Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Evidence of What?

This morning the Health section of the BBC News Web site came out with one of those stories that now attracts more of my attention in the context of my medical history. Here is the basic lead information:

About 10,000 cases of breast and bowel cancer could be prevented each year in the UK if people did more brisk walking, claim experts.

The World Cancer Research Fund scientists say any moderate activity that makes the heart beat faster should achieve the same.

For example, data suggest 45 minutes a day of moderate exercise could prevent about 5,500 cases of breast cancer.

Physical exercise helps prevent obesity, which is a cancer risk factor.

The WCRF team stress in their report that it is the total time spent being active that is important. You do not need to set aside half an hour each day to exercise. Shorter bouts of activity will be just as beneficial as long as they add up to the same, the charity says.

Alongside brisk walking, other activities that would count include cycling or swimming at a leisurely pace, dancing, gardening and vacuuming combined with other housework, says the WCRF.

Since this is pretty much consistent with my current life style, reading this was quite assuring. I have reached an age at which my joints feel a bit stiffer every morning, but I do not find it a strain to persist in my morning routine swim or my habit of walking to just about any destination within the San Francisco city limits. I may be a bit more discriminating in choosing routes whose hills are not at their most extreme, but I see that as simply knowing my own limits. Nevertheless, where California Avenue is concerned, I still tend to opt for the straight-line path, even if it means a few more stops to catch my breath.

However good this news from the BBC may appear, there remains the question of just what the news actually is. The most informative word in this report is the last one, coming from an interview with Henry Scowcroft, Science Information Manager at Cancer Research UK:

There's solid evidence that certain cancers - including breast and bowel cancer - are less common in people who do regular, moderate exercise such as brisk walking.

Given the trend to prefer flamboyant rhetoric in the interest of attracting more attention, I admire people like Scowcroft who still see the value of properly chosen words. From the title of his position, I assume that he chose the adjective "solid" because a large portion of the BBC audience does not know the meaning of the adjectival phrase "statistically significant;" and that just means that he worded the statement with his audience in mind. More important, however, is that he phrased his sentence to make it clear that the result involves a correlation, from which, at least at the present time, no conclusive inferences regarding causal connection can be drawn.

It has been my experience that, when science deteriorates into pseudo-science, the specious reasoning of the latter tends to involve assertions of causality based on evidence of correlation. Friedrich Nietzsche even made fun of this genre of fallacious reasoning in Twilight of the Idols when he stands the proposition that eating well makes you healthy on its head. In other words he refutes the assertion that proper diet is the cause of good health with the counter-proposition that healthy people eat the right food because their bodies reject the bad stuff. To be fair, Nietzsche may have been going for the joke regardless of the logic. In his "Preface" to Twilight, he lets the reader know immediately that he is interested in a "revaluation of all values;" but he also hits the reader with the following sentence (English translations by Walter Kaufmann):

Nothing succeeds if prankishness has no part in it.

To be fair the operative German noun in that sentence is Übermut, whose primary translation in my New Cassell's is "high spirits," which may be about as good a way to unpack that compound noun as any. However, because I tend to think that Nietzsche had a deep appreciation of the distinction between logic and rhetoric, I sometimes feel that "hyperbole" might be a more effective translation in this particular setting. Whatever the case may be, however, his "logic" about the relationship between diet and health was probably meant as little more than a joke; but the joke still nicely illustrates the abuse of logic by fallacy, which may well have been one of the values he wished to "revalue."

The real point, however, is that Scowcroft issued his own statement from a vantage point similar to Nietzsche's, just without the intention of making a joke or indulging in hyperbole. He wanted to choose his words to minimize the possibility that the results being reported support any hypothesis about causality. They do not; and, at best, they may help us to refine such hypotheses in our ongoing research to figure out just how cancer works and what we can do about it at a therapeutic level.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sibelius the Miniaturist

Those who follow me on Examiner.com know that I have been working my way through the volumes of The Sibelius Edition, the BIS project for a 70-CD collection of the complete works of Jean Sibelius. Having recently covered the familiar ground of his tone poems, I have begun to embark upon his chamber music. My first surprise was of how much of it there was, since it requires two volumes in the thirteen-volume series. My second surprise was, in the first volume, of how many of the tracks are less than a minute in duration. These are not abandoned sketches. The first disc in the volume has an entry labeled 33 Small Pieces, taken from a manuscript rather than a publication.

Before undertaking this project my primary experience with Sibelius was his symphonies and his violin concerto. I knew that the original version of the violin concerto was trimmed down in duration in the interest of a tighter presentation of its materials. Still, there is a sense of "vast expanse" in the music, even in shorter works such as the tone poems. Thus, it surprised me more than a little that, in the domain of chamber music, Sibelius would have at least experimented with being a miniaturist. These are not the intense miniatures that we encounter in Anton Webern. Rather, they are more like intimate glances that conclude before the listener is quite aware that something has happened. I am sure that, as I progress through Sibelius' personal chronology, I shall encounter the longer durations scales that I tend to associate with him; but I have found his early approach to brevity to be rather refreshing in the context of his later work.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beck's Sentences

I really have to give credit to Finlo Rohrer. In preparing his piece on Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally for BBC News, he exercised the objectivity of journalistic professionalism and reminded those of us who read his Web page that, while many of the mainstream sources have been playing games with their job titles, there really is a difference between "reporting" and "writing." To the extent that I continue to agree with David Simon that the very practice of professional journalism, whether from the mainstream or by "citizen journalists," is in serious jeopardy, Rohrer may be one of the few sources out there who still not only understands but also exercises the standards that used to make journalism such a valuable public service.
The one place where Rohrer let those standards slip was when he turned to Beck's own one-hour speech. He made the following claim about the speech:
Since Beck was not criticising anyone or anything specifically, it would be rather hard for anyone to disagree with much of what he was saying.
I do not disagree with Rohrer's premise. I would even say that, because it was critically important that Restoring Honor not be interpreted as a political rally, Beck's speech was meticulously crafted to avoid any "hot buttons" with clear political implications. Had Rohrer left his claim at that sentence, he would have been on relatively secure ground; but, as good journalism demands, he then backed up his claim with three sentences from the speech. I would claim that each of these examples carried an implicit political message providing the strongest possible grounds for disagreement. So I would like to consider each of Rohrer's examples in greater detail.
The first may be considered as an instance of the rhetorical technique of "convenient distortion:"
Our children need people to look up to.
This overlooks the extent to which most children actually have people to look up to. They are, of course, those people who attract excessive attention from the media; and they are found not only in the domains of entertainment and sports but on the darker side of street gangs and organized crime. I suspect that the proposition that Beck really wanted to assert is that many children no longer turn to their own immediate families for role models, but this lacks rhetorical punch. For one thing, "many" is too vague an adjective, because it does not affirm the seriousness of the situation. Equally important is that Beck may have felt that such wording would be interpreted by "many" (with the same vagueness) in the audience as accusatory. He did not want anyone going around saying, "Glenn Beck thinks I'm a bad parent! What does he know?" So he covered up his claim with punchier language, which was laced with the connotation that we need a strong authority to dictate (hot-button word deliberately chosen) to people who should serve as role models of our children.
However, if this example is simply one of taking a potentially good idea and turning it sinister, the second example is far more serious:
America is only what we choose her to be.
This, of course, is pure myth; but it is myth sustained by a general public disinclination towards engaging considered reflection on such matters as the nature of our government (going back to how it was conceived by our Founding Fathers) and how it works. Those Founding Fathers understood the nature of that disinclination, which is why they explicitly conceived of a government in which "the people" delegate the authority to make such choices to representatives selected by an electoral process. The real problem we face, however, is that all choices, whether by the electorate or by the elected, have become targets for major efforts of influence that are entirely external to the government itself. The practice of influence was recognized early in our history, which is why the noun "lobbyist" has a rather distinguished lineage. However, that same practice has gradually migrated from lobbies to heavily circulated media; and influence itself has changed from skillfully phrased one-on-one conversations to the institutional level of what Hans Magnus Enzensberger called the "consciousness industry." Beck, of course, is currently a leading player in that industry; but the industry itself has always been far stronger than any of its players. Furthermore, the players themselves are far less important than the oligarchy that decides what influences are to be exercised; and the crux of the myth behind Beck's sentence is that the members of that oligarchy have little interest in what Beck's "we" wants America to be.
This brings us to Beck's third sentence:
We must be good so that America can be great.
I suppose this was intended as an attempt to demonize progressive thinking for its moral relativism. The idea that an adjective like "good" is subject to the different points of view of those who utter it is anathema to those fundamentalists who believe in the absolute declarations of good and evil that are to be found in the Old and New Testaments. However, the problems with this sentence lie not only with the word "good" but also with that concluding word. This particular concept of greatness has an unpleasant history. It figured significantly in Friedrich Nietzsche's approach to moral philosophy; but more important was the way in which the Nazis distorted Nietzsche's concept of "higher men" into their own political concept of a "Master Race." (Those willing to consult the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will find an entry by Brian Leiter, which observes that Nietzsche had three favorite examples of "higher men:" Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Nietzsche himself!) In other words this relatively innocuous sentence contains at its core the stuff of demagoguery, which has been serving Sarah Palin (one of Beck's invited speakers) so well. Beck seems to have been learning from Palin's ascent to celebrity status; and he probably deserves credit for realizing that, where celebrity is concerned, means tend to count for more than ends. He may even have recognized that, in this particular case, the means are the same fear-and-hate-mongering tactics of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf that have served many other Republican politicians. In other words, while the text of that sentence may have dodged any charges of politicization, the subtext is about as political as one can get.
Let me conclude with one final quote. This one comes from a student in Beck's audience that Rohrer interviewed:
I like how he challenges you to go and research for yourself.
I agree that this is an admirable trait, but I am cynical enough to believe that Beck offers such challenges knowing full well that almost no one in his audience will rise to them. The bottom line is that, whether it is a matter of fact-checking or the sort of semantic analysis that I have exercised here, Beck's claims are in sore need of valid warrants. Beck's rhetoric is neither more nor less than the 21st-century incarnation of the Big Lie, which Wikipedia describes as "a propaganda technique which entered mass consciousness with Adolf Hitler's 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf." In the simplest of terms, the principle is that people will believe anything, if you say it loud enough and long enough; and Beck has certainly demonstrated that he can be very good when it comes to being both loud in volume and long in duration.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Attitudes toward "The Other"

