All posts by Bruce King

Mon Oncle

Last year, for Bastille Day, I posted Three Scenes from Jacques Tati‘s classic film Mon Oncle.  A few nights ago, I found that it’s now up, in its entirety, on You Tube – an absolutely gorgeous print, with very clear subtitles and great sound.

Here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHWJ6X77Uic

The story-telling is elliptical, the plot minimal, and the dialogue fairly hard to follow – even with the good subtitles.  But all that’s beside the point – or rather the several true points – of this film, which are, to name just a few: the dazzling cinematography; the timing and pacing; and, as I put it last year, “the whimsical humor and run down dignity” of France in those days, and indeed of Jacques Tati himself, who moves through the variegated urban and industrial landscape with the grace of a dancer and the touch of a clown.  What’s more, as Tom Keogh puts in a review posted at the Famous Clowns website, “…Tati also employs his trademark techniques with sound and production design to achieve the indefinable, comic genius of his films: the rhythmic clacking of footsteps, the cartoon-panel distance of his camera frame from the heart of the action. (Why are funny things funnier when seen from a few extra feet away?)…  Then, of course, there’s the musical score by Alain Romans and Franck Barcellini, also whimsical and humorous, which functions as an almost constant counterpoint to – and indeed an often snarky commentary on – the main action of the film.

Well worth a viewing…

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Update:  Drat!  Some species of bachi-bouzouk took it down!  Still, available on Amazon for sale or rent (link).  Worth a few bucks?  I’d say so (but, then again, I would!).  Also, lots of short clips, etc, continuing up on You Tube (link).

The Lesson of the Skin Horse – and how it relates to notre dame

A while back mentioned what I consider to be the Lesson of the Skin Horse in a comment relating to Notre Dame, and I promised Mike I’d post something about it.  To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, just had to wait for it to come ’round again…

As I mentioned in my reply to Mike’s question, this passage from The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, was one of Billye’s favorite things, and, if memory serves, she read it sometime during the course of every RHS class she ever taught.

Here it is:

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understood all about it.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you’re made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become real.”

“Dose it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “when you’re real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” Said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you’re Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

*

As I mentioned in my first comment back then, it was André Malraux (I think! – having the deucedest of a time confirming this…) who said that, rather than a building, Notre Dame is a person.   I’d think that this is due to something very much like the process described above, with millions of people over an expanse of many centuries loving – indeed adoring, worshiping – Notre Dame. 

On a more personal note, my relationship with Notre Dame goes back to late September, or maybe early October, of 1958.  I was nine years old, and, along with my parents (of course!), had just arrived in Paris.  And visiting Notre Dame was pretty much the first thing we did in that vast and bewildering new city.

The exterior of the Notre Dame was, back then – like the rest of Paris in those days – black with soot, except for the parts which were higher or protruded a bit from the main structure; though more tactful people were calling the darker parts “charcoal” – one book from that period even refers to Paris as “a symphony in grey”.  I’d just come from the US of the 1950s, where everything was modern-new and squeaky-clean, and Disneyland was considered – at least among most of the kids I knew – to be about the coolest thing there ever was.  And now here was this building, this cathedral, which was supposed to be so beautiful, but it was all old and worn and crumbly and covered with black soot – so about as far from squeaky-clean as one might get. 

Was I put off by this?  Hardly! I was fascinated – curious to understand exactly what the deal was.

On the way in, to either side of the door we passed two lines of statues carved into the doorjamb.  They were all long and thin and seemed almost to hang there.  One of them was carrying his detached head in his hands, his neck just a stump.

Inside, there was less soot, though the stonework was still pretty dark and the stained glass windows glowed in muted colors since it was a cloudy-greyish autumn day outside.  The old dark wooden pews showed more than a few signs of wear.  The floor was laid out in a black and white checkerboard pattern – the white squares slightly scooped out, almost like shallow plates; the black stones smoothed out along the edges, having worn down at a different rate from the white.  And wherever there were stairs, the stone of the steps was scooped out in the centers from the passage of millions of human feet all up and down over the centuries.  How long, how many people walking over the floor and the steps inside Notre Dame, had it taken to result in such a state?

It’s still hard to summarize, into only one or two words, exactly what I experienced that day.  The word “history” comes to mind; also “reality” – both so far from the life I’d been leading up ’til then, and from Disneyland with all its contrived environments.  Notre Dame, and the rest of the city of Paris – and indeed the whole rest of France and of the other parts of  Europe I saw back then – made me question everything I believed at the time.  And later I was to write about “France, with all its run down dignity”, and of the fact that France, by and large, has this wonderful quality of looking/seeming “lived in”.

*

I’ve returned to Paris, and to Notre Dame, many times since – at first with my parents, then later on my own.  In fact, over the years, I’ve developed a certain long walk, which I always take on my first day, whenever I’m fortunate enough to find myself in Paris, to get myself grounded and centered in that place. And, at the end of that long walk, I always end up inside Notre Dame. 

At some point, perhaps in the kind of growing realization that comes with repeated exposure and contemplation, I began to feel as if she (so hard for me to call Notre Dame  an “it”!) was alive, that I was walking around, and often quietly sitting, inside the very beating heart of Paris.  And then, when I read that quote about Notre Dame being a person rather than a building, I thought “Yes! That’s it!  That’s it exactly!” 

More recent reflections have led me to suspect that this sense of Notre Dame being alive may also be a matter of Sacred Geometry.  Notre Dame was designed and constructed according to a set of mathematical proportions that are to be found everywhere in the universe – thus in all of existence, in all of life. (And thanks again to Pam Rodolph and Zoë Robinson for submitting the great quotation from Ouspensky on Notre Dame and the encoding of knowledge in the Gothic Cathedrals…) 

This may be a bit of an aside, but it does tie in somehow, even if only tangentially:  Another thing that’s always struck me is the way Notre Dame (and indeed all Gothic cathedrals and churches…) sounds – or rather, the way sounds reverberate inside those vast interior spaces.  This is probably because the proportions of the underlying Sacred Geometry are the exact same proportions upon which music is based.  Add to this the extremely “live” nature of any space built of stone and glass, and you’ve got something truly magical – the slightest sound sets the whole interior to vibrating.  

