Monday, September 29, 2014

Why I’m Protesting The Death of Klinghoffer

The Metropolitan Opera is mounting a production this fall that was last seen in New York in 1991. Written by John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer tells the tale of the hijacking of a cruise ship by a team of Palestinian terrorists, and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger at their hands.

Obviously, given its subject matter, the opera has become the center of a bitter controversy. Last week, on opening night at the Met, a squad of 300 protesters gathered in Lincoln Square with picket signs and bullhorns. The charges: Klinghoffer glorifies terrorism, it puts the Jewish victims on the same—if not lower—grounds as their murderers, and it is insensitive to the memory of Klinghoffer himself, whose family resents the appropriation of his death to make lefty art.

These charges might be true; I don’t know enough to judge. Let’s say they’re not. I’m still going to grab my bullhorn and incendiary sign, and join the protest more enthusiastically than the most committed member of the Anti-Defamation League. This is reason enough: The Death of Klinghoffer is terrible art.

Before I make that point, let me show you the context that I’m judging it in. The following is an excerpt from Così fan tutte, Mozart’s opera about the fickleness of love. The plot is preposterous and thin, but the music and poetry are straight from the mouths of the seraphim:

Mozart does something extraordinary here. We’re in the middle of a childish deception: Fiordiligi has been seduced by a stranger from Albania, unaware that he’s in fact the disguised best friend of her fiancé. Surging over this comical affair, though, is a heavenly harmony that can set the heart of a mortal on fire. As a wise Youtube commenter on this clip says, 

tennesseelvr Apr 13, 2010
the musical master of the “feeling intellect” Mozart; unparalleled genius of the heart and soul; God s gift in this chaotic existence!

Let me give another example, this time from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Wolfram von Eschenbach is locked in a singing competition with Tannhäuser, a man who has spent an aeon in the Venusberg. There, he enjoyed all the carnal delights of the gods, and was so saturated by delight that the pale world has no savor for him anymore. Wolfram sings beautifully about the chaste evening star, charming the audience with his tranquil contemplation of beauty. But Tannhäuser, who has scaled to the heavens, has known the evening star (both intellectually and Biblically), and cannot keep himself within decent bounds when he hears it mentioned. Breaking into a wild song to love, he shocks the proper society around him.

This and the previous excerpt are examples of the heights that the opera can take us to. There is nothing under the sun that so unvaryingly leads us heavenward. In that sense, as the sage above said, it’s the closest thing we have to a gift from the gods. And that’s the standard that I judge Klinghoffer by.

At this point, you might remember what you know about Wagner: he was a vicious anti-Semite, right? He was indeed, down to the bone. But since aesthetics are a different ballgame from morality, that didn’t detract in the slightest from his ability to write music of throbbing beauty.

This might be a good time—if there ever is one—for me mention that I am a moderate fan of fascist art. Much more than most others in the twentieth century, the Nazis and their fellows in Italy understood the way to make a person thrill with aesthetic excitement. On the streets of Rome, the temples put up by Mussolini with their white columns and Latin inscriptions are finer than any of the faceless office buildings built in the 50s. And as I walked this summer in the ruins of the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg, mingled with my dumb horror at history was a strong sense that Hitler knew how to build something that was really impressive. The same is true in music: Carl Orff’s work is much more beautiful—and thrilling—than Schoenberg’s, the Jew whose music was thrown out of the Third Reich. The fierce reactionary movement that took place in visual art, meanwhile, was a vast improvement over the surreal daubings of the Weimar Republic.

This is all meant to convince you that I have no trouble whatsoever with anti-Semites making art, or even with anti-Semitic art at all. As I write that, it strikes me that I don’t believe it entirely: my disgust and horror for anti-Semitism itself often bleeds into aesthetic intolerance for anti-Semitic art. But only sometimes; and what’s more, there’s nothing morally virtuous whatsoever in finding the art of evidoers ugly.

This, meanwhile, is an artistic sin that I will never forgive:

Note the utter absence of hummable melody, the ragged, unrhyming English libretto, the clanging, unmelodic orchestral lines, and the pounding insistence on political significance at the complete expense of artistic craft. The last of those faults is perhaps the most grave. Lorenzo da Ponte, when writing the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro, explicitly removed anti-aristocratic references from his source text in order to keep the focus on the art. Let that be a lesson to us and to all our children.

I’m obviously not saying that the Death of Klinghoffer is anywhere near as bad as the death of Klinghoffer. That’s apples to rambutans. In this case, though, my wrath might have some effect in preventing it from happening. Ironically, though perhaps fittingly, the Met has already agreed to replace worldwide broadcasts of Klinghoffer with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is as rollickingly anti-Semitic as the opera gets. Nothing this summer has pleased me more.

[Edit: It’s been pointed out to me that this is wrong: it’s going to be Rossini’s Barber of Seville, not Die Meistersinger. This is even better news: it lets us leave this ugly debate behind, and it’s more melodic to boot.]

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Woods and the Waters

I just got back from one of the most grueling experiences of my life: I hiked the Great Range in the Adirondacks, making a trek across half a dozen of the tallest mountains in New York State. The feat has been added to my ledger of accomplishments, which will be read aloud on the Last Day when my soul is weighed on the Scales of Adventurousness.

