Thursday, December 31, 2015

How to Shock the Bourgeoisie

The urban elite has seen everything. You can barely disturb them anymore from a stage, which is a problem for anyone who thinks that you go to the theater to be disturbed. (I’ve always thought this is a curious belief. The outside world is grotesque and cold; can’t at least the theater be comfortable?)

Nevertheless, if shocking the bourgeoisie is your goal, there are still three ways of doing it. One, even this deep into modernity, is extreme indecency. Don Giovanni won’t shock anyone anymore just for being a womanizer, but surround him with naked prostitutes in Act II’s finale, and you’ll still draw gasps from the crowd. (Alternatively, stage the Dance of the Seven Veils the way it’s meant to be done.) And there’s always incest: the climax of Act I in Die Walküre, in which Siegmund pledges himself to his twin sister, is only just old enough for its shock to have worn off. Horrible violence can be harrowing too. But thanks to Hollywood, it’s pretty hard in this century to make anyone blush except the most naïve.

An easier way to shock the bourgeoisie is to offend its principles—but the liberal principles which are alive in 2015, not some imagined Victorian prudery. A hundred years ago, you could be edgy by portraying anarchism or irreligion. Now that the establishment has swung heavily to the left, edginess means showing off the godliness of kings or the kingliness of God. Racism, of course, is the one principle that today’s bourgeoisie will never compromise on. The public in 1915 would have been aghast to see a black man onstage. These days it’s aghast at blackface onstage: a swarm of bloggers forced the Met to modify its makeup for this season’s production of Otello. Meanwhile, we will never see another major production of The Mikado in our lives. It’s been judged to be Orientalist, and that’s the New York elite’s last word on the subject. Anti-Semitism is tolerable to the cultural authorities in small doses, but only if it’s in the service of experimental art.

This isn’t necessarily bad: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a culture insisting on moral standards in its art. But moral standards they are, and they’re waiting to be flaunted by a cultural dissident. Joining the avant-garde of 2015, that is, means doing something that gets seen as racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, or homophobic. You’ll suffer for it, because political tolerance at the theater is even lower than it was two centuries ago. Wagner, after all, was able to get away with spitting on Christian mores, and Lorenzo da Ponte skewered the nobility with impunity. If you’re an opera director in 2015, you’ll be banished for doing anything that makes Peter Gelb and his board squirm.

Of course, there’s usually no good reason to cause an artistic scandal for political reasons: it costs you popularity and employment, and in the end it’s no less boring to shock elite leftists than it was to shock elite conservatives. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that your politics are worth anything. (You might just be a racist after all, or a harebrained leftist, or both.) Finally, a political scandal is harmful to art, for the simple reason that politics—even for a good cause—are unmelodic. Political manifestoes are better read outside the opera house in Lincoln Plaza, or sung in some campy Broadway theatre.

There is, though, one kind of scandal that might be worthwhile: you can studiously refuse to be shocking. The modern superstition (embodied by the New York Times’ senior music critic) is that anything traditional is safe and therefore boring, and that anything radical is brave and important. But this belief is not based on reality. Since you can be sure of a good review in the Times with something hideous or spare or politically relevant, the tamest thing possible is to mount a postmodern production.

What, meanwhile, will bring out dismayed howls from conceited reviewers? Stage a Ring that portrays the gods in their ancient splendor, with an armored Brünnhilde riding a horse into the fire. Fill the victory march in Aida with elephants, generals on litters, slave-dancers, and some triumphal animal sacrifices. Or have Ceres’ pageant in The Tempest outstrip an opium-dream in its sumptuousness. Shout fire in a crowded theater, and give the audience a dreadful spectacle that will break their cold contempt for raw beauty. If you run an opera company, refuse to show an opera unless it’s in Italian or German, and written before World War I. If you run a theater, stage no plays that aren’t in verse.

A little lovely wholesomeness works too.
This is the right way to mount productions, but that’s not why I bring it up here. I bring it up because imaginative traditionalism is the fastest way under the skin of the gluten-free, Hamilton-listening cultural authorities.

—Or forget the whole tired business of being shocking. I for one, thank God for YouTube and my mp3 player, which lets me do the best thing possible to the stale crowd: ignore it it.

