Monday, February 28, 2022

Conductor Comment: Valery Gergiev

 So now that we in the West won't see Gergiev again until he's at least 80, I suppose it's a good time to appraise certain things about him.

Take this performance, for example. If I'm being honest with myself, this is the best performance I've ever heard of Pictures at an Exhibition, and frankly, it's not even close. There have been plenty of great performances: Koussevitzky, Toscanini, Solti, Giulini, Kubelik, Muti, Markevitch, Svetlanov, Abbado, Dorati, Jansons, and not least our own maestro hero here, Theodore Kuchar etc. etc. etc. This Gergiev performance is better, by some margin. It marries the Mussorgskian Russianness to the French color, and has the Mussorgskian grandeur and the Ravelian weirdness. It is, quite simply, a sui generis miracle of a performance.
Gergiev is just a larger than life fact of music. His career has unprecedented highs and lows and no middle. So often, a Gergiev performance is either a revelation or so awful that you wonder how he's ever hired back. If he conducted one-third of the performances he does and focus every performance on the best possible effort, he might be regarded as the world's greatest by some margin. But then again, he wouldn't be Gergiev, he clearly thrives on spontaneous combustion. Every moment in his performances is like interpretive ADHD, in which he finds a new angle mid-performance and pursues it. If it works, it works brilliantly, if it doesn't, it's truly abysmal. It's easy now to remember him for his awful concerts, but if people say that there were never moments when they were inspired by Gergiev, I can't quite believe them. At his relatively frequent best, he was so raw, so visceral, so overwhelming.
He's as much a 'musical fact' of our time as Bernstein was in the era before him. But Bernstein, for all his erraticness, was a genius whose animal instinct for music was matched by his overwhelming knowledge. Gergiev has no such intellect, he is pure instinct, and his instinct only works in Eastern European music.
The criticism is almost immaterial, because music in our time is so shaped by his presence that it changed the curvature of our perceptions. Without Gergiev, few of us would know the great Russian operas of Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev, and if we were lucky enough to hear older maestri like Svetlanov and Temirkanov, might have occasionally heard the spontaneous Russian performance style that carries the 19th century 100 years later. But Gergiev showed many of us that the old romantic, instinctive spontenaeity of Mengelberg and (so we read) Nikisch was still possible 100 years later.
But like Mengelberg, there is something almost hollow sounding about his performances. It's pure exhibitionism, and however exciting, there is a kind of soullessness that eliminates introspection any potential for dullness. Compare Gergiev to other great post-Soviet bloc conductors: Jansons, Bychkov, Ivan Fischer, our own Andrey Boreyko. Gergiev is an awesome experience, but when is the heart moved? Gergiev accelerates the pulse, but the other four, much more patient and restrained, can leave you in tears.
Gergiev's opera conducting is so exciting, and yet like other superstars before him, the trail of voices he may have blown out by overplaying the orchestra is a kind of musical crime. Find that interview by Galina Gorchakova, the accusations she leaves at his feet are kind of shocking. The lack of care he exhibited for his singers is scandalous, they were all just appendages for Gergiev Inc. to be disgarded once he blew through their vocal capabilities. Like recent Russian ice skaters, their careers were practically over before they began, and he seemingly used up their voices thirty years before their careers should be over.
But Gergiev's ambition can in some ways be sympathized with. This most conspicuously Russian conductor is not Russian at all, he's Ossetian, a minority within the Georgian minority that to a certain extent depended on Russia from protection from the Georgians. Whereas more obviously probing Russian conductors like Rozhdestvensky and Jurowski are sons of great conductors themselves, Gergiev comes from a military family. He had no musical biltung and could only pursue music from the engine of his own talent.
Gergiev is pure musical id, and his career is the result of an engine that knows no rest and plows ahead through every obstacle. It might take ten years, but if he makes it to 80, he will be back West, and play on through every protest and controversy. While he is gone, as hard as as it seems, he will be missed. Not too much, but a little. The era of Gergiev is over for us, and now we get a decade to unpack it and wonder: 'OK, what the hell was that?'

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Reading List of Relevant Books for right now, most of which I haven't finished...:

 

