Saturday, December 31, 2016

It’s Perfectly Natural

Montaigne remarked in his essay on a monstrous child (II.30) that nothing produced by nature can be reproached for being unnatural.
Nous appelons contre nature, ce qui advient contre le coustume: rien n’est que selon elle, quel qu’il soit. 
We call unaccustomed events unnatural: but everything follows nature, no matter what it is.
He got the idea from Cicero, who had said something similar about a pregnant mule (De divinatione II.22). The thought is: if we’re horrified by something unusual or barbaric, the one thing we can’t accuse it of is being unnatural. If we think at first that it’s outside of nature, the only conclusion to draw is that nature is wider than we thought.

The logic is tautological as it’s unshakeable, and it’s not even worth pointing out that Montaigne’s argument proves exactly nothing. It’s interesting, though, to ask what impels a man’s mind to formulate a thought like this. We certainly see this particular observation everywhere, whether in direct quotation (e.g. Gide’s Corydon) or in spirit.

It is deployed most of all as an excuse for human folly: It’s not difficult to list behaviors that get defended on the sole grounds that they’re just another part of nature. Sodomy is the classic, but also think of adultery, nudity, masturbation, anger, gluttony, laziness, squid-eating, and zoophilia. Find me a guilt-ridden teenager, and I’ll find you the pamphlet that tells him it’s perfectly natural to feel or do what he does.

I think that this is usually an attempt to overcome shame of one kind or another. More specifically, by appealing to nature, we relieve ourselves of responsibility for our character. We don’t have to say, “such and such are my reasons for doing this”; or even “I am like this but I wish I were like that.” We can simply say, “I am what I am,” and dismiss gnawing guilt in an instant.

If your behavior is natural, then against all the glares and mutterings of a solemn priest, you have the warm approval of Mother Nature. She asks for nothing and allows everything. Her permission is an indulgentia plenaria perpetua offered for free to all souls that ask for it. If a child hits a baseball into a car window, he expects to be scolded and forced to pay for it by his mother. Natural man has a far more lenient parent.

It is worth remembering, of course, that merely being a child of nature is not enough to redeem a creature from its own wickedness – or even from its ugliness. That's because being natural puts you in dodgy company. Nature is more tolerant than any liberal New Yorker. She takes everyone under her roof, whether they’re men, women, blacks, whites, gays, cattle-rustlers, murderers, bears, cuttlefish, or Londoners. Robert Mugabe is as much her son as Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Viva, viva la libertà!
Nature can give birth to human beings and that’s it. Therefore, the most we can ever say about her is “she exists”. She cannot condemn her children, and because of that she cannot exonerate them either.

That means that if you want to press a moral case, you’d better find better grounds for it than nature. If you want to argue that polygamy or homosexuality is fine because it’s a part of human natural history, then you should be prepared to endorse gouging out an infidel’s tongue on the same grounds. By the same token, if you defend your own actions by saying “it’s only natural”, you share a dock with Jack the Ripper. In order to show your own innocence, you have to get there by proving his as well.

Good for Montaigne for pointing out that everything is natural. Pressed to its logical conclusion, his observation means only that ‘natural vs. unnatural’ is useless as a measure of behavior, of beauty or of character. Being natural is a participation medal for existing; it confers no relative justification.

Snake eating a living frog
— Nature is Scary (@NatureisScary) 6 December 2016

 ^ (It’s perfectly natural. Remember, you are the snake, not the frog.)

We, not nature, are the only ones who can pass judgment on human beings. Morality means imposing humane standards on our lives, regardless of what nature has made those lives into. It’s childish to give up responsibility for making these judgments. If we resign our authority to nature, then we’re shrugging our shoulders in indifference to gruesome sin. Rape and torture, after all, are as natural to humankind as sneezing.

So good, we’ve put away the argument from nature. Silly as it was, it was only ever devised because of a real psychological problem. If we can’t banish shame by calling our behaviour natural, we need to find some other way of coming to terms with it. Some people feel a tolerable amount of shame, and some feel it intensely, but one way or another every human life is bitten by little worms of secret guilt. Putting aside the casuistic trick of appealing to nature, there are three ways to cure ourselves.

Shamelessness is one way. That amounts to completely overturning the standards of behavior that you had previously been bound to.

This is the secret to “Christian freedom.” When God shows Peter a squirming bag of unclean animals, Peter refuses to eat them, protesting that nothing unclean hath at any time entered my mouth. God replies: What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. In other words, a Christian can gaily flout the bonds of old morality without trembling for fear that he’s crossed the will of heaven. A glance at the medieval literature (say, the Song of Roland) reveals how far this principle was carried by bloodthirsty Christians eager to glut their swords on unbelievers.

Shamelessness can take non-religious forms too. To Nietzsche, by uncovering the historical origins of morality, you can overcome the sickening shame that would usually go along with rejecting Christian pity. At the end of Lolita, for another example, Humbert decides that after committing murder and bringing a girl to ruin – well, screw it, why not drive on the left side of the road?

The risk of this approach is obvious. Shamelessness makes you deaf to reproof, which is fine if you’re being reproved by stupid people, but dangerous if, like most people, you’re susceptible to be seduced into evil under the guise of freedom.

Stupefaction is the other usual method of quenching conscience. Drink yourself blind, and what few shameful memories you retain will be covered over in the warm waters of friendly feeling. Tolstoy pointed this out in an essay of 1890. “Why do men stupefy themselves?” he asked. The answer:
People drink and smoke, not casually, not from dullness, not to cheer themselves up, not because it is pleasant, but in order to drown the voice of conscience in themselves. … Life does not accord with conscience, so conscience is made to bend to life.
This might not be exactly right – sin might not, in fact, be why most people drink. It is nevertheless one good reason. Stupefaction is a potent antidote to shame, so it's natural for the shame-eaten to distill it purer and purer until the spirit is completely extracted. Death, as Judas learned, is this perfect form: it is a final escape from remorse.

Apart from shamelessness and self-destruction, there is only one safe way to be freed from shame. It is to do nothing that is shameful. Then you won’t need sly tricks of logic, nor a leap into the abyss, nor even strong drink to let yourself loose.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Teruah Gedolah

Abraham’s Isaac was a son untainted,
Born to no handmaid of the Nile’s floodland;
Nor to Keturah, but to free and laughing
          Sarah, our mother.

Strange that the worker of the constellations,
And of the snowfall, and immense Behemoth
Stirred for so little as this son of men;
          Howbeit the Great Lord

Stirred for one straighter than archaic Enoch
Whom he’d exempted from the dark abysses;
Tenderer even than the one he took from
          Fountainous Ida.

