About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beethoven vii (on the sublime)

Certain art forms may seem broken up into juxtaposed fragments and are yet still capable of developing, something like a plowed field that is simultaneously upturned and the site of possible growth. The upturning exposes the disruptions and actualities beneath the surface, and it simultaneously readies the field for new growth. Such a process can be likened to what happens in Beethoven’s late works, which unite an exposure of basic ordering forms (an upturned baring of essential conventions) with unconventional lyric upwellings and improvised-seeming imaginative eruptions. Before considering that process in more of the late works, I’d like to explain as clearly as I can the relevance of an idea I’d mentioned in one of my earliest posts, the idea of the sublime.
Recently I taught a “Senior Scholars” course to a group of about forty or so people, some of whom are retired, some nearing retirement, and some widowed; early on in the course I tried to suggest the bearing of the idea of the sublime on modernity and specifically on Conrad’s evocation of the jungle and sea among other vistas and also on Freud’s idea of sublimation (Walter Kaufmann, Stanley Cavell, and Harold Bloom among others have of course made the connection between sublimation and the sublime in Nietzsche and others).

Examples of the sublime in Romanticism are a storm at sea or the dwarfing vista of the Alps, as in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting “Wanderer above the Mist” – the untethered human here is dwarfed by the snowy peaks and the seemingly limitless power of external nature. However, the human imagination is not simply “dwarfed” but is stirred to witness and give form to this power; "sublime" then is the name for both a particular occurence and a particular form of imagination, which heeds the call to create “sublime” art or, in Freud’s terms, to sublimate the power of such vistas. To mention Freud is to register that those "vistas" or forces exist not only externally in nature but internally in the psyche, in the instinctual forces of erotic love and of aggression, of Eros and of Thanatos (or the death instinct). So it is that the looming and supercharged forces of both nature and human myth can be termed sublime and are subject to sublimation. For example, in 1900 (the year Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams”) Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” gives form and voice both to the primeval jungle and to the figure of Kurtz, with his nearly mythic god-like arrogance – both contain emanations of the sublime. Similarly the sublime force of Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19) evokes the terror both of the encompassing sea and of the dying and dead men stranded on the raft.

Kant’s “Critique of Judgment” codified (in 1790) this idea of the sublime as a “representation of limitlessness,” existing in a region outside the normal bounds of beauty and beyond the reach of reason – a region of “chaos,” “the ugly,” and “the negative.” A storm’s threat of chaos and terror, for example, evinces an absence of the rational, a negation of order which challenges the imagination to encompass it. In its turn, the sublime work of art then “represents” such a vista of infinite power in order to draw the phenomenon into the compass of autonomous art. In a sense God-like nature meets its match in the Kantian “genius,” whose transformative representations reveal the existence of “soul” in nature. The composer of the Fifth Symphony and the Appassionata Sonata (circa 1805) embodies a version of that “genius.”

At one point in “Critique of Judgment” Kant writes that “perhaps there has never been a more sublime utterance than the inscription from the Temple of Isis” evoking the sublime as the infinite power of nature: “I am all that is, and that was, and that shall be.” It is no accident that Beethoven kept this Kantian inscription in his rooms during his “heroic” period, for the immense power of his middle-period symphonies and sonatas projects this form of encompassing sublimity. Late Beethoven, however, explores a different form of the sublime, one associated more with torn-apart Osiris than the earth-goddess Isis – a sort of sublimity of dismemberment.

Beethoven’s late works thrive in the midst of disparity and open-endedness. It is as if a bargain is being made: organizing forms become more and more objective, the ordering conventions of fugue or variation are made more and more explicit, while the driven process of “heroic” mastery and the will undergoes a sort of disappearance and death and gives way to a new musical process. Beethoven’s “objectifying” of his earlier subjective mastery is – in Hegel’s thinking – to confront death. Hegel’s ideas, developing beyond Kant, can help further to illuminate Beethoven’s late music.

What emerges amid this new “objectivity” is, in Hegel’s conception, a new comprehension of “incompleteness,” “fragmentation,” and “process” – an opening up to another way of being. These qualities well characterize Beethoven’s late aesthetic yielding newly improvisatory invention, a sort of sublimity of “dismemberment.” “The life of the spirit,” Hegel writes in his Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), “endures and maintains itself” in the face of the death of the self, of identity; the spirit “wins its truth only when it finds itself in utter dismemberment.” Here then is the Hegelian sublime, which can help us comprehend what Beethoven is composing in the last decade of his life as he embraces objectivity and passes through the negation of his earlier aesthetic. To endure the death of the form to which the grand, heroic self had been committed yields “the magic power” which converts the “dismembered” self into sublime form: such at least are some Hegelian terms to describe Beethoven’s wonderful late productivity, and these terms help also to illuminate elements of the creative process in modernity (not least in D. H. Lawrence’s explicit evocation of Osiris in his late novella “The Man Who Died”).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beethoven vi (on the expression of grief in late works)

I wanted to continue talking about how "subjective intensities" in late Beethoven well up in the midst of the new relationship to "objective" forms (often Baroque forms like the fugue). The two slow sequences prefacing and interrupting Beethoven’s final fugue in his opus 110 piano sonata, his thirty-first among thirty-two sonatas, are marked dolente, and this "Arioso" is full of sorrow, even as it partakes of the fluidity, the unstoppable flow of melody, characteristic of late Beethoven adagios (the beautiful and most extended example is the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony, in which – as here – even the moments of halting seem extensions of or preparations for yet more lyricism).

Two effects in particular are poignant and powerful. One is a feature of the upward arc of melody, moving up through each trembling, unstable interval often of the seventh chord, cresting and then descending in painful half steps (measures 9 and 11, for example, at the beginning of the “Arioso dolente”). And the melody’s notes often reach up toward each of those trembling intervals, only to fall back a half step to create over and over the piercing dissonance of a flatted or minor second (from A-flat to G, from F-flat to E-flat). Particularly in the return of the Arioso, the recurrent melody searches through shifting keys, and the modulations from harmony to harmony are accomplished repeatedly through these poignantly painful flatted seconds, as if Beethoven wants to expose rather than smooth out the music’s search through the keys.

That sense of the materials of the music being exposed – of its modulations and melodies being unpacked in all their vulnerability and power is reminiscent of an effect to be encountered in the late works of other artists – one thinks of Michelangelo’s late works, the Dying Slaves, in which the artist’s working the stone is exposed to view rather than smoothed over in the perfections of the earlier sculptures. And there is Yeats in his final decade making explicit the process of creation from “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” And the composer, the sculptor, and the poet each incise their materials with what is a notably steady, purposeful, even serene hand. It is as if, in their late works, these artists have finished with the well-hewn mastery of technique in their earlier great works and seek out a new relationship to their art, to its technique, one that willingly exposes the process itself. And in the Arioso passages of opus 110, Beethoven achieves this effect in order to create a beautiful and moving upwelling of grief.

The second remarkably poignant effect Beethoven creates in these parts of opus 110 involves the phrasing of melody, the creation of a certain brokenness of utterance. This is particularly the case in the second appearance of the Arioso, interrupting the two iterations of the fugue (and as I tried to show in my previous post, the use of fugal form here is itself significant in late Beethoven). In the equivalent passage to the opening melody in measures 9-11, each of the rising and falling notes is voiced essentially as a sigh or short gasp or, rather, a crying out (measures 116 and following). Each central note of the melody is sounded not at the start of the beat in a triplet but in the middle off-beat, then always moving toward a second note of the melody, in cries which yearn for what follows, but each two note phrase is immediately broken off, giving ways to instants of punctuating silence on the beat, and so the triplet breaths of melody move on in broken off-beat cries. This effect is brought to a pitch of intensity when each two note phrase repeats the same pitch, echoing rather than descending, so that each cry pierces as it echoes (in measures 125 and following). At the end of the Arioso (in measure 130), these two note phrases become even briefer echoes, tiny thirty-second note cries, nearly silenced.

The stripping down to bare utterances of pure grief which Beethoven achieves in these passages of the sonata is to be found also in another guise in his thirteenth string quartet, opus 130. The slow movement, the Cavatine, of this late Beethoven quartet, has a middle section marked “Beklemmt” or anguished. Much of what I’ve described above in the Arioso can be heard even more poignantly in this sequence, for the violin’s sounding of those sighing cries is more “speaking” and heart-breaking than what the piano can achieve. And it is especially powerful that these same exploratory effects of the flatted seconds, the off-beat echoing cries, and the rest lead within a few seconds to the assaultive opening chords of the Grosse Fugue, with its declaration of a new dimension of music. The logic of that sequence of movements seems to pose the question of what is to be done in the face of the death of earlier classical musical forms, the end of their order, their period of grace.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Beethoven - v

I want to apologize for the typos in the previous four posts. When one writes “adults like children” when one meant to write “adults act like children,” you know that proof-reading is needed.