*

But I think the final word on Notre Dame must come from best-selling author Ken Follett, who discusses Notre Dame most poetically in the latest issue of Smithsonian, which article is in turn excerpted from a forthcoming book.  Though he skips over the question of whether Notre Dame is a building or a person, his descriptions and reflections are far more eloquent than anything I’ve been able to come up with so far – 

First money quote: 

We often catch our first glimpse of a cathedral from a distance. Our next reaction, as we come closer, is often confusion. It’s a bit like the first time you hear a Beethoven symphony. There are so many melodies, rhythms, instruments and harmonies that at first you can’t grasp how they are linked and interrelated. A cathedral, like a symphony, has a coherent plan; its windows and arches form rhythms, its decorations have themes and tell stories, but the whole thing is so rich that at first it overwhelms us.

When we step inside, this changes. Most people experience a sense of tranquility. The cool air, the ancient stones, the regular repetitions of the architecture, and the way the entire building seems to reach toward heaven, all work together to soothe the human soul.

Then, a bit later,  this second money quote: 

Our encounters with cathedrals are emotional. When we see them we are awestruck. When we walk around we are enraptured by their grace and light. When we sit quietly we are possessed by a sense of peace. And when one burns, we weep.

And finally, on the question of whether Notre Dame can be rebuilt within five years, as promised by French President Macron, Follett points out that:  

…French attachment to Notre-Dame is profound. Every road sign that tells you how far you are from Paris measures the distance to kilometer zero, a bronze star embedded in the pavement in front of Notre-Dame.

Besides, it is always unwise to underestimate the French. If anyone can do it, they can.

Read Follett’s article in full here; his forthcoming book, Notre Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals, will be available on Amazon, starting October 29, here.  And Follett knows whereof he speaks, having done extensive research into the subject of Gothic Cathedrals and their construction while working on his trilogy known as the Kingsbridge Series

 

(Photo credits: Jean Sadoul; Ernest Flammarion; Boudot-Lamotte – from Paris by Ernest Flammarion, 1952.)

The Miles Davis Sextet with Bob Dorough: Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)

In my continuing quest to share offbeat/creative music (and other stuff…) with the BB/Prospero community, here’s this:

(If there is any problem viewing / hearing this music, it can also be accessed by clicking this link.)

* Personnel:

Composition, Trumpet: Miles Davis;
Lyrics, Vocals, Piano: Bob Dorough;
Arrangement/Orchestration: Gil Evans;
Trombone: Frank Rehak;
Tenor saxophone: Wayne Shorter;
Bass: Paul Chambers;
Drums: Jimmy Cobb;
Bongos: Willie Bobo.

* Lyrics:

Merry Christmas
I hope you have a white one, but for me, it’s blue

Blue Christmas, that’s the way you see it when you’re feeling blue
Blue Xmas, when you’re blue at Christmastime
you see right through,
All the waste, all the sham, all the haste
and plain old bad taste

Sidewalk Santy Clauses are much, much, much too thin
They’re wearing fancy rented costumes, false beards and big fat phony grins
And nearly everybody’s standing round holding out their empty hand or tin cup
Gimme gimme gimme gimme, gimme gimme gimme
Fill my stocking up
All the way up
It’s a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy
Blue Christmas, all the paper, tinsel and the fal-de-ral
Blue Xmas, people trading gifts that matter not at all
What I call
Fal-de-ral
Bitter gall…….Fal-de-ral

Lots of hungry, homeless children in your own backyards
While you’re very, very busy addressing
Twenty zillion Christmas cards
Now, Yuletide is the season to receive and oh, to give and ahh, to share
But all you December do-gooders rush around and rant and rave and loudly blare
Merry Christmas
I hope yours is a bright one, but for me, it’s blue…

________

* Some online versions of the lyrics note the last two words as “it bleeds”; on recordings, these words are hard to make out – perhaps they were purposely obscured…

Prague Spring Semicentennial III: Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity: “Czechoslovakia”

“In June ’68 we went to Bratislava, two months after the ‘liberalization and two months before the ‘invasion’.

“‘August ’68, it was dark and it was late,  /  AN 24 was the first, but there were more…’

“(Jools)

“Three months later, in a New York hotel, Julie completed this song.”

— from the liner notes to the album Streetnoise, from which “Czechoslovakia” is taken.

[If there is any problem with viewing this video, you can also access it by clicking this link.]

Personnel:

Julie (“Jools”) Driscoll: vocals, composition, lyrics, guitar(?)*;

Brian (“Auge”) Auger: organ (Hammond B-3);

Clive (“Toli”) Thacker: drums;

David (“Lobs”) Ambrose: bass, guitar(?)*.

A Little History:

Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity had become pretty big in the UK by the time the 1969 double album  Streetnoise was released, and they probably seemed to many to be poised on the brink of international stardom – a sign of which being that their record company believed in them enough to allow the recording and release of a double album (something of a rarity even now, and even more so back then…).  Sadly, though, the band broke up shortly afterward, due to internal conflicts (interesting two-part article on how all that happened, here and here.)

NOTE: During that period of popularity, Julie Driscoll was often referred to in the UK as “the Face”, for obvious reasons, but in my discussion below I refer to her as “the Voice”, because that’s what she really was back then, and continues to be to this day…

FURTHER NOTE: To read a recent/retrospective review of Streetnoise, click here; to hear the album in its entirety, click here.

