Wednesday, July 23, 2014

800 Words: Park Heights Ave vs. North Ave Part III


In case you don’t or can’t read my facebook page (or have blocked it), I’ve been discussing this war quite a bit lately on this most vapid and life-wasting of all websites. After the past two weeks, the NSA will now be fully informed of the extent of my knowledge (or more likely, ignorance) on this topic, and my surfeit of skill in the once lost art of rhetorical pugilism which the internet now revives.

I usually socialize with people who are emphatically not practicing Jews nor hold the State of Israel’s existence as one of their moral imperatives. Early on in my life, I realized that somewhere within me dwelled an anti-authority streak that made me very bad fit for religious institutions. But over time, I realize that it made me just about as bad a fit for anti-religious institutions as well. In my social life, I’ve heard a lot of disturbingly anti-Israel sentiment over time which would straighten out the curling beard of many a Rabbi. Frankly, neither side seems much deserving of respect, but were the people I associate with online largely pro-Israel militants rather than anti-Israel ones, I would gauge my delightful online trolling to upsetting their prejudices rather than the prejudices of the people I generally associate with.

What amazes me most about this foolish ‘adventure’ in persuasion is that every new posting seems to bring me a new ‘opponent’ with a new objection and a new way to contradict facts which I see as extremely basic to an understanding of an issue I’ve felt compelled to think about since I’ve been able to think. Who knows? Maybe some of their points, maybe all of them, are right. I wouldn’t bet the house on it, but it’s entirely possible that I’ve tacked my ability to feel proud of myself onto moral positions that I’ll be ashamed of myself for holding in twenty years - just as I once held certain beliefs I’m now ashamed I held. But I wonder, do they ever entertain such doubts? Do doubts ever gnaw at the assumed correctness of their beliefs? Have they ever changed them? Have they changed them more than once? Or do they simply know that they’re right and I’m wrong?

Most of their objections don’t bother me much. I think they’re wrong and misinformed, perhaps their beliefs are even destructive and noxious, but I know myself well enough to know that there is far too much about me that is noxious to hold one noxious belief against any of them. I think that 'halflings' like me who are at least partially in ‘their world’ have to stand up to them and tell them that what they believe is horrible. It's better that people I like hear it from me than grandchildren who would one day ask them how they could ever believe such evil things. Of course, it might be my grandchildren (if I ever have any) who ask such questions, but clearly, I’ve made my bed on the idea it will be someone else's grandkids.

But there was one objectant whose exchange genuinely bothered me very much and genuinely depressed me for a few days afterward. This is a person I’d come, perhaps falsely or at least prematurely, to regard as a good friend.

In the last year, I’d come to know her through music - we’d played string instruments in various chamber groups together. She was a midwife or a ‘doula’, and always on call for potential births, but it never really seemed to get in the way of rehearsal. She was a great musician, a much better classical musician than I and impeccably credentialed of course. She went to one of the premiere arts high schools in the country, and when she got a performance injury transferred from music school to one of the greatest universities in the world. She was clearly more than smart and articulate enough for such a background, and we talked and joked at a very ‘high’ level.

I don’t think I kid myself in thinking we got to know each other rather well over that time - conversing after rehearsals and such, which sometimes lasted longer than the rehearsals themselves. Occasionally the post-rehearsal became dinner and drinks. In that time I discovered that she, like me, was not only Jewish but the granddaughter of ‘survivors.’ Clearly, the paths we’d taken were very different. I'm an ersatz-member of my grandparents' generation, whereas she's lives in a hippie group house. But we clearly bonded over the similarities just as well, and it seemed like we both understood how comically ill-fit we were for the images we presented of ourselves. She was clearly as organized and hyper-competent at life's requirements as I am incompetent and bumbling. But regardless of such details, I felt that I'd stumbled on a friendship that was truly unique in my life - or anyone's; someone with whom you disagree totally but with whom you have a complete understanding and sympathy.

And yes, I don’t doubt it helped enormously that she looked like a young Claudia Cardinale, and of course I was quite attracted to her, as I’m sure every guy is who isn’t narrow-minded enough to be automatically put off by the hippie lifestyle. But even so, I’d like to think that I’m the kind of guy for whom friendship with women isn’t just a waystation. I never tried particularly hard to pursue anything more than friendship - not because I did not desperately want to, but partially because the very idea of my 5’4 220 lbs self pursuing a girl for whom so many guys were also clearly hoping for was laughable, but also because I simply couldn’t get past the choices she’d made. I was a very little in love, but I was far more jealous. God knows how my life would have been different had I her advantages. All that talent, all that privilege, all that intelligence, all that education, all that hyper-competence, and somehow it’s used in the service of dangerous pseudoscience and false notions of truth - and what’s worst about it is that she’s so smart and charismatic that people would believe her. I’d figured that she knew what I thought of her profession and beliefs, and I knew what she’d thought of mine, and on that premise we’d get along just fine.

Of course, when it came to Israel, we parted ways. We’d talked about it in the past, very politely, and I figured we’d said to one another anything that need be said. I expected online pushback from others, but not from her. That one genuinely hurt. When most other people criticize me or object to what I think, it slides off. In many cases, I can wear it like a badge of honor. But getting a fingerwagging pushback from her felt both a bit like a betrayal and made me wonder if perhaps I truly collaborate as much with evil as some people no doubt think I do - and as I wonder myself if I do in unguarded moments (and I obviously have many). Given that her response felt meant to be personal, I responded personally, and rather than use her name I called her by the name of her ultra-privileged university. As always, I amuse myself…

I was a bit relieved that she never responded back, because the tone was already pretty ugly. But the fact that such an altercation (even an online one) happened at all between me and her made me very sad. It’s just another piece of evidence that understanding between people who have real differences truly isn’t possible.