So said his herald to our righteous father,
‘Get thee to Moriah, and ascend the mountain
Which I will show thee; there enkindle Isaac’s
          Flesh on an altar.’

Then he was quiet, and our pious father
Groaned to be sundered from the soul he clung to;
Naught less exulting to obey his likeness
          Over the waters.

Abraham stayed not, but in early morning
Burdened his asses and a pair of slave-boys.
These three with Isaac wandered north and entered
          Moriah’s border.

Now on a mountain was an emerald fire
Lighting the desert. To his slaves our father:
‘See ye not God there?’ and the slaves responded:
          ‘No, we see nothing’.

‘Stay then, O blind ones: we alone will meet him.
God is afire to his dearest children;
Naught to the nations, who will never see him.
          Mind ye the asses!

Now unencumbered they went up the mountain
Joyfully treading in the sight of angels.
‘Father’ – now Isaac – ‘here are flame and faggots;
          Where is the victim?’

‘God will provide it’, said his loving father.
Once at the summit they prepared the slaughter;
Abraham offering and his son the offered
          Host on the altar.

Seraphim wheeled now to the darkest heaven:
Sathan the dawn-star, and the never-westing
Septem Triones, and the Twins who glimmer
          Over the Hunter,

Kesil, and Kimah, and the Mazzaroth all
Pleading in horror for the life of Isaac
Vainly, till gleaming in a subtle hauberk
          Michael the princeling

Entered this darkness that was veined with amber.
‘Lord’ – he said – ‘swar’st thou to thy servant Abram
Erst that his firstborn was refused the birthright,
          But to restore it?

‘Or wilt thou suffer yet the moon to glimmer?
(Such even Isaac, as the sun his father.)
Think, is there nothing that thy soul desireth
          More than the stripling?’

Long was the silence, and the amber lightnings
Ceased for the while, as the fearsome being 
Pondered in darkness on his own devices.
          Then came an answer:

‘Wonderful creature, I relent; but mark! I
Smother mine ardour for no little pittance.
Yes, there is something that I covet sorer:
          Israel for Isaac!

‘Who, when he cometh, will contemn the gay hunt,
Guarding my statutes in his tabernacles.
Fondly he’ll love me, while the desert jackals
          Tear at his clothing.

‘Yea, though he hide him in the towns of Japheth,
Or in the deserts of his hairy brother,
Ever I’ll savour his appalling torment,
          Due to me fairly;

‘Though for what reason I had rather Israel
Ask not too keenly, for mine holy will is
Hidden in darkness. O thou loyal Michael,
          Slaughter this victim!

‘Sodden thine iron on his wasted members;
Ruin his wisdom with a thousand scruples;
Scourge him with fire, till I send Elias
          With an Anointed.’

‘Abraham, Abraham,’ now the sky resounded –
‘Here I am’, answered our unerring father.
‘Stop, and thy seed will be as all the stars thou
          Seest in heaven.’

Then there was silence, and our father yielding
Drew back the dagger; now descried a he-goat
Twined in a thorn-bush. Unensnaring Isaac
          Abraham slew it,

Darkly though guessing that the holocaust was
Bond for a later and a dearer victim.
Deep in this musing, with his living son he
          Went from the mountain.

Now in the desert was a rolling horn-blast
Like to a Levite’s up on Zion’s ramparts
Watching the west sky, when at last he trills his
          Hail to the New Moon –

So did it quaver; and the fires of heaven
Dimmed, for all nature and the the starry demons
Trembled to wonder what the unborn Israel
          Owed to his master.

Little they knew it, how the bleating flocks of
Jacob would smoulder on the nations’ altars,
Doomed to be incense to a god who loved them. –
          Doubt not! he loved them

Fond as a shepherd loves his little charges.
Say not then rashly, O ye scattered Hebrews,
That he hath spurned you, for he loves the race that
          Keeps his commandments.


If you want to know the author—or supposed author—of a medieval Hebrew poem, you often need only run your eye down the right margin. Take this Spanish ode, a prayer for the forgiveness of whoring Israel:

Looking closely, you’ll find that the first letters of each stanza spell out the words “Moshe Hazak.” This refers to Moses ibn Ezra, the twelfth-century author of the poem.

The acrostic’s history in Hebrew poetry dates to the Bible itself. Each verse of Psalms 25, 34, and 145 begins with a successive letter, though the received Hebrew manuscripts are missing alphabetically required verses here and there. The first four chapters of Lamentations follow a similar pattern, with the verses grouped into batches by the letters beginning their first word.

This is an introduction to a certain class of artistic features that I’ll call tinsel. Here are some more scrapings that artists have used to deck their firs.

First look at this poem by George Herbert. High school teachers adore this one, or at least figure that it’ll catch their students’ attention:

It’s called “Easter Wings”, and its clever conceit is that look, the poem looks like an angel’s wings when you turn it sideways! Proceed in a modern anthology of English poetry, and you’ll find variations on this theme, with words squeezed into the shape of ostriches or condoms or other things like that.

There is also such a thing as ‘found poetry’. This involves finding a snatch of text on a bottle of lotion or a grocery receipt, and calling it a poem, perhaps with a word or two added. Close kin is the ‘erasure’, which amounts to finding a scrap of writing and scratching out most of it to yield a penetratingly profound sequence of words. Look at this erasure I just made from the New York Times.

Next there are codes to be found in music. In The Marriage of Figaro, during Figaro’s climactic rant against fickle women, Mozart blows two horns together as a symbol of cuckoldry. Robert Schumann supposedly encoded the letters of his wife Clara’s name into his piano concerto in A-minor, so that the oboe’s melody begins with the notes C-H-A-A. The sequence B-A-C-H, for its part, has been written into over four hundred scores. (means in German-speaking countries, and means B-flat.) In February 2010, I was unfortunate enough to be at the premiere of Odna Zhizn, a clanging symphonic poem that you might be able to hum if you were an alien. The composer wrote in the program, if I remember right, that the piece’s notes spelled out the story of some woman’s life – but he wouldn’t tell us which notes or which woman. 

Then there is visual art with a backstory. This statue of an innocent girl, for example, is made of steel salvaged from a Francoist nunnery. This likeness of Willy Brandt is made of postage stamps from the DDR. This elephant is carved out of the bones of poachers. This kippah is sewn from the chest hair of an artist uncomfortable with Jewish masculinity. This building is exactly 1,776 feet tall.

Finally – I stop for mercy not exhaustion – , there’s the novel La disparition by Georges Perec, translated into English as A Void. Neither original nor translation contains a single instance of the letter e. Amazing! 