The stars appear to be in place for discussing different aspects of discriminatory practices directed at alienating "the other." Mad Men took a frank and open look at the subject of attitudes towards the Japanese twenty years after the end of World War Two, particularly the attitudes of Americans who had fought in the Pacific battles. Then, to remind us that this was no mere exercise in fiction, the news media latched on to Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally, taking place at the Lincoln Memorial 47 years to the day after Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a dream" speech at the same site. Coverage of this event is already on the CBS News Web site, including the following sentence from Beck's opening remarks:

Something that is beyond man is happening.

I am not sure how meaningful this sentence is in Beck's context; but, in the broader scheme of what is happening these days, I am tempted to say that the "something" that is happening is a new level of irony.

What I mean is that old wounds whose pain has evoked such angry rhetoric are actually beginning to heal, often in unexpected ways. Even the Man Men writers realized that the perfect agent for expressing anti-Japanese sentiments was the guy who is already the most loathsome member of the new partnership. Much closer to home, however, we have the fate of a famous composer who should have stuck to his music rather than penning one of the most notorious anti-Semitic tracts on record. The composer is, of course, Richard Wagner; and, because the San Francisco Opera will be unveiling their new production of his Ring cycle this spring, Wagner will be very much the "composer of the hour" for much of the coming season.

This will involve an abundance of "background" events intended to prepare us all for this ultimate operatic marathon. San Francisco Opera will have a hand in many of these events and will make it a point to publicize the others. Naturally, the Wagner Society of Northern California will have an event of its own at which Associate Professor (Emeritus) William Eddelman, in Stanford University's Department of Drama, will deliver a lecture entitled "Wagner's Ring—Myths and Imagination." This promises to be an interesting event, but the irony kicks in when we turn to matters of date, time, and place. The venue will be the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco; and the lecture will take place at 1 PM on November 6, which happens to be a Saturday (in other words, the Jewish Sabbath). This probably says as much about Wagner's old prejudices as it does about contemporary Jewish attitudes towards Mosaic law. However, if this really is a positive sign that the wounds are healing, I still want to know if, when the event is over, someone will ask Brünnhilde (hopefully politely) if, things being what they are, she would mind being the one to turn out the lights!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Preaching to the Wrong Choir

I suppose I cannot deny the members of the Federal Reserve the right to go off on a retreat, in order to take stock of things in the middle of really bad economic times. At most I would question their doing this in the resort conditions of Jackson Hole, rather than meeting through a video conference that would enable each representative to maintain the duties of "minding the store." I am more concerned that this elite environment should be where Chairman Ben Bernanke gives what is basically the economic equivalent of a State of the Union address at a time when those ("on Main Street," as I like to say) are feeling the most pain and have the biggest stake in just where economic matters stand.

On the other hand I would guess that the final paragraphs of the BBC report of Bernanke's Jackson Hole address would not play very well on Main Street:

In his review of the US economy, Mr Bernanke expressed particular surprise at the rise in the savings rate of US consumers, and the sharp rise in the US trade deficit.

He also noted that business investment in structures - such as commercial real estate - had failed to rebound.

In order for the recovery to be sustained, he said, consumer spending and business investment needed to pick up more quickly.

Why is he surprised that consumers are trying to save more and consume less? Most of them are either in debt or on the brink, doing all they can to keep the problem from getting worse. Furthermore, why is he focused on business investment in the "structures" of commercial real estate when just about every aspect of our country's infrastructure is in jeopardy, due, at least in part, to the failure of both public and private sectors to commit resources to doing anything about the problem?

While his office may be in the District of Columbia, Bernanke's address is very much a statement from what I have previously called "the constructed reality of Planet Wall Street." Bernanke has not previously received a Chutzpah of the Week award for his steadfast conviction that this "constructed reality" is the only reality he is willing to acknowledge, although he came close with a position statement he delivered when the Bush Administration was still in power. Thus, this should be the week to make up for lost oversights. I only wish someone would pay to fly me to his elite environment, so I can at least get a taste of it while presenting the award!

Know your Body

Back when I was a kid, the American Cancer Society would run regular spots that would enumerate signs that might indicate the presence of cancer. These would always end with the same punch-line, "Fight cancer with a checkup and a check" (as in a donation to the American Cancer Society). For as long as I have been on my own, I have tried to be conscientious about having regular physical examinations; and I am now at an age when "regular" means "annual." Nevertheless, I find it interesting that our popular media are no longer used to cultivate an awareness of health risk factors on a regular basis.

Thus, while I have been pretty hard on the British press recently for their level of arts coverage, I was glad to see that there is a British university still interested in cancer risk factors and that BBC News felt that their results are newsworthy. Following the best standards of good journalism, the BBC has provided everything you need to know in the opening paragraphs of the story posted on their Web site (along with a bullet list further down the page):

The eight unexplained symptoms most closely linked to cancer have been highlighted by researchers.

The Keele University team also points to the age at which patients should be most concerned by the symptoms, which include blood in urine and anaemia.

The other symptoms are: rectal blood, coughing up blood, breast lump or mass, difficulty swallowing, post-menopausal bleeding and abnormal prostate tests.

Now that the mass media seem to feel less responsible for providing public service, my guess is that we shall not be exposed to this list regularly through spots on our favorite channels. Of course there is no substitute for being aware of your body's normative state and tracking any departure from that state, and this is a principle that has been reinforced by several of my primary care providers. However, having an easily managed list of warning signs shifts that sense of awareness from the general to the specific; and, as a rule, we tend to be better with specificities than with generalities.

The corollary to this message is clearly that, when you become aware that something is different and may indicate risk of a more serious problem, you need to let a physician know. Supposedly, one of the objectives of health care reform was to make this process more available to more people. Needless to say, it is questionable whether or not the resulting legislation has achieved this goal; and, if that objective was undermined, then the recent New York Review report by Jonathan Oberlander and Theodore Marmor ("The Health Bill Explained at Last") provides one of the most explicit accounts of the institutions responsible for the undermining and their motives for doing so. In the perspective of that report, it is more understandable why informing the public of health risks is not a priority of our media businesses. Like it or not, we are victims of a ruling class that want us to be good consumers, whether or not we are healthy ones.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

You Can't Lie Your Way Out Of Faulty Technology

The thing about technology bugs is that they so often can make you laugh and cry at the same time. This was certainly the case several years ago when a Canadian furniture chain apparently used the N-word in a brand name for a particular fabric shade of brown, an error that was traced back to a piece of "name-inventing" software that had been written in China. The error reported this morning on the BBC News Web site is far less insulting but no less disturbing in the culture of fear that has been cultivated by our warped sense of homeland security:

High street [pharmacy] chain Boots has apologised for sending a man a loyalty card in the name of 'Dr A Suicide Bomber.'

Andrew Adams , 63, of Swansea, said it was "unbelievable" that the company issued him the card.

He said he had not applied for it and did not shop at the store in the city very often.

The recipient of the card provided the BBC with the necessary reality check:

Father-of-four Mr Adams, a retired lorry driver, said: "I'm not a doctor and I'm certainly not a suicide bomber. …"

What interests me more, however, is the official response to this incident that Boots provided through a company spokesperson:

We are very sorry for any upset that Mr Adams has experienced and we are liaising directly with him.

As soon as we were aware of this incident, we immediately triggered a full and detailed investigation into how this appalling hoax was able to occur.

