Monday, November 23, 2015

800 Words: Left in Dark Times: Liberalism and The Right Wing Left Wing, Paris, Beirut, ISIL, Bernard-Henri Levy, and America - F-K


  • 11,300,000 undocumented residents of the US.
  • 30,000 gun deaths a year and 300,000,000 privately owned guns.
  • 8,000,000 unemployed, another 5,500,000 also unemployed but not seeking work
  • Nearly $20,000,000,000,000 in debt.
  • 3,000 lobbyists merely to represent banks in Washington, accompanied by untold thousands of regulatory lawyers, research staffs, think tank analysts, and public relations firms, for which banks are paying untold billions of dollars to create favorable policies.
  • Americans consume 1,850,000,000 barrells (1 barrell = 42 gallons) a day, and have enough natural gas pipelines within its borders to cover the distance from the Earth to the Moon at last 7 times.
  • At least 7 lost nuclear weapons.

These are just some of the problems of America that could destroy the world…


“Isn’t America, for such people (who hate it pathologically), guilty of starving the world and of flooding it with its commodities? Of ruining the climate and of pillaging the planet’s resources? Isn’t it guilty of fighting terrorism and stirring it up? Of making war on Islamism after having encouraged and nourished it? Of being a country without a culture that is flooding the world with its culture? Of being the homeland of materialism that at the same time is the seat of a spiritual revolution that is as grotesque as it is fanatical? Of having been too late to enter the war against Hitler…--and, when it finally made up its mind, of using methods that could have been Hitler’s?...”

  • Bernard-Henri Levy - Left in Dark Time


“Far, far away, in the New World, a real place, not a dreamland or a paper construction--where, we’re told, people have come from every end of the earth, people with different skin colors, different languages, different histories and traditions, different gods, different heroes, have decided to come together, to agree on a contract and to gather in a nation--there is a country, America, where Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s project, that almost unthinkable doctrine that all people needed to do was make up their minds, then say it and swear to it, in order to create a political body left the skies and descended earthward, where it actually came to pass.

At first, nobody can believe it.

They say it’s so absurd that it can’t last.

It goes against the grain of things and it will necessarily fail.

They say, they repeat: it’s nothing, it’s ridiculous, a remake of Glaucon’s “City of Swine” in the Republic, an experiment, a flash in the pan--it will fall just as it rose, in a cloud of dust and a burst of laughter, once reality strikes.

But here we are.

Time goes by.

The experiment has staying power.

The country Renan thought was impertinent scoffs at the serious nations.

The impossible state becomes a power, a real one, that in 1898 declares war on a large European country, Spain, and wins.

The country on paper becomes a prosperous nation as well as a political actor of the first importance which intervenes once, and then again, in the affairs of Europe: and which, during World War II, saves it.

In the darkest hours of that dark age, moreover, while a whole segment of humanity is threatened with being washed away in the flood of Hitler’s hatred, that country becomes a a place of hospitality and asylum unequaled anywhere else on the planet, making the mocked, condescended to America a gigantic Noah’s ark.

Even better: while Husserl warned us in his Prague and Vienna lectures, the idea of Europe is about to sink utterly; while in Germany, from the heart of Europe, a regime claiming to unify the continent under its leadership is busily emptying that continent of its substance, amputating the best of itself, destroying its very soul, it is once again America, that supposedly “soulless” country, drunk on “materialism” and therefore “devoid of spirit,” which, in an extraordinary return, like that remainder of Israel that the biblical prophets said saved what it can from the times of catastrophe and holocaust, grabbed from the lames of nihilism the works, the books, what’s left of the libraries, the remains of the values and the people who will allow, when the time is right, to reignite the flame, the other one, the unconquered lights of the Europe of Husserl and Kant.

First, all those great minds--all those German and French Romantics, all those who were opposed to the spirit of the Enlightenment and of Rousseau--were terribly wrong, and the very fact of America--the reality of this nation made of men of different origins, of blacks and whites, of Europeans and non-Europeans, of Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Indians, Asians--is the living proof of their mistake.