Comments:

“Czechoslovakia” is a composition in four sections – a kind of mini-suite lasting 6 minutes and 24 seconds (can we say, “Masterpiece of Compression”?) – but, especially since the sections are played continuously, it also comports very well with the tripartite structure to be found in much of Western Classical Music.  Another important factor is the relationship between the words and the music – how the text is set in melody and how both text and sung melody interact with the other instruments (one hesitates to use the word “accompaniment” here…).

The piece opens abruptly, jumping right into a groove.  And quite a groove it is – with steady propulsive sixteenth notes in the drums and an organ sound that I believe would be called “greasy” by aficionados of the Hammond B-3, all of which would be hardly out of place in a smokey little dive bar where said aficionados might gather to listen to that special form of music known as “Organ Jazz“.  Except for two things –

First, there’s the metric pattern: a Central European rhythm generally annotated as 3+3+2/8, derived from the folk music of the region and introduced to Western Classical Music by (as I recall) the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók .

Then there’s that jangly rhythm guitar – a sound foreign to Organ Jazz, but which would seem right at home in a venue featuring contemporary folk music – which reinforces both the steady sixteenth-note pulse in the drums and the 3+3+2/8 metrical pattern of the organ, hence bringing them together, while also providing a bright metallic texture, hence taking over the function normally performed by the ride cymbal in a Jazz context.

These various elements create an atmosphere of excitement, as if waking up, discovering new territory – the listener has to really pay attention to get the hang of what’s going on.  The contrast of the far from regular accents with the steady pulse also imply, to my mind at least, the first halting steps of a people just setting off on, or returning after far too long a time to, the path of liberty.

But this instrumental section is very brief, serving only to establish the groove.  Soon the Voice enters, high and keening (and check out the elaborate rhyme scheme – including all those internals!):

Many people I know with nowhere to go, you know they’re lonely.
But many people have died feeling hung up inside, but don’t think they’re phony.
Cuz they’re only trying to stop you from dying, locked behind your own bars –
Maybe you’ll see how good it would be to feel free…

Don’t close your eyes and put on your disguise – someone’s gonna bust you.
There’s things around bring you down, and they disgust you.
So recognize the hidden lies that surround you,
And maybe you’ll see how good it would be to feel free…

In classical tripartite structure, the first third of a piece is used to “set the stage”, so to speak.  And indeed, at around 2:08 (one third of the way through) in “Czechoslovakia”, the music begins to move away from its first material, into a brief codetta.  The Voice intones, in a kind of augmentation:

To feel free!
To feel free!

Then, just after that, the music comes to what can only be called a grinding halt.  What follows is silence, except for sustained low tones form the organ and spare but dissonant chords on the guitar.  The Voice sings, keening even more sharply, as if in tension-filled darkness:

August ’68: it was dark and it was late.
AN 24 was the first, but there were more –
Fighters in close formation,
Ready for the invasion…

(One can almost hear the burbling rattle of idling diesels in the hush of the night…)

At about 4:00 comes the golden section of the piece – in classical tripartite structure this usually marks a kind of turning point, often the re-introduction of the beginning material, sometimes transformed.  In “Czechoslovakia”, this is not only a turning point, but the point.  Over a complex but consonant arpeggiation in the guitar, the Voice re-enters, softer and gentler – somewhat different from, but still somewhat reminiscent of, the original material:

I remember going to a country where people were warned, and people were ready for changes…

Two explosive booms from the music, then electronic sounds that can only be called chaotic.  The Voice again, now crying out, almost screaming:

Iron tanks!  From everywhere!
Smash down everything that’s there!

What follows is silence, except for sparse but octave-rich (thus highly consonant) chords on the guitar – perhaps in a kind of resolution, or as close to a resolution as one can get in such a piece of music – and the Voice slowly intoning one word on a rising figure:

Czech — o — slo — vak — i — a…

Finally, in one last gesture of defiance, the drums play the opening motif from the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, used by the Allies during the Second World War to signify “Victory!” (the letter “V” in Morse code is dot-dot-dot-dash; during the War, the BBC would open all its broadcasts with this motif, played on the drums, much as it is here) over Hitler’s Germany and the other Axis powers.  It’s as if the music is reminding Brezhnev and the rest of the Communist leadership that, once upon a time, their governments – indeed, their entire movement – had been part of an alliance dedicated to the very freedom they now seemed so intent on crushing, and also more than strongly implying the statement “You’re Hitler now!”  There’s also an element here of “We’re coming for you!”; and well, as the old saying goes, the rest is history…

_____________

* For the album Streetnoise as a whole, Ms Driscoll is listed credited with “vocals, acoustic guitar”, and Mr Ambrose with “4- and 6- string electric bass, guitar”.  As to who is playing the guitar parts on this cut, I’ve drawn a blank in my research.  My best guess is that Ms Driscoll is playing the jangly rhythm guitar parts in the first section, and Mr Ambrose the more developed guitar parts in the second and third sections.  Said best guess is based on a few things:  First, there is a very clear bass presence on the first section, at the same time as the jangly rhythm guitar, implying two players, and the bass remains tacet after that – for the rest of the entire piece.  Second, although multitracking in recordings was available and practiced in the late Sixties, most studios back then were limited to only four tracks.  Third, the musicians here were all steeped in the Jazz tradition, which values interactive playing.  Put these three factors together and it’s more than likely that these musicians ended up doing as much as possible all at once, with multitracking only used occasionally.

Andrew Sullivan on the True Meaning of the Word “Conservatism”

America Desperately Needs a Healthy Conservatism

by Andrew Sullivan

In these fetid times, it’s easy to know what you’re against. And I’ve spent many diaries assailing the dueling Trump and “social justice” cults on the illiberal right and left these past several months. But what am I for?

