Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ali

With the passing of Muhammed Ali this weekend, I am once again overcome with a myriad of memories of our times--not our times together; sadly, I never met the man--but rather of our times in general and the battles that we both fought.

Ali was a hero of mine, even though I am six years his elder.  We survived the conservative 1950s and the hypocrisy best symbolized by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, which somehow ended up as HUAC.  By the 1960, those of us who wanted America to live up to its true values discovered that anything that resembled free speech was considered UnAmerican.

I gravitated to the Civil Rights Movement while Ali was winning an Olympic Gold Medal, which he parlayed into what was then a meaningful thing: the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.  However, as I moved toward the teachings and work of Dr. King, Ali moved into the school of Elijah Muhammed and Malcolm Little.  As a result, Ali and I began our social fights together, but apart philosophically.  I always struggled with Dr. King's Pauline Christianity, but I found the ideology of the "Black Muslims" even more distasteful.

On matters of the Vietnam War, I was a minor thorn in the side of the government. While researching for Dr. King, I discovered things that convinced me that the war was a fraud, and that try as we might, we were simply propping up inhumane dictators and corrupting a culture and civilization that had developed in our own ancient past. The war corrupted the South Vietnamese who took the worst of our popular culture, the worst of our weaknesses, the worst of our "values" and made them goals to attain.  The six years difference in our ages made me too old to serve, so my efforts were those of Socrates' gadfly.  Ali, however, sacrificed everything in his personal protest against the war and his refusal to serve.  Already suspect for his brashness, Ali now became a great villain to main street America--he was a traitor, a coward, and obviously a communist.  He was jailed for a time, he was stripped of his title, and he was denied licenses to fight in many states.  Yet, he was a man of courage. He took it all as he had taken many punches and shrugged it off.

When he was once again allowed to fight, his tenacity and his skill won back all of those who had deserted him as well as those who had always found him a villain.  By the time the war was over, Ali was again the Heavyweight Champion, and unbelievably, an ambassador for the United States to numerous third world countries.  By the time he finally retired from boxing, he was the most widely recognized face on the planet. Other sports heroes have come and gone.  Ali was a great sports hero, but his memory will live on because he was much, much more than that.

By accident I will be in Louisville this coming Tuesday when he comes home.  My role in the same projects he fought for has been long forgotten, so I may not be able to attend the memorial service.  But it will be an honor to be in his town, on his final day of glory.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Transfiguration--the tangential change that defines Wagner

Those of us who love, venerate, and dissect the music of Richard Wagner are cognizant that he ceased composition of the Ring in the middle of Siegfried leaving "the hero wandering in the walde."
The composer paused--not because he did not know what lay ahead--the libretto was written; in fact, the parts that lay ahead of him were the first to be written, since he originally conceived of Siegfried's Todt" as the germ that led to the Ring.  After sketching out the his original idea, he found that he had to chronologically retreat in order to provide background for his story.  Each new tale forced him further back, until he created his mythological world in Das Rheingold,  Here he planted the seed of Wotan's error, which became the dominant motif of the Ring--an error for which his grandson and daughter would be required to provide atonement in the final version of Siegfried's Todt--Gotterdamrung.

He did not pause for inspiration.  The motifs that carry the operas forward were already incorporated into the music already completed--well, almost.Wagner paused, first from weariness, second, from the deserved hounding of creditors, and third, from the innate feeling that something more was developing in his creative unconscious that needed to be given birth, nurtured, developed, and insinuated into his oeuvre.  A fertile imagination cannot be silenced.  Plagued by his feelings and fantasies, which he apparently lived out, for Mathlide Wesendonk,  Wagner was inspired to expand his compositional techniques into untested realms.  In this tranfigurational moment, he developed the ear that would provide impetus to all the art music that followed--not just his, but nearly all the music of the twentieth century.  Once the "Tristan Chord" sounded, there was no retreat.  Starting with a scaled down orchestral base, he honed his ideas in Tristan.  Musicians claimed the music was unplayable, but the public's ears grew quickly to accept the change.  To ensure the public's acceptance, Wagner wrote Die Meistersingers to display the new techniques with a huge orchestra and a theme that argued for the acceptance of new and unusual techniques and methodologies.  Essentially, Sachs not only sacrifices himself for Eva's happiness but for the musical ideas of Walther.  Beckmesser stodginess is relegated to the past as the "new" music emerges.  Elsewhere I have illustrated the transfiguration by comparing the Dresden and Paris versions of Tannhauser.  The parts added to that opera after the transfiguring moment are ear-opening. Here is the Paris version of the prelude:


Here is the Dresden version:
The new complexity is obvious.

After the sojourn into this new territory, Wagner returns to the forest, and like the forest bird leads Siegfried into a new world.  With the new tonal palette, Wagner felt prepared to complete the Ring.  John Cumshaw illustrates a major difference to the two halves of Siegfried. He notes that throughout Rheingold, Walkure, and the first two acts of Siegfried, major characters may sing together, but never at the same time.  Yes the Rhinemaidens croon to Alberich together in harmony, but none of the other characters sing ensemble--no duets or trios.  This is how Tristan begins, but very shortly into the opera, Tristan and Islode are singing duets.  In Meistersinger, we find the marvelous sestet when Sach's sacrifice is complete and the characters are free to express their hopes and dreams, now free from the past--David, no longer an apprentice, Eva and Walther, free of the judgement of the contest. In the third act of Siegfried, after cleansing the spear of Wotan by breaking it and the vows inscribed upon it that Wotan forgot, Siegfried goes on to awake the maiden.  The duet that ends the opera signals the beginning of the sacrifice these two will suffer to save and remake the world. It takes 10 minutes to get there, but the wait for a true duet is well worth it:

The orchestra is now playing with the full complexity that Wagner explored in the intervening operas. The transfigured moment shines through and finds culmination in the opera of the great sacrifice: Parsifal.  To clearly display the theme of sacrifice, Wagner had to remake himself, his style, and his oeuvre  to clearly enunciate this Romantic theme--the loving sacrifice to benefit others and the world. The theme is enunciated in the Good Friday Music and at the end of Parsifal.



The orchestral voice here is minimized, but expanded at the same time.  Wagner stresses the sacrifices made, but the orchestra is playing in the panoply of realms explored in Tristan.  This is where the great transfiguration led.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

White Nigger

This week marked three meaningful historical events in my life.  The most recent is marked by the death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 2012. The man and his voice were the intellectual and emotional salve required for a life of challenge and dangerous quests. He was there my entire adult life bringing solace, great pleasure, and equanimity when needed most.  This is also the birthday week of Richard Wagner whose operas and philosophy of sacrifice influenced me deeply. Not that Wagner consciously sacrificed, but his heroes and heroines certainly do.  It is through Wagner that I first met Susan Sontag who impacted the middle years of my life. Her ideas about playing Wagner to whales in order to develop some sort of communication pattern always intrigued me.  The third anniversary is the most painful.  This week marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Freedom Rides through the segregated South in 1961.

Having just finished working with several noted scholars as a research assistant, I answered the call of my conscience joined the Freedom Riders.  The original 13 riders inspired another 400 of us to answer the call.  For seven months we put our lives on the line for something far more important than the war that was going on in Vietnam.  We never knew what to expect as we entered each little town in Alabama and Mississippi.  We used to carry chocolate bars in our pockets to distract the police dogs before they got to us, but the police dogs were least of the dangers.  It was the klansmen with their guns, their steel pipes, and their firebombs that posed the gravest danger.  As the year went on, the opposition remained strong, but the violence slowly decrease--the physical violence, at least.  The verbal violence continued.  Those of us who were not African American were always called out as "White Niggers," as we exited the buses.  I cringe today at the physical beatings we endured on those rides--I guess that I have always been a physical coward--but I endured them because I have never been a moral coward. I would like to think that with the help of CORE, SLC, and the Kennedy Administration we won. However, living now in the South I realize that just beneath the surface the same hatred and fear is still there.

