, but now it also transcends the normal constraints of time. What we see in Game of Thrones is not the primal mythology of an ancient civilization, what we see is the primal beliefs that guide our own civilization. We have the technology to leave earth behind, and yet we use it to recreate scenes of our origins.

The homing device of the primitive is innate in us all. The further remove we live from the earth, the greater our urge to reunite with it. The greater the comforts life affords us, the louder the moloch calls us back. The more science and technology we accumulate, the greater our taste to use that technology to use that technology like an aphrodisiac, our subconscious fantasizing from blowing up this prison of civilization and culture with every act of the most barbaric depravity we witness on TV, with still more barbaric ones present for us in every dark corner of the internet.

Perhaps what disturbs me most about Game of Thrones, about Fantasy Literature in general, is its nostalgia for the archetypes of former eras, not for their refinement or culture as in Mad Men, but most particularly the nostalgia for the barbarism of old times. The epics upon which works like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings are based - works like Beowulf and the Edda and the Song of Roland and the Nibelungenlied - were created out of naivete for a world any better and more true to human aspiration than the one in which their creators lived. There is no such excuse for Game of Thrones to hide behind, and while Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter place us squarely on the side of human virtue, Game of Thrones makes us root for the maximum possible destruction. Game of Thrones may now be considered more consequential to American and world culture than either Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter ever were. Lord of the Rings was a cult classic which then became the hit movie of its day. Harry Potter was Game of Thrones on training wheels, conditioning a generation of cultural consumers in the ways of magic and fantasy literature. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, was a cult work that has become the dominant TV show at the moment when TV's control over the world is ironclad. It is the full id of the world psyche unleashed on the idiot box, it's like a work of art created by Lucifer. I'm convinced that no viewer actually gets pleasure by watching Game of Thrones, we are, rather, infatuated by it, inflamed by it, addicted to it like a powerful drug.

On the other hand, what amazes me about Game of Thrones is that it is less a fantasy world than a projection of a former reality - probably the most accurate projection we will ever have of what it felt like to live in the Middle Ages - omnipresent death, just enough technology for an overclass to control the underclass with an iron fist of squalor, and with an endless litany of belief in supernatural forces - often in conflict with one another - which guide everything about our world.

The Middle Ages was the ultimate world without balance. Political scientists talk greatly in our time about the differences between international systems that are uni-polar, bi-polar, and multi-polar - the bi-polar world being the most desireable and stable. But the Middle Ages was an utterly apolar world, ruled only by chaos. Every district had its own system of polarities, which could necessitate violent conflict that could draw in every other district. The result could only be an overwhelming violent chaos.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/16: The Brothers Ashkenazi

I did not know that it would be a defining, numinous moment of my life, but it most certainly was. It was 2004, I had just finished my summer program in London, and was staying for a day or two at the house of my father's extremely wealthy graduate school friend of thirty-five years earlier in Hampstead Heath before making my way up to see Scotland and the Edinburgh Festival.

On her bookshelf were two volumes which caught my eye. One was Dubliners by James Joyce, the other was The Spinoza of Market Street by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I don't know what made me pull down the Singer - perhaps it was the sense that Singer would be a much easier read. I later discovered that Dubliners was utterly unintimidating, but what I discovered that afternoon by pulling down the Singer was the most visceral reading experience of my life.

I don't expect gentiles, perhaps not even many other Jews, will understand just what makes my relationship with Isaac Bashevis Singer so personal, except to reiterate that Emerson quote I seem to pull out here from time to time: "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

It would seem that Singer was ahead of me on every thought I've ever had about the state of Jews and Judaism. For once, within all that jingoistic moralistic morass I grew up with about the superiority of the Jewish community and Jewish values, here, finally, was a writer available to confirm to me that Jews can be pretty goddamn terrible people, at least as full of cruelty and vanity as any other ethnic group. All which separates them from the cruelty of their goyisher torturers is their powerlessness, which in the paranoid delusions of the goyisher world, is often mistaken for omnipotence.

I didn't just grow up with living connections to the Yiddish speaking shtetlach in which he set the majority of his stories, or even the Yiddish-speaking American communities where he set most of the others, I grew up in a modern-day American shtetl where everyone from the highest macher to the lowest schlemiel was a Jew. I barely knew a non-Jew until I was sixteen, my only contact with the gentile world being the violin lessons in Towson to which I'd venture once or twice a week. Even if Singer's world was geographically distant from my own, he wrote of a world I knew all too intimately.