That’s a harder question but a useful one to ask yourself from time to time. You don’t defeat something with nothing. So I thought I’d take a brief detour from the tribal abyss, and go back to some first principles. I remain a conservative, pretty much where I’ve always been, with the exception of foreign policy where I’ve seen the folly of interventionism in the wake of Iraq. By conservative, I do not mean Republican. To my mind, the Republican Party has become — and not just recently — a cancer on this particular strain of Western thought. To those who believe that this is a cop-out, or a version of the “all true conservatives” gambit, I offer a new book, which sure buoyed my spirits, and helped me regain my bearings. Reading it, for me, was like feeling an unexpectedly cool, dry breeze on a stiflingly humid day.

The book is called Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition, and it’s by arguably the most acute conservative thinker of his generation, Roger Scruton. It’s a slim, concise monograph, and it begins with the truth that conservatism is a branch of liberalism, and not its enemy. It is the branch that tries to conserve the liberal democratic state against the corrosive effects and flaws of liberalism itself (not to speak of leftism and reactionism, which seek to overthrow liberalism entirely). More to the point, it does not defend liberalism as a function of natural rights, or of human rights, or self-evident truths, but simply as the inheritance of a particular place in a particular sliver of human history: the Anglo-American world in the last two and a half centuries.

Conservatism defends the individual against the state as an evolving tradition born in the English common law from the 12th century onward, a tradition that came to be embedded in the American justice system. What distinguished the American Revolution, conservatives argue, was that it was rooted in a defense of the rights of Englishmen against a monarch’s whims, as much as a novus ordo seclorum. It was not only a liberal revolution, but also a conservative one, seeking to defend a preexisting state of affairs, and buttressing a new egalitarianism with deep conservative safeguards against majoritarianism, mob rule, and direct democracy. The alternative type of revolution — the one that took place in France — was based on a complete erasure of what had gone before, a rupture in time and culture and regime, and one that led, as all such ruptures must, to murderous tyranny. When all tradition and inherited institutions and norms are abolished, there is only raw power to occupy the vacuum.

Conservatism began then as a defense of America and a critique of France — which is the essence of Edmund Burke’s formative argument. He saw the advent of democracy as a challenge — which demanded acute attention as hierarchies collapsed, and society changed, in order to ensure that too much of value wasn’t thrown away. And so it emphasized the importance of a vibrant and autonomous civil society (independent of government), the centrality of federalism, local community, and voluntary association of the kind that Tocqueville marveled at and saw as the indispensable complement to the atomizing, destabilizing forces that America had also unleashed.

Conservatism’s defense of the free market and free trade was therefore never absolute. In fact, there’s more protectionism in conservatism’s past than many would like to admit. But these market mechanisms were nonetheless the least worst way to discern the value of things traded and sold, and were never supposed to be ends in themselves or to be advanced regardless of the impact on society. In fact, for conservatism, society is for no end and no purpose; it is valuable simply in itself, as the combination of traditions, landscapes, communities, and customs that define a nation, bind us together as citizens, and make us feel at home.

And yes, that feeling of being at home is nebulous. It is in many ways sub-rational. Ask ordinary people to describe it and they will often not be articulate. Sometimes, it manifests itself as bigotry, yes. Most of the time, it is about loss, and mourning it, while understanding that change is inevitable. Burke famously saw society not as a contract between individuals, but as a contract between generations: to pass on to the future the good and viable things we inherited from the past. This emphatically does not mean resistance to all change. In fact, it understands some change as critical to conservation. And perhaps that’s where American conservatism began to go wrong. The goal is not to stand athwart history and cry “Stop!”, as William F. Buckley put it. It’s to be part of the stream of history and say: slow it down a bit, will you?

In Scruton’s account, the list of conservative intellectuals is long and distinguished. The respective geniuses of Burke and Hume and Hegel are integral to its formation; they were succeeded by the Romantic era that urged a corrective to mass industrialization, and a hedge to the Enlightenment’s preference for theoretical reason over the practical wisdom that works, as Adam Smith saw it, as an invisible hand in guiding society. Tradition, conservatives believe, is a form of collective knowledge. It can contain wisdom that reason simply cannot grasp.

As a temperament, conservatives are prone to obey as passionately as liberals are prone to rebel. They prefer order to change, stability to upheaval, authority to anarchy. And so a conservative is likely to see, say, the flag as an object of veneration, the Constitution as something to be protected rather than altered, the nation as demanding a loyalty before all other claims, especially those of ideology, tribe, gender, or race. The conservative immediately saw why Fascism and Communism were evil; they were intent on obliterating settled ways of life, destroying the individual in favor of a collective, empowering the state so that it destroyed the civil society that made liberalism thrive. No conservative ever wants to purify anything. It’s the human mess that we love, with its intimations of how to improve it.

And so conservatism became the resistance to socialism, to government planning, and to the abuse of the English language so that it could be forced to reflect an ideology, rather than a lived reality. (In this sense, Scruton shrewdly notes, Orwell was a conservative.) It saw all too well how the good intentions of liberalism could lead to its unraveling. It abhors war as the ultimate change-maker and disrupter; it despises concepts of race or gender that eradicate the uniqueness of the individual; it defends high culture against philistinism and mediocrity; it cherishes norms. It values the particular over the general, prefers present laughter to utopian bliss, relishes humor in all its forms, defends art as an apolitical force, and respects religion as a separate avenue for the search for ultimate truth, and a critical component of the civil and moral society that enables government to be small and limited.

In today’s America, this conservatism is completely under siege. The left will increasingly tolerate nothing that gets in the way of what it calls “social justice,” which far too often reduces individuals to their racial or class or gender identities rather than their merits, or character, or talents. The conservative approach to a multicultural and multiracial society is to keep our focus on the individual and do what’s best to help every individual, regardless of their race, gender, or whatever, to be part of our shared liberal democratic inheritance. Conservatism is about enfolding the new into the old, sustaining a society’s coherence and cohesion, while being extremely tough on particular injustices against particular individuals, vigilant about corruption, and anguished when the criminal justice system loses legitimacy, because of embedded racism.