To the cowards who hid behind their police dogs and hooded masks I say we have overcome.  You cannot turn back the clock; you cannot deny freedom; you cannot defeat the noble ideals of your own country.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Changes

The end of June denotes two alterations in the cultural fabric of America.  The first is a very minor one.  After 60 years in the classroom, administration, and ownership of various colleges and universities, I have decided to give up my full-time duties for the life of retirement and part time student-teacher interaction.  I will continue to work with the College Board and AP program, and I will continue to teach on a part-time basis.  However, the 4:30 a.m. wake up calls, the hours of paper grading, and late night lecture preparations will be a thing of the past.  I will have time to campaign against Regie-theater/opera and bemoan the intellectual weakening of my culture as young minds empty, trusting their hand-held devices to know things for them.

An even bigger retirement will take place at about the same time.  James Levine is stepping away for the music directorship of the Metropolitan Opera.  His has been the steady hand on the direction of the Met--not just its performance schedule but also its musical direction.  Hopefully, his efforts will leave a lasting impression on the institution.  If not, Rudolf Bing will have won.  All traces of George Szell will be lost at the Met. I cannot think of a much greater loss.

The story is worth reliving.  After World War II the Met was struggling to stay alive due to post-war hyperinflation, American anti-intellectualism, and a facility that devoured budgets as the result of obsolete heating, plumbing, and other physical inadequacies.  Rudolf Bing was hired to save the Met.  His efforts may have succeeded, since the Met is still around, but many question the price he paid for his cure.  He immediately cut Wagner productions, citing their expense and the anti-German feelings left by the war.  Step one--deny a contract renewal to Lauritz Melchior.  True, Melchior was entering his 60s at the time, but he was still the only voice that could sing the roles--as we discovered through the next 10 years while waiting for Sandor Konya, Wolfgang Windgassen, Ramon Vinay to develop.  The few Wagner productions that were maintained substituted brilliant conducting for great singing.  Stiedry's baton was taken from his hands and given to a group of hungry, young Europeans who had escaped the madness by taking refuge in America.  Erich Liensdorf and Fritz Reiner found themselves with important roles at the Met, but the most exhilarating performances were led by George Szell. He was the director who demanded perfection and would not take directions from others.  He remained at the Met for only four years--four years of constant battle with Bing. The fabled story of Szell walking away from an angry Bing tells everything one needs to know about the situation.  As Szell walked away, a third party said Szell was his own worst enemy, to which Bing replied, "Not while I'm alive."  The people of Cleveland should be forever grateful that Bing axed Szell's contract.  Szell transformed the Cleveland Orchestra into an American powerhouse, lighting beacons of brilliance throughout the orchestral world and challenging Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago for orchestral dominance in America.  It is interesting to note that a few years later Liensdorf had left the Met for Boston, and Reiner had left the Met for Chicago.

Within 10 years, Szell had created one of the great Orchestras of the world, cherry picking Toscanini's NBC Symphony, while discovering other talent throughout the midwest of America.  In Cincinnati Szell discovered a young pianist named James Levine. So impressed was the conductor that he invited Levine to become his Cleveland apprentice in 1964, and then he made the young man an assistant conductor of the Orchestra the following year. Levine stayed in the position until 1970 when other orchestras and opportunities began "knocking on his door."  Levine spent six years working with Szell, studying his manuscript notations, meeting the maestro's expectations in performances, and devouring and digesting a conducting philosophy that influenced him for the rest of his career--a career from which he is about to withdraw.