It frankly occupied more headspace than it should have for a few days. I was genuinely sad last week, the delight of picking fights simply wasn’t there anymore… and I grew rather exhausted by the constant barrage of anti-Israel attacks I saw that consistently seemed to cross the line into something much darker, which thereby began this series of posts.

But something amazing happened on Sunday afternoon which helped me to regain my equilibrium almost completely. She snubbed me. Not just an accidental, ‘sorry, I didn’t notice you,’ kind of excusable snub we all give to a person we don’t want to see that moment but apologize to later. It was one of those theatrical ‘walk six inches from you in a very crowded space while you loudly say hello yet still not acknowledge you’ kind of snubs. I figured that after I said hi, we could make fun of each other a little bit and move on as all people must. Instead, she told me, in the most indirectly direct manner imaginable, that the friendship was over. It was absolutely glorious.  

I frankly can’t swear on a bible to the fact that I was ignored, in which case I will have an enormous amount of explaining to do for this blogpost… and yet I would venture a 99.9% guess that that is exactly what happened. And yet, after getting snubbed, my mood improved enormously. It alleviated me of feeling that I caused the rupture of something truly unique in my life. Something as banal as a friendship rupture is far easier to deal with than knowing that you disappointed a person in your life who never disappointed you. I could return to my impregnably arrogant self, able to keep a lid on my doubts until the next battle was over.


In the 1 in a million odds case that anybody cares enough to need actual clarification about my point of view, here it is:

1. If you believe that a Jewish state should cease to exist to give way to a binational state in which Arabs and Jews coexist - your belief is antisemitic and in all likelihood going to get thousands of Jews killed, if not more.

2. If you believe that Israel has a god-given right to borders greater than what the obvious political realities of the moment will ever allow, your belief is fascist like any other fascism, only different in promoting Jews rather than scapegoating them.

3. If you believe that Israel should refrain from measures that will prevent its citizens from being safe, you are delusional, and might as well believe antisemitic things because the end result is the same.

4. If you believe that Israel should take any and all means to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, you're delusional, and going to get us all killed.

5. If you believe that Israel's use of force is absurdly disproportionate, if you believe that the use of violence countermeasures will only cause more death and not prevent it. You're too naive to be reasoned with.

6. If you believe that Isreal's #1 priority should be anything other than a continual effort to find a peaceful, two state, resolution to the conflict, if you believe that Israel must occupy Palestine indefinitely under which Palestinians continue to live as second-class citizens, you are no better than all the oppressive goyim under which Jews lived for 2,000 years.

7. If you conveniently decided only to care about human rights in the Middle East during the last few days, and joined the bandwagon only when the wagon was facing Jews; if the outrage you feel towards Israel is even a sliver larger the outrage you felt when thousands of protesters were killed and maimed in Turkey, Egypt and Libya, when more than ten thousand were killed in the South Sudanese Civil War, when 1800 Palestinians were starved and killed by Bashar al-Assad in Syria, when 10,000 Iraqis were killed by terrorists, then yes, your belief is the absolute definition of an antisemitic one. I can live with it if you can. I know that there's enough noxious about me that I would never divorce friends over one noxious belief. But you ought to know what the your anger is coming from.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

800 Words: Park Heights Ave. vs. North Ave. Part 2

“The permanent misfits are those who because of a lack of talent or some irreparable defect in body or mind cannot do the one thing for which their whole being craves. No achievement, however spectacular, in other fields can give them a sense of fulfillment. Whatever they undertake becomes a passionate pursuit; but they never arrive, never pause. They demonstrate the fact that we can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and that we run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves.

The permanent misfits can find salvation only in a complete separation from the self; and they usually find it by losing themselves in the compact collectivity of a mass movement. By renouncing individual will, judgment and ambition, and dedicating all their powers to the service of an eternal cause, they are at last lifted off the endless treadmill which can never lead them to fulfillment.

The most incurably frustrated--and, therefore, the most vehement--among the permanent misfits are those with an unfulfilled craving for creative work. Both those who try to write, paint, compose, etcetera, and fail decisively, and those who after tasting the elation of creativeness feel a drying up of the creative flow within and know that never again will they produce aught worth while, are alike in the grip of a desperate passion. Neither fame nor power nor riches nor even monumental achievements in other fields can still their hunger. Eve the wholehearted dedication to a holy cause does not always cure them. Their unappeased hunger persists and they are likely to become the most violent extremists in the service of their holy cause.”

Eric Hoffer - The True Believer


And then there was Hyde…

I’ve written about the experience of The Hyde School endlessly on this blog and will no doubt write about it far more endlessly before long, so I’ll simply link to this particular blogpost and move on...

When I arrived at college, I was, for all intents, a full-on radical. On 9/12, three weeks after college began, I was dominating the classroom discussion to the rage of many peers about how the Bush administration would exploit yesterday’s tragedy for its own personal gain. As it turned out, I was absolutely right, and yet, something was very very wrong.

Without going into detail, the years of Hyde left me profoundly, psychotically depressed. If those last three years happened, then any other nightmare could come true - and there were times when they genuinely seemed to do so. I did my pathetic best to fit in among other students and carry on in circumstances which easily could have killed me, but I was anything but able to do so functionally, and it’s amazing that I got through college in one piece - because that first year-and-a-half was played by the seat of my pants. In my politlcally half-informed state (better, no doubt, than the quarter-informedness of many peers) I might have become a political radical as a way of reclaiming my identity, but it didn’t work - I didn’t believe in my own beliefs, and my mind was so far gone that it wasn’t even a good social outlet for me. I felt as irreparably broken as I ever have in my life, and as I ever hope to feel. In retrospect, I don’t think I believed I’d live to see the venerable age of thirty-two at which I now reside rather comfortably. And I surely didn’t think a fairly harmonious relationship with my family was possible. But here we are…

But what saved me was politics. Music, perhaps, drove me mad. But an interest in politics, an interest in certainties based on facts, gave me the secure ground on which I was able to rebuild myself. We all need certainties, and for some people, theological certainties are enough. But what good is faith when faith can so easily be demolished by informed argument?