But conservatism is more deeply besieged by the Republican Party, its alleged harbor. If you consider the themes I’ve emphasized above, it becomes clearer that the GOP is not only not conservative, but actually dedicated to destroying that tradition. Republicans pursue the ideology of free markets and lower and lower taxation, regardless of its brutal assault on fiscal solvency, human dignity, social cohesion, and community life. They have nominated and protected a president who assaults the norms that conservatives revere, has contempt for existing institutions and sees the rule of law as a means to advance his own interests, rather than that of the society as a whole.

This is a man and a party that has such disdain for conserving anything that it is actively despoiling our landscape, enabling a climate catastrophe. It is a party that has generated crippling and everlasting debt — even in good economic times — in a way that makes a mockery of any compact between generations. It is a party that actively endorses cruelty as a policy tool, deploys fear as its prime political weapon, and insists that the opposite party has no legitimate right to govern at all. It is the party of torture, the absolute nemesis of the liberal inheritance, the party of corruption, propaganda, vote suppression, and barely masked bigotry.

I despise it because I am a conservative. I don’t believe that conservatism can be revived on the right (it has been thankfully sustained, by default, by the Democrats in recent decades) until this hateful philistine would-be despot and his know-nothing cult is gone. And by revived, I do not mean a return to neoconservatism abroad or supply side crack-pottery at home. The 1980s and 1990s are over. I mean a conservatism that can tackle soaring social and economic inequality as a way to save capitalism, restore the financial sector as an aid to free markets and not their corrupting parasite, a conservatism that will end our unending wars, rid the criminal justice system of its racial blind spots, defend liberal education and high culture against the barbarians of postmodernism and the well-intentioned toxins of affirmative action, pay down the debt, reform the corruption of religious faith, protect our physical landscape, invest in non-carbon energy, and begin at the local level to rebuild community and the spirit of American civil association.

I also believe we need to slow the pace of demographic and cultural change. It is happening too fast, even for America, to sustain our society’s coherence and cohesion. The elite indifference to mass immigration — especially the illegal kind — is an ugly pact between Republican elites, eager for cheap, exploitable labor, and Democratic elites, who cynically encourage it because they think it will give them a reliable voting bloc. When the foreign-born population is at a proportion last seen in 1910, and as the raw numbers are higher than ever before, it is not inherently racist to seek to slow the pace to integrate the newcomers better, to defuse racial conflict and resentment. A nation has to mean something; to survive, it needs a conservative weaving of past, present, and future, as Burke saw it. And you cannot do that if you see this country as a blight on the face of the earth and an instrument of eternal oppression; or if you replace a healthy, self-critical patriotism with an ugly, racist nationalism that aims to restore the very worst of this country’s past, rather than preserve its extraordinary and near-unique achievements.

I know there’s no place for this in our current political climate. And that is why I believe this country is in as grave a crisis as any since the 1850s. Without a healthy conservatism, liberalism will degenerate. Without liberalism, conservatism has no inheritance to defend. And both rich veins in Western moderation are now under assault from the ideological left and the authoritarian right. We have to brave this pincer attack, conservatives and liberals together, or we will die together.

— from his diary entry of September 14, 2018 for New York Magazine .

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My Own Thoughts and Observations

Rather than out of any agreement with Mr Sullivan (though there’s much here with which to agree…) or out of any difference of opinion (though there’s much here with which at least to quibble…), I’m posting this piece because it outlines a clear and concise definition of the what the word “conservative” really means – especially its origins and a brief outline of its history – and why so many today who claim to be “conservatives” are anything but.

Though it’s hardly an original thought on my part (as Sullivan mentions, Orwell was saying much the same thing over seventy years ago…), I’ve long felt that the quality of our social/political discourse has been horribly diminished due to the misuse of many words which originally had, and probably still should have, at least reasonably clear definitions.  Usage, to be sure,  has a very strong influence on meaning in the realm of vocabulary, but when it’s advertisers and politicians who are doing the using, and doing it in such a manner as to shift the meanings of words around every which way – always so as to suit their own often questionable ends – that’s another matter altogether.  It seems to me that, in recent years, the terms of the discourse have become so obscure, so garbled, that true conversation has become as difficult as chopping one’s way through a jungle swamp.

Perhaps the most radical thing anyone can do right now is to try to re-seize, to recapture, and indeed to re-establish, the original clear meanings of the basic terms of social/political discourse.  In the above piece, Sullivan strikes a mighty blow for that cause.

In Memoriam Aretha Franklin: “A Bridge Over Troubled Water”

I remember very well how much Thane loved the original version of this song.  In memory of the great Aretha Franklin, here is one of her many readings of it:

… recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1971.  I’d originally wanted to post the “studio” recording – released as a single in 1971 and later anthologized on the album Aretha’s Greatest Hits – since that single is about as close to perfect as a piece of music can get, and the posted audio on YouTube is superb.  But the three YouTube posts of that “studio” single recording come up as “unavailable” when clicked here for some reason (hear it here).  Still, this concert recording is also excellent, and captures some of the spontaneous and improvisatory nature of Aretha’s approach to music.

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My own introduction to Aretha’s music came in 1967, with her first big hit, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”.  In an age of everyday originality in popular music, that song managed to be quite different from anything I’d heard before, and yet to contain, and relate back to, all of it.  And the music, rather than coming off as experimental and probing, seemed to have sprung fully-formed from somewhere beyond my ken.  As indeed it had – Aretha had enjoyed a huge career in Gospel Music , and had received a thorough education in just about all other forms of music, too (for instance check out her many recorded versions of Puccini‘s “Nessun Dorma” here).