This has included a comprehensive audit and a review of the systems in place to prevent such behaviours taking place again.

We have technology in place to prevent offensive terminology and potential fraudulent names being used.

In terms of simple honesty, however, Adams himself provided a much more accurate statement:

Apparently they have a system on their computer where certain words are flagged up - somebody should have been monitoring to make sure this was not sent.

Adams recognized that one cannot rely on technology "to prevent offensive terminology and potential fraudulent names being used," thus exposing the key falsehood in the official statement. He acknowledged the need for both that qualifying adverb "apparently" and the presence of a "human in the loop" to monitor the results of any technology in the system. In a way it is a pity that Adams has now retired. He seems to have a better understanding of the relationship between people and technology than the entirety of the Boots technology support team.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Getting to the Causes Behind the Economic Crisis

Robert Scheer may be sounding like a broken record in the position he has taken over the best way to get out of our economic crisis, but his repeated message needs to be heard. If the only way it will sink in is through more repetition, then so be it. He reminds me of the opera fanatic all the way up in the top level at La Scala listening to some soprano (blessedly nameless in the history of opera anecdotes) massacre her performance of "Vissi d'arte." When she finished, the fanatic shouted "Encore;" and the would-be diva obliged. Again, a cry of "Encore" came from the balcony; and she sang it once more. After a few more iterations, the guy sitting next to the fanatic elbowed him and said, "What are you doing? She's terrible!" The fanatic replied, "I know. She's gonna sing it until she gets it right!" Scheer has apparently decided that he will keep singing his aria until the Obama Administration gets it right.

In his latest column, which appeared this morning on his Truthdig site with less annoying pop-up junk than one encounters in the version provided on-line by The Nation, the punch line of his message could not be clearer:

There is no way that Obama can begin to seriously reverse this course without shedding the economic team led by the Clinton-era “experts” like Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner who got us into this mess in the first place. They are spooked by one overwhelmingly crippling idea—don’t rattle the financial titans whom we must rely on for investment. But when it comes to keeping people in their homes, it is precisely the big banks that must be rattled into doing the right thing.

Obama gained credibility through sacking Gen. Stanley McChrystal for making untoward remarks. Why not sack Summers and Geithner for untoward policies that have inflicted such misery on the general public?

The only question will then involve selecting their replacements. Cabinet appointments still have to run the gauntlet of Senate approval; and the Senate is probably far more beholden to maintaining Wall Street status quo (even at the expense of letting Main Street devolve into deeper depression) than the White House is. The situation is not facilitated by the fact that the sharpest economic minds also tend to have the sharpest wits, meaning that their language may not be as colorful as McChrystal's but will probably be just as "untoward."

So there is nothing wrong with Scheer singing the same song over and over until our supposedly representative government finally shows signs of getting it right. It's a thankless task, but somebody's got to do it. The real question is whether or not Scheer's voice will run out of steam before Washington gets the message.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The iPod Threat to Homeland Security

I once went to hear a talk about the demographics of Internet usage at an advertising symposium. The speaker began with the joke that "we spend all of our time flying above most of our customers," the implication being that most business people know, little, if anything about those people who are their revenue sources. As if we needed to be reminded, this is not just about business; it is also about homeland security.

Whether or not Minneapolis is representative of current thinking on this matter, a report filed by Randy Furst for the Star Tribune, deserves some consideration:

The Minneapolis city attorney's office has decided to pay seven zombies and their attorney $165,000.

The payout, approved by the City Council on Friday, settles a federal lawsuit the seven filed after they were arrested and jailed for two days for dressing up like zombies in downtown Minneapolis on July 22, 2006, to protest "mindless" consumerism.

When arrested at the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and 6th Street N., most of them had thick white powder and fake blood on their faces and dark makeup around their eyes. They were walking in a stiff, lurching fashion and carrying four bags of sound equipment to amplify music from an iPod when they were arrested by police who said they were carrying equipment that simulated "weapons of mass destruction."

However, they were never charged with any crime.

Disrearding minor details, such as the matter of the obscene language used by the arresting officer to assert that he did not care about constitutional rights, this idea of "simulated 'weapons of mass destruction'" may be symptomatic of the fear-based culture that has emerged from the Bush Administration obsession with homeland security. Just who was thinking what when this phrase was invoked? Did it involve the sound equipment or the iPod? Could this be the first symptom of a witch-hunt directed at Apple? Is Apple no longer "for the rest of us" any more?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fooled by the Imagery

Once again, the London Telegraph seems to have bungled one of their arts reports; and, since this time it involves one of the most memorable stage productions I have ever seen, it feels as if a personal ox is being gored. This time the offending party is critic Charles Spencer, sent to cover the revival of The Gospel at Colonus at the Edinburgh Festival. I remember when this work was first performed in its entirety as part of an early Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I had no idea what to expect. Entering the theater felt more like entering a church in which a gospel service of massive proportions was about to be delivered, but the program book said that the text was taken from Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. That it was, and what ensued was the most passionately ecstatic execution of Greek drama I have ever encountered. A later performance in Philadelphia was broadcast on PBS and become one of the most watched personal videotapes in our collection, as well as one of the first to be copied to DVD. To this day, both my wife and I continue to have conversations in which the question, "You never heard of Gospel at Colonus?," arises. So when the reports started appearing in the British press about a revival of this show at the Edinburgh Festival, I read each one as soon as it popped up in my Google Reader.

I cannot fault Spencer for his enthusiasm over the production. I am really glad to see that the show still has the same impact, even if Morgan Freeman is no longer in the cast to "lead the service." However, one of Spencer's paragraphs left me wondering just how closely he was paying attention to the stage:

There are obvious objections. The ancient Greek view of the gods and the afterlife could hardly be more different from the Christian vision. In Greek legend, the gods are cruel and death a welcome end to suffering. For Christians, God is love, and heaven the reward for faith. Turning the story of Oedipus into a parable about salvation is about as far from Sophocles’s original vision as it is possible to imagine.

This observation is based on a misrepresentation so gross that I wonder whether or not Spencer got the point of the whole affair. I suppose one could say that the logical flaw is that he found something that looked like a duck and quacked like a duck and took it to be a duck without any question. The Gospel at Colonus, like any work of art, can be many things to many people; but calling it "a parable about salvation" is basically to assume that, because everything on stage looks like a gospel choir and sings like a gospel choir, the show must be about Christian gospel.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Lee Breuer's understanding of and respect for Sophocles' text is never less than of the highest priority. Thus Christian "news" about salvation never invades the text, nor does it emerge through the dramatization. Indeed, Sophocles' references to the Greek pantheon are minimal and reflect the sophistication of a later Greek age that had learned to accept that their Gods were just metaphors for natural phenomena, many of which happened to be quite cruel. If there is any Christian theology in Breuer's setting, it is the portrayal of Oedipus carrying a heavy burden of sin; but the resolution involves not salvation through the Christian faith but simply Oedipus' reconciliation with his own flawed humanity, however horrifying those flaws may have been.

So was Spencer confused by all of the Christian imagery? Apparently he was, but was Breuer deliberately trying to confuse his audience? I doubt it. I have always felt that, because Greek theater was highly ritualistic, Breuer was seeking out a form a ritual that would reach the audience more viscerally than yet another experiment in modern dance. His choice of a ritual conceived with the intention of delivering "good news" was entirely apposite, because the resolution of Oedipus at Colonus is, indeed, "good news." He finds his reconciliation and with it his "welcome end to suffering." When the Messenger comes to report his death, the Chorus (which Breuer represents as a single boy) asks, "By God's grace, was his death a painless one?" Lest one think this is too "Christian," my own University of Chicago Press edition has the following translation by David Grene:

How was it? By God's chance and painlessly
the poor man ended?

In both translations the noun "God" has nothing to do with either the Old or New Testaments but is simply an abstraction of any Olympian deity. Oedipus dies peacefully, because, in spite of the unpredictable fortunes (products of "grace" or "chance") of the natural world, he accepts himself as human in spite of his misfortunes. This is a "gospel" unto itself, as worthy of the spirit of fine gospel singing as any New Testament text. Breuer was not trying to confuse; he was just delivering the "good news" from a different source.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Losing Track of History (again?)

Thomas Vinciguerra's piece in the Arts and Leisure section of today's New York Times turned out to trigger all sorts of nostalgic nerves, as well as a general sense of personal, if not social, history. It concerns one of those aspects of freshman orientation at Harvard University that is probably not highly publicized but may well play a fundamental role in how undergraduates develop a sense of personal identity:

Nowhere is “Love Story” more pummeled than at Harvard, the site of Oliver and Jenny’s gooey courtship. Every year the Crimson Key Society, a student organization that conducts campus tours and otherwise promotes college spirit, runs “Love Story” strictly for laughs for first-year students during their orientation. This year’s two screenings take place on Aug. 30.