Furthermore, insofar as I ever believed in a world of spirits, either through conscious credulous belief or (I should not be ashamed to write this, yet of course I am) under the coercion of mental illness, here was a writer who gave me a specifically Jewish vision of that world beyond the world. In a sense, there is little more dangerous for a person under psychotic duress to read than to read books in which the supernatural so often takes flight. On the other hand, there is great comfort in it. It's not as though Singer could at all keep up with the hyperactivity of my own imagination at its worst. Instead, Singer's imaginings were a kind of company, of knowing that these extraordinary visions were, in some senses at least, shared by someone.

These and many more were the reasons that Singer's writing spoke to me on a primal level to which, until recently, no other writer has ever reached. Jew or non-Jew. Roth and Bellow could speak to the Jew in America, Zweig and Joseph Roth could speak to our cultural aspirations, Primo Levi and Kafka could speak to our existential dread as Jews and human beings, Isaac Babel and Grossman to life for our Soviet relatives, Oz and Amichai to what it's like for our Israeli families, but except for certain parts of The Bible, only Isaac Bashevis Singer has ever articulated the inner experience.

I don't know why it was such an enormous shock that Isaac Bashevis Singer's older brother could speak on the same subterranean level, a place that previously was could only be reserved for Singer and Chagall and certain Biblical Poetry and certain turn-of-the-20th-century composers.

Before there was Yud Bet Singer (Yitzhak Bashevis Singer), there was Yud Yud Singer (Yisroel Yehoshua Singer). Israel Joshua Singer was eleven years older than his now much more famous brother. They somehow shared the same head tonsured by Alopecia universalis, and clearly wrote their fiction by dipping their pens into the same alchemical stream. For the moment, Time has eclipsed both brothers, who wrote in a language which none but the world's most religious Jews use anymore as their everyday language. But if Isaac Bashevis's reputation has waned, then Israel Joshua's has vanished.

During the older brother's lifetime, he was the exponentially more famous Singer. It may be difficult to believe, but in 1936, an English translation of The Brothers Ashkenazi sold on par with copies of Gone with the Wind. More than forty years later, the younger Isaac Bashevis would be called to Stockholm for a Nobel Prize in Literature, but in the mid-30's there was already talk that the elder, but still only 40ish Israel Joshua, would get the prize.

In Jewish circles, there is much written about how Israel Joshua was the dominating personality - an outrageously brilliant intellect whose Orthodox Rabbi father could not refute his penetrating arguments, and so Israel broke irrevocably with traditional Judaism and lived the secular life of a Jewish intellectual which became so common among gifted Yeshiva students of that era who refused to join the Rabbinate.

But while the younger Isaac always looked with unfulfillable longing for the simplicity of the Shtetl world and its naive religious belief, the elder Israel Joshua had a cold intellect which longed for secular knowledge about the wider world. Both writers dip from the same alchemical stream, but after dipping, Israel Joshua turned around and used it to illuminate the world with it while his younger brother turned his pen directly into the alchemical stream of the inner life, and captured as much of its explosive power as a page can render.

The more famous younger brother, Isaac Bashevis, writes in the colloquial style of folk storytellers. Just as there is in Kafka, there is plenty of 20th century sophistication underlaying his deceptively simple surface. Isaac Bashevis wrote plenty of novels, but none of them have the power of his older brothers' novels. Isaac Bashevis was one of the very greatest short story writers. His stories are less stories than parables about faith and sin. Singer was greatly influenced by Chekhov, but extraordinary as the good Doctor was, Singer's power exceeds Chekhov's 'merely' human illumination. What is almost continually at stake in Singer is the existential issues of life and death, salvation and damnation, redemption and perdition. This is a writer to keep company with history's apocalyptic heavyweights: Dostoevsky and Kafka, Milton and Dante. But unlike the aforementioned four, there is no coldness to Isaac Bashevis, one can no more miss the human warmth of his best tales than one can mistaken them for sentimentality. Isaac Bashevis breathes a rarefied spiritual air, particularly for the materialistic twentieth century, and perhaps he can only mix the world of the earth with the world of the spirit so well because of that unique Jewish alchemy, which thrives on complexity and ambiguity, and thinks nothing from the Bible to Lena Dunham of mixing high tragedy with low comedy.