Only Connect

Lucretius, ancient author of the poem De rerum natura, is one of only a few people in literary history to combine the search for truth with poetry. This is for good reason: poets tend not to be levelheaded enough to see things as they are, and scientists tend to lack both taste and patience for decoration. (In the last couple centuries, with respect to Ms. Frizzle and Neil deGrasse Tyson, we’ve learned anyway that reality is gray and monotonous rather than poetic.) But once in a while you get a poem like De rerum natura, which is no less insightful into the reality of things than it’s decked with metaphor and poetic grace. Here is an example of this coupling: in the middle of his first discussion of atoms, Lucretius makes a basic scientific point: like matter clings to like. Atoms of a certain kind stick to other atoms of their kind, and that gives order and form to what would otherwise be a spinning mass of inert particles. These connections, he argues, are present on every level of resolution. Flat atoms join to flat, water to water, trees to the forest, and a mother to her son. It all seems too prosaic to be said in a poem. Then all of a sudden, we get this illustration:

For often, when before the splendid gods
A calf is slaughtered on a smoking mound
And sputters out a stream of tepid blood,
His mother wanders through the leafy woods
Tracking the hoof-prints of his cloven feet,
Casting her glance all around, as if somewhere
She’ll find her missing son. She fills the woods
With moans. She stops, she wanders to his stall,
Speared with feeling for her little calf.
Nor tender willows now, nor the dew-flecked grass
Nor swollen rivers gliding in their banks
Can pacify her soul in sudden care.
Nor can the sight of other frisking calves
On happy lawns give solace or relief:
So far do mothers know and seek their own.
(II.352–66, my translation)

This illustration is obviously painful in its own right: Lucretius feels almost human pity for animals throughout his poem, and this is probably the clearest example of that. But the philosophical point that the example serves is actually just as poignant. Lucretius, as I said before, has set out to prove that atoms do not spin randomly in the void—they in fact are connected to each other by a tangled, subtle, and of course breakable net. And so, out of nothing more than an unfeeling mass of matter, every single one of our tender attachments is born: to our home, our land, and the people we know. This thought can be solace to the materialist nihilist. He will always remain a materialist—but his nihilism might be warmed and diffused by the thought that friendships, memory, and love are all legitimate children of chaos.

Our happiness, in other words, is no less real for the fact that it’s constituted on the accidents of atoms. It is certainly fragile because of that fact, but not false. More than just happiness, meanwhile, can come out of the atomic shuffle. So can deep sorrow, which is a far profounder feeling than simple joy. Or even mystical transport: I first heard Tallis’s Spem in alium when it came on WQXR at 3:00 in the morning. The feeling of simultaneous horror and divinity that it produced seemed too profound to have come from anywhere except the finger of a god. But it came from dumb matter, just like everything else.

Here’s something else: if you happen to be one of the very few people to have a real friend, it is cause for divine wonder that the random dice of geography, birth, time, language, etc. have determined that this should happen. If it had been intended by a forethinking god—like the marriage of Adam and Eve—then gratitude might be appropriate, but not this sort of wonder. In just the same way as a glowworm finds another glowworm, you have found a fellow. (Of course, the glowworm might not have found its mate, nor you your friend. But you did.) There is something sweet in the knowledge that your friendship has been snatched, against all likelihood, out of the storms that make up the natural world.

Now, as Lucretius makes so clear, the disquieting flipside of atomism is the danger of failing to find any meaningful connection. A spiritualist, for his part, can believe in the underlying oneness of things, so that any separation is an illusion. That way, he can pass his entire life sunk in loneliness, which is just a temporary appearance of being out of the swing of things. Everything will be alright, because the universe gives a warm home to all her children.