The meaning of "strictly for laughs" is then elaborated (as if it would need elaboration) as follows:

“We’re looking to entertain the freshmen and help them feel comfortable in this new place,” said Maya Simon, the co-chairwoman of the Crimson Key Alumni Association.

That involves Crimson Key’s nearly 100 members sitting in the rear of the auditorium of the Science Center building and jeering the proceedings in the manner of a midnight viewing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Just before Ms. MacGraw utters the deathless catchphrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” Crimson Key members loudly implore her, “Don’t say it!” At the conclusion, when Mr. O’Neal repeats her bathetic utterance, they shout, “Plagiarist!” And so it goes. At one point, Oliver enters Jenny’s dorm, learns from a receptionist that she is in the “downstairs phone booth,” and asks, “Where is that?”

“Downstairs, stupid!”

I found the reference to Rocky Horror at bit curious, particularly after Vinciguerra decided to give that nail another whack with his hammer:

Crimson Key’s hallowed tradition apparently began in the late 1970s, just as “Rocky Horror” was setting the standard for cult-flick audience participation.

Clearly, Vinciguerra is not of my generation! My own freshman orientation at MIT took place in September of 1963. It did not take me long to discover that our Lecture Series Committee ran a series of weekend films at which improvised sarcasms from the audience were almost always a part of the show. I have no reason to doubt that the same sort of high jinks were taking place every weekend on the other end of Massachusetts Avenue up at Harvard. Indeed, I would guess that this was a normal weekend ritual at just about every American college. Undergraduate life always hits you with more pressures than you expect. This was a great way to blow off steam in a relatively innocuous setting in the company of your fellow students.

In all the screenings I attended, I never saw anyone get up on stage, as would later happen at midnight screenings of Rocky Horror; but I also suspect that our own audience participation was never (well, hardly ever) rehearsed, which was probably part of the Rocky Horror ritual and seems to have been appropriated by Crimson Key. Rocky Horror did not set any standards. It just provided one of those opportunities where undergraduates could indulge in a practice previously confined to the campus and where those of us who remember being undergraduates could do the same in good company. In other words college life had institutionalized the practice long before Rocky Horror was released. Midnight movies just provided a way for that practice to establish itself in a new setting (and, in my own experience base, long before Rocky Horror there was the midnight movie experience of Pink Flamingos).

Vinciguerra clearly lacks such an extensive experience base. I feel sorry for him. For most of us, everyday life now presents us with stresses that would make undergraduate life seem innocuous. We clearly need better ways to blow off steam, particularly when we see so many examples of the pathological behavior of those who apparently lack such means. By missing out on this point, Vinciguerra appears to have also missed out on the full signification of the material he was reporting.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Phenomenological Music Theory

Yesterday afternoon, while gathering background material for an Examiner.com review of a recent Brilliant Classics collection of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's ballet music (along with a few other selections) performed by Ernest Ansermet conducting his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, I found an interesting sentence in the Wikipedia entry for Ansermet:

In Ansermet's book, Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (1961), he sought to prove, using Husserlian phenomenology and partly his own mathematical studies [Ansermet began as a mathematics professor at the University of Lausanne], that Schoenberg's idiom was false and irrational.

Arnold Schoenberg died in 1951; but, even ten years after his death, there were still strong factions willing to attack him at the drop of a hat. Furthermore, not only was Schoenberg not around to defend himself in 1961 but also many of his staunchest defenders were probably more deserving of attack on grounds of the nature of human consciousness than Schoenberg was.

Consider, for example, the misconceived enthusiasm of René Leibowitz, who got caught up in the mathematics behind the permutation of twelve tone rows and lost all awareness of the music that employed those rows. In 1945 Schoenberg wrote a letter to him that tried to reprimand him with the words:

I do not compose principles, but music.

This is very much in the same league as another of my favorite Schoenberg quotations:

My music is not modern; it's just badly played.

I suspect that what bothered Ansermet most about Schoenberg's music was not the music itself but the scholarly obsession with only talking about that music in the most objective terms. Since he was no slouch in mathematics, he probably figured he could take on all of those amateurs fooling around with permutation groups on the mathematical ground they so cherished and understood so poorly. Furthermore, when it comes to confronting the inadequacies of the objective world, Husserlian phenomenology is as good a weapon as any.

The problem is that, if we follow Edmund Husserl's guidance into the subjective world, we find ourselves on turf where words like "false" and "irrational" do not amount to very much. In what Friedrich Hayek called the phenomenal world in The Sensory Order, there is no true-or-false about the way in which our consciousness organizes physical sensations, nor does the rationality of a logical calculus pertain to how that organization is achieved. Ultimately, Ansermet did not need to resort to mathematics to bash in the skulls of those who recognized only permutation groups. All he needed was a platform to enjoin those "amateurs" to spend less time looking at the score pages and more time listening to well-played performances. From a theoretical point of view, Husserl offers some interesting lenses through which we may consider the act of listening; but, considering the patience it takes to negotiate many of his texts, Ansermet probably could have selected a better advocate. On the other hand, had he been more willing to embrace the full scope of Husserlian phenomenology, Ansermet would probably have been less inclined to attack Schoenberg himself in the first place!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Discovering Insights or Showing Off?

This seems to be the month for venting my frustration with the London Telegraph, even when that frustration involves articles more than a month old. In this case I am referring to the review that Philip Hensher wrote last month of Harvey Sachs' book The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824. The demand (in all likelihood not based on Hensher's piece) for this book was great enough that I had to get on a waiting list at the San Francisco Public Library. Since I had more than enough to keep me occupied, I did not mind the wait; and I was looking forward to the reading experience. Now I find myself wondering when I am going to bail.

There is nothing wrong with the basic premise of the book, which is basically that a proper understanding of the ninth symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven requires a contextual understanding of the circumstances under which that symphony was written. If I have any quibble at all with this premise, is that it is too narrow. As far as I am concerned, it is true of any act of the composition of music, which means that, in Beethoven's case, it is as applicable to "Für Elise" as it is to any of the compositions that are argued over by Anna Russell's "great experts." This is not to detract from the work of those "great experts" but simply to belabor the fundamental truth that "context is everything," even when one is obsessed with some masterpiece.

What is missing from Sachs' contextual approach is any sense of priorities. If context is everything, then everything is grist for his context-seeking mill. This makes for awesome detective work, but the result is some really turgid writing that never makes a case for whether it has anything substantive to do with Beethoven's ninth? George Orwell probably would have appreciated being paraphrased with the premise that some contexts are more equal than others; but you could not prove it by Sachs, for whom Saul Bellow and Joseph Brodsky carry as much weight as Charles Rosen and H. C. Robbins Landon. Ultimately, this book is an assorted collection of mud pies formed from the stuff of just about any subject you could imagine in a humanities curriculum. Reading it reminded me of a sarcastic remark an old colleague of mine used to make about Esquire: "Those guys must pay their writers by the word!"

I do not know if I shall make it to the end of Sachs book to see if he even glances the hypothesis that, strictly speaking, the Opus 125 symphony in D minor is not Beethoven's masterpiece. It was made a masterpiece by a congeries of factors, most of them grounded in the social world and probably all of them brought into play after Beethoven's death. In 1824 Opus 125 was, at best, an enigma that made a mighty noise and brought little profit to a poor sick man living in squalor. The real story did not take place in 1824; and the book that deserves to be written is the one that tries to develop the underlying narrative of the "resurrection" of Beethoven as monument.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Linguistic CHUTZPAH

Given how much I relish not only the concept of chutzpah but also the linguistic foundations of the word itself, one can understand the frisson I experience at the prospect of a Chutzpah of the Week award presented on linguistic grounds. The recipient is a Professor of English from New York named Lynne Rosenthal, who we may assume carries much of the chutzpah-laden context that makes New York City what it is. The circumstances that qualify Rosenthal for the award were summarized by Jon Kelly for BBC News Magazine in a report which appeared on the BBC News Web site this morning:

English professor Lynne Rosenthal has become a cause celebre after she was thrown out of a New York branch of Starbucks cafe by police for clashing with staff over the wording of her bagel order.

The academic had wanted a plain, toasted multi-grain bagel but said she became infuriated when the server insisted she use the phrase "without butter and cheese".

According to Prof Rosenthal, the exchange proceeded thus: "I yelled, 'I want my multi-grain bagel.'

"The barista said, 'You're not going to get anything unless you say butter or cheese.'"

It seems a bafflingly trivial incident for both parties to get exercised over, and the fact that none of Starbucks' staple product was involved in the contentious order makes one wonder what would have happened had Prof Rosenthal had the temerity to ask for a small white coffee.

Standing up to Starbucks is, itself, an act of chutzpah. Challenging their fascist (as George Orwell would have put it) warping of the English language (for no reason other that furthering the dominance of their own brand) is the leaven that makes the dough rise; and, to continue that metaphor, basing the challenge on a product that has nothing to do with coffee itself adds the icing to the cake. (In this context it may have been better to say "sprinkles the sesame seeds on top of the bagel;" but I decided to opt for the more familiar metaphor.)