Second, when traditional nations engage in the apparently unstoppable process of collective suicide; when the disaster is unleashed by those nations that ended up taking most seriously the “natural” and “anti-Enlightenment” program that had been opposed to America for two centuries; when neighboring nations, with their ancient ways of knowing and doing, with their heavy jaws and their bodies so nicely rooted in the supposed soil of their antique and collective history, throw up their hands in the face of the Beast, or frankly take his side, it’s the little, fragile, precarious upstart, the one we thought was so congenitally defective that it would hardly be able to walk without crutches--so you think it’s going to rush to someone else’s rescue!--that little upstart comes to our aid and saves us.

European anti-Americanism is born there.

From that humiliation.

Or, to put it more precisely, from a double and repeated humiliation.

First of all, more recently, from the classic resentment of the debtor toward his benefactor.”

  • BHL: Left in Dark Times


And here is where it gets tricky. Both Levy and his friend, the philosopher Pascal Bruckner describe Europe as suffering from a reverse Oedipus complex about America in which the mother loathes the child upon whom she’s become dependent.

Yet, in 2015, who hates who more? All throughout the American heartland, there are conservatives who loathe the social welfare programs upon which, by every statistical measurement, they are particularly dependent over all other American regions. They loathe the modern welfare state, which they see as a  of weak, fragile, decadent, European social democracy.

Modern European social democracy came in the 40’s and 50’s out of the success of Roosevelt’s New Deal; but Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs - the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, medicare, medicaid, Social Security reform, Job Corps, National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities - all these programs happened because of the demonstrable success of the European welfare states. In that sense, Western Europe is very much the mother of modern American welfare, and just as Western Europe resents its dependence on America, Middle America resents its dependence upon Western Europe.

This paradox is still more complicated by European hypocrisy. When considering the success of European social democracy, please remember these three things:

  1. These countries can be so extravagant in their social programs because they exist under the shield of American military might and its $670,000,000,000 per annum budget.
  2. It is comparatively easy to create the trust required for a functional a social welfare state in which nearly everyone shares the same ethnic background, history, and race. Europe took care of the racial problem that causes Americans’ mistrust of one another in the most grotesque way imaginable. The increasing presence of Muslims in Europe is eroding trust in the European social contract, and a full 20 percent of Europeans are already re-embracing incarnations of that old, extremely grotesque way to solve the same problem…
  3. Do I really need to remind anyone that when Europe’s military that oversaw the world, their record of conduct was not even as decent as the Americans?

This is an Oedipus complex in which each side is both parent and child!


If we toppled Saddam in Iraq just to have an unlimited oil supply, wouldn’t it have been easier just to make a deal with him?


...when John Le Carre tells us, in The Constant Gardener, how pharmaceutical laboratories are “white collar arms dealers, who, hidden away in their offices, are organizing genocide in Africa”, when Le Monde diplomatique writes, based on fragile at the least and sometimes frankly delirious evidence, how a company like Nestle, flagship of the Empire, is promoting--the better to sell its products--a baby formula it knows will easily kill a million and a half infants per year; when the same Monde diplomatique starts talking about Synarchism, a kind of Trilateral Commission, with its Platonic ideal of invisible “sentinels” watching over the interests of the “Triad” and exercising, in so doing, a power that is as total as it is “diffuse, opaque, and almost unfathomable”; when, added to this myth of the Trilateral Commission sinking its fangs into the planet, the better to dominate it, comes--in the same text and in others of the same ilk--the notion of a power that is limitless because it is completely hidden from view, belonging to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the Aspen and Davos forums, or the Bilderberg Group; when, finally, the Iraq War, support for Israel, the idea of Turkey entering Europe--in a word, the entire foreign policy of the United States--can be explained by the secret agenda of a group of neoconservatives, who we take care, in passing, to mention, ever so gently, are mostly Jewish and have taken over the president’s brain, we’re on a completely different terrain. This is no longer analysis but magic. We’re no longer talking about concepts; we’re talking about the occult. We’re showing a world whose motor is no longer class struggle, creation of value, contradictory interests, or even the passions of men, but a game involving masks and hidden motives, a taste for disguises and the desire to see through them, the return of hidden imams, doublespeak, the false-bottomed suitcases of reality.... This huffing and puffing; this policeman-like approach; this obsession with manipulations, intoxications, and other disinformations; this desire to give their activists an explanation for the things that have been hidden since the disorganization of the world; this regime of coherence that is a bit too perfect, in which everything is hidden in everything else; and, on the other hand, this shadowy unity, this system of generalized correspondences… Anti-Americanism was the progressivism of the imbecile: will anti-imperialism become the conspiracy mongering of the major intellectuals?...

