Friday, October 18, 2019

Mini-Cast #9 - A Brief History of the Kurds - New Beginning

It's much too soon to know anything definitive about the atrocities transpiring between Turkey and the Kurds, except that it's most definitely an atrocity, and one for whose blood stains America's hands because of Trump's withdrawal of all forces from Northern Syria, and all it took for unfathomable atrocities to happen is a day or two!

There are all kinds of rabbit holes I could jump us down into, dear listener, rabbit holes about the unfortunate and continued necessity of American military involvement in a number of overseas conflicts, about mismanagement of the Northern Middle East from both Republican and Democratic administrations: both the horrific fallout from Operation Desert Storm and the almost direct responsibility of George H. W. Bush  for one of the worst genocides in recent decades when he invited the Kurdish people to rise up against Saddam Hussein yet looked on from the sidelines while Saddam butchered anywhere from 90,000-230,000 Kurds without moving so much a finger in support of this ethnicity so key to the success of Operation Desert Storm; or about how the incompetence, of George W. Bush's Iraqi invasion, or perhaps even its very existence, now obscures the historical fact that Saddam Hussein was one of the bloodiest despots of modern times with a million dead for whom there is hopefully an afterlife where he must answer for it; or about how even Obama may bare enormous culpability for our new conundrums. How Obama may or may not have ruined the only opportunity we'll ever get to rid Turkey and the world of the perhaps now genocide-stained President Erdogan when Obama publicly opposed the Turkish military's coup d'etat in July, 2016, or about how Obama put the final nail in the Arab Spring's coffin by not taking Syrian rebels seriously, or that by not doing so he may have propelled the Syrian refugee crisis from a likelihood to an eventuality, or that his non-interference in Syria emboldened Vladimir Putin to make a successful gamble that Obama would similarly not interfere directly if Russia meddled in American affairs as it meddled in Syria.

None of these notions about the Obama presidency, even Obama's downplaying Putin's threat, can be pronounced with anything like complete certainty. But if we truly mean to examine our own role in the world, we have to entertain the possibility that the truth will never stop shocking us.

I'm not jumping us down any of those rabbitholes today, and the longer I can put off facing these questions, some of which are uncomfortable in the extreme for both listener and podcaster, the better off both I will be and my few listeners whom I don't want to alienate by chasing the most controversial subjects right away. The difference between being gifted at understanding politics and being incompetent at it is the difference between people whose predictions come true three out of ten times, and people whose predictions come true two out of ten times, and the same goes for the private sector.

Today, we should only talk about who's dying right now, and give some history to the almost faceless people that we read are dying in today's news. Here, with grotesquely truncated brevity, is a history of the Kurds:

Mini-Cast #9 - A Brief History of the Kurds - Beginning

It's much too soon to know anything definitive about the atrocities transpiring between Turkey and the Kurds, except that it's most definitely an atrocity, and one perpetrated by Trump's withdrawal of all forces from Northern Syria, and all it took for unfathomable atrocities to happen is a day or two!

There are all kinds of rabbit holes I could jump us down into, dear listener, rabbit holes about the unfortunate and continued necessity of American military involvement in a number of overseas conflicts, about mismanagement of the Northern Middle East from both Republican and Democratic administrations: both the horrific fallout from Operation Desert Storm and the almost direct responsibility of George H. W. Bush  for one of the worst genocides in recent decades when he invited the Kurdish people to rise up against Saddam Hussein yet looked on from the sidelines while Saddam butchered anywhere from 90,000-230,000 Kurds without moving so much a finger in support of this ethnicity so key to the success of Operation Desert Storm; or about how George W. Bush's Iraqi invasion now obscures the historical fact that Saddam Hussein was one of the bloodiest despots of modern times. or about how Obama may or may not have ruined the only opportunity we'll ever get to rid Turkey and the world of the perhaps now genocide-stained President Erdogan when Obama publicly opposed the Turkish military's coup d'etat in July, 2016, or about how Obama not only ruined the last chance for the Arab Spring to take hold permanently by not taking Syrian rebels seriously, or that by doing so he may have taken the Syrian refugee crisis from a likelihood to an eventuality, or that he almost certainly emboldened Vladimir Putin to make a successful gamble that Obama would similarly not interfere directly if Russia meddled in American affairs as it meddled in Syria.

We're not jumping down any of those rabbitholes today. Today, we should only talk about who's dying right now, and give some history to the almost faceless people that we read are dying in today's news. Here, with grotesquely truncated brevity, is a history of the Kurds:


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Mini-Cast #8 - Who Will Mourn Harold Bloom? - Rough Draft

Few people will mourn Harold Bloom who aren't dead already. It's amazing he made it past sixty, and for thirty years his physical appearance morphed into the embodiment of a desiccated, senile aesthetic.

Bloom was his own worst argument. Fifteen years ago he was metoo'd by Naomi Wolf (of all people...), and it's possible that the literary pages of every magazine (if they still exist) will fill entire back halves with dozens of other me-too stories about America's most powerful English teacher, and his most fawning students will pretend to be shocked at the extent of it. He was the pope from which the church seceded - a living embodiment of apolitical aesthetic worship. The church had hardly any new saints, and most of the new saints were just modernist updates of the old saints. The profiles by former students who earned his favor were practically hagiographic, but as with all biographies of preacher-saints, they were vague on an essential question: what did he actually teach?

In his long dotage, Bloom was not a teacher or a thinker, he was a religious cleric, a preacher of literature's church in a revival tent, and by the time I came of age as a reader, the extent of his literary output was just book after book of literary cheerleading. When he was a young man, Bloom clearly had ideas. Everybody who's dipped into literary theory knows The Anxiety of Influence, and the idea is a little ridiculous - that great poets wrestle with their greatest predecessors in a kind of Freudian struggle to declare independence from father-figures. If you take it as a metaphor, I suppose it yields insight when it helps you perceive how artists might have transformed the material of their predecessors, but if you read it literally, it's ridiculous, inspiration comes from literally any facet of life, and we still have no idea how the brain conjures inspiration; and yet as Bloom never tired of admitting in one of his many self-contradictions, literary theory is itself ridiculous. No one in their right mind would read the theory behind a work you love when you can experience the work again.

The point of the arts is not to be a tool to better understand politics or religion or ideology or sociology or systemic injustice or mythical archetypes... the point of art is to create something meaningful where nothing used to be. Once all the interpretations of theorists both Christian and Marxist expire which Shakespeare and Mozart and Rembrandt inspire, the primary works still remain, with new interpretations for the concerns of new generations. Artistic meaning can be reside within all those fields of study, but attempts to pigeonhole art's purpose within the realm of those other fields make art a servant of propaganda - and this is a practice indulged in as often by right-wing intellectuals as it is by left-wing, all of whom Bloom loathed and they loathed him back seventy-seven fold.

If my contempt for Bloom was slightly loving in spite of itself, then what I admired was mostly that he had all the right enemies. To be perfectly honest, I own more than a half-dozen of his books, and I still occasionally dip into them, mostly for suggestions for other books to read, because it's not like I could make heads or tails of much. I'm not nearly as smart as I think I am, but for a reader who could read thousands of books in his memory, Bloom was a shockingly bad writer - his critical judgments were simultaneously imperious and incoherent, his tone both egotistical and self-pitying, and his prose only compelling when he hurled invective. I agreed with many of the insults, but it's a sad person indeed who likes another only for hating everybody you hate.

Bloom mounted every defense for keeping the gates of high art up a critic could possibly mount, and by defending it so strenuously, he did as much as anyone to collapse the gate he claimed to defend. The question among intelligentsia used to be if it's a good use of one's time for a person who loves Dickens to read Bradbury and Tolkein, we now live in a world where the intelligentsia asks if its a good use of one's time to read Dickens if you love X-Men.

By not conceding that the best of popular culture was entirely worthy of the 'A-word' (art), we're now long since living in a world where the 'A-words' are 'anything at all you like.' Even the quote/unquote 'postmodern' world of 'art is anything goes' is now dying, and perhaps we're now moving into a world where the 'A-word' is 'anything that promotes my values.' And by not conceding that a writer of differing identity can bring a valuable perspective by virtue of their uniqueness, he lent legitimacy to all his enemies who claimed that the perspective of the traditional geniuses is all the same by virtue of their white male privilege.

I had an indulgent contempt for Bloom, he was the guardian who fell asleep at the wheel. By his ilk refusing to regard anything which smacked of popular culture as worthy of serious consideration, who can be surprised that so many current millions regard anything that smacks of high culture as unworthy of serious consideration? The 'arts' as they've been practiced for three-thousand years are now a cultural backwater which have little to do with contemporary life as it's now lived.

It's ultimately fine that the literature most people now consume is TV, the music is electronic, the poetry is song lyrics, the theater is movies, the art is graphic novels and animation and cinematography. All of those new arts have long since proven their worthiness. But why is there so little place in common discourse for all five of those arts as they have always been practiced? Is the reason partially that people are simply lazy and uncurious? Of course. But that can't be the whole reason. Part of the story is how ignorant and insensitive the gatekeepers were to new developments. If you live too much in the past, the present evolves without your input.