The open-ended exploration of motifs, structure, and harmony notable in late Beethoven applies also to the exploration of rhythms; I’m thinking, for example, of opus 111’s final Arietta variations taking apart the rhythmic impulses of the theme – for example, in the second variation’s searching out the pressure points in the quickly pulsing fast sixteenth and thirty-second notes; or in the third variation’s locating the jazzy off-beats, the jetting sixty-fourth notes teasing out a hint of rhythm embedded in the original melody; or in the fourth variation’s transformation of these fast notes into hovering, trembling triplets which decompose rhythm into a sort of pure stillness. (Such explorations and disintegrations are, of course, apparent also in the wonderful Diabelli Variations, opus 120.)

Also, earlier I noted the idea that Beethoven’s late works are witnesses to catastrophe, baring conventions at the skeletal moment of their demise, rather than imbuing conventions with a masterful subjectivity, whether heroic (as in the middle-period works) or ironic. Of course, for the late works, ironic is a pertinent description because the appearance of willful mastery, for example in the first movement of the opus 132 quartet in a minor, is undercut not only by the earlier-mentioned passage beginning in measure 92, but by oddly inflated jolts of false rhythmic closure or by peculiarly inflected melodic gestures, uncanny and off-beat. Such ironic exposures and juxtapositions and such exploratory and often playful open-endedness in late Beethoven refuse any taming of the above noted “catastrophe;” they refuse any faith (in Adorno’s view, any ontological, Heideggerian faith) in the taming of the catastrophe by means of a subjectivity resuscitating the Romantic symbol or the idea of “organic” beauty.

The sense of being witness to apocalypse is especially apparent in the Grosse Fugue, opus 133, the first-written finale to the great, continually exploratory opus 130 string quartet. The ferocity of its fugal theme and of much of its subsidiary material insists simultaneously on fracture and control, violence and ordering form. A similar effect is achieved by the fugue ending the Hammerklavier sonata, opus 106. There is the constant insinuation of fragmented phrases taken up and repeated and repeated, for example, the implacable unfolding of sixths beginning in measure 97, or the especially puncturing trills repeatedly suffusing the sonata’s sound, starting for instance at measure 119. These fragmenting motifs are joltingly integrated into the unfolding fugal form. There is a sort of double violence in such passages, that violence intrinsic to the fragments themselves, which are ferocious in themselves, and the violence of their insistent repetitions, as part of the relentless working out of the ordering fugue.

Again, much of what I’m trying to describe is related to Beethoven’s prefiguring of an idea of modern form – what Benjamin and, then, Adorno called “allegory” (in Kafka and earlier, for Benjamin, in the seventeenth-century German tragic drama). This form represents the break with Romantic organicism (in which form is invested with the sense of passionate inevitability, with subjective will). That “break” establishes a move toward abstraction and the conflict that embodies between objective technique and eruptive expression. In the dynamic operating in abstract form (whether in Picasso’s Cubism or in Beethoven’s Great Fugue), there are fracture points, the cracks and fissures built into the objective form (indeed, into fate itself), which are sites of the abrupt breakthrough of subjectivity. The double violence I mentioned operating in this break or conflict is at work in modernist form: First, there is the inevitable violence of the eruptions from the primal well of feeling, a violence which no form can suppress completely. Second, there is the violence which results from the imposition itself of objective, controlling form. (I’m reminded of Freud’s late notions [1] of the destructiveness associated with Thanatos – the death instinct arising from the depths of the psyche – and [2] of the second destructiveness wrought by the conscience – by the super-ego – in strictly suppressing rather than sublimating the destructive impulse. Forgive this last comment; I just finished teaching a peculiar but intriguing course on Freud and Conrad, born in 1856 and 1857 respectively, each so different from the other and yet both darkly tragic-minded in many respects).

I’ll offer further commentary on Beethoven in my next post, on the objective forms (I almost wanted to write “juxtapositions”) and the subjective intensities which coexist strangely in his late works, and I’ll start with the Cavatina movement in the opus 130 string quartet and the return of the Arioso’s Adagio ma non troppo in the last, fugal movement of the opus 110 piano sonata.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Beethoven's "Sound World" - iv

In Mann’s great novel Doctor Faustus about a German composer in (and of) the time of the Nazis, Professor Kretschmar’s lesson about Beethoven for the composer echoes Adorno’s discussions with Mann in L.A. in 1943. In my novel Hungry Generations, I tried to imagine what the conversations between the two might have been like then, in the midst of encounters with Schoenberg and other European expatriates (Beethoven, as well, appears in the fantasies of the novel’s main character, a young composer struggling to adjust to studio work in Hollywood).

In the upwelling of late music in the final movement of his opus 111 piano sonata, Beethoven – in Kretschmar’s and Adorno’s view – is casting into question the basic ground of the Arietta’s classical, “C major” conventions, making them ambiguous so that they seem to hover in the realm of the provisional, existing among many open-ended possibilities. The effect of the ambiguity and open-endedness in Beethoven’s last piano sonata is to lay bare the basic rules of classical music itself, with the result that its essential rules are exposed as one more artificial construct in the long history of musical artifice. The music destabilizes our sense of these rules by exposing them as artifice. The fertile outpouring of the Arietta’s variations (like the Diabelli Variations) achieves this baring and destabilization with extraordinary “late-style” detachment as he employs and juxtaposes the colliding forms of music past, present, and future – classical sonata or minuet, baroque “concertante” or fugue, brief nocturnal fragments: all are stripped to their essence and made to coexist, to collapse into one another. It is as if, having seen and absorbed it all, Beethoven achieves a sublime serenity before the violence of endless baring and collapse; such is the special beauty of the late works’ imperturbability.

As I mentioned in my last post, it was my recently reading of Michael Spitzer’s Music and Philosophy that has moved me again to explore these ideas (I first attempted to engage Adorno’s ideas about Beethoven – and Schoenberg – in my 1994 study of modern fiction and music, Fullness of Dissonance). Here I hope to offer some new commentary on and extrapolations of certain “Adornoian” insights Spitzer develops. (His book alternatively engages Adorno’s thinking quite brilliantly, analyzes the features of Beethoven’s late music, and argues systematically with other musicologists; what I’m responding to is obviously a very limited selection of those materials.)
In his late period, Beethoven increasingly employed abrupt shifts in harmony which undercut the sense of dramatic momentum characteristic of “heroic” middle-period Beethoven, the plummeting force say of the development section of the Appassionata sonata, opus 57. By the point of his opus 95 sonata for violin and piano, no. 10, or the opus 97 Archduke Trio, the moments of sudden, unexpected modulation to new keys seem to release the music from the willful drive toward climax, so that an air of improvisation, of released and aleatory imagination, prevails. A similar effect is achieved by what Spitzer terms moments of “caesura,” of cuts or fractures in the unfolding development of themes, so that the music opens to an upwelling of unexpected melody, inexplicable in terms of formal conventions of development. His crucial example is from the opening movement of the opus 132 string quartet, at measure 92, and he shows the link of the passage to a similar unexpected upwelling in the climax of the last movement. Of course, throughout the late quartets, there are instances of such unexpected, improvisatory seeming inventions (for example, the opus 130 quartet, hypnotically brimful).
In each of these effects – abruptnesses and caesuras disrupting the “order” of the music – the construction of the music is no longer absorbed into the sense of implacable dramatic mastery so characteristic of Beethoven’s earlier “heroic” style. In a sense, the musical material and its juncture points – the rules governing their construction – are exposed as arbitrary; they are no longer imbued with the sort of subjectivity which makes the middle period music seem inevitable and organic. I’ve been using several of the various terms employed to describe the effect of this late-style music: open-endedness and aleatory “floating,” a trembling and irresolution, the “quivering” Benjamin comments on, Spitzer’s “flickering” and his commentary on Adorno’s use of “schein” (meaning both bare image and the shining through of the transcendent).
The “uncanny” is another such term, and it is used by Adorno and Walter Benjamin (and among others, by Derrida in his gloss on Benjamin); this term emphasizes the sense of catastrophe, of the demise of forms, engaged so imperturbably in Beethoven’s late work, and it draws attention to his rather ghostly resurrection of seemingly dead forms, of Baroque and pre-Baroque conventions like canon, fugue, passacaglia, etc. – all of which forms become part of the improvisatory array of possibilities surveyed in and absorbed into Beethoven’s late sonatas, quartets, bagatelles, and other works. These forms can be seen, then, as “uncanny,” as ghostly archaic interpolations – as “petrified” objects, “expressionless.”
Those last phrases are from Walter Benjamin’s brief early essay on “semblance,” on beauty in modernity; objective or “expressionless…the beautiful semblance [is purged of] the false, the mendacious, the aberrant….It is this that completes the work by shattering it into fragments.” For Benjamin, allegory is the form which acknowledges the shattered fate of “the life quivering in art” and in existence. As in Kafka, allegory is the form which steps back from the Romantic hope for imaginative mastery, from smoothly integrated surfaces, and from the ontological solace of the organic symbol. Beethoven’s late music quivers or trembles, uncanny in its juxtapositions, its retrievals of the past, its fragmentations, and its explorations of possibility, ambiguously open-ended and distanced from the “heroic” and from false solace.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Beethoven's "Sound World" iii