To trace the development of these connections between Szell and Levine, I am including three different selections of the Overture to Tannhauser.  The first is a poorly recorded Met recording with limited sonic or tonal value; however, the early Szell vision is here.
The second is from a 1962 recording in Cleveland.  This is two years before Levine became an apprentice, but these are the notations that would have been in the sheet music in the Cleveland Orchestra library when Levine was studying.
The final selection is from the 1982 Met television production led by Levine.  To my ear, at least, the influence is clear.  The tempo is identical, the emphases are identical.  Later productions at the Met showed growth and development on Levine's part, but the fundamentals do not change.  Through Levine, Szell finally had his victory over Bing.  Let us hope that Maestro Levine's retirement does not affect the tradition.
From one retiree to another, Good Luck James; here's hoping your health fully returns and you can enjoy your retirement while the rest of us enjoy your legacy.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Seventy Years of Retrospection

To read the criticism from individuals who are  not old enough to have heard the great singers of the past in their milieu is an activity that I have had to learn to avoid.  Styles change, tastes change, times change. Anyone born after 1970 would not yet have developed the taste or interest or have had the opportunity to have heard a live broadcast or performance of the voices from the middle part of the last century. While these artists were fortunate to have had their voices captured on recordings, those listeners coming of age in the 1990s and 2000s would only know those voices from the cold, mechanical CD's that were brought out as the phonograph or stereo disappeared.  If these young listeners happened to find a vinyl recording, chances are it was a production of the oil shortage of the 1970s, when record producers manufactured paper thin, poor quality "records," which often sounded as though they had been in the path of an elephant stampede.  Worse yet, even the major recording studios allowed quality control during this time period to slip.  Conrad L. Osborne, writing in High Fidelity, noted that the DGG Meistersinger sounded as though the engineers had recorded it under a wet blanket--the original dynamics were horrible.  Remastering it twenty years later restored much of its vitality, but the lack of warmth of the new digital recording could never hope to match the Bavarian State Opera performances that produced the original. Those who cannot understand the praise for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau upon his death three years ago are those who never heard the great voice that reshaped the musical world.  By 1978 that voice was a shadow of what it had been, but those of us lucky enough to have heard the voice from the early 1950s, to 1960s, and into the early 1970s heard the later efforts with our ears still full of the glory of those early years.  The critics grumbled, but the musicians never hesitated.  Fi-Di was the baritone of choice for fellow singers, conductors, and composers.  He taught Pavarotti how to breath during their recording sessions of MacBeth; he was championed by Elizabeth Schwartzkof and her husband Walter Legge; he was sought out for performances by Fricsay, Szell, Bernstein, and Karajan.  He was discovered for the rest of us as an opera voice by Furtwangler.  Composers wrote songs and operas for him. Britten wrote the War Memorial with Fi-Di in mind and begged him to sing at its first performance.  For those of us who grew up with his performances, he was the reason we love opera and lieder.  Both Richters  (Karl and Sviatislov) sought him out as a musical partner. John Culshaw admired him so much, he offered Fi-Di the role of Sigmund in the "Solti" Ring. Yes, the singer had that much range.

But Fischer-Dieskau is not the only singer who is in danger of being put on the scrap heap of time past.  The middle of the last century produced giants who must not be forgotten.  My earliest memories are of Melchior during the war years.  Even a ten-year-old boy listening to an antique radio receiver could not mistake THE Wagnerian voice.  It even transcends the miserable quality of the recordings of those war years.  Whether he was paired with Flagstad, Frida Leider, Margaret Harshaw, or Helen Traubel, the experience was thrilling.  Rudolph Bing and the other managers of the Met ruined this for everyone. In his efforts to "save" the Metropolitan Opera, Bing did not renew the Melchior's contract--he was in his sixties.  He forced George Szell out (for which the Cleveland Orchestra is forever grateful). He fired or his predecessor fired Helen Traubel--she with the power Flagstad and the lyrical beauty of Janowitz.  We thought we would never again hear performances with the grandeur of a Melchior, Flagstad, Schorr Ring.  Herbert Jansen took Shorr's place in America and the great Hans Hotter took his place in Europe [sadly, because of the war, many Americans did not get to hear Hotter until 1946 or 47]; Leider, Harshaw, and above all, Traubel took Flagstad's place; but no one could replace Melchior.  When they were gone by the mid 1950s, we were convinced we would never hear their like again.  As a result we almost missed and certainly under appreciated those who took their place.  Seemingly out of nowhere came Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Wingassen, Otto Edelmann, Ferdinand Franz, and Ludwig Suthaus.  Marta Modl and Astrid Varnay provided suitable heroines until Nilsson burst onto the stage.  Sadly, she too now suffers the attacks that Fischer-Dieskau must endure.

