Bathing with Bach, Showering with Shostakovich

Bathing with Bach, Showering with Shostakovich

            If one could choose a single word with which to describe our present day, let us suggest ‘urgency’. We no longer live in a world wherein action has the time to evolve into act. A sense of the ‘must’ animates our every endeavor. This sense alone is, in itself, ancient, and likely begins in the eschatological time of Pauline anxiety, wherein the pilgrim finds himself concerned solely about whether the next is also the last. It might be a footstep forward into oblivion or salvation, it might be an action frozen into an act before its own history could be written. Urgency is a leitmotif in Western consciousness but until our post-war period, it has remained an abstraction; ‘one knows not the moment’, ‘I will come like a thief in the night’, and so on. This time of times is always put off, the end of the world is nigh but what end and how nigh?

            Is it a simple matter of a reaction that, preceding the revolution of 1789 in France, the beginning of the modern age and the first herald that urgency was indeed coming down to earth, that for a century prior this same culture had been about a steady state of cultural celebration, with Louis XIV, the ‘sun king’, exhorting his artists to remember that he has bequeathed to them the highest of tasks, his fame, including of course his posterity. The highest of tasks was also thus the noblest of gifts. A Rousseau was possible within this stasis; his ‘reveries’ solitary and his walks perambulations which always returned to the center of things. These are dreams without urgency, visions, hanging in the air above us, never touching the ground beneath. But a De Sade was impossible, for his nightmares, unleashed right at the moment of revolution, sound of nothing but urgencies, though they are base, vile, and sing the bass viol of the bowels of a now aged aristocratic chamber orchestra. These are nightmares without end, and thus even De Sade represents a transition in culture, and not the change once made. He is a liminal figure, which is one of the reasons his works remain, to a point, distressing. The orchestra is now staffed by chamber maids, even maidens, but it still sings of the domestic daily doings though shifted into the nocturnal.

            Thus it remains within the contemplative life, which shuns action even for its own sake and makes all human interaction into an historical act before its time, before history has an opportunity to sabotage morality, and before the actors realize how petty are their desires, even in torture and murder. For Rousseau’s Julie, a paragon of prudishness and propriety, is nevertheless the abstract ideal of the misogynist middle-ground. Nothing could be said against her even if equally nothing for her. But De Sade’s Juliette is perverse, a heroine who forces us to reckon with our own desires ranged against her. Nothing can be said against her insofar as she in fact already has everything that we want her to possess. But unlike her predecessor, Juliette is also armed with all that can be said against us. She is an indictment of misogyny, and the fact that she enjoys being only this only makes us look the worse. If De Sade retained his liminality by never committing to social and political revolution but rather merely described the stultifying darkness of the Ancien Régime, his best and brightest heroine begins to sign the radical change that augurs the new desire. And she does so simply by virtue of her own desires being utterly urgent.

            But these figures exist in a microcosm. What of the wider world-historical change that ushers in our own age and frames it at one end with the most solid of aesthetic and ethical foundations and at the other by nothing less than constant motion? This larger field, cast in the deepest relief in 1789, a centrifugal cauldron, a storm’s eye, a nexus making cathexis, is still better represented by music than literature. At the far end towers yet the figure of Bach. He is summative, his art the result of a millennia of evolutionary architecture. His most important predecessor, Monteverdi, is Bach’s own phylogenetic avatar. Here, and for the first time, Western music begins to assemble other forms, assimilate other sounds, throw upwards the folk song and pull downwards the religious chant. In Bach we at last have reached the zenith of everything the West represented to that time; the idea of the ideals, the mathematical symmetry of sound, the music of the spheres. And when the sun king dies in 1715, Bach’s own star – and is it odd that Bach’s face should so often be portrayed in our own time within a sun figure? – is about to ascend to heights no mere composer could have heretofore known. And this ascent is predicated, also for the first time, upon not patronage but upon art itself.