And what is radical politics but a new kind of theological certainty? At its base, every kind of radicalism operates on a one-sentence explanation of the world - the rich don’t owe the poor anything, or the government owes its citizens everything, or governments around the world must be overthrown - and then suits the facts to fit its theory.


When you’re involved in the arts, the very act of being a normal, boring liberal makes you sound to most other artists like Mussolini. It’s a phenomenon I first noticed in college. I can’t deny that I have an artist’s temperament, but I differ from most artists in that I’ve spent my adult life regretting that. Most people in the arts get involved because they’re normal people who are scared to death of being boring. But I, who’ve had so many brushes with mental illness, long for nothing more than to be normal.

The problem with only associating with other artists is the same problem as when you only associate with people of your own job or creed or interests. You’re shielded completely from any reality that is not your own, and the myopia of your mind breeds like rats. If you’re sheltered within a cocoon of your own beliefs without having them challenged, your mind atrophies and starts to rot.

During 2005-2006, I lived in the Negev desert with a bunch of artists and hippies. I was certainly somewhat closer to the American Center in those years, a sort of Tony Blairite liberal hawk, and one of the only people on the entire program/artists’ colony that was unabashedly pro-Israel. I swore to them that there was an ocean of gulf between me and right-wing nuts, I gave them a battery of facts to try to prove it, but nobody believed me.

I was also one of the only people on the program who knew anything about Judaism. Unlike all those hippies who wanted to come to Israel to connect to Jewish roots their families never showed them, I went to Israel as a kind of rite of passage. My parents both regretted never living there, and they were willing to give me the money to live there rather than among the ‘goyim’ as I did during college. I’m sure they were slightly horrified that most of my friends weren’t Jewish, and were scared that Judaism was going to lose me as it loses half its practitioners in America. Perhaps, so they reasoned, I’d meet a Jewish girl over there and stay ‘within the fold’ for the rest of my life - with the added benefit that I might stay in Israel, and they’d be relieved of regularly dealing with me. I certainly fell in love while I was living there (with a girl much more right-wing than I was), but it was absolutely not to be.  

I left Israel dejected on all fronts - broken friendships, unrequited love, blocked as a composer (a block that never really lifted…), too depressed to hold a job, and having to move back in with my parents in Pikesville - the one town to which I swore I’d never return.

As a learning disabled, mentally slightly unhinged, eccentric, you don’t connect well with “normal” people - no matter how much you aspire to be like them. I knew I was smarter than 999 of 1000 kids I met growing up, and yet here I am, stuck in a job that’s barely a job while many of those Pikesville kids go on to pinnacles of achievement in America (more on that later…). Temperamentally, if I connect with anyone, it’s to the more bohemian types who believe that concepts like career and family are imaginary constructs which don’t really matter.

But they do matter, they matter very much. We are human beings, biologically constructed to keep ourselves occupied with ambition. Ambition gives us a reason to plow through the difficulties which we encounter every day, if we think of the source of ambition as just a distracting ‘construct’, what reason have we to get out of bed in the morning? Being a ‘bohemian’ artist type is not embracing a way of life, it’s a justification for not having one.

And yet, you ought to have enormous sympathy for people with this type of problem, of which, of course, I’m one. Because the temptation to fall for simple explanations and easy outs is especially strong. Rather than blame ourselves for failing to live up to life, it’s easier to blame life. And perhaps we should blame life, because life is goddamn hard. The problem is not that people blame life, but that they embrace quick-fix cures for life’s hardships that will only make life worse.

And yet I can’t deny my own hunger for those quick-fix cures has never slaked.  I somehow end up at Red Emma’s a couple times a week, and I invariably feel like Travis Bickle when he drives his Taxi through Times Square, longing for the very thing which disgusts him. I sometimes find myself driving through Upper Park Heights on Saturdays and see shul-goers walking around the neighborhoods. Both these people seem so at peace with their surroundings, not giving a shit what anybody outside their community thinks of them, shielding themselves from the world’s judgement. I wish I had the lack of self-consciousness to do the same, and even if this appearance is just a mirage, I envy them their mirage.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

800 Words: Park Heights Ave. vs. North Ave. Part 1


It’s very difficult to be pulled in two directions. Some people, perhaps most people, have a family with which they fit perfectly well - even if it’s a surrogate family. They say things knowing fully well that they’ll get validation for what they say, and interlopers to their world are easily banished, because no one has ears to hear the value in what they say.

But what about those of us who have no such luxury? What about those of us trying our best to fit as best we can within two worlds to which we only half-fit. We speak both their languages, though with a foreigner’s strain, and consequently have no easy pass into their clubs; not because we never wanted it badly enough, but because they never wanted us.

Every Israeli war is like a holiday ritual for me in which I’m purified through a trial by intellectual fire. I go about with my friends, who expect me as the token Jew to speak up for Israel, then go back to my family who expects me as the token liberal to speak up for Palestine, and both agreeing on nothing but that there’s something in me that is morally lacking. And both taking at least three hours to tell me so.