Hopefully you’ve grasped the common theme. These are all works of art whose main point lies in something other than the art itself. The emphasis is on a clever intellectual fact about the art. This fact is only visible to the contemplating brain, not the real senses of the person who listens to the poem or hears the concerto. 

Anyway, tinsel is always frivolous, whether spun in the fourteenth or the twenty-first century. An acrostic in an ancient Hebrew poem is excusable, because those poems are meant to be committed to memory, and frail human minds need as much support as they can get. Take away this excuse, and acrostics – like all gimmicks – become ostentatious and trivial.

I don’t think it gets mentioned enough that English-language Haikus are really bad.

crinkled autumn leaves
drifting gently into a teapot
it is almost dark.

Haikus have been held to be easy, but I’ve never understood that. An illiterate farmer can think up a native English poem at the plough, and sing it that evening at the free house. A haiku can’t be sung, and it needs pen and paper. (The above might be a haiku, or it might not, but you’ll have to check.) Easy? I can recite a hundred metrically complex stanzas of Horace, but I’ll never be able to get a single haiku into my head. If I didn’t know that this random arrangement of syllables was a culturally important form in Japan, I couldn’t tell a haiku from the words scrawled by vandals onto subway cars and called “Poetry in Motion.” Its only distinguishing merit among unmetered poems is that it ends mercifully quickly.

But worst of all is that a haiku’s touted feature – syllable-count – is something completely divorced from its substance, which is meant to be poetry. Haikus do not rely on the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, which nearly all English poetry does. Instead they are built on the raw number of syllables, which is effectively inaudible to anyone who isn’t counting. It is an art form predicated on a gimmick; tinsel all the way through.

I am not arguing for simple art; extreme complexity, both of themes and of execution, is in fact necessary (though not enough!) for the best effects. Nor am I saying that every aspect of a novel’s construction must be immediately apparent. But complexity, if it’s to exist, must be the tissue of the work itself; it cannot be an external ornament without being vain. (Ah, you’ll ask, but is there really a difference there? That question is not ennobled by its refined tone of voice. There is. It is the difference between 20,000 notes in K. 331 and 273 seconds in 4′33″.)

You might also object that ornaments are constraints, and constraints are good for art! It is dogma in academic fiction-factories that a piece of art is more likely to “work” if it is produced under restrictive conditions. This, like so much said by program-fictionmongers, is a rotten cob of falsehood that sports a single kernel of undecayed truth.

Which kernel is this: every schoolboy knows that it’s easier to be forced into a story about a three-legged dog and an octopus on a Thursday than to face a blank page with only a pen and an imagination. Even a professional author is better off if he has a frame to work in; otherwise he might spin aimless in chaos with nothing to go on. This is one justification for modern poetry that follows the old formal patterns, like Robert Frost’s and Richard Wilbur’s. It is a weak argument – but no strong argument is necessary – against the shapelessness of T. S. Eliot and everything after him.

Then again, I think the fictionmongers have it backwards. A formal work of art is not good because it is constrained. It is constrained because it is good. In other words, beautiful art will have a traditional form because, dare I say it, the traditional forms are beautiful. The art of the Renaissance was not sweet and lovely because it wanted to be formal; it was formal because it wanted to be sweet and lovely.

Man with goatee and pierced ear:
“I think this really works. It takes a risk for sure, but it grabs me.”

There is nothing, however, to be gained from constraining a work of art for the sake of constraining it. Artists who don’t see the beauty of the forms, and insist on using them anyway, are playing a sick intellectual game. Parenthesis closed.

The real reason I dislike tinsel is not that I hate frivolity. (Hell, The Mikado is one of my favorite things on earth.) I hate frivolity that replaces our quest after real art. Art, seen right, is the earthly form of human feeling. We are all vessels of a great human oversoul, and the feelings that stir that soul – however glimmering and subtle – can be incarnated by a craftsman whose mind goes deep enough and whose hands are nimble enough. Tinsel is an abuse of the holy craft. Wherever you find it, there a scheming brain has replaced a mind that might have sounded eternity. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Slaves of Duty

One of the problems of democracy on an imperial scale is that no individual can choose his political rulers any more than can a peasant under a pantocratic tsar. Even if the drones have seized power from the queen, there are still too many of them for bee No. 8,493A to have any say over the honey quota.

The ballot that I just mailed in might have been eaten by a goat, and I’d never know it. Seven million other ballots in New York will decide every election tomorrow without regard to my preferences. Yet I still live, somehow, under the conviction that the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City have more claim to my obedience than a well-born king.

In a small and close community, the meaning of a vote is different. Take an election for president of the golf club, or Campus Whigs treasurer, or Pope. That is the native soil of democracy: a small group choosing a leader from its own numbers. Cardinal Adina wants the zealous Nemorino to be the pope, but Nemorino is only the third-most-popular candidate, and a vote for him would hand the election to the libertine Dulcamara. So he grudgingly votes for Cardinal Belcore, who wins on the second ballot. Adina’s mind throughout is occupied by all kinds of delicate practical considerations, most of which stem from the following question: ‘how can I reconcile my sincere preferences with the reality that my vote might effect something other than I intend?’ If the College of Cardinals enacts instant-runoff voting by the time Belcore dies, the question becomes even simpler: ‘what do I sincerely prefer?’ And this is no idle question. Adina has the power in his hands to bestow power over the earth on one man or another.

Very different is an imperial election like ours, which is formal and indifferent to individual voters. Only a tiny few know the candidates face-to-face. No one stands to gain or lose respect for his vote, especially if it’s on a secret ballot. Most important, the effect that any given vote has on the election is nil. Everything like “Make sure to vote if you live in [swing state]” and “My vote will cancel out yours” and “voting for McMullin will empower an evil goon”—and FiveThirtyEights’s voter-power index—is blather based on the lie that any political power is in the hands of any person, or even any hundred persons.

What value is there at all in voting under these circumstances, except to signal your virtue to your Facebook friends, yourself and your family? Is there anything other than sickly self-polishing to prop up democratic citizenship? 

In the absence of a living democratic impulse, an imperial election, if it’s to justify itself, needs to make demands on a voter’s mind that are not practical. In order to feel really compelled to look into candidates and vote (assuming we’re not wonkish hobbyists), we need to resort to a sense of thankless duty to our republic. Not only is this possible; if we are to be proud republicans, it is obligatory. Our republic will not be saved by our sentimental affection for it, which can always wane; still less by any thin intellectual belief in democracy, which can always be refuted by a Russian who’s clever enough. It will be sustained by its citizens’ unconsidered obligation to love and uphold democracy, and therefore to weigh candidates and vote.

