Sunday, December 5, 2021

RENT Hating

 (note: Please just try as best one can to consider the generalizations in the first segment some unresolved psychological baggage. Of course, not all actors are the way I describe, but my god, every time I've gone in to be an actor, director, non-rockband singer, it's turned into a humiliating hell in a handbasket.

I refuse to believe the problem is just me.)


Actors hate me, they always have, and I've always hated them back. It's a lifelong enmity, and much too much trouble to get into specifics, but secure people know better than to choose acting as a profession. The vast majority of actors think they're weird, but they're so unbelievably normal. When they encounter a person who is truly weird, they turn into teenagers, which in turn turns the object of their scorn into the terrified, angry teen he doubtless once was. I always get along much better with techies in spite of having no mechanical ability at all, and certainly got along much better with the other musicians in the pit.

Just the very idea of ever going back on-stage to act or sing provokes something akin to trauma, and the idea of ever directing a show again provokes something akin to a Vietnam flashback complete with helicopters, slow motion deaths, and The Doors or Barber's Adagio playing in the background.
Theater is wasted on actors. It's the greatest place in the world where all the artistic glories of the world can be synthesized into a supersublimity - not rendered on a 2-D screen by rich stoners in California but by people right in front of you. But there's something about the extroversion required for stage fortitude that precludes introspection. To be a really good stage performer, you need to be so present in the moment that your temperament requires a constant state of overstimulation. It shouldn't be a secret why actors and singers are so drawn to sex and drugs... The very idea of the patience required for introspection is anathema to a real stage temperament.
Growing up, I always thought I was a stage guy, but I'm the opposite. A library with a stereo is what I was put on earth to live in, a place where no one can break your heart, nobody can talk shit about each other, and the only socialization you need can be done online where the real life consequences are minimal. The mind becomes free to wander away from anxieties of social interaction which are somehow both trivial and overwhelming, and can at least steal small bits of peace away from the world of other people too impatient to understand you.
And that's not even getting into the organizational shit or deadlines. Theater, for me, is nothing but a series of panic attacks.
-------------------------------------------------
RENT is, without a doubt, one of my least favorite things in the world. Every minute of it sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. It's not even something that's fun to hatelisten to like singing cats.... Everything about it is acute queasiness. It's an amalgam of rock, showtunes, R&B, and opera that strips every one of them of everything interesting about them. Its recited narration makes no sense and stops momentum in its tracks;, and the overall earnestness can induce diabetes. There's nothing inventive about the lyrics, rhythms, harmonies, melodies, characters, scenes, structure or ideas. It is a black hole of false joy. It's a hymn to Bohemianism by a Jewish kid from White Plains who became a Bohemian because any Jewish kid from a Jewish area who had a slight artistic bent was written off as a rebel just for being themselves. RENT is... everything I hate... and maybe because it's exactly the kind of show I might have seen myself writing if my life had broken a very different way. (And if that seems like self-grandiosity, just remember, I think RENT sucks and a couple hundred people could have written it.)
I know Tick, Tick... BOOM is supposed to be a story of hardship. But I look at this and can't help thinking 'Man, this guy had it great. And his music is the perfect reflection of that.' A guy able to organize his own shows in New York with performers at his beckon call, sympathetic and loyal friends who live near him, a glowingly gorgeous girlfriend with another one lining up to take her place the moment she vacates... And he's tall!
And that's the great lie of biopics like this: the martyred 'glamor-saint' has just enough hardship to make his hagiography inspirational, but we don't relate to him by saying 'he's just like me.' We relate to it by saying about him 'I wish I were like him.'

Golden ages were never particularly golden, but whatever music theater was in its 'golden age', the false ebullience of modern music theater is something I just find a cold-blooded lie. For decades before Occupy Wall Street or metoo was a blip on anybody's radar, I've watched the joyful enthusiasm of these kids and could only think 'what amazing lives must you all have to be so happy?' Anybody who's been in the arts for two minutes knows the humiliations that come with the job - the endless begging for money and the endless appeasing of people who have complete control over your future. And yet... you never saw that in the work. It was as though there was a conspiracy of silence about what life was really like. Rodgers and Hammerstein? It's better, but still, so many lies.... Andrew Lloyd Webber? Not even aware of the truth. Jonathan Larson? Everybody is dying of AIDS and addicted to heroin, but it's a wonderful life anyway! You should try it too!
The most inventive song I've ever heard from Jonathan Larson was the comic song in Tick, Tick... Boom (I have no idea if it's in the show...) about his breaking up relationship, and it is... so incredibly annoying that it ate through my ear like a predatory silverfish.