And now that we live in a world where the study of art's long history as its own reward is barely acknowledged, we begin to live again in an era when art is a servant to other forces. We've been here many times before, and no matter how good and pure the intentions of the first generation ideologues, lots of people will eventually attach themselves whose intentionality is bad indeed. It's a shame, history is suddenly littered with the remains of artistic works that would alert people to these dangers.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Mini-Cast #8: Who Will Miss Harold Bloom - Rough Beginning

Few people will mourn Harold Bloom who aren't dead already. It's amazing he made it past sixty, and for thirty years his physical appearance morphed into the embodiment of a desiccated, senile aesthetic.

Bloom was his own worst argument. Fifteen years ago he was metoo'd by Naomi Wolf (of all people...), and for the next month, the literary pages of every magazine (if they still exist) will probably fill entire back halves with dozens of other me-too stories about America's most powerful English teacher. He was the pope from which the church seceded - a living embodiment of the apolitical, aesthetic worship. The church had hardly any new saints, and most of the new saints were just modernist updates of the old saints. The profiles by former students who earned his favor were practically hagiographic, but as with all biographies of preacher-saints, they were vague on an essential question: what did he actually teach?

When he was a young man, Bloom clearly had ideas. Everybody who's dipped into literary theory knows The Anxiety of Influence, and the idea is a little ridiculous. Yet as Bloom never tired of saying in one of his many self-contradictions, literary theory is itself ridiculous. No one in their right mind would read the theory behind it when you can experience the work itself.


To be perfectly honest, I own more than a half-dozen of his books, I occasionally dip into them, mostly for suggestions for other books to read, because it's not like I understood much of the content. For a reader who could read thousands of books in his memory, Bloom was a shockingly bad writer.

In every two-sided quarrel, both sides inevitably perceive one another's flaws.

I had a kind of loving contempt for Bloom, but I dread his successors.

Mini-Cast #7 - What Does a Great Conductor Do? Take 1 of Doubtless Many.... Rough Draft

(Play from where the link goes until hard cut at 19:33)

It's one of the hardest passages for a conductor. Near the end of the first movement of Bruckner's seventh symphony, a movement I've often imagined to be a depiction of heaven - the divine light, the play of angels on clouds, the ascension of the newly deceased to their reception into eternity.

It's almost impossible to hear properly on a recording, but getting this right in concert is the difference between noise and an array of musical colors that few other pieces could ever release. As the soul ascends toward the gates of St. Peter, the music of the strings and high winds ascends in tones higher, and higher, and higher, in the kind of longing and ecstasy that is Bruckner's alone among musicians. And in order to get a sense of just how high we have soared, the double basses and timpani intones a pedal point E in their lowest octave - as if to show how distant earth is from heaven.

But in most performances, you can't hear that low-E. Double bass is a very quiet instrument, and if a timpani roll gets too loud, it sounds like distortion. And yet in the performance I heard on Saturday night, the low-E was as pellucid as a triangle, yet the basses were not even playing. It must have been played by the tuba, though I couldn't see the tuba player from my seat. The conductor, Marek Janowski, must have rescored it, and it must be a ferociously difficult note for a tuba to play for so long, but orchestral musicians have much better technique today than they did in Bruckner's day. For anyone who knows basic orchestration, this solution should be obvious, and yet I'm not aware anybody had ever thought of it.

Nearly three years ago, I heard the legendary Daniel Barenboim conduct a performance of this symphony that was magnificent, but this particular moment dissolved in gibberish. Barenboim is a master of phrasing and voice leading and context, but no one ever hailed him as a master of technique. Yet Marek Janowski is such a master craftsman that he thought of a solution better than any thought up by Bruckner and perhaps any other conductor. This is the kind of thing a true maestro knows how to do.

Every concertgoer has asked this question for two hundred years: what does a conductor do? The answer is not so easy, because the job description of a conductor is so nebulous that a conductor can pretty much make up his job as he goes along. Think of it as a baseball manager or football coach, the low-key way that Joe Torre managed a team was almost the opposite of the high-octane intensity of Tony La-Russa. Both managers clearly were extremely successful, but their success depended on the responsiveness of the players they faced. Some workers are more motivated by bosses who let them figure things out for themselves, other workers require a boss who corrects their every move. Everybody is different, and success depends upon the organization's culture, and the director's ability to read the kind of boss their players require for the best results.

I was not a normal kid. During the two or three years of my childhood when I didn't long to be an orchestra conductor, I dreamed of being a baseball manager. As I got older, the more similarities there seemed between these two childhood obsessions. For better or worse, the performing arts have about the same success rate as baseball. Just as with batting averages, even the elite among musicians and actors will only get a hit 3 out of 10 times, and will only hit a home run one in fifteen times. In a lifetime, we all fail many more times than we succeed.

The recreative artists who give the appearance of universal success, like Carlos Kleiber or Daniel Day-Lewis, can only do so in artificial circumstances. They're so selective about their projects that there's no true sample size in their work.

Conducting is not a profession as rife with frauds as some allege, but there are many who are more mediocre than their reputations. A conductor great at every performance is a myth. Most good conductors, like any performer, have a couple dozen substantial works at most which they know well enough to excel, and everything else is a crapshoot.

And like in every profession, the best of all are almost never superstars. To be a superstar, you have to at least be good, but performers become superstars because they choose music that draws more attention to them than to the music. Yet music expresses so much more than sensory overload. I've heard Valery Gergiev give a Tchaikovsky 5 that could light up a whole city, and in the same concert he conducted a Tchaikovsky's Romeo whose playing came so unglued I thought they'd stop the piece and start over. I've heard Yannick Nezet-Seguin give a Petrushka for the ages, but in subtler music like Bluebeard's Castle by Bartok, he exhibited no understanding of what makes the music compelling. The same was once true about Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan. The really great ones, who are always studying more music as a matter of course and can find the music in the music of any time or place like Markus Stenz and Francois-Xavier Roth and Vladimir Jurowski, or Kubelik, Fricsay, or Mackerras during the Karajan era, were rarely noticed by the public unless they guested at your local orchestra. They're too curious about great music to keep playing the flashy pieces that make you remember them more than the music.

Occasionally you get a musical genius up there like Leonard Bernstein and Daniel Barenboim who can find the music in anything, but the nature of genius is that their brains work differently, and they can't always transmit their extraordinary understanding. On any given night, Lenny and Danny could be as risible as they were magnificent the night before. Is a conductor like Barenboim more valuable than a conductor like Marek Janowski, whose revelations are very subtle, but who never fails spectacularly?

In short, what does a great conductor do? After more than thirty years of being fascinated by great conductors, I still have no idea.

Mini-Cast #7: What Does a Great Conductor Do? - First Two Thirdsish

It's one of the hardest passages for a conductor. Near the end of the first movement of Bruckner's seventh symphony, which I've often imagined to be a depiction of heaven - the divine light, the play of the angels and cherubs on clouds, the ascension of the virtuous newly deceased for their welcome to eternity.

It's almost impossible to hear properly on a recording, but getting this right in concert is the difference between noise and an array of musical colors that few other pieces could ever release. As the soul ascends toward God himself, the music of the strings and high winds ascends in tones higher, and higher, and higher, in the kind of longing and ecstasy that is Bruckner's alone among musicians. And in order to get a sense of just how high we have soared, the double basses and timpani intones a pedal point E in their lowest octave - as if to show how distant earth is from heaven.

But in most performances, you can't hear that low-E. Double bass is a very quiet instrument, and if a timpani roll gets too loud, it just sounds like distortion. And yet in the performance I heard on Saturday night, the low-E was as pellucid as a triangle, yet the basses were not even playing. It must have been played by the tuba, though I couldn't see the tuba player from my seat. The conductor, Marek Janowski, must have rescored it, and it must be a ferociously difficult note for a tuba to play for so long, but orchestral musicians have much better technique today than they did in Bruckner's day. For anyone who knows basic orchestration, this solution should be obvious, and yet I'm not aware anybody had ever thought of it.

Nearly three years ago, I heard the legendary Daniel Barenboim conduct a performance of this symphony that was magnificent, but this particular moment dissolved in gibberish. Barenboim is a master of phrasing and sound and context, but he's no master of technique. But Marek Janowski is such a master craftsman that he thought of a solution better than any thought up by Bruckner, or perhaps any other conductor. This is the kind of thing a true maestro knows how to do.

Every concertgoer has asked this question for two hundred years: what does a conductor do? The answer is not so easy, because the job description of a conductor is so nebulous that a conductor can pretty much make up his job as he goes along. Think of it as a baseball manager or football coach, the low-key way that Joe Torre managed a team was almost the opposite of the high-octane intensity of Tony La-Russa. Both managers clearly were extremely successful, but their success depended on the responsiveness of the players they faced. Some workers are more motivated by bosses who let them figure things out for themselves, other workers require a boss who corrects their every move. Everybody is different, and success depends upon the organization's culture, and the director's ability to read the kind of boss their players require for the best results.