But if Isaac Bashevis creates a Yiddish world of the spirit, then Israel Joshua created a Yiddish world of flesh and earth. The title is obviously redolent of Dostoevsky, but the substance is much, much closer to Tolstoy. More than any novel I've read save War and Peace, there is an epic sense in this book of the world as a giant machine that constantly expands and contracts, that whirls itself into events beyond the control of any person and then comes to rest at its own caprice. In a world where Donald Trump comes so close to the Presidency, this tale of Lodz and Petrograd a century ago is all too vivid and chilling.

People call this the great Yiddish Russian Novel, but this tale is so much darker than anything in Tolstoy. Israel Joshua was a near-exact contemporary of Babel and Bulgakov and Pasternak, and his world contains at least as much graphic violence and dark human interaction as anything in Red Cavalry or Master and Margarita or Doctor Zhivago.

Like his younger brother, Israel Joshua creates a world that can almost seem apocalyptic. In Isaac Bashevis Singer, there is just as much depravity as in his older brother's work, but there is always a spiritual charge and hope to offset its worst moments. But in the more rational worldview of the older Israel Joshua, there is no such spiritual hope. There is only depravity, and oh my god, this tome is as pitilessly depraved as anything in I, Claudius or Game of Thrones. This is very much a realist novel, but it is a realist novel of our nightmares in which the author forces us to look unflinchingly at man's inhumanity to man. In peacetime, acts of cruelty feed on themselves themselves to create a world of still greater cruelty, which then leads to class struggle, which then makes war inevitable, which then makes revolution inevitable, and as the cruelty of these acts makes the world more chaotic, the chaos makes the characters subject to still greater acts of cruelty.

Isaac Bashevis did not truly become the giant he was until after World War II. After the Holocaust, Isaac Bashevis was the only experience that many people, indeed many Jews, had to conjure the Jewish world that was, a world about which they never knew anything, and which disappeared utterly in the span of merely six years. But there was one other horrific event which paradoxically launched his giant literary career at the end of World War II. The death of Israel Joshua, his beloved elder brother who brought him over and saved him from certain death and mentored him literarily and intellectually.

It's hard not to believe that Isaac Bashevis felt freed by his brother's death, no longer beholden by the relentless intellectual inquiries of the elder Singer to miss whatever was worthwhile about the simple religious life they left behind, he was free to explore the world that was and portray it as Jews once experienced it, warts and all, superstitions intact.

But in losing Israel Joshua Singer, we lost perhaps the one writer who could give us a true Holocaust novel. The Brothers Ashkenazi is, at bottom, a novel about Jews pitilessly caught in the grips of the Russian Revolution. In the Early 30's when The Brothers Ashkenazi was written, it was difficult to imagine that there would ever be a more consequential event in Jewish life than the formation of the Soviet Union, which so dramatically (traumatically?) affected the lives of every Jew still remaining in Europe. But when Israel Joshua passed away in 1944, there were two enormous events lurking on the horizon. One might argue that Amos Oz's memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, is, finally, the novel about the founding of the State of Israel which the world needs. But there has never been, and perhaps could never be, a novel about the Holocaust which does justice to the subject. It's difficult not to believe that the one writer who might have been able to do it died only a bit before he got the chance.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/12: Harmonielehre

Ninety seconds from the end of the piece, we arrive in E-Flat Major heaven. E-Flat, the most freighted key in all of music history, the key of Beethoven's Eroica and Emperor and Harp and Les Adieux, of Haydn's Drumroll and Philosopher and Joke and Trumpet Concerto, of Die Zauberflote and the 39th symphony and more than half-a-dozen Mozartian concertos for which the master saved a particularly special reservoir of sublimity, of musical enormities like Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand and Mendelssohn's Octet, of the end of the Resurrection Symphony and the opening of Das Rheingold, of the Love Duet in Gotterdammerung and the Septet in the Act II Finale of Figaro, of the horn calls in Bruckner's Fourth and Schumann's Rhine and Sibelius's Swan Hymn, of the blazing brass of Elgar's Second and Mussorgsky's Great Gate of Kiev, of ironic tributes like Strauss's Heldenleben and Liszt's Triangle and Shostakovich's Ninth, and yes, of the 1812 Overture too...