We see a world in which the masters of the Empire, their allies, their clients, are the bad guys--and the good guys are those who resist them, with arms if possible.

We see a world in which, on the one hand, we have the United States, its English poodle, its Israeli lackey--a three headed gorgon that commits all the sins in the world--and, on the other side, all those who, no matter what their crimes, their ideology, their treatment of their own minorities, their internal policies, their anti-Semitism and their racism, their disdain for women and homosexuals, their lack of press freedom and of any freedom whatsoever, are challenging the former.

What happens, then, when you’re not a member of this anti-Empire front?

Who are you if you aren’t Chavez, nor Ahmadinejad, nor Al Qaeda, nor even Fidel Castro…

What happens to you if you think, like a Burundian Tutsi, that the fantasy of Hutu Power, and not a scheme carried out by a Texas oilman, is the source of your problems? Or, like a survivor of the extermination of the Nuba, in the most distant corner of the Sudan, that it’s your uniqueness that singled you out for misfortune and explains the determination of the Islamist regime in Khartoum to get rid of you? What is your place in the world if you’re Sri Lankan and caught not between the forces of the Empire and the anti-Empire but--much more simply, and, unfortunately, prosaically--between the Tamil Tigers and the government army in Colombo? What happens to you if you’re Burmese, Tibetan, a Syrian Kurd, a Liberian? What’s to become of you if the disaster you’re dealing with has nothing to do with the evil of the Empire, its conspiracies, its plots--but everything to do with the corruption, for example, of a state apparatus, or of unscrupulous national elites?

Well, nothing.

You’re out of luck.

No right to complain, and therefore no right to survive….

You’re a hundred times less important, a thousand times less interesting to progressive consciences, who have much less reason to fret about your particular case than about, for example, a humiliated-Muslim-who-has-resorted-to-terrorism-in-response-to-that-humiliation.

That’s the problem.

That’s the crime of those who think that the Empire/anti-Empire division is the greatest question of the day and that the rest, everything else, has to be subordinate to it...

...some weak notions notions derive a potent energy from their very weakness; [this is] a real concept, a whole theory--a theorem, strictly speaking--which, together with anti-Americanism, hatred of Europe, and rejection of liberalism, might have a bright future ahead.

In any case, it’s certain that this is what the concept of Empire is about.

It’s certain that its only real function is to annihilate whole chapters of contemporary history, killing, one more time, millions of men and women, whose first crime was being born and whose second was dying the wrong way.

BHL: Left in Dark Times

Saturday, November 21, 2015

800 Words: Left in Dark Times: Liberalism and The Right Wing Left Wing, Paris, Beirut, ISIL, Bernard-Henri Levy, and America - A-E


What is Neoliberalism? Is there a definition of it that everybody accepts?

In the 1930’s, it basically meant FDR and The New Deal - the middle ground between The Gilded Age which expanded urban poverty to unheard of levels, and Socialist planned economies that necessitated horrible authoritarianism and repression. The New Deal was not only the primogenitor of modern liberalism, but it provided a model for how to set up the modern European social democracies. If that’s what neoliberalism is, then sign me up.