I was not a normal kid. During the two or three years of my childhood when I didn't long to be an orchestra conductor, I dreamed of being a baseball manager. As I got older, the more similarities there seemed between these two childhood obsessions. For better or worse, the performing arts have about the same success rate as baseball. Just as with batting averages, even the elite among musicians and actors will only get a hit 3 out of 10 times, and will only hit a home run one in fifteen times. Nobody

The recreative artists who give the greatest appearance of success, like Carlos Kleiber or Daniel Day-Lewis, can only do so in artificial circumstances. They're so selective about their projects that there's no true sample size to their work.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Mini-Cast #1: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance - Final Draft

Liberal journalists rejected a Republican coming to them, bearing a gift we've sought from any eminent Republican at all, long before a Donald Trump presidency was possible - that what animates Trumpism is not the language of the unheard, what animates Trump supporters is nihilism; pessimism in no small part self-inflicted, a culture of grievance; a refusal to practice their espoused values, and a belief contrary to reality that the world is out to humiliate particularly them. Beware of critiques bearing gifts I suppose...

It should be music to liberal ears, yet since its first ecstatic reception, left-liberals closed ranks against a book everybody else knows is a masterpiece of personal memoir for which politics peppers only the slightest flavor, flavors easily excised if you're warned about the few pages upon which JD Vance uses conservative political cliches with admirable frugality. There are millions of American stories like Hillbilly Elegy. I don't think it fair to say that there are equivalent numbers of white stories to black stories, or male stories to female, but I do think it  fair to say that for every two stories, not even per capita, like Between the World and Me, or The Other Wes Moore, there's at least one story like Hillbilly Elegy. 

I have no doubt that rejection of the book is traced to the pundit JD Vance became in the years following his celebrity as the Republican talking head who explains Trumpism. And to a certain extent, Vance's soundbite interpretations of Trumpism differ from the anecdotal thoughtfulness of his book; but I believe what people resent in Vance's TV persona is not his explication of Trumpism but rather his explanation of why Trumpists resent those who resent Trumpists. He raises all manner of David Brooks-like straw men about the pseudo-sophistication of elites like me and you, but come on...

I could throw statistics at you, but there are only so many ways to quantify classism. Search your mind for anecdotes. There are moments in every liberal life when a later-to-be-Trump supporter wanted a friendly conversation, and sensing this person would be an annoyance who'd take an hour, or a day, or years, to get rid of, you did everything you could to ignore him. I have on multiple occasions. There are two sides to this story, and I guarantee that every person who shouted at a Trump rally has just as many stories of the humiliation of being on the other end of his reluctant monologue.

Humiliation is part of life's cycle; a mind that does not feel humiliated creates events about which to be humiliated. Those seeking to understand internet flamewars, look no further. We gain our self-worth by the adversity we overcome, and therefore, I believe that when there is insufficient adversity, the mind invents adversity, and by overcoming adversity, we feel pride. Therefore the mind is programmed to be more assertive on issues of pride than on issues of survival.

And as I see it,, this is why thousands of rural Trump supporters are so much more assertive than other Americans. They're more threatening and potentially more violent to those who disagree than urban African-Americans whose basic survival is continually challenged, and yet whose violent elements direct themselves mostly at one another--often for slights of pride, rather than threaten violence upon the millions of more fortunate whom they believe do not understand their mentalities. Disproportionate policing of African-Americans cannot alone account for such a wide disparity.

The disparity can only be explained through that overused, constantly misused term, culture. Whatever a person's culture, it is their cultural pride that makes their life worth living, and therefore worth dying and killing for. The American Culture Wars are the ultimate wars of pride, but forget pride for a moment: who has more reason for rage? A white liberal flirting with radicalism - entertaining that free speech is a manifestation of privilege, or a black resident of urban blight? The average resident of urban blight is too busy trying to survive to focus on their humiliations, they have no time to focus on their opinions. 

 Perhaps it's selfish, but most of us would rather die than go through life in constant humiliation. The more pride we have, the more pride we can lose. And who has lost more pride than a person who was once able to feel himself better than others merely by virtue of his identity? 

Again and again in these podcasts, I will bring up Eric Hoffer, and in the book The True Believer, for which my esteem approaches true belief, he writes: 
"The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race, or his holy cause."
So why then reject the Vance diagnosis? The only reason I can think of is that it casts an unflattering light on our own culture. A light which shows that we claim excellence for values we lack in ourselves; a light which already shines every time we write off all forms of capitalism as evil, append censorship into the classroom, make so little distinction between forms of sexual misconduct, reject the relatively often necessity of military involvement, and... of course, espouse liberalism and equality only to clearly view those who disagree with us with contempt and hatred. 

Mini-Cast #2 - The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Nobody likes Cormac McCarthy, but you have to reckon with him. There are no rewards from his books, all you need is twenty pages to understand how much more they demand than they give - no humor, no compassion, no fun, no character observation. What you get from McCarthy is hundreds of pages of nature description, and the pure, unmitigated darkness of our worst fears - for our country, for our people, for our selves, for our souls.

Much moreso than George R. R. Martin, McCarthy is only interested in human beings for the way they die. What really interests McCarthy is the desert, the western American landscape, described more ripely than any John Ford movie can. There are none of the traditional Western myths where manly heroes kill outlaws and Choctaws. For McCarthy, there's no higher human being - humans are no less part of nature than animals, and humans kill as animals do, squalidly, gorily; they kill to enjoy themselves, they kill to eat each other, they kill to use the dead's features as jewelry.

There is nothing unique about human beings in McCarthy novel. To McCarthy, we're all ridges on the ancient mesas, natural manifestations of a dead earth who don't belong upon it, born merely to die in a climate that kills everything, and therefore have a barely suppressible urge to end one another's lives, perceiving the out of place within each other which we do not see in ourselves.

I'm currently reading the infamous Blood Meridian. Was the American West as brutal as Blood Meridian makes it seem? I doubt it was in every particular, but I have no question if Blood Meridian conveys the West's spiritual reality. The meaning Blood Meridian reckons with Manifest Destiny - a doctrine with genocide seared in.

In an era when we wonder anew what bigots are capable, remember please how little control we have of their rage. Even at its peak, Manifest Destiny was not embraced by more than an American public's portion. Raised against Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk were voices from John Quincy Adams to Abraham Lincoln, but even if you prevent the slaughter a hundred times, there will always be a hundred-first. Grisly murder is part of the American condition, and McCarthy is its prophet.

In every country, there are people who believe that the country's owed more land, but America is too big to be a mere country - there are too many facets, too many peoples, too many cultures to govern something so unwieldy without intentions going awry. Perhaps no continent should be its own country, and within that continent there are so many foreign places and peoples that many facets will always be foreign to each citizen.

For those of us hailing from plentiful vegetation, nothing's more foreign than desert. Nothing more foreign than a climate of death who installs a homing device in its citizens to return each other to the land of the dead as we can before we are duly ourselves returned. And yet, the desert of McCarthy and the southwest may be our truest future, a worldwide desert, a universal desert, in which all remaining life is alone for all time. This is the image of climate change that haunts our dreams -universal death. It clearly haunts Greta Thunberg, it haunts her generation, and it will more than haunts the following generation.

So it's simultaneously stunning and unsurprising when I read an article the other week reported that Cormac McCarthy edits science articles for the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. It makes a perverse kind of sense that a writer who spends hundreds of pages chronicling every hue of sky and rock would be interested in their formation, and would also take an interest in what might happen to the landscape after the age of sentience.

I've spent so little of this podcast talking about The Road. Suffice to say it's a book so perfect that a critic can say little. The Road's journey's spiritual as much as physical - of a father to keep his son alive post-apocalypse when most food humans can eat is each other. It's as much about preserving souls as preserving life. In Blood Meridian, McCarthy's fascination with violence deadens our horror to it, you almost feel him rooting for the killers. In The Road, the desire of a nameless father and son to survive is so basic that our horror never ceases. This is real horror, not the macabre gore of Stephen King whose disgust you're meant to enjoy, this is what it means to live in a place where the homing instinct to return all things to nature is so strong that it obliterates nature itself. This father's desire to raise a decent son may be the last good impulse in the universe. It's such a simple story, and yet how many reverberations does it have to history and the all too many stories of cannibalism during World War II, the civil wars of Africa, the Communist and Imperial famines?

And how many reverberations will the future hold? Cormac McCarthy was born in 1933 - part of the same pessimistic generation as Stanley Kubrick and Phillip K. Dick who first heard of the Holocaust and the Bomb when they were adolescents, spent their adulthoods haunted by nuclear war, and are now in their dotage must hear about planetary death. The specter of planetary apocalypse has been with us nearly seventy-five, yet it has not come. When the generation born between 1925 and '42 passes, the 'Silent Generation', will we remember their era as an age of anxiety, beset by premonitions that never came, or will their anxieties be vindicated?