E-Flat Major is not just any key, it is a declaration of larger-than-life magnitude; a dare to critics to cut the composer down to size. When a composer writes a blaze of E-Flat Major, he is venturing to take on the mighty company of the masters. Has any American composer of eminence ever dared it? Ives and Copland and Bernstein and Barber never did, lots of eminent American composers were never interested in such grand gestures - whether minimalists like Glass and Reich or atonalists like Carter and Babbitt. The loss is music's, and it is a failure of our country's imagination. We have, by and large, failed to reach out for the infinite and shake our fists after the manner of masters gone by. Some would say that more clinical, science-like manners of musicmaking are the true music of our time. Others would say that more populist, more simple manners of making music are our true music. Surely, as in any functional democracy, any such musicmaking, or any other, has a rightful and equitable place, but neither they nor we have any right to banish older traditions in the name of one's correctness at the expense of others'.

To get to that E-Flat Major Olympus, we have to pass through any number of chromatic snatches of composers' music who never resolved the conflict between chromaticism and consonance. A knowledgeable music lover can listen closely and not only hear those much vaunted paraphrases of Mahler Ten and Sibelius Four, but also fancy they might hear snatches of every opera in The Ring Cycle, of The Rite of Spring, Bluebeard's Castle, The Planets, Mahler Four and Six, Bruckner Nine, Honegger Two and Three, Prokofiev Six, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, Berg's Violin Concerto, Strauss's Elektra, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, Bartok's Four Pieces for Orchestra, Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnol, Stravinsky's Apollo and Agon, Hermann's Vertigo and Citizen Kane soundtracks, Bernstein's soundtrack to On the Waterfront. In it's way, Harmonielehre, particularly the middle movement, is a companion piece from another continent to Berio's Sinfonia, with a very different, though no less compelling, answer to the twentieth century crisis. Unlike Berio, the answer here is not to scientifically record the stream-of-consciousness itself. The answer is to incorporate these snatches, these echoes, into a new way, an American way, of thinking about tonality.

Harmonielehre was written in 1985 - four years into the Reagan Presidency. No one paying attention could view America simply as a liberator for the world, America had become, like every other country, the latest incarnation of the imperial conqueror. Nazi Germany it wasn't and isn't, not even Soviet Russia is it still, but a country that twenty years before Harmonielehre showed the world that it too could struggle with the horrors of its past and transcend them through civil rights, social welfare, unprecedented largesse toward nations decimated by war, seemed determined to climb back onto the wheel of history. Perhaps it was inevitable, did we need to capitulate so suddenly as we did under Nixon and Reagan?

John Adams's America is not mine. His origins in this country stretch back well past its founding, and he rebelled against that inheritance like only a blue-blooded American WASP can. Even as a practicing Jew, I am not offended by his portrayal of Leon Klinghoffer in the eponymous opera - my faith in free speech is much stronger than my faith in God - but I can't pretend I don't understand why co-religionists were.

But the turn left of so many Americans of the Baby Boom generation was, at very least, understandable - as understandable as their turn right as they began to age. In the Western World's disenchantment with religion, millions of postwar boomers turned to alternative religious devotion, religious faith in radical politics, in Eastern religions, in psychoanalysis, in belief in scientism, in critical theory. John Adams seems at various points to have turned to all of these. He was, in his way, as seeker after God who never found one as Mahler was - and like Mahler, he probably fell for some pretty stupid things along the way.

In the best of Adams, there is a very complex spiritual import that far exceeds the rather narrow Eastern spirituality of Glass, and even the more complex Eastern spirituality mingled with Judaism of Reich. As Adams wrote Harmonielehre, he was in psychoanalysis, and the chromatic music present in most of Harmonielehre seems to recreate the inner, churning, psychological turmoil of composers from the period during which Psychoanalysis was invented.

But unlike late Mahler or early Bartok, he resolves this early-20th century chromaticism by reclaiming the unambiguous triumph of 19th century music on entirely new terms. Perhaps only a non-European, with no spiritual memory of a blown out continent, could make unabashed triumph again sound genuine. Perhaps it even takes an American musician, since after the 20th century, perhaps only Americans seemed to know what it was like to emerge triumphantly out of a struggle without ambiguity.

But how does Adams emerge from it? To me, the ending of Harmonielehre is an enobling, Whitmanian call to democracy from a man as deeply disappointed with America as I am - for us to remember all that was good about America and sometimes still is. It is a call for us to aim higher, not to not abandon those frivolous things which make Americans American, but to use those basic elements to make our virtues into a light unto nations again.