In the twentieth century, Beethoven has been the subject of a flood of commentary by musicologists, biographers, philosophers, composers, novelists and poets, reviewers and listeners, etc. In the 1950s, I read Donald Francis Tovey’s critically astute and highly informative essays, along with J. W. N. Sullivan’s stormy, impressionistic portrait – followed then in the 60s by Charles Rosen’s books on “the classical style” and finally Maynard Solomon’s biography. Since then, there have been multiple studies, some of them “pathographies,” some of them “new historicist,” and some of them responsive to Theodor Adorno’s analyses of Beethoven from the vantage point of “critical theory.”

In the late 70s, I was strongly influenced by Adorno’s “Introduction to the Sociology of Music,” “Philosophy of New Music,” his studies of Mahler and Wagner, “Minima Moralia,” and “Prisms.” Later, in the 80s and 90s, in the context of a ‘theory group’ in Cleveland, I read his “Dialectic of the Enlightenment,” “Aesthetic Theory,” and “Negative Dialectics.” In the midst of these readings, I wrote, revised, and published my study of modern fiction and the aesthetics of music, Fullness of Dissonance (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994). By the end of the 90s, I had explored much of the panoply of current theories, which in part served to distance me from the movingly agonized logic of Adorno’s tragic vision and thought. Nevertheless, as I here address some features of Beethoven’s music, I realize that my thinking yet resonates with the Frankfurt School’s emphasis – in its thinking about art and discourse generally – on fragmentation and fracture as a means of achieving meaning and on abstraction as a defense against the falsification of meaning. In any case, let me try to suggest how some of this thinking is illuminating when discussing Beethoven and particularly his late works.

I’ll begin with Beethoven’s last piano sonata, opus 111, which I began to try playing when I was sixteen, inspired as I was by an LPs of Egon Petri’s and Arthur Schnabel’s performances; as I mentioned in an earlier post, I took a few lessons a year later from Petri in Oakland in 1961, and playing some of the sonata for him, I was deeply grateful for his revelatory commentary and then his playing of much of the sonata. Even when I was sixteen, I was drawn to the special quality of the Arietta, the second movement with which the sonata ends, to its strange trembling quality, its exploratory sense of open-endedness, of always delaying full resolution of harmony, of always proposing newly varied facets of melody and motifs, and of postponing full disclosure or rounding-off of any gesture.
The theme of the slow movement Arietta exists in the most basic tonic key of C major – for the piano, of course, the “white keys” scale. Yet the theme continually shifts to related keys – to the dominant G, and a destabilizing dominant G tone constantly pulses in the base as the melody hovers around or rather in and out of the tonic C. The theme continually shifts to other related keys, to the subdominant F or to C’s somber “shadow key” of A minor. While the ineffably simple gestures of the theme unfolds, the constantly recurring G and the continual shifts among keys create an ambiguity about where as a listener one can orient oneself. As the Arietta’s variations produce their world of abundant, continually exfoliating forms, the hovering or trembling we hear and feel in the music projects an ambiguous irresolution of effect. The ending of the movement witnesses this serene and fluent trembling, which the listener does not forget even with the soft striking of the final C chord.
That trembling or ambiguity which so moves the listener to opus 111 is linked to the ideas I mentioned before – fragmentation, fracture, and abstraction. Beethoven’s variations continually locate fractured bits of theme as material to explore. As the music strips its C major theme down to its abstract essence, it draws from its primal gestures unstable possibilities in harmony and form, which continually waver between convention and an ambiguous open-endedness. In a sense, Beethoven creates musical beauty by renewing basic conventions with such ambiguity, and the question arises then whether those essential classical conventions can ever be the same, whether the sonata’s evanescent beauty actually lays bare the death of those conventions, even as it endures or transcends them by means of the music’s trembling ambiguity.
The notion that ambiguity is at the core of Beethoven’s late works resonates, at least for me, for my responses constantly explore the questions of what harmony will come next, what melodic leitmotif, or what rhythmic fragment will next lead me into a new experience or music. Beethoven’s greatness results (differently but powerfully even in his “heroic” period) from the momentum of exploration, whether passionate or cerebral; always, it is the exploration and generation of brilliant, beautiful form which leads him on.
Of course, these issues about the embrace of ambiguity and open-endedness in the face of the “death” of classical form point to the “post-classical” or modern quality of Beethoven’s last sonata and of his “late period” generally. This idea is central to Adorno’s thinking about late Beethoven and also to Thomas Mann’s adaptation of Adorno’s thinking in his novel Doctor Faustus. Needless to say, it was an important moment for me when in the sixties I read Mann’s attempt to vivify opus 111 in his Doctor Faustus – with Kretschmar‘s lecture/performance of the piano sonata for Leverkühn and his friends. In reading that early chapter, I could not help hearing Petri’s voice speaking Kretschmar’s sentences. But more important is the complex of ideas and insights which offer a revealing way of perceiving what happens in Beethoven’s music. In my next post, I hope to suggest some of those insights (and note their emergence not simply from my own listening but, more significantly, in Adorno’s thinking, in Mann’s imagination, and in the work of later commentators like Michael Spitzer in his stimulating and helpful academic study, “Music and Philosophy;” reading Spitzer's account of what he terms the Arietta's "flickering" helped to revivify the memories I try to recount above).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beethoven's "sound world" - ii (Beethoven and Petri)

In 1961, when I moved from L.A. to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend U.C. Berkeley, I knew that the great virtuoso pianist Egon Petri lived nearby; I learned this from the liner notes on his recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, a recording that initiated me into hearing these works. Petri lived in Oakland, the border of which was located a few miles south of the university. Still seventeen years old, I looked up his phone number, called, and talked my way into a meeting. So it was that in October, I took the bus from campus to a stop near his apartment.

I met Petri twice. During the first session, we (and mostly he) talked – about music, about my studies and hopes, about his life and health, but mainly about music – about his teacher Busoni’s Bach transcriptions, about Busoni’s “objective” tone when he played Beethoven’s late sonatas. [Here is an Amazon.com link to Petri’s remarkable 1954 recording of those sonatas: http://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Sonatas-Egon-Petri-Recital/dp/B00005Q636/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1296339508&sr=1-1 ]

Only at the end of this first session did he have me sit down at the piano and play – “whatever piece you would like.” It was a case of ‘where angels fear to tread.’ Naïve and oblivious, I started playing for this master of Beethoven’s art the opening of Beethoven’s opus 111. [here is a YouTube link to Rudolf Serkin’s great performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qs-Jn13FOIg&noredirect=1 ] After the opening Maestoso and a half page further, he interrupted me. “Yes, I see,” he said. “Now please play the opening of the Arietta.” And so I began playing the slow first page of this second movement, the last one of all of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, his valedicory to a form of which he was the foremost practitioner. At the end of the page, he interrupted me and said. “Your playing, it is very sensitive, very musical. But your technique! Primitive! You will need to work very hard.”

Petri was short, bald, a little stooped, but his wide eyes were full of wit and humor. He lived with his daughter and wife, and I heard sounds of them several rooms away. At the end of the hour, he invited me back in two weeks. In that session, we returned to opus 111, but this time he sat at the piano and showed me how to resolve some of technical problems I had struggled with – what pattern to notice, how to finger it, how to hold the hand to play it – for page after page. Then he put the book of Chopin’s Etudes on the piano rack and showed me how, in the Winter Wind etude, Chopin adapts some of the opus 111 patterns and harmonies, but without Beethoven’s brilliant structural innovation – the movement of harmony let alone the growth of motifs.