Mini-Cast #3 - Sweat by Lynn Nottage

I recently saw a very bad production of a very good new play. I won't say the name of the company. It was full of amateur actors doing their best. Theater's merciless. It exposes every way which actors aren't up to their material, undoing even the best actors, and if the actors are bad enough, it makes the play seem worse. Over time, I've come to learn that performers deserve mercy they rarely got from  me, and particularly actors. Nothing exposes weakness like performing for others, and before we criticize performers, we have to commend them for their bravery. Better a bad production of a good play than no production at all.

But it's doubly a shame that by all accounts I missed a very good production last year at Everyman Theater, which is easily the best theater in Baltimore - nearly the equal of any company in this country where movies are king and 75% of the best performers move to Hollywood.

Is Sweat a great play? ...No. It's a good American play about social issues, in the grand tradition of those from Clifford Odets and Lillian Hellman to Susan Lori-Parks and Bruce Norris. If anything, quite a bit better than many from this tradition. My friend complained that this play's characters weren't characters but ideological mouthpieces. I couldn't disagree, but at least the ideologies were a battle of rights rather than the typical good vs. evil.

For as long as America had theaters, theater is where agitprop flourishes - good is good, evil might as well twirl its mustache. Every problem has a name, and when the villain is invisible, the invisible fates too have names - capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia... All kinds of playwrights try to be political, and they inevitably run into the problem that they know more about theater than politics. For a hundred years, characters on Broadway have made the same sermon about the evils of this or that, capitalism more often than anything else, to make converts of their audiences, but 90% of the audiences already believe everything the dramatist does, and drive home to their Long Island McMansions while the playwright writes his next sermon from his half-a-million dollar brownstone in Williamsburg.

By the time actors get around to noticing ideas, ideas are ready for assisted living. International socialism existed for seventy years before 1928, when the Threepenny Opera hit the theater like a terrorist with a bomb. Before that, class issues were one subject among many that theater discussed. Even Bernard Shaw, the greatest of socialist playwrights, found lots of time for other issues than capitalism. But ever since The Threepenny Opera, theater's most reliable villain is the forces of Capital that wear down the working man to a nub. Some of these plays are very good. Some working in this model could live forever, like Death of a Salesman and Glengarry Glen Ross. It's hard though to escape the idea that class drama hindered the quality of more theater than it helped.

In the same way, the ideas of the Frankfurt School are around since right after World War II - that identities and ideas are defined by the powerful who shape our world in the image most flattering to them. Angels in America premiered in 1991, and don't misunderstand, however flawed it is, it's towering. It also marks the beginning of a new kind of left-oriented play, based not on class but identity.

In the years before Angels, every play that wasn't trying to be socially responsible portrayed a claustrophobic, dysfunctional family. Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee were all masters of it. But after Angels, the two strands combined, and American plays determined, to varying extents, that families were dysfunctional because of social forces. And thus we got plays like Topdog/Underdog, How I Learned to Drive, and Clybourne Park.

The idea that politics shapes families is not a new dramatic idea, it goes at least back to Henrik Ibsen, who is overdue in our woke era for a revival. It's a legitimate point of view, and as relevant as it's ever been. But the points have been been made, over, and over again.

This is why I found Sweat so impressively different from the usual fare, because the playwright clearly did her homework. Lynn Nottage spent significant time in Redding Pennsylvania, the American city with the country's highest poverty rate - 40%. She interviewed the entire panoply of residents, and it's quite apparent that she listened because we watch a very modern American story. Yes, there are the usual invisible forces of capitalism driving workers into the ground, but instead of the usual divisions, we see black and white families so bonded that they celebrate every occasion together. The divisions of this America are not the divisions of the Wilson era, they are the divisions of the Trump era, when the traditionally poor of America, both black and white, face a gigantic challenge to their livelihoods from even poorer Hispanic immigrants, who would work for wages long-rooted Americans find insulting.

While Trump's America reckons with itself about older sins, targets for the worst sins we may yet commit cross our border every day. Whether or not America reckons properly with the sins of its past, potential sins of our future are howling. Class was the killer of the 19th century, race the killer of the 20th. The great killer of the 21st is not race, it will be immigration, and for better or worse, the two are different. The greatest dramas of a century with weather patterns that uproot whole countries may well be about immigration. May we all live to see them.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Mini-Cast # 5 - The Future of Verdi - Final Draft

For this, our first music podcast, we're going to begin by listening to six of my favorite minutes in any opera, in Aida during the Egyptian sacrifice to P'tha.

A solemn rite as sublime as any music in the Catholic Church, conjuring a civilization dead for two thousand years. Only the slightest appropriation, how much can one appropriate musically from a culture whose music hasn't been heard in millennia... - but an invocation of a time and place for a different era who could barely imagine Ancient Egypt (how different from our Information Age when Egyptian history is a Google search), done with awed respect, not exploitation. A tribute to one culture in its prime from another. And if Ancient Egyptian sublimity seemed tyrannical and bellicose, it obviously called tyranny of modern imperial states to mind.

When I wrote this cast's rough draft, it was the day Baltimore's Charles Theater showed the second half of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, a five-and-a-half hour cinematic fresco about the breakdown of Italy's time immemorial way of life in the 20th century. The first half was great, the second half sucked. What matters is that the movie begins with a peasant announcing on horseback that Giuseppe Verdi died. For Italy, Verdi's death signified the nineteenth century's close; the end of old lifestyles, old achievements, old dreams.

Much as Steven Spielberg is modern America, Giuseppe Verdi was Italy of his time, perhaps much more. Born just before the Napoleonic Wars' end, his international star rose just as the 1848 revolution made Italian independence and unification inevitable, and Verdi became the cultural voice of independence as Mazzini was the political voice and Garibaldi the military. He lived to almost ninety, long after Italy turned into a democracy with a monarch as its figurehead - and if democracy was unstable... well, so is modern Italy's - even after 75 years of dysfunction modern Italy's not a dictatorship. There was little reason to foretell the turmoil which awaited. 

Verdi, like Spielberg, is emblematic of a country at the height of its achievement, and at the time of America's dominance, many couldn't get enough Verdi. American singers at the Met like Roberta Peters and Robert Merrill were on Ed Sullivan before Elvis and after Chuck Berry. It was a different era. There was not yet  the enormous catalogue of American music, and most intellectuals didn't move to New York or Chicago. So if small town intelligentsia wanted to hear music better than Top 40, they had to hear it on classical radio or television variety shows. If Metropolitan Opera divas like Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland weren't as well-known as movie stars, they were close. Opera was mainstream, and no composer wrote with an ear for the mainstream like Verdi. 

A cynical era has so much to make fun of in Verdi: the melodrama, the sincerity, the stupidity of characters, the oom-pa-pa orchestra, the cliches of libretto, the death scenes when sopranos sing their lungs out for thirty minutes. But when a cynical era curdles into an angry era, there's still more to hate: the glorification of male rage and frail women, the exoticizing of eastern culture, the near-monopoly Verdi's held over opera for a century-and-a-half. Verdi's the face of extravagant opera productions that strew money about the stage for the rich's pleasure - sucking out money from generations of composers who never got a proper public. 

Verdi didn't used to be this. In an era when we say what we mean and mean what we say, Verdi means little, but in an era when Austra's censors guarded all art for intimation sof treason, Verdi put Italian suffering and longing for freedom into the mouths of the world's most oppressed: Jews, Romanis, Ethiopians, Moors, the disabled, and, most of all, women. The state or clerics were from far away lands, but he portrayed them both in the most totalitarian terms. In code, Verdi sang of freedom, and every Italian of his time deciphered it, along with millions who lived in the world's worst regimes. 

Except for Beethoven, there's no composer more synonymous with liberty. But towering as Verdi is, he's not quite so universal that he translates to every era. While performances of Mozart thrive more than ever, Verdi faces a clear decline in his popularity. In an era complaining about opera's interminable nostalgia, its glamorizing women's alleged frailty and men's alleged strength, its orientalizing of distant cultures, Verdi's cliched tropes are ground zero of everything which today's intelligentsia finds offensive about opera.

It's easy to forget the liberty's necessity in an era of illiberal democracy. When liberty is an oppressive force of its own enabling the rich to implement plutocracy, you can't quite blame people for finding Verdi difficult, even if you find their ideologies stupid. Verdi encountered similar pushback in the late 19th century from radical ideologues and aesthetes. Just like our era, the era of Puccini and Strauss was more decadent.

And yet a new society across the Pacific Ocean emerges with exponential quickness, one accustomed not to illiberal democracy, but to dictatorship. 40 million Chinese children learn the piano now. Their whole lives will exist in a social credit system; government by algorithm that only distributes opportunity to citizens whose activities the government finds palatable. If they long for freedom, and I imagine they do, they'll will never be permitted to express their longings aloud. As in the Soviet Union, artists and writers are policed with draconian severity. It can only be in the unspecificity of music that the Chinese may feel free, and it's only in the longings of unfathomably distant lands and eras and persons that the Chinese can find their longings articulated with specificity. However insulting and dated Verdi seems to many Americans today, he may seem very current indeed in the East. Even if Verdi leaves America, he may find a home among the non-Western people opera long orientalized.  

