[ by Charles Cameron – extended analytic game on Israeli-Palestinian conflict — continuing ]
Meditation part 1 / Move 10
What to say? There are two sides to the game, darkness and light, and the light encompasses the darkness, and the darkness threatens the light.
I promised a meditation on the state of the game, and it comes in the form of two moves: Move 10: Piano Lesson, by Haim Watzman, addresses the light, and my sense that the game is as much a gift to me as a gift from me to you, while Move 11: Auschwitz and Theodor Adorno raises the darkest question of all, whether art can still function in situations as terrible as those where humans hate to the fullest extent of their powers.
Move 10: Piano Lesson, by Haim Watzman
The content of this move is Haim Watzman‘s story Piano Lesson which comes from his Necessary Stories series, on the South Jerusalem blog he shares with my friend and colleague Gershom Gorenberg. It concerns young Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of the rabbinic scholar Moses Mendelssohn, composer – and the man who revived Bach‘s St Matthew Passion after it had lapsed into obscurity for a century or so.
With Wagner, in complete refutation of the latter’s opinions about Judaism and musicianship – Watzman’s story opens with the words:
I am impressed. You play like a Jew, Felix. What I mean by that is that you have Johann Sebastian Bach in your heart as well as in your fingertips…
contains this more detailed assertion:
This piece you have played so beautifully for me this morning, the Partita No. 5 in G Major, can only be played properly, in our falscherleuchtung age, this time of false enlightenment, by a person of Jewish sensibility. Please do not interrupt me. At your age you are to listen to your elders first. After you listen you may disagree, you may do whatever you want. But first you must listen.
Sebastian Bach was a devout Lutheran, true, but he wrote Jewish music. I do not say this simply to embellish the repute of my ancestral people. The nation Israel needs no trills. I say this after long years of study and performance of Bach’s music, during which I have come to know this remarkable man. Better, I hazard to say, than his own sons did.
What is Jewish about the music? To see that, you have to know music. Which, of course you know. You also have to know what Judaism is. Which, thanks to my niece, you do not. This is scandalous. The grandson of the great Moses Mendelssohn knows nothing of his own people’s special relationship with God.
and closes with:
Remind me to show you the “St. Matthew Passion.” It is such wonderfully Jewish music!
I read this story a day or two after completing moves 8 (Wagner) and 9 (Golgotha) and posting the game thus far to Zenpundit, and was astonished and delighted to find that a mind and heart in Jerusalem – friend of a friend – was touching on the same territory: the relationship of music, especially that of Bach, and Judaism.
But not only does Watzman deftly refute Wagner’s position on Judaism and music as presented in move 8, he also specifically discusses the contrapuntal aspect in both music and religious understanding, and the power of dissonance at times to work towards resolution.
This he accomplishes through a discussion of the two “laws” of Judaism, and the complexities of their musical relationship with one another:
I kept working on the piece and the morning prior to the performance I had my epiphany. Here, let me play it for you.
So where is the stress? Yes, here. And here too. At the end of the melodic line. And at the end of the harmonic progression. Which do not coincide.
You see, the underlying harmonics here are the Torah, the Written Law. And the melody playing above it is the Oral Law. The melody would be hollow, meaningless without the underlying harmony, and the underlying harmony would be incomplete and useless without the melody above it.
The simple-minded might think that the two laws should coincide. What good is a God if his message is not clear?
Yet it is the lack of clarity, the occasional dissonance, the unsynchronized phrases that move us forward, that propel us toward the final resolution. And that final tonic itself sends us off into new melodic and harmonic firmaments, from which we again return to our G major chord. One idea begins before the previous idea has been completed. As when you interrupt your Great Aunt Sara.
There is thus an uncanny melodic line here, running from Said through Bach, Gould, Wagner, to Watzman.
Whatever I am doing here – and it feels at times quite lonely, I am not sure how many people will find this game an easy work to follow – in reading Watzman’s tale of Felix Mendelssohn I felt again my kinship with what has been termed the “invisible cloud of witnesses”…
Indeed, my sense of the gracious synchronicity involved in my stumbling across this particular story of Watzman’s at this