I did not see Petri again. At the end of the second session, he told me his health was weakening further, and he was going to live for a while down the California coast. He died a few months later. I felt (yet kept the realization at bay) how rare and valuable was the time I had spent with Petri; he embodied the searching spirit and intellectual acuity of a European sensibility that was dying even as I was growing into the 1960s, and that realization that death was part of this legacy was what I kept at arm’s length – not only Petri’s own closeness to death but also that twentieth century Europe had put to death many intellectuals along with all the rest. Yet I had kept persevering – contacting Petri, opening to him, learning what I could from him.

Just before I left his apartment, he handed me a note with the name and phone number of one of his favorite pupils, Julian White, from whom I took lessons for the next four years. “A fine pianist and a great teacher,” Petri said, gnomish, wide eyed, and he squeezed my hand. “You will learn very much from him.” And I did.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Beethoven's "Sound World" - i

I’d like to try to develop the idea of the “sound world” a composer creates and inhabits – and which we listeners are privileged to inhabit with him or her. In the first posts, I'll try to establish how I was initiated into the sounds of classical music and particularly Beethoven. My parents were devoted to classical music. My father played the violin, and there were frequent “quartet evenings” at our house, during which he played second violin, for the most part. Undoubtedly, I heard his quartet play some Beethoven during my childhood, though it was not until I was a teenager that I clearly recollect hearing him play some of the opus 18 quartets. My mother played the piano, and the Beethoven sonata she turned to most often was the early opus 7 (again, I clearly remember her performance only when I was a teenager).
There were several record players in the house, and undoubtedly the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his other symphonies must have filled the house. (I certainly remember opera emanating from the Girard in my brother David’s room, starting when he was 13 and I was 8; there were choral sounds – perhaps the “Ode to Joy” movement of the Ninth, probably the recording by Toscanini, who obsessed the family – emerging from my 16-year-old brother Philip’s room at the other end of the upstairs hall.) The Melnick household was turbulent and confusing for an eight year old, and though I loved the presence of music there, it was difficult to concentrate and fully absorb it, given my spry, distracted disposition as well as my circumstances (in which adolescents and adults would act like children, even as the child was made to witness and experience adult intensities).
During the year I was 8, then (that would be 1951-2), there were piano lessons I took, which taught me not much beyond the basics. At the age of 11, lessons were resumed, and I began playing simple Haydn minuets, Clementi’s easier sonatas, etc. It was not until I was 14 that I initiated resuming lessons and began truly exploring the keyboard music of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. By then, my brothers had moved out of the house, and things were a bit more stable; I lived with my parents in West Los Angeles, and then in 1958 we moved to the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley, a block from the V.A. hospital where my physician father worked. During the next three years from the age of 14 to 17, when I went away to college, my love of music fully flowered.

A German-Jewish émigré drove from Brentwood in West L.A. through the Valley to our remote Sylmar home to give me weekly lessons. Mr. Schumann assigned me typical fare: Bach Inventions and then a Partita, Mozart sonatas, the Scenes of Childhood by Schumann (no relation), and of course some Beethoven sonatas – first the easy opus 49 sonatas and then opus 90, not hard but not easy. More important than his assignments and instruction (comprised of encouraging advice mostly about interpretation rather than technique), Mr. Schumann loved to play the piano for me, so during the last twenty minutes of each session, he would fill our suburban tract home with music – above all, Beethoven. He was preparing the Waldstein sonata, opus 53, to play in recital, and at the end of several lessons I heard him perform the wonderful pulse and whir of the sonata’s repetitions – its pulsing chords and whirring arpeggios and continually unfolding melodic motifs. These mini-recitals, with my sitting to one side of him and turning pages, constituted a crucial education for me.
Also, in these years, I finally had my own small portable record player. I particularly remember receiving individual records discarded by my older brother Philip, whose record collection burgeoned with new boxed sets. Among the LPs were recordings of Klemperer (the cover photo showing one half of his face bright and benign, the other shadowed and sinister) conducting the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Szell conducting Schubert’s “Great” Symphony, Schnabel playing Schubert’s last piano sonata, and much else. I was particularly stirred by the record of Egon Petri playing Beethoven’s last three sonatas. The LP prompted me to work through those compositions time after time – I played them at a slower than indicated pace, but at whatever tempo they gave me great pleasure. Petri’s record educated me about what I would later want to call Beethoven’s organic form – his capacity to shape motifs so that they constantly grew, even as they contributed their energy to the encompassing arc of a movement’s structure. I came finally to understand the nature and power of form – whether sonata, variation, fugue, aria, or dance.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Emergency Powers - conclusion - art and society in a time of crisis

The shared experience of a sort of internal exile must, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests, be assumed in the contemporary community, whether “coming” or “unavowable” (see Agamben’s post 9/11 articles as well as “We, refugees”: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/giorgio-agamben/articles/we-refugees/  ). To be in internal exile is an experience twentieth century literature centrally explores, and one which contemporary writing continues to confront all the more urgently since our image-bound society has fed on and been bloated by continual crisis and the resulting paralysis. Language itself has been usurped by the rule of crisis with its ever multiplying images and manipulations. Given the resulting deterioration – the sense of the exile and death of language – ‘what is to be done?’ Writers often minister parody, paradox, and solipsism to the patient, instead of making the tragic demand Benjamin defined: that there is more to language and existence than what the rule of continuous spectacle and emergency imagines or allows.
As I noted earlier, Benjamin understands that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule....[I]t is our task to bring about a real state of emergency,” to make manifest the shocking reality of emergency and oppression, to make visible those who are invisible in the emergency world of sovereign power, and to retrieve the marginalized and give voice to the voiceless. Artists and thinkers must meet Benjamin’s challenge and promote the redemptive awareness that yet endures under the tragic and “irreparable” condition of post-modernity. “Our task” is continually to imagine and probe how to activate and sustain alternatives to the world of emergency regulation, to tap the alternative “emergency power” of the tragic reach for and receptivity to the potential still alive within a world of shared exile. My earlier discussion has attempted to show how more recent thinkers, including Agamben and Blanchot (along with Ranciere, Zizek, Nancy, and others), have addressed Benjamin's challenge.
In this time of emergency, the risk remains of being entrapped within the solipsism of a grievous isolation. Dostoyevsky – whom J. M. Coetzee powerfully imagines in The Master of Petersburg – explores just such an entrapped state in his novels, where ravenous and tragically isolated selves become part of a nexus of competing voices, of continual contact among humans, of intrusions, mixings, impositions – even between author and reader. In Dostoyevsky’s vision of emergency, the zone of abandonment is transformed into a zone of contact, and an entire world of contact is imagined with “a little difference,” with a tragically redemptive openness and exposure to the vivid and flowering sense of potential connectedness among humans. In the art of such novels as in the thinking of Walter Benjamin and the other philosophers we engaged, we encounter the model of responsiveness to and contact with the range of life from the margin to the center. Given these ten years of America in crisis after 9/11, the possibility of a resilient responsiveness can yet find its model in the demanding aesthetic experience of tragedy, which tests and activates the capacity to respond in the midst of erasure and abandonment. Such is the ethical obligation to respond incurred in the face of the state of emergency.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Emergency Powers: art and society in a time of crisis - Walter Benjamin section

In this post, I’d like to return to my comments on Walter Benjamin (from my July 17 post) and offer a more pointed and cohesive account of his ideas about “emergency powers” and the arts and society in a time of crisis, ideas which are important especially to Giorgio Agamben’s thinking. (Agamben's exploration of these ideas is one subject of Mark Danner's article "Our State of Exception" in the current issue of "The New York Review of Books.")

The context for Benjamin’s development is, of course, Nazi Germany and its extreme instance and model of the imposition of emergency powers on a ‘developed’ industrialized society. It was Benjamin’s misfortune and his opportunity to observe and struggle to endure this political extremity. I’ll briefly examine his core ideas about how to confront such a crisis, for they form a crucial template for thinking about how to engage regressive forces in contemporary society. In “Critique of Violence” (in Reflections and Volume I of his Selected Writings), written early on in his career, he shows how police-state power can be adopted by democracies in crisis ostensibly to “preserve” its laws “at any price.” In so doing, such governments can establish in the midst of the bourgeois society a state of emergency – an “all-pervasive, ghostly presence” void of humanity, to which the resulting suffering and evident oppression testify.

The zone of emergency, where the potential for human freedom struggles against its obliteration, is for Benjamin particularly illuminated by the form of tragedy. Tragedy is seen in the history of the arts as the form achieving the profoundest vision of human struggle and suffering caused by the negation of hope. The genre of tragedy arises in times and societies as diverse as Classical Greece, Elizabethan England, or Baroque Europe, and it appears to lead a life, lasting and universal, independent of any prevailing or originating conditions of oppression and crisis. The emergence of tragedy achieves and celebrates the resilient survival of a most ambitious form of aesthetic experience. For Benjamin, such resilience is important to the nature both of tragic form and of the tragic hero. That resilience supports and defines a redemptive hope in confronting the situation of emergency power, and it can provide an ethical and aesthetic model for resistance to the distorted conditions of society arising from the crisis in these first decades of the twenty-first century.