            It is in the B Minor Mass that everything comes together. But this ‘everything’ is of course the act, never the action. It is the act against which all action must thenceforth take place and take its place. In this magnum opus, Bach presents the universe as it was known and knowable in his own day. It is a statement in the most stentorian terms. One bathes in such music; it does not wash over you but envelopes you, and while it is cleansing it retains the ability to magnify itself through one’s very dross. When the work concludes, we do not feel any sense of change or that things should change in any way. We feel as complete as does the work itself. It is in this sense a space wherein life and death have been reconciled and no longer have any singular meaning. And how can we not be eternally grateful for such an expression of the cosmic force of existence uplifted into the essential?

            But in fact that is the entire problem Bach poses for us. The ‘eternal’ character of gratitude is nothing but an obstacle to both evolution and to adaptation. It presumes upon a world itself unchanging, a cosmic order that is as infinite as it is timeless. Here, art does not imitate life but rather transcends it. This is the understanding that Bach, the divinely human architect, brings to the rest of us. This is the far side of the frame of modernity with which we still must reckon. It is so beautiful that it is like a death to turn away from it, and yet turn away we absolutely must.

            In our own time we have, with halting harrow and tremulous trepidation, given ourselves the tools to do so. Beethoven is the first revolutionary composer. At first he imagined himself an ally of Napoleon, but after seeing the results of Austerlitz in Vienna, realized that he as an artist was the ambassador of the highest humanity and hardly the lowest. Thus the amended dedication of the third symphony, itself the first truly modern work of music. It is the first because for the first time we have a sense of the urgent throughout the work. Beethoven 3 is the benchmark for all such works that follow and the closest contemporary parallels to this work may be found in the symphonies of Shostakovich. They are linked by that singular sensibility, urgency, and tasked with that same singular ambition, revolution.

            In Shostakovich we have found at last a role model untainted by politics and indeed, in his own life, as a prisoner of the Soviet State from time to time, as a suspect artist whose works were always too ‘Western’ for hardliners, as the musical equivalent of Solzhenitsyn and indeed more gifted, Shostakovich through his art not only defeated the evils of authoritarianism – it is an ongoing irony that his works are performed so often in today’s Russia – but also exposed the fraudulence of 1917. In Symphony 11, ‘The Year 1905’, we are thrust into action, not act! We are immersed in urgency, never somnolence! Many of his greatest works declare the pressing need for a new revolution, and not merely for Russia. His German counterpart, Hans Werner Henze, intoned the same: “Man’s greatest work of art: world revolution.”

            Encountering Shostakovich one does not bathe, but rather showers. Here, even the water itself never stops moving. It takes the dross, without assimilation, down the drain of history with its own life ever onward. We are ourselves drained in such an encounter and this time the feeling is one of incompleteness. I am missing something, the music throws me forward. It is the future I am missing, the very human future, no longer a function of eschatology, no longer premised upon faith and promising salvation. No, in Shostakovich we receive a demand and not a promise. Revolution is ongoing just as history does not rest. Change is the only permanence, which sums our contradictory existence as active and acting beings who resist the future, the very thing that gives us life. Is it due only to an archaic sense of art that we flinch at the horizon? In contemporary art we find not beauty nor even transcendence, but rather the shadow work of the collective soul. Every encounter is a confrontation with ourselves, splayed open before the Augenblick of revolutionary lightning. If we turn away we are as were the Nazis, cowed into reactionary diaboli in the face of life as it now is and as it now must be. The fascist draws a line at the moment his conscience speaks. He will not hear it, not hear of it. Each one of us who adores Bach without reaching both hands out to the heroes of Shostakovich’s works is no less that same fascist in spite of our apparent civility and ‘good taste’.