A vote is only pointless if you have identified having a point with having an influence. This is admittedly an understandable conclusion, for influence is a real thing that you can measure, and duty only an invisible precept. Mass democracy does not give anything real to her children: voting, seen for what it is, does not confer a sense of being important, or even of being wanted. But this all goes to show the sole point of voting comes from the fact that it’s something you just have to do. The only thing that can drag an honest voter to the polls is a spare conviction that he must go. Go, then.

Corollary: When you are in the booth, you are not being asked to swing the election. You are being asked to give your honest opinion, and nothing more, about the best candidate for the job in question. It’s been popular to write thinkpieces and counter-thinkpieces on the question of voting for a third-party candidate. My own piece of thought is that if you shrink from voting third-party out of fear of the consequences, you are throwing away the single benefit to be had from the powerlessness of your vote.

You are to vote because your conscience, not practical inducement, makes you do it. Why not vote with your conscience too? The inconsequence of your vote is disappointing if your goal was to be influential, but it can also free your conscience, which wants the best for your country, from the demands of tempering caution.

Full disclosure: I voted for Hillary Clinton. I did that because I thought she would be a better president than anyone else on the ballot. If there had been a better candidate, I would have voted for him, however unlikely to win.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

O lösche das Licht

The visible world is a dream, says Schopenhauer. All its characters are shadow-puppets and its events are unreal phantasmagoria. Like many dreams, it is projected onto the dreamer’s consciousness by his lurking, longing will.

Music, moreover, is another projection of the will, different from and equal to the seen world. It is actually realer than the visible world, for whereas the the will is expressed only symbolically by the world, music is its direct apparition—which is a miracle, because it is a temporal expression of something eternal and infinite.

Never have I felt this principle more keenly than last night. Somehow I secured a $25 ticket to the opening-night gala of the Metropolitan Opera, which was a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The opera has already been reviewed by Anthony Tommasini for the New York Timesmuch more ably by Seth Walls for The Guardian, and in Polish for Wyborcza, but you can get the best sense of the real spirit of the evening from the coverage in Vogue.
At the under-the-sea-themed gala dinner [for rich people after the opera], Met Opera general manager, Peter Gelb, noted that the evening’s performance was, “more riveting and moving than any debate and certainly more beneficial for mankind,” while chairman of the board Ann Ziff proudly explained that the near-five-hour opera had been transmitted live in Times Square, adding coyly that, “the opera trumped the presidential debate.”
Hamilton star Javier Muñoz, who took over the titular role from Lin-Manuel Miranda in July, was thrilled to spend five hours of his precious little time off listening to Wagner.
And so on. The evening started with a red-carpet pageant for TV cameras outside the front lobby. In came Alan Gilbert, in came Amy Adams (was it her?), in came René Pape with a backpack in one arm and a lace-draped woman in the other. When a particularly bejewelled lady arrived, the crowd gasped, for she must have been famous, and a short woman thrust herself to the front of the crowd to take a billion pictures of her. On the balcony above, the really powerful folks drank champagne and looked down on the spectacle.

Inside, the party bore an even closer resemblance to the Masque of the Red Death. One woman had a few peacock feathers stapled to her hat. A man in his eighties dangled a thirty-year-old date on his arm, who was cocooned a blinding-yellow cylinder of fabric. A chattering clutch of men in linen clothing were smeared in glittery makeup, their skin speckled with jewels.

I took my seat in the orchestra. The man in front of me was wearing inch-long sharpened nails, a floral hoodie with a matching shirt, a beard, and a long ponytail. He chatted in an extreme lilt with his date, and reeked of something unprintable in a family blog. In the midst of the audience was a woman in a dress so grotesquely enormous that it rustled flush against both sides of the aisle.

The lights dimmed, there was a drum roll, and the orchestra played the national anthem. I felt a sudden surge of patriotism, half-suspecting that my opportunities to enthusiastically sing the Star Spangled Banner were running out. The audience stumbled through the words, and claw-fingered ponytail man giggled with contempt for the song. Perhaps his suspicion was justified. “God bless America!” cried a man behind me. “Make America great again!” cried his wife. I turned and glowered at her; she simpered back.

Then the music began, and the production was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a stage. The sophisticated Polish director, Mariusz Treliński, had moved the action (as they say) from medieval Cornwall to Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Critical Hour. I’m serious: It looked like an Xbox game from 2006. There was a huge green radar disc projected onto the back wall. Instead of swords and hauberks the characters wore pistols and balaclavas. Everything was clanging and metallic. There was a naked woman in a cell below the stage for no reason, who got shot halfway through Act I for less reason. Sometimes there were computerised graphics during instrumental sections that must have been plagiarised from the iTunes visualiser. Good on you for updating the production, Mr Treliński. This one really resonated with the audience, who are obviously far more comfortable with gritty naval schlock than Arthurian romance. A medieval setting might have been appropriate for Wagner’s original 12th-century audience, but certainly not for us.

When the ship came to dock in Cornwall, some extras ran on stage with runway signal-lights: it was time for intermission #1. On the way to the men’s room I passed the VIP lounge. It was packed with smiling people eating cheese sandwiches served by solemn, obedient footmen. They talked about fashion and gurgled about Nina Stemme, oblivious to death and devouring time.

An audience at the Met can be divided into two parts. First are people who are there because it is a nice cultural experience. They have read the latest Knausgaard book, and they know that they like the opera in principle. They’re only ever really excited by Puccini’s schmaltz, but they can be brought around to something especially pretty in Mozart or Donizetti. They yell bravo to female singers and give standing ovations for everything. These are good-hearted, Hillary-voting Americans, and there is a place for them in the world to come.

The other set, who were there last night in far fuller force than usual, carry the whiff of evil. They are the powerful people who underwrite the whole thing. They are in a much sorrier condition: they despise the opera, but they must talk about how much they love this or that fashionable singer, or they will be cast from polite society. They dress in gems and dead animals.. They know not what they do.

I sat down and the second act’s prelude began, almost in time for The Claw in front of me to finish browsing Grindr. The curtain rose on a tall space-age platform operated by robotic machinery. But now not even Eurotrash could prevent me from really enjoying one of the most glorious works of music that’s ever been composed. Tristan and Isolde, drunk on a love-potion, curse the very world for keeping their souls apart from each other. They realise, as lovers usually do, that mere fleshy enmeshment gives only meagre satisfaction to the spirit. They promise, as lovers usually don’t, to die, melt into eternity, and become each other forever. They are plunged together into night, and they curse the looming daylight.

Brangæne, from offstage, began to sing the sublimest part of the opera: the dawn is breaking, and the lovers ought to beware the light. They cannot be sewn together forever. No gray morning illumined the stage at this point, but a violent fluorescent lamp and and then some more cybergraphics. I tried to shut my eyes, but the horrible light was so intense that it leaked through my eyelids.

