Nothing dates faster than comedy, and there is nothing sadder than a comedian past his sell-by date. Has time ever been so cruel to a celebrity as it's been to Jackie Mason? Had died twenty years ago, he'd be remembered as one of the funniest, most brilliant, most influential comedians of modern history - and now he's just a grouchy old bigot, a shandeh, a naar, total embarrassment to the comic genius and pride of a people he once was. In his old age, when he should be every bit the legend Mel Brooks now is, he's gone from menschllichker macher to schmutziker mamzer.
Search for Jackie Mason on youtube, and you can find a hundred-odd videos of Jackie Mason spewing unfunny op-eds uploaded directly to youtube that are nothing but right-wing bile, barely watched by anyone. Every one of them's introduced with Hava Negila played with the kind of bass riff that tells you he thinks he's being contemporary, but lost touch with what contemporary was more than thirty years ago.
It's especially sad, because Mason did as much as anyone to set the stage for the innovations of modern comedy up to this very moment - now more than ever. Watch him as the occasional Fox news sideshow commentator and you'd never know that this pint-sized fascist was once a giant. How could a man who spoke English so incomprehensibly handle it so brilliantly? Mason's old routines are clear influence for everybody who's anybody in comedy, not just George Carlin and Seinfeld, but Colbert and Louis CK too.
The bitterest irony of all is that the comic who inherited by far his spirit most directly is Stephen Colbert - the comic whose open-minded beliefs stand most clearly in contradiction to Mason's hate. Colbert's comedy draws from the exact same wellspring as Mason's, perhaps directly from Mason himself. Had Mason stayed the liberal he clearly was in his earlier career, he would probably be the most lionized living legend of comedy.
Both Colbert and Mason draw on that same source, irony in its most direct form - saying one thing and meaning another, often the exact opposite. When Mason focused on politics, a subject upon which he clearly as knowledgeable as any comedian has ever been, he would, like Colbert, approach from the open-minded liberal vantage point, and would pretend to praise and support right-wing politicians like Nixon and Reagan and then deliver punchlines that indirectly reveal that he loathed them. Colbert's irony comes from modern American life, but Mason's irony clearly comes from the rabbinic tradition in which he grew up. Mason may have been born in Sheboygan Wisconsin, but he grew up on the Lower East Side, and clearly spoke Yiddish as a first language. His father was an orthodox rabbi, his grandfathers were orthodox rabbis, all his brothers were orthodox rabbis. When Mason is ironic, the cadence isn't just Yiddish, it's Talmudic. There is a specific cadence to many of the Talmudic tractates where Orthodox Jews follow one interpretation of the Torah with precisely the opposite interpretation. It's a commonly shared assumption, at least among less observant Jews, that Charedi Jews give the word in the middle of the tractate the exact same emphasis when you get to the word in the middle "EPES!" ("BUT") which is usually accompanied by a shoulder shrug and a stuck up thumb that suddenly comes down. Over and over again, you see that ironic gesture in Mason's body language. How someone who grew up in so many layers of ironic tradition could stop being ironic and believe the very things he used to send up is a thought that can lead to despair.
In retrospect, you could probably tell that Mason would have this trouble earlier in his career, because Mason was always an asshole, but early in his career it was in the best possible way. When he first began in the fifties, he had enormous trouble because no comedian would ever be so acerbic. One of Mason's favorite tricks was to pick on someone in the front row of the audience and check with the guy to see if every joke is funny - it was as though the ultimate in Jewish neurosis came on the stage and as though he was angrily saying to the audience "Why am I not good enough for you?".When Don Rickles came on the scene a few years later, he did similar things and made insult comedy popular, but when Jackie Mason first insulted everyone from the audience to famous people, his audiences were shocked.
Ten years later, he'd become huge hit already, but he got himself practically banned from television for years because when Ed Sullivan held up his index finger from offstage to indicate that he had one minute left, Mason thought Sullivan was giving him the middle finger, and gave it to him right back while he was still on the air. It began a series of legal troubles for him that ended with a libel lawsuit against Ed Sullivan and his show, which Mason won, but the damage was done.
The real bad behavior began when he was a much older man, and the trouble just got worse and worse. In 1991, he referred to New York's mayor, David Dinkins, as a 'schvartze with a fancy mustache.' In 2003 he advocated the forcible expulsion of all Arabs from Israel, including the occupied territories. In 2012, he got into a physical altercation with a female friend, both sides claimed that the other initiated the fight, the charges were eventually dropped, but there's no way that anyone can believe that a snarling old man like Mason isn't capable of psychotic rage.
Every young Jew knows a Jackie Mason - maybe he's your bigoted grandfather or great uncle or cousin, maybe he's just a cantankerous old pot-stirrer in your shul, but every young Jew knows a couple old Jews who were unassailably liberal by the standards of 1965, but stood completely still while the world evolved and begrudges the world their mildly less privileged place within it. Sometimes he went by the name of Saul Bellow, or Milton Friedman, or David Mamet, or Irving Kristol, or Martin Peretz, or Joe Lieberman. He is almost always male, and sees himself as your superior by right of the fact that he's male and elderly. He assumes he should always be obeyed and differed to, not because of his virtue, but by virtue of being himself. He sees himself as much more liberal than his goyisher brethren in the white male community, and unlike them, he sees the liberation of women and blacks as a fundamental right. But he sees it as a right that should only be ascertained as a reward for good behavior. To ask for anything more is, to his mind, to be a parvenu, to not know your place, to be 'uppity.' Women can report abuse to the police now, blacks don't get lynched, 'So vat's de problem? Vy dey so angry?' In his dotage, Mason has become the voice of a particular substrata of white male rage in its Jewish variety. In the age of long-delayed Jewish prosperity, it was enough for many to assuage their liberal guilt by voting for Adlai Stevenson and contributing a few dollars to the SLC in the early 60's, so what's the problem now?