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Red Famine by Anne Applebaum: A horrific account of Stalin's War on Ukraine by one of the best journalists of our time. Approach with caution. She also wrote a history of the Gulags. I'm just not ready.... Speaking of approach with caution...
Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder: Approach with caution, an account of all the terrible horrors of the era between Poland and Western Russia from which my family hailed, and all the unprecedentedly horrific things done during the 30s and 40s in this most awful of world regions.
Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen: Nobody in the English-speaking world has done more important journalistic work in the last few years than Masha Gessen. This book is a review of all the relevant facts about Putin, the blank face about whom the world knew nothing, along with a kind of biography of the Russian people and how their hopes for a new era that were mercilessly dashed.
Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol: A short novel by Gogol about Ukrainian cossacks who go to war against Poland. The father is so filled with nationalist passion that he kills his own son for falling in love with a Polish girl.
Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov: Look, these are tough books, they operate at fever pitch and continually make emotional demands until you're exhausted and perhaps a little bored at the contant intensity, but if you want to understand the mentality of people who support Putin, this is ground zero.
From the House of the Dead and Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky: House of the Dead is Dostoevsky's semi-autobiographical account of his time in a Siberian prison camp, and it is his most digestible work. Notes from the Underground, on the other hand, is pure nihilism as prose. It is the point of view of everyone from Vladimir Putin to every troll on social media.
The Great Terror by Robert Conquest: An account of the late 30s, when Stalin ruled by fear of the disappearance. It's a little dry and takes a while to get into gear, but the detail and the horror is obviously astounding. He also wrote Harvest of Sorrow, which I haven't begun, about the enforced Ukraine famine of the early 30s.
Life and Fate and Stalingrad by Vassily Grossman - THE great of the Second World War, done, obviously, from the Soviet perspective. No novel is greater than this, and I don't have the authority to say so, but if anyone called this the greatest novel written in the 20th century I would never complain. I love every one of Life and Fate's 886 pages, but the prequel book, Stalingrad, a novel about the largest battle in human history, I have never even attempted though it sits on my shelf.
The Captain's Daughter by Alexander Pushkin: Another of my favorites. A tragically bloody and funny tale about a pretender Czar supported by the Cossacks and the very bitter losses the battles entail.
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak: Should explain itself, but it's ultimately an account of how life for privileged liberal intellectuals was shocked into realization of Russia's depravity and forced submission into the new reality.
Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam: An account by the wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam of her marriage and of the Great Terror in which her husband disappeared forever.
To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson: An account of Marxism from the French Revolution to Lenin's founding of the Soviet Union. It is therefore also an account of the complacently repressive 19th century conservatism that lead to the explosion of radicalism, and also of the reactionary counterrevolution which would so soon thereafter become fascism.
The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore: A very dishy, hilariously strange and bloody account of Russian Czar's ruling family and how their whims controlled this out of control country. This is the world to which Putin wants to bring us back.
The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The first is the gulags on the micro-level, which I read at seventeen, and is an astonishing account of dignity and resilience. The second is the three-volume account of the Gulags on the macro level. Very difficult emotionally and monotonous acts of oppression, and I couldn't keep going through even fifty pages.
Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor: Beevor is kind of notorious as the historian that never skimps on 'the wet stuff', and this is an account of the most lethal battle in world history (so far). Handle with care.
Odessa Stories and Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel: Babel too was shot in the Great Terror. The first is stories organized Jewish crime in 1900s Odessa, the second a journalistic account of the brutally violent life in the Russian Civil War.
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova: A long account in poetry to bury the victims of Soviet tragedies.
Sevastopol Sketches and Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy: The first is Tolstoy's semi-autobiographical fiction about the brutalities of the Crimean War. The second is Tolstoy's last book. A novella about Chechan resistance to Czarist occupation and oppression.
War and Peace I guess...: explains itself...

The Inevitability of War (not yet)

 Here's why Abraham Lincoln is the greatest President:

He had the will to kill 625,000 people without flinching in a war he started himself. He had the will to impose martial law and prohibit criticism of the Presidency. He had the will to claim emergency powers for himself that were in no way emunerated by the Constitution.
War is the extension of politics by other means, and however much we ignore it, war is as inevitable a part of human life as politics. In the same way that sex is the ultimate irrationality of life, war is the ultimate irrationality of death. It is impossible to treat every human life as sacred unless human beings agree on what sanctity is, and when the world is constantly reminded of its disagreements, there is no future in which the world does not go to war.
With every new leap in communications technology, there is a new means by which the world is reminded of its disagreements, and until the death of those we love chastens us, we fight our disagreements as though they can be fought to true victory. Soon, it will be as much social media as sarin gas. One hundred years ago, it was as much newsreel footage as machine guns. A hundred years before that it was as much newspapers as artillery. A hundred-fifty years before that, it was as much pamphlets as muskets.
And inevitably, some ideas communicated are right, and some are wrong. The righter the idea, the more provocative it's found by those in the wrong.
There's no such thing as an idea that is 100% right or 100% wrong. Every idea is just an idea, even proven ones inevitably have exceptions, and every concept we hold in our head is an extreme simplification; an abstract two-dimensional blueprint that only takes on real life in dimensions well past any of which our brains can conceive. There is no dimension which any human perceives that can predict chaos, and war the ultimate human event which exists in all its dimensions.
It may be senseless, but war is the ultimate human event. Preparation for war is how large parts of societies must always organize themselves, and when the heightened drama of war comes, our conduct within it is the story which everyone who remembers us tells those who come after.
Human beings, like every animal, are wired for their survival to be threatened. In peacetime, eventually our idle minds go to seed, and we become depressed without knowing why. In war, the vast majority of us forget our troubles, because what matter the troubles of living when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death?
We may be different from every other animal, but we are still half animal, and since our destructive side cannot find release in anything but the wild, eventually the wild comes for us.
I've written this many times, but human beings seem to have a homing device. When life gets too comfortable, when we reach what should be our moments of greatest happiness, we get too far from nature, and nature seems to have installed a homing device into us at the genetic level. Our lives are better than ever, and it's always a disappointment. All we can think of is 'why is life not better than it is?' And so we require explanations. We require people to blame. And by blaming factors and people that are not ourselves, we gain self-esteem that we lacked in our dolor.
We gain self-esteem merely from the impression that we're finally smart enough to understand our problems. We gain further self-esteem by accusing those whom we see as the culprits. And we gain self-esteem still further by the esteem of others who agree with us and love us more for how we explain problems they share with us, and for our courage in calling out the people we view as responsible for the problems.
But inevitably, that in turn provokes people who disagree. The people who disagree have their own similar process of actualizing their self-esteem by which they identify their own culprits and band together to oppose them, and the culprits are inevitably us. And with enough back and forth provocation, the end result is inevitable, and happens over the course of every lifetime.
But war clarifies all these questions, because when life is on the line, it eliminates all the inessential. You may wish you could take back all those fingers you pointed, but even that doesn't matter now. All that matters is life itself, because survival is in no way guaranteed, either for us or those we love much more than ourselves.
And for a brief moment in history, society after society feels as though it's achieved a kind of ideal vision of what it should always have been, full of unity and purpose and meaning as everyone works together save themselves. People band together in a common mission that they should always have had in peacetime, but never do. It is only in those moments when life itself may end that people act as they think they should in life. But this greatest vision of ourselves comes crashing down in agony. While we may be banded together as soldiers, factory workers, fund raisers, doctors, farmers, teachers, utility and doc workers; we've all banded together as a society, so that we can kill another society. Our soldiers are literally sent abroad so that they can kill and burn and rape, and the rest of us do our part to make sure that they can do their job as best they can, because we know that this is what the other side is doing too, and if they do it better than us, we will die.
There's no explanation for why, but when you read history, it can't help but stick out: people are particularly prone to smash things up at the moments of their greatest well-being. The Enlightenment should have been the great moment when humanity embraced reason, yet it ended with guillotines and cannonade. The industrial revolution should have provided everything we needed to live, but it also made machine guns. The scientific and information revolution could have made the ideal society, and yet its weapons are pointed at us every day for decades; and we hear the clock counting down every day to the moment when they're finally put to use. For all our advancement, we are no more civilized than the great ancient religions who foresaw that all things which give light too give darkness.
Everyone on earth should read an abridged version of the India's ancient national epic: the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is the story of great virtue, but great virtue is only proven by provoking equivalently great vice. I found it impossible to read of the virtue of Prince Yhudishtira and not think of Abraham Lincoln - he had all the same qualities of modesty, prudence, slow deliberation on every decision, and leadership by setting an example of vulnerability and humility.
But like Lincoln, it is his very virtue that provokes the vice of others, and it is IMPOSSIBLE to read of Prince Duryodhana and not think of Trump: the arrogance, the petulance, the lust, the hotheadedness, the impatience with governing...
The more virtuously Yudhishtira acts, the more his virtue provokes vice in those who are jealous of him, until such a time that Yudhishtira's karma is so strong with light that his decisions literally obliterate all the men of the earth in a great battle that ushers in a new era of greater virtue.