Even the lesser lights of this period deserve remembering and listening too.  Flagstaff's protege Set Svanholm provided a viable Siegfried when Melchior left the stage.  Ramon Vinay stretched his baritone voice to sing the heldentenor roles--in fact, after the war, it was his voice, not that of Hans Hopf, that we heard most often from Bayreuth.  Canadian George London, during his active singing years, was not a lesser light.  He was a great talent with great lower register range.  He, just like Peter Hofman twenty-five years later, was in such demand and sang so many performance that his voice failed him at an early age. The fine Canadian singer Eileen Ferrell never got the chance she deserved, but her recordings are well worth seeking out.  Fortunately for all of us, a third Canadian singer found a better fate.  Jon Vickers' dark heldentenor voice filled the void when Suthaus left the scene.  I have written elsewhere about the singers from the American Great Plains--James King and Jess Thomas--singers who made the 1960s and 1970s another revival of Wagnerian music.  During this same time Gwyneth Jones and Regine Crespin (a few years before) provided the needed heroines.

We must never forget that before Waltrude Meier there was the incredible Christa Ludwig. Nor should we forget that before Matti Salminen there was Marti Talvela, and before him there was Kurt Boehme. Before there was Ekkehard Wlaschiha  there was Zoltan Keleman and Gustav Neidlinger. Josephine Veasey, Clair Watson, Anna Reynolds and all of the other great female voices of the 1960s and 70s must not be forgotten.

When we reached the 1970s, once again we thought the greatness was past. However, we discovered Siegfried Jerusalem and Rene Kollo.  Helge Brilloth must be fit in here somewhere.  In desperation, we recruited Placido Domingo from the Italian repertoire, and other than his mangled German in Die Meistersingers, he made the transition well. A few years later the often overlooked Poul Elming became an important force in this world of Wagner. There are others whom I have not mentioned.  Maybe later.  The point is that we must not forget, we must not overlook, we must not exile these great voices to the graveyard of forgotten singers.  Our musical heritage will be diminished if that happens.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Nightmare of an Old Man

Maybe it is time to put myself out to pasture, to live a sheltered life, to protect my apparently fragile vision of culture and intellectual rigor.  With each passing day, I discover new examples of the dumbing down of my language, my philosophy, and my culture. When logic is no longer considered necessary, then academic and philosophical precepts no longer have meaning or importance.  We are becoming an illogical, superficial, vapid culture. I fear for the emptiness of the intellectual lives of the next few generations.

Consider  the loss of clarity currently being imposed upon English.  I am not about to stumble into the blind dogma of Swift, Dr. Johnson, the combatants of the Inkpot Controversy, or others who stood like the politician with his broom trying to hold back the ocean tide.  I understand that English is a living language that grows and changes with those who speak it.  I do not fear its growth or its changes that reflect social or scientific expansion. Furthermore,  I long ago accepted that the distinction between "may" and "like" had disappeared. I long ago accepted that "so" had become an intensifier and not just a conjunction--something that leads to the illogical breakdown of comparisons.  For instance, we commonly hear people announce that "it is so hot." What has been lost is the logical completion of the clause: "it is so hot that ..."  What truly discourages me are the losses of subtlety, of depth, and of exactness that are occurring in the language and, hence, in the culture.  I realize that I am succumbing to the Enlightenment concept of a common, intense, shared language being the means of resolving misunderstandings. Society quickly became too diverse for that concept to prove true.