Among many other things, it sounds to me like a call to build an America in which serious music is more than simply a luxury product. This arrival at E-Flat Major took American musicians three hundred years to achieve. It is, in a musical manner, a particularly American take on that most German of musical rituals, the Verklarung. As Whitman wrote in section 52 of the Song of Myself: "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." We may be barbarians, but within our yawps we have that same metaphysical thrust within ourselves as any more cultured nation. Just as so much European classical music was once built from folk music, we utilize the energy and rhythm of drummers like Buddy Rich and Art Blakey, or the driving syncopations and modal harmonies of jazz soloists like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and with these simple tools, we shake the very throne of music. We are America, and we have been fate knocking at the door of music for hundreds of years. We will no longer be ignored, and if absolutely necessary, we will take the Pantheon by force.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/11: A Streetcar Named Desire

"When, finally, she is removed to the mental home, we should feel that a part of civilization is going with her. Where ancient drama teaches us to reach nobility by contemplation of what is noble, modern American drama conjures us to contemplate what might have been noble, but is now humiliated, ignoble in the sight of all but the compassionate."

Kenneth Tynan

What an amazing insight that preeminent drama critic of that mid-century era had. Even today, the two archetypal dramas of American Theater are A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, premiered within fourteen months of each other under the auspice of the same director, Elia Kazan. Both Salesman and Streetcar are about the same fundamental problem: a small man or woman who aspires to be just a little bit bigger, only realize with crushing finality that their lives will always be unendurably small.

Theater and America never mixed particularly well together. America is too large and fast to be captured by a proscenium arch, it needs the dynamism which camera and film edits provide. And even if America can be rendered properly within a stage, there is still the problem that Americans don't like to be reminded of all those qualities which are the theater's great strengths. Theatrical tragedy excels at showing the fall of its protagonists, but Americans don't like to be reminded of failure. Theatrical comedy excels at showing the ridiculousness of aspiration, but whom among Americans want to be reminded that their dreams are ridiculous?

One might argue that we are not even a particularly artistic country. Art requires the humility to realize that we are well-nigh powerless to the infinity of metaphysical forces that shape us, but the ethos of this entire country was created as a demonstration that we might not be as powerless against fate as life leads us to believe. If we've ever truly excelled in the arts, its mostly in the 'popular arts,' whose purpose deliberately places contemplation as a distant second to entertainment. Within the popular arts, there is plenty of creations with contemplative force, but such contemplation has to be snuck in in a manner that disguises its nature to a public that wants nothing more from their art than entertainment.

There was a brief, mid-century, idyll, when the average American, fresh from intimacy with both Europe's culture and Europe's mortality, thought that they might like an import so un-native to our soil as the arts. But by the 'sixties', the idyll was almost completely over. Art has never again been consumed in America as anything but a luxury product. The great American artistic works which survive to our day in the public imagination generally do so not because of their artistic merit, but because of their superficial gloss. If works like The Great Gatsby and A Streetcar Named Desire survive in the public imagination, they do so not because they are great works, but because they shroud their greatness with a sleazy sexuality.

There is a primal, ecstatic, almost Greek, tragic force about A Streetcar Named Desire which is both its great achievement and its great limitation. Like Blanche herself, the play aspires with great poetic artifice to say something profound about the frailty of civilization, yet all anybody wants with either this play or with Blanche is its superficial and exploitative eroticism. Some call Streetcar the Great American Play, but the truth is that it's not even the greatest play by Tennessee Williams. There is compassion aplenty for the plight of Blanche DuBois, but we're so excited by her descent into madness that we're almost made to root for it. The descent of Laura Winfield is pure understated heartbreak, the descent of Blanche DuBois is a nihilistic operatic spectacle, and we're so thrilled by her private agony that we become complicit in driving her mad.

One of these days, a budding high school feminist is going to wake up in the middle of English class and realize just how appallingly subversive A Streetcar Named Desire is to the mores of our time. When it happens, Streetcar will be taken off America's curricula for a century or more. This is a play that dares to tell a modern audience that masculinity is what it is, and will never change. It dares to tell women that they should know better than to walk into places which they know are filled with dangerous men. And if women go in, it dares to tell women that they should know better than to flirt with dangerous men. Most shocking of all, it dares to tell us that harrowing scenes between men and women are just something that happens in the eternal power struggle between the sexes, and that any attempt to escape from that cycle of violent anger and makeup sex is doomed to end in an unnatural madness.