To an atomist who believes in the supremacy of division, loneliness is the general rule and connectedness a strange exception. It’s nothing special if the universe happens not to have made an exception for you. You’re just screwed, and you will remain screwed until you go to the grave just as friendless and unwept as you were on earth. And you’re even worse off if, like Lucretius’ cow, you are first connected, and then cut off. You can get used to perpetual solitude—even rationalize it—if it’s the only thing you’ve ever known. But once you know connection, there’s no pain quite like being thrust out into endless friendlessness. This is why atomists ought to be savagely jealous of whatever ties they do have to places and people. Like Hector, pleading uselessly to Achilles:

Then the powerless helmet-shaking Hector spoke to him:
“I beg on your soul, and on your knees and your parents,
not to let me be pray to the dogs of the Achæans,
for you’ll receive a ransom of bronze and gold
from my father and my noble mother.
Only let my body be carried back home again, so that
the Trojans and the Trojans’ wives can have me dead upon the pyre.

 We should all feel Hector’s terror. The universe does not give a damn about leaving us to the dogs—there is, after all, no thinking “universe” that could feel anything, much less prevent anything. There is only hard reality, which can cause unspeakable suffering as readily as it can give us delight. Like Hector or the cow, we can delight in the joyful connections we have, and then weep without pious consolation when they’re torn apart.

Mystical Sirens

It’s fine to despise this world as long as there’s another one that you love more.

Say you’re an ancient Christian. To you the visible world is a grotesque play, filled with pointless suffering and gaudy frivolity. But that’s okay, because you are dead with Christ to the world. Since you have a new life in a higher world, you can gleefully suffer a violent death as a martyr, or dismiss food and clothing as pointless luxuries. The knowledge that there is a deeper reality behind the world’s banality can make you happy even in your temporary life of flesh.

But Christian mysticism is just one example of a general phenomenon. Appalled at the grimness of supposed reality, human beings have spent their entire history chasing alternatives. A buddha, for instance, understands that the phenomenal world is illusion, and flees from it into a heaven of tranquility. Moses, an Egyptian prince, was disgusted with the fleshpots of civilization and fled to the empty desert, where he found God in a speaking fire. Odin, leaving his home, crucified himself on the branches of a great tree to be initiated into the higher mysteries of the cosmos. And the Athenians had their yearly feast for Dionysos, which threw off the rigors of agricultural labor for a chance at ecstatic communion with the gods.

“Upwards! / embraced while embracing!
Upwards to your breast, / all-loving Father!”
Ralph Waldo Emerson is the mystic that Americans take the most seriously. He was so convinced of an underlying spiritual reality, and the falseness of earthly pain, that he was able to discuss the death of his son in words as optimistic as these:
The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. … Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, — no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. (From “Experience.”) 
With this flight into philosophy, the sufferings of life waver and disappear.

Now, the truth is that our world is worth fleeing from. It is a grey prison for almost every creature that breathes in it. If you’re powerless enough to find yourself underneath the world’s heel, there is no profit to be had from taking the light show seriously. Instead of chasing after nonsense, it’s far better to declare everything vanity and find something firmer than reality to hold onto. Mysticism—an attempt to escape the world while you’re still alive—seems like the best way of coping if you happen to be excluded from the lucky few who are safe from suffering and starvation.

Mysticism is really a two step experience: first you renounce this world, and then you find another. First the mystic comes to despise the world, realizing that it’s just dust and shadow. This insight throws him into a cloud of confusion and ignorance, since he has thrown off the only reality he has ever known. But he says to the darkness:
Chaos and ancient Night, I come no Spy
with purpose to explore or to disturb
the secrets of your Realm, but by constraint
wand’ring this darksome Desert, as my way
lies through your spacious Empire up to light.
The Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Transcendentalist mystic finds a brighter world after losing the first one. It is not enough to spurn the phenomenal world: a mystical journey must have its end in a safe spiritual paradise. Escapist mysticism is a healthy and sane instinct as long as you reach that paradise. Once you flee from this world, that is, you must escape into another, truer one. But mysticism is a seductive evil if you find no such higher world. It is possible to flee from the world on tides of mystical feeling, but then to spin off into chaos.

Music can do this to you. Its emotional intensity is enough to lift you away from earthly life, and teach you to despise the real world, which is wan and dull in comparison to music’s awful beauty. If you’ve listened properly to Lohengrin, the subway train you listened to it on seems like a meaningless heap of dust. But Lohengrin takes away your love for real things without giving you anything in return. You will be convinced that reality is stupid and painful—but you will have nothing to replace reality with except passion and anxiety.