Quick fade at 2:10



Mini-Cast #4 - Proof by David Auburn - Final Draft

Proof is a play. It knows nothing about math and everything about mental illness. Math in Proof is what Alfred Hitchcock called the 'MacGuffin', which means the device that moves the plot. It doesn't matter what it is. Proof barely mentions math. Where's the understanding or atmosphere of the math it portrays? The same play could be about chess or sports.

I don't know much about mathematics either. The last math I learned was when I was three and my grandfather taught me algebra, and since then I never learned any high math. If Proof mentioned math except in passing, they could have put it right by me and I'd believe anything they tell me. Proof barely makes the effort - a couple mathematical anecdotes - that's it.

Higher mathematics isn't so essential there needs to be great art about it. But if there's a great play about math, everybody agrees it's Copenhagen by Michael Frayn - about nuclear and theoretical physics. It recreates the mid-WWII meeting outside Copenhagen between the half-Jewish Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Bohr's former assistant and head of the Nazi nuclear program. The uncertainty of what they discussed mirrors the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle - atoms and electrons are so small they can't be observed in their natural state because light's mere presence changes their movement. The principle is a metaphor for their relationship's uncertainty, their memories' uncertainty, our uncertainty about the meeting's purpose, our uncertainty about World War II's lived experience, the uncertainty of war, uncertain lives under totalitarianism, and the uncertainty of being itself.

But I don't think the majority of the characters in Proof have a last name, let alone do we ever know  Proof's mathematicians' discoveries. At the story's center is the relationship between father and daughter - the father a mad genius, the daughter possibly as well. The father, Robert, is obviously modeled on John Nash, a Nobelled mathematician with schizophrenia, made famous by A Beautiful Mind. I hated that movie, loathed it, but even A Beautiful Mind tried to explain Nash Equilibrium - though mathematicians said they failed.

Yet as a case study of mental illness, Proof is one of the most convincing I've seen, and unlike math, I'm in a position to observe its veracity with expertise. I'm sure we will get into reasons why as the podcast continues.

What further compounds a disturbed mind are the vagaries of human behavior surrounding a mind's personhood. A disturbed mind, thoughts already compounded by mental and emotional delusion, contends with behaviors of people dealing with them, whose true motives are never ascertained. There's no one worse at understanding others' motives than a person already beset by delusion. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you, and even the motives of those who love the mentally ill are compounded by resentments, doubts, even exploitations. The vast majority of the mentally disturbed are wired to view their lives with excess negativity rather than positivity, so the petty betrayals of loved ones at their worst are exaggerated by our brains - still further complicated by the inevitability that complaints about our treatment are written off as the illness's exaggeration rather than realistic complaints.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a more admirable artistic rendering of this process than Proof, where vagaries of romance and family wear the mentally ill down until they resolve to live with as few attachments as possible, because demanding anything more may ensure a horrific cocktail of grief and terror that lasts every day for months, years, even decades.

The reciprocal to mental illness's ambiguities is the unfashionable notion that the cerebral overactivity of mentally illness enables creative leaps which the more stable regard as otherworldly. Even though today's intelligentsia are as dissatisfied as ever, few notions are more disparaged today than one that suffering is a necessary part of inspiration and preparation.

And this is a crucial point. Many non-creatives use the idea of the 'suffering' artist to keep creatives in squalor. At its core, it's little different from the Sermon on the Mount's quote: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." This is the old justification used to keep Christian masses suffering while priests accumulate all the knowledge and wealth for themselves. Furthermore, the suffering creative is an excuse for powerful artists and intellectuals to behave abominably.

So let me conclude by positing a different theory of the suffering artist, not original though I don't know its origin: An artist's suffering isn't what creates great art, creativity's motive is often to create a distraction from suffering. The easiest way to stop a destructive obsession is a constructive obsession. Only somebody in pain would endure the masochism of a perilous task.

Psychologists sometimes speak of 'depressive realism,' meaning depressed people, free from positive delusions, see the world more accurately. This is ass-backward. If the mentally ill see parts of the world more accurately, it's because their brains are wired excessively for that kind of reason to the detriment of other kinds. The obsession required for a brain to more accurately perceive things means that other perceptions go to seed, and that lack of perception severely damages a person's life circumstances - which depresses them.

Creative people are different from uncreatives, not worse, not better, but a large part of your legacy is how you deal with people different from you, and the closest people different than you are creative people. They, more than anybody else, render your lives' judgement for posterity. Be nice to them, because whether deliberately or accidentally, we render all manner of creative means for ironic punishment.


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Mini-Cast #6 - Pan's Labyrinth: Final Draft

Two or three weeks ago I saw Pan's Labyrinth for the first time in twelve years. Since 2006 it existed in my mind as one of the greatest movies I've ever seen, maybe the best movie since 2000. But on reacquaintance, I wonder if I've underestimated it. It's so good that it exists on the kind of plane to which a once-or-twice-in-a-generation movie ascends: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Pan's Labyrinth... That great.

I've never seen it except in the theater. The first time I was an emotional wreck, and when we emerged under the lights, I saw that my friend was even more a wreck than I. The second time I dragged a bunch of friends, who all seemed to agree it was incredible. I made my father see it, and he liked it but didn't like it nearly as much because he didn't think Pan's Labyrinth was realistic....

(pause)... It always comes back to questions of real versus not real. Consuming sci-fi and fantasy is a matter of time beforeaudiences to cry betrayal over series which obsessed them for years but can't possibly meet all their expectations. The whole point of conceptual fiction is that you can do literally anything, and because all manner of series take us through every conceivable narrative permutation, there inevitably comes a point when no trick is left. The author exhausts every possible option, and like in George R. R. Martin, it becomes an arms race of storytelling, so many spectacular scenes going in so many directions that every new scene has to one-up the shock of the last. What is left for the ending? There's no way to tie it all together to create an ending both satisfying and surprising.

But my biggest distaste with Game of Thrones isn't with the fantasy per se, it's with how fantasy so often panders to an audience's need for overstimulation, and how the need of so many millions around the world for overstimulation like you see in Game of Thrones becomes a narcotic whose requirement they can't help bringing to their real lives, where they seek experiences well beyond what an ordinary life promises; and if they can't find good experiences they'll pursue bad experiences - like electing fascists president or trying to overthrow capitalism forever.

I know that's a dubious claim. I don't know if it's any more true than the idea that the insane might get violent ideas from consuming violent video games and movies, or that men will be more likely to treat women badly if they consume media that demeans women. All three notions are simultaneously true and false.

But while Game of Thrones became a cautionary tale about Fantasy-lit's problems, Pan's Labyrinth is an examplar of its glories. Fantasy's minefields are so easy to step on that when an artist gets it righ, the achievement is that much greater, and by using the tools of infinite imagination, the artistic sublimity reverberates that much further into infinity.

I don't think it gives anything away to tell of the end of Pan's Labyrinth because the end of the movie's also the beginning. It's not only Ofelia caught in this Labyrinth, the Anne Frank-like doomed heroine, it's Captain Vidal, and more even than they, it's us. By the end of the movie, we have no idea what's real and what's fantasy. The movie begins and ends with Ofelia's death in 1944, a year when so many children faced Ofelia's fate. And in Ofelia's final reel, what do we see? Is it the magic of an anthropomorphic supernatural faun - or of a supernatural being even more powerful? Is it the final imaginings of a dying girl whose brain was always dangerously imaginative? Or is it in the mind of Captain Vidal, caught in the middle of a battle in a drugged state - and is the battle even real or is he hallucinating? Is it all of the above and many more, or is it just a movie?

...A few weeks ago, a particularly provocative acquaintance tried very hard to trap me into drawing parallels between Pan's Labyrinth and our contemporary political world, and it made me deeply uncomfortable. My problem was not with the idea that Pan's Labyrinth is political with contemporary relevance, it obviously is. But the movie is about things far more elemental than politics. It's about how humans require fantasy to come to terms with the world's barbarity.

There's no question, art is political, but politics are very complicated, and the political aspect of art is just one arm on a Hecatoncheire-like entity with a hundred arms or more. Many conservatives allege that art's purpose is beauty. Many progressives allege that art's purpose is empathy. Many think that art's purpose is emotion, and ideologues of all stripes think art's purpose is its message. The last one is closer to the mark, but because it's closer, it's correspondingly more dangerous in how it simplifies. All four of those concepts are mere tools at art's disposal.