I say none of this with approval for Streetcar's worldview, I don't even think Streetcar's worldview is anything but a small portion of the truth about eroticism. Even so, in the conflict between Blanche and Stanley, we see nothing less than conflict between civilization and nature. Blanche is more than just a hysterical floozy, she embodies the aspiration which every person who buys a theater ticket holds to learning, to beauty, even to culture and civilization. Blanche is that part of us all that aspires to be something more than animal, but she pays for her aspiration by divorcing herself from her most basic psychological need, which then returns to her with the added strength of a long unnourished part of one's psyche that will no longer be ignored.

But in Blanche's descent, we're not called to identify sufficiently with her, because we're called to identify with Stanley. Streetcar's failure in this regard is not simply a failure of misogyny, though I don't doubt many modern progressives would like us to view it that way - in spite of the fact that if Streetcar took place in 2016, Blanche DuBois would undoubtedly be graduate of Oberlin or Sarah Lawrence, about to attend her fifteenth reunion. Streetcar's shortcoming is a basic failure of compassion, in which Blanche's insanity is deserved because of the airs she puts on as a member of a higher social class against Stanley's direct masculinity. Yes, Stanley's a 'brute' (to use that old gay term), but like any self-respecting member of the modern Tea Party, he's a go-getter who demands results and picks himself up by his bootstraps while Blanche lives like a leech off other people's work. Unlike Laura Wingfield, Blanche is not a fellow being in need of compassion, she's nothing short of unnatural, and therefore her fate is inevitable. "Sure, civilization is nice and all that," the play seems to tell us, "but are you really willing aspire to be all that if it means going without sex?'

Friday, May 6, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/5: Sacred Harp Singing

Every culture, every era, perhaps every community, every family, every person, is either a dancing culture or a singing culture.

The difference between dancing and singing is the difference between outwardness and inwardness, the difference between materialism and idealism (in the old sense), between sense and sensibility, between the phenomenal world and the noumenal world, perhaps even the difference between polytheistic worship and monotheistic worship. It is the difference between what our bodies are, and what our bodies can do.

Dance is the ultimate physical manifestation, it is real. It is the creation of order out of the chaos of movement, or perhaps even the evocation of chaos as a rebellion against a world that demands order. It utilizes those extremities of our bodies most distant from our inner selves, and while the lungs and heart and brain create our movement, it uses our internal organs to create an external expression. It expends energy, and is irrevocably linked with the erotic, the ultimate energy-expending force in our lives. I would venture a guess that most countries closer to their expiration date than their conception are dancing cultures.

In a scientific sense, song (and music) is very much a physical manifestation. But it is not of a physical manifestation that we can understand without severe intellectual abstraction. Short of sex itself, music is the ultimate mystery in our lives. Out of the chaos of the universe comes a series of vibrations so ordered that existence itself finally makes sense. It is a series of vibrations that comes from the very inner core of our bodies, and while the posture of our extremities can assist, they must be at rest. After a few hours of singing, most people are not exhausted, but feel filled with renewed energy. Singing has been ultimate proof and expression that we are more than a collection of dirty neuro-physiological wires.

As dance has long been associated with the erotic and sexual, song has long been associated with the spiritual and ascetic. In a polytheistic worship, full of Gods with limitations who must compete with each other to appeal to us, it makes a certain degree of sense to exult them by worship through the physical senses. In polytheistic worship, one can take certain amount of sensual pleasure as one's due - as any particular God will manifest his or her favor upon you by granting you that sensual pleasure when another God would not.

But in a monotheistic world controlled by an infinite power, such a God does not owe you anything. You owe Him, and all which you do is a manifestation of Him, and therefore, all which we do is a reflection upon Him, for good or ill. As we are creatures of God, created in his image, it is a bad reflection upon God to allow ourselves to surrender to the dirty chaos of nature - with its lethal dangers and devilish urges. We may be made in God's image, but surely if God is virtuous, he would not possess our infernal lusts and wraths, and would not leave us to the mercy of our nasty, brutish, short existence without a greater reward - so we must prove ourselves worthy of this great reward, through order existence's chaos, which provides security and distance from these unknowable forces which well up from the depths of the sky and land and sea and the depths of our own souls. And perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this order is music - the invisible yet harmonious force that shows that the very air vibrates in celestial harmony.