Is that greater era worth the price? Well, it's certainly not to the people who died in the war, and I'd imagine it's not better to their wives and children, at least not for the moment, but it does enable a new ethos to take root by a new generation, chastened by tragedy into demanding less even as they get more.
War is always not worth it for the people involved in war, both the dead and the mourners. But we do not exist on earth as ourselves, we are the earth's property, and at a moment of its choosing, the earth flushes us out of consciousness like turds.
We are, at most, only one third ourselves. One third of us belongs to us, one third of us belongs to the cosmos, and one third of us belongs to the earth. Forces around us both above and below have their own agendas which we're only privy to as a minority partner controlling the least profitable third of the business. These forces around us don't just control our bodies, they control our thoughts. It is not our intellects that control which ideas appeal to us, it's our temperaments, it's our physiological wiring, it's whichever direction a few neurons choose to go on any given day, which is influenced by the nerves and blood which allow them to do its job.
So therefore, the chaos of nature calls to us at the moments we're most shielded from it. There seems to be a homing device in humans that returns us to the madness of evolution.
We sit in our comfort and we think we are at a great remove from the jungle and forest, but privilege reminds us of what we still don't have. It teases us with how close we are to better lives. Whether you're liberal or conservative, alt-right or intersectional SJW, that homing signal is the pull all Americans feel right now. If we've achieved prosperity, it's made us less satisfied, not more. At the beginning of 2020, even after three years of Trump, America was a better country than ever before, yet we've all been miserable since around 1998.
War is every bit as awful as it sounds, and every bit as unavoidable as we'd like to think it isn't. We will go to war, and the more virtuously we act, the more likely war becomes. It is inevitable, it is written, it is in the code of the human psyche, and whether now or in fifty years, the human psyche will shortly remind us that we are part beast.
What else can I end this with except what might be the greatest, most meaningful line in all Shakespeare, from Act V of Hamlet: "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."

Dear Eli - Part 4 - More

  This part of the letter is about faith, and more importantly, good faith. With the difference of faith to good faith comes the inevitable byproduct, bad faith. You can cut bad faith in this world with a knife and the intersecting link between all the bad faith claims of the world would grow back in an instant. But whether good faith or bad faith, faith is all that sustains people from one day to the next. It's what gets us out of bed in the morning, what puts us to sleep at night, what puts meals on the table, and what gets us through all those moments with the people we love that we wish we didn't love them - and over the course of a lifetime those moments will be many. 

This part of the letter is also, therefore, about reality, and your hopefully dear old uncle's highly tenuous connection with it. By the time you're three or four, you will figure out what everyone who meets me does in no large amount of time, which is that your uncle is what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders refers to, in Latin, as 'fucking crazy.' 

Reality is inevitably colored by perception, and all perceptions are simultaneously right and wrong. Your perceptions will always be right to you, and another person's perceptions inevitably right to them - and those perceptions inevitably differ. One of the most important components of a good life, perhaps the single most, is to realize that other people are struggling just as you are to come to their perceptions in good faith. The people least deserving of respect are the people who have relinquished that struggle, and simply operate on the assumption that those who disagree can only disagree in bad faith - and can only come to their own conclusions as a means to exploit others. In some ways, they're even more dangerous than selfish manipulators. Evil charlatans don't care if they're good or evil, and they can convince other people to commit murder and sleep every night like babies; but the still easier way to kill with a clear conscience is to believe that the people you kill are more evil than you. Criminals kill hundreds of thousands every year, but countries at war can kill hundreds of thousands in a single day.     

For most people, resisting bad faith is the struggle of a lifetime. There are so many periods of life when good faith is tested every day. People will fail you, causes will fail you, goals will fail you - even those you hold most dear. 

The world is a merciless place, only ever made merciful by our own acts of mercy. All the acts of good faith: forgiveness, mercy, charity, patience, humility, stoicism, courage, kindness and friendliness, are choices we make every day, and sometimes those choices are punished with no mercy at all. There are sadly moments in life when it is extremely prudent to act in bad faith, but if you act in bad faith as a habit, you're going down an evil path. 

The good faith of others can be used for terribly selfish purposes, and make no mistake, to manipulate other people's perceptions in bad faith is an evil act - occasionally a necessary evil, but evil nevertheless. It is the original sin of the world, only to be committed in real crisis; but even if there are moments when the dark act of manipulation is necessary, manipulation is so easy, and can make you feel so powerful, that you will be tempted to use it again as much as addicts are tempted back to their drugs - but an addict has the excuse of being a slave to his addiction, an exploiter makes slaves of others. Using other people's belief in you for selfish reasons is an evil path, and sometimes you will fall down it, but the moments when you do are the most important moments of your life. The life story of every single person on earth is written not in the days that follow when they've acted best, but in the days that follow when they act worst. 