There is a moment in every man’s life when he realises why he has strangled himself with a strip of fabric on every important day and night of his life. Mine was the 26th of September, 2016. When next the music swelled, I pulled my tie from out of my collar, and found that it was just wide and thick enough to make a blindfold. The opera became untellably better. I sank into a deep trance that lasted until the end of the act.

It was interrupted once, when I was shaken firmly by my chucking neighbour, a delightful Romanian woman, who whispered: ‘you have to see this.’ I lifted the blindfold to find Tristan and King Mark sitting in a bluish cellar on huge rubber barrels of hazardous waste, a big ventilating fan rotating lazily above them. I know the libretto, and the scene was not meant to have shifted since I had covered my eyes. But for some reason Treliński had gotten bored with cyborg watchtower, so TimeSplitters basement it was for the balance of Act II.

Act III, for which I heard completely blind, was without exaggeration one of the most intense experiences of my life. I spent a full hour and a half in a tunnel of darkness, prey to the most savagely beautiful music that has ever filtered up to mortals from the abyss.

Halfway through the act, Tristan sings the following stanza, in his extreme pain at losing Isolde:

Out of my father’s misery, and my mother’s pain; out of lovers’ eternal tears; out of laughing and weeping, joys and smarts; I found the poisonous draught! I brewed it; it flowed to me. I sucked it with joy. But curse you, fearful draught! and curse the one who brewed you!

We might expect Tristan to curse the drink that made him love Isolde. But that’s not quite it: the draught he describes here was brewed long before even he was alive. It is eternal lust for life, which has driven every lover to madness since the beginning of time. It is the curse that forces men to spend their lives under the intruding sun, which keeps them from what their souls desire most passionately: union and nothingness. Tristan does not curse his own love-potion, at least not specifically. He denounces the entire experience of mankind from beginning to end; it is a train of horrible sorrows, honeyed by transient joys. His exultation in ripping himself free of individual existence is one of the most stirring and disturbing moments in Western drama.

By Isolde’s last monologue—the so-called love-death, I was so wrapped up in the music that, without any visual stimulation, I forgot where I was. I saw myself plunged into a lake on a starry night, and then somersaulted into heaven, where the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy. Then the stars themselves folded up, the firmament collapsed, and I saw the creation of the world. The music resolved and there was nothing.

Somehow the audience managed to clap; I sat stupid in my seat, and only staggered feebly to my feet when it was time to boo the production team. I walked out gulping for air into Lincoln square, politely pushing by Countess Peacock-Staple as I went. The throngs of cabs and irritable New Yorkers seemed all right after all: it was just a dream.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Marius, a Fragment

This is most of what’s left of Cicero’s poem Marius.

The feathered thrall of Jove the Thunderer
Springs now at once from out a hollow stump,
Snakebitten. She tears with her wild claws
The half-dead serpent; as she flicks her neck,
He writhes; she rips him with her gory beak,
And now her lust is fed; her pains revenged.
She throws him dead and mangled to the waves,
And turns from the West into the splendid East.
When Marius, the augur of the god
Beheld her gliding with her wings aloft,
He marked so glad a token of his fame.
The Father of Heaven thundered on the left;
Thus Jove confirmed the eagle’s doubtless sign.

Hic Jovis altisoni subito pinnata satelles
Arboris è trunco serpentis saucia morsu
Subrigit ipsa feris transfigens unguibus anguem
Semianimum & varia graviter cervice micantem.
Quem se intorquentem lanians rostroque cruentans
Jam satiata animos jam duros ulta dolores
Abjicit efflantem & laceratum adfligit in unda
Seque obitu à solis nitidos convertit ad ortus.
Hanc ubi præpetibus pinnis lapsuque volantem
Conspexit Marius divini numinis augur
Faustaque signa suæ laudis reditusque notavit
Partibus intonuit cæli pater ipse sinistris.
Sic aquilæ clarum firmavit Juppiter omen.

Friday, August 19, 2016

From Way up Here

If you were lifted high enough above the earth to see it all at once, what would it look like? This question has nagged human beings for at least two thousand years. It is not only a matter of boyish curiosity. Seeing the whole earth, it’s been supposed, gives you a philosophical understanding of the great stage on which the entire human drama plays out. No wonder then that this hypothetical question troubled humankind, and first the Romans, masters of the world.

The earliest use of the trope I can find is in Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, an episode that comes at the very end of his De re publica. In the story Cicero tells, it’s 146 BC, and Scipio, the general at the head of Rome’s African legions, is on the verge of conquering and razing Carthage, vaulting Rome to dominance of the whole known earth. But on the eve of battle he dreams, and is lifted up by the ghost of his grandfather to the Milky Way, from where he sees the orb of the world. He says:
I saw stars which we never see from the ground, and all of their vastness, which we never dreamt could exist. The smallest one was among them, farthest from the height of heaven, shining closest to earth with borrowed light. Now the spheres of the stars easily overwhelmed the size of the earth. And now the earth itself looked so small to me that I was pained at our Empire, by which we have grasped only the tiniest point of it. 
Scipio’s grandfather soon speaks:
You behold the seat and home of men. If it seems small to you – and it is surely small – then look always at the things in heaven, and spurn human affairs! And you, what fame among men, what glory can you gain from the Earth?
It is no accident that this musing comes at the end of a work on politics. Empire-building, which to a Roman made a man into a god, is now seen in its proper context. The great state looks from the ground like it’s the biggest thing; but it’s not even close; seen against the depths of space, it’s just as little and vain as private life.

One hundred years later, Seneca had the same thought, but the zealous Stoic expressed it more fervently and personally than Cicero had:
Happy is the one who wanders among the stars themselves, and laughs at the avenues of riches, and the earth with all its gold…When he travels around the whole world, he can spurn porticos, and ceilings that shine with ivory, and manicured woodlands, and channels of water that pass through mansions. Looking down on the earth from above, narrow and covered with the sea; in a large part ugly, burned, or frozen, he says to himself: This, then, is that point which is split up between so many peoples by fire and sword? Oh, how laughable are the borders of mortals! … If anyone gave the mind of men to ants, would not they too divide a single patch of sand into many provinces? But when you yourself are carried to the true heights of the cosmos, countless times you’ll see armies going about with waving flags, as if something important were happening. ... For the comings and goings of suffering man in such a narrow space are really the scurryings of ants. What separates us from them except the sizes of our tiny bodies? The earth is but a point in which you sail, in which you wage war, in which you set up kingdoms; tiny kingdoms, even if they reach the Ocean on all sides. But there are vast spaces above, which the soul might come to possess so long as she takes as little of the body along with it as possible; if she scours herself of everything base, and if unshackled, light, and happy, she soars calmly upward. Seneca, Naturales Quæstiones, pref. 7–11
Here we have an way out from the earth more clearly outlined. It is impossible to do anything that isn’t petty under the sun, but it is possible to live a life on celestial lines that transcends the mud and pain of the world.