It's glorious to hear Gregorian Chant, the unchanging and spooky monophonic worship music of the Middle Ages. It's yet another glory to hear the ostentatious, ornamentally louche Catholic worship music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras - with its roots in Greco-Roman paganism, which speaks of a God who manifests Himself as much through His material glory. It's perhaps still more glorious to hear the metaphysically charged music, a bit more distant from God, during the eras of the great monarchies of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras, so ostentatious because the Monarchical State itself which sponsored such music was the greatest manifestation of the Divine.

But there is no spiritual charge quite like the simple, unadorned, un-ornamented, but ever-sturdy music of simple Protestantism, music just complicated enough that it can stand forever as a plain edifice to the humble but proud people who sang it at the top of their lungs and vibrated with their whole beings to the frequency of their divine luminosity.

To hear, and still better to participate, in Shape-Note, or Sacred Harp, singing, is to evoke the very early days of this country, with its Protestant roots which themselves can take us back to the very earliest days of Lutheranism. It demonstrates a faith so plain, so ascetic, so confident, so serious, that it alone could have created the energy by which the American ethos conquered the world. It is (finally) an American music without frivolity, speaking directly to the existential dreads and metaphysical quandries of our lives. It is a singing beyond singing, not so much a song as a harmonious shout of affirmation. It is a regimented singing, without ornamentation or vibrato, utterly without nuance or subtlety. It simply demands your submission to the great harmony. The manner with which it is sung is so simple that, for the rarest of rare gifts in choruses, it is very rare to encounter intonation issues.

It is music that reminds us that often, there can be times when greater freedom is gained by the submission to authority. Perhaps such freedom is an illusion. But in questions of morale, there are times when the illusion of freedom and the actuality of freedom are one and the same. At certain points by surrendering small amounts of our freedom, we gain greater freedom later.

This week marked the return of Andrew Sullivan to writing. His subject was the subject which so many Americans are currently dreading - is America on the precipice of tyranny? And if we are, how did we get there? Sullivan's answer was Plato's, that we arrived here because democracy in America had become so fecund that paralysis was inevitable, and could only result in a tyrant rising above the chaotic din.

All things are attracted to their opposites, scientifically it's an idea from James Clerk Maxwell, but it was already shot through philosophy: from Plato and Empedocles to Kant and Hegel, and later Heidegger. Whether the unconscious is individual or collective, it seems to cry out at times for all it does not have as a means of attaining balance. At a time when the Protestants who founded this country lived lives of awesome regimentation, they formed the first lasting, overwhelmingly stable, Republic in millennia. At a time when the individual is so paramount, a gathering force has begun to show itself, an American iron curtain, which perhaps threatens by the very force of American democracy to put this country, finally on the precipice of achieving equal rights for all, back under Authoritarian rule. Equality for all under submission.

In our quest for greater freedom, we have abdicated the civic responsibilities that are the bedrock by which a Republic can grow into a Democracy. As always, the arts can show us the way. In this age when conservatives and liberals alike are obsessed with the rights of the bedroom, with the frivolous ostentation of modern life, there are remnants in America of an earlier faith; both more disciplined, and more ecstatic. It calls to us with its simplicity, reminding us that there are more fundamental concerns than anything of this small world, and perhaps by submitting to forces like it, we can enable the continuing spread of freedom for longer. Long after our epoch resolves itself, this early Protestant music will continue - a sturdy house built to last eternally.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

ET: Almanac

Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or habit. In disposition, is that transitory melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causeth anguish, dullness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing frowardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions, no man living is free, no stoic, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well composed, but more or less, some time or other he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of mortality. Man that is born of a woman, is of short continuance, and full of trouble. Zeno, Cato, Socrates himself, whom Aelian so highly commends for a moderate temper, that nothing could disturb him, but going out, and coming in, still Socrates kept the same serenity of countenance, what misery soever befell him, (if we may believe Plato his disciple) was much tormented with it. Q. Metellus, in whom Valerius gives instance of all happiness, the most fortunate man then living, born in that most flourishing city of Rome, of noble parentage, a proper man of person, well qualified, healthful, rich, honourable, a senator, a consul, happy in his wife, happy in his children, &c. yet this man was not void of melancholy, he had his share of sorrow. Polycrates Samius, that flung his ring into the sea, because he would participate of discontent with others, and had it miraculously restored to him again shortly after, by a fish taken as he angled, was not free from melancholy dispositions. No man can cure himself; the very gods had bitter pangs, and frequent passions, as their own poets put upon them. In general, as the heaven, so is our life, sometimes fair, sometimes overcast, tempestuous, and serene; as in a rose, flowers and prickles; in the year itself, a temperate summer sometimes, a hard winter, a drought, and then again pleasant showers: so is our life intermixed with joys, hopes, fears, sorrows, calumnies: Invicem cedunt dolor et voluptas, there is a succession of pleasure and pain.
———medio de fonte leporum
Surgit amari aliquid, in ipsis floribus angat.