The purpose of art is meaning, and artistic meaning is simultaneously universal and very personal. Meaning comes to us in an infinity of forms - forms intellectual, emotional, and spiritual, it always evolves upon reacquaintance, and the meaning is different for every person. But how you know that a work like Pan's Labyrinth is that great is that it seems to make that stunning impression on so many different people, who take so many different meanings from its content. This is art. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Mini-Cast #4 - Pan's Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro - Rough Draft

Two or three weeks ago I saw Pan's Labyrinth for the first time in twelve years. It has existed in my mind since 2006 as one of the very greatest movies I've ever seen, maybe the best movie I've seen since 2000. But upon reacquaintance, I wonder if I've underestimated it. It is so good, in fact, that it exists on the kind of plane to which a once-or-twice-in-a-generation movie can ascend: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Pan's Labyrinth... It's that great.

I have never seen it except in the movie theater. The first time I saw it, I was a tear-stained wreck, and when we emerged under the lights, I saw that a friend of mine was even more of a wreck than I. The second time I saw it, I dragged a bunch of friends, who seemed to agree with me that it was incredible. I also made my father see it, and he liked it but didn't like it nearly as much as I because he didn't think Pan's Labyrinth was realistic....

It always comes back to these questions of the real versus the not real. Consuming sci-fi and fantasy is like playing a game in which you see how long it takes audiences to cry betrayal over a series which obsessed them for years but can't possibly meet all of their expectations. Nearly the whole point of conceptual fiction is that you can do literally anything with it, and because all manner of series take the series through every conceivable narrative permutation, there eventually comes a point where there is no conceivable trick left. The author has exhausted every possible option, and like George R. R. Martin, has already taken the story in so many directions that there is no way to tie it all together to create an ending that's both satisfying and surprising.

A few months ago, before Game of Thrones ended, I wrote a piece on my Times of Israel blog which was not my best, where I charged Game of Thrones of being frivolous in part because it's fantasy. Well, in retrospect that's obviously a frivolous accusation, and one that I'm not even sure how much I believed when I wrote it. My distaste with Game of Thrones isn't with the fantasy per se, my distaste is with how fantasy so often panders to an audience's need for overstimulation, and how the need of so many millions around the world for overstimulation like you see in Game of Thrones becomes a narcotic whose requirement they can't help bringing to their real lives, where they seek experiences well beyond what an ordinary life promises; and if they can't find good experiences they'll pursue bad experiences - like electing fascists president or trying to overthrow capitalism forever.

I honestly don't know if that's any more true than the idea that the insane might get violent ideas from consuming violent video games and movies, or that men will be more likely to treat women badly if they consume media that demeans women. All three notions are simultaneously true and false down to the level of each individual at every moment.

But while Game of Thrones became a cautionary tale about the problems of fantasy, Pan's Labyrinth is a supreme examplar of its glories. The minefields of fantasy literature are so easy to step on, that when an artist gets it right, the achievement is that much greater, and by having used the world of infinite imagination, the artistic sublimity reverberates that much further into the infinite.

I don't think it gives anything away to tell of the end of Pan's Labyrinth because the end of the movie is also the beginning. It is not only Ofelia, the Anne Frank-like young heroine of this doomed era, who is caught in this Labyrinth, it is Captain Vidal, and more even than they, it's us. By the end of the movie, we have absolutely no idea what is real and what is fantasy. The movie begins and ends with Ofelia's death in 1944, a year when so many children faced the same fate. And in Ofelia's final reel, what are we seeing? Is this all the doings of an anthropomorphic faun with supernatural powers - or of a supernatural being even higher than the faun? Or is it the final imaginings of a dying girl whose brain was dangerously imaginative on her best days? Or is it the drugged mind of Captain Vidal who is caught in the middle of a battle in a compromised state - and is the battle even real or is he hallucinating it? Or is it all of the above and many more, or is it just a movie?

...A few weeks ago, a particularly provocative acquaintance tried very hard to trap me into drawing parallels between Pan's Labyrinth and our contemporary political world in a manner that made me deeply uncomfortable. My problem was not with the idea that Pan's Labyrinth is a political movie with things to tell us about today, it obviously is and a searingly angry one, and in the context of 1944 Spain its anger is obviously directed at the Right rather than at the Left. But the movie is about things far more elemental than mere politics. The movie is about how humans require the world of fantasy to come to terms with its barbarity.

There is no question, art is political, but politics are far more complicated than most artists give it credit for being, and the political aspect of art is merely one arm on a Hecatoncheire-like entity with a hundred arms or more. The purpose of art is not beauty, as so many conservatives allege, nor is the purpose of art empathy, as many leftists allege. Nor is its purpose emotion, as I'm sure many people believe who don't think much about art believe it to be, and its purpose is most certainly not the message the work conveys, though that is closer to the mark, and because it's closer, it's correspondingly more dangerous in how it simplifies the truth. All four of those concepts are mere tools at art's disposal.

The purpose of art is meaning, and meaning is very personal. It comes to us in an infinity of forms - forms intellectual, emotional, and spiritual, and it always evolves upon reacquaintance. Nearly thirteen years ago, I was deeply moved and fascinated by it, indeed I was in awe. But watching it again, completely different aspects of the movie jumped out at me. Only a great, cosmic, eternal work of art can renew itself on reacquaintance in a completely different way than the way it used to. I have no doubt that as the years go on, I'll find very different things in this movie still. May we all avoid the situations it describes and live to see it again.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Mini-Cast #6: Proof - Too Long

Proof is a play that knows nothing about math and everything about mental illness. In Proof, math is just what Alfred Hitchcock would call the 'MacGuffin', which he defined as the device that sets the plot in motion, and it doesn't matter a dime what that plot device is and can therefore be anything at all. Proof barely mentions math, it shows barely any understanding or atmosphere of the higher level math it's supposed to be portraying, it might as well be about chess or music or even sports.

I don't know much about higher level mathematics either. The last successful math I ever learned was when I was three years old, when my grandfather quite literally taught me algebra, and I have never truly learned any math at a higher level since then. If Proof had even mentioned math except in passing, they could have put it right by me and I likely would believe anything they told me about it. But Proof barely even makes an effort - a couple mathematical anecdotes, and that's it.

Higher level math is not so essential a subject to most of humanity that there need to be great works of art about it. But insofar as there is a great play about math, just about everybody agrees that it's Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, which is technically about nuclear and theoretical physics. It recreates the mid-WWII meeting outside of Copenhagen between the world's second and third most famous nuclear physicists: the half-Jewish Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Bohr's former assistant who became head of the Nazi nuclear program. The uncertainty of what they discussed in their meeting is a mirror of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states that atoms and electrons are so small that they cannot be observed in their natural state because the mere presence of light will change their position and movement. The principle itself becomes a metaphor for their relationship's uncertainty, their memory's uncertainty, our uncertainty at what they spoke of, our uncertainty at the lived experience of World War II, for the uncertainty of war, for their uncertain positions in a totalitarian society, and for the uncertainty of being itself.

I don't even think the majority of the characters in Proof have a last name, let alone do we ever know the discoveries of Proof's mathematicians. At the center of the story is the relationship between a father and a daughter - the father clearly both a genius and insane, the daughter possibly both as well. Clearly, the father, Robert, is modeled on John Nash, the Nobel winning mathematician who developed schizophrenia, and whose story was popularized in A Beautiful Mind. I hated that movie, I just loathed it, but even A Beautiful Mind tried to explain Nash Equilibrium - though according to mathematicians, they made a complete hash of Nash.

But as a case study of mental illness, Proof is one of the most convincing I've ever seen, and unlike math, I'm unfortunately in a position to observe its veracity with extreme expertise. I'm sure we will get into the reasons why as this podcast goes on.

The vagaries of a disturbed mind are further compounded by the vagaries of human behavior surrounding the mind's personhood. A mentally disturbed mind, whose thoughts are already compounded by delusions mental and emotional, is forced to contend with the behaviors of the people trying to deal with them, whose true motives can never be ascertained, and it is self-evident that there's no one in a worse place to understand the motives of others than a person who is already beset by delusions. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that everybody isn't out to get you, and even the motives of those who love the mentally ill most will always be compounded with certain resentments, doubts, and exploitations. And still further, the vast majority of the mentally disturbed will be disturbed in such a way that they view their life's developments with excess negativity rather than positivity, so the petty betrayals that comprise our loved ones at their worst will inevitably be exaggerated by our disturbed brains.

I'm not sure that I have ever seen a more admirable artistic description of this process than Proof, where the vagaries of family and romance wear a person down until they resolve that they must live with as few attachments as possible, because asking any more of life seems as though it will inevitably result in a terribly visceral cocktail of grief and terror that may last every day for months, years, even decades.

The obverse side to the uncertainties of mental illness is the now unfashionable notion that the  tornado of mental overactivity in the mentally ill can result in leaps of creativity which more stable types of people regard as otherworldly. Even though today's occupants of the life of the mind seem as or more dissatisfied with their lots than ever before, few notions in today's artistic community are more disparaged than the idea that suffering is a necessary part of an artist's inspiration and preparation.

And of course, these artists have an enormously important point. The idea of the 'suffering' artist is an argument eternally used by many non-creative people to keep the artists among them in squalor. It is, at its heart, little different from the quote from the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." This is the millennia-old justification used to keep the Christian masses suffering while the priestly class accumulates all the knowledge and wealth for themselves.