            For it is no matter of etiquette that animates the history of our own day. It is rather made meaningful through scruple, ethical and aesthetic at once. As John Berger suggested, we must vanquish the sense that great art carries humanity up and over its own condition in order to regain the sensibility that in fact what art in reality does is make more real our shared situation so that we in turn can more meaningfully negotiate it from within its midst. Art is and always will be our willing ally in any crisis. It is we who turn ourselves away from this joint task and reject its ever-revolutionary gift.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, aesthetics, social theory, education and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Thinking in Systems

Thinking in Systems

So you’ve graduated from high school. Some people call it the best years of your life, but you know better. It’s time to step out, in fact, it’s time for life to begin. Your life.

But dusting yourself off and walking out to greet the world is just the beginning. Nothing in school has really told you how to live. Yes, there were plenty of demands, but now they suddenly seem petty, things only a child would care about.

And then there’s the big school, the university. Why should it be any different? Isn’t it as well going to be filled with small demands according to it’s own needs, and not your own? It speaks of offering something for everyone. That is, in an sense, what the term ‘university’ even means. It has the word universe inside it.

But if you go inside, where will you fit in? This is the first time no one’s forcing you to be there, and no one knows who you are. This can be liberating, but it can also be alienating, mirroring the architecture of our wider society. And freedom is not so abstract as to allow you to simply live without doing anything at all. Some people say ‘work to live’ rather than ‘live to work’, but either way, you’re going to have to make a choice.

And you won’t have a lot of time to make it. Now that you’re an adult, there’s no more free rides. If you can be anyone you want to be, the other side of that coin is that no one cares if you’re anyone at all.

So let’s lay out the most common options that you are faced with, right up front: one, you could forget about the university entirely. Maybe it’s just a bigger high school after all. And after high school, who’d want to take a chance that it isn’t? But that means you have to find a job, and without anything more than a high school diploma, statistics tells us that over the life course, your career, if you get one, is going to stagnate. Even if you imagine yourself to be a born again pilgrim, that life isn’t going to be easy, and might even be unfulfilling, lacking meaning. And two? Well, that requires a big commitment back into furthering your education. Most people find they can’t do the kind of work necessary to get a Ph.D., so why bother at all? And forget about ‘Dr. You’, what about those stats that show that up to thirty percent of undergrad students drop out way before they’ve obtained even the lowest degree? And for those who do finish, the average degree completion time is over six years!

Neither of these options sounds promising. Many young people mix and match, working up to three part-time jobs just to pay for school. And then, if you are going to take the plunge, paying for it is just one challenge. What, exactly, are you going to be paying for?

It’s a cliché that the parent will advise you to take a degree that will ‘get you a job’. Anything else seems like a waste of time and money. But most jobs lack meaning, and most workers feel unfulfilled by them. How could it be, when you have your entire life ahead of you, that once in that life it often doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? And older people will tell you that, sure. But when they do, it’s not just a cautionary tale – don’t let it happen to you! – no, there’s something else in there, something born of bitterness and borne on resentment. It’s another version of what in previous ages the older told the younger; I was beaten as a kid, it didn’t do me any harm.

Well, fortunately, in most countries, no one can touch you these days, but even so, watch your back; there’s a bigger whip on the horizon and its two-tailed: work in a low-status job for the rest of your life, compelled simply by having expenses and in so doing, accomplish nothing much; or get a bunch of degrees, if you can, and pay off your debt for much of that same life, working in better jobs but feeling just as compelled to work.

You might learn in philosophy class that communism, amongst other social ideas, promises an end to all of that. But starting a revolution is no easy business. Far too many of us benefit greatly from the system we have now, so why would we desire to alter it? No, you’re going to have to learn how to ‘think in systems’.

What we mean by that is also two-fold. Thinking isn’t encouraged in our society, indeed, in any culture that we know of. At most, ‘figuring things out’ is acceptable, and only when such ‘things are broke’. Now, this kind of practical reflection is indeed important. We wouldn’t have come so far as human beings without it. But the one thing it doesn’t do is help us adapt to change. In a word, we can’t tell, by practical reflection alone, if something actually is broken or not.