In the 1980s, neoliberalism became synonymous with Margaret Thatcher’s privatization of British industries. To a lesser extent, neoliberalism became synonymous with Ronald Reagan, and more sinisterly, with Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator of Chile. People on the Left began to reason that a system which produced Roosevelt and Clement Atlee (England’s first postwar Prime Minister who established the model for the European welfare state) can also produce Reagan and Thatcher, it must be corrupt at its core and has to be overturned. It’s a thought that seemed only to gain traction over the years of the Bush Administration and the Great Recession Bush left in his wake.

But what comes afterward. You can fight and win a war to topple the American regime, but how do you win the peace?


After the attacks in Paris and Beirut, the first book I checked out of the library was Bernard-Henri Levy’s Left in Dark Times. In that book, he makes this crucial point: in our generation, liberalism takes on various guises: socialists disparagingly call it ‘neoliberalism,’ libertarians call the very same belief ‘classical liberalism.’ When you realize that both of them are talking about the same phenomenon, it’s difficult not to conclude that they’re both talking about liberalism in any guise at all. In both cases, their definition of liberalism is completely divorced from why people ever believed in liberalism. Both the socialist and the libertarian definitions of liberalism are framed by Marx and his ideological heirs - the only difference is that Libertarians are Marxists on the side of the bourgeois oppressors. In both sides’ formulations, liberalism is synonymous with the market, with the economic jungle, with the state of nature that renders people impotent to form their own destinies. In the case of socialists, Liberalism is the jungle of an unregulated economy, in the case of libertarians, Liberalism is the jungle of government bureaucracy.

But Liberalism attempts to be precisely the opposite of both, and furthermore, Liberalism has a much longer record of efficacy in specifically that regard than any other governing system. It is the best attempt yet made to provide a legal shelter from the exact jungle which so many Socialists and Libertarians claim that it is.

Both socialists and libertarians attempt in their opposite ways to square that circle - alleging that their completely opposite definitions of neoliberalism are a system that allows for horrible corruption, and if we get rid of the system, we can get rid of the vast majority of the corruption. But how do you get rid of that corruption when human nature is itself corrupt? Liberalism at least puts laws in place to limit the effect which corruption can have. When government has too little power, Big Business reigns supreme. When government has too few checks on power, government reigns supreme. The key to a better world resides neither in business or government, or in pursuing liberty or equality to the exclusion of the other. The key to a better world resides in the balance and tension between all these forces, never letting one of them override the other. In either of these new world orders, where are the limits to the harm corruption can do?


I had an interesting conversation with a good friend a month ago - a social democrat for his whole adult life, in which he told me, with all seriousness, that it would have been better had the American Revolution not happened at all.

There’s a certain seductive logic in this. Had the American Revolution not happened, we might have been released from the British Empire on our own, and some version of the United States would have formed into yet another parliamentary democracy after the model of Canada and Australia.

And yet… come on…

Without the American Revolution, the sun never sets on the British Empire, or perhaps any empire at all. Without the American experiment, slavery might still be widespread. The very issues of liberty and equality which the American Revolution fought for might have been discussed in another revolution, they also might not have. Or perhaps in an alternate timeline, the United States would have fallen under the banner of Simon Bolivar, thereafter defining liberalism as something that’s little different from dictatorship. Every twenty years we might have vacillated between left-wing and right-wing presidents who were more like dictators: Castro and Chavez from the left, Trujillo and Pinochet from the right.

Over the last 250-odd years, America hasn’t done all that well. All things considered though, we’ve still done better than everybody else.


I have not yet seen the new musical Hamilton nor heard it. It’s the biggest hit Broadway’s had in the 20 years since RENT, and I eagerly look forward to getting acquainted with it because I’m sure I’ll enjoy it very much (or at least a shit ton more than I do RENT…).