So let me conclude by positing a very different theory of the suffering artist, not an original one though I don't know its origin: The suffering of an artist is not what creates great art, the motive for creating great art is often to create a distraction from suffering. The easiest way to get rid of a destructive obsession is to find a constructive obsession, and few people but someone already in pain would take upon themself the masochism it takes to master a perilously difficult task.

Psychologists sometimes speak of phenomenon they call 'depressive realism,' meaning that depressed people, free from positive delusions, often see the world more accurately. Once again, that strikes me as ass-backward. If the depressed, or the mentally ill generally, see parts of the world more accurately, perhaps it's because their brains are wired excessively well for that particular realm of mental reasoning to the detriment of other realms. The obsession required for a brain to more accurately perceive parts of the world can mean that other areas of perception go to seed, and the lack of perception in other areas can severely damage a person's life circumstances.

No matter how many times they tell you otherwise, creative people are different than you, and a large part of your legacy is how you deal with the different among you, and the closest people to you who are obviously different are creative people. And they, more than anyone else, will be the ones who can render judgement of your lives for posterity. So be nice to the creative types in your life, whether deliberately or accidentally, they can render all manner of creative means for ironic punishment.



Saturday, October 5, 2019

Mini-Cast #6 - Proof - First Third

Proof is a play that knows nothing about math and everything about mental illness. In Proof, math is just what Alfred Hitchcock would call the 'MacGuffin', which he defined as the device that sets the plot in motion, and it doesn't matter a dime what that plot device is and can therefore be anything at all. Proof barely mentions math, it shows barely any understanding or atmosphere of the higher level math it's supposed to be portraying, it might as well be about chess or music or even sports.

I don't know much about higher level mathematics either. The last successful math I ever learned was when I was three years old, when my grandfather quite literally taught me algebra, and I have never truly learned any higher level math since then. If Proof had even mentioned math except in passing, they could have put it right by me and I like would believe anything they told me about it. But Proof barely even makes an effort - a couple mathematical anecdotes, and that's it.

Higher level math is not so essential a subject that there needs to be great works of art about it. But insofar as there is a great play about math, just about everybody agrees that it's Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, which is technically about nuclear and theoretical physics. It recreates the mid-WWII meeting outside of Copenhagen between the world's second and third most famous nuclear physicists: the half-Jewish Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Bohr's former assistant who became head of the Nazi nuclear program. The uncertainty of what they discussed in their meeting is a mirror of scientific discoveries they made - like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states that atoms and electrons cannot be observed in their natural state because the mere presence of light will change their position and movement. The math itself becomes a metaphor for their relationship's uncertainty, their memory's uncertainty, our uncertainty at what they spoke of, our uncertainty at the lived experience of World War II, for the uncertainty of war, for their uncertain positions in a totalitarian society, and the uncertainty of being itself.

I don't even think the majority of the characters in Proof have a last name, let alone do we ever know the discoveries of Proof's mathematicians.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Mini-Cast #5 - The Future of Verdi - Rough Draft

As I write these words I'm getting ready for a late night showing of the second half of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, a five-and-a-half hour cinematic fresco about the breakdown of Italy's time immemorial way of life in the 20th century. More on that in another podcast, but what matters in this one is that the entire movie begins with a peasant announcing on horseback that Giuseppe Verdi is dead.

As much as one might be able to say that Steven Spielberg is modern America, Giuseppe Verdi was the Italy of his time, perhaps even much more so. He was born just before the end of the Napoleonic Wars, came to international superstardom just as the 1848 revolution made the movement for Italian independence and unification an eventuality rather than mere radicalism, and Verdi became the cultural voice of Italian independence just as Mazzini was its political voice and Garibaldi its military. He lived to nearly ninety, long after Italy turned into a democracy with a monarch as its figurehead - and if Italian democracy was obviously unstable... well, so is modern Italy's, and even after seventy-five years of severe dysfunction modern Italy has not become a true dictatorship, so there was little reason to foretell the turmoil which awaited Italy in twenty years. 

Verdi, like Spielberg, is emblematic of a country at the height of its prosperity and achievement, such as it was..., and at the time of America's dominance, a lot of people couldn't get enough of Verdi. American stars at the Metropolitan Opera like Roberta Peters and Robert Merrill were on Ed Sullivan right before Elvis and right after Chuck Berry. It was a different era. There was not the enormous back catalogue of American music to listen to, and intellectuals didn't automatically move to New York or Chicago. So if the intelligentsia of small towns wanted to experience music better than top 40, they had to hear it on classical radio or television variety shows. If Metropolitan Opera divas like Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland weren't as well-known as movie stars, they were astonishingly close. Opera was a mainstream phenomenon, and no composer wrote with an ear for the mainstream of taste like Verdi. 

There is so much for a cynical era to make fun of in Verdi: the melodrama, the stupidity of his characters, the oom-pa-pa orchestra, the complete sincerity, the cliches of the libretto, the death scenes where sopranos only die after thirty minutes from singing their lungs out. And when a cynical era curdles into an angry era, there is still more to hate: the glorification of male rage and frail women, the exoticizing of eastern cultures, the near-monopoly Verdi's held over opera for a century-and-a-half, the fact that Verdi's the face of extravagant opera productions where money's strewn about the stage for the sole pleasure of the rich - sucking out money from generations of composers who never got a proper public. 

But Verdi didn't used to be all this. In an era when we can say what we mean and mean what we say, Verdi means very little, but in an era when Austra's imperial censors guarded all art for any intimation of treason, Verdi put Italian suffering and longing for freedom into the mouths of the world's most oppressed people: Jews, Romanis, Ethiopians, Moors, the disabled, and, most of all, women. The state or clerics might be from far away lands, but he portrayed them both in the most totalitarian terms. In code, Verdi sang of freedom, and every Italian of his time deciphered it, along with hundreds of millions of people around the world, often living in the world's worst regimes. 

Except for Beethoven, it's difficult to think of a composer more synonymous with liberty. But towering as he is, Verdi is not quite so universal that he translates well into every time and place. While performances of the still more distant Mozart thrive more than ever, the once inevitable Verdi has faced a clear albeit relative decline in his popularity, and in an era which complains about opera's interminable nostalgia, for its glamorizing of women's alleged frailty and men's alleged strength, its orientalizing of non-Western cultures, the cliched tropes of Verdi is ground zero of everything about opera which today's intelligentsia finds offensive about it.

It's easy to forget the necessity of liberty in a zeitgeist of illiberal democracy. In an era when liberty is sometimes an oppressive force of its own that allows the rich to implement a plutocratic tyranny, you can't quite blame people for finding Verdi a difficult pill to swallow, even if you find the ideologies which motivate them incredibly stupid. Verdi encountered something like a similar pushback in the late 19th century from more radical ideologues and aesthetes of a more decadent era than the one which grew him to fame.

And yet today, a new society emerges with exponential quicknessacross the Pacific Ocean, one accustomed not to illiberal democracy, but to still less liberal authoritarianism. 40 million Chinese children currently learn the piano. They will exist their entire lives in a social credit system, a government by algorithm that bases their opportunities over whether they partake in activities the government finds palatable. If they long for freedom, and I have to imagine they do, hundreds of millions will never be allowed to express their longings for freedom aloud. As in the Soviet Union, artists and writers might be policed with draconian severity until all that remains is state propaganda. It may only be in the unspecificity of music that the Chinese may feel free, and it is only in the longings of unfathomably distant lands and eras and persons that the Chinese may find their longings articulated with any specificity. However insulting and dated Verdi seems to so many Americans today, he may seem very current indeed in the East. Even if Verdi leaves America, he may well find a home among the kinds of non-Western people many Westerners think opera has long orientalized.  




Mini-Cast #5: The Future of Verdi - First Half

As I write these words I'm getting ready for a late night showing of the second half of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, a five-and-a-half hour cinematic fresco about the breakdown of Italy's time immemorial way of life in the 20th century. More on that in another podcast, but what matters in this one is that the entire movie begins with a peasant announcing on horseback that Giuseppe Verdi is dead. 

As much as one might be able to say that Steven Spielberg is modern America, Giuseppe Verdi was the Italy of his time, perhaps even much more so. He was born just before the end of the Napoleonic Wars, came to international superstardom just as the 1848 revolution made the movement for Italian independence and unification an eventuality rather than mere radicalism, and Verdi became the cultural voice of Italian independence just as Mazzini was its political voice and Garibaldi its military. He lived to nearly ninety, long after Italy turned into a democracy with a monarch as its figurehead - and if Italian democracy was obviously unstable... well, so is modern Italy's, and even after seventy-five years of severe dysfunction modern Italy has not become a true dictatorship, so there was little reason to foretell the turmoil which awaited Italy in twenty years. 