The possibility of the partly Messianic hope embodied in the tragic hero’s resilience is the subject of Benjamin’s early study The Origins of German Tragic Drama, for example, and also of his short essay “Fate and Character.” In his work on German Baroque tragedy, Benjamin explains that the Baroque artist “clings so tightly to the world because of the feeling that he is being driven along to a cataract with it;” the life of the world is condemned to empty into the cataract of its vanishing, during this period of “Counter-Reformation.” The Baroque version of tragic form renders “a profusion of things which customarily escaped the grasp of artistic formulation and brings them violently into the light of day,” partly because in its vision this very profusion of life is destined for the “vacuum” of its vanishing into nothingness. (Similarly, the Baroque version of heaven’s yearned-for transcendence becomes an antithetical instrument for fearful purgation and regulation, whereby the “hereafter is emptied of everything which contains the slightest breath of this world.”) The consciousness developed in Baroque tragedy becomes a means to identify the font and “profusion” of “worldly” possibility in the midst of its erasure.

In this conception, a tragic potentiality exists within the scorched zone of its obliteration, of a punishing nothingness. Benjamin sees the perspective of the tragic drama as parallel to the societal vision of world-encompassing catastrophe which haunts the sovereign state in the Counter-Reformation and which oppresses its citizens. In fear of the recurrence and “restoration” of “the rich feeling for life characteristic of the Renaissance,” the Baroque sovereign develops a conception of the “state of emergency” as the last and terrible means to trap and regulate the chaos of life. The continually haunting tragic possibility is that the sense of crisis can arbitrarily issue in the sovereign's decision to achieve “complete stabilization” by consigning any citizen to a zone of “abandonment.”

Over the past hundred years, the totalitarian application of that conception has been repeatedly enacted. For example, there is the proto-Nazi formulation of the state of emergency as essential to the nature of sovereignty by one of its theorists, Carl Schmidt: “the sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception” to which humans may be consigned without rights. Benjamin takes up Schmidt’s idea and radically redefines the region of “exception” as a banned zone without an admissible language audible to the state; within the twentieth-century version of the abandoned zone, Benjamin writes in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule....[I]t is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism” (in Illuminations and Volume IV of Selected Writings). The call to action in the last sentence is startling; “our task” is to make manifest the shocking reality of emergency and oppression, to make visible those who are invisible in the emergency world of sovereign power, and to retrieve the marginalized and give voice to the voiceless.

Benjamin’s most challenging message for our period stems from his understanding of the tragic hero as the prototypical figure exposing the reality of the zone of emergency. In “Fate and Character” (in Reflections and Volume I of Selected Writings), Benjamin writes that the hero’s insistent grandeur voices and models an alternative language to societally sanctioned speech. Tragedy gives dramatic form to “the head of genius lift[ing] itself for the first time from the mist of guilt,” from the zone of the proscribed, for the tragic hero has been condemned by god (and in modernity, by the sovereign) for demanding more of existence than gods or sovereign will allow. “Man becomes aware that he is better than his god, but the realization robs him of speech, remains unspoken,” for speech – in order to be heard – depends on the hearers, who exist in the community regulated by the sovereign. However, the tragic spirit “seeks secretly to gather its forces,” for the tragic hero yet “wishes to raise himself by shaking the tormented world.” Tragedy is the language of the counter emergency, of that “shaking” and destabilization which the sovereign would silence, for the emergent power born in tragedy demands more of the world than it can and will give. Tragic form – with its language of emergency, its play with and against silence – implicitly calls for the restoration of the unheard to language, law, and life. The unheard freedom and humanity, which are potentiality consigned to the zone of abandonment and erased under the sovereign’s powers, must be restored.

Benjamin's vision of tragedy speaks to the universal yearning for freedom in our own period. Even as it is a response to Germany’s dire descent into Nazism, it is yet linked to the similar ideas developed by Agamben and other thinkers in the last few decades. (As well, it is a fertile revising and questioning of the nineteenth century Hegelian and Marxist dialectic, of Romantic as well as Heideggerian aesthetics, and of Kabbalistic thought. At the core of Benjamin's influential idea of tragedy is the notion of a tragic welcome to the dissolution of self. The transfiguring voice tragedy calls into being emerges from a disappearance of the pre-formed self and an opening to the multiple forms of being in the mundane world. Its response to the world formed by sovereign power is this transformation and dying of the ordinary self, resulting in a tragic flowering of potentiality. Witnessing the hero enacting this acute responsiveness to the “profusion” of being from the margins to the center, we the spectators witness a transfiguration of the mundane, the marginal and obscure, the doubtful and mysterious, and all that had seemed deadened in existence.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Radiation and the destruction of the future

The passage of time since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster offers some perspective on the threat to nuclear installations posed by severe earthquakes and tidal waves. As the concern over the August earthquake in Virginia shows, it remains an issue whether the nuclear plants across the United States, with their long record of shut-downs, would hold up under the conditions which prevailed in Japan last March.
A question that haunts the newspaper and magazine reports is one I was taught to ask by my late father, Dr. Perry Melnick, a pathologist researching the effect of radiation on our cells. That question is how close the residents of an affected region – now especially Japan – came to being exposed to the mutilating effect of radiation on human genes. [Radiation's potential assault on genetic inheritance is one focus of my new novel Acts of Terror and Contrition: a nuclear fable. - see the side bar links. ]
Our awareness of the destructiveness of radiation grew exponentially in the aftermath of America’s atomic bombing of two Japanese cities at the end of World War Two, but scientific knowledge of those effects began to develop earlier in the twentieth century. In the 1930s, for example, my father published his research into “the deleterious effects of radiation on human subjects.” When the earthquake in Japan spurred the tsunami, the critical failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and the release of radiation into the environment, I thought about what my father’s response would have been.
The sloppiness of maintenance, the lax attitude toward the storage of nuclear material, and the risks taken by the nuclear industry and accepted by the Japanese government – all these would have earned my father’s censure. And he would be shocked by the generally cavalier attitude prevailing today toward the nuclear radiation generated by power plants – including those throughout the United States.  My father would also have seen the disaster at Fukushima as an opportunity to alert us to our responsibility to eliminate from the planet poorly designed, sloppily maintained, and dangerously positioned nuclear energy installations. The Japanese crisis presents a “teachable moment,” an object lesson about radiation’s danger to future generations and to all organic life on Earth.
My own first lesson as a child about such dangers was a gift given by my Uncle Alvin to my family living then in Los Angeles; he was an economist working with General MacArthur during the occupation of Japan, and his present to us was a four inch square roofing tile found near the Sairenji Temple at the Hiroshima explosion center. I have it here before me. The tile is smooth and very hard, except that half of one side is darkened and eaten away by the immense heat of the atomic bomb explosion.
My second lesson was offered by my father in the early 1950s. He instructed me about the absurdity of my elementary school’s atomic bomb drills, when the bell would ring its alarm and we fourth-graders would assume a crouching position beneath our little desks. He explained in simple terms that the school and the whole city would likely be vaporized. Those who survived would bear the stigmata of radioactive fallout’s effects in their genes and so pass on a deformed genetic inheritance to the next generation. In the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War, I remember his outrage at the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs, pumping bursts of radioactivity into the air we breathe.
Of course, my father did not reject all uses of nuclear radiation, for his research helped to validate its medical applications, notably in the treatment of cancer. But he would have insisted that the Fukushima nuclear disaster must serve to show us how irresponsible and immoral is an unthinking and passive attitude toward the dangers of radiation.
Thirty years ago, Jonathan Schell explained that “the fate of the earth” is at stake, and he eloquently called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the strict control of nuclear power. As research has revealed for a century, the consequences of multiple releases of radiation into the environment are a geometric increase in cancer rates and in irremediable genetic mutations. The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi should remind us that the destruction of the future is the risk we face.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Emergency Powers - iii - art and society in a time of crisis

How the sense of being entrapped or negated by society can be transformed and made productive is the focus of Maurice Blanchot in The Unavowable Community. A powerful thinker given to intentional difficulty and abstraction, the French philosopher – writing in the decades before his death in 2003 – poses the implicit question of how to endure in an increasingly media-filled, manipulated, and militarized society, a condition intensified of course by the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed.