So, one the one hand, a system is a way of thinking as it has always been. Sometimes this is called tradition, custom, ‘what is done’, ‘the way things are’, even and most brashly, ‘human nature’. But history tells us that there is more than one human nature, and that such ‘nature’ that we might inhabit as human beings is subject to change. The question: ‘can we change with it?’ is one the entire world faces and faces together. Ask yourself right now how good a job you think we’re doing with that?

But on the other hand, a system is also a manner in which to think; that is, I am going to think systematically about this or that. I’m not going to simply accept what has been, or what has been done, or even how it is done today, right now. Thinking systematically about a system of thought helps you dismantle it, piece by piece. You’re going to find that revolution is not about politics after all, but rather simply, and much more accessibly, about human reason.

But you have to use it. Perhaps ironically, the university is the only place where this kind of thinking is allowed, and only in a very few kinds of courses. Fittingly, these types of courses will not help you get a ‘good job’. Who reads philosophy? How many ‘thinkers’ does a society need? Why do people who think they know how to think, in turn think they can tell the rest of us how to live?

We’re not telling you to become a professional philosopher. If you’re already independently wealthy, then go for it, as long as you’re also prepared for the ensuing facts that hardly anyone will listen to you and you will have very few friends. No, it is better to learn to think as a universal birthright of who you are: a human being. Reason is the chief characteristic that separates us from other animals. Human beings can think things through, whether it is fixing a machine or fixing the world. We are telling you to join us in the name of human reason, for that is the key to human freedom.

So, you might ask, this ‘reason’ thing, I think I like it, but how do I learn about it without killing my career chances? The simplest way to balance survival and meaning is take a shorter-term diploma or degree in an up-market field. Yes, the market for employment changes regularly, but usually not within the span of two to three years in specific regions. This is why more and more colleges and universities are offering theses kinds of programs. And within many of them, there is some space to take those other courses; you know, the spaces in which revolutions are born.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, and more recently, fiction, and was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Pros and Cons of Parricide

“Now there are times when a whole generation is caught [ ] between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standards, no security, no simple acquiescence.”                                         – Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf.

We cannot let 2018 pass on without noting that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the now obscure social movement known as ‘The Weathermen’, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). While SDS itself was a large movement dedicated to structural change – and incidentally, the name of an Iranian metal band before all such music was banned in that country – the Weathermen were small, more radical, and advocated violence. In their manifesto, the striking statement occurs: ‘kill your parents; that’s where it starts’.

What starts? Well, on the one hand, the revolution begins at home, certainly. But as well, all that denies change also begins there. Heeding one’s parents makes the new into the old, the younger generation into the one that is past rather than directing it to its own future, and condemns us to reproduction rather than creativity. Metaphorically it is well known that each of us must kill one’s parents, from Freud’s imaginary ‘primal horde’ to Greek tragedy and all the rest of it. We desire to be our own persons, and no one over forty can be said to be truly mature if they have not substantially let go of their parent’s ways and means, waylays and meanings.

But the literature of everyday life was not what the Weathermen intended by their pronouncement and accompanying truncated protests. No, they exhorted their generation to literally kill its parents. What can be made of such a statement today, fifty years on? It does seem plausible to suggest that the generation which gave birth to the baby boomers had lost a significant amount of its humanity during the Depression and World War 2. The twin shocks, from which we are still trying to recover, of both Nuremberg and Hiroshima resounded like a thunderbolt of darkness in the sunrise of victory. One could be forgiven for thinking, perhaps, that if the adult who had witnessed these world-defying events as well as having endured their wider pedigree thought lightly of the concerns of his or her children and responded to them with patent violence of which the baby boom was all too familiar. The Weathermen were hardly alone in their criticisms, and in the succeeding years many other groups kindred to them would arise in diverse nations, most infamously, the ‘Red Army Faction’ or RAF, sometimes known as Baader-Meinhof, in West Germany. But it takes more than domestic tyranny to suggest a revolution that must needs nonetheless begin at home.