The last example is from Pliny, who interpolated the following paragraph into his Natural History after describing the earth’s parts.
Consider the extent of so many rivers and great swamps; add the lakes, ponds, and heaven-scraping and harsh mountains; add forests, steep valleys, deserts and lands empty for a thousand reasons; take away all these parts from the earth—or, as most say, from the point of the world (for the world is but a point in the cosmos): this is the stuff of our glory; this the seat. Here we struggle for honour; here we exercise power; here we long for wealth; here we enrage the human race; here we wage war, even civil war; here we butcher ourselves to increase our own lands! Pliny the Elder, Nat. Hist. II.lxviii.174–5
Another bit of Cicero: “What looks great in human affairs
to a man who knows all eternity and the measure of the earth?”
These examples all tell the same story. The world is a tiny smudge against the background of the entire universe. It is dwarfed both by the physical expanse of space and by the deep well of time that it’s plunged in. It is, in a word, unimportant. The moral consequences of this astronomical observation follow readily: everything that a human being does on earth is futile. Human designs are born in a day and die in a day; and though it seems from the ground that an earthly conquest is vast, or that human happiness is in harmony with the universe, in fact it is all vanity and striving after wind.

Furthermore: for all three of these writers, the vision of the earth should impress on us the desire to transcend the world with our virtue. Nothing in the world stays, but virtue is eternal, or at least allows us to participate in the eternal cosmic order that dwarfs our earth. It is not hard to imagine the Christian application of this principle. For Thomas Browne in the Religio Medici (cf. §12), and for Pascal in his Penseés, the thought of the earth’s smallness was enough to make it contemptible. The tiny earth can perish; eternal God is there lurking outside it, and his human sons can join him.

These thoughts were immensely influential on Western intellectual history. Of course, for two millennia after Cicero wrote the Dream of Scipio, the thought of seeing the world from afar was purely hypothetical, and no one dreamt that it ever might be actually possible. Nevertheless, as we’ve seen, a small group of common tropes was able to grow up around seeing the earth from afar:
  1. The world is a tiny point in the huge and dark universe.
  2. We only inhabit a tiny portion of that point.
  3. Human beings think we can achieve something of cosmic value on the earth. But we are prevented both by our tininess in relation to the earth and the earth’s in relation to the cosmos.
  4. The cruelty committed for the sake of gaining property, fame, and land is therefore utterly pointless.
  5. Human beings, then, must set our minds and lives on higher things than the lowly earth.
It is worth repeating that these five principles were conceived before anyone ever had what we would call an astronomical view of the earth from afar. They were born from an original insight into the vanity and smallness of man’s life, and cultivated by the classical tradition.

This changed in the beginning of 1990, when NASA’s Voyager 1 probe was on the verge of leaving the solar system. Carl Sagan had been nagging NASA for a decade with an odd request: to turn the probe’s cameras around and take a final photograph of the earth, as best as it could be made out from nearly four billion miles away. On 14 February, NASA agreed to his request and ordered the Voyager craft to take the photograph. Here is what its cameras sent home:

That’s us halfway up the rightmost sunbeam.
Sagan said the following about this photograph shortly before his death.
We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity—in all this vastness—there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Most of this is in keeping with what we have already seen. Sagan hit points 1–4 of the list which I gave above. He expressed the small-earth commonplace just as beautifully as Cicero had, and reformulated it for twentieth-century humankind, which had just been forced by space-travel to consider anew its own place in space and eternity.

In fact, Sagan’s agreement with the ancients is astonishing. He repeated the Roman commonplaces about the ‘pinprick earth’ so closely that I’m tempted to wonder why he thought it was necessary to take the photograph at all. There are two possibilities for the similarity: first, the sight of the earth from space produced in Sagan’s mind exactly the thoughts which had struck Cicero, Pliny and Seneca. Or Sagan was borrowing, whether consciously or unconsciously, from the classical sources.

The latter is more likely. To show this it’s almost enough to say that Carl Sagan was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago from 1951–4. Chicago undergraduates, as I can attest, read the classics. (That’s /rɛd/—now they’re mostly free to study things like Global Cultures of Exchange.) In that time Sagan wrote a notebook that survives in the Library of Congress. It records Sagan’s notes on dozens of books on philosophy, stretching from Aristotle to Max Weber. This document reveals an wide-ranging mind, or at least a mind that had been exposed to an admirably broad curriculum. Here was a young man for whom Aquinas was as familiar a figure as Tycho Brahe or Charles Darwin. I cannot find a direct reference to the Dream of Scipio in this particular notebook. But it only covers a single year of Sagan’s education, and I would be surprised to learn if he didn’t eventually get around to Cicero’s philosophical works, whether as part of the Common Core or in his own reading; whether at Chicago or afterwards.

One thing is left to say. Sagan agreed with the ancients that the earth is pitifully small, that human labours are trivial, and that war is a stupid contest among puffed-up men. But he differed crucially from them on one point: he did not subscribe to point 5 of the list above. He did not insist that human beings find their happiness elsewhere than the earth. To quote the last paragraph again: “To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

This is twentieth-century humanism making war against the old Western pessimism. The difference cannot be explained by the fact that Sagan had actually, and the Romans only mentally, seen the earth from heaven. Sagan made no innovation on Cicero or Pliny that necessarily relied on the NASA photograph. We are looking at no scientific advancement, but a philosophical innovation.

A certain line of thought runs all the way down Western history, according to which human beings derive all the worth of their lives from somewhere besides their earthly life. Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man was a famous expression of it. We are strange hybrids, he said, with our feet on earth and our eyes gazing at the sky. If we are to be worthwhile beings, we will choose the heavens over the earth, devoting ourselves to virtue and God, shunning the disgusting lusts of our animal nature. Pico thought that human beings were dignified, not for being earthly humans, but but because humanity had access to the glories of heaven. This sky-seeking contempt for the world infuses all of the pre-modern passages that I’ve cited here.

Sagan’s humanism had a very different cast. Human happiness, he thought, is not to be found in some heavenly virtue, but in man’s own efforts to act decently. The great sky, in this view of things, is not the seat of goodness: it is merely a reminder of the ultimate smallness—and preciousness—of humanity’s native gifts. We are to win peace, beauty, and justice by improving the earth, not by looking for them in heaven.