The full story of the one time I heard Aretha perform live is a bit involved to get into here, but suffice to say that she shared the stage with, among others, Sarah Vaughan, and that the interaction between these two divas, each a master (mistress?) in her musical field, gave new meaning to the term “vocal pyrotechnics”.  In certain circles, in a different context, such an interplay might have been called a “cutting contest“, but in this case – given the mutual respect and admiration these two singers had for each other, and the vast differences in their styles – it was much more of a “mutual inspiration society”.

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In Aretha, the holiness of the sacred and the secular came together, in a way that could be only ordered by the Lord. Some say that even as the world spins, there is a certain tune to the world’s orbit. Aretha tapped into that tune, and taught us its rhythm.

– Rev. Dr. William Barber, speaking at Aretha’s funeral, as per NPR.

Prague Spring Semicentennial II: Karel Husa: “Music for Prague 1968”

Among many other fiftieth anniversaries, this year marks that of the Prague Spring. Various starting dates have been proposed for this remarkable series of events, this attempt to create, and show the world, a “Socialism With a Human Face“. Some say January of 1968, when Alexander Dubček assumed power in Czechoslovakia; some say the following March, when he managed to lift state censorship. But everyone knows when it all came to an end: a few months later, on the night of August 20-21, when the tanks rolled in .

Czech-born American composer Karel Husa followed the unfolding of these brutal events on the BBC from his home in (I believe) Ithaca New York, where he was a professor at Cornell University.  His subsequent anger and dismay inspired him to  compose his masterful Music for Prague, 1968, performed here by the Wheaton College Symphonic Band, conducted by Dr. Timothy Yontz (Director of Music Education):

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I chose this version to post, out of the several currently available on YouTube, for a number of reasons:

For one thing, Karel Husa wrote a statement about this piece, a kind of “liner notes”, which he directed be read before each performance.  This is the only performance I could find that managed to follow this direction.

Further, these young students are – for the most part, possibly all – Evangelical Christians, so have at least some idea of the Sacred (Wheaton College being “The Harvard of the Evangelicals”, as noted by Michael Gerson in the Atlantic article posted below).  They therefor approach Music for Prague 1968 with all the reverence it deserves, rather than merely as good music – however good it is in a purely musical sense (and I, for one, think it is very good…).  Music for Prague 1968 is, after all, something of a sacred piece, however well it also functions as a political statement and/or as music in the abstract.

Also, although Husa originally wrote this piece for a somewhat larger ensemble, with much fatter bass line that includes a contrabassoon and a bass saxophone, the smaller ensemble here sounds great – very clear and bright, all the myriad and various parts very well-defined.  Plus, the actual recorded sound hovers somewhere between very good and excellent.

Beyond all that, and certainly most important, the playing here is technically outstanding – with everybody playing in tune, making their entrances at all the right moments, the ensemble sections melding  perfectly, solos limpid and distinct.  Which is really quite an accomplishment; anyone who thinks this kind of music is easy to play should think again – and more than once!

Finally, this is one of the best directed and shot music videos I’ve ever seen.  The musicians are on risers, so are all clearly visible.  The camerawork, from multiple viewpoints, shifts constantly, but scrupulously avoids drawing attention to itself, always cutting to just the right close-up on just the right musician as he or she solos, then cutting back out to show a view of the whole band.  And the musicians themselves are a joy to watch: dedicated, focused, beautiful.

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Music for Prague 1968 is structured as a  piece in four movements (approximate starting points in parentheses):

  1. Introduction and Fanfare (2:03)
  2. Aria (8:52)
  3. Interlude (13:38)
  4. Toccata and Chorale (17:10)

(Note that, although there are pauses following the first and second movements, the third and fourth movements are played continuously.)

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Full text of Karel Husa’s statement, which he asked be read before each performance of this piece:

“Three main ideas bind the composition together:

“The first and most important is an old Hussite war song from the 15th century, named ‘Ye Warriors of God and His Law’.  It is a symbol of resistance and hope for hundreds of years, whenever fate lay heavy on the Czech nation. It has been utilized by many Czech composers, including Smetana in his piece, My Country [Ma Vlast – usually translated as My Homeland]. The beginning of this religious song is announced very softly in the first movement by the timpani and concludes in a strong unison in the Chorale. The song is never heard in its entirety.

“The second idea is the sound of bells throughout.  Prague, named also the City of Hundreds of Towers, has used its magnificently sounding church bells as calls of distress as well as of victory.

“The last idea is a motif of three chords, first appearing very softly under the piccolo solo at the beginning of the piece, in the flutes, the clarinets, and the horns. Later it reappears at extremely strong dynamic levels, for example in the middle of the Aria.

“Different techniques of composing as well as orchestrating have been used in Music for Prague [1968], and some new sounds explored, such as the percussion section in the ‘Interlude’ and the ending of the work.

“Much symbolism also appears: in addition to the distress calls in the first movement, the unbroken hope of the Hussite song, sound of bells, or the tragedy that you hear in the Aria, there is also the bird call at the beginning sounded in the piccolo, symbol of the liberty which the city of Prague has seen only for moments during its thousand years of existence.”