What can I do? Such is the unhappy life of the pluralistic liberal drowning in a sea of monist ideologues. One side inevitably gets around to calling you a fascist, the other gets around to calling you a communist. I’ve been forced to play these ‘bad-guy’ parts for so long that at this point I play it almost vengefully, deriving pleasure from puncturing their bubbles, because where else could a pluralist between two monist worlds derive such pleasure except by abusing both sides equally? I wouldn’t know how to play a different part, but what else can anyone do in such a situation? Even if gatherings get unpleasant, could you ever abandon your family just because you have some unpleasant disagreements? And wouldn’t you have to be grateful that your friends don’t? And would you ever feel justified in cursing your lot for being in this situation rather than being embroiled in a real war?


Living the political arguments of my family was bad enough - you learned very early that you had to know exactly what you were talking about because you would be shown no mercy, even as an early adolescent you might be called an idiot by older family members or, still worse, a hypocrite. The idea that the personal is not political has never seemed to occur to the Tucker or Witow households. Every political stand you displayed was a potential indictment of your moral character. The fact that you supported higher taxes might be considered indicative of your problem holding a job. The fact that you opposed government-inflicted torture might be a sign that your parents might have spoiled you. The fact that you didn’t hold people with tattoos and unusual piercings up to contempt meant that you were personally responsible for society’s moral decay. Dad, though no saint in any of these behaviors, was considered the decadent liberal rebel of our family until I came along, and he had it bad enough. Though no saint himself in his conduct toward others, he’d tell me stories of how my otherwise saintly maternal grandfather would get so angry with the mere mention of liberals that my father had to talk him down by reassuring him that Richard Nixon was still president. As I’ve often recounted on this blog, he used to say that my mother’s family had pictures of President Nixon in every room. In his family, they had pictures of Nixon on the toilet paper.

I don’t think my dad’s parents ever thought very much about politics. Between Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Czar NIcholas, Marshall Pilsudski, the White Russians, and Kaiser Wilhelm, they lived politics far too much to think about it abstractly. They were business people accustomed to scrounging for a living (and sometimes, to live) in extremely adverse circumstances. Their obsession was money, which they equated with survival, and drove both their family and themselves insane with their obsessiveness over it. In his last years when my grandfather was gripped by dementia, he would routinely insist that my father drive him over to the bank to yell at one of the tellers, accusing the bank of stealing his money from his account. And yet in spite of his paranoia for losing money, my grandparents always voted Democrat. Like everybody on the outside of a club looking in, my father’s parents believed in a system that was rigged against them - probably rightly, in theirs as in every other case. They became liberal Democrats because the businessmen with much more money than they had were Republicans.

Politics, however, was the long-term obsession of my mother’s family. Like many Jewish neoconservative famlies, they began as communists and somewhere along the way made a Damascus conversion. My red-headed great-grandfather was apparently quite an intellectual, and such a committed socialist that he refused to accept a promotion at his factory to forman. Other parts of the family came to blows with one another over whether or not to embrace the Soviet Union and Stalin as the coming savior, and refused to speak to one another for decades. But my grandfather paid his own way through Hopkins, and after the war, he worked as an engineer for the Defense Department - no private company would hire a Jew. A few years later, he nearly ended up on McCarthy's blacklist. Somehow, a few years after that, he was as right-wing as Barry Goldwater, and never diverted from these new beliefs. He even passed on all his neo-con/libertarian genes to both his children. Like my other grandparents, he believed in everything against which the ‘club’ believed. He saw the waste of government bureaucracy, and as a result he wanted to destroy it. And who knows? Perhaps he was also right to want that. He loathed the hypocrisy of liberal Jews who all the made money never available to them in the old country, and nevertheless still preached about the evils of the capitalist system.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Class 2: Darwin's Tree of Life Part 2

Marx only has two beliefs in common with Darwin, but they are very crucial ones. Both Marx and Darwin believed the same lesson that all humans were connected by their common origin, and that they evolve in a steaming cauldron of war, murder and revolt. But this is only a third of Darwin’s true equation. Another third is occupied by Wagner, who believed that all things are divided, and the strong must therefore prove their strength by the defeat of the weak. Where this differs from Darwin is that Darwin sees no moral dimension in this whereas Wagner looks upon this development with approval.

Before we go any further, we have to be clear about a few things. The first is that it’s almost impossible to talk about the ideas present in music, or even opera, with any real precision. There’s a quote which over the years has been attributed to dozens of people: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” While music can make you feel very many emotions, the whole point of expressing something in music is that you can express your feelings with such immediate urgency that no words could ever do the same. So to a certain extent, the music must do the talking for us.

And yet, with Wagner, no musician has ever demanded more discussion. And short of Shakespeare and the writers of The Bible, no artist has ever been more written about. Even now, Wagner may still be the most controversial, shocking of any genre in any part of the world.

Question: Who might you suggest as the most shocking, controversial artists in the world?

Wagner is the only composer, perhaps the only musician in any genre, whose music is almost guaranteed to cause a riot in one part of the world - even if it’s only Israel. When the Israel Philharmonic tried to perform a Wagner encore in 1981, a full-fledged riot broke out and the orchestra couldn’t finish the piece. A quarter-century later, an Israeli conductor named Daniel Barenboim announced that his German orchestra would play Wagner encore, and engaged the audience in twenty minutes of dialogue and debate in which anyone could speak up. Even in that situation, people started shouting and slammed the auditorium doors as they stormed out. Ever now that the taboo was successfully broken, nobody dared to break it again.
What is it about Wagner that’s so shocking? Let’s start with a purely musical example. This one is from 1861, when Wagner presented his opera Tannhauser in Paris and he wrote a ballet especially for the premiere that completely shocked the audience. The ballet is supposed to represent everything which goes on on the mountain of the goddess, Venus. To our ears, neither the music or the dancing would be all that shocking, though the harmonies were as avant-garde for its day as anything yet performed. But I need you all to imagine it from the standpoint of 1861 Europe, an era so repressed that they put dresses on the chair legs because they worried that the naked legs might sexually excite people.