The most complicated part of faith is that there is no act done in complete good nor complete bad, there is only a moral grey area of a hundred shades. Even the saintliest person has to realize that they may be celebrated in public for their selflessness, and even the worst sinner can rightly point to the ancillary ways others benefit from their selfishness. There is no such thing as a person who is all good or all bad, though many are more one than the other. The key to being the best possible person you can be is neither to act right nor to avoid acting wrong, the key to is to minimize the wrong and maximize the right; to stay on the lookout for all those moral openings in the world where people can be convinced to do better, including ourselves. The point of the world is not us, the point of the world is the world and we are here on earth to make it a better place to live. In the same way a good quarterback sees openings through the defensive line and throws the ball to open receivers, we have to find those openings in the world through which we can improve circumstances for people we love, and once we see them, we have to act right away. 

No one has to do the right thing, no one has to make their wrongs right. Whatever in life becomes the worst thing you've done, you just might get away with it. There may or may not be an immortal soul, rewarded and punished in the next world, but even if there isn't, your selfish decisions can visit terrible future suffering; upon you, certainly, but just as likely, on people whom you love much more than you love yourself. Some sins, like those committed in war, are so grave that there is no way to make right what will forever be wrong, and it might be self-aggrandizing even to try: if, as an older man, a young Nazi camp guard revealed himself and tried to atone for the thousands he killed, how many dead people would his apology bring back to life? How many survivors trying to live their lives better might become re-scarred merely by hearing of him again? How many of his own loved ones, innocent of his crimes, might he expose to accountability for what they had no part in? How many people would simply believe that such a man, so evil in the past, was not exploiting his newfound virtue for some kind of selfish gain? The number of Nazi war criminals living among regular Germans was unspeakably high - and unless they provably killed tens of thousands, the entire world just decided it was better to let them go about their lives as though each of them was yet another reluctant citizen of Hitler's Germany. 

Obviously, if the wrongs are simple enough, we all should do our best to right them. When there's a spat or when you're late to a meeting, always apologize without condition, especially when it's not your fault. Most people will realize that you've absolved them of their part in embarrassing you, and if they don't accept the apology, you'll know you're dealing with a less than stellar person. 

But when you hurt people on a deeper level than the daily wear and tear of living a life, and you certainly will, the hurts will be too deep for any 'I'm sorry.' The 'apology' is the mantra of my generation - we apologize for literally everything, apologizing is what civilized people do and it spares us all from any number of violent confrontations. We learned this behavior from the English, from whom we learned everything about 'civilisation', and in the 1800s the English apologized themselves into conquering the whole world.

But by 2021, we see an apology as such a 'get out of jail free card' (is the game Monopoly still played in your time?), that the internet has even instituted a pro-forma ritual in which a celebrity apologizes for misbehavior made public. And since apologies are now so insincere, thousands of normal people take to the internet and make a big show of not forgiving the apology; then in another few years the celebrity is simply reintroduced into cultural discourse because... well, the misbehavior of other celebrities has been revealed, the internet's atrophied everyone's attention span, and ultimately, the misbehaviors of most public figures are fairly normal private tragedies. They're deeply hurtful to the people involved, but they should not matter in the personal lives of anyone but the people directly involved and their families; and they wouldn't if the American world were not conditioned to view celebrities as replacements for god. 

I could be wrong, but since the internet seems to create more celebrities rather than less, I would imagine that in the future will contain still more celebrity scandals. The problem is not that celebrities should behave better, the problem is that there should be no such thing on earth as a celebrity. Whether you're an artist,  an athlete,  a politician, or a businessman, it's just a job like any other job. If you do a job extremely well, you should get an award with a dinner in your honor to which all your family and friends show up. Perhaps we  can make a whole weekend out of the honorary dinner like a wedding, but a weekend where all your friends show to pay tribute to you is the most adulation the average human ego can ever handle. Any more than that would affect your judgement and make you act more selfishly. 

However much of a jerk a person is in their temperament, make them famous, and the jerky part of their temperament will become ten times as large. If every person in world were suddenly deposited in positions of exceptional power for a decade, the majority would abuse their power within the first year. Most celebrity 'scandals' are perpetrated by normal people whose ethical compass was spoiled by being admired so conspicuously. 

But then there are people who have a real capacity for evil, and you will sadly meet hundreds of them whom you will never realize have that ability - it may be as many as one in every group of fifty human beings. Many of them will fortunately live a whole life without that capacity truly activated, and some of them are even capable of doing good equal to their evils. But that genetic capacity for evil is lodged in many millions of people. By the time you're my age, I doubt radio will exist as we currently have it, but the human brain is like an FM radio antenna, it picks up signals and frequencies which are only heard by those tuning into that frequency. All such people need is a broadcaster to blast destructive thoughts at their frequency, and people who've lived decades as peaceable human beings turn into any manner of criminal. 

As I resume this letter three days after I left it, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and for the moment appears poised to carry out the worst genocide of the 21st century so far, and I fear will be a mere prelude to far, far bloodier things coming for the world. Let me be clear - it is Putin, not Russia, who has invaded Ukraine, however many willing executioners do his bidding, it is this reptile of a man, whose very gaze inspired terror in me for two decades, who is the true murderer. 

We in the early 21st century have lived with Putin for more than twenty years, and there is no greater model of bad faith on earth. Not a one. We do not know if Putin will enact the evil upon earth which Stalin did before him, but what every person who watches him knows is that he's capable of so much worse. This is a man who could effect the death of billions for his own gain and sleep peaceably in his bed, and doubtless has entertained the possibility many times. This is man who bends entire continents to his will, not because of especial intelligence or extraordinary leadership, but because of luck and a base understanding of what humans want most: pride. 