But this is one of those rare musicals that you feel as though you’ve seen before you have. Everybody who knows even a small amount about musical theater knows the reinterpretation of history this promotes, so while I admittedly haven’t seen it, I think I can still say that there’s still something a little creepy about this recasting of Alexander Hamilton as a freedom fighter against the hypocritical slaveholder that was Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton believed in certain things which the modern Left believes. He believed in a powerful national government that had enormous control over the economy and taxed the wealthy at far greater rates than the poorer. Nevertheless, Hamilton had no belief in social welfare for the impoverished, he believed in strongly fastened systems of government that kept institutions in place and powerful people ensconced, and while not personally religious, he believed strongly in the health of the religious impulse - particularly in keeping the poorer classes docile. Most importantly, he believed in a constitutional monarch and a huge police presence to encourage law and order.

In other words, except on the issue of taxation, he was in every sense a traditional conservative. If, as I wondered in the last issue, Lincoln was a pre-modern equivalent to a Liberal Hawk like Harry Truman or Tony Blair, then perhaps Alexander Hamilton is the ideological ancestor to Richard Nixon. Both of them believed in the strongest imaginable state so that the world can be kept exactly as it is. So strong must this state be that the line between democratic and authoritarian becomes extremely blurred. In other words, the spirit of what Hamilton believed in was exact opposite of everything in which the Modern Left believes, which has its origins in the protests of the Sixties, whose chief villain was, of course, Tricky Dick Nixon.

The true ancestor of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter is not Hamilton, it is his greatest rival: the slave-holding, radical chic, falsely principled, imperialistically ambitious, infinitely hypocritical Thomas Jefferson. And like Thomas Jefferson, for all their flaws, there are issues of freedom and equality about which they are absolutely, gloriously, correct.


As I write this, internet debate over accepting refugees from Syria rages on and on, and suddenly, the example of the Holocaust is being used all over the world for why refugees have to be accepted. Godwin’s Law, which since the dawn of the internet, is used to disparage any mention of Hitler or the Holocaust, has been utterly discarded at the moment it was no longer expedient for those who enforce it.

I completely support the admittance of refugees, in no small part because of the example of what Jews like my grandparents underwent. But yet again, I find myself deeply ashamed by the bedfellows I keep. Short of dying in another Holocaust, is there any situation dire enough for an endangered Jew to earn anything but criticism and isolation from the world?

This sounds like it’s slouching toward a rant about Israel. We’re not going there…

Let’s just focus on Syria for a moment. Unwilling to repeat the mistakes of the Bush years, I used my minisculely small influence to oppose any involvement in Syria. Even with nearly 300,000 corpses piled up, my conscience rests a little too easily, because I believe in using lesser evils to mitigate greater ones. But if you’re a card-carrying member of the Left, yours probably shouldn’t.

If the Left should be able to do anything at all, it should be to raise awareness to prevent genocide wherever and whenever it happens. There is no other word for what Assad and his Alawite Christian government is trying to perpetrate on the country’s Sunni majority. Yet the silence with which their butchery is received by the international Left is loud enough to cause tinnitus. There can only be one explanation for how little attention the Syrian genocide has merited until now, and only one explanation for how much attention its refugee crisis suddenly merits.

When it’s a US ally who perpetrates crimes, often on a scale far smaller than genocide, the sense of outrage knows no bounds. However, when the violation is perpetrated by an opponent of the US, everybody turns into Henry Kissinger. Edward Said would say 'we have no right to interfere in that culture.' Henry Kissinger would say 'we have no right to interfere in that sphere of influence.'

Nevertheless, people are being oppressed to the maximum possible point, and you’re the goddamn Leftists. Where were your ideas to stop this genocide?