English, for far too many people, has ceased to be a written language.  We are told that the younger generation reads more voluminously than any other generation.  That may be true, but this group is not reading anything that is out of its comfort zone.  The vast majority of my college students refuse to read Shakespeare even when his works are assigned--"it is too hard."  For social reasons, we cannot teach them the Bible as literature, so the works of Milton whose constant allusions to biblical material (the hidden talents for instance) are lost to these students. There is no "profit" in learning Latin, since no commerce is conducted in the language; therefore, the roots of innumerable, valuable English words are lost to this group. Thus, while they may be phonemically aware, they struggle with fluency, have tiny vocabularies, and lack the ability to comprehend text that demands any rigor.  We are no longer an auditory society.  We have produced a generation of kinesthetic learners who lack the ability to do abstract thinking--thinking that depends upon the power of words.  To demonstrate how widespread this failing has become, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education made a case for limiting the teaching of higher mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus) since most students cannot do it and probably "will never need to do it." The mind is supposed to function creatively, analytically, and abstractly.  I would point out, however, that if one cannot think abstractly, he or she cannot be truly creative nor detailedly analytical.  I find it illuminating that most of our Latin-based words are abstract rather than concrete.  Without the exposure to Latin morphology, we have limited an important mental tool--abstract reasoning.  The results are staggering.  Because reading anything written in another time period is too difficult, the students refuse to do so. The consequences are that historical processes, habits, behaviors, customs are lost.  Fine, one might say--they do not exist any more.  Sadly, they do--they exist in idioms, sayings, expressions that we use everyday--most of which have no meaning to the current generation of college students. Ask any of them to translate a common idiom or expression.  "A stitch in time saves nine--A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."  They will be lost. The grim reaper is an image they know, but since we no longer have a reaper to cut our grain, they do not know its origin and cannot use the word "reap" in a logical way in a sentence. Forget trying to get them to make the connection with Father Time.  Even more difficult for them is any expression using the word "glean," since we no longer have gleaners following the reapers in the fields. To glean nuggets of information from text is a concept lost on them.  According to Morse Peckham, the Romantics' view of the universe changed from the enlightenments' worship of "reason" to a worship of the imagination.  "Reason" explains what exists, but imagination allow us to create new things.  It is in imagination that we depend most on abstract thought.  Ours is supposed to be a creative age with new wonder following one upon the other.  Ask, how many are new and how many are simply improvements of an older self. The poet philosopher has become the rapper, lost in the Medieval dogma of violence. Now my age is showing.

Still, what I find incredibly unfortunate is that the simplest of logical constructs are not only being lost, but that the loss is being encouraged. Even the most respected sources are finding ways to dumb things down. Consider the following:

Martha Kolin declares in her fascinating study Rhetorical Grammar that the rules of the language are learned in the process of learning to speak, so when we study grammar, we are essentially codifying the logical rules that we innately know.  English is syntactical, since it is declension free. We have approximately eight basic sentence patterns into which we fit our various parts of speech. Nouns function as subjects and objects.  Without inflections, English noun use is simple--the same word functions as a subject or as an object.  The only changes that nouns undergo are for possession and plural.  We force nouns to become verbs, we use them in prepositional phrases to become adverbs and adjectives.  We even play with their spelling to transform them into being adjectives.  Importantly, they are concrete or abstract, common and proper.  Many people object to the nominalization of verbs forcing them to be come nouns.  The expansion of the language demands this, and very often the nominalization makes sense.  The process does not impact the grammatical rules of the language.  The grievous problem for American speakers of English is pronouns.  These noun substitutes follow the basic pattern of nouns; however, this group has kept its inflections (I use the word to reflect the origin of the change in spelling that takes place as nominative pronouns transform into objective pronouns; obviously we are changing more than the ending of the word). English grammar, as we learn it in infancy, requires that a subject agree with its verb in number (singular subject requires a verb that reflects the singular --in the present tense) and a pronoun must match its antecedent in person, number, and gender.   A vast number of Americans have blurred the line between nominative and objective forms of the pronoun, especially when the pronouns occur in pairs.  Hence, "me and her are going out on Friday night."  This person would never dream of saying," I am going out." But, when pronoun appear in pairs or when a pronoun and a noun are paired, this speaker will demand that the objective case be used.  When an instructor tries to point out the rule and the logic of the situation, the student, who is now so inured to this form, will reply that the correct way "just doesn't sound right." The logic of the construction has been lost.  An even greater attack on logic is the misunderstanding of indefinite pronouns--only four of which are always plural.  In American speak, "everyone, anyone, someone is always followed by "they or them." The frustration is made greater by the fact that these speakers use the correct number verb.  Another problem began in the 1960s when the feminist movement attacked the "sexist" language illustrated by always using "him" as the objective pronoun following a singular general nominative noun-- "a parent, a scholar, a doctor..."  The simple solution here was to use a hybrid he/she, him/her.  Perhaps the result was clunky, but it met the requirements of matching number, case, and gender.  Now the battle has reoccured as a result of the transgender/gay/lesbian objections to "non descriptive pronouns." Fine, people have a right to live the lifestyle that suits them best, but to solve this problem by replacing him or her with them or to replace he or she with they is illogical.  Not only does it blur gender lines (the least of the problems), it also blurs the number lines.  Using "them" turns singular into plural and further complicates the situation by corrupting the agreement with the verb of the sentence.  Rather than seeing a rational solution, Oxford University Press and Merriam Webster recently have both published articles assuring us that "they/them" is just fine, acceptable, and approved.  They point out that 'you" long ago lost its singular and plural forms.  Understood. The American egalitarian society was not about to put up with a polite and a 'familiar" form that was as illogical as the problem being looked at here.  Those who use this as an argument to dumb down the language should not use one misconception to argue for another.  We might as well use "it" with indefinite pronouns or generalized singular nouns.  That would make more sense than "they or them."   A little discipline and a little logic would solve this--take our pants off and we are all some sort of he/she or him/her.  I will never be a "they."

Perhaps it is past time for this octogenarian to fade away, to resign his place in the world and the culture, to ignore what he cannot change.  I have watched the culture grow as the Renaissance blossomed into the Age of Reason, as the Enlightenment became the Romantic period, as most of our cultural touchstones (for good or bad) were canonized during the Victorian period, as the modern, abstract, and post modern periods expanded knowledge and expression, and I have watched it shrink as the dumb down of the 1990s and millennial period turned away.  No one learns anything anymore. No one puts anything into his/her head.  Instead, he or she takes a picture of it and stores it in a cell phone, never having bothered to even process it mentally for a fraction of a second.  Lose one's cellphone and turn into a complete idiot.  The robots will win easily.  The terminator is about to become true.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Passings

For those of us with open minds and a love of letters, the week of February 17, 2016, was one of great loss.  The passings of Umberto Eco and Harper Lee provide closure to twentieth-century literature.  As artists they inhabited very different worlds.  Eco, the cosmopolitan scholar and intellectual philosopher explored universes that require one to have imagination, yet intellectual rigor, to accompany him.  Lee, the provincial woman of the American South, explored a world too real, too earnest, and too painful for any but those who had experienced it to truly comprehend.  Yet, both spoke to the human condition, to humanity's noble self, to ideals that seem to be slipping away once more.  Perhaps by their deaths they will reawaken the quests for understanding, the defeat of ignorant hatred and bigotry, the love of universal sacrifice for the betterment of all.