Pride is the ultimate progenitor of bad faith, and as the Book of Proverbs say, goeth before a fall. Human motivations take many, many permutations. But ultimately, they fall into two categories: pride, and survival. Issues of survival are what make us better because, as I've already tried to say, he who saves a life saves the world. The point of life is life, and life is objective, it's measurable, it's quantifiable. Pride is only perception, it is a shadow in our imaginations, it's a worthless piece of paper. 

This is a controversial claim, and most people would disagree. Pride certainly has its place in the world, and the place for pride is in helping each other survive: raising your children, saving lives in your job, teaching other people of all ages what they need to know to live in the world. The place for pride is in helping your community, not doing things for your own gain. 

When it comes to politics, issues of survival are surely issues where pride matters, but then there are the issues on which pride is just pride; in which we simply feel that our freedoms are slightly restricted, like owning a gun so powerful that its only use can be for mass murder; or that we are being condescended to by snobs, like liberals with better educations; or that white males are being aggressive to us on a micro level because they do not tailor every phrase to acknowledge their privilege in every interaction. People who believe in these issues of pride say that such micro-infringements on their freedoms are gateways, indicating that such people have more mendacious aims that may lead to issues of survival. Well... in a sense of course that's true, but it also isn't. An indicator is just an indicator, nothing more, and if we assumed bad faith from every indicator of bad faith, there would be no one on earth worth trusting. 

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Shostakovich 8th Symphony

No composer understood the eternal mendacity of Russian leadership like Shostakovich. I am convinced Shostakovich 8 is a programmatic war symphony, the first movement portraying a night bombing - dread insomnia at night, air raid sirens, evacuation to the basement, the bombs get dropped, and bitter resumption of life. The second is military parade with all its accompanying bombast. The third is a darkly comic portrayal of munition factories with an ear to imitating Chaplin's Modern Times, perhaps with a factory explosion at the end. Finally the last two movements are, I believe, a portrayal of normal life resuming, only for there to be another air raid, and finally, ending with gratitude that we've lived through another day. It is one of the greatest scores of the 20th century by far, and neither did the 20th century ever have a greater composer than Dmitri Shostakovich, nor did the 19th century have a greater one since Beethoven. He occupies a place akin to Goya in art - a witness to political horror, a painter of barbarity, grotesque, and nightmares, but also humor, eros, hope, and pleas for human dignity.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Reading War and Peace (hint: It's a metaphor...)

 Everybody tells you that War and Peace is one of the easier 'big reads.' Don't believe them.

It totally is, but go straight to Book 4 and skip the first 300 pages, and don't read the second epilogue. What's leftover is still roughly 850 pages long, and it's incredible. But few 1200 page books need every page, and like any binge-watched TV serial, part of reading the whole thing is 'enduring' them. You get through the boring parts and for large stretches, the show slows to a crawl before the momentum hurtles you through a half day at a time. No book over 350 pages can be flawless (give or take a few), and any writer who 'writes long' is trying to say something too messy and elusive to be neat.
No writer 'writes bigger' than Tolstoy. He writes the reader into panoramic vistas of battle scenes, into the minds of the dying, into the personalities of the most consequential figures in history and speculates through his characters how a leader's temperament might result in the arbitrary deaths of millions.
But what makes War and Peace interesting is that he 'writes small' at least as well as he writes big, and writes into the minds of dozens of personalities in their most intimate thoughts, and then 'writes middle' and shows how the presence of each character affects one another. He might view women too sentimentally, but he certainly writes perceptively about the encyclopedia of subtle ways men are allowed to oppress them.