(Religious mystics, for their part, have made their own use of music’s otherworldly power. Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli, for example, gives off such a powerful sense of God’s splendor that it forces you to claw at the visible world to have even a chance of hanging on. But when music leads you into nothing but fright and confusion, like Bellini’s, Wagner’s, or Donizetti’s tends to do, it can damage your soul.)

What a fate for the halfway-mystic! He is homeless in the world he lives in, and though charged with demonic restlessness, he knows that this feeling comes from nowhere in particular. His world is unreal, but there is no reality to escape into. Any spiritual flight turns out to be a fairy-dance, which evaporates at dawn. To him, though, everyday life is no less a fairy-dance.

My point is that mysticism is beautiful and perhaps necessary, but it is not for atheists. A believer can fall through darkness into the hands of a loving God; but an atomist materialist can fall only into Chaos and ancient Night. With no prospect of another spiritual home, he should shrink from emotion and stick to the rocky earth. It might be ugly and evil, but it’s at least solid.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

How to Protect Idols

If my Facebook feed is any clue, most Westerners think that ISIS shouldn’t have destroyed the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. The temple ought to have stayed up, we think, because it’s part of humanity’s patrimony, which no ignorant thug has the right to insult much less destroy.

But in the first place, it's clear that ISIS had far more reverence for the temple than us. They understood that it was a temple of a god; and that since idolatry is evil it had to be destroyed. This opinion is far ruddier—and understands more of the spirit the temple was built in—than our own stuffy antiquarianism. For us the temple was a pile of broken columns, useful merely because old things are titillating.


You say that ISIS had no right to destroy the temple, because it belonged to humanity, not to them. Well, who is humanity made of? It is made of you and me, plus Javanese miners, and Greek monks, and San hunters.  Only some of this huge herd gives a damn about an old temple in Palmyra. The people who do care are either professors, or wide-eyed Facebooking idealists, or gunslinging Islamist iconoclasts. Shall we have a pageant to decide which of these groups is most representative of “humanity”?

You also say that we, not the terrorists, are the rightful stewards of Near-Eastern civilization. After all, we study the cuneiform languages, we do careful archaeology, and we have a sense of the region’s history. But for all we know, the ancient Palmyrenes themselves would have preferred ISIS to us. They might have recognized more of themselves in men who still live with holy terror, and who still have a sense of the awesome grandeur of heaven. (But the Palmyrenes are all dead, I guess, and it’s pointless to speculate about the opinions of that impossibly ancient people.)

In short, there’s really no argument to make for us having the Temple of Bel and not ISIS. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not drawing a moral equivalence here, just a logical one. I am not one of the relativists who throws up his hands and says that we’re just as much in the wrong as ISIS because we bear a legacy of colonialism or something. No: I think that it is vulgar and hideous to destroy antiquities, and noble to preserve them.

But I am sure that ISIS will never see it that way, because there is no convincing a man who lives by religion religious fanaticism. And I don’t think the Palmyrenes would have seen it that way either: they meant their temple for Bel, not us. We cannot produce a will to prove that the temple ought to belong to educated professors, not evil thugs. And there is no god of history who wants the treasures of Syria to be preserved. There are only men and women who will preserve them if they have the power.

If they have the power: in the end, there is something that antiquarians can do about the destruction of antiquities. They do not need to convince devout Islamists that history must be preserved. It is only necessary to overpower the barbarians by force. You need not demonstrate rationally, for example, that the Buddhas of Bamiyan must be left standing; you’ve just got to make sure that an iconoclastic Islamist regime never takes control of Afghanistan. Or, if there’s something you really want to keep safe, you can nick it. The British and French did just that in the nineteenth century, hauling the treasures of Greece and the Middle East home to the Louvre and the British Museum.

These would be sitting placidly in Bloomsbury if they hadn’t been so damn hard to move.
So no, we humanists don’t have more of a claim to Palmyra than ISIS. That’s because ISIS rules over Palmyra. But only for now—by the grace of God they will be destroyed, and the past of the Middle East will be safe from people who want to obliterate it.