Eco is familiar to me only through translation, something I regret very much.  Anyone with the insight and intelligence that his tales reflect must have had great fun playing with the language--something translators struggle to recreate and generally fail (i.e. how can any non-American speaker begin to translate the dialect of Huckleberry Finn). As a result, my experience with Eco entails study of only two works--The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum. His philosophical work Kant and the Platypus has always fascinated me, but I fear the language slippage from Italian to English prevents complete understanding of some very subtle concepts.

Eco was a man of vision. He created a fascinating, yet horrifying, medieval world of superstition and blindness in The Name of the Rose. Blindness becomes one of the major motifs of the novel.  Only Baskerville sees the truth, but only with the help of mysterious lenses.  Eco creates an English pragmatist combining Sherlock Holmes and William of Occam (he of the Razor) to cut through the superstition of a medieval abbey to find the truth. Eco always seems to have his tongue in his cheek, drawing one of his own heroes--Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentina writer and director of the Argentinian National Library--as Jorge from Burgos, the blind keeper of the Abbey's library and the source of the mystery.  His attempt to keep subrosa the Aristotelean work on laughter (since laughter is a sin) makes him put poison on the pages of the manuscript. The scribes seeking to enjoy this forbidden fruit succumb to the poison.  The truth sets no one free except for Baskerville whose free thinking has put him at risk to the inquisition.  The humor is dark, ranging from sweeping to subtle satire.

Foucault's Pendulum creates an entirely different time, but a similar world as that presented in Name of the Rose. Here, Eco presents an almost modern world in which an old word processing machine provides the source of an esoteric conspiracy linking the Knights Templar and the Illuminati to Foucault's Pendulum.  There is no William of Baskerville here to straighten things out.  Instead the paranoia of the protagonist, Casaubon--George Elliot's out-of-step philosopher in Middlemarch (who sought the key to all knowledge) leads the reader through a series of coincidences and imposed cause-effect relationships blurring the lines between the scientific method and superstition.  The occult consumes rational thought as superstition leads to insanity. A serious statement from one who said, "When men stop believing in God, it isn't that they believe in nothing: they believe in everything."

Harper Lee, on the other hand, recreated a world that many of us knew all too well. However, she gave it to us through the perspective of a child, a young, mischievous innocent whose struggle for understanding illuminates the goodness that can prevail in a world filled with hate and bigotry.  The American South before the 1970s was a polarized world.  Those of us who fought to change it can never forget the ignorance, brutality, and inhumanity that was always present, always working, always felt.  In the county in which I now live, four young black men were accused of a crime similar to that of To Kill a Mockingbird. Captured by local law enforcement, the four sat in the back of a sheriff's car. The sheriff decided there was no point in a trial. He opened the door, said "run," then shot and killed them as they fled.  This week the "Groveland Four" will be memorialized and their innocence vindicated. This was an open display of what lay beneath the surface throughout the region.  This was the backdrop to Lee's novel. Scout, the young narrator, does not fully understand what she describes, but she describes it well enough that the reader understands perfectly.  The novel is laced with subtle humor amidst the pathos of the story. Ironically, it is the mentally unstable Boo Weekly who defends Scout and her brother from the hatred aimed at them by the town.  No more noble character exists in fiction than Atticus Finch unless it is Sydney Carton. We must not be confused by the publication of Go Tell a Watchman.  Published as a sequel, it is in fact a first draft and reveals how significantly Lee revised Finch for the final version.  To Kill a Mockingbird stands as a civil rights landmark, speaking out through the voice of an innocent for truth, human values, and acceptance.

Since the publication of all three works discussed here, we have seen a world that has slipped back into the errors exposed by these works.  Battles that we thought were won have reemerged. The American election campaign now underway signals this. Candidates are running on the basis of religious superstition, bigotry, xenophobia, and selfishness. Maybe by renewing interest in these works as a result of the authors' passing, the efforts they sought to bring about will be reinvigorated.