On a chilly evening, my companion and I showed up at the trailhead about an hour before sunset. We began hiking into the woods, and it wasn’t long before we were walking in complete darkness. All we could see was the ground immediately ahead of us, lit up by a tiny headlamp. Around us were dark woods for miles. As we climbed higher, the towering pines grew withered and bent.

“I’m glad I’m an atheist,” my companion remarked eventually. “If I believed in demons and witches, this would be way too scary.” 

“Ha!” I answered. “A Medieval man would have never left town.” 

A little later, we camped on a mountaintop. We had a clear sky overhead, and looked out onto a sea of clouds. A few mountain peaks poked above the surface of the clouds, making little islands off in the distance. The stars were out, and a dark red moon was rising.

The next morning, we woke up to overcast skies and a damp mist. Packing up our tent, we continued along the ridge. The cloud surrounded us by noon, and the early-morning mist turned gradually into a steady rainshower as the day wore on. Soon, we found ourselves on a wind-whipped alpine tundra, surrounded by rocky cliffs. As if to mock us, the fierce wind and rain turned icy, pelting us with sharp hailstones. We took shelter behind a slab of rock and, soaked to the bone, decided that the safest plan was to climb down the cliff to get below the treeline.

All hardships defy.

And as I inched my way down, telling myself in my best counselor-voice to stay calm and keep moving, I had a song stuck in my head:

He’s got the woods and the waters in his hands;
He’s got the woods and the waters in his hands; 
He’s got the sun and the moon right in his hands;
He’s got the whole world in his hands.

But there was nothing in the world I believed less at that moment. I was a tiny ape crawling on a barren slope, shivering and exposed. I had enemies massed against me, but they were neither evil nor clever. They were the indifferent rain and the tuneless wind. And if there was anyone who could protect me from them, he certainly wasn’t with me on that peak.

And it struck me that the attitude I’d had the previous night was woefully misguided. We paid a price for renouncing spirits in the woods. The empty woods at night are safe, because they hide neither lurking witches nor real dangers. But the spiritless mountain peak is another thing entirely. There is no God up there to protect us from the vultures—the real, drab vultures—that plunge their beaks into our side.

And that’s something I feel acutely even when I’m not on a mountain. There is no such thing as cosmic malice. There is no Satan to renounce. But there is still death: a mute and unembodied shadow. We curse it, but it makes no conceptual sense that it could be listening. We might as well talk to the Krebs Cycle.

As I’ve said too often, it wasn’t always so in human souls. Just a couple centuries ago, evil was a tempter to be scoffed at, and ultimately to be defeated. And if you could escape the hungry wolf, you could take shelter in the shepherd’s arms. So after killing our ancient foes—the spawn of superstition—we’re left with a last enemy far gloomier, and with no comforter to help us.

So it’s not just that modernity is boring. It’s also much more frightening than any children’s book. And the fear that accompanies it isn’t the picturesque, imaginative evil that the Medievals were so thrilled to be surrounded by. It’s a barren, gray nothingness that eats away at us. One can’t write poetry about it. Maybe it can give birth to a fine work of philosophy or a rollicking Swedish movie.

I want to close with a literary point. When I was little, there were two books that kept me awake in terror.

The first was Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, a book about a man who spends all eight nights of Hanukkah in a haunted hilltop synagogue. He’s visited nightly by increasingly hideous demons, and he outwits all of them with a dollop of homespun Yiddish wisdom. On the eighth night, the King of the Goblins shows up. The following picture is burned into the soul of any Jewish kid born in the 1990s:

At this point, my five year old self would shrivel in fear. But Herschel, after making the right prayers to the Almighty, proceeds to trick the Goblin King into lighting the menorah for him. Hanukkah is saved, and rejoicing ensues in the shtetl at the bottom of the hill.

The second book was far scarier. It preoccupied me much more. And though by now I’ve grown quite fond of Herschel and his goblins (who, on a second reading, are pretty friendly after all), I’m just as terrified now as I was as a toddler by Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Harold has nothing in his world. Literally nothing: he stands against a blank background. Imaginative and full of energy, he creates scenery with his trusty crayon, sketching out a universe for himself to inhabit. The sea is just a swish of his crayon, and so is the sun. He proceeds to have a thrilling adventure. But at the end of the book, as Harold crawls into a bed of his own drawing, an awful truth dawns on the careful reader: Harold doesn’t have a friend in the world. There are no objective dangers facing him, but there is no great comfort either. He lives in a landscape of his own imaginings; there is no one beyond his world to reach out a hand and keep him company. So his imagination is enough to conquer boredom, and he certainly gives no place to ancient customs that would oppress his creativity. What his imagination can’t do is bring him home from the lonely and dark modern sea. All is vanity; a meaningless tapestry of purple wax.

When I was five, this translated to “where is his mom? doesn’t he want to see his mom?“ And come to think of it, that’s a far more cogent statement of what’s wrong with the book—and with modernity—than anything else I’ve been able to say in this post.