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Some further notes on the life of Karel Husa (and on Music for Prague 1968), by Steven Stucky, Consulting Composer (2000-2009) for New Music for the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

“[By the early Fifties,] Karel Husa was … suffering actual physical exile, unable to return home from his studies in France because he was deemed insufficiently supportive of the new Communist regime in Prague [the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948 via coup d’état, ending a brief period of multi-party democracy, which had begun in 1945, just after the end of the Second World War]. The year … 1951, saw Husa also involved with national materials, in his Evocations of Slovakia. Yet his most important and most celebrated work, in its own way as devotedly Czech, was to come almost two decades later, with the composer still in exile but now living in the United States: Music for Prague 1968, which received its premiere in Washington, DC, by the Ithaca College Concert Band in January 1969. The orchestral version followed just a year later, first performed under Husa’s own baton by the Munich Philharmonic in January 1970. Having endured the Communist takeover in the 1940s, Husa watched again in dismay as the Prague Spring of 1968, led by the forward-thinking Dubc?ek [sic] government, was crushed by Soviet tanks, the country occupied, the tantalizing glimpses of freedom snuffed out. Spurred by anger and frustration, Husa produced a powerful four-movement work that became a kind of instant classic, enjoying more than 7,000 performances to date.”

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A little more on the hymn, or war song, from which Husa quotes so extensively in Music for Prague 1968:

The subject of the Hussites is far too long and complex to get into here, in a post that I’m trying to keep as brief as possible.  Suffice to say that they were early Christian reformers, predating the actual Protestant Reformation by close to a century.  The name derives from that of the founder/inspiration of the movement, Jan Hus.  The hymn or war song quoted in Music for Prague 1968, “Ye Warriors of God and His Law”, was sung by soldiers of the Hussite armies during the Hussite Wars, and was said to strike terror into the hearts of all opposing forces.

In Music for Prague 1968, Husa quotes mostly from the first few phrases, the lyrics of which go (in English): “Ye warriors of God and his law, / Pray to God and have faith in Him; / That always with him you will be victorious,” – particularly at the conclusion of the piece, very loudly and forcefully – sending, to those who had just crushed the Prague Spring, a message of defiance that all Czechs, and anyone who does just a little historical digging, will understand.

For more information on “Ye warriors of God and His law”, including complete lyrics in English, click here.  For a performance by men’s chorus, click here.

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And did this music, especially the fortissimo iteration of the first part of “Ye Warriors of God and His Law”, strike actual terror into the hearts of the forces who had just terminated, with such extreme prejudice, all the dreams and hopes of the Prague Spring?  It should have, and would have – if they’d understood exactly with whom they were messing…

Prague Spring Semicentennial I: “A cold-war anniversary that still warms the heart”

From the Christian Science Monitor :

A cold-war anniversary that still warms the heart

Fifty years after Moscow ended the Prague Spring by force, the world continues to benefit from the lesson of truth-telling that was spawned by that historic event.

August 15, 2018

In quiet ceremonies next week, the people in the Czech capital of Prague will commemorate the 50th anniversary of an event that still reverberates across much of Europe. On the night of Aug. 20, 1968, the tanks and troops of the Soviet empire rolled into the city to end what was called the Prague Spring.

In the months before the Moscow-led invasion, the head of then-Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubček, had reversed some basic elements of Soviet ideology by reducing state control of industry and embracing the dignity of individuals in choosing their own form of government.

He had exposed the big lie of communism – namely that fear and domination were necessary to further a cause guided solely by a self-selected elite.

Dubček was deposed by the Kremlin and communist rule was reinstated in Czechoslovakia. But the Soviet claim to historical supremacy was never the same. A bubble was popped. Moscow’s exercise of physical power in Prague, based on the Marxist notion of material values, ended up spawning a movement that relied on truth-telling, not guns or violent protests, as the real power.

The movement was led by a Czech playwright and dissident, Václav Havel. His greatest essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” asked people to “live in truth,” using daily small acts to expose the fabrications of authoritarian rulers that force people to “live a lie.”

Consciousness, not material conditions, controls one’s being and freedom, he said. And hope “is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

By 1977, the movement led to a human rights organization known as Charter 77. It helped dissidents behind the Iron Curtain speak out about universal ideals and reveal the kind of falsehoods and fears that prop up dictatorships. By 1991, the Soviet empire had collapsed from within, largely without violence in its final fall. Mr. Havel then became the elected president of his fully independent and democratic nation (which later split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic).

The Prague Spring is just one important event of the cold war. Yet its 50-year legacy in truth-telling has carried over into many countries today that are battling the mass disinformation campaign of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

President Putin’s ideology of ethnic nationalism and heroic authoritarianism is not communism. Yet it, too, relies on suppressing dissent and a controlled media while trying to undermine democracy in other countries, especially near Russia’s borders.

Since 2014, the biggest target of Russian propaganda has been Ukraine because it had liberated itself from Putin’s influence in the so-called Maidan Revolution and in its drive to eventually join the European Union. While Russia later took the Crimean Peninsula by force and still supports armed rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, it uses social media and other information outlets to bombard Ukrainians with fake news or half-truths that imply the country is run by fascists or that the West is the enemy.

This has led to many Ukrainians organizing themselves to learn how to fact-check news stories. The late Swedish researcher Hans Rosling calls this “factfulness,” or learning to discern what qualifies as real and achieve what he termed “understanding as a source of mental peace.”

Ukraine’s leading fact-checking group is a project known as StopFake, started by journalists and others to counter fake news. It has nearly 200,000 followers on social media and runs programs on Ukrainian television.

With its success, it has begun to provide similar fact-checking in other countries, including Russia, that are the brunt of Kremlin propaganda. StopFake relies heavily on donations from abroad as well as local volunteers. One donor in particular stands out: the Czech Republic. Fifty years on, the events that started with the Prague Spring keep echoing into the future.

  • For more on the Prague Spring, click here; for more on Alexander Dubček, click here; for more on the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, click here; for more on Vaclav Havel, click here; for more on Charter 77, click here; for more on the Maidan Revolution, click here; for more on Hans Rosling, click here; the Stopfake website can be accessed here.

The Continuing Adventures of Jordan and Joe

Jordan Peterson in conversation with Joe Rogan (again!):

– a process that Peterson has described (elsewhere, of course!) as “like being interviewed by a vacuum cleaner”.