In my last post, I explored how this question is engaged by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, with his often lyrical and tragicomic sense of existence. Blanchot also focuses on how to confront the prefabricated identity of the self particularly within what he sees as the deadly consumerist spectacle of contemporary life, and he suggests how our consciousness, passing through a sort of death of self, can gain an openness to potentiality and to the possibility of speaking truly rather than in our society's preformed words. He explains that a model of transfigured experience can be provided by the contact between lovers (as the philosopher Emile Levinas also proposes) and by works of art and particularly tragedy, for Blanchot as for Walter Benjamin (though not for Levinas).

Literature's capability is to voice the tragic demand that there is a world of potentiality within and beyond the sense of erasure enforced by the experience of continual crisis. This openness to a hidden, unstable, ambiguous potential for meaning is literature's negative capability, an intentional virtuality able to “yield everything” out of the nothingness which the condition of continual emergency enforces within and around us. It is literature's “tragic endeavor” to confront the death of self within a world in crisis and to open our perception to the continual flux of untrappable potentiality. The tragic model of literature – elucidated in his essay “Literature and the Right to Death” – can lead in this way toward “the coming community” or, as he names it in the title of his monograph, The Unavowable Community – unavowable in the language and world usurped by the spectacle of emergency powers.

Blanchot, like Agamben, identifies the consequences of a sovereign state's invocation of emergency – consequences of suffering and destruction to the individual and communal psyche, but also consequences involving the tragic yet celebrating consciousness alive in artworks. For the images and forms of artworks, with their Keatsian “negative capability,” can tap a source of unregulated potentiality, ambiguity, and finally of resistance and refusal. Art’s special power is that ironically its alternative imagining of “emergency powers,” with its answering response to the rule of crisis, is normally undetected by the powers that be.

This alternative consciousness is not so much messianic, altering the universe, as a form of what Benjamin called secondary or “weak” messianism (this idea is voiced in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” – as I discussed in my July 17 post). Agamben also affirms this connection, citing Benjamin's poignant and desperate 1938 description in the essay: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” What would be that small difference in the twenty-first century, with the spectacle of power moving continually in and out of a state of crisis? In Agamben’s abstract image, it is “the imperceptible trembling of the finite that makes its limits indeterminate;” this lyrical and idealistic formulation absorbs Benjamin's idea of a tragic receptivity and insists that the finite can here and now become the realm of potentiality. If this trembling and ambiguous fertility of possibility can infuse our consciousness, Agamben claims, it would subvert the paralyzing spectacle of crisis which dominates the present.

Blanchot makes similar use of Benjamin's “secondary messianism” and explicitly invests the aesthetic with its potential; its “little” difference is a version of literature's “autonomy,” its “dodging,” reworking, and subversive “unworking” (a term used also by Jean-Luc Nancy) of commodified relations and emergency regulations; these features of a sort of aestheticized rebellion – of risk-taking ‘artful dodgers’ – are reminiscent too of the qualities of Agamben’s amorphous tricksters and fakes. Blanchot proposes a transferring of aesthetic autonomy and “unworking” from the realm of art to that of life, resulting in a new network of human relations “not letting themselves be grasped, being as much the dissolution of the social fact as the stubborn obstinacy to reinvent the latter in a sovereignty the law cannot circumscribe.” Lovers and outcasts, writers and tragicomic fabricators – all can participate in the transience and evanescence of continual reinvention. The strategy of this resiliently ungraspable fictiveness of literature is central to Blanchot’s “unavowable community.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Emergency Powers: art and society in a time of crisis - ii

In my July 17 post, I attempted to sketch Walter Benjamin's understanding of the significance of apocalyptic thinking, particularly his insights into the bearing of tragedy and aesthetic transformation on a society in crisis (these are developed in his essays of the 1920s and 30s). My hope is that you'll take a look at that post, for Benjamin’s insights are seminal for the thinking of certain forceful and delving later European philosopher; each of them – including Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Slavoj Zizek – is also influenced by the social-political ideals of 1968 and the subsequent disillusionment. These thinkers propose related ideas about how emergency powers exercised in a crisis may be confronted and how their negation of the human may itself be negated and transformed. For each, I would suggest, the consciousness enacted in tragedy offers a model of that strategy.

I want to explore the example of this conception offered by Giorgio Agamben and his thinking about the confrontation with a world of continual emergency, with its threatened erasure of human potentiality. The Italian philosopher has profoundly influenced the well-known critiques of twenty-first century American globalism, particularly the critique by Hardt and Negri in their discussions of the “multitude's” potential response to “empire.” Agamben's analysis of how to engage the current conditions of crisis, as society increasingly manipulates the spectacle of emergency powers in the spheres both of policing and of economics, contains crucial and suggestive echoes of Benjamin’s ideas.

In Homo Sacer, for example, Agamben locates the threat arising from the possibility that for “modern man,” “politics calls his existence as a living being into question.” When modern society decides that human life can be only selectively honored, individuals and groups can be excepted from the world of law and rights, abandoned – as “bare life” or homo sacer – to the zone of exception, where some may be put to death. As modern democracies have descended into the crisis of recent years and have invoked the specter of emergency powers, these “post-democratic spectacular societies [i.e., image-saturated and dominated]” are all too ready to call into question the value of all individual “bare lives.” For Agamben, the abandonment and alienation of the human stir – in both the victim and the witness – an ultimately tragic awareness that the human must be more than “the perfect senselessness to which the society of the spectacle condemns it.” [See this link to Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics).]

That awareness, Agamben writes in The Coming Community, perceives and exposes a “limbo” or zone of “abandonment” in which identity is expropriated; a resulting “isolation from being” prevails within our experience of the image realm and within the “consumerism” of “the society of the spectacle.” The means to overcome the resulting “nothingness of all things,” the “alienation” of experience and of language, is a sort of breaking of ranks, a breaking ideally toward the transcendent “appropriation” of infinite “potentiality.” For Agamben, an ecstasy of unexpected and unmapped possibility is released by this opening up to being, latent in the zone of nothingness.

The “coming community” he elucidates is a sharing and building upon a sort of ecstatic refusal and negating of society’s own spectacular negations (that is, in part, the negations of the spirit at work in the media spectacle in contemporary society). Agamben’s thinking develops Benjamin’s conception and even exceeds it with regard both to the use of spatial thinking and, more important, to the role of hope. At the core of the aesthetic and ethical form of tragedy for Benjamin is the hope that the zone of nothingness can be a font of “potentiality” (Agamben’s Potentialities contains a lengthy discussion of Benjamin’s concept of hope). From this model, the Italian philosopher builds an entire vision of community. In this, he is joined by Blanchot, Nancy, and Rancière, and their thinking forms a sort of conversation dedicated to the aspiration that community can be based on a resilient responsiveness and refusal in the face of the state of emergency. (Here's a link to Agamben's Coming Community (Theory Out Of Bounds) and to his Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy.)

In order to create “the coming community,” Agamben proposes that human beings must ideally enter into alternative relations to each other and to the world. This community embodies a utopian hope; it would be based on a welcoming of the flux of experience, of all the transcendent potential it contains without concern for “the marks of individual possession.” In such a fluidly creative communality, the shape-shifting, off-beat improvisations and destabilizations of “tricksters and fakes” would make them “exemplars of the coming community.” They are able to confront the nothingness of being at the frozen core of emergency powers by dodging fluidly from possibility to possibility, potentially “being” each of them.

In a recent on-line essay, he speaks of the European Union’s open borders as an opportunity for just such fluidity and for redefining citizenship as a sort of fluid state of exile. “The only ethical experience,” Agamben writes in "The Coming Community," is the experience of hesitating before any identity rigidified into a “thing” – it is the experience of opening to freedom, improvisation, and exiled being. Such is “the experience of being potentiality ... of exposing in every form one's own amorphousness and in every act one's inactuality.” Such is our “irreparable” condition, yet it is “without lament,” for it refuses “to remain in a deficit of existence” and in this way escapes what he understands to be the trap of the frozen emergency state.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Note on teaching intellectual backgrounds

Currently I am teaching a first semester course for seventeen first-year college students, and in a couple of weeks the students will be presenting their choices from a series of essays in a somewhat limited anthology Past to Present, essays which will be arranged chronologically. Many were written in the twentieth century and serve to present facets of the modern and postmodern periods in science, the social sciences, and the arts. However, the first half (or third) of the essay presentations will focus on works written in the previous twenty-five hundred years (actually, I start the course with the students discussing Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" - to initiate our discussion of critical thinking and the nature of creativity). For the essay presentations in the middle section of the course, students can choose from a range of works: selections start with Herodotus, the Old Testament, and Hindu and Buddhist texts and move to passages from the New Testament and the Koran and then late medieval texts about Satan and Joan of Arc. Their choices can involve some Renaissance texts (Vasari’s Leonardo, Michelangelo, or some Pascal) and finally include some Enlightenment and nineteenth-century selections (Chesterfield, Paine, Malthus, Keats, Stendhal, Twain, Douglass, Whitman, and Darwin). The twentieth century essays' engagements of critical thinking and creativity range from work by Freud to the physicist Fred Hoyle or to Simone de Beauvoir, from Orwell to Thiong'o and Baldwin.