The single most important diktat of the Left is solidarity for the oppressed, and on that count, there are no words for how grotesquely the Left failed on this issue. Nobody even cared about the Syrian refugees until Republican politicians started stirring up demagoguery to refuse them entry into the United States. These refugees are nothing more than another prop with which the Left can beat Americans.

Just as conservative economics is truly socialism for the rich, leftist foreign policy is nothing but realism on behalf of the United States’ opponents.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

800 Words: Why Sondheim

England has Shakespeare. Austria has Mozart. Italy has Michelangelo. Germany has Beethoven. Holland has Rembrandt. Russia has Tolstoy.

We’ve just finished The American Century. We just finished the Century of Film. And yet there isn’t a single defining American filmmaker. There isn’t even close to one. The French have a famous line in which one eminent French author commented to another (Andre Gide to Paul Valery for anybody who cares) that the greatest French poet was “Victor Hugo, alas.” Our great filmmaker is Steven Spielberg, alas. 

Alas, Orson Welles could have been he, but everyone with the money to make him the greatest of American artists knew better. In a country so movie mad as America, a moviemaker as great as Welles operating at his full power could have excited America to the point of revolutions. There are twice as many unfinished projects in Welles’s career than ever made it to celluloid. Imagine how a Welles movie of Heart of Darkness could have made the world come to terms with imperialism, or how an Orson Welles Catch-22 could have shed light on The Vietnam War. Hollywood had other great directors: Howard Hawks, John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, but none of them reached into life the way Welles did. They were great entertainers who could make funny movies, moving movies, but they didn’t feel anywhere near as true to life.

It speaks for the impossibility of great art in American movies that so many American ‘film artists’ of the next generation burned out in a manner similar to Welles: Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Michael Cimino… All of them experienced diminishing returns, by middle age they were all so exhausted by the struggle of getting the money to make their movies that by the time they got their projects going they no longer had the creative energy to make movies of anything near the same quality.

Perhaps there are some younger directors who still might get there (particularly Richard Linklater and Jason Reitman, perhaps Spike Lee too), but only directors with enough great work to then be considered are Spielberg, Scorsese, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert Altman. Woody Allen can be dismissed right away - his movies really are as wonderful as people say: funny, moving, insightful, they’re also - one and all - incredibly narcissistic detailings of the Life of Woody. Scorsese can probably be dismissed for a similar reason - the closer he gets to the environs of his Brooklyn childhood, the proportionally greater his work gets. Stanley Kubrick probably lays claim to being the greatest director to have no interest at all in human beings. Robert Altman’s work is so eccentric that I doubt anybody but specialists will ever warm to most of his movies. That only leaves Spielberg: intellectually shallow, overly technical, falsely sentimental, but so versatile, glorious, touched-by-genius Steven Spielberg.

But nobody, not even the most committed Spielberg fanatic, can say that Spielberg is the greatest artist of our time with a straight face. His movies really are great, sometimes even sublime and transcendent. I have no doubt that the greatest scenes of ET and Close Encounters can still make people gasp in awe hundreds of years hence, but they are not Shakespeare, they’re not Michelangelo. That’s asking too much of a personality that even his most rabid cheerleaders admit can be incredibly superficial.

Other countries had defining filmmakers: Ingmar Bergman expressed what it means to be Swedish, Satayajit Ray expressed what it means to be Indian, Pedro Almodovar expresses what it means to be Spanish. Many feel that Akira Kurosawa expressed what it meant to be Japanese, and Frederico Fellini expressed what it meant to be Italian (though I’d choose other directors…). France has Francois Truffaut for that purpose, and even more importantly, France gave us Jean Renoir, who is one of the few creators in any genre that belongs to the entire world. His father Auguste might have been the sugary painter of generously proportioned pink skinned women and their porcelain-faced daughters, but Jean Renoir’s movies are as transcendent as his father’s paintings are content to remain on the surface of things. If any director has the insight and inventiveness to be the modern Shakespeare...