  • Some interesting bits/highlights:

Starting around 58:00 Peterson addresses the fact that his goal was to come up with an approach or approaches that would work even under the worst of circumstances.  Highly commendable, in my book, since so many current therapies and self-help regimes leave one thinking something along the lines of: “That’s all very fine and well, but what about somebody who’s got a real problem?”

Shortly after that, from about 1:01 through 1:08, there follows one of the best discussions I’ve ever heard of the reasons/justifications for what, in the Fourth Way, we call Fly Efforts.  And who’d’ve thought such a small concept would have such a huge effect on the popular psyche?  Maybe the World is just ready for such things – they have been kind of floating around almost forever, and maybe time has come for them to move more to the foreground.  After all, although the image/term “Fly Efforts” is original to Gurdjieff, the concept is hardly unique to the Fourth Way, and is probably universal to wisdom systems, both esoteric and everyday.  For example: in mainstream US culture, they’re called “Baby Steps“; in Twelve Step Programs, participants are enjoined to “…take things one day at a time”; in Japan the related term is “kai-zen”

Starting around 2:05 there is quite a long in depth discussion of the infamous Vice interview – with which, it turns out, Peterson is very far from pleased.  As noted in my comment on that interview (both posted below), it seemed to me that that interview went quite well, with Jay Caspian Kang asking very pointed and difficult questions, and Peterson fielding them admirably.   But Peterson seems to see things very differently.  For more of his reactions to the Vice interview, click here; for some further thoughts on the same subject – from Rogan, along with Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying – click here.

  • Also gleaned from this interview:

Peterson has been tapped to write the introduction to the upcoming fiftieth anniversary edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn‘s The Gulag Archipelago.

Further, included in the discussion of the Vice interview is Peterson’s admission of his problem with anger.  It was a great relief to me to hear him admit he’s at least aware of, and trying to address, this aspect of himself, which is one of several big problems I have with him; but more on all that later, if I can continue to develop and articulate a critical appreciation of this remarkable phenomenon…

Andrew Sullivan on Cruelty

 

Some good – and provocative – thoughts on the current “cool to be cruel” moment:

 

Never Underestimate the Lure of Cruelty

The first chapter in Judith Shklar’s 1984 book, Ordinary Vices, has an arresting title: “Putting Cruelty First.” What Shklar was exploring was whether a liberal society, properly understood, can coexist with institutional and personal cruelty, or whether it truly is a corrosive acid to a democratic society. I don’t mean individual acts of cruelty. They, alas, will always be with us. I mean a culture increasingly comfortable with it, and a government capable of enabling it. I picked the book up again the other day after reading about the continuing horror of the migrant children being separated from their parents in the asylum process. Hundreds are still cut off from their families. Some may never see their parents again. We now know something else:

A Trump administration official said Tuesday he warned for months about the potential for harm to migrant children if they were separated from their parents before the administration launched its “zero tolerance” border policy earlier this year.

“There is no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child,” Commander Jonathan White, a Health and Human Services official who led the agency’s family reunification efforts, told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

So this was a premeditated, conscious attempt to hurt vulnerable children in order to deter future would-be asylum seekers who might bring their kids with them. It was an instrumental cruelty in which children were not seen as subjective beings to be protected but as objects to be used. It wasn’t a policy designed to be hidden, but to be broadcast. Yes, you can see how the previous system perversely incentivized the smuggling of children, and we needed to do something. But when a solution to that problem is the institutionalizing of cruelty against the helpless, a liberal society simply has to say no.

Many evils and vices exist, some arguably worse than cruelty. It is not included in the deadly sins, for example. But it is a vice particularly dangerous for any sort of liberal democracy. Its incompatibility with the liberal idea is rooted, quite simply, in the immense inequality that cruelty invariably entails — between, say, an armed adult agent of the law and a helpless, alien, exhausted child. It’s the vast imbalance that turns mere force into unforgivable vice, which is why we tend to associate cruelty with tyranny. Cruelty also violates any sense of human dignity and empathy. It tears at our connective, human tissue. And it is almost always imposed out of cowardice rooted in some kind of fear. Shklar puts it this way: “No child can deserve brutality. Punishment is justifiably inflicted in the service of retribution, education or public security; but if it goes away from, or beyond, these ends, we call it ‘cruel and unusual’ and forbid its use.”

Except, of course, we haven’t. America was founded in cruelty. Slavery was inextricable from it — not just because of the violence and humiliation, but because of the continuing psychological torment of being treated as captive subhuman, to be nakedly subject to brute power and violence. All forms of torture likewise represent a cruelty of the most unbalanced and cowardly type, because of the vast power differential between the torturer and his victim. Mistreatment of animals fits into the same category, something that Montaigne, in his famous essay on the subject, found particularly intolerable. He insisted, way ahead of his time, that “there is, nevertheless, a certain respect, a general duty of humanity, not only to beasts that have life and sense, but even to trees and plants.” Cruelty, in this view, is abuse of power at its most extreme. Which is why, in so many ways, our wanton destruction of this planet’s ecosystem and the subsequent suffering of so many other species may be the cruelest act of humankind in our time.

Wherever this dark strain in us comes from, it should not, it seems to me, be underestimated, or allowed to slide. We have progressed immensely over the centuries on this question, but it is always a temptation. Small cruelties easily lead to larger ones. And larger ones require, for most people, the dehumanization of the victims, which makes cruelty more tolerable and therefore more likely. It spreads, this stuff, which is why we have slowly constructed a liberal civilization over the last few centuries in which this most ordinary and yet most pernicious of the vices has been kept under control. Letting it slip, allowing it to fester, becoming numb to it: this is the danger we face in this authoritarian moment. We simply cannot let these children down. We simply cannot look away until everyone is accounted for.

 

– From Sullivan’s latest column in New York Magazine…

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