Verdi, like Spielberg, is emblematic of a country at the height of its prosperity and achievement, such as it was..., and at the time of America's dominance, a lot of people couldn't get enough of Verdi. American stars at the Metropolitan Opera like Roberta Peters and Robert Merrill were on Ed Sullivan right before Elvis and right after Chuck Berry. It was a different era. There was not the enormous back catalogue of American music to listen to, and intellectuals didn't automatically move to New York or Chicago. So if the intelligentsia of small towns wanted to experience music better than top 40, they had to hear it on classical radio or television variety shows. If Metropolitan Opera divas like Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland weren't as well-known as movie stars, they were astonishingly close. Opera was a mainstream phenomenon, and no composer wrote with an ear for the mainstream of taste like Verdi. 

There is so much for a cynical era to make fun of in Verdi: the melodrama, the stupidity of his characters, the oom-pa-pa orchestra, the complete sincerity, the death scenes where sopranos only die after thirty minutes from singing their lungs out. And when a cynical era curdles into an angry era, there is still more to hate: the glorification of male rage and frail women, the exoticizing of eastern cultures, the near-monopoly Verdi has held over the opera stage for a century-and-a-half, the fact that Verdi is the face of extravagant opera productions where money is strewn about the stage for the sole pleasure of the rich - sucking out money from generations of composers who never got a proper public. 

But Verdi did not used to be all this. He wrote for a very different era to which our era would have enormous trouble relating. In an era when Austra's imperial censors guarded opera for any intimation of treason, Verdi put Italian suffering and longing for freedom into the mouths of the world's most oppressed people: Jews, Romanis, Ethiopians, Moors, the disabled, and, most of all, women. The state or clerics might be from far away lands, but he portrayed them both in the most totalitarian terms. In code, Verdi spoke of freedom, and every Italian of his time deciphered it, along with hundreds of millions of people around the world, often living in the world's worst regimes. 






Mini-Cast #4 - Pan's Labyrinth - First Half

Two or three weeks ago I saw Pan's Labyrinth for the first time in twelve years. It has existed in my mind since 2006 as one of the very greatest movies I've ever seen, maybe the best movie I've seen since 2000. But upon reacquaintance, I wonder if I've underestimated it. It is so good, in fact, that it exists on the kind of plane to which a once-or-twice-in-a-generation movie can ascend: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Pan's Labyrinth... It's that great.

I have never seen it except in the movie theater. The first time I saw it, I was a tear-stained wreck, and when we emerged under the lights, I saw that a friend of mine was even more of a wreck than I. The second time I saw it, I dragged a bunch of friends, who seemed to agree with me that it was incredible. I also made my father see it, and he liked it but didn't like it nearly as much as I because he didn't think Pan's Labyrinth was realistic....

It always comes back to these questions of the real versus the not real. Consuming sci-fi and fantasy is like playing a game in which you see how long it takes audiences to cry betrayal over a series which obsessed them for years but can't possibly meet all of their expectations. Nearly the whole point of conceptual fiction is that you can do literally anything with it, and because all manner of series take the series through every conceivable narrative permutation, there eventually comes a point where there is no conceivable trick left. The author has exhausted every possible option, and like George R. R. Martin, has already taken the story in so many directions that there is no way to tie it all together to create an ending that's both satisfying and surprising.

A few months ago, before Game of Thrones ended, I wrote a piece on my Times of Israel blog which was not my best, where I charged Game of Thrones of being frivolous in part because it's fantasy. Well, in retrospect that's obviously a frivolous accusation, and one that I'm not even sure how much I believed when I wrote it. My distaste with Game of Thrones isn't with the fantasy per se, my distaste is with how fantasy so often panders to an audience's need for overstimulation, and how the need of so many millions around the world for overstimulation like you see in Game of Thrones becomes a narcotic whose requirement they can't help bringing to their real lives, where they seek experiences well beyond what an ordinary life promises; and if they can't find good experiences they'll pursue bad experiences - like electing fascists president or trying to overthrow capitalism forever.

I honestly don't know if that's any more true than the idea that the insane might get violent ideas from consuming violent video games and movies, or that men will be more likely to treat women badly if they consume media that demeans women. All three notions are simultaneously true and false down to the level of each individual at every moment.

But while Game of Thrones has become a cautionary tale about the problems of fantasy, Pan's Labyrinth is a supreme examplar of its glories. The minefields of fantasy literature are so easy to step on, that when an artist gets it right, the achievement is that much greater, and by having used the world of infinite imagination, the artistic sublimity reverberates that much further into the infinite.




Sunday, September 29, 2019

Mini-Cast #3 - Sweat by Lynn Nottage - Complete Rough Draft

I saw a very bad production of a very good new play last week. I won't say the name of the company, because it was full of amateur actors doing their best. Theater is merciless. It exposes actors who aren't up to their material, even the best actors come undone sometimes, and if the actors are bad enough, it makes the play seem worse. Over time, I've come to learn that performers actors deserve mercy they rarely got from me, and particularly actors. Nothing exposes weaknesses like performing for others, and before performers are criticized, they should be commended for their bravery. Better a bad production of a good play than no production at all.

But it's doubly a shame because I apparently missed a very good production of it last year at Everyman Theater, which is easily the best theater in Baltimore, and nearly the equal of any company in this country of ours where movies are king and 75% of the most talented performers move to Hollywood.

Is Sweat a great play? Well, no. It's a good play about social issues, in the grand tradition of good American plays about social issues from Clifford Odets and Lillian Hellman to Susan Lori-Parks and Bruce Norris. And if anything, it's quite a bit better than many of the plays from this long tradition. My friend complained to me that this play's characters were not characters but mouthpieces for ideologies. I couldn't disagree completely, but at least the ideologies were a battle of rights rather than the usual good versus evil.

For as long as America had theaters, theater is where agitprop goes to flourish - good is good, and evil might as well twirl its mustache. Every problem has a name, and even when the villain is invisible, the invisible fates have names too - capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia... All kinds of playwrights try to be political, and they inevitably run into the problem that they know a lot more about theater than about politics. For a hundred years, characters on Broadway have made the same near-religious sermon about the evils of this or that political force, capitalism more often than anything else, ostensibly to make converts of their audiences, but 90% of the audiences already believe in everything the dramatist believes, who then drive home to their Long Island McMansions while the playwright writes his next sermon in his half-a-million dollar brownstone in Williamsburg.

By the time actors get around to noticing ideas, the ideas are ready for the nursing home. International socialism existed for seventy years before Bertolt Brecht hit the theater with the Threepenny Opera like a terrorist with a bomb in 1928. Before that, class issues were just one subject among many that theater discussed. Even Bernard Shaw, the greatest socialist playwright of all time, found lots of time for other issues than capitalism. But ever since The Threepenny Opera, the most reliable villain in the theater is the forces of Capital that wear down the working man to a nub. Some of these plays are very good. Some plays working in this model, like Death of a Salesman and Glengarry Glen Ross, are plays that could live forever. But it's hard to escape the idea that the class drama hindered the quality of more theater than it helped.

Yet in the same way, the ideas of the Frankfurt School have been around since right after World War II - that identities and ideas are defined by the powerful who shape our world in the image most flattering to them. Angels in America premiered in 1991, and don't misunderstand, however flawed it is, it's still towering. It also marks the beginning of a new kind of leftist play, based not on class but identity.

In the years before Angels in America, every play that wasn't trying to be socially responsible portrayed a claustrophobic, dysfunctional family. Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee were all masters of it. But after Angels, the two strands combined, and American plays determined that families were dysfunctional because of social forces. And thus we got plays like Topdog/Underdog, How I Learned to Drive, and Clybourne Park.

The idea that politics shapes families is not a new dramatic idea, it goes at least back to Henrik Ibsen, who is overdue in our woke era for a revival. It's a legitimate point of view, and perhaps as relevant as it's ever been. But the points have been been made, over, and over, and over again.

There is plenty more to say about what directions might be alternatives for an American art form that operates like a bastard older brother to the movies and TV. But for today, I'll just say that all of this is why I found Sweat so impressively different from the usual fare, because the playwright clearly did her homework. Apparently Lynn Nottage went into Redding Pennsylvania, the American city with the highest poverty rate in the country - 40%, and interviewed all kinds of residents, and it's incredibly apparent that she listened because we watch a very modern American story. Yes, there were the usual invisible forces of capitalism driving workers into the ground, but instead of the usual divisions, we see black and white families celebrating every occasion together. The divisions of this America is not the divisions of the Wilson era, they are the divisions of the Trump era, when the traditionally poor of America, both black and white, face a gigantic challenge to their livelihoods from even poorer Hispanic immigrants, who will work for wages long-rooted Americans would find unacceptable.

While Trump's America reckons with itself about older sins, targets for the worst sins we may ever commit cross our border every day. Whether or not America reckons properly with the sins of its past, potential sins of our future are howling. Class was the killer of the 19th century, race the killer of the 20th. The great killer of the 21st is not race, it will be immigration, and yes, there's an enormous difference. And the greatest dramas of a century with weather patterns that uproot whole countries will probably be about immigration. May we all live to see them.