What made it so annoying?... Y'know... aside from that it was probably designed to be annoying.... It's the emotional manipulation of it. He hid the pain under a comic mask that almost deliberately doesn't seem funny. Depending on your point of view, he's let us have a good time at his expense, which is of course his right, but it minimizes not just his pain but his girlfriend's, and also sets an impossible standard for the rest of us. Don't worry, you can work through your problems because with a little distance, emotional pain is adorable!
-------------------------
Why can't I be more forgiving?....
It's 1990 New York. Most of us don't remember what agony it was because half the people who lived through it are dead. Half an entire generation of American artists and their most reliable audiences were gone in the span of fifteen years - the world's most reliable communities of artists come from gay people and people who use recreational drugs - and AIDS killed off them both. AIDS was a plague from which neither New York nor the world of the arts could ever truly recover. The whole continuity of New York was interrupted, its theater, its music, its art, its dance, its civic activism,... no wonder prices went up around New York because the only people who'd move to Manhattan in droves were working for Wall Street and advertising. And no wonder artists who listen to their own drumbeat have that much less of a chance now than they did.
Purely by bad luck of the genetic draw, Jonathan Larson became the ultimate voice of that generation - silenced as they all were. In the process, he created a musical about Bohemianism and individuality so mainstream that a movie can be made of it directed by the same guy who oversaw the Harry Potter franchise.

It's unfair, it's unjust, that era deserved so much better.
-------------------------------
So yes, the problem is obviously as much me as RENT. RENT is everything I hate about theater. When I listen to it, so many failures of my life have a name and an address. RENT is everything people want that I can't provide. To me it sounds like music and theater defanged and lobotomized. It was created to be a hymn of praise to individualism, non-conformity, chasing dreams - and everything in it sounds to me as though it embodies the opposite.

What I Listen For in Music - (This is gonna be dense...)

 Great art thinks with its heart and feels with its brains.

That's an old cliche, precisely the sort that great art avoids, but the point is that art is not unlike any other human necessity. You have to simultaneously use your heart to guard against the dangers of charlatanism and use your brain to guard against the dangers of emotional entanglements from which escape is impossible. But more elementally, there is no difference between thinking and feeling - you feel your thoughts, you think your feelings, and so the least advisable thing you can do - whether it's an intellectual decision or an emotional one, is to believe too deeply that you're right.
Being human is more than thoughts or emotions, it's, quite literally, the cross-section between the two. The idea that intellect and emotions exist independently is a pernicious myth. The thoughts we're aware of are only a speck of what's going on in our brains at any given moment, which themselves are connected directly to the nervous and circulatory systems and all the activity beneath. 'Thinking' is just a part of 'being' and 'being' only comes in one package. Entire civilizations have killed each other over whether the ultimate package is the body or the soul, but whatever we are, whatever is out there that we become, we're just a grain of dust within a much, much larger package.
What all that intellectual bullshitry means is that music is not an end in itself. Good music isn't an intellectual exercise, but it's not a direct emotional release either. Great music is, quite literally, a process. There's no such thing as music unless its heard by human ears who send the sounds to the brain for processing into some sub-linguistic meaning. Music is, perhaps literally, the process of how our instincts direct energy through our body before we can articulate what our instincts are telling us to do.
And so music is not intellect or emotion, it is, at least as best I can explain it, the intellectual process of how emotions transition from one state to another. And so when you hear music, a meaningful experience is not particularly meaningful when you perceive just one or two flat primary emotions, even if those emotions are rendered in a state of one basic emotion at a time (opera lovers take note). A really meaningful musical experience will take you through every imaginable emotional state and navigate the transitions between them.
This is why the overseriousness and grandiosity of much classical music can be deeply unsatisfying and land people in an emotional rut of which they're not even aware they're in until years have passed.... it's not entirely unlike addiction... It's also why the frivolity of so much popular music is equally unsatisfying. If life is complicated, what's the point of music that lies to you about that? There are, of course, hundreds if not thousands of exceptions on both sides of the ledger, but while I could be wrong, I have to imagine it's a lot easier to be frivolous from a base of seriousness than it is to be serious from a base of frivolity.
Now this leads to a further complication, because, god knows, and a lot of popular music is meant to be serious, and a lot of classical music is frivolous - some of it's even meant to be....
The point is not to stereotype any form of music, or to disregard any great artist working in any less prestigious medium who can elevate what used to be garbage into unmistakable sublimity. The point is merely to prefer the artforms that best let artists capture whatever it is that allows them to express what it means to be fully human. That's fundamentally why I particularly love orchestral music and symphonies - because they require the composer to incorporate an almost infinite diversity of expressive modes in a way that opera generally does not.
But there are a lot of crappy symphonies too, many of which come from great composers, and some are even well regarded.... And there are certainly rock and R&B albums which rise to the level of great art, some of which come from some really crappy artists - 'crappy' meaning artists who don't think deeply about what they do and basically make art in a way that exploits their public to maximize their financial gain; but making art is very very hard, and no matter how hard you work, so much of it is luck.
The best thing music can give us is deeper than what we generally think of as either intellect or emotion - we need to literally hear human connection. We need music that tells us what it's like to be native to every emotional state, and navigates us securely in a journey between them all. That is what will fortify us best for whatever life throws at us.
Half a dozen Mediocre Symphonies thought Great:
Mahler Symphony of a Thousand
Saint-Saens Organ Symphony
Bruckner 3
Liszt Faust Symphony
Rachmaninov 2 (I said it)
Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony (I said what I said)