In fairness I have to say that on my (relatively seldom) encounters with Starbucks, I have made it a point to use my own plain-speaking nouns and adjectives. I have never had to deal with any reaction from the server (word chosen to emphasize my usage choices) other than a faint smile that could be either disparaging or sympathetic; but this episode took place in New York City, where, for example, you expect to be yelled at when you try to get your bagel with cream cheese at Zabar's, just because that is part of the culture of the establishment. Thus, while Kelly quoted an "official" statement from Starbucks that there "are no rules and customers have always been able to ask for drinks any way they want," one can easily imagine that this statement was issued by some drone with absolutely no experience of the high intensity of Manhattan life during working hours. In true New York style this was a confrontation of two immovable forces, and Rosenthal deserves her Chutzpah of the Week award for her own immovability.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Who Will Help?

Having just briefly examined the Pakistan flood through the lens of social activism, I think it is worth considering Ahmed Rashid's post to NYR Blog on this topic. His title, "Last Chance for Pakistan," is a clear statement of the seriousness of his intentions, concerned primarily with Pakistan getting the aid it desperately needs. I have to wonder, however, whether or not he appreciated the irony at the end of his post:

Readers who wish to make a donation to help the aid effort in Pakistan may do so online at the American Red Cross and the American Jewish World Service.

In reviewing the donations that have already been made, Rashid observed that donations "especially from the Islamic world have been negligible;" but does this justify a conclusion that cites no Muslim organization contributing to that aid effort? Think, also, about where we are likely to find "boots on the ground" where aid is concerned. Would there not be an expected level of contention over aid offered by a Jewish organization; and will it make a difference "on the ground" that the American Red Cross is a secular institution? We just read about support activities by members of a Christian organization who will killed by the Taliban for having tried to convert Muslims, an accusation denied by the authorities of the organization with little impact. As those better informed than I have explained, the primary problem in aid is not the acquisition of resources but their delivery. Rashid does not address this delivery question in his blog post, and that is a critical omission for those who have the best of intentions in making donations.

Sustainable Activism?

Last Sunday The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story by Isabel Hayes that seems to have caught the attention of both Al Gore and John Nichols' The Beat blog. Here is the introductory summary in her report:

Tens of thousands of protesters - and a few sceptics - have taken to the streets across Australia to urge the major political parties to take action on climate change.

Both Labor and the coalition have failed to take decisive action to cut Australia's pollution levels in the run-up to the federal election, Walk Against Warming rallies in Australia's capital cities heard on Sunday.

Events held in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Darwin, Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth attracted tens of thousands of people.

Gore's blog ran a similar summary under the headline "The Movement We Need."

I certainly agree with the spirit of Gore's headline. Since he and I are roughly of the same generation, I am sure we share memories of the role that public activism played in advancing the cause of the civil rights movement. One might even say that the very turnout for the March of Washington provided one of the reasons why the "I Have a Dream" speech now has such an iconic position in the history of the United States of America. However, it is also important to recognize that this was a time when activism was being exercised on multiple fronts, the other most important being protest against the Vietnam War. In retrospect, however, we can see how each of these protest movements provided energy for the other. Ironically, the President who signed the resulting civil rights legislation into law was also the President forced out of office because of Vietnam. Such are the consequences when there are too many targets for protest.

This is the situation we now face. Yes, the health of the entire planet is a serious issue. It would be foolish to quibble over whether it is more or less serious than either the physical or fiscal health of citizens of the United States (or any other country); but could it be that our own lack of activism derives from our being confronted with too many crisis issues? Might it also be that the root cause of all of these issues is just too abstract to support a mass protest movement?

Think about it by beginning with the extent to which Main Street has not yet recovered from the economic crisis while Wall Street has returned to business-as-usual. This is nothing less than Main Street being reduced to those conditions of "serfdom" that prompted Friedrich Hayek to write such an alarmist exposition and circulate it through The Reader's Digest. If that is not enough to keep the general population in an enslaved state, then the unchecked economics of health care pretty much seal the deal. Confronted with a future that offers no promise of ever getting out of this mud, can you blame people for not worrying about whether that mud is polluted or whether it, along with just about everything else, may get washed away in a massive flood similar to the one that just struck Pakistan? The root cause has to do with a government that reflects the highly politicized vision of Republicans as the party of "no government 'of the people, by the people, for the people," in favor of a government concerned with little more than selling "the people" a bill of goods. However, this impact extends beyond our own country. Globalization has made this a world of government by oligarchy on an international scale, and that oligarchy is based on nothing less than Hans Magnus Enzensberger's consciousness industry. How do people respond to such a cause through activism when the cause itself has warped their minds against even the possibility of activism?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Boulevard of Broken Words

It seems that Fiona McPherson, identified by BBC Technology Reporter Zoe Kleinman as "senior editor in the new words group at the OED" in a story she filed yesterday, is today the focus of a piece by Max Davidson at the London Telegraph. Davidson never touches on Kleinman's revelation that texting abbreviations have begun to appear in the OED but focuses, instead, on "a room in Oxford no bigger than a squash court," where Oxford University Press keeps filing cabinets (yes, the physical kind) containing cards, each one for a word that has not (yet?) been admitted to the OED. He thus fleshed out yesterday's post, in which I offered a Kafkaesque vision of how "OMG" would languish in its current state of rejection. At the very least I find it delightfully ironic that this string of three letters, which "lives" almost entirely on cell phone display screens, must now suffer rejection in the form of a physical card in a physical filing cabinet. Whether or not it ever satisfies criteria for admission is likely to be primarily a matter of time; but, if the decision is made that "OMG" is dead, that decision will be made by the Oxford University Press and not by Friedrich Nietzsche!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Whose Future?

David Carnoy has written a nice piece, complete with a video clip, about the Espresso Book Machine, an on-demand printing device that has attracted considerable attention and has been deployed at the University of Texas Co-op, described by Carnoy as "the most profitable independent college bookstore in the United States." I have to wonder, however, why it was that this article should appear on Crave, which CNET describes as their "gadget blog." This was hardly a piece about "gorgeous gadgets and other crushworthy stuff" (in the words of the CNET description of their blog). Rather, this article provided some serious data points for those concerned about the future of publishing as a business, if not the future of the book itself.

From this point of view, it is important to consider Carnoy's conclusion:

Of course, those who argue that e-books are the real future, would suggest that the Espresso Book Machine, while impressively modern and forward thinking, is actually destined to become a relic before it has a chance to realize its potential. That said, for those looking for a more cost-effective alternative for printing and selling paper books--particularly the kind that only sell hundreds of copies--this "robot" may represent a much-needed lifeline.

As I read this I realized that any question about the future goes beyond the book itself to the nature of reading. I have nothing against the extent to which the e-book movement may have finally taken off into the realm of viability. I even saw a serious musician singing from one in a performance this past Friday evening. However, I do a lot of reading; and most of it would be classified as "heavy" or "scholarly." The fact is that none of these devices are equipped to handle the reading I do, which involves an extremely high level of annotation. Like it or not, the "affordances of paper" are still far better suited to scholarly activities, which include not only annotating but dealing with multiple texts at the same time, than a piece of hardware that was designed to provide a pleasant alternative for reading Eat, Pray, Love.

Admittedly, this is an egocentric point of view. It may be the last gasp of an endangered species. This is not to say that scholarship is in danger but only that the way I practice it is. There are certainly ways in which new generations of technology can support, and probably enhance, the sorts of scholarly practices we expect from undergraduates and those further up the academic food chain. From this point of view, the most important part of Carnoy's may be his observations about the economic viability of the Espresso. The more important "like it or not" is that technologies do not thrive simply because they are useful. They only survive if they are useful enough to support a revenue stream that will satisfy the stakeholders in that technology, and it is hard to imagine any advancement of scholarly practices securing such a revenue stream.

The OED has a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment

It is no secret that I have a great love of language and a particular passion for what happens when language usage approaches (and sometimes crosses) the brink of indelicacy. Last year there was a rather amusing period during with journalists in general and Bob Woodward in particular had to confront the use of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" in military discourse. Here is how I summarized the situation last September:

Last July I gave National Security Advisor James L. Jones a Chutzpah of the Week award. It was not only that he was taking a tough stand against military brass who were trying every available method to bring more troops to Afghanistan but also that he could invoke military rhetoric to make it clear just how tough that stand was. What did the trick for me was when he told that brass that, if Barack Obama was presented with a request for additional troops, he would have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room got the message; but Bob Woodward still felt it necessary to provide an explanation to Washington Post readers (which can be found on the other side of the above hyperlink). Since that time I have come to realize that "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is as much a part of today's military language as "SNAFU" was during the Second World War; and, just as "SNAFU" found its way into our general vocabulary, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" will probably do the same, particularly since the texting community may have started the whole thing with their use of "WTF."