(Play the first few minutes of the Tannhauser Venusberg Music - Munch - from 9:05)

This is extremely exciting music, but if If I told you that this music and the dancing that went with it caused full-scale physical fighting in the theater between partisans for and against it, you’d probably not believe me. But it’s still true. It was a very different era, and the goalpost for what’s shocking always changes. And yet, there are also elements of Wagner which are much, much more shocking today than they were when he wrote it - and Wagner wrote the texts to all his operas himself. Listen to this, the final few minutes of his only comedy, Die Meistersinger.

(play the monologue at the end of Die Meistersinger - Bohm - Verachtet mir die Meister nicht, from 2:10)

Habt Acht! Uns dräuen üble Streich':
zerfällt erst deutsches Volk und Reich,

in falscher wälscher Majestät
kein Fürst bald mehr sein Volk versteht,
und wälschen Dunst mit wälschem Tand
sie pflanzen uns in deutsches Land;
was deutsch und echt, wüsst' keiner mehr,
lebt's nicht in deutscher Meister Ehr'.
Drum sag' ich euch:
ehrt eure deutschen Meister!
Dann bannt ihr gute Geister;
und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst,
zerging' in Dunst
das heil'ge röm'sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich
die heil'ge deutsche Kunst!

Beware! Evil tricks threaten us:
if the German people and kingdom should one day decay,
under a false, foreign rule
soon no prince would understand his people;
and foreign mists with foreign vanities
they would plant in our German land;
what is German and true none would know,

if it did not live in the honour of German Masters.
Therefore I say to you:
honour your German Masters,
then you will conjure up good spirits!
And if you favour their endeavours,
even if the Holy Roman Empire
should dissolve in mist,
for us there would yet remain
holy German Art!


Ehrt eure deutschen Meister,
dann bannt ihr gute Geister;
und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst,
zerging' in Dunst
das heil'ge röm'sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich
die heil'ge deutsche Kunst!

Heil! Sachs!
Nürnbergs teurem Sachs!


Honour your German Masters,
then you will conjure up good spirits!
And if you favour their endeavours,
even if the Holy Roman Empire
should dissolve in mist,
for us there would yet remain
holy German Art!

Hail, Sachs!
Nuremberg's dear Sachs!

“Beware! Evil tricks threaten us if the German people and kingdom should one day decay under a false, foreign rule, soon no prince would understand his people; and foreign mists with foreign vanities they would plant in our German land; what is German and true none would know, if it did not live in the honour of German Masters. Therefore I say to you: honour your German Masters.”

This opera goes on for more than five hours of music, and we’ll talk about the role of length in Wagner a bit later. But this is honestly one of the greatest operas ever written and the only opera Wagner wrote about non-mythological people with ordinary problems. Most of the music sounds like it could easily have been written by Schubert or Brahms. But at the very end of this huge marathon, Wagner inserts an unmistakable moral with the story’s hero exhorting an assemblage of all his townspeople to protect Germany from evil, to which the crowdspeople respond by repeating what he says word for word and then erupting in shouts of ‘Heil!’ for the man who commanded them. It should go without saying that for Hitler, the propaganda opportunities which this scene afforded was a godsend.

But let’s look a little closer at that text. “Evil tricks threaten us...under a false and foreign rule... “

Hmmm… well, most invaders patrol the streets with enormous military force, not evil tricks. Natives would only be afraid of evil tricks perpetrated by foreigners better known for their brains than their brawn. What could this possibly be code for when it’s written by a composer who once wrote a charming passage like this?

(call on reader)

“So long as the separate art of music had a real organic life-need in it […] there was nowhere to be found a Jewish composer.... Only when a body’s inner death is manifest, do outside elements win the power of lodgement in it—yet merely to destroy it. Then, indeed, that body’s flesh dissolves into a swarming colony of insect life: but who in looking on that body’s self, would hold it still for living?”  

Richard Wagner - Judaism in Music

Many Wagnerians still deny that this finale of Die Meistersinger, and much else in Wagner’s operas, has any anti-semitic intent. And who knows? They might be right. Wagner was such a great artist that this speech is blended pretty much seamlessly into the fabric of the plot - there’s no way of accusing Wagner directly of putting proto-Nazi agitprop into his scores, but once you perceive it, the stench of some pretty offensive propaganda is rather overwhelming. There are all sorts of examples in art of places where the line blurs between art and political agitation. You can’t be sure whether the artwork is trying to exhort you to action, but it clearly seems that way.

So here’s a related question: What are some examples of artworks that might be trying to exhort us to some kind of action?

If there was action to which Wagner was trying to exhort people - and many people believe that he was trying very hard - what was it?

In order to talk about that, we need to talk as briefly as possible about the 1848 revolution and the effect it had on Wagner’s psyche. Wagner, in spite of impressing no one with his political knowledge, was very enthusiastic about the prospect of revolution - maybe even more enthusiastic than Marx. He believed in two very contradictory ideas: an absolute monarch whose authority could not be questioned, and an absolutely free people whose rights were never trod on. To put it succinctly, all he wanted a new conception of human beings in which they were all united in complete agreement all the time - such bourgeois concepts as disagreement, compromise, consensus, would  be obliterated. This would sound implausible to 99% of the world population, but perhaps Wagner thought it was possible because his own story was so implausible. A few years earlier, some music loving noblemen plucked Wagner from almost complete obscurity to be the director of the Dresden Court Opera House, one of the world’s pre-eminent musical jobs. But compromise, particularly when it came to things as banal as money, was not in his makeup, and Wagner quickly soured on his own success. Six years later, he rewarded his employers with a revolutionary plot to burn the opera house to the ground and spent the next 15 years on the run from the Saxon authorities, who wanted to jail him for life.