Establishing a chronological order for our readings and presentations seems to strengthen students’ intellectual background, and it can also clarify issues significant to the present. It’s a bit old-fashioned as an approach, but my hope is that it will not seem so, for the readings fill gaps, stimulate much critical thinking, and are self-selected.

The initial reading experience is to encounter some of the first human texts, some of the first written efforts to sustain thinking and imagining. These initial writings present Hebraic ideas about community and the godhead in the Old Testament and the Hellenic, classically humanistic values of reasoned inquiry and historical analysis in Herodotus. Then contrasting yet connected visions of religion and human culture are evident in "cross-cultural texts" - Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Mohammedan. After the late Medieval period (with its religious orientation), there is the reemergence of classical humanism in the Renaissance, with its influential examples of creativity across the arts and sciences. In the eighteenth century Enlightenment and the Romanticism which followed in the early nineteenth century, there is the contention between reason and emotion in European culture, and out of this oscillation between objectivity and subjectivity emerged a range of achievements – from the assertion of individual rights to the growth of imperial power, from the transformative discoveries in the physical sciences to the revelations about the nature of human subjectivity from Wordsworth to Dostoyevsky.

Certain themes inevitably become clear in the students’ self-conducted survey. There is the power of text itself, of changing written modes of human thought and feeling (of course, it is said that we exist at the moment when a new digital mode is arriving). There are the recurrent patterns of difference among ways of seeing the world – objective and subjective, human-centered and religion-centered, individual and corporate or imperial – and blood continues to be shed over such conflicts. Finally, there is Vico’s insight, which one increasingly appreciates, into both the cycles of devastation which emerge from these conflicts as well as the on-going creative process producing human culture.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Emergency Powers: Art and Society in a Time of Crisis - i

A characteristic sense of crisis afflicts any society experiencing an attack on its central structures, both physical and symbolic. In a crisis such as the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the response can be to demonize the ethnic or religious group from which the enemy emerged; in short, an unwitting belligerence can descend on societal relations generally. In some instances, a pugnacious leader is celebrated, and politics can slip further into bullying, xenophobia, and distraction. Ensuing economic crises can set off waves of panic, despite the unprecedented investments made in arms as the reach of an empire expands, and as new technologies are harnessed to make the instruments of war more ruthless, shocking, and efficient.

Against the specter of “global terror” and waves of economic instability, the traditional hierarchy of power may attempt to confirm itself with a regressive declaration of “emergency powers” in various guises. In some instances, protests are treated as treasonous acts, and the government can fine or imprison publishers and writers. Ultimately, it may impose emergency police state measures; even an ostensibly ‘advanced’ democratic society may threaten to suspend habeas corpus. While not all these consequences of crisis are to be noted in the United States during the first decade of the twenty-first century, there are points of similarity, particularly as the fading images of the terrorist assault are refashioned into the spectacle of propaganda projected across the media. A society in the ongoing throes of such a crisis becomes less and less habitable.

How to confront this political and cultural crisis is a central question recently posed by many contemporary thinkers, among them Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière, and Slavoj Zizek. In my next few posts, I’ll explore some answers proposed by one of these writers, Giorgio Agamben. As I do so, I want to note some of the ways that their shared thinking has been influenced by two significant earlier theorists – first, in the next post, Walter Benjamin and then, later, Maurice Blanchot. All of these writers analyze and encourage certain modes of resistance to extreme political measures, as they attempt to reframe how we should observe and engage the potentially decadent and regressive behavior of governments.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Listening to Rachmaninoff

My first experience of a live performance of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto occurred in Los Angeles when I was fifteen. Van Cliburn was the soloist with the L.A. Philharmonic. His playing of the noble, plaintive initial theme still rings in my mind, so assured and expressive in its shape, and needless to say, his command of the work’s surging virtuosity was compelling to my adolescent ears. This was a year after Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, as he had a few years earlier won the Levintritt Competition in New York. His recording of the Rachmaninoff became a favorite of mine, to be partly supplanted first by Horowitz’s performance in the 70s and Argerich’s in the 80s. Here's a link to the Van Cliburn cd: https://www.amazon.com/Sergei-Rachmaninoff-Piano-Concerto-No-3/dp/B00AGU1S8M/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1547609140&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=rachmaninoff+piano+concerto+3+van+cliburn
- one to the Horowitz: Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 3; and one to the Argerich performance: Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 / Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23.

At eighteen I took a couple of piano lessons from the great pianist Egon Petri, who lived then a few miles south of U.C. Berkeley, where I attended college. His recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas had been a great favorite of mine (here is a link to the cd Beethoven Sonatas: Egon Petri in Recital; see my earlier post on other great performances of those sonatas). In awe I visited his apartment and absorbed all I could. He already was suffering from his last illness, and he connected me to one of his best pupils, Julian White – a brilliant pianist and generous teacher like Petri, offering particularly keen insights into the structure of phrases, passages, and movements. I took lessons from White for three years.

At one of our lessons, he told me about his experiences as a student at Julliard and his friendship with Van Cliburn. When Cliburn was training” for the Levintritt competition, Julian told me to my amazement, their mutual teacher Rosina Lhevinne asked White to be a sort of all-day coach. I was nineteen when I heard this story, and I made an assumption about White’s help, which I now realize was false. I imagined that White had served to prompt musical passion and engagement in the great young pianist, as if he were a sort of blank tablet. Listening again to Cliburn’s recordings from the fifties through the seventies, I realize that can’t have been true, for what Van Cliburn possesses at his core is passion, even to the point of violence. What White probably provided was an auditor to help in pacing practice and a sense of occasion for the discipline involved – and perhaps also what he provided for me: insights into structure, shaping and controlling the beauty of phrases, the passion of passages.
I’m prompted to think about all this because I’ve searched for a recorded performance of Rachmaninoff’s second piano sonata which echoes the extraordinary poignancy of Alexander Ghindin’s Master Class performance of the slow second theme of the first movement, a few weeks ago. Only Cliburn’s recording comes close (a link to that performance on cd: Great Pianists 19).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

some plans

Over this past week, I've planned to write about Hemingway and Babel, about Walter Benjamin and Derrida, and about some performances I admire of classical music. I'll try in these next weeks to offer comments on each (though they'll be curtailed due to added commitments which have arisen).

I'm hoping to comment on the issue of how Hemingway and Babel differently portray ways of surviving in a hostile universe - and, with regard to the former, I'm struck by the bearing of two quotations on his work. One is Lawrence's remark the Hemingway fearlessly reveals what it feels like to lose all hope. The other remark is more obliquely relevant; it's W. C. Williams' idea in introducing the little magazine he edited in the early 1920s: "Contact" is a man without abstract analysis, parody, abstract ethics - with nothing but immediate contact with his world.

And I'm interested in how the French philosopher Jacques Derrida has made use of Walter Benjamin's thinking about repairing the broken world, attending to what disappears into its cracks and fissures, and defining the role of hope in human life. The link I'll try to explore is between Derrida's Spectres of Marx and Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" in Illuminations.

Finally, I intend to comment on some of the musical performances which I've found most moving and illuminating - there are performances of Beethoven I'm tempted again to cite, but I'll let a single example about Schuber suffice for now: Sviatoslav Richter's performance of Schubert's last piano sonata (D. 960 in B-flat), playing the first movement at an unusually slow tempo which allows him to convey with great force the beauty in every phrase. [Here's a link to the cd: Schubert: Piano Sonatas D.958, D.960 ~ Richter .]