That summary introduced a post entitled "Mozart's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment," which was my way of saying that I had no problem with this particular argot wending its way out of the military and into the rest of the world.

Well, if I am to believe BBC Technology Reporter Zoe Kleinman's report today entitled "How the Internet is Changing Language," the wending I was supporting is getting assistance from a higher authority. In preparing this report, Kleinman interviewed Fiona McPherson, identified as "senior editor in the new words group at the OED." Because the British seem to have a more casual use of case than we do, I have no idea whether or not this is an "official" title or merely a descriptive phrase on Kleinman's part. However, because her position is "senior," I would assume that McPherson is a rather authoritative gatekeeper concerned with allowing additions to entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Apparently, there are some texting abbreviations that are now making it through the gate; and (yes, Virginia) "WTF" is one of those that now has an "official" place in the OED. I was about to have a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" moment of my own when, in light of the above quotation, I decided to check my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and confirmed that "snafu" (with lower-case spelling) is in there.

What interests me as much as this entry's flirtation with indelicacy is that OED gatekeeping no longer seems to care whether or not a word can be spoken if its written use is sufficiently prevalent. (For example, "TMI" has also been allowed through the gate; but "OMG" is still waiting at the entry. I like to think of "OMG" waiting there helplessly, rather like the protagonist in Franz Kafka's parable about the man waiting before the Gate of the Law.) I suppose there are those who now simply utter the letters in spoken discourse, whether those letters are "WTF" or "OMG;" but this reminds me of last Friday evening's performance by a group called EUOUAE, which I covered on Examiner.com. I suggested there that we should not even try to pronounce that string of vowels and that it would make more sense to utter the words they abbreviate, "seculorum amen." OED or no OED, I suspect that polite society is not ready for a similar spoken approach to "WTF." Fortunately, we can take our lead from the military and continue to use "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mozart's LIEDER

I have one of my colleagues in cognitive psychology to thank for introducing me to the Lieder repertoire of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This was during the period when I was working at the Schlumberger-Doll Research Laboratory in Ridgefield, Connecticut (while living in Stamford and getting into New York for just about every possible concert opportunity that interested me). The Laboratory had a contract with Bolt, Beranek, and Newman concerned with the study of metaphor and how it could be applied either to interpreting the complex data collected by Schlumberger measurement equipment or to the learning of interpretation skills. After my interest in music had emerged during informal conversation, this particular colleague showed up at our next meeting with a copy of "Abendempfindung an Laura" (K. 523) and asked where we could find a piano. As I recall, we ended up having dinner in Stamford and resorting to my own instrument after having finished with the meal. That was enough to get me hooked; and, on my next trip into New York, I picked up a copy of the Peters Edition of 29 of these songs. This happened to be in the low voice version, which transposed many of the songs to lower keys.

While this was not a particularly "historically informed" purchase, it turned out to be pleasantly fortuitous. I had chosen it because my psychologist colleague was an alto; but, unfortunately, we never had an opportunity for any further sessions. However, when I moved to Los Angeles I discovered a new colleague who happened to be a very serious amateur where the baritone song repertoire was concerned. Since my condo was a short drive from our laboratory, we set up a schedule of weekly sessions during lunch hour at my place; and we started digging into the Mozart repertoire very early in those sessions (which eventually culminated in a prolonged study of Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe that progressed to a point where we could perform it for my piano teacher without either of us blushing). By the time we began these sessions, I had heard quite a few of the Mozart Lieder in recitals in New York (mostly at the 92nd Street Y); so I knew where I wanted to start.

Coincidentally, this happened to be the first entry in the Peters Edition, "Das Veilchen" (K. 476), a setting of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This song had struck me the first time I heard it in recital simply because it had never occurred to me to associate Mozart with any of Goethe's texts. Goethe was Franz Schubert's "turf," along with several ventures by Ludwig van Beethoven. However, Goethe was born in 1749; so there would have been any number of opportunities for Mozart to become acquainted with his early work. This particular text comes from a libretto Goethe had prepared for the singspiel Erwin und Elmire, with music by Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, which was first performed at the Weimar Court Theatre in May of 1776. (The inspiration for this singspiel, by the way, was a ballad included in Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield.)

The text is interesting for a variety of reasons, one of which is the number of composers who set it, including Clara Schumann. I particularly enjoy Goethe's use of the irony of circumstance, which plays out very nicely in what seems on the surface to be a simple ballad. Here is the text interleaved with David Kenneth Smith's translation from his Web site of the complete Lieder of Clara Schumann:

Ein Veilchen auf der Wiese stand,
A violet in a meadow stood,

gebückt in sich und unbekannt;
but bent he was and quite unknown;

es war ein herzigs Veilchen.
he was a charming violet.

Da kam eine junge Schäferin
There came now a youthful shepherdess

mit leichtem Schritt und muntrem Sinn
with lightest step and merry heart

daher, daher,
along, along

die Wiese her und sang.
the meadow there, and sang.

Ach! denkt das Veilchen, wär' ich nur
"Ah!" thought the violet, "if I were

die schönste Blume der Natur,
the fairest blossom in the world,

ach, nur ein kleines Weilchen,
ah, just a tiny moment,

bis mich das Liebchen abgepfückt
until the darling plucked me out

und an dem Busen mattgedrückt!
and on her bosom gently pressed!

Ach nur, ach nur
Just once, just once

ein Viertelstündchen lang!
a quarter-hour long!"

Ach! aber ach! das Mädchen kam
Alas! alas! the maiden came

und nicht in acht das Veilchen nahm,
and not a glance the violet gave,

ertrat das arme Veilchen.
she tread upon poor Violet.

Es sank und starb und freut sich noch:
He sank and died but happy yet:

Und sterb' ich denn, so sterb' ich doch
"I'm dying now but dying thus

durch sie, durch sie,
through her, through her,

zu ihren Füßen doch.
and at her feet I die."

Equally interesting is that Mozart not only caught the irony but decided that it needed to be emphasized for his Viennese audience. He did this with a brief but powerful coda which repeats the text "das arme Veilchen" and concludes with a recapitulation (in both music at text) of a passage from the first verse, "es war ein herzigs Veilchen." I have noticed that some singers have been particularly effective in conveying the impact of that past tense war with the connotation of unfulfilled destiny. This is definitely Mozart at his most memorable, and it may be the best example of his appreciation of how brevity could be the soul of wit. I have not heard it enough since I left the New York concert scene.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cassation Redux?

In my Examiner.com piece yesterday about the Tone Poems volume of The Sibelius Edition, I took issue with Andrew Barnett's observation in the accompanying booklet that Jean Sibelius' Opus 6 "Cassazione" "certainly merits a place among the tone poems." Through my own listening experiences, I have tended to associate the terms "cassation" with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn, both of whom seemed to use it synonymously with "divertimento" and "serenade." This afternoon I decided to consult Grove Music Online to sanity check my memory. The entry, by Hubert Unverricht and Cliff Eisen, makes a rather curious distinction between the "soloistic cassation" (which, presumably may involve more than one solo instrument) and an "orchestral" version. It associates "divertimento" with the first and "serenade" with the second. I am not sure quite how to interpret this, let alone if I agree with it; but it was nice to see that my memory was basically on the right track.

The article concludes by stating that the term had "fallen into disuse" by the time of "Beethoven's youth" (a rather interesting way to fix a span of time in history). It then cites the Sibelius Opus 6 as a "rare modern example." There is certainly no confusing that music with Mozart's K. 99 in B-flat major (the specific example I cited in my Examiner.com piece). Sibelius was certainly not trying to use Mozart (or Haydn) as a model in his own cassation. Having listened to the piece several times, I would now hypothesize that he knew full well that this nomenclature was covered in cobwebs; and he decided to give it a good shaking in the fresh Finnish air. That last phrase captures much of the spirit in this relatively short work of four movements performed without interruption. If this was nothing more than an attempt to air out a distant past, then it certainly yielded refreshing results!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Future of Same-Sex Marriage

David Cole used his NYRblog space to post an analysis of United States District Court Judge Vaughan Walker's 136-page decision, ruling that the Proposition 8 bar on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. When a decision runs to such considerable length, a summarizing analysis can be very useful; and what is particularly interesting was how this analysis tries to emphasize the distinction between arguments based on fact and arguments based on law. Cole felt this distinction was important, because he anticipates that this case will eventually come before the Supreme Court, which is now so ideologically polarized that the final decision would probably be determined by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

This was certainly a clever strategy on Cole's part. However, here in San Francisco (which is basically the eye of the hurricane) there has been considerable attention to the question of whether or not the case would actually get to the Supreme Court. The Proposition 8 supporters were already making their plans before Walker handed down his verdict. However, there is a good chance that one reason for Walker's decision running to 136 pages is that he put a lot of effort into making it "appeal-proof." This does not guarantee that the case will not escalate to the Circuit Court of Appeals; but it is interesting that Cole should have overlooked this particular strategy behind the ruling, which was based more on rhetoric than on the nuts and bolts of legal argumentation. Cole further overlooked the extent to which Walker prepared for an eventual Supreme Court decision by relating his own ruling to a host of Kennedy's documented decisions, another significant rhetorical element of his text.