It was during the first four years of his exile that Wagner truly became Wagner. He stopped writing music and went back with a vengeance to his first love, the pen. During these four years, he wrote the entirety of the text to his sixteen-hour drama, The Ring Cycle, he wrote the essay, Judaism in Music, which we quoted, and many, many other essays. But the most important of them is probably ‘Art and Revolution.’

According to Wagner, drama is the highest of all the arts because it synthesizes all the others into a new whole, but true drama is wasted on the public of his own day. The society of Wagner’s day, completely unlike our own…, was tired and decadent, a compromised, bourgeois, semi-democracy, completely debased by financial concerns and valued money over people. Its citizens’ lives were so dreary that they wanted only to watch frivolous stage entertainments to forget their hopelessness rather than stage work which might enoble them. What the citizens need is an Athenian democracy, unspoiled by financial compromises, in which all people are valued, and which views art and religion as the exact same thing. In such a democracy, the premiere of a new drama is nothing less than a religious event deserving of its own festival. Such a democracy can only be attained through revolution, and when we have brought forth a true resurrection of Athenian democracy, an enthusiastic audience will embrace the writing and producing of new dramas like the Athenian tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides that seamlessly blend drama, art, dance, music, and poetry. Such a democracy, purged of its dirty financial elements, would return us to the lofty, pristine glory of the Classical Athens.

Here is how Wagner put it:

(call on reader)

“To the Greeks, the production of a tragedy was a religious festival, where the gods bestirred themselves upon the stage and bestowed on men their wisdom...
As the spirit of community split itself along a thousand lines of egoistic cleavage, so was the great united work of Tragedy disintegrated into its individual factors...
Each one of these dissevered arts, nursed and luxuriously tended for the entertainment of the rich, has filled the world to overflowing with its products; in each, great minds have brought forth marvels; but the one true Art has not been born again, either in or since the so-called Renaissance. The perfect Art-work, the great united utterance of a free and lovely public life, the Drama, Tragedy, - howsoever great the poets who have here and there indited tragedies - is not yet born again: for the reason that it cannot be reborn, but must be born anew.
Only the great Revolution of Mankind, whose beginnings erstwhile shattered Grecian Tragedy, can win for us this Art-work. For only this Revolution can bring forth from its hidden depths, in the new beauty of a nobler Universalism, that which it once tore from the conservative spirit of a time of beautiful but narrow-meted culture - and stirring it, engulfed."

So let’s pause for a question: Since we never stop hearing that our American society is tired, bourgeois, decadent and frivolous, and has become so because of money. Is there any society today which might fancy itself worthy of a new kind of Greek Tragedy that marries religious belief to art?

It’s common to call Wagner a ‘romantic’ composer, not romantic in the erotic sense but in the historical sense. But there’s something missing from this definition, let’s look at how Isaiah Berlin defines Romanticism.

"a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.”

And now let’s listen to this duet from Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde:

(Furtwangler/Berlin/Suthaus/Schluter '47 O sink hernieder)


O sink hernieder,
Nacht der Liebe,
gib Vergessen,
dass ich lebe;
nimm mich auf
in deinen Schoss,
löse von
der Welt mich los!


O Night of love,
grant oblivion
that I may live;
take me up
into your bosom,
release me from
the world!


Verloschen nun
die letzte Leuchte;


Extinguished now
the last glimmers;


was wir dachten,
was uns deuchte;


what we thought,
what we imagined;


all Gedenken -


all thought


all Gemahnen -


all remembering,


heil'ger Dämm'rung
hehres Ahnen
löscht des Wähnens Graus
welterlösend aus.


the glorious presentiment
of sacred twilight
extinguishes imagined terrors,


Barg im Busen
uns sich die Sonne,
leuchten lachend
Sterne der Wonne.


The sun concealed
itself in our bosom,
the stars of bliss
gleam, laughing,


Von deinem Zauber
sanft umsponnen,
vor deinen Augen
süss zerronnen;


softly entwined
in your magic,
sweetly dissolved
before your eyes;


Herz an Herz dir,
Mund an Mund;


heart on your heart,
mouth on mouth;


eines Atems
ein'ger Bund; -


the single bond
of a single breath;


bricht mein Blick sich
erbleicht die Welt
mit ihrem Blenden:


my glance is deflected,
dazzled with bliss,
the world palses
with its blinding radiance:


die uns der Tag
trügend erhellt,


lit by Day's
guileful deception,


zu täuschendem Wahn


standing firm against
deceitful delusion,


selbst dann
bin ich die Welt:
Wonne-hehrstes Weben,
Liebe-heiligstes Leben,
hold bewusster Wunsch.


then am I
myself the world;
floating in sublime bliss,
life of love most sacred,
the sweetly conscious
undeluded wish
never again to waken.

This is, believe it or not, just a small part in the first half of a 40-minute love duet. There are days when this duet seems like the dumbest thing on earth, and there are other days when this incredibly long duet seems to me like may be the greatest thing Wagner ever wrote. There are even moments, very rare ones, when it seems to me that perhaps Tristan und Isolde is not ridiculous, and really is the greatest work of art ever conceived by the human mind, and that Wagner is the one artist of the last four-hundred years that can bare comparison with Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists. But yes, those moments are rare.