Friday, December 3, 2021

Vanja Ljubibratic finally blocked me

 I feel cheated out of a rematch. Maybe I should fly to Finland and heckle his concerts in person.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Good Books #4: The Mahabharata (abridged)


Some books really are so magnificent that you put off finishing them for fear their delights will end. When that end comes, your two-sided relationship with the book ceases, and all you can do is re-experience your encounters with the same situations. Re-reading a book is like a friend long gone. Reliving it can be a wonderful experience, but the accompanying ruefulness can be crippling.
The Mahabharata attempts to solve this problem - it's a book to which you almost literally can't get to the end. The Mahabharata took roughly 1400 years to write, it is ten times longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. It is a poem of 18 books, 200,000 lines, 1.8 million words. Its central story is perhaps the most exciting epic ever composed, and it has enough time left over for six side stories, countless folk tales and parables recounted from the oral tradition, and an endless profusion of debates over morality and theology.
This is the real multiculturalism. If you want to understand other cultures, you can't just read a couple writers your own age who make political points you conveniently agree with. You have to understand these cultures at their root and read the documents which formed them and all the generations before them. So if we need to place a text as central to World Literature as Shakespeare to Western lit and the Gospels to Christianity, there The Mahabharata sits as its shelves buckle under the weight of content so inexhaustible that only Hindu scholar or a Vedic priest can reach its end.
Like Shakespeare and The Bible, The Mahabharata is just that good because it always stays ahead of us - it's so universal that it seems to anticipate every new development around the world. The Mahabharata's central epic has scenes as dramatic as Shakespeare, battles as visceral as Homer, moral debates as nuanced as anything in Plato, and its own terrifyingly vast cosmos as spiritually charged as anything in Dante or The Bible.
And yet... the second half of The Mahabharata is basically a multi-player video game. The Mahabharata's main characters comb the Earth in search of spirits with unworldly powers, special weapons forged in unknown realms, special boons and blessings that allow them to fight with more ostentatious skill, and meanwhile, they kill literal millions of nameless soldiers who seem to come at them in packs of thousands only so its dozen-odd protagonists can mow them down.
And yet amid its distinct currency for the 'RPG'-era, it speaks to morality in a way that cuts through every potential thought we have that this book is only a game. It is a tale of Dharma, contrasting one potential king who follows the path of righteousness to a perhaps ridiculous extreme against his cousin, a potential king who completely disregards the Path of Dharma.
I have to imagine that it is impossible for any American to read those many many chapters of the good prince/demigod Yudhishtira who leads his followers through vulnerability, undergoing yet another episode of his crippling depression and anxiety, and not see in him the image of Abraham Lincoln. Yudhishtira is a man of good faith who lead his civilization into its bloodiest war - and like Lincoln, perhaps his very virtue is the force which drained so much life out of an old, corrupt era. In the wake of virtuous leaders like Lincoln and Yudhishtira, better new worlds are formed, but the price for the old world is so spectacular that one might be forgiven for thinking that maybe there would have been a little less pain if a little corruption remained. One of the many facets of The Mahabharata's genius is the fact that it so easily lets you say to yourself 'no virtue is worth this amount of pain.' The moral implications of this book are meant to be struggled with, and The Mahabharata trusts that eventually your life experience will bear out the view that the world is only livable through the path of maximum virtue.
And at the same time, it's impossible for any American to read of the bad prince, Duryodhana: venal, narcissistic, a collector of resentment who always operates in bad faith, and not think of Trump. Duryodhana is the very embodiment of a decadent society due for collapse. From birth, it's made clear that Duryodhana is every bit the demi-demon that Yudhishtira is the demigod. But everything about him is not only spoiled, but a complete embodiment of corruption in every manifestation - political, financial, sexual, human... He is, maybe, the best incarnation of villainy in literature, or certainly up there among the best I've read... He isn't just a bad guy or an evil guy, he shows us exactly how evil operates; Duryodhana and his blind father, Dhritarashta (maybe that symbolism's a little heavy-handed...), are the perfect incarnations of how evil is eternally able to seem like virtue. No matter how awful their motivations, their arguments are always sensible and show how easy it is for even the most comically obvious evildoers to convince people that theirs is the path of righteousness.