But America does not have a Jean Renoir - a moviemaker who expresses the whole cosmos of humanity onscreen in all its glory and squalor. Alas, Spielberg is the one who comes closest. In order to find someone to compete with Renoir and Shakespeare, we can only look to that extremely un-American place, the theater, and to its greatest American voice.

One of my favorite critics, J.B. Priestly, wrote of the question of why it took great literature so long to appear in the Renaissance while visual art burned with genius for hundreds of years: “Great literature demands a language that is at once a powerful and very flexible instrument, an organ with more than one keyboard and many stops. This instrument was not yet ready; the organ was only being assembled.”

In all likelihood, we’re still awaiting the Shakespeare of film. Movies are barely a hundred years old. Even now, we’re still assembling all the techniques. Hitchcock said of Spielberg that he was the first director whose language was completely cinematic and utterly uninfluenced by the theater. I’m sure that’s true. We have yet to find filmmakers who can take all the techniques of Spielberg and his followers and shape it into something that reaches into eternal time and space.

In the meantime, the light speed lyrics of Stephen Sondheim have completely changed art forever. In the age when music theater was dominated by opera, the text had to be very simple in order to be understood at all. But in an age when a microphone can pick up the smallest sound, the theater cries out for lyrics that can let you capture an infinity of nuance.

Like Scorsese and Woody and Kubrick and Coppola, Sondheim comes from New York and says, not entirely as a joke, that he’s lived his whole life in a 20-block radius. As cinematic as New York is, it can’t hold a candle to the amazingly cinematic vistas and open spaces of the Western United States. New York is ultimately not a place for movies, it's a theatrical one. I don’t need to tell you that everything about New York is over-the-top, you’ve all been there and seen the buildings, the people, the music, the clothes, the dirt and shit, the ever-appealing presence of sex and the ever-haunting specter of death.  Everyone in New York is there to play a part, eager to say their peace and then some to whoever is around to listen, and perhaps they’re so eager to speak because nobody else wants to listen.

It also helped that Sondheim worked in an era when economics were entirely different. When he began his career in the early fifties, the price of a balcony ticket at a Broadway Show was barely two dollars! Two dollars! Today, two dollars is something like the surcharge you pay for ordering Broadway tickets online. Even as late as the mid-1970’s, fifteen dollars was considered an extremely expensive ticket.

What this meant for artistic quality is that Sondheim could gauge the tastes of the average theatergoer far more reliably than any Broadway songwriter of our day. To be sure, the average theatergoer was far more educated than the average American, but the average American theatergoer was simply middle class couples, with the husbands receiving an unremarkable college education provided by the GI bill. Their tastes were too plain for the grandeur of classical music, too white for challenging jazz, and too unrebellious for rock. They grew up on ‘white jazz.’ One might think that such an audience would limit what theater composers could do, and perhaps it did. So many musicals of the Rodgers and Hammerstein ilk, considered so revolutionary in their day, now seem penny plain and generic.

What this meant for Sondheim was that he could learn his craft in the Golden Age of the Musical and the twilight of the Great American Songbook. In a manner no rock musician ever needed to, Sondheim had to learn precisely what made songs stay in the memory. The difference in age between Sondheim and Bob Dylan is only eleven years, but the gap in approach between the two is as long and wide as an ocean. Sondheim is all craft, Dylan is all intuition. By the time Dylan was thirty-five, most of his greatest songs were already written. At the same age, Sondheim was only getting started.

As the decades wore on, Broadway lost its audience to Rock. This new audience inhibited a musician like Dylan terribly, who is by all accounts most comfortable in small, appreciative clubs. Dylan was thrust into the role of poet-seer for his generation, and at the same time subject to market forces that made the hermetic enigmas of meaning in his songs exasperating to a mass audience.

But as Dylan struggled, Sondheim thrived ever more. The raise in ticket prices alienated the general Broadway audiences from traditional musicals. If the general public paid more, they wanted to know they were getting more for their dollars, so they thrilled to the movie-like spectacle of Andrew Lloyd Webber productions; about which it was commented that “you go home singing the scenery.”