Social control as we know it today is not itself out of control, though there have been disturbing trends over the previous twenty years that this sensibility is again on the rise. The migration to private schools is one symptom, as is the virtual paranoia surrounding digital media and young persons’ use thereof. Now that my generation is well into their own child-raising years, I am all the more disconcerted by such trends. I recall Gen-X being an anti-institutional and anti-authoritarian bunch. But I have to accept that it is my demographic peers who have become not so much sheep, but sheepdogs, ever on the alert to strays and overtly concerned with marking and maintaining boundaries. Surely the Ohio father who made his ten year old daughter, Kirsten Cox, trudge eight kilometers to school in near freezing weather represents a new low to this regard. Apart from being poor parenting, one wonders at the motive, though now we know where the youngster learned to bully others. (Just as one is taken aback by the whims of punitive adults who imagine their own bullying to be scrupulous, I was also unmanned by the petty detail that because ‘Kirsten’ happens to be my favorite name for a girl I felt that I myself was more concerned than if she had happened to have been named ‘Lucille’ or ‘Sophronia’, for instance).

We are fortunate, on the one hand, to have difficulty imagining what life for a young person was like in 1968, though many of these people are of course still with us. Their tales of heroism are a poignant and sometimes still pregnant mix of nostalgia and righteousness. Certainly as this demographic remains a huge and wealthy market, entertainment fictions that are dedicated to them seem to increase yearly. All of this wealth and power held by the once revolutionary generation that in one short year went from the summer of love to the summer of hate does suggest that more time in front of the television is the safest bet. But this would be to annul both the gift and the task with which the 1960s presents the present day. Fifty years on, there was no summer of anything much in 2018. People now take to the streets regarding fuel prices, sports team defeats or victories, trade agreements and the like. None of this is particularly inspiring. In a world concerned with boundaries and their maintenance, from the petty territories of family to international borders alike, perhaps even the power of the metaphor is lost to us.

So if the Weathermen, or any other kindred movement were extant today, what might they say to us, and indeed, how would they say it? I imagine that they would be more or less speechless, fatalistic, resigned, aghast. More or less, in other words, what the once revolutionary baby boomers actually are. Having long since been parents themselves, one wonders how a good proportion of them, reactionary neo-conservatives by the 1980s, avoided the fate their radical peers once suggested.

However that may be, does the exhortation, the call to arms, have any merit for the youth of today? Metaphorically, always. Literally? What one can say to this more palpable reveille is this: we need to be very cautious, consistently critical, and readily reflective regarding anything that tastes of the misuse of authority, the desire for the control of others for its own sake, and also the sexual undertones of familial dynamics, including the rule of metaphoric thumb, the assertion of dominance and the occluded thrill of coitus cloaked in actio distans. The more taboo a topic is, the more serious is it a threat to human freedom. Speaking of television, as the irascible and critical Inspector Morse once said, ‘As soon as a person says that they do not wish to talk about something, I do.’

To publicly shame our children because of this or that passing infraction is to seek the sanction of the mass. Driven in part by a rancid resentment – newly ripened youth are placed on our cultural pedestal so that we can then throw the over-ripe fruit of embittered half-dreams and lurid fantasies at them – this very mass sounds off in a frenzied expression of child-hating heat. This is also symptomatic of our digital days when at the same time we feel the imminence of some kind of ending. Kipling’s poem ‘The Fabulists’ says it well:

“Even in that certain hour before the fall,

Unless men please they are not heard at all.”

Yet we also know that most of us go utterly unnoticed, so there is also a sense that within this loathing, stigmatizing, and vindictive moralizing, there must also be present a desire simply to be recognized as a human being amongst others; in short, a desire for the freedom that only the call of conscience can provide.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books in ethics, education, religion, social psychology, aesthetics and social theory.