The clip I listed above comes from 1988. You can already see the open-mindedness of Mason's act fraying like an old rug. When it's brilliant, my god, it's electric as only the greatest of the great can be. But Mason was always a comedian who relied on stereotypes. Above all, he was a self-stereotyper, in incarnation of the ghetto Jew who was always willing to take a shot at himself before he takes a shot at anybody else lest the goyim beat the crap out of him again. The plurality of his comedy makes fun of Jews in everything from our little foibles to our grandiose self-delusions. Within it, you can hear in embryo the comic voices of both Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. But along with the self-stereotyping comes stereotyping of everybody else, and even in this midpoint in his career when he was in his mid-to-late fifties, you can hear Mason going to places that were terribly close to outright bigotry, even by the standards of 1988. He was not saying anything that can't be heard in most Jewish houses even today, but it doesn't make it any easier to take.
To our generation, Jackie Mason will probably be remembered most as Rabbi Krustovsky, the long-estranged father to Krusty the Clown. In a moment last year that was all too symbolic, Rabbi Krustovsky became one of the few characters The Simpsons ever killed off. That's just one of many ironies about Jackie Mason's presence on The Simpsons, but the largest of them all is that Krusty the Clown's biography is basically ripped from Jackie Mason's - a comic who rebelled against his Orthodox family that expected him to become a Rabbi. An atomically self-destructive performer who'll do anything to remain in the limelight. A walking anachronism whose comedy clearly dates from another age, yet stubbornly refuses to age gracefully.
As a friend pointed out when he heard I was writing about Mason, he is only 84, but he seems at least 100. Every decade, the toupees get more elaborate while the skin withers ever further. Mel Brooks is five years older than Jackie Mason, but he seems ten years younger and is every bit the comic icon Mason deserved to be, celebrated for his lapses into bad taste rather than alienated for them. Woody Allen is four years younger, his hugely productive career is still going strong, though his ethical lapses are of another order entirely from Jackie Mason's. Show business will forgive a sex criminal. In another ten years, maybe it'll even forgive Bill Cosby; but it will not forgive a Republican.
In the terms of comic genealogy, Mason is of the same generation as Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. There is something, there's always been something, about comedy that draws out the most dangerous personalities. The job of a comedian is to push every conceivable boundary and find our weak spots. They are the frontier workers of our culture, working on our most sensitive fault lines. They inspire more love than anyone else in the arts, and consequently also inspire more hate. Comedy is virtually the only artform that demands a completely visceral response from the viewer - if you don’t laugh, the comic fails. No artform takes more courage to practice, no artform runs a greater risk of failure, no artform requires more refinement and evolution, and in no artform is the humiliation of failure so obvious. It therefore follows that the people attracted to comedy are the biggest risk-takers. They’re often the smartest and most interesting people in the world, and they’re often the most dangerous too. To be a good comic, there must be a hole in your life so deep and empty that only the sound of laughter can fill it. Jackie Mason is everything a comic is, was, and should be, and that's why he will never be an icon.
I never read Lord of the Flies before last night. It was never assigned at Schechter or Beth Tfiloh when I was there, and my sense is that Hyde would have been idiotic to come within fifty miles of the book, lest it give their students any ideas. I'm sorry I've waited this long to read it, because beneath the simplicity - perhaps simple-mindedness - of its grim philosophical questions is a story about the torments we all face - regardless of age.
The parts of the book that will always remain with me are not the faux-cinematic spectacles of fire and blood, but the small moments of cruelty when the powerful subsume the powerless - it's a cliche that power corrupts, but power also infantilizes. It makes powerful people the least qualified to know what the best course of action is, both for themselves and the people over whom they rule. Civilization was and remains a hard-won achievement that's constantly corroded and rebuilt. If it functions properly, more and more of the powerless will gradually gain something resembling an equal footing with the powerful, and will add their natural gifts to the gifts which civilization bestows.
In other words, civilization (in this case perhaps, 'civilisation') was built for Piggy to flourish. He deserved better, and yet for every Piggy who has to endure being the victim of the work of fiction, there are billions of Piggys through human history, brought down by the brutality of the world before they had a chance to show what natural gifts they could offer to make our lives better.
I have no doubt that at that age, I'd have been a Piggy too, though perhaps without his common sense. Like all nerds from time immemorial, I had all those Ralph-like friends who turned their backs on friendship the moment it was expedient, and the sadistic Rogers who got a brief a taste of blood and became obsessed with drawing more, and oh boy did I ever know Jack Merridews - one of them even became a rabbi.
There is a cruelty about late childhood that is particular to itself, no other age can ever imitate it. You're old enough to grasp the basic conceits about right and wrong, but not old enough yet to internalize their importance. You're old enough to understand that your person and individuality can have power over others, but nowhere near old enough to internalize that power's limitations. It is an age when the terror of not understanding what you see can be all too real. I recall vividly the horrible dread I felt I was when my mother told me that in 4 billion years, the Sun would turn into a Red Giant and burn up the Earth. I still remember how terrified I was of the five foot stuffed bear that would sit right across from my bed, staring at me every night with its immobile smile - but I was too proud to tell my parents how horrifying it was. But it's also an age when you can become another kid's terror all too easily - I'm sure I was that too. There is no child too rough to never be a Piggy or a Simon, and no child too timid to never be a Jack or a Roger.
The problem is that while it gets better for us all as adults, or at least more domesticated, it doesn't get all that much better. One of the most striking details about Lord of the Flies, which I suppose you have to squint a bit to notice, is that the book portrays a dystopia within a dystopia. It takes place in some unspecified future date in which the world is already at nuclear war. The kids were not simply on a plane, they were on a rescue plane that was supposed to take them out of harm's way. For all we know, these kids were already traumatized like millions of children during the World War that occurred ten years before the book's composition in the early 50's. What happens on the island could be considered a microcosm of a world at war, and what happens to some of the characters in the book is downright merciful compared to the deaths that could await billions in a nuclear war.
Lots, far too much, is made of the symbolism and fable-like nature of these various characters: Simon seems saintly and prophetic, so perhaps he's Christ or Peter. Piggy, even with his low-class dialect, seems like a 10-year-old intellectual, so maybe he's Socrates or Galileo. Perhaps Jack is a standin for Hitler or a pint-sized Colonel Kurtz or even Satan himself (there's far more evidence for the latter than any other alleged symbol in the book...), and perhaps Roger is a Nazi torturer like Mengele or Dirlewanger or perhaps even a pre-teen complement to O'Brien from 1984. And perhaps the Beast can be anything from the human Id, to the primeval instinct toward fear and superstition, to our awareness of our limitations and mortality, to the burdens of history and consciousness. But to attach any particularly specific meaning to any of these characters is to completely miss the point - the point is to elicit comparisons and metaphors which are personal to each reader. If a metaphor occurs in this fable between a character and a larger figure in history or literature, that's certainly valid - and it probably will, but the point is not in what this fable means, but in wrestling with what this fable means.
Is Lord of the Flies as great as its reputation? Well... it's probably deserving of most of it... It's a tremendously effective and disturbing fable, but the fable is brought upon us with a tremendously heavy hand. William Golding, in spite of his Nobel Prize, is yet another of those 1950's writers who managed one great book and never repeated the feat. Most of us could easily name a dozen books from mid-century writers known for a single book that a book-lover hardly ever heard from again: Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, Flowers for Algernon, Catch-22, Under the Volcano, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Winesburg Ohio, The Moviegoer, Watership Down... The list goes on and on, I can easily name a dozen more. Generally speaking, these are great books written by less than great writers. In the case of Lord of the Flies, Golding's grasp of ideas far exceeds the limits which his command of prose should allow him. Over and over again, Golding decamps from his sometimes magnificent prose to the world of cliche, the most famous example perhaps being right at the end of the book: "____ wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, the fall through the air of the true..." There is a still a kind of poignance in this writing - the character in question is still too young to understand the real depths of the world's darkness, so perhaps what's cliched to us is not cliched to him. But even so, a better writer wouldn't even make us ask the question.
In fact, a better writer would probably avoid making this story into a novel - realizing that a story with so many high-concept effects can be told much, much more effectively as a screenplay. Like so many of its successors, Lord of the Flies reads as a movie on the page. The novel can get us inside the heads of characters, but it can't possibly convey spectacle with the vividness of an actual picture. When you read all those macro microaggressions with which Piggy and the Littleuns are tormented, you might gasp. But when you read about the eruptions of the fires and the man in the tree, there is nothing about a written page which can render it with the vividness such images deserve. But this is what was asked of writers of that era, and what's asked even more of writers today.
Near as I can tell, there was something about the pressure of being a famous high culture creator in the Postwar period that was unbearable. This was a phenomenon by no means limited to novelists. Creating something great requires solitude, yet the media took the most promising talents in the English speaking world and immediately turned them into celebrities. How can a writer possibly create great novels when he has an offer for a $10000 speaking engagement every day? Norman Mailer tried to do both, but just about everyone but him agreed that he failed. Critics and fans have always been brutal in their assessments, but a disappointed fan could never call Balzac or Dostoevsky up on a listed phone number at any point during the day. Whereas the reading public of the previous age could only have their narratives conveyed to them through words, writers of the new era had (have) to compete with cinematic images. She has to not only create scenes that can inspire an imagination trained far more by Spielberg than Melville or Twain, but she has to create those scenes using a vocabulary that is, by definition, more limited than readers of previous generations because they don't spend as much time reading. When you think of it from that perspective, perhaps it seems like a miracle that so many talented writers managed even one great book.
Aside from the culture of celebrity, the ground for high culture was simply not as fertile in the 20th century. The most popular literary novels almost invariably have conceptual hooks - a novel can't simply be a novel that tells a meaningful story, it needs a quasi-cinematic conception to distinguish itself in the marketplace. Even the most talented writers can exhaust themselves simply coming up with ideas they can pitch to a publishing firm before they even write a word. Today, literature lives in an Age created by the ABC's (Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke), Heinlein and Vonnegut, JRR and CS, Jo and George. Fiction nearly requires a concept to be marketable. Concept now dwarfs actual story or character or language or psychological and philosophical depth. It's become all-important, if the concept is good, everything else about the book can suck and it can still be a hit. Instead of holding mass-appeal and elite/critical appeal in balance, the concept ensures the mass-appeal's mass primacy. To a confirmed stick-in-the-mud like me, I can't help looking and that and seeing (yet) a(nother) cultural disaster.
20th century novelists, like poets and composers and artists and choreographers, were like olympic swimmers with a hand tied behind their backs. Aristocratic artists writing for an aristocracy that can't possibly exist in a demotic age. Considering the impediments in their way, it's amazing that artists from high culture ever come up with anything good at all.
After so many decades in which this allegedly trivial piece of music was part of my life's upholstery, I can't imagine this work the trivial showpiece most people claim it is. There were weeks of my life when my Dad seemed to play this piece on loop. I'm not sure I've glanced at a score of it more than a few times, but except for the exact tempos and dynamics I could probably create a reasonable facsimile of the score without looking at it. Every note is burned into my memory. When I suggested the other day in an unofficial forum among some music obsessives that there's much more to this piece than meets the eye, one of the more acerbic of my online music correspondents chastised me for overthinking it and assured me that the Russian Easter Overture is little more than a piece of religious kitsch. Suffice to say, I don't think it's a mere trinket of religious kitsch. I think it the masterpiece of Rimsky-Korsakov's illustrious career, and a work that paves the way for no less a piece than The Rite of Spring.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov may be most famous for writing Scheherazade, and his Capriccio Espagnol goes on virtually any greatest classical hits album, but he did so much more than that. He may not be one of the eternal masters of music, but he's about as great a composer as you can be without being in the first room of the Pantheon. As a teacher, he was a crucial (often THE crucial) mentor for Stravinsky, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Arensky, Liadov, and even Respighi(!!!). He wrote a dozen very fine operas that are rarely played in the West, but remain among the most popular repertory works in Russia, whose advanced harmonies and innovative orchestration clearly pave the way for Stravinsky. He made a cottage industry out of editing the proofs of contemporary Russian composers whose technique was considered more amateurish - and while his results often hide the greater depth of the originals with effects that the real composer would never countenance, the greater surface appeal got composers like Mussorgsky and Borodin performances when they otherwise would have disappeared from the repertoire. Without Rimsky, the loss to posterity would have been incalculable.
Unlike Russian contemporaries like Mussorgsky or Tchaikovsky, there isn't much by Rimsky Korsakov that is deeper than great entertainment. I think the proper way to think of Rimsky is as one of the world's greatest composers of light music. On that score, he ranks among one of the very, very greatest. He was not a composer who plumbed philosophical, psychological, or metaphysical depths. He was an orchestrator of miraculous effects. As an orchestrator, he was perhaps the very greatest of them all. There are plenty of other orchestrators in his class like Berlioz, Wagner, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Elgar, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Respighi, Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, Shostakovich, Bernstein, John Adams, James MacMillan, Tan Dun, Thomas Ades... the list goes on and on... but unlike almost all of them, the effects never really serve at the behest of a greater message, and therefore draw attention to themselves in a way these other composers rarely do.
Like the novelist Joseph Conrad, Rimsky began his adult life as a naval officer, but unlike Conrad, he didn't take the lessons of his abroad sojourns nearly so seriously. Conrad used his visits to faraway places as an opportunity to examine the relationship of Europe to those she ruled. But if Rimsky's music is any indication, he was too enchanted by the exotic sights and sounds of what he saw to have much concern for how he contributed to the suffering of those places he visited. Nearly all music is like a spiritual travelogue, conjuring the spirit foreign lands for those who'd never been there. His operas are often set in legendary epochs, based on distant mythologies. Exciting as they are, don't expect anything nearly so deep as Boris Godunov.
In his 19th century way, Rimsky was paying tribute to the depth and greatness of spirit in those places he visited so eagerly. Nevertheless, to our 21st century ears, there is unmistakably something trivializing about his exoticisms. Unlike many in the humanities, I don't like throwing around the word 'orientalism' much, but it can't be denied that Rimsky reduced the essential humanity of the places to he's clearly trying to pay a very earnest tribute. People should be more forgiving of artists operating in a different time and ethos, but Rimsky's unwillingness to do more in his music than create a kind of musical cinema inhibits the quality of his creations.
But then, there's the Russian Easter Festival Overture. I think it's his masterpiece because, for only a few times in his career, Rimsky is not conjuring the sounds of faraway lands, but the sounds of his native country, which he can convey from his bones rather than the experiences of a short visit. Instead of painting musical postcards of these places he doesn't know particularly well, I think he manages to tap into something essential about the Russian condition. Rimsky wrote other Russian pieces, not nearly as well known. There's the "Overture on Three Russian Themes", ('theme' in this case means folk song) during which Rimsky milks the hell out of one particular theme which is much better known when it briefly appears in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The only piece of Rimsky's I know which seems to reach out to a similar level is his Christmas Eve suite, based on a series of Gogol short stories, but could obviously be viewed as a companion piece to the Russian Easter Overture.
Rimsky was anything but a religious man, but perhaps this made him particularly suited to portray religion. The piece begin very slowly and quietly, almost from a sepulchral ether. Surely these are the impressions of sitting in Church - it almost seems deliberately dull, as though to slow our clock down to a place where religious contemplation is possible. This musical tableaux lasts for an entire four-to-six minutes depending on the performance. It begins with a theme that can only be a Slavonic chant, "Gospodi Pompiluj" perhaps though the prosody doesn't quite fit. It's as though a call and response is happening between a cantor and the congregation (0:00, again at 2:00), interrupted at times with solos from the violin and flute that sound almost like the seraphic halo of Christ (0:45, 1:35, 3:10), and a flutter-tonguing of winds and string tremolos that could as easily be the fluttering about of angels as it could the Russian snow and gentle March wind outside (1:10, 3:40). Within a few minutes, the seraphic feeling becomes still more intense, with horns and winds giving almost warnings of coming danger whose prosody sounds uncannily like "Amen" (or 'Amin' in the Slavonic liturgy - 4:25, 5:10), and ending with strings and harps creating an almost hallucinatory effect (5:20-5:45) as though going into a dream state - brought on by incense perhaps?, or simply fatigue from the boredom of Church, maybe this is Rimsy falling asleep in the middle of the service (something to which all of us can relate) ...but whatever it is, it's followed by the musical equivalent of a cinematic jump (5:50), the scene suddenly changes to something that unmistakably sounds, to me at least, like a vodka-soaked drunken revelry. Is it pagan? Is it violent? Is it the Christianity of an age before it shed its pagan roots? Is it a dance around a bonfire? Is it the kind of religious ecstasy and violence which inspires pogroms? Whatever it is, it's clearly a Rite that is much, much more lively than thirty seconds previously. Is this even a Christian ceremony anymore? Perhaps it's pagan, and considering the time of year in which this overture/symphonic poem is set, perhaps Stravinsky took the inspiration from his beloved mentor to create The Rite of Spring from it. Whatever it is, it's like a Scorsesean cinematic wipe of absolute contrast, it yet another indication that Rimsky is one of music's master showmen.
What follows in the next ten minutes feels like a clash between these two forces of religion - religious benevolence and religious ecstasy, religious love and religious hate. One expression is benevolent but boring, the other is beguiling but dangerous. Perhaps this is Rimsky alternating between the dreariness of Church rites and the quasi-pagan rites of his dreams. At times, the intensity of these musical dreams becomes overwhelming. On the one hand, we hear what might be singing around an Easter dinner table, or a hymn in church (7:25, 8:40) - but is this a hymn, or is it a folk song? But a few second later, strings are plucked in a manner that can only resemble that Russian guitar-like instrument, the balalaika (7:40, 13:25), which inevitably stirs the music into a kind of ecstatic frenzy. At one point, the music becomes so frenzied that it makes me think of a Good Friday pogrom (starting at 10:25). Rimsky was an extreme progressive for his time and place, not only letting Jewish students board with him, but even allowing one of them become his son-in-law and succeed him in his professorship at the St. Petersburg conservatory. I have no doubt that Rimsky was as aware of the dangers of religion as the attractions.
But the glory of the piece is a passage towards the end, when Rimsky portrays the tintinnabulation of the Russian bells, which for centuries, Russians thought of as the great glory of Russian life. Every town in Russia was proud of their church bells, and in this all-too-brief passage (13:40), they ring together in a kind of celestial harmony that encapsulates the whole experience before all the themes are brought together for a final climax, bells accompanying the bombast. It's a passage that never fails to move me - one of those moments in great music that lets you remember the wonders of being alive.
"You consider yourselves artists? Blowers and fiddlers is what you are! I am an artist! I am Schubert, Franz Schubert, whom the whole world knows and talks about! Maker of great and beautiful things you can't possibly understand! . . . Cantatas and quartets, operas and symphonies! For I am not just a landler composer, as the idiotic newspapers say at the idiots repeat--I am Schubert! Franz Schubert! Don't you know it! When the word 'art' is used, it refers to me, not to you worms and insects who long for solos I will never write . . . Crawling, nibbling worms who should be squashed under my foot--the foot of a man reaching for the stars!
- Schubert, drunk, and possibly apocryphal. I choose to believe it true.
Belgium is one of those countries which Americans know exist but barely think of. We've all heard of Belgian Waffles, even if we have no idea what separates a Belgian waffle from any other kind. Belgian Chocolate is supposedly a guarantee of quality, and the sophisticated (or at least the drunk) among us know well about the wonderfulness of Belgian Beer, and few people know that the french fries we so love in this country are actually Belgian Frites. Even the educated among us usually has only one conception of Belgium which we learned in our schoolyears: "Belgian Neutrality," Germany's violation of which was the incomprehensible reason England gave for its entrance into World War I, and which is shorthand for that old European culture of honor which no American claims to understand - yet can understand very easily after living through the post-9/11 era. The only other thing people associate with Belgium is its diamonds, an industry for which their pursuit could sadly have not been more ignominious, Belgium is known to history as the single least principled of all imperial rulers: Leopold II, a late-19th century monarch who founded the 'Free' State of Congo as its sole owner and proprietor for his own personal enrichment - a cause for which anywhere from a million to 15 million Africans died from starvation, horrific work conditions, easily preventable disease outbreaks, and death by mutilation (seriously, look it up, but don't look it up unless you really really mean it).
Belgium is one of the many regions that stands in that weird nexus between France, Germany, Holland, and England. Perhaps it's pure luck that it never became a region like Alsace or Lorraine or Normandy or Burgundy (which used to comprise part of Belgium) which moved back and forth in continual disputes between the the larger countries to Belgium's south, east, north, and west. From 1830, Belgium's existence was pretty much guaranteed because Holland was no longer powerful enough to substantiate its claim onto Belgian territory. Therefore Belgium, like most countries in the world, is a weird and slightly arbitrary amalgam of ethnic groups whom history's decreed must live with each other but, due to the narcissism of small differences, still have trouble getting along, even though this particular amalgam lives in one of the most prosperous and functional regions of the world.
60% of the country is Flemish, meaning that they hail from the County of Flanders, an ancient seat of Germanic peoples which bristled for hundreds of years under French rule, and to this day is still Dutch-speaking. Dutch, it should be remembered, but for obvious differences in spelling, is a Saxon language of Germanic people whose syntax and nomenclature is not all that different from German. Most of the remaining 40% of the country is an ethnic French group known as the Walloons, French speakers descended from the Gauls who gave Julius Caesar such trouble 2,000 years ago.
There are lots of jokes made in this region of the world from one ethnic group about the other:
"A helicopter has crashed into a Belgian cemetary. The rescue team's already found 100 dead people." "Jesus wasn't born in Belgium because God couldn't find three wise men." "The Belgian Ministry of Transport has put up a new sign that reads "End of the Roundabout"" "Two Belgians are driving a truck and arrive at a bridge with a warning sign: maximum height 4 meters. They get off and measure their truck. It's 6 meters high. "What should we do?" asks one. "I don't see any police" says the other "so let's drive on."" "Why do Dutch love Belgian jokes so much? Because they're cheap.""Why did Ikea close down in the Netherlands? Because they couldn't afford the free pencils."
But this cross-section of Frankish and Germanic peoples results in Belgium being a hotbed of the singular achievement in human history that required the cross-section of medieval France and the Holy Roman Empire (which was actually German) to take flight. The Gothic style, which Belgium holds within it in spades. It is difficult to describe a Gothic style without vast historical background and technical terms, but walk into the Cathedral of our Lady in Antwerp, walk around at night in the Historic Center of Bruges, and you'll immediately know what the Gothic is - something so primally mysterious it's as though its buildings were transferred to reality directly from the world of myth and legend. The Gothic is a place of the infinite, the transcendental, a place that exists to make men feel dwarfed. It's that mixture of sacred and spooky which lets you know that God is watching and judging your every action - every footstep in a Gothic cathedral can be heard for hundreds of feet away, the air always seems to be fifteen degrees colder than it is outside; darkness covers the face of the deep and yet every shadow stretches out on the stones for fifty feet. Look up and you see an arched ceiling so high that it seems to touch the heavens itself, look to the side and you see that the only source of light is coming from the sun through the stained glass windows whose panes portray the glorious deaths of martyrs in manners so heinous that you can easily be convinced that the Church perpetrates its violence for our greater good. Enter a Gothic church, and you have left the realm of the body and are immediately transfigured into the world of the spirit. The Gothic is, to this day, perhaps the greatest aesthetic achievement the world has ever conjured for us.
Sadly, there is no such thing as a Gothic style in music, unless you count the guitar riffs of black-clad kids in shopping malls with painted nails and bad eyeliner. But there is certainly music of the Franco-Flemish composers who lived contemporaneously to Gothic constructions, and expected to hear their music played and sung in Gothic spaces: Arcadelt, Ockeghem, Willaert, Obrecht, Isaac... and generally regarded as greatest of them all, Josquin dez Pres.
Hopefully this blog will have world enough and time to get to those great Franco/Flemish composers of an era so distant that my blind spot toward them has generally taken this long to lift. But instead, I'd like to focus on the extremely Gothic magnum opus of a latter-day heir of theirs: Cesar Franck.
In the late 19th century, Cesar Franck was a humble musician of the older generation living in Paris. A Belgian who became the church organist of the famous Neo-Gothic basilica, Sainte-Clotilde, which houses perhaps the most famous organ in Paris - all this in spite of the fact that he'd never played an organ until well after he was twenty years old. Around the time he turned fifty, the Paris Conservatory (Conservatoire) appointed him Professor of Organ, his humble manner made him immediately beloved of his students, at least four of which would become among the most famous composers of their time.
But as a composer, Franck was an extremely late-bloomer. His overbearing father wanted him to be a child prodigy, and withdrew him fas a student from the Paris conservatory when he thought they were not sufficiently believing in his son's talents. For the entirety of his early maturity, he struggled in a hand-to-mouth existence as a teacher and accompaniist. What saved him from impoverished obscurity was the new organ techniques that came from Germany, and for the first time in the history of France, allowed organs to play Bach's organ music properly. Franck, until then just a very good pianist, was only the second organist in Paris to play Bach in un-bastardized form. It was from Bach, from Renaissance church music of masters like Josquin and Ockeghem, and from the organ, that Franck learned his neo-Gothic musical style.
This made his musical language completely out of step with the most famous French composers of his time. Saint-Saens, Gounod, Offenbach, Bizet, and Faure all aspired to write music that was in their different ways, completely classical - not in the modern genre sense but in the sense that it was 18th century music, balanced, formally perfect, a series of beautiful sounds; Mozart with more instruments. But all five of these composers were in their ways, thoroughly modern men, attracted to rationalism and intellectual pursuit and science. Franck, on the other hand, was a humble Catholic, and his music was, to the end of his life, thoroughly grounded in church worship.
Franck wrote his symphony at the age of sixty-five, he had only a year to live when he heard it premiered at the age of sixty-seven. It was not like any music anyone had heard. It had all the same attractive melodies which you hear in Saint-Saens and Faure, but there was also a churning darkness to it. A much larger orchestra than the standard of the day, conveying an utterly spooky spirituality that seemed profoundly un-French, or at least un-French by the standards of the 1880's. It was as un-Mozartean as a work of music can be, rather taking as its models the severity of Bach and the erotic nightmarishness of Wagner. It was as though the gargoyles in Notre-Dame had formed a choir and this is what they sang. Composers like Saint-Saens and Gounod were horrified by it, they thought it a monstrosity that put back into music a forbidden, pre-modern, air. Students of Franck, like Chausson, D'Indy, Vierne, Duparc, were absolutely thrilled by it. It was a new kind of French music that took in all the metaphysical ambition of the Germans but combined it with all that French melody and sensuality. It was, truly, music for a dark fairy tale, something far more legendary and infinite than music of the time could be. A musical equivalent to Bruges at night - a gothic thrill.
In two nights begins Purim, the holiday based upon the Book of Esther, which is allegedly based on an event in the 5th Century BC (OK... BCE...), but clearly well predates Judaism itself. What is Purim but the Vernal Equinox festival? The Jewish Carnivale, the Jewish Mardi Gras, the Jewish Holi, the Jewish Nowruz, the Jewish Higan. Somewhere around March 21st, every corner of the world seems to have a holiday that moves us from the suffering of winter to the burgeoning life and worldly romance of spring. Every major world religion seems to have a festival around this time of year when death is transcended, and life, be it temporal or eternal, begins anew. Nearly every one of these holidays seems to have colorful costumes, plenty of alcohol, special foods and deserts only eaten at this time of year. Judaism is not a religion of particularly transcendental death. It is a religion that prizes life and survival above all things, and it should come as no surprise that this Vernal equinox holiday is not about spiritual renewal, but about the survival of the Jewish people. But why do we survive? What purpose is there to life? What meaning is there to the trials we pass, the difficulties we undergo, the tests we have to take? I don't think I'm alone in thinking that Judaism, on this score, is a little inadequate. Judaism, above all other things, is a religion of ethics. It distracts us so busily with concerns about our conduct in the here and now that the purpose of such good conduct seems almost secondary. The closest thing we have to an answer is in the Book of the Bible that directly follows Esther. The Book of Job, or Iyov in Hebrew, is the book that faces up to the fact that as a religion, we're not much concerned with the purpose of life. Judaism, a religion that has an answer handy for every ethical and legal question under the sun, has no ready answer to the question of 'why.' Christians and Muslims alike can bask in the smile of salvation's grace, but the afterlife is of such negligible concern to Jewish texts that who can blame us for getting a reputation as a depressed people? In the Torah alone, we have 613 laws, and we have thousands of years of commentary upon them which explain everything about how we are to comport ourselves to the world, but as to why we should comport ourselves this way, the Sages, the Prophets, Yahweh himself, is almost completely silent. On Yom Kippur, there is a part of the service known as the martyrology, in which a medeival German-Jewish poem recounts how the Romans killed the great Rabbis at the end of the Bar-Kochba era (138 AD... ok... CE...) in ways that would curdle the blood of even the most saintly Christian martyrs - claiming that the Emperor Hadrian decided to kill Judaism's greatest ten rabbis as punishment for the ten older brothers of Joseph having sold him into slavery. At the end of the poem, the angels cry out "Is this the reward of Torah?" In the siddur I grew up with, the translation told us that God responded "The road to justice is often filled with affliction and pain." When you learn what it really says, you realize that this is a hilarious and deliberate mistranslation. What God actually says is "This is my decree. Accept it or else." Or else what? He'll kill the angels too? He'll destroy the world? Our Yahweh is, as always, sublimely touchy about people questioning his quixotic judgement. But it can't be denied, this is the cry that Jews have had to make from time immemorial. In every age, there is a cry such as the angels made, and a cry such as Iyov makes to God in Chapter 3 of his Book. 3 After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.2 He said:
3 “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’ 4 That day—may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it. 5 May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more; may a cloud settle over it; may blackness overwhelm it. 6 That night—may thick darkness seize it; may it not be included among the days of the year nor be entered in any of the months. 7 May that night be barren; may no shout of joy be heard in it. 8 May those who curse days[a] curse that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan. 9 May its morning stars become dark; may it wait for daylight in vain and not see the first rays of dawn, 10 for it did not shut the doors of the womb on me to hide trouble from my eyes.
11 “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? 12 Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? 13 For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest 14 with kings and rulers of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins, 15 with princes who had gold, who filled their houses with silver. 16 Or why was I not hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day? 17 There the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the weary are at rest. 18 Captives also enjoy their ease; they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout. 19 The small and the great are there, and the slaves are freed from their owners.
20 “Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul, 21 to those who long for death that does not come, who search for it more than for hidden treasure, 22 who are filled with gladness and rejoice when they reach the grave? 23 Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? 24 For sighing has become my daily food; my groans pour out like water. 25 What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. 26 I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.”
This operatic soliloquy of despair, this foundational moment in the history of human thought, is more powerful to me than all the Shakespeare in existence. As I've often said on this blog, I love Shakespeare, but I don't get Shakespeare. Maybe it's a cultural thing. I would imagine that as a culture, high tragedy and romance is a bit alien to Jews - no human being is so great that their fall means that much in the grand scheme, and we're the religion that invented the sheet with a hole in the middle for sex (which some people claim is apocryphal, I have my doubts...), so however lucky some of us are to have great sex sometimes, great sex is clearly not a priority Jews are taught to have. In any event, why is everything in Shakespeare so... dramatic? Everything about Shakespeare: the fascination with great men and royal intrigue, the rhetorical bombast, the obsession with sexual jealousy past every other human concern, the cynical nihilism, the unconcern with morality, feels a little off from life as I've experienced it. The Bible is about people like me: little people, outsiders, weirdos. It's about how people far too isolated to ever appear in a Shakespeare play can still find their voice and place in the world. Even if I disagree with an enormous amount of what's in the Bible, I still 'get' its concerns much more than I get Shakespeare. What's extraordinary about the Book of Iyov is not Iyov's suffering, which, let's face it, the Bible obviously distributes to its characters as though it costs God nothing but a penny to make his subjects writhe. What's extraordinary is its acknowledgement that doubt is completely natural to have, and its acknowledgement that God may be at best indifferent to our suffering, and at worst, we may be His plaything. There is no true explanation in Judaism of why the world is the way it is. There is only the reality that the world is what it is. At no point does God defend His conduct, He simply says after the manner of a celestial hipster: "You wouldn't understand it." As is an omnipotent being's prerogative, he dodges the question with some of the world's most sublime poetry that would not feel out of place in Walt Whitman or Herman Melville. This is just the last quarter of it when God fixates on the Leviathan - a whale-like creature whose presence is peppered throughout the Bible as a metaphor for the incomprehensible enormity of the divine:
41 [h]“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? 2 Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? 3 Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words? 4 Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? 5 Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house? 6 Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? 7 Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? 8 If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! 9 Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering. 10 No one is fierce enough to rouse it. Who then is able to stand against me? 11 Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.
12 “I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form. 13 Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor[i]? 14 Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth? 15 Its back has[j] rows of shields tightly sealed together; 16 each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. 17 They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. 18 Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. 19 Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. 20 Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. 21 Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth. 22 Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it. 23 The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. 24 Its chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. 25 When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. 26 The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. 27 Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. 28 Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it. 29 A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance. 30 Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. 31 It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. 32 It leaves a glistening wake behind it; one would think the deep had white hair. 33 Nothing on earth is its equal— a creature without fear. 34 It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.”
I first truly encountered Iyov not in Jewish school, but in Mr. Spaeth's twelfth-grade English elective classroom. We had to read passages from Job in order to analyze Moby Dick. Melville begins the final chapter of Moby Dick with a biblical quote from the beginning of Job, "...And I only am escaped alone to tell thee." I often felt that way during those final years of high school, "I only am escaped alone with my independence of thought intact," and it was perhaps at the price of a particular kind of mental darkness that will follow me all the days of my life. The identification which so many millions for 2,700 years have had with Iyov is not simply because of the idea that virtue will not be rewarded, but that in the eyes of many, suffering is indicative of vice. Islam implies exactly that very strongly - often stating in the Koran that suffering is a result of not sufficiently submitting ( the word 'Islam' itself means submission) to the will of Allah. In Christianity on the other hand, suffering is so paramount that suffering is a virtue in of itself. But whether Christianity or Islam hold the more correct interpretation of suffering, it can't be denied that the human brain is far more hard-wired to believe something like the Islamic interpretation. So many millions in the world, of so many different beliefs, equate virtue with heroism - the strong are virtuous not because of deeds but because they are strong. We see extremely modern incarnations of this idea in everything from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn - the strong do not equivocate and need not humility, they neither admit to weaknesses nor need they search for them. Excepting perhaps Odysseus, every ancient epic hero from Achilles to Beowulf to Aeneas to Siegfried to Gilgamesh seems to equate strength with moral uprightness. In the same way, evil is automatically equated with weakness, with duplicity, with misfortune itself. Evolutionarily, this is surely explicable considering how difficult survival was for the vast majority of human pre-history. But in an agricultural and literate era, when there was more time for contemplation, when virtue was not related to the glamor of the hunt, perhaps we required new rules for what constituted good and evil. The presence of Iyov, much more than Odysseus, shows a new kind of human consciousness. Evil and misfortune are not necessarily equated with each other. We do not necessarily deserve whatever suffering we experience, but whether our lives are owed to God or natural phenomena, we cannot comprehend the cosmic plan that makes us live as we do. Even if I find Islam's interpretation of suffering to be heartless, and find in Christianity's interpretation a convenient excuse for exploitation, at least those religions have explanations. Judaism remains completely janus-faced in the face of suffering. The closest it comes to an explanation of suffering is in Iyov, and its explanation is not only Miltonic in its anger at God - but positively Bergmanesque at its agony at God's silence. And when we get to chapter 23, Job seems to speak for us all, wanting a justification for the ways of God to Man, but never getting one. It may be Biblical, but it thoroughly, utterly, essentially in all senses, modern:
1 Then Job answered and said, 2 Even to day is my complaint bitter: my stroke is heavier than my groaning.*3 Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! 4 I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would know the words which he would answer me, and understand what he would say unto me. 6 Will he plead against me with his great power? No; but he would put strength in me. 7 There the righteous might dispute with him; so should I be delivered for ever from my judge.
8 Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: 9 On the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him:10 But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.†11 My foot hath held his steps, his way have I kept, and not declined. 12 Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.‡§
13 But he is in one mind, and who can turn him? and what his soul desireth, even that he doeth. 14 For he performeth the thing that isappointed for me: and many such things are with him. 15 Therefore am I troubled at his presence: when I consider, I am afraid of him. 16 For God maketh my heart soft, and the Almighty troubleth me: 17 Because I was not cut off before the darkness, neither hath he covered the darkness from my face.