By the age of 30, Sondheim already did the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy - the two of which many people still regard as the zenith of the entire artform. In his early 30’s, he added a third masterpiece at the generally accepted zenith of American Musical Theater for which he wrote both the lyrics and music: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And yet it was only in the 1970’s, in his 40’s, that Sondheim transcended more than simply a composer of musicals into the creator of an entirely new and still undeveloped kind of theater.

The (relatively) more expensive ticket prices of the 70’s meant that a genius like Sondheim was free to appeal to a more educated audience. As the ticket prices went up, Sondheim became ever more experimental, ever more searing, ever more profound. In the early 70’s, he’d done the music and lyrics for a second trilogy whose depth left the first trilogy in the shade.

In 1970 was Company, the American Non-Marriage of Figaro or a Mid-City Night’s Dream, a realistic and dramatic work so utterly perfect that there doesn’t seem a single word or note out of place. Just the next year came Follies, a musical about retired showgirls which parodies the empty cliches of the old style songs and the heartlessness of show business without mercy. Two years later followed A Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night - another perfect work. Taking place in 1900, it uses the artificialities of opera to capture all of opera’s soaring longings without any of opera’s bombast. Three years thereafter is Pacific Overtures, a Japanese-style work about American imperialism, a work so experimental you wonder if it could possibly be by the same composer. Three years thereafter, Sweeney Todd, a horror musical about a serial killer in 19th century London. According to some the ‘Great American Opera’, to others  (clearly including Tim Burton) it’s a grand and fun melodrama. To me, Sondheim’s answer to Greek Drama - for all its macabre humor, it has a pessimism about fate that is positively Sophoclean. Two years later comes Merrily We Roll Along, which I’ve actually neither seen nor heard at all yet...

But then comes the 1980’s, and the full splendor of a Shakespearean genius. After the failure of Merrily, Sondheim was ready to give up completely. Instead, he ascends to a still higher level of genius - one that becomes positively Shakespearean. In 1984: Sunday in the Park with George about the French artist, Georges Seurat, in which Sondheim positively announces that he will be a creator ‘for ever.’

And then, three years later, comes Into the Woods, a musical about Fairy Tales in which the sugary pap of Disney is utterly upended and crushed. For me at least, this is perhaps the greatest, most perfect and virtuosic, most profound work of theater since King Lear. I’m very serious when I say that there are moments when this endlessly inventive work strikes me as even beyond places Shakespeare goes.

In 1990, we come to Assassins, an American Macb-th or Gotterdammerung, a theatrical black hole,  apocalyptic enough to haunt you with fears about what humanity is capable. Finally, to Passion, the American Tristan, a work about love and obsession that is almost like a final consummation. After Passion, what greater intensity was there to capture?

The diversity of what these works require from a creator is impossible for the rest of us to conceive. Like in Shakespeare and Mozart, you can’t really find Sondheim in the characters. Perhaps Sondheim’s persona is present in Bobby from Company, but there still remains the problem that Sondheim is gay while Bobby seems quite contented to ‘remain’ straight. The only exception real exception in which you truly feel the character speaks for Sondheim is in Georges Seurat, whose main quality as an individual is that he seems autistically obsessed by his work to the exclusion of everything else in his life. I doubt anybody would ever accuse Sondheim of autism - he comes across in interviews as superbly communicative and empathetic towards people, but you could never get a sense of his personality from his characters - all you can tell is that they appear to him from places of infinite empathy and craft.

Like Shakespeare and Mozart, no matter what intensity lies in store, there is almost always a return home to balance, with no perceivable dogma or agenda, just an infinite-sided creative self that has no desire to do anything but bring the audience to a place of infinity. I don’t know if he will be remembered as our Shakespeare, our Tolstoy, our Michelangelo, but we’ll never produce anyone better.