Even in the midst of laughing there is sorrow, (as Solomon holds): even in the midst of all our feasting and jollity, as Austin infers in his Com. on the 41st Psalm, there is grief and discontent. Inter delicias semper aliquid saevi nos strangulat, for a pint of honey thou shalt here likely find a gallon of gall, for a dram of pleasure a pound of pain, for an inch of mirth an ell of moan; as ivy doth an oak, these miseries encompass our life. And it is most absurd and ridiculous for any mortal man to look for a perpetual tenure of happiness in his life. Nothing so prosperous and pleasant, but it hath some bitterness in it, some complaining, some grudging; it is all γλυκύπικρον, a mixed passion, and like a chequer table black and white: men, families, cities, have their falls and wanes; now trines, sextiles, then quartiles and oppositions. We are not here as those angels, celestial powers and bodies, sun and moon, to finish our course without all offence, with such constancy, to continue for so many ages: but subject to infirmities, miseries, interrupted, tossed and tumbled up and down, carried about with every small blast, often molested and disquieted upon each slender occasion, uncertain, brittle, and so is all that we trust unto. And he that knows not this is not armed to endure it, is not fit to live in this world (as one condoles our time), he knows not the condition of it, where with a reciprocalty, pleasure and pain are still united, and succeed one another in a ring. Exi e mundo, get thee gone hence if thou canst not brook it; there is no way to avoid it, but to arm thyself with patience, with magnanimity, to oppose thyself unto it, to suffer affliction as a good soldier of Christ; as Paul adviseth constantly to bear it. But forasmuch as so few can embrace this good council of his, or use it aright, but rather as so many brute beasts give away to their passion, voluntary subject and precipitate themselves into a labyrinth of cares, woes, miseries, and suffer their souls to be overcome by them, cannot arm themselves with that patience as they ought to do, it falleth out oftentimes that these dispositions become habits, and many affects contemned (as Seneca notes) make a disease. Even as one distillation, not yet grown to custom, makes a cough; but continual and inveterate causeth a consumption of the lungs; so do these our melancholy provocations: and according as the humour itself is intended, or remitted in men, as their temperature of body, or rational soul is better able to make resistance; so are they more or less affected. For that which is but a flea-biting to one, causeth insufferable torment to another; and which one by his singular moderation, and well-composed carriage can happily overcome, a second is no whit able to sustain, but upon every small occasion of misconceived abuse, injury, grief, disgrace, loss, cross, humour, &c. (if solitary, or idle) yields so far to passion, that his complexion is altered, his digestion hindered, his sleep gone, his spirits obscured, and his heart heavy, his hypochondries misaffected; wind, crudity, on a sudden overtake him, and he himself overcome with melancholy. As it is with a man imprisoned for debt, if once in the gaol, every creditor will bring his action against him, and there likely hold him. If any discontent seize upon a patient, in an instant all other perturbations (for—qua data porta ruunt) will set upon him, and then like a lame dog or broken-winged goose he droops and pines away, and is brought at last to that ill habit or malady of melancholy itself. So that as the philosophers make eight degrees of heat and cold, we may make eighty-eight of melancholy, as the parts affected are diversely seized with it, or have been plunged more or less into this infernal gulf, or waded deeper into it. But all these melancholy fits, howsoever pleasing at first, or displeasing, violent and tyrannizing over those whom they seize on for the time; yet these fits I say, or men affected, are but improperly so called, because they continue not, but come and go, as by some objects they aye moved. This melancholy of which we are to treat, is a habit, mosbus sonticus, or chronicus, a chronic or continuate disease, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed; and as it was long increasing, so now being (pleasant, or painful) grown to an habit, it will hardly be removed.

Robert Burton