So Question - without taking a lot of time on it: What dramatic works do you think might compare to Shakespeare and Sophocles?

But for the moment, this would seem to fit Berlin’s definition of Romanticism in every particular. It is both Romantic with a capital and a lower case-R. What Wagner is describing is a concept of sexual love which involves so much ecstasy that you literally forget you’re a separate being from the other person. And yet, like sex itself, the very concept is more than a bit ridiculous.

Wagner was a passionate follower of an eminent philosopher of the generation before Marx named Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s most important theory, and again, this is an extremely simple explanation, is that there are two sides to the Self. One self is the self which we perceive as our selves. This self is not the person within you who does the thinking, but the person within you to whom it occurs that you’re thinking. The other self, the more naive, inborn, self, is the thinking self, but is more basic than thinking. This self is the ‘Will’, or the ‘will-to-life.’ The Will is what causes us to think, to feel, to be conscious, to have instincts. The Will is also a prison from which we can’t escape, and all of the unsatisfied longings of the will can only lead to anguish. What we call pleasure, is merely the reilef we feel when we don’t feel the Will’s pain. Therefore, we have to find ways of extinguishing the pain which the Will so consistently gives us. And we’re most likely to transcend the pain of the Will through either music, philosophy, art, or the wholesale renunciation of desire.

So question: What older concepts does this philosophy sound like? (wait for someone to say Buddhism)

To anyone who’s ever read about Buddhism, this is all very familiar - particularly that last part about renunciation. Both Schopenhauer and Wagner were interested in Buddhism, and Wagner planned before he died on writing an opera about The Buddha. But at the end of this same duet, Wagner provided a rejoinder to Schopenhauer which, in his mind at least, showed another way around the power of the Will.

(play Kleiber/Dresden - So Starben Wir)


So starben wir,
um ungetrennt,
ewig einig
ohne End',
ohn' Erwachen,
ohn' Erbangen,
in Lieb' umfangen,
ganz uns selbst gegeben,
der Liebe nur zu leben!


Thus might we die,
that together,
ever one,
without end,
never waking,
never fearing,
enveloped in love,
given up to each other,
to live only for love!

(wie in sinnender Entrücktheit
zu ihm aufblickend)

So stürben wir,
um ungetrennt, -

(as if in reflective rapture,
looking up at him)

Thus would we die,
that together -


ewig einig
ohne End', -


ever one,
without end -


ohn' Erwachen, -


never waking -


ohn' Erbangen, -


never fearing -


in Lieb' umfangen,
ganz uns selbst gegeben,
der Liebe nur zu leben!


enveloped in love,
given up to ourselves
to live only for love!

(Isolde neigt wie überwältigt das Haupt an seine Brust)

(wie vorher)

Habet acht!
Habet acht!
Schon weicht dem Tag die Nacht.

(as before)

Night soon gives way to Day.

(lächelnd zu Isolde geneigt)

Soll ich lauschen?

(smiling down at Isolde)

Shall I listen?

(schwärmerisch zu Tristan aufblickend)

Lass mich sterben!

(dreamily looking up at Tristan)

Let me die!


Muss ich wachen?


Must I waken?


Nie erwachen!


Never waken!


Soll der Tag
noch Tristan wecken?


Shall Day
still waken Tristan?


Lass den Tag
dem Tode weichen!


Let Day
give way to Death!


Des Tages Dräuen
nun trotzten wir so?


Have we Day's menaces
thus defied?

(mit wachsender Begeisterung)

Seinem Trug ewig zu fliehn!

(in growing rapture)

Ever to flee its guile.


Sein dämmernder Schein
verscheuchte uns nie?


Did its dawning
never affright us?

(mit grosser Gebärde
ganz sich erhebend)

Ewig währ uns die Nacht!

(raising herself up
with a grand gesture)

May our Night endure for ever!

(Tristan folgt ihr, sie umfangen sich in schwärmerischer Begeisterung)


O ew'ge Nacht,
süsse Nacht!
Hehr erhabne
Wen du umfangen,
wem du gelacht,
wie wär' ohne Bangen
aus dir er je erwacht?
Nun banne das Bangen,
holder Tod,
sehnend verlangter
In deinen Armen,
dir geweiht,
urheilig Erwarmen,
von Erwachens Not befreit!
Wie sie fassen,
wie sie lassen,
diese Wonne,
Fern der Sonne,
fern der Tage
Ohne Wähnen
sanftes Sehnen;
ohne Bangen
süss Verlangen;
ohne Wehen
hehr Vergehen;
ohne Schmachten
hold Umnachten;
ohne Meiden,
ohne Scheiden,
traut allein,
ewig heim,
in ungemessnen Räumen
übersel'ges Träumen.


O eternal Night,
sweet Night!
Gloriously sublime
Night of love!
Those whom you have embraced,
upon whom you have smiled,
how could they ever waken
without fear?
Now banish dread,
sweet death,
yearned for, longed for
In your arms,
consecrated to you,
sacred elemental quickening force,
free from the peril of waking!
How to grasp it,
how to leave it,
this bliss
far from the sun's,
far from Day's
parting sorrows!
Free from delusion
gentle yearning,
free from fearing
sweet longing.
Free from sighing
sublime expiring.
Free from languishing
enclosed in sweet darkness.
No evasion
no parting,
just we alone,
ever home,
in unmeasured realms
of ecstatic dreams.

Tristan du,
ich Isolde,
nicht mehr Tristan!


Tristan you,
I Isolde,
no longer Tristan.


Du Isolde,
Tristan ich,
nicht mehr Isolde!


You Isolde,
Tristan I,
no longer Isolde!