It's the Prophet Isaiah who says 'woe unto them that call good evil and evil good,' but nothing in the Bible or even Shakespeare has The Mahabharata's uncanny ability to show how people reason themselves to a conclusion in bad faith. There are always two sides to every story, but even so, in every disagreement, the odds that both sides are '50% right' are as slim as the chance that one side is 100% right and one is 100% wrong. The 'bad side' may be mostly wrong, but they always have a legitimate point. There is always a justification to act badly and double down on the original sin - and none of us are Yudhishtira. There is a little bit of Duryodhana in us all, and the fact that we can recognize small parts of ourselves in him makes him all the more more sinister. The difference, and the didactic purpose the Mahabharata serves, is to show that we in the real world should have the sense to turn back from our greatest sins before we lose everything. And yet civilization after civilization creates its Duryodhana figure, who causes the country to double down on mistake upon mistake until everything is truly lost. Let no one say that Great Man History as Europe traditionally taught it has no precedent in the East...
We have not even mentioned the other five Pandavas yet. We haven't told of Arjuna and his bow or Bheema and his mace, we haven't told of the absolutely Shakespearean casus belli involving the Pandava wife, Dhraupadi, or the truly awesome scenes involving Krishna, whose presence occasionally seems more majestic and uncanny than Yahweh himself. And most tragically, as in the story, we have forgotten about Kama.
Even more than Yudhishtira, Kama is The Mahabharata's truest hero, and the one I'd imagine inspires the most devotion in believing Hindus, because unlike Yudhishtira and his Pandava brothers, Kama has lived a cursed life. The Mahabharata, like every ancient epic, is a story of the highest born people, who once were considered the only people worth singing about. But while born high, Kama was cast into the lowest classes from right after birth, and he is every person who has born their humiliations with nobility. Kama was offered multiple times the chance to be King of the World in Yudhishtira's place, but he refused every time. Why? Because the only person who recognized his nobility and gifts when he had nothing at all was Duryodhana, and even if Duryodhana is the evilest man on the planet, his loyalty is more important to him than the Empire. Perhaps that description makes him sound stuffy and wooden, but there are a number of moments in Kama's story that easily reduce a reader to tears.
Like all ancient tragedies, The Mahabharata is really about the overwhelming cost of pride. But epics are not only tragic, they are also celebrational, epic are supposed to take in all of life in its many seasons. The story of the Mahabharata is as much about how to navigate life to minimize tragedy as it is about the tragedy itself. It's partially a sacred text, and therefore supposed to have practical application, and it's also a joyful celebration of virtue - some of those virtues are warlike, yes, but also patience, generosity, sincerity, vulnerability, and emotional resilience.
On the one hand, The Mahabharata is a legend of the sort that I would imagine will soon be scrawled all over fantasy literature. All the tropes of medieval European epics were contained in The Mahabharata, and there's no way the original bards of Beowulf and Roland and King Arthur happened upon some versions of various tales from The Mahabharata's pages. But now that the world of Kings and Swords and Gods is so definitively back, I would imagine we're about to see an epic profusion of such tales taking place Asia and Africa before the West came to allegedly spoil it.

And yet, The Mahabharata is inexhaustibly more than just a sword and sandal epic. It just might be the foundational document in the literature of the entire earth, and once people around the world come to appreciate as Indians have for nearly 2000 years, it will perhaps light a path that will make the greatest writers of human history still ahead of us.

So here's the thing... I just read a 1450 page version, and I've got a little less than 100 pages to go. I know how it ends: all the Pandavas die. I'm so not ready to kill them off yet. So in a little while, I'm going to try to read a slightly longer, perhaps more inclusive version that gives us some of the detail I didn't get the first time, and my relationship to these characters will not die for as long as I need them to live.

https://archive.org/details/MenonRameshTHEMAHABHARATAAModernRenderingVol1

Underrated Classical Music: Malcolm Arnold Symphony no 5

 

One of the problems the Arnold symphonies have is that works those dence need really perceptive performers who perform with conviction, integrity, and intelligence. Arnold's own performances of the symphonies were perhaps a little beyond his orchestras - they played precisely, but they didn't 'get' the music. The same goes for a lot of early performances under full-time conductors, a number of whom were extraordinarily skilled and gifted.
Richard Hickox 'got' this music. He is perhaps the greatest orchestral conductor to start as a choral conductor, really got it. It's such a shame he couldn't get his health together and passed away at 60, because he would have a major appointment by now and be acknowledged by now as a true international master.
And so does the modern LSO. However good British orchestras were fifty years ago, they're better now. It's difficult to explain, but the old British orchestras didn't understand what Arnold was trying to convey in his music. They probably heard music which was neither modern nor romantic, and they became tentative and confused. However accomplished technically, the old recordings lack direction and assurance. But few orchestras have played more styles of music at this point than modern full-time London orchestras, and they probably understand the idiom of any underrated British composer on sight.
Hickox guides the LSO to play the romantic passages romantically and the modern passages modernly. The romanticism sings with over the top passion, the modernism crunches with confrontational abrasion.
The 5th has gotten more attention than virtually any Arnold symphony, and this will not be the last we feature. It's a memorial of four friends who died young, and it is a truly moving work when the musicians can explain it to us - full of all kinds of emotional pain, but also nostalgia and good humor. There was no expressive mode Arnold could not reach, we just need to understand what he's expressing.
Sadly, the Hickox recordings are only on youtube in piecemeal form, so I will share them link by link in the comments.


Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Sondheim's Greatest Song

"On the page it looked... nothing... almost comic... 80's synth piano... finger cymbals... trembling strings... pallindrome motifs... like an 8-bit Atari game... and suddenly... a melody from beneath emerges from the beyond... and the lyrics make no sense in the least...... and yet the whole thing levitates in a state of grace..."
The lyrics of Sunday don't make any sense until you've seen the show three times, and it doesn't matter at all. When I saw Sunday in the Park with George in the summer of 2002, the performance of Sunday was one of those few numinous moments in my cultural life when I broke down in tears, only to turn to see if anyone caught me and realize half the people in my row were weeping too.
A lot of people think Sunday in the Park with George is Sondheim's greatest musical. It's much too inside baseball for that - a musical for the faithful rather than the public, but Sunday is his greatest song. With just a couple phrases, Sondheim does what most of the very greatest theater composers and playwrights can't do operating at their very best for two-and-a-half hours.
Nothing can prepare you for seeing the painting on which the musical is based at the Chicago Museum of Art. Sunday on La Grande Jatte is one of the world's greatest paintings, not because of the obvious technical magnificence and the herculean effort it took to create, but because of what all that technique and effort is for. It's not for some hallucinatory religious image or yet another landscape, it's to create life as people live it - tragic situations, comic situations, and people simply going about their business. Nobody in the painting looks at each other - perhaps that's an indication of loneliness, but it also means that every person in the painting has to be regarded uniquely. Every story this painting tells is of individuals, not groups. You watch these figures think their own thoughts, and if their life story proceeded alongside the figures with whom they're grouped, each figure clearly has a very different perspective on the same events.
Sondheim's musical is about the composition of that masterpiece, how it's assembled, and the deep human cost of getting it right. Every person involved in the arts knows that pain - nobody really wants what we do, and if you're really putting everything you have into it, nobody even sticks around for long to appreciate you, No matter how intense your connections to certain people at various chapters of your life, they all eventually leave, and it's back to the loneliness again, where your only real connection is to what you create. The characters you form and the ideal audience you imagine is your only real company.
And so for the first time, these characters, so reflective of their artist's loneliness, sing together and feel their connection to one another; they give thanks to their creator for their existence as we sometimes sing to gods in places of worship.

And even if it's on an intuitive level, every audience member seems to feel that grateful connection to whatever force created us in the deepest chambers of our hearts. 'Sunday' is one of those rare moments in art, in life, when there's a possibility of spiritual transcendence that needs no god. We are literally hearing the miracle of transubstantiation, done not for God, but for ourselves.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JR-SWx5PboE&list=PLPmO34k5jrC9InA72RDOcN7vyMda8ivbL&index=10&fbclid=IwAR1iKe6XdcG5TJJ1TpcY1PhY6KrfX5oWI92XuoWRrYN8Y_JSB25-vUpYVdI

Monday, November 29, 2021

Why Sondheim Makes You Want to Give Up

The problem with immersing yourself in Sondheim is that what he does is simultaneously so perfect and so humane that it makes you want to give up. None of us will ever do anything 10% as good no matter how hard we try - and even if we do things that are of any quality, most of us can only do it by creating vividly cruel and abrasive things that are the opposite of Sondheim's compassionate humanity. Still worse, part of the reason he got so good is that he was born with every advantage - even if his parents were abusive, he was rich, well connected in New York, the neighbor of Oscar Hammerstein who became a second father to him. By the time he was an adult he fell in with New York's most sophisticated entertainers and knew everything there was to know about putting on a show, and spent his adult life putting into practice all the skills that the rest of us are lucky if we even discover how to do by the time we finish whatever excuse we call our life's work. It's easy to feel like you can view humans with compassion when you've had a life that fulfilling. The rest of us probably find it harder.
You start doubting yourself, you start doubting anything you do is any good or worthwhile, and you know that there's nothing you can do but keep on keeping on in spite of the fact that nobody really cares.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Where to Start with Sondheim

I don't want to scare anyone off before they even start, but the place to start with Sondheim is with the shows, not the songs. Sondheim shows are like living beings that breathe in and out, and cutting songs from their context is like amputating a limb - you lose every bit of context for what the song is there for. Without the shows surrounding them, the songs just sound like not particularly show-stopping Broadway numbers with lyrics that are over-clever. If you listen to a Sondheim song expecting a Lennon and McCartney like revelation, you're gonna be disappointed. Every Sondheim song was written for its show, to advance the story, to give flavor to the atmosphere, to elucidate features of the character.

So start with the shows, most of which you can find on youtube. You'll be stunned by how easy they are to get into.
You can, however, start just by reading quotes from the lyrics; deep and wise quotes that seem tapped from the wisdom of the ages like this one from Into the Woods:
“Oh if life were made of moments,
Even now and then a bad one.
But if life were only moments,
Then you'd never know you had one.”
That could be a Biblical Proverb or a passage straight out of Wittgenstein.
Or take this one from Sunday in the Park with George:
“Stop worrying where you're going
Move on
If you can know where you're going
You've gone
Just keep moving on
I chose, and my world was shaken
So what?
The choice may have been mistaken
The choosing was not
You have to move on”
The meanings inherent in that passage are as deep and infinite as anything in Shakespeare. It's practically the sung lyric version of Hamlet's realization of his imminent death: "If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all."
If you want to come to terms with just how valuable Sondheim shows are, you have to think in terms of Shakespeare and The Bible. This is the new world which electronic amplification and recording promised, where music and lyrics can fuse together in the most nuanced, meaningful ways.
We just lived through the century of movies and popular music, and even if many pop culture fanatics think I'm a snob about it I'll still go to bat against any classical snob who thinks there aren't hundreds of great achievements within it. But a hundred-twenty years of American and America-influenced popular culture has not produced an artist on the level of Steven Sondheim.
When you measure Sondheim against even the best of them: Bob Dylan... Orson Welles... Martin Scorsese... it's not even close. Dylan had written almost all his best songs by 1970, and his greatest songs are almost all abstract metaphors and not about human beings. Sondheim is eleven years older than Dylan, in 1970 he was just warming up, and his songs were mouthpieces for extremely specific characters and ideas. Welles has one gigantic masterpiece that towers over the rest of his output; Sondheim has a dozen masterpieces, none of which tower over each other, and that doesn't even count collaborations he was involved in like West Side Story and Gypsy. Scorsese has as many masterpieces as Sondheim, but they're mostly about the same subjects - violence and guilt and lust and male ego, he can't create believable woman characters, and most of his movies can't branch out into the larger world of ideas and fantasy. Sondheim, like Shakespeare and Mozart, has no limitations - every type of subject, every type of human, every type of idea.
To go into the world of Sondheim is to take a trip to the hopes and delusions of the 1950s. America had just come back from its second 'excursion' into Europe, where millions of soldiers saw both the squalor and tragedy of Europe, and also how Europeans could only keep their morale up by their artistic traditions. When faced with their darkest moments, only Beethoven and Shakespeare and Dante could save them. And when they came back, they saw all those European immigrants fleeing war, mostly Jewish, who brought to this country all their cultural knowledge and riches. And therefore, for one brief twenty years in American life, there was a gigantic class of small town intellectuals who believed in Art, and from that class came the audience for everybody from Welles to Ellison to Copland to Salinger to Bernstein to Tennessee Williams to Nabokov to Pasternak to Baldwin to Frost to Bergman to Fellini to Bellow to Rogers & Hammerstein to Davis and Mingus to soooo many others.
And by 1965, it was all done, and all those great artists seemed to dry up at exactly the same moment. A good half of them developed creative blocks, and even the ones who kept going stopped believing that there was an audience for what they did, and evidence showed they were probably right. Popular culture had taken over completely. Movies had completely replaced plays and musicals. Genre fiction replaced literary fiction. And rock replaced not only classical but jazz. People of my generation don't even believe this moment of a popular high culture ever happened, and if they do, they seem to believe everybody was faking their interest in it.
The only artist who was left of that moment, the only artist who kept going and growing, and summed up everything that went on before him, was Stephen Sondheim. And the reason he did it was that he understood two contradictory truths about 'Art' that no other artist of his time quite did. So much of Sondheim is about holding two completely contradictory ideas in your head, and in every way, Sondheim embodied that principle as no artist of our time ever did.
At the same time, Sondheim understood that all the exquisite cultural education and artistic training which many of our grandparents acquired was, in some senses, a millstone around our necks that prevents us all from creating something new and unique and American. And at the same time he realized, at least intuitively, that there was so much knowledge and wisdom in these traditions that to disregard its thousands of lessons would be a tragedy for human history, and would doom us to eventually create our version of all the same mistakes.
"Art" is not a crop native to America. It depends on an aristocratic definition of class and education and can lead to the kind of classism and racism that blows up whole continents. But America's version of art that sees no difference between art and commercial 'entertainment is just the populist version of that same sentiment, and it leads to paranoia about elitism that can kill as many people as any Wagner lover ever did.
Sondheim is neither art or entertainment, he's neither opera nor musical, he's Sondheim - his own special category, and like Shakespeare and Mozart, he's neither high nor low nor middlebrow, he's 'everybrow.' He's as much entertainment as art and as much fun as wisdom.
Art is a seismograph of society. The art we produce, the art we consume, the art we love, is an indicator of a society's state of being. If we best love art that's fundamentally cheerful, that probably means that we're fundamentally a society in a cheerful and peaceful state. If we love art that's optimistic, that means we have hope for the future. But we respond to art in a way that gives an indication of our minds' state, and if, as a society, we're responding best to art that is pessimistic, dark, insane with passion and violence, that's an indicator that we are feeling pessimistic, dark and violent. So what can you say about a society whose greatest passions are Game of Thrones and Kanye?
But like Shakespeare and Mozart, Sondheim always leads us back home. Every sentiment is balanced by its opposite. He presents us with the biggest, most insurmountable problems, but the darker the problem, the lighter the comedy - even Sweeney Todd and Assassins wink at us. On the one hand, he never lies to us about our problems - he never tells us that we will solve problems life does not mean for us to overcome; on the other hand, he does show us that we can live with our problems and muddle through, living our darkest days amid some consolation and good cheer.
And so the place to start with Sondheim is Company. Company is by no means his greatest musical, that's probably Into the Woods, which I would take with me to a desert island, and I'm hardly the only one. But Company is his best musical. It's a perfect show. It's his smallest musical - the most intimate, the most humane, the most rewarding.
The subject of Company is ostensibly marriage, but like Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, the real subject is us. The subject is ordinary people in ordinary situations. We see its characters every single day of our lives, and five-hundred years from now, people would still recognize these characters in people they know. The subject is the search for love: what is love - both erotic and platonic? Is love worth it? Is love an illusion? Do we love the people we love when we often hate them? What does it mean to treat the people you love well? What does it mean to be in love when you can't help mistreating the person you love? What does it mean to live a life alone, and what does it mean to live a life with other people?
It is the perfect show. It takes the most complex theatrical techniques and boils them down to the most essential human situations... not to mention... it's funny as fuck... It's most extraordinary quality is how ordinary it is, and anyone who's lived a life will recognize themselves in these characters.
There are all sorts of interpretations of Company's subtext. From the moment it opened, it's long been interpolated by some that Bobby is a closeted gay man. That in itself is a very 20th century interpretation of a work well ahead of its time. Sondheim, gay himself, used his lawyers to shut down any production down that would question that nature immediately: to Sondheim, Bobby is straight, and that's the end of the story. And he has a point - making Bobby date women he's unattracted to would ruin the dramatic tension of many devastating scenes. But one of Sondheim's final decisions was to allow a new version on the West End and Broadway in which Bobby is played by a woman. I don't doubt that before long we will have interpretations in which Bobby's orientation is every variation within the LGBTQ community, including asexual, and then still more in which Bobby is naturally polyamorous, hides abuse in his past, at heart a misogynist, a religious Christian who only encounters Jews, addicted to pornography, a racist who will only marry a white woman, or is secretly struggling with mental illness and is terrified of subjecting his worst moments upon others. "Being Alive", the climactic number of the whole show, would particularly take on enormous new meanings if Bobby is transgender. I've read Bobby called a boring, hollow shell of a character, but the truth is he is one of the greatest characters in American fiction. Bobby is all those aforementioned things, and then an infinity more. He is the mystery at the heart of American love in which every viewer can see their own projections: why hasn't Bobby gotten married? There are as many answers to that question as there are to the question: 'Why does Don Quixote go on a quest?' or 'Why can't Hamlet decide whether to kill Claudius?', and half of them don't even have anything to do with Bobby's own desires. The answer is, and should be, different for each of us, and different every time we encounter the work; because that's what great art does. It lets us find our own meanings that change at every moment, shifting perspectives with the wind.

America, democracy, freedom, equality, all those noble sentiments which this country is supposed to represent, were instituted here so that we all could have the freedom to choose, and there is no freedom more important than the freedom to love. But with that freedom comes an onerous series of burdens. Love is a terrifying responsibility, and some of us find ourselves, for whatever reason, unable to fulfill them. I am Bobby, and so are literally hundreds of single people I know, who cannot find love in spite of their best efforts, and who are eternally stepping out into that penultimate unknown: why has life loved some people back and not others?
I've already forgotten my idea for how to conclude this essay, so I will let the Sondheim show that means the most to me do the talking and watch it again as it reduces me yet again to a puddle of joyful tears:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fhW00fU1uQ

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Good Books #3: Jose Saramago



You have to be a little charitable to the Latin world for their misperceptions. They were the Cold War's most obvious collateral damage. Whether controlled by right-wing or left-wing dictators, Africa was always going to be fucked. But the Latin world, both in America and Europe, had a long and illustrious democratic tradition that, so the world might live on to the twenty-first century, America betrayed. Were all those double crosses worth it? Well... the world still exists in the 21st century, and that was far from guaranteed in the 20th. But obviously no one should have to be put in the position of the sacrificial lamb. Try explaining to literally hundreds of millions of people that they had harder lives so that billions of others may have better ones.

The world is what it is: a tragic place where a few people succeed by stepping over the rest of us. All we have left for each other is solidarity in our suffering, and even if it's an incredibly destructive belief, nobody can wonder how millions of people get convinced that the only way out is the universal solidarity of communism any more than the universal brotherhood of Christianity and Islam.

Jose Saramago was literally born to the most abject poverty. His parents had absolutely nothing, he had no means for higher education, yet he became, at least that I've read, one of the half-dozen greatest novelists of the twentieth century's second half; whose books are chocked full of the most detailed recreations of distant historical periods, and also completely comprehensible to the lay reader in a manner that, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is perhaps not. And all this in spite of the fact that he writes in sentences that are often a hundred or more pages long! Such was the power he held over readers that while becoming a great novelist at sixty, he won the Nobel Prize only sixteen years after his first fame.

And yet he was also a terribly vociferous Communist who doubled down ever more as the truth of Communist regimes became ever more impossible to refute. Whatever Western Communists still believed in the Soviet utopia by the late 60s, the Soviet tanks crushing the Prague Spring in '68 put an end to that notion. Yet Saramago joined the Communist party in 1969! And of course, there's this charming bit of op-ed from Saramago:

"Contaminated by the monstrous and rooted ‘certitude’ that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God … the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner. Israel seizes hold of the terrible words of God in Deuteronomy: ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will be repaid.’”

What kind of intelligent person comes to conclusions that insane against that much evidence? 

Well, you can try telling a clearly imbalanced person of genius that the Portuguese dictator under which he lived thirty-five years was, in fact, the most benign dictator of the twentieth century - but Salazar was still a dictator climbing over his citizens to create what Time Magazine once referred to as the 'perfect autocracy.' In spite of all Salazar's crimes, it was at least bit of a paradise compared to what was going on elsewhere in Europe. Is it any wonder that Saramago might have unwittingly convinced himself that dictatorship itself wasn't so bad, and perhaps the only problem with dictatorship is to whose benefit the dictatorship is directed?

And anyone who's read Baltasar and Blimunda sees that Saramago speaks out at the Inquisition's auto-da-fe's and treatment of Jews in no uncertain terms, which continues in his depiction of Jews' mistreatment by Romans in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ - to say nothing of the Jews' mistreatment by God... There's no way a person publishes a quote like the one above and isn't a virulent antisemite, but just as millions of traditional antsemites came to their misdirected points of view by living through their own traumatic oppressions, so too have many far left-wingers even to this day come to their views by trauma (as well as far right-wingers).

Saramago is a different sort of antisemite who often writes about Jewish history with enormous sympathy. Sometimes, antisemitism and racism is a symptom of a larger problem, like the authoritarianism of Wagner and Dostoevsky. Sometimes, antisemitism and racism seems due to the narcissism of small differences, in which the artist stands so close to the subject that they can't help but feel a kind of revulsion to the amount their achievement owes to to a peoplehood that is not theirs, and they come to hate their dependence on the very people to whom they owe the most. Like Saramago, this is the antisemitism of Mussorgsky and Gogol.

It may seem like a paradox, but generally speaking, writers who see the world accurately write mediocre fiction. You need a unique perspective, you need a slant, you need to see things nobody else sees. VS Naipaul, one of the other great novelists of the 20th century's second half, was a native Trinidadian who was completely on the side of the imperialists. Willa Cather, probably my pick for America's best novelist, was a far-right conservative and antisemite, nearly pro-dictatorship, who also happened to be a lesbian. Isaac Bashevis Singer was one of the few born to the world of the Shtetl who survived the Holocaust. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy? Do we really need to elaborate on their uniqueness? Kafka's? George Eliot's? Make your own list... To write greatly, the genius always needs to be there, but so does the uniqueness that makes the writer a little bit loopy. No writer can write convincing non-fiction if their perception of the truth is false, and therefore the best writers of fiction often live in a world that seems like fiction.

And then, of course, there's Blindness, the dark, dark fable of a world literally gone blind, and how quickly the world turns in on itself. It's a modern myth, an extraordinarily dark one, and no one who's ever read it has forgotten it. What, if anything, does the blindness mean? And in our era of pandemic, what lesson have we learned about a world where everybody undergoes the same misfortunes? And are the worst lessons we're to be taught yet to come?

But my favorite of Saramago's novels is one somewhat savaged in the press: The Double, which of course has to compete with Dostoevsky's novella of the same name, and of course, has a somewhat similar plot. A man rents a movie and sees a minor character actor who looks and sounds exactly like him. He finds his double, stalks him, and both characters, in their different ways, go insane.

Saramago's novels, all of them that I've read anyway, seem to be parables as well as straightforward modern folk myths. So what does it mean in this world to find out that you're not unique? I've read it suggested that it's a metaphor for how dictators try to take our unique identities and form us into an indistinct mass. That doesn't strike me as a personal enough interpretation to do most of us much good. If it's about anything at all, I think it's about how the very act of living in the world forces us to confront the similarities between ourselves and others, and we often react to those similarities in disgust - which is, in many ways, Saramago's relationship to Jews.

My relationship to Saramago is ongoing, and there are ten novels in the productivity of his late flowering. I've gotten to exactly four so far, and three of the four are among my favorite books. Sometimes you just want to savor it and put it off, in part because you don't want to reach the end of the series, and in part because the experience is so intense that you only have the emotional capacity for them at certain points in your life. We all have writers like that.

Every lover of art has taboos they embrace in spite of themselves. I've spoken to women who love Philip Roth, gay people who love Hemingway, black people who love Flannery O'Connor. Hatred fuels obsession at least as much as love, and for better or worse, an artist who hates a certain group of people can often be among its most perceptive writers precisely because their negative portrayal can expose facets of our lives we prefer to pretend aren't there, but they are.... Every peoplehood has its ugly side. Part of why I love Saramago is that in spite of being an antisemite, he writes on themes that are so clearly Jewish--and in spite of its critiques, his books are still filled with astonishingly detailed depictions of Jewish history, of Jewish suffering, the Jewish god, and Jews themselves.

This is what we lose when we insist on only reading writers who conform to our preconceptions, and I wouldn't trade the experience of Saramago for all the properly liberal democratic fiction writers in the world.