On the other hand, it’s worth emphasising Sagan’s similarity with the Romans over his differences. The reason becomes clear when we consider what might be thought upon contemplating the earth. Sagan contended that a tender and pacifistic spirit is a natural result of looking at the earth from far away. But it certainly isn’t: someone looking at the earth from far away could come to very different conclusions. As a professor recently pointed out to me, Harry Lyme in The Third Man also sees human beings from far away, atop the Vienna ferris wheel – and comes to very different conclusions. ‘Look down there,’ he says. ‘Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?’

With this possibility in mind, the peace-loving, moral outlooks of Cicero and Sagan look awfully similar after all. It’s a fantasy to think that simply looking at the small earth will sow any specific set of thoughts into an unprompted mind. A given observer could come up with really anything; whether humanist or anti-humanist, triumphant or melancholy, religious or reprobate. Hence the importance of tradition, which gave Sagan something authoritative, old, and sane to say—and a warm love of mankind, which gave him grounds for innovation.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Neptune’s Day

NEPTUNALIA, a festival of Neptune, celebrated at Rome, of which very little is known (Varro, de Ling. Lat. VI.19). The day on which it was held, was probably the 23d of July. In the ancient calendaria this days is marked as Nept. ludi et feriæ, or Nept. ludi, from which we see that the festival was celebrated with games. Respecting the ceremonies of this festival nothing is known, except that the people used to build huts of branches and foliage, in which they probably feasted, drank, and amused themselves (Horat. Carm. III.28.1, &c.; Tertull. De Spect. 6).  
—Leonhard Schmitz, in William Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (John Murray, London, 1875).
Horace, Odes, III.28, my translation

Hearty Lydë, for Neptune’s day,
     What’s more fitting than this? Pour out our hidden store;
Go, unbarrel the Cæcuban,
     And drive reason away; ruin its mighty seat.

Now you see that the noonday sun
     Bends to the west, yet you would spare the wine
Which was barrelled ere forty years?
     Thinkst that flittering time stands for a single hour?

I will sing of the Ocean’s god,
     You, of the briny braids wrapped on the Nerieds.   
Then you’ll play with a bending lyre
     Songs of Leto the old; songs of her daughter’s shafts.

Next the goddess of Cnidon’s shrine
     Earns the height of our songs, guard of the shining isles,
where she rides in a train of swans;
     Last we’ll mourn for the Night, uttering quiet songs.

Horace, III.28

Festo quid potius die
     Neptuni faciam? Prome reconditum,
Lyde, strenua Cæcubum
     Munitæque adhibe vim sapientiæ.

Inclinare meridiem
     Sentis? ac veluti stet volucris dies,
Parcis deripere horreo
     Cessantem Bibuli consulis amphoram.

Nos cantabimus invicem
     Neptunum et viridis Nereïdum choros,
Tu curva recines lyra
     Latonam et celeris spicula Cynthiæ;

Summo carmine, quae Cnidon
     Fulgentisque tenet Cycladas et Paphum
Junctis visit oloribus;
     Dicetur merita Nox quoque nenia.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


Horace, Odes, I.5.

Say, which delicate lad, wreathed in such teeming flowers,
Streaming sweet with perfume, presses himself on you,
     In that beautiful grotto?
          Why have you braided your flaxen hair,

Pyrrha, goodly and neat? Ah, he will sob for faith,
And for gods who have changed, and for the wild sea;
     Wondering how it has happened
          That its waves are gone dark with wind.

He enjoys you for now, trusting in fairy-gold;
Hopes you’ll ever be gay, ever a pleasant sprite,
     Little knowing how breezes
          Fail one! Miserable lads are they

Whom you dazzle untried. I for my part have hung
All my watery clothes (sayeth the sacred wall)
     Up to Neptune the mighty
          Who delivered me from the deep.

Horace Od. I.5

Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa
Perfusus liquidis urget odoribus
     Grato, Pyrrha, sub antro?
          Cui flavam religas comam,

Simplex munditiis? Heu quotiens fidem
Mutatosque deos flebit et aspera
     Nigris æquora ventis
          Emirabitur insolens,

Qui nunc te fruitur credulus aurea,
Qui semper vacuam, semper amabilem
     Sperat, nescius auræ
          Fallacis. Miseri, quibus

Intemptata nites. Me tabula sacer
Votiva paries indicat uvida
     Suspendisse potenti
          Vestimenta maris deo.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Two Promises

The American republic turns 240 today–twice the span of the longest conceivable human life. Two Moseses living back to back would not see from one end to the other.

This means that something other than natural human tradition or human memory needs to guarantee the republic’s long-term survival. Humans are flighty people: personal loyalty can’t usually last beyond the first generation. This is what a founding myth and its culture heroes are for. The Asmat have Biriwipitsj beheading Desoipitsj, the Jews have Moses on Sinai, the Germans had Henry the Fowler, and we Americans have the Declaration of Independence. If American liberty is going to survive, this is the myth that should be read and understood by schoolchildren. It should be graven on our minds far more deeply than the prosaic Constitution of 1793. There is another reason to do this besides simple continuity: the Republic is so old that it is liable to take its existence for granted, failing to imagine any alternative to existence. Complacency and ossification are predicable consequences. (The old, relatedly, have a harder time contemplating death than the young. They are deeper into the habit of being alive.) 

Here, then, in honor of July fourth, is our Founders’ Creed:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –  
[and] that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
These statements are the bedrock of our civilisation, which has triumphantly rejected old-European power-lust and despotism. The people are promised two things: their rights, and the freedom to choose their own destiny. These promises run together seamlessly if they’re read out in solemn enough a tone. 

But I am afraid that the two promises of the Declaration—(a) rights and (b) government by the consent of the governed—might be growing ever less compatible. Worse, and here’s the real danger, they are in danger of being seen as ever less compatible. This means trouble for elite support of democracy 

Cambridge’s reaction to the Brexit referendum has kept this on my mind for the last week. It is axiomatic at Cambridge—in public, at any rate—that Brexit is an utter catastrophe; a racist and nitwitted reaction to the modern world. I went to a lecture last week on Carolingian palaeography, and the fifteen-minute introduction was devoted to a mournful reflection on the state of Britain; phrased as if ‘the events of last week’ had been a forest fire or a freak hurricane, not something that most of the country actively endorsed. Contempt for the masses is rife. And cue Mary Beard, Cambridge classicist, to write an article in the TLS explaining that the referendum, though touted as democracy, wasn’t really the voice of the people; in oder to get at that, we would need something more ‘radical’. She facetiously offered the cute solution of Athenian ostracism; what she really meant, though, is that democracy can’t be called ‘re-empowering’ enough until it produces what Mary Beard wants, or what she thinks the people want. 