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Conclusion of "Under Western Eyes" and Silence (plus a note on Alexander Ghindin)

On Friday (August 5th), I was in the audience of a master class offered by the great Russian pianist Alexander Ghindin to three participants in the Cleveland International Piano Competition. Mr. Ghindin, a member of the competition jury, is a brilliant teacher as well as pianist, offering a wealth of insight and advice without diminishing the student. The second pianist had performed the Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata, op. 36 (original version) during the semi-finals of the competition, and when he played the first bar for Ghindin, the Russian immediately offered extraordinary suggestions to reconceive and release the power of the opening. The most poignant moment in this session occurred when the slow theme sounded out less than two minutes into the sonata. Again, Mr. Ghindin offered a suggestion, and when he illustrated how the passage should be phrased, he played with such sorrow and tenderness that tears came to my eyes. Then he spoke of a Russian notion of pathos – of the isolation of suffering, of sadness, compassion, and yearning for happiness all mixed together. But it was his playing of the single line of music which spoke most eloquently of these things, incredibly tender and piercing. [Here is a link to one of Ghindin's cds: Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 1 & 4 (Original Versions).]

There is a powerful expression of such empathic sorrow in Conrad's creation of the Russian women characters in Under Western Eyes. These characters struggle for meaning in a world where meaning is silenced; in such a realm, the capacity to empathize and to perceive another without blinders is endangered, for in this world compassion is manipulatively selective or erased from consciousness. Apart from Razumov, most of the Russian men enact totalitarian roles, even the travestied revolutionary Peter Ivanovich, an unholy combination of Kropotkin and Bakunin. Russian women, however, join Razumov in choosing to cast off their erased and betrayed status and to emerge, even if into silence and suffering, "to burn rather than rot" (177), to struggle for meaning within its silencing in a totalized society. [Here, again, is the Amazon link: Under Western Eyes (Penguin Classics).]

These women characters - Sophia Antonovna, Tekla, Mrs. Haldin, and above all the daughter Natalia - ironically and unstably shift between opposed roles, and their ambiguity constitutes a crucial structural tension in the novel. Western romance conventions shadow Razumov’s realization of “the possibility of being loved” by Natalia, but his discovery prompts the nightmare realization of what Sophia calls the “ignominy” of existence in the East (266).  There is a Dostoyevskian role of women, which is searchingly intense, revelatory, yet nurturing – Peter Ivanovich voices the standard cliché: "Admirable Russian women!" (86) – and in this novel it collides with the image of women as traditional heroines from Western fiction, gifted in attuning the community to the "heart's" needs. The instability of these characters - correctively shifting between Eastern and Western images and conventions - reinforces the sense of modern emergency in characterization and narrative convention. The portrait of these women characters enacts a sense of crisis in the silenced and erased status of the "human," a crisis in sustaining the capacity for empathic comprehension in the modern world. 

Perhaps the best way to describe the critical and structural instability achieved by Conrad is to broach the notion of "playing dead" - as a means of exploring the deadnesses of modern existence. The self-hobbling, interiorized, Dostoyevskian confession is a form of such playing dead, simultaneously desired by the totalitarian state yet not perfectly fulfilling its wishes, for Dostoyevskian confession subverts the totalitarian version of confessional rhetoric, making it the instrument for an unpredictable disorder and fullness of possibility, for polyphony to use Bakhtin's resonant term. In the case of Razumov's journal, its apparent "deadness" (with its implicit acquiescence in the act of confession) masks a subversive, invigorating flux of possibility, above all the possibility of contact.

For the victims of such a world of numbing simulation and lies, it is no accident that these characters should exhibit "a generosity in their ardour of speech which removes it as far as possible from common loquacity," as the Professor observes (6). This Russian ethos of contact – this use of language and form – offers a model for many future efforts in modern fiction to draw a voice from the silence of the controlled, "totalized," insulated world its characters inhabit. Thus Natalie Sarraute writes: "[A] continual, almost maniacal need for contact ... attracts all such characters like dizziness and incites them on occasions to try, by any means whatsoever, to clear a path to the 'other,' to penetrate him as deeply as possible and make him lose his disturbing, unbearable opaqueness" (33). 

Razumov's desperate act of "contact" is his confession to the very persons he has betrayed. In this way he subverts and silences the totalized expectations of his speech; after he is deafened for his troubles, he exists in a world of exterior silence, "playing" or appearing dead in terms of the fabrications and prefabrications of the totalized society. Yet as a result he is himself contacted, cared for, and listened to by Sophia, Tekla, and others, and he becomes a source of meaningful speech for the alienated inhabitants outside and silenced by the totalized field. Razumov and his fragile circle of survivors face the haunted, illusory specter - the deadness - of their society, and their role is not only to tell the dangerous, potentially immolating truths, to grieve in advance for all the betrayals their society suffers and enacts; their role is also to testify to the possibility of just and compassionate relations.

In "Autocracy and War," Conrad writes that - in the face of societal delusion and oppression - it is only by using "our sympathetic imagination" that we may glimpse the possibility of any "triumph of concord and justice" (84) [see this link to Conrad's Notes on Life and Letters]. In the end, Razumov and his listeners inhabit the land of the silenced where they struggle to imagine and communicate fragmentary, forecasting images of what community, freedom, truth, and justice might be. These characters thus embody a sort of waiting described by later writers - from Walter Benjamin (264) and Adorno (247) to Derrida (168) - a waiting which places their suffering and grief in the perspective of possibility: that the future may yet exist, obliterated though it now is, decipherable perhaps in the paradoxical cracks and crevices of a narrative which allows the significance of Razumov's silence to manifest itself. 

The idea of "playing dead" - and all it may signify - applies even to the British professor. Concerned always with detachment in manner and sentimental propriety in plot, his narration is "dead" to the motives and issues of the scenes he observes, issues we discover from Razumov's juxtaposed journal. As one reads the professor's narration, its deadness - its clichés, its imperceptions, its incapacity to comprehend or express the lives it attempts to render - becomes a structural paradox, for it is only in the West - inside Geneva and this Professor's denying, sentimentalizing narration - that the utterances of the novel exist at all. The novel thus becomes a model of how to balance East and West with and against one another, in order to allow for the mutual survival of human beings on both sides of the Slavic/Western or any imperial, racial, or national divide. The denials and deadnesses of the West become equally, then, a rhetoric of "playing dead," a paradoxical cover for the struggle to use speech to utter meaning. For Conrad, only in ironic tension and perspective can either language - Slavic or Western - be retrieved from its deadnesses; only so can silence produce meaning. (Rather different approaches to the significance of “silence” in Conrad can be found in studies by Carabine, Fogel, and GoGwilt.)

Conrad's art is based in a language which plays on the edge of silence. This is the core paradox of his modernism: his art would use language as if it utters meaning in order simultaneously to expose language's failure to convey meaning and sustain the vanishing possibility that meaning can be conveyed. Hence, silence becomes the sign of truth, of escape from the being and world of lies: the deaf Razumov at novel's end is visited by the characters whose endurance is nurtured by hearing him utter some form of truth from within his silence. Once again, the narrative emerges from silence and honors its origins. Conrad offers here an image of tragically belated romanticism; when Razumov writes in his journal on Rousseau's Island in Lake Geneva, he asks the same questions which Rousseau's Solitary Traveler posed there a century and a half before (206). Can we use silence and irony, the suspension and negation or "forgetting" of the self's roles, to create meaning?

In the answer offered by modernism's language for the arts, silence becomes speech, fragmentation suggests an absent wholeness, absence implies presence, dissonance is all the harmony there is, and descent into the heart of darkness can yield visionary illumination. In Under Western Eyes, Conrad employs modernist strategies akin to those in Heart of Darkness, where the totalitarian abomination is racist imperialism rather than autocracy. In each text, Conrad indicts the symbiosis of colonizer and colonized, master and servant, the former transformed - with god-like presumption and absolutism - into an instrument of barbaric domination, the latter struggling with desperate absoluteness to overcome dehumanized subjection. In the dialectical vision of each text, the reader is located at the focal point of modernist paradox, where endless interrogation dominates and exposes every facet of the human, where the "human" is driven into silence and negation and the literary text forced into fragmentation and perspectivism. 

In Conrad's novel of 1911, the reader experiences a far-reaching deconstruction of conceptions of the Slavic and of Russia; we are made to explore a paradoxical field where all "truths" are revealed to be compounded with illusion, all speech compounded with silence. Conradian perspectivism exposes the implacable insecurity of basing the struggle for meaning in any national, ethnic, or societal images; meaning is achieved only, if at all, in the shared recognition that it emerges from silence, from its own erasure. Compassion is an imaginative act in this regard, for it operates against all societal prompts to the contrary: "sympathetic imagination" - as Conrad calls it - locates the human and imagines meaning within the silenced and erased "other" who faces one across the divides which society erects. To act "as if" meaning exists, with a continual awareness of its emergence from erased images and silenced voices, is what can be achieved in a world where all manifestations of individual and community are shown to be either instruments or victims of interrogative domination. For Conrad, any conception of individual or community which now arises or endures can emerge only from the resulting silence. As if silence were a form of speech.