Ohne Nennen,
ohne Trennen,
neu Erkennen,
neu Entbrennen;
endlos ewig,
heiss erglühter Brust
höchste Liebeslust!

(Sie bleiben in verzückter Stellung)


free from parting,
new perception,
new enkindling;
ever endless
warmly glowing heart,
love's utmost joy!

(They remain in a rapturous embrace)

Notice that very last moment, you hear a dissonant chord, which thwarts the resolution of a very coital sounding climax. The illicit affair of Tristan and Isolde has just been found out, and the pain of living has just become that much more painful.

Before we get to the finish: another question: Can you name any other work of art that imply the internal experience of sex so graphically? (so I can watch it...)

Wagner’s way around the all-conquering Will is death and a mystical hope that by choosing your means of death, your death will be to a purpose. If Tristan and Isolde can’t possess each other in life, perhaps they’ll be allowed to be together in the next world. At the end of the final act, Isolde sings the music we just heard again over Tristan’s dead body, but this time, the climax isn’t thwarted by a dissonant chord, and she sort of orgasms herself to death.

Technically this story is tragedy - it ends in the death of flawed heroes. But the music is the opposite of tragedy. It meets its end ecstatically, as though death is not something to be avoided but to be celebrated. Wagner’s great operatic rival, Verdi, also specialized in tragedies, but Verdi’s tragedies sound tragic. His music sounds more interested in consoling the people left behind than it does in telling us about death’s glories.

We often like to call Wagner bombastic, and he absolutely is. But he’s bombastic in a completely different way than people think he is. Wagner’s operas are not all fat women with helmets shouting over loud orchestras. His operas contain just as much music that’s deafeningly quiet accompanying dull, high-fallutin, pseudo-philosophical conversations for the better part of an hour. But in such moments, or hours..., the music seems almost deliberately dull. Wagner never bored his listeners without knowing that that was exactly what he was doing. He was a master hypnotist. He wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia over the listeners. He doesn’t adapt to you, you can only adapt to him. You can be completely bored for a half-hour and then realize that you have another seven half-hours to go, so you might as well surrender to the experience. He’s trapped us in the opera house for the better part of a day, and uses that span to completely change our perceptions of time. At the beginnings of his operas, he releases us with only enough loud music to make us think that we might get some more on the horizon. What he demands we demands we surrender is our Will. And once we’ve surrendered our Wills to him, these loud, bombastic moments become much more frequent, more frenzied, more violent. The musical violence becomes like a narcotic which we crave.  

Question: Can you think of any filmmaker who uses the same technique? (Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, Hitchcock) Any TV show? (Breaking Bad)

The truth is that, relatively speaking, Tristan und Isolde is not that violent a piece of music. It certainly has many violent moments, almost none of which we’ve listened to today. But it’s the embryo that prepares us for the 15-hour, four day, Ring Cycle, which is where the real Wagnerian bloodbath happens, both musically and dramaturgically. Hopefully this class will go on long enough that we get to the Ring Cycle and talk about it in relation to Bismarck.

Beethoven celebrated the Self. His music demanded our attention as no musician before him ever did, but his music gives back to us a celebration of our dignity, our individuality, our generosity. But Wagner extolled self-renunciation, what he gives back to us is a sense that individuality is a curse from which our living selves can’t escape. But since we live in a godless world, we may be able to escape our individuality through death. Here is another great quote from Art and Revolution:

(call on reader)

“only Love can fathom Beauty; only Beauty can fashion Art. The love of weaklings for each other can only manifest itself as the goad of lust; the love of the weak for the strong is abasement and fear; the love of the strong for the weak is pity and forbearance; but the love of the strong for the strong is Love, for it is the free surrender to one who cannot compel us. Under every fold of heaven’s canopy, in every race, shall men by real freedom grow up to equal strength; by strength to truest love; and by true love to beauty. But Art is Beauty energized and turned to Knowledge.
And as the Knowledge of all men will find at last its religious utterance in the one effective Knwoledge of free united manhood: so will all these rich developments of Art find their profoundest focus in the Drama, in the glorious Tragedy of Man. The Tragedy will be the feast of all mankind; in it, - set free from each conventional etiquette, - free, strong, and beautious man will celebrate the dolour and elight of all his love, and consecreate in lofty worth the great Love-offering of his Death.”

This is why Wagner is still the most controversial artist who ever lived or who still lives. There is no appeal in Wagner to basic decency. In Wagner, there is only strength and weakness, and we have to prove our strength either by dying or causing death. Like all functional sociopaths, he understands us better than we do ourselves. The reason Wagner appeals to us is because we fear that he might be right.  So even if we fear and hate him, he’s far too useful for us to divorce him. He is, perhaps, the greatest creative genius who ever lived. And even if his characters are ridiculously unhuman, his music makes us feel as though we understand every thought that goes through their heads.

Like Marx, Wagner inaugurated a new, atheistic, kind of religion. But whereas Marx believed that we’re nothing more than tools formed by other tools, Wagner believes that no tool can touch us in any meaningful sense. All that matters about us is our blood, and Wagner worshipped blood both senses of the word - he worshipped bloodlines - as we’ll hopefully see in The Ring Cycle, and also worshipped the spilling of blood. Clearly the bloodlines Wagner worshipped were German, but nationalism centered around bloodline can be applied to any nationality, and has. In the 20th century, both Marx and Wagner led their followers down the same bloody path and used Darwin as an accomplice. Together, they’ve created the two main branch-divisions in Darwin’s tree. The world is now divided into those who believe that man is at the center of the world, and those who believe that machines are. Perhaps the next period of history is slated to be the one which determines that conclusion.