(This is your periodic reminder that Dr Beard once went to the mat with Boris Johnson over the question ‘which is better: Greece or Rome?’) 

This is Boaty McBoatface all over again. The elites ask the people what they want; they say what they want, and the elites say ‘well, we’ll be kind and assume that you couldn’t possibly want something so horrible as that.’ This does not mean that the people cannot be deluded, or that the elites are wrong just for being elites. But it says something about powerful cosmopolitans’ attitude to powerless provincials. They are not to be trusted with their own fates; let alone the fate of the London elites themselves; let extremely alone the fate of Europe.

In a sense, Dr Beard’s insistence that the Brexit vote wasn’t really democratic is a relief, for it gives intellectual space for elites to maintain both their power and their respect for ‘democratic’ rule. (Nevertheless, the claim that the referendum was sham-democracy is so specious and sore-loserish that it can’t last for long.) We will really be in trouble when elites begin distinguish democracy from the protection of rights, for then a choice will have to be made between the two. And then we’ll all be at the mercy of powerful men’s discretion as to which rights and which bits of democracy are worth protecting. America is far further down this path than Britain: it is common to hear praise for the unelected Supreme Court as the only safe protector of liberty.

In May, after Trump had won the Republican primary, I wrote:
Like it or not, the people have spoken. And they might very well speak again on the eighth of November, choosing the man who loves them, unlike the simultaneously icy and unctuous progressive elite. Trump is ludicrous, and unlike that boat, frightening. But he is what a majority of Americans might want. …
In the West, democracy is still treated as a ritual worth protecting, but it is now in danger of producing something too awful for progressives to swallow. And we might end up seeing where American progressives’ commitments really lie: not with democracy, but with progressive dominance.
Brexit has only made me more afraid of this possibility. I would have voted to remain, and by God I’m voting against Trump in November. But I care more about the survival of democracy than I do about preventing Trump’s candidacy, and would line up behind him in a heartbeat in order to honor the Declaration of Independence.

The problem is that my loyalty is to rights as well as democracy. It might happen that President Trump will step on the rights that we hold to be self evident, finally dissolving the 240-year marriage of humane government and democracy. If that day comes, I will stop considering myself bound by his laws. But until it does, I’ll be willing to swallow egregious foolishness out of my stupid faith that the people are capable of ruling themselves wisely.

Happy July fourth. I hope that our descendants will be celebrating 240 years hence. I don’t know what can done practically, but I can repeat the wish of a man who worshipped democracy more keenly than any other person in the republic’s history.
We highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Friday, June 24, 2016

St John’s Day

Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, written back to back at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, represent a single, two-headed philosophy. They are based on the same philosophical principle, which Richard Wagner had read in Schopenhauer: The visible world is an expression of insatiable will, and since the world is divided against itself, there is never any satisfaction to be had by any particular instantiation of that will, whether rabbit or philosopher. Seen from another angle, an individual creature’s desires are unlimited, but its capacity to sate them is strictly limited. This means that conscious life is frustrating and disappointing by its very nature.

(This thought was not original to Schopenhauer by any means. It is the kernel of Koheleth, the Theravāda, and of the early Christians. Giacomo Leopardi, by Schopenhauer’s own admission, elaborated the frustration of human desires far more clearly than he did.)

Now, this way of thinking—infelicitously called “pessimism”—is not inherently tragic. In in Wagner’s mind, at least, it was simply the way things are; and capable of bearing both grimness and mirth. Tristan and Die Meistersinger are twin expressions of pessimism, but the former is a horrible tragedy and the latter a lighthearted comedy. Schopenhauer’s pessimism pervades both operas equally.

Tristan is a portrait of wild frustration from beginning to end. It opens with Isolde’s fierce complaint against Tristan, who killed her betrothed lover Morold. Tristan and Isolde drink the love potion and long to be dissolved into each other. But it’s not long that they find each other alone before Brangäne warns them that the dawn is coming, and with it the interrupting king. Only death can answer their passion for each other.

Tristan und Isolde is a play of desire hurling itself, ever vainly, against the walls of the world. The world isn’t even evil—King Mark is an all-right chap, after all. It’s just inconvenient. But that changes nothing: the world of sunlight and human beings is enough, just by being itself, to staunch every human desire. (Hardy: “These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.”)

Die Meistersinger has the same philosophy, but its characters come out all right. This is partly because that the dangerous love affair is consciously aborted by the prudent lovers. Schopenhauer had advised this tactic in book IV of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, counselling that ascetic denial of the will and its erotic loves was the only way out of human suffering.

But there is another opportunity that Wagner suggested for overcoming the will. He spoke through Hans Sachs. Sachs begins his famous monologue with Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn: madness, madness, everywhere madness! Men, women, children eat each other alive. The world is all askew; a goblin did it; the glowworm’s lost his mate; and there’s no staunching the train of longings that want impossible satisfaction from the physical world. These words are spoken at night. But then the sun comes up and Sachs cries:
How peacefully in her firm customs,
trusting in deed and work,
in the middle of Germany
lies my beloved Nuremberg!
It is dawn on the 24th of June, St John’s Day. The shortest, softest night of the year is over, and the sun comes up warm and benign. Men and women set about saving themselves when it shines. We see a country dance at the beginning of the opera’s finale, and the craftsmen of Nuremberg lustily boast their trades: the tailors, the bakers, the cordwainers have their part, and finally, the crown of all the craftsmen, the master-singers. Poetry and singing are chief of the crafts, because they are the hardest and the noblest.

We are shown a way out: the characters leave the night-world of Tristan und Isolde without ceasing to recognise the stifling fruitlessness of the world. They live in the daylight for a day. They take pride in their sweated work, they sing their carefully sawn songs, they scoff at the entanglements of love, they bow to their elders, and they are loosed from the lusting will.

Of course, firm roots are necessary for this: pride in one’s life and labour cannot exist under the colossal thumb of an alien city. A man cannot make a song if he has no material to build it with, any more than if he has no breath with which to bring the old materials to life. It is a grim fact that Nuremberg has been burnt into ashes, and rebuilt as a tourist’s Disneyland.

The sudden and recent strangling of tradition aside, there is still a way to vanquish the will in the daytime. Just like in Wagner’s century, there is still one night a year that is nearly vanquished, besieged on both sides by the creeping evening and dawn. A man was born that night—it can be us!—who walked free in the desert, eating honey and living with the lions. What is sweeter than honey; what is sweeter than a lion?