War and Peace may or may not be the greatest novel ever written, but it is, almost by default, the 'Greatest' novel ever written, in which we get a view of world large, the world small, how the large affects the small, and how the small affects the large.
The problem? Well, Tolstoy was a Count and one of the richest men in Russia. He knew everything there was to know about the life of aristocrats and bourgeois gentry, but the life of the millions of serfs who followed their orders in both war and peace? Hardly even a mention. War and Peace is society large and small, it is not, however, society top and bottom. For that, you either have to go backward to Gogol, or forward to Chekhov.
So no, I can't truly read War and Peace in book form front to back, and I've tried at least half a dozen times. I can, however, listen to the audiobook, and Thandiwe Newton, amid her recent controversial and weird apology for playing an African-American (she's a Zona princess by birth), released an audiobook of War and Peace which is one of the most stunning bits of acting I've ever heard. She doesn't just create a distinct character out of every voice, she seems to mine the book for every bit of hidden comedy, every subtle implication and innuendo, every bit of snark, every pomposity and every bit of vulgarity. It's more than a tour-de-force, it's an internalization of an entire epic. It's a shame she can't get an Oscar or Emmy for this because what she does is more impressive than she can on any show.
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Whether Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, the world of Russia is not the world of America, and while the kind of American who'd read a whole Russian novel is self-selecting to people who'd like it, I think most Americans are conditioned to find certain elements of its world repulsive.
Russia and America are so completely different as only two countries can be who grew to the world stage on exactly the same same day. They're almost mirror images of each other - and not just in the way they embraced exact opposite political systems. One month after Russia left World War I, America came in. In the same year America went to civil war to free the slaves, Russia liberated its serfs by a simple decree of a Czar. Both Petersburg and Washington were artificially designed to be capital cities apart from the pressures of the mob, to which the rest of the country looked forever after with incredible suspicion.
After World War I, the USA and USSR took over the world from Old Europe - existing as the much larger countries on either side of Europe whose mass spans whole continents - both countries containing vast reservoirs of unexplored territories, full of untapped resources and possibilities.
While European fascism looked back to the medieval world of myth and race, both America and Russia took their cues from the 18th century Enlightenment, and interpreted it in exact opposite ways. 20th century Russia took its cue from the idea that an all-knowing genius of a leader can give the people everything they need as a gift and change the world overnight. 20th century America took its cue from the idea that through carefully prepared institutions and no one person accumulating too much power, the necessary change can be affected by people working together of completely different backgrounds, to whom their leaders must answer like servants. In practice, neither worked that way. The Russian leaders murdered rather than gifted, and American leaders stayed American leaders and kept millions from rising, but there's no serious question which worked better and worse.
For the moment, it still seems as though America's vision was much more perceptive, even if false in all kinds of ways. But... if the internet makes every opinion seem as valid as facts, there is no democracy to be had, and if that's the case, the authoritarian model becomes all that prevents the world from perpetual civil insurrection.
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If human beings cannot affect the necessary changes together, the only option left is to put your trust in one guy being the smartest around, and that guy makes the decisions for everybody else. That's obviously a hugely dangerous bet, and hasn't really worked since a couple of monarchs did it in the 18th century, when modernization was affected single-handedly by 'Great Kings,' like Peter the Great in Russia, Frederick the Great in Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, Charles III in Spain, Sultan Selim in Turkey, and Gustav III of Sweden.
At the time, only monarchs had the means to get updates on all the latest information from advisors. Sometimes these advisors were powerful enough to run kingdoms for the king, but most of those politicians would quickly fall from favor if they ever accumulated enough power to contradict a King's degrees. Ministers who stayed in favor were content to remain specialists in particular subjects, and had no ambitions for country-wide rule; so therefore in the 1700s, the monarch was, almost by definition, the most enlightened citizen of his country.
But by increasing the opportunities of their subjects, these kings allowed their subjects the means to far outstrip them in skills and knowledge. And we have been dealing with the problem ever since of how best to establish enlightened rule. Half the world thinks enlightened rule can only be provided by a ruler who guarantees it, half the world thinks only democracy can provide it. Perhaps surprisingly, in the 19th century it seemed relatively clear that well-maintained autocracies did better than the republics. England and France had imperial outposts around the globe, and America had slaves at home. Meanwhile, Bismark's Germany established the first successful welfare state, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Franz Josef allowed rights for each of its 24 nationalities that even America today doesn't allow.
In the 20th century, it became abundantly clear that democracy was a better way forward, but we're only 21ish% of the way through the 21st century, and if the world's major democracies collapse into failed states, autocracies are virtually all that's left of human civilization.
Most humans don't naturally cooperate with each other - they always think they do, but put them in a situation where they have to compromise their most fundamental beliefs, and most humans get too mad to believe anybody can disagree with them in good faith; and rather than work together, they fight each other until one side clearly wins and the other loses, at which point the other side feels humiliated and tries to take revenge, and eventually they succeed. That's how most history works.
That doesn't mean humans are bad, but it does mean the bad side of humans comes out much more easily than people suppose, and there are only two real solutions:
1. Pacify our anger, which results in no progress being made.
2. Enact the obvious practical measures to progress society, which inevitably results in people rebelling against progress.
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People say that there is no reward for dictatorship. For better or worse, that's not at all true. The reward, however, is one Americans really don't like...
For better or worse... occasionally, a human being comes along who really is that much of a genius: a Tolstoy, a Shostakovich, a Kasparov, and their achievements can change the world forever. These sorts of geniuses are not just talented people who can write songs or scripts and collaborate with other talented people. These geniuses create whole cathedrals of meaning. You can spend your whole life studying Tolstoy every day for eight hours and never arrive at the bottom of what he lets you perceive. Sure, artists like Shostakovich depended on their teachers for their training, but their achievements are their own, and they worked like slaves at these achievements to a capacity which only a slave could understand.
In America, culture happens bit by bit. Thousands of talented artists get fifteen minutes on the world stage to show the world the glories of what they can do, America uses them up and tosses them aside at the first failure. In Russia, culture happens overnight by spontaneous explosion, and once a thinker is proven a genius, they get infinite chances to get it right again, and this explosion can last a lifetime. If their talent is noticed early, its nurtured from the earliest age, until you're an unquestionable world authority on what you do. America hates geniuses so much that we do everything we can to ignore them. Russia loves geniuses so much that their heads of state have geniuses assassinated because their effect on the population is too strong.