The problem with Cole's piece is that he is trying to think objectively about an issue that is about as removed from objectivity as one can get. Cole goes so far as to declare:

Facts are, after all, the most powerful antidote to prejudice, fear, and stereotype.

This is naive on at least two counts. One of those counts has now surfaced in a comment to Cole's post and describes both briefly and clearly just how elusive the concept of "fact" is in this particular case. (The crux of the argument is that it is not enough to have data; one must also understand the contextual role played by the source of any data points.) The other count is that passionately held beliefs are rarely swayed by facts, however secure those facts may be; and faith-based beliefs are probably the firmest in such passionate adherence. Cole has basically fallen into the same trap that Bertolt Brecht concocted for Galileo, the belief that the judges of the Inquisition would pardon him once they examined his data.

What is most important about the progress of this case is that Walker has done all he could to keep those passions out of the argument. However admirably he may have succeeded, the case is now out of his hands. Cole should have known better than to assume that the subsequent future of gay marriage will now just be a matter of "facts" (whatever he takes that word to mean).

Opera Goes Boldly

This appears to be an entirely legitimate announcement on the Web site of what may prove to be the mother of all ambitious opera projects:

The Klingon are known as passionate opera-lovers.

However very little is known about their highly evolved form of musical expression here on earth.

Floris Schönfeld has managed to lay his hands on some fragments of a masterpiece of the batlh jachlut or Honorable Battle opera.

Its title is ‘u’, which can be translated as ‘universe’ or ‘universal’. It will be the basis for the opera ‘u’, the first complete, authentic Klingon opera here on earth.

Klingon opera uses the principle of musical combat. Beauty in Klingon music comes from the impact of two opposing forces. To quote a well known Klingon proverb qa’ wIje ‘meH masuv or ‘We fight to enrich the spirit.’ The Klingon orchestra is made up of various indigenous Klingon instruments, some that have never been heard on earth before. The Terran Klingon Research Ensemble [sic] has been set up further develop a coherent Klingon musical practice amongst human musicians.

The libretto of ‘u’ is based on the epos of Kahless the unforgettable. Betrayed by his brother and witness to his father’s brutal slaying, Kahless is pitted against his bitter enemy the mighty tyrant Molor. To regain his honor he must travel into the underworld, create the first Bat’leth, be united with his true love the lady Lukara and fight many epic battles. Through this awe inspiring adventure Kahless redefines what it is to be truly Klingon. With the help of Marc Okrand, the worlds leading Klingon language expert, we have managed to piece together the stories in their original epic-poetic form for the first time.

According to the About us page, Schönfeld is "head researcher and artistic leader." He and his KTRE (Klingon Terran Research Ensemble) are based in Holland but have been invited to the artist-in-residence program of Robert Wilson's Watermill Center in New York. Performances have been scheduled at the Zeebelt Theater in The Hague from the 9th to the 12th of September; but of far greater interest is a special performance on September 18 on the location of the Celestial Vault, a land art piece by James Turrell in Kijkduin, to which only Klingons will be admitted!

My personal opinion is that, if it is good enough for Robert Wilson, it is good enough for me. (I must admit, however, that I doubt that very many Klingons would relate to Wilson's own work. Consider the entire absence of opposing forces in Einstein on the Beach.) I do not see myself going to Europe for the occasion; but this is a work that certain excels in its ambitions (which may differentiate it from the Royal Opera House premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera about Anna Nicole Smith, which may well distinguish itself solely through magnitude).

This being the end of the week, however, the question of the hour is whether or not this project is an act of chutzpah. My guess is that this is undoubtedly the case from the Klingon point of view. All infringements on the privacy of Klingon culture inflicted by the Star Trek series may have been barely tolerable; but I cannot imagine Klingons treating their creative arts with anything but sacrosanct reverence, with a special holy-of-holies place for opera. Thus, I am happy this week to honor Klingon judgment and grant the Chutzpah of the Week award to the entire KTRE.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Job Market the Internet has Made

Last night there seemed to be a fair amount of coverage from a single American city where an unanticipated mob of people showed up just to get job applications (and why such a singular story seems to be eluding most search cues this morning strikes me as a mystery). Under current conditions the idea of an unmanageable number of people showing up simply to submit applications for a proportionately small number of openings has become an icon for the Main Street side of the current economic crisis. That this icon is now occupying more time on televisions screens may be news in itself; but this morning there was an element of irony in the BBC News choosing to run a story filed from Silicon Valley by Technology Reporter Maggie Shiels. The news itself concerned poll results just analyzed by the Pew Internet Project:

A majority of Americans believe the government's plan to deliver a high speed internet connection to every citizen by 2020 is either not important or should not be embarked upon.

I raise this item because there is at least one way in which this potential sign of rejection of the Internet by the American public is related to the unemployment crisis. This has to do with the extent to which every individual job application has become the proverbial "drop in the bucket," struggling to compete with other applications, all of roughly equivalent merit and all targeted at a very small number of slots (perhaps only one) to be filled.

San Francisco is probably not a representative city, but it may provide at least one clue to this sort of discontent. Walk by the entrance of the Employment Development Department (which happens to be across the street from where I live). You do not even have to walk through the doors to see large numbers of people all seated in front of computer terminals scanning the online job boards. Consider the problems that these people face. The highly inadequate search tools make finding a job a frustrating and time-consuming process in itself; and that is even before one worries about how one can possibly be noticed when so many applications will pour in once that job has been found. Do not expect to see any government officials on hand to provide guidance. Basically, the few that are there are around to point you to a free terminal; and presumably the rest have been laid off because of budget cutbacks. If you have any questions, you can use the telephone beside the terminal, where you can spend the usual inordinate duration of time waiting to be connected to a human being who is unlikely to offer very much assistance.

Shiels was correct in reporting that cool attitudes towards better broadband connectivity reflect a public that has other priorities. She let slide the possibility that the way the Internet has changed the very process of trying to get a job may be part of the problem. The Internet has fashioned technology to enable "transactions" with large numbers of people; but that technology impedes (and often just prevents) interactions with individuals. As the technology became more and more prevalent, it made every one of us just another brick in Pink Floyd's wall; and, now that the wall is crumbling (if not entirely fallen), we are all in the same pile of broken bricks.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama may share Shiels' myopia. Consider the text of his address given yesterday when he signed the Manufacturing Enhancement Act. More specifically, consider the following sentence:

I believe that if an American company wants to innovate, grow, and create jobs right here in the United States, we should give them the support they need to do it.

What Obama may have overlooked is that "growth" is a word that is of value to shareholders (the key sector of the "economic elite" that populate institutions such as the World Economic Forum) and that "innovation" is the Kool-Aid that those shareholders drink in their quest for the fountain of eternal growth. Ours has become a country littered with empty factories and shops, blighted real estate decaying because it cannot be occupied by all those people who want nothing more than to get back to work. While there are clearly assets within the provisions of the Manufacturing Enhancement Act, it remains to be seen whether the benefits from those assets will extend beyond the Wall Street shareholders to those on Main Street who want little more than to get back to work again.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

British Illiteracy?

My interest in the ironies of life was satisfied early this morning. After having committed a sizeable chunk of time to yesterday's rambling attempt at exploring my approaches to reading challenging texts, this morning the London Telegraph slammed me with the worst example of "junk writing" I have encountered on their Web site. Furthermore, since the example appeared in a headline, it is very likely that neither I nor anyone else will know who perpetrated the slovenly abuse of the English language. Of course the article itself was not much to crow about, particularly since it could not, in any sense of the word, count as journalism. Basically, the Telegraph decided to give Natasha Vargas-Cooper the opportunity to promote her new book, Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America, by reproducing excerpts under the newspaper's banner. For the most part I do not approve of such practices, but at least I appreciate the need for them. The real provocation came from the subheadline that declared Mad Men to be "the most literate show on television."

