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 squalor and tragedy inconceivable to their minds, but also how Europeans only kept up morale 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 the 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 popular interest in 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. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out, 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 simultaneously 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 contains every sentiment within him from light to dark, and always leads us back to the beginning of the cycle. His 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 a 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:

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.

Underrated Music: When Composers Aren't Original

I almost like it more when composers are clearly not original and take material organically from the music surrounding their lives and create something personal out of it.
One example, I have to imagine that the last movement of Dvorak 8 is a folk tune, perhaps not even an original Dvorak melody, put through all its various uses. Tavern singing, riotous folk dancing, instrumental solos on the pan flute, then a second tune in a medley to keep the folk dance going, then just the curtest nod to the requirements of symphonic development, then singing the tune as a church hymn, once through as a prayer, then as a congregation in four part harmony, then as an organ chorale, then humming it to yourself outside, and then finally a dance again. To me, that's a more organic, and sincere use of music than all the motivic development in the world.
Here it is with Ben Gernon, who strikes me as the most gifted Brit baton (or lack thereof) of the new generation:

Why I Love Kamala

 There are suddenly all kinds of whispers right now that Biden and Harris want to kill each other. Biden nominated Harris because he wanted a Vice President who would be as close to him as Obama, and over years, Harris has reminded many people of Obama, including Obama. Instead, it may be the worst, most volatile relationship between a President and Vice President since Kennedy and Johnson.

Kamala Harris is apparently complaining that if she were a white male she would never get sidelined the way she is - that's a little unfair considering that she's Vice President because of a promise Biden made to James Clyburn to nominate a black woman as Vice President in exchange for his endorsement. She is also complaining that all the shit initiatives get dumped on her in an effort to prop Biden up as the good cop, and even that her Presidential prospects are deliberately being harmed to clear a way for Buttigieg as the heir apparent. Those other two complaints are entirely fair and then some.
All that was perfectly clear to anybody paying attention by late June, when Vice President Harris was sent on a political suicide mission on the US-Mexico border that probably should have been Biden's, but Biden already knew how delicate the single most divisive issue of our time is (and there's a lot of competition), so he dumped it into the portfolio of a Vice President whose entire career is built on taking flack for unpopular issues.

And yet, like the loyal soldier she's always been, she did it. And before all this is done, she'll do things like that again, and again, and again. We didn't hear a peep from the Harris camp about any dissatisfaction until the infrastructure bill was passed. Harris is a politician like any other politician who has to occasionally throw an elbow to get what she wants, but a truly selfish politician would have leaked it right away and deliberately put her boss's most important initiative in further jeopardy.
This is the kind of unpopularity Kamala Harris has always courted, and she's gotten to where she was because she always did the jobs nobody else was willing to do. Unless (god forbid) something happens to Biden, she will not be President in 2024, or perhaps even for a while thereafter, but she most certainly has a deep future in American life, whether as a future President, or Supreme Court justice, or Governor of California, or any number of other positions.
In 2021 America, it's clear that a black man can be President, it's reasonably clear that a gay man will eventually be President, and it's even pretty clear that a woman can be President as long as she's not a Clinton. We have not, however, come sufficiently far yet that a person from a doubly marginalized demographic can yet become President; because they don't just have to deal with the mistrust of other demographics, they have to deal with the mistrust of their own demographics too, who look at a women or a BIPOC person and see a fifth column who will not advance their interests.
This is the ultimate irony of Kamala Harris. She is, quite literally, the candidate of intersectionality - the theory which states, among many other propositions, that multiple overlapping minority identities lead to still further marginalization. As ridiculous as it is to say that a Vice-President is marginalized, her eminence is a laboratory by which the church of intersectionality can prove everything about its theories true, and every day, her marginalization amounts to further evidence that this flank of the theory is true. She is intersectionality's best argument and best ambassador, and yet all its believers who have reason to love and support her past the rest of us rarely gave her the time of day - in their minds she betrayed people of color by being a prosecutor and betrayed them further by prosecuting so many marijuana crimes. And the people who seem most unwilling to forgive her for it are white.
People more interested in ideology than politics don't like context, and the mere fact of being a prosecutor is to so many an unforgivable sin. Yet as a prosecutor, she did so much more to antagonize the Right. She never sought the death penalty, she let all kinds of homicide cases resolve with plea bargains, she created units for hate crimes AND environmental crimes, and in terms of marijuana prosecutions, actual sentences to prison were much less common, and usually related to more serious charges.
Politics is about getting things done, and literally nothing gets done by keeping your nose clean. Good policy only gets done when people who are willing to step into the void and act. You can only do what's right by wading into a situation that's wrong.

Once she became Attorney General, she did it all again. A person with Presidential aspirations knows better than antagnize America's five largest banks all at once, and yet in the wake of the Great Recession, when they offered the State of California a relief package of $2 to 4 billion dollars, she simply left the table. By leaving the table, she got $18.4 billion dollars in relief! Plus an additional $2 billion after the fact.
And if that wasn't enough, she followed it with a homeowner bill of rights that held banks accountable for unjust forclosures and landlords accountable for irresponsible maintenance.
And if that wasn't enough, then came the legal brief to the Ninth District Court to lift Proposition 8, the ban on Same Sex Marriages, which was by no means foreordained at the time.
And if that wasn't enough, there were all the times she took on every major drug gang and cartel from the Tijuana Cartel to the Mexican Mafia, Neustra, Nortenia, the Crips. Imagine the threats to her safety after all that.
And if that wasn't enough, she was the first Attorney General to institute mandatory police training for procedural justice and implicit bias. She was the first AG to require police to wear body cameras. She required the entire law enforcement apparatus of California to gather, divulge, and publish every available statistic about shootings, injuries, and deaths inflicted by police.
And there's a lot more. So yes, Kamala Harris is the real deal. What she proved on the state level is how much more gets done when you engage with the dirt, and you get those things done which people only pontificate about wanting to change when they operate from privilege. If Kamala Harris does not become President, whether in the next few years or the next few decades, the loss is the entire world's and the entire future. She's exactly everything a great leader is supposed to be.
Arthur Schlesinger defined a great President in four words: 'Idealistic Ends, Realistic Means." Far more than Obama ever did before he was President, Kamala Harris proved over and over again to have both the vision to see what the future needs and the pragmatic knowledge and willpower to get it done. And whether we realize it yet, she will prove that as Vice President again and again.
So far, America does not deserve her, and neither does the Democratic Party, and she most certainly does not deserve us.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Another Very Small Comment on the Rittenhouse Thing

The guys who got shot were terrible too, and there's no question, and there's no limit to the amount the Left is willing to sweep people's flaws under the rug when it's convenient. But between the scum on the Left and the scum on the Right, this is why the Right in America is clearly more dangerous. The political Left is not going into places they shouldn't be with guns looking for trouble.

Friday, November 19, 2021

A Brief Thing on the Rittenhouse Case

I have deliberately not followed the Rittenhouse case. Even if it wasn't premeditated murder, the kid was clearly a foul shit looking for trouble. Getting hung up on these cases only makes everybody's temperature go up, which makes everybody buy more guns, which makes more cases like the Rittenhouse trial exponentially more likely to happen.
Not that anybody ever listens to my advice, but my advice is: take this anger, put it into effecting gun control, put it into increasing education funding and social programs and better public housing, and listen to right-wing media, catch them in provable lies, and PUT THEM IN CIVIL COURT TO BANKRUPT THEM FOREVER.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Vedernikov's Last Concert

 From Alexander Vedernikov's last performance before he died of COVID giving a revelatorily insightful performance of Honegger's Second Symphony in Poland. Vedernikov was a giant of the podium for the relatively few who knew about him. It's easy enough to give an exciting performance of Scheherazade or Prokofiev 5, it's much harder to make a work like Honegger 2 come to life, but when you do, it's a much more profound, life-changing experience than the type of performance you come away from feeling as though you've been through a virtuoso thrill ride. A Honegger symphony can take your mind on a journey through the 20th century and all its ugly fears and anxieties, and all the moreso when one hears it amid the COVID era. Vedernikov brings a structural rigor from it you don't get from Munch's dionysian thrillride, or can hear amid Karajan's dark plush apolstery, but within that rigor is an astonishing lyricism that soars right along with the music. It really is as good a performance as I've ever heard of this still underrated masterpiece of the 20th century. The violas have trouble with their high notes in the finale, but amid that there are some of the cleanest and most precisely played syncopations you'll ever hear that generate enormous tension.

So What Will We Do About China?

 I went to the most depressing foreign policy talk I expect to ever go to in my lifetime last night. It was depressing not because of the far-sightedness of the speaker, but the short-sightedness. This was a Trump Undersecretary who said that the most pressing issue of our time is the potential for war with China and the existential importance of shoring up our alliances with all the major East Asian countries who surround China.

Meanwhile, he was advocating for everything that would ensure there would be no such alliance. He advocated for the strongest possible alliance with Japan, and simultaneously said we had to finally start making Japan pay for its own military defense. To suddenly pay for your military defense is such an enormous change to a national economy that if China offered to pay Japan's military bills instead, they might sooner change their loyalties completely to China than accept a disturbance to their economy that enormous.
This guy believes that China and the US will be at war in the next three or four years. He believed not only that China had designs on being the unquestioned dominant power in East Asia (which it obviously already is), but has military designs as well, and that we will be forced into a war with China to protect our allies in East Asia.
And here's the worst part of what he believes.... he believes that if China and the US go to war, it can be a limited conflict that won't destroy both sides: If there's one thing in history that ensures total war, it's the idea that world powers can declare war on each other on a limited scale. If this is the level of mind we have dictating foreign policy when a 'Republican' is running the show, we're all gonna die...
There was another enormous elephant in the room because through all of that talk, he did not bring up the Trans-Pacific Partnership even once. Why? Because he was partially in part responsible for the withdrawal, which is a large part of the reason the world's relationship to China is as dangerous as it now is. I asked him the question, and after after an hour of bracing us for being hard-headed about foreign policy compromises, he retreated to the fact that 'trade now has an odor' and 'we can't let China dictate the terms of trade' (preventing that was literally the whole point of creating the TPP....) 'elites have contempt for working class Americans who want better jobs.' Well, whatever it's worth, I can assure this guy that my contempt for working class Americans has nothing to do with their desire for better lives, it has to do with their belief that their humiliation is more important than the survival of the country they claim they love.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership was a masterly coup of international diplomacy that created an economic network between America and all the nations surrounding China worth five TRILLION dollars. Whatever the environmental cost, the TPP was an unbreakable economic firewall that might have insured the world against World War breaking out in East Asia for another century. So of course, everybody in America on both the right and the left protested it to high heaven. It should have been Obama's crowning achievement, but this one wasn't just stolen from him by Trump, it was stolen by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and every Democrat in their various camps who believe that liberalism and progressivism are basically synonyms. Hillary Clinton opposed the TPP too in 2016, but nobody in America believed her, and nobody who supported the TPP believed her either. In the meantime, China has created an economic agreement with the same countries that renders the whole point of the 'TPP 'useless, even if Biden went back into it.
The withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords was a cataclysm, but no more for America than it was for the world, but it's becoming ever clearer that withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the largest cataclysm for all of us Americans that there will ever be in our lifetime. There's a direct line of correlation between America's withdrawal and Xi Jinping's ability to install a lifetime cult of personality around himself to make his 1.4 billion subjects worship him in quasi-Kim-Jong Un like terms.
Is Xi really that crazy? Is he really trying to set himself up as a god? Of course he's not, but like Mao and Stalin, he finds this cult of personality incredibly useful to consolidate his power and force every part of the country to do exactly what he wants.
Xi's government has installed what's called a 'social credit system' which monitors literally aspect of a Chinese citizen's behavior to determine who is obedient enough to reliably be offered the best life opportunities without compromising the stability of the dictatorship. At the moment, the Chinese government has literally 415 million cameras operating in every public place, and the New York Times reported a while back that the goal is to have something like 2 billion cameras monitoring their citizen's behavior. It's almost literally the surveillance techniques of Oceania in Orwell's 1984.
This may not be a country that aims to conquer the world or even East Asia, but you do not fuck around with a country like this. They mean business, they will protect their interests, and with a government like this you do not make a single move without anticipating every possible outcome ten steps ahead.
So the question is, is China really that dangerous? Is China really that evil? Is China really that stupid?
Obviously not. Why would China want to conquer the world when they now have a gargantuan pig troth of rainy day money to invest all over the world. The Chinese government is using their saved money to raise their standard of living, but they're not raising the country's standard of living because they want to help the average Chinese person so much. They're raising the standard of living because a certain buttress of median income provides political stability. China does not want to be Nazi Germany, it does not want to conquer the world or show that the Chinese are the master race or that Chinese communism is the model the whole world should adopt...
What China wants is to be everything the world currently thinks the US is, but isn't really. China wants to to covertly coerce every world government to act in the interests of China, without having the visual appearance of doing anything at all.
The problem is, that was never what actually happened with the United States. It was what happened to a large extent under Imperial Britain, but rarely ever here. If the United States wanted world governments to act according to our national interests, our government failed so spectacularly that we must be the most incompetent superpower in world history. We've had moments when we acted in that way, most particularly under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, but those moments when we acted with traditional imperial arm-twisting is somewhat rarer than you might think. Not absent obviously, but it was never the main weapon in America's arsenal.
The United States's main weapon is that, even to this day, how the country operates is a complete mystery to everyone, even Americans. No presidential administration has ever lasted long enough to effect any policy change for more than a few years, and until very recently, no chief executive has ever been powerful enough to make his entire political party operate by dictation. This is exactly how the country was always supposed to function since the drafting of the Constitution in 1786, and this sort of enforced absence of decisive leadership has proven so effective that countries around the world have been desperate to implement the same chaotic system, and now, there's are a good 3 dozen countries who probably do it better than we do.
This is, obviously, the exact opposite of how China works. Every political decision is made from the top down by leaders who, by definition, have to be much, much more competent than ours.
The Chinese Central Committee is fundamentally based on the Republic of Venice during the Renaissance. Like the Venitian Councilors, every member of the Central Committee has to go through a rigorous process where they accumulate executive experience in every sector of government before they advance to the Central Committee. To reach the top echelons of power, you need to demonstrate hyper intelligence, hyper competence, and the sort of hyper caution that would never willingly do anything to create circumstances where revolutionary change is possible.

What this means in practical terms is that there is no conceivable reality in which the Chinese government would ever be stupid or reckless enough to start a war with the USA.
The US, on the other hand, would most certainly be stupid and reckless enough to start a war with China. The current Republican Party is the most monolithically dictated to voting block in the entire history of this country, and for the first time in American history, they act with as much uniformity of purpose as a Chinese government. The only difference is that to rise up in the Chinese government, you have to be really smart and really cautious. To rise up in the Republican party, it often helps to be both reckless and stupid.
With every Republican presidency, we get more disastrous decisions. The biggest consequence of the Bush years was not Iraq, it was the 2008 recession that almost brought the whole economy crashing down to a valley lower than the Great Depression. Nobody can swear that it was Bush's fault, but the massive upper class tax cuts didn't help, the massive increase in national debt didn't help, the refusal to do anything to raise median income didn't help, and what helped least of all was his constant rewarding of administrative incompetence in both the public and private sectors.
The biggest consequence of the Trump years is not the decay of democracy, it's COVID, pure and simple. And of course, nobody can blame Trump for a virus (and let's face it, you just might be able to blame China...), but Trump didn't help. We don't need to go through the litany of everything Trump did, but in this one case, there is no way COVID would have been as bad as it was if Trump had tried to trace it and been in any sense honest about what COVID was when he first knew about it.
So if we have gone this far out of our way to honor a party that so rewards incompetence and recklessness, how much further will we go to reward them? What fresh hells will they not help us to minimize? And how bad will their incompetence make our national crises get before blaming Democrats is just not enough to convince the American people to trust them again, and they will require an enemy who is truly as monolithic as they are, and appear far more dangerous because, when provoked, they really are that deadly?
So no, the problem is not China, the problem is us. China would probably be the aggrieved party, and they may rightly get the world's sympathy and support, even as they tear our country to shreds.

Underrated Classical Music: Vers la voûte étoilée by Charles Koechlin


Every time I hear something else by Charles Koechlin, I have to wonder whether Koechlin is the greatest of all modern French composers, not Debussy. He's just that good. He and Debussy are a kind of mirror image of one another - Debussy the minimalist who distills French musical energy to its essence, Koechlin the maximalist who catalogued every shade and color in a catalogue of music that one cannot finish listening to in anything less than years.
Koechlin is like a French Mahler - not because he has anything like Mahler's angst, but because he has Mahler's eclecticism and diversity of interests. According to wikipedia his great influences were "medieval music, The Jungle Book of Rudyard Kipling, Johann Sebastian Bach, film stars (especially Lilian Harvey and Ginger Rogers), traveling, stereoscopic photography and socialism."
This piece, 'Toward the starry vault', is one of the most beautiful, spiritual pieces you'll ever listen to, but it is a very Parisian sort of spirituality that clearly is too knowing for either religion or metaphysics. In this piece we feel that we are striving, ever closer and closer, toward outer space and its still infinite mysteries.
This stunningly profound Amuse-bouche should be opening concerts for every orchestra in the world.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Tale 8 - Part 3: Beginning Rewritten Again

   And it was Lisette's turn to say the Benedic Domine before the meal, which she said, as every good French girl knows and does in Latin three times a day. Therese the governess always thought Lisette's pronunciation particularly fine for a simple housekeeper and has always wondered if Lisette concealed some illegitimate nobility in her origin. 

Frederic, Rachel's tutor, always had a nasty word for this ritual, as he would, that mad socialist who never missed an opportunity to remind everyone that he was part of the Commune in '71 who overthrew Napoleon III, but Therese could not help it and as she sometimes did, marveled out loud at how little trouble Frederic had responding 'Amen' as a communist who 'hates us.' 

Frederic simply shrugged his shoulders; as a socialist it cost him nothing to worship idols. 

Frederic had an answer for everything, and Therese could, as usual, couldn't help but respond in a 1% shouting tone "how can you believe we're idolators?"

"Look at all those statues you bow down to in your Cathedrals." 

"They're not gods." 

"Certainly they're gods. Saints, gods, it's all the same!"

"How can you believe that?"

"At least the Trinity is real gods, but the Saints are pagan statues! You pray to Joseph to replace your ceiling like he's Vesta then you pray to Matthew to pay for it like he's Juno. And I will tell you something else, back in '71..."

And Lisette as always came to the rescue: 

"We know, you were there when they shot the Archbishop, unless you pulled the trigger this time we don't want to hear about it." 

But since becoming the glory of Le Cordon Bleu, Louis has never missed an opportunity to bring his newfound political views into the conversation. You would think as one of Paris's most famous chefs, he would be more concerned with his art than ever, but as usual with celebrity chefs, the standard was a shell of what it was when he had something to prove, and his diners would still be amazed, knowing no difference. Rather than food, Louis inevitably focused on the weekly outrage in La Libre Parole. Sometimes he even got his opinions from l'Antijuif but he knew better than to tell anyone in Maison Bloch. 

"I can have at least have a little appreciation for socialism, you care about the poor, even if your poor are everyone except the French."

Frederic seemed almost in a hurry to nibble on the hook this evening: "It's also French people!"

"Frenchmen can't get what they need if they have to share it with the whole world!"

"Why shouldn't we care about the world?"

"Because you are a French!"

"Am I a French? How many times has our anti-Semtic cook told us that Jews can never be French?"

"How are you a Jew Frederic? You are a socialist!"

"I have Jewish blood!"

"I thought you told me that only your grandfather was Jewish."

"Doesn't that mean that my Frenchness is impure?"

"Relax Frederic, there's not an anti-Semite in the world who'd consider you a Jew because you have a Jewish grandparent."

"You cry out all the time how much Jewish blood pollutes the purity of France!"

"Frederic, no one has pure French blood."

"They don't?"

"Frederic, you are Alsatian, I am Alsatian. Even if you are partly Jewish, you are partly German too, and German blood is better than French." 

Louis must have been in a better humor than recently because he was usually not ready to concede that much, and it was especially on Friday nights that he was most belligerent. It was only the last Sabbath dinner that Louis explained how since Frederic's surname - Waldteufel, means 'forest devil' in German, Frederic on his Jewish side descends from devils. When Frederic kindly pointed out that it was the Germans who forced their Jews to take insulting surnames, Louis replied that surely the Germans forced their Jews to take such names after Jews did something evil. Louis felt more belligerent than ever, but his aim was on another target.