Americas don't believe in geniuses for the same reason we don't believe in dictators - we believe no person has the right to control our minds and tell us what to believe. We are a nation of rebels and skeptics. Our rebellions brought us our country and all the rights it provides us, it brought us a popular culture with appreciation in reach of anyone in the world; rebellion also brought us the Civil War and a century of segregation. Russia believes in dictators for the same reason it believes in genius. Russian history is a history of submission to autocrats - autocrats brought them genocide after democide, poverty after famine -but it also brought them modernization and the most gloriously ornate religion on earth (go to any Orthodox cathedral, they're stunning), and from that ornate religion came the most glorious culture of fine arts the world has ever seen in its entire history.
You know what's coming next, and I know nobody wants to hear it...
The truth is, yeah... American popular culture is great. It's fun, it's empowering, its history tells a story of how American liberated themselves demographic by demographic. But any insights you find into the human condition are the exception. Mass culture, now more than ever, is designed to be trivial and appeal to the basest parts of human beings.
What we call 'high culture' is not the dictation of powerful people's aesthetic tastes. From the Iliad to the cutouts of Kara Walker, culture tells the story of how the world is shaped by tragedy after tragedy; the illusions of every era dispelled without mercy or justice.
And in that sense, Russia has so much more accurate a view of what life is than we do, and is so much more prepared for whatever comes next. What comes next for us, whether now or in fifty years, will be the great shock of our entire history - the moment when America's forced out of its perpetual adolescence into maturity, and realizes that era after era shapes the world by mass death.
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So all those long tomes which Russians famously read in their sleep... they're what prepare you best for moments like these. It may not be fair that only Counts get the funding to write to the full extent of their genius, but part of what we're fighting for - a larger part than you think, is that when the next female Tolstoy arrives, the next black Tolstoy, the next poor Tolstoy, the next trans Tolstoy, they have as much a chance to spread their wisdom as 3000 years of rich white male geniuses did. It's not fair, but extraordinary people do exist, and regardless of whether the law protects them from their misdeeds, their insights do more to heal people and make them whole than ours. That, for better or worse, is the great insight of autocracy.
Russia's culture is barely older than America's, but in the 200 years between Peter the Great and Stalin, it grew the greatest culture in the world. Period. It took them 200 years to do what Italy did over 2000. It marries everything that's great from Europe, Byzantium, the Middle East, Moorish Islam, Ancient Greece and Rome, India, Mongolia, China, and Japan. From the incalculable insights of literature, to the infinite spirituality of its cathedrals, to the gorgeous refinement of its ballet, to the reverberent passion of its music, etc. etc., etc., etc., the culture of the world's most depressing country makes suffering lives more worth living than any force on earth. And in the moments of greatest suffering yet to come for Americans, American culture doesn't yet have enough great achievements to prepare us for the enormity of what may soon come.
So if War and Peace is too big for you, start with Chekhov; watch his lives of suffering mediocrity, feel compassion for these characters the world treats with contempt. Then move to Turgenev and feel the pure lyrical beauty of youthful hopes disappointed. Then move to Gogol and see what real absurdity is. Then go on to Pushkin's Eugene Onegin - if it's too hard, listen to Stephen Fry narrate it, and listen to a poem-novel as insightful and quotable as Hamlet (and as funny). Then, when you're really ready for it, go to Tolstoy. If War and Peace is too tough, listen to Thandiwe Newton narrate it; if Anna Karenina is too tough, listen to Maggie Gyllenhall (they're both on youtube), and see how humans evolve together as a whole societal organism. It will give you insights into everything from how history shapes our lives to how we're all influenced by friendships, friends, and frenemies.
And then when you're really for a plunge, go for Dostoevsky. Tolstoy's pomposity can be hard to take, but Dostoevsky is everything Americans hate. He's a totalitarian, pure and simple. He believes humans are evil, sinful, dirty, and can only be saved by God and all-powerful sovereigns - most particularly the Russian Orthodox God and his Czar. The key to appreciating Dostoevsky is understanding that even if he's maliciously wrong about a lot, there's a lot about which he's right. You may be bored at the time, god knows I was when I read Notes from the Underground, and yet quotes from that book surface in my head again and again - they explain everything from situations in my personal life to the behavior of the entire world and history itself.
It honestly took me years of trying to climb this pyramid. In a few crucial cases I still haven't reached the top. I love Chekhov and Pushkin like I love Coppola and Scorsese, but very few Americans have the attention span for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It's not necessarily tough to understand intellectually, this isn't German philosophy; it's tough to understand emotionally. It's nearly impossible for an American to get into a headspace that believes freedom is a curse or that our choices are completely predetermined by a historical logic we're incapable of understanding. But we clearly ignore those worldviews at our peril.

After centuries of slavish subordination, Russians so tired of authoritarian rule that they overthrew it for a Soviet republic in which all men would be equal, but having lived under a thousand years of Czars, they did not understand the first thing about how to treat each other with equality. After two-and-a-half centuries of republican governance, Americans have so tired of our country's liberal hypocrisies that a large part of this country is willing to cast the whole thing aside in favor of an anti-liberal republic that deliberately favors one kind of person over another in its most blatantly stated aims. There's little reason to think America would do any more competently under that kind of government than Russia did under the Soviets.
You learn the future by studying the past. You won't learn the exact details, but existence never changes and humans have as much capacity for destruction as creation. You learn human beings by studying their greatest art. Art is no substitute for socialization and practical experience, but an extraordinary creator will understand what motivates the average human much better than you can if you try to understand them without their help.
America and Russia will always misunderstand each other, but Russia has given us, again and again, ways to understand what makes them tick, and most of us just ignore it. Believe it or not, our survival may depend on reading their books; their big, dull, glorious books.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Dear Eli - Part 4 - First Halfish

 This part of the letter is about faith, and more importantly, good faith. With the difference of faith to good faith comes the inevitable byproduct, bad faith. You can cut bad faith in this world with a knife and the intersecting link between all the bad faith claims of the world would grow back in an instant. But whether good faith or bad faith, faith is all that sustains people from one day to the next. It's what gets us out of bed in the morning, what puts us to sleep at night, what puts meals on the table, and what gets us through all those moments with the people we love that we wish we didn't love them - and over the course of a lifetime those moments will be many. 

This part of the letter is also, therefore, about reality, and your hopefully dear old uncle's highly tenuous connection with it. By the time you're three or four, you will figure out what everyone who meets me does in no large amount of time, which is that your uncle is what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders refers to, in Latin, as 'fucking crazy.' 

Reality is inevitably colored by perception, and all perceptions are simultaneously right and wrong. Your perceptions will always be right to you, and another person's perceptions inevitably right to them - and those perceptions inevitably differ. One of the most important components of a good life, perhaps the single most, is to realize that other people are struggling just as you are to come to their perceptions in good faith. The people least deserving of respect are the people who have relinquished that struggle, and simply operate on the assumption that those who disagree can only disagree in bad faith - and can only come to their own conclusions as a means to exploit others. In some ways, they're even more dangerous than selfish manipulators. Evil charlatans don't care if they're good or evil, and they can convince other people to commit murder and sleep every night like babies; but the still easier way to kill with a clear conscience is to believe that the people you kill are more evil than you. Criminals kill hundreds of thousands every year, but countries at war can kill hundreds of thousands in a single day.     

For most people, resisting bad faith is the struggle of a lifetime. There are so many periods of life when good faith is tested every day. People will fail you, causes will fail you, goals will fail you - even those you hold most dear. 

The world is a merciless place, only ever made merciful by our own acts of mercy. All the acts of good faith: forgiveness, mercy, charity, patience, humility, stoicism, courage, kindness and friendliness, are choices we make every day, and sometimes those choices are punished with no mercy at all. There are sadly moments in life when it is extremely prudent to act in bad faith, but if you act in bad faith as a habit, you're going down an evil path. 

The good faith of others can be used for terribly selfish purposes, and make no mistake, to manipulate other people's perceptions in bad faith is an evil act - occasionally a necessary evil, but evil nevertheless. It is the original sin of the world, only to be committed in real crisis; but even if there are moments when the dark act of manipulation is necessary, manipulation is so easy, and can make you feel so powerful, that you will be tempted to use it again as much as addicts are tempted back to their drugs - but an addict has the excuse of being a slave to his addiction, an exploiter makes slaves of others. Using other people's belief in you for selfish reasons is an evil path, and sometimes you will fall down it, but the moments when you do are the most important moments of your life. The life story of every single person on earth is written not in the days that follow when they've acted best, but in the days that follow when they act worst. 

The most complicated part of faith is that there is no act done in complete good nor complete bad, there is only a moral grey area of a hundred shades. Even the saintliest person has to realize that they may be celebrated in public for their selflessness, and even the worst sinner can rightly point to the ancillary ways others benefit from their selfishness. There is no such thing as a person who is all good or all bad, though many are more one than the other. The key to being the best possible person you can be is neither to act right nor to avoid acting wrong, the key to is to minimize the wrong and maximize the right; to stay on the lookout for all those moral openings in the world where people can be convinced to do better, including ourselves. The point of the world is not us, the point of the world is the world and we are here on earth to make it a better place to live. In the same way a good quarter back sees openings through the defensive line and throws the ball to open receivers, we have to find those openings in the world through which we can improve circumstances for people we love, and once we see them, we have to act right away. 

No one has to do the right thing, no one has to make their wrongs right. Whatever in life becomes the worst thing you've done, you just might get away with it. There may or may not be an immortal soul, rewarded and punished in the next world, but even if there isn't, your selfish decisions can visit terrible future suffering; upon you, certainly, but just as likely, on people whom you love much more than you love yourself. Some sins, like those committed in war, are so grave that there is no way to make right what will forever be wrong, and it might be self-aggrandizing even to try: if, as an older man, a young Nazi camp guard revealed himself and tried to atone for the thousands he killed, how many dead people would his apology bring back to life? How many survivors trying to live their lives better might become re-scarred merely by hearing of him again? How many of his own loved ones, innocent of his crimes, might he expose to accountability for what they had no part in? How many people would simply believe that such a man, so evil in the past, was not exploiting his newfound virtue for some kind of selfish gain? The number of Nazi war criminals living among regular Germans was unspeakably high - and unless they provably killed tens of thousands, the entire world just decided it was better to let them go about their lives as though each of them was yet another reluctant citizen of Hitler's Germany. 

Obviously, if the wrongs are simple enough, we all should do our best to right them. When there's a spat or when you're late to a meeting, always apologize without condition, especially when it's not your fault. Most people will realize that you've absolved them of their part in embarrassing you, and if they don't accept the apology, you'll know you're dealing with a less than stellar person. 

But when you hurt people on a deeper level than the daily wear and tear of living a life, and you certainly will, the hurts will be too deep for any 'I'm sorry.' The 'apology' is the mantra of my generation - we apologize for literally everything, apologizing is what civilized people do and it spares us all from any number of violent confrontations. We learned this behavior from the English, from whom we learned everything about 'civilisation', and in the 1800s the English apologized themselves into conquering the whole world.

But by 2021, we see an apology as such a 'get out of jail free card' (is the game Monopoly still played in your time?), that the internet has even instituted a pro-forma ritual in which a celebrity apologizes for misbehavior made public. And since apologies are now so insincere, thousands of normal people take to the internet and make a big show of not forgiving the apology; then in another few years the celebrity is simply reintroduced into cultural discourse because... well, the misbehavior of other celebrities has been revealed, the internet's atrophied everyone's attention span, and ultimately, the misbehaviors of most public figures are fairly normal private tragedies. They're deeply hurtful to the people involved, but they should not matter in the personal lives of anyone but the people directly involved and their families; and they wouldn't if the American world were not conditioned to view celebrities as replacements for god. 

I could be wrong, but since the internet seems to create more celebrities rather than less, I would imagine that in the future will contain still more celebrity scandals. The problem is not that celebrities should behave better, the problem is that there should be no such thing on earth as a celebrity. Whether you're an artist,  an athlete,  a politician, or a businessman, it's just a job like any other job. If you do a job extremely well, you should get an award with a dinner in your honor to which all your family and friends show up. Perhaps we  can make a whole weekend out of the honorary dinner like a wedding, but a weekend where all your friends show to pay tribute to you is the most adulation the average human ego can ever handle. Any more than that would affect your judgement and make you act more selfishly. 

However much of a jerk a person is in their temperament, make them famous, and the jerky part of their temperament will become ten times as large. If every person in world were suddenly deposited in positions of exceptional power for a decade, the majority would abuse their power within the first year. Most celebrity 'scandals' are perpetrated by normal people whose ethical compass was spoiled by being admired so conspicuously. 

But then there are people who have a real capacity for evil, and you will sadly meet hundreds of them whom you will never realize have that ability - it may be as many as one in every group of fifty human beings. Many of them will fortunately live a whole life without that capacity truly activated, and some of them are even capable of doing good equal to their evils. But that genetic capacity for evil is lodged in many millions of people. By the time you're my age, I doubt radio will exist as we currently have it, but the human brain is like an FM radio antenna, it picks up signals and frequencies which are only heard by those tuning into that frequency. All such people need is a broadcaster to blast destructive thoughts at their frequency, and people who've lived decades as peaceable human beings turn into any manner of criminal.