Don't get me wrong. I definitely count myself among the Mad Men enthusiasts (even if I have to watch it on my own because my wife refuses to be in the same room with any of its characters); but literacy is hardly one of its virtues. To the contrary, if the language of Man Men succeeds, it does so through the ability of the writers to capture the verbal ineptitude of all of its characters. This is an entire social sector that speaks almost entirely in clichés. The scripts succeed through establishing a tight coupling between the dramatic tensions of the plot line and across-the-board failures of communicative action in a manner that we previously could only expect from David Mamet; and, in contrast to Mamet, that coupling is achieved with a bare minimum of foul language. Furthermore, that verbal ineptitude is entirely consistent with (if not essential to) the setting that needs to be established. Beyond all the surface features of the advertising profession that Sloan Wilson disclosed in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (whose recent paperback edition has a male silhouette figure that clearly resonates with the opening credits of Mad Men), there is the deeper structure of the culture analyzed by Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Literacy is too "intellectual" for any of the Mad Men characters. (When Don Draper had his beatnik girlfriend, we saw him watching French Nouvelle Vague cinema; but, unless I am mistaken, we have never seen him or any other character actually reading a book.)

Now I am never sure which products of American television come to the attention of the British; but, if it is literacy they crave, I can come up with far better examples. If one is not put off when foul language is not kept to a minimum, then the most dazzling example may be the two seasons of Deadwood before it was canceled. These were scripts where it was not exaggeration to claim that every single word counted. Indeed, there were episodes that my wife and I watched multiple times, just to make sure that we were aware of how every single word fell into its proper place. More surprisingly, however, is that both my wife and I have been struck by the high level of literacy in, of all things, NCIS: Los Angeles. Whatever jokes you may want to tell about using the word "literacy" in the same sentence as "Los Angeles," these characters have a depth that they are not afraid to disclose, often with throw-away gestures that are probably lost on most viewers waiting for the next chase scene. After one episode, which subtly teased out a bit of that literacy, I remember telling my wife that these were characters who understood (and cared about) the difference between Rainer Maria Rilke and Theodore Roethke (a far cry from those "cultural literacy" polls of students who associate the term "Madonna" only with popular music)!

Needless to say, I know better than to believe that high literacy makes for high ratings. Still, I reserve the right to make at least some of my personal viewing choices on the basis of how much cerebral exercise they provide; and programs that acknowledge my intelligence, even if only with subtle gestures, tend to rate high on my list. I simply wish to argue that Mad Men does not appeal to me on these grounds; and, if it were to try to do so, then it would have to give up all the elements of establishing context that contribute so heavily to its success.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reading Strategies

Yesterday I found myself reflecting on Ray Monk's valuable little "handbook," How to Read Wittgenstein. This is one of a series of "how to read" texts that was apparently the brain child of Simon Critchley, which struck me as a sort of latter-day rethinking of the Great Books Program, particularly as implemented at the University of Chicago during the first half of the twentieth century through the efforts of scholars such as Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. This matured into a grander vision of the core curriculum of "great books of the Western world" being read not only by undergraduates but also by neighborhood reading groups, for which Adler prepared a plan for covering the authors he had selected over the course of a year. He also wrote a companion volume helpfully entitled How to Read a Book to try to convey the message that reading these texts was not just a matter of jumping in at the beginning and plowing page-by-page through to the end.

When I was involved with a project called "Productive Reading," I put a fair amount of time into exploring the books Adler had selected as the canon for his curriculum, along with an elaborate system of indexing the complete set, which he called the Syntopicon. I also revisited How to Read a Book in the revised and updated edition for which Charles van Doren served as Adler's coauthor. (While browsing Amazon.com, I discovered that Blackstone Audio recently released an "Audible Audio Edition" of this book, read in its entirety by Edward Holland. This seems to carry the ironic connotation that you do not actually have to read a physical book to learn how to read books, thus freeing you from an "endless loop" situation!) After having been immersed in this activity of reading about reading for several months, I saw an announcement of Critchley's series and found it appropriate to investigate the possibility of an alternative school of thought and/or strategy. I selected Monk's volume because I figured it would be good for an "acid test."

At this point I should note that my personal habits probably would have aggravated both Adler and Critchley. I have long lived by the inclination to jump, feet first, into any new text, whatever reputation that text may have for being challenging. This may be because I tend to be as interested in style as I am in content, which has always made be a bit cool towards Adler's quest for getting to the content most efficiently without necessarily dwelling on style. Indeed, I have often wondered impishly whether or not Adler had encountered any of Slavoj Žižek's texts prior to his own death in 2001 and what impact those texts would have had on his preoccupation with efficient reading! For that matter, even before I had discovered Žižek, I had similar thoughts about Marcel Proust, whose Remembrance of Things Past is included in the reading list of How to Read a Book provided in the first appendix.

My own strategy has tended to be one of thrashing around in the midst of total immersion, usually taking notes of passages that catch my attention, even if I do not fully understand their text. While a lot of my colleagues have seen this as an opportunity to provide electronic books with support for underlining and/or highlighting portions of the pages being read, this for me has been only half (if that much) of my strategy. These days I copy anything I mark, usually onto PowerPoint slides, which for me have become the moral equivalent of 3 x 5 cards. This process of copying often contributes to a level of understanding that had not yet been reached when the passage was first encountered. (I remember being told of a counterpoint instructor at the Curtis Institute of Music, whose name I have long forgotten, who made his students write out their own copies of Palestrina, presumably under the assumption that one cannot copy particularly effectively without first having done some rudimentary parsing of what one is copying.) I copy into a digital domain, because I want to be able to search it; and I want to search because I know I will want to come back to it as a result of further reading I plan to do.

None of this fits in very well with Critchley's agenda, but I still found Monk's Wittgenstein handbook to be useful. Most importantly, Monk made me more aware of the need to seek out a structural architecture in the text even when that architecture was not explicitly delineated by the author. Indeed, it took Monk to get me to realize that the elaborate system of numbering each section of the Tractatus reflected a hierarchical structure. One could then reconstruct the hierarchy from the numbers and read the book "top-down," rather than from beginning to end. As a result I now often take notes pertaining to such architecture in other texts (particularly Plato), which then help me to properly sort the other notes I am taking. The other valuable element in reading Monk was the way in which he tried to establish a context for each text he considered (which meant that he could draw upon his own biography of Wittgenstein).

It seems to me that this question of context is important in establishing how you approach an author, particularly one whose texts are challenging for one reason or another. Thus, my recent attempt to compare Friedrich Nietzsche with Slavoj Žižek emerged from challenges encountered in reading both authors; and, while my hypothesis that these two authors were "unified" by the rhetoric of polemic may have been overly reductive, it set an initial contextual frame of reference in place. I have been reading more Nietzsche since then, which has given me an opportunity to tune up his piece of that frame of reference. Needless to say, much of that tuning has to do with what the polemic is attacking, rather than the rhetorical device itself; and it is interesting to see the extent to which his targets are other texts of philosophy, the most notorious of which, as I have already observed, are those of Plato.

However, when we get beyond rhetoric to more substantive argument, I have come away with the impression that the skills that Nietzsche exercises have less to do with philosophy and more to do with two other disciplines that clearly occupied much of his attention. One is philology, and we see that in play when he turns to Horace as a stick for beating Plato, even if most readers would never think of Horace as a philosopher. Nevertheless, this approach is very dear to me, partly because I have used it myself on many occasions. It is the idea that you cannot get at semantics without first "unpacking" the sign structures through which meaning is conveyed, particularly when the act of unpacking reveals as much about the thinker as it does about the thoughts being expressed through the text. There is thus an implicit assumption that words always "know more than they say," so to speak; and I relish an author who sees the value in teasing out such wordplay.

Nietzsche's other discipline is the more intriguing. It is psychology; and it is intriguing because, as an actual discipline, psychology was still very much in its infancy when Nietzsche was trying to get his own head around it. There are passages that reveal an almost uncanny intuition for where the study of psychology would eventually lead, even if Nietzsche himself lacked any clear sense of the path that would be followed. Consider, for example, his hyperbolic outburst about atomism in "Twilight of the Idols" (in Walter Kaufmann's translation):

The thing itself, to say it once more, the concept of thing is a mere reflex of the faith in the ego as cause. And even your atom, my dear mechanists and physicists—how much error, how much rudimentary psychology is still residual in your atom! Not to mention the "thing-in-itself," the horrendum pudendum of the metaphysicians! And made the very measure of reality! And called God!

This idea that "faith in the ego as cause" can go so far as to engender "the concept of thing" can be read, from our contemporary point of view, as the first suggestion that reality itself is psychologically constructed, a perspective that would have to wait about a century after Nietzsche's death before being considered as a feasible hypothesis.

Perhaps this strategy on my part reflects one way in which I actually agree with Adler. This is Adler's conviction that we should approach every text we read as if we are entering into a conversation with the author. However, while Adler tended to think in terms of the reader standing on the author's platform to conduct that conversation, it makes just as much sense (since the actual conversation is totally imaginary) for the author to be brought to the reader's contemporary platform. In Nietzsche's case this is a matter of reading his speculations in light of what we now know about human psychology and that still-murky area of consciousness itself. Any such conversation that ensues is likely to be a wild one that may even be well advanced by Nietzsche's preference for hyperbole; but it makes for an invigorating exercise, particularly if one spends much of one's time investigating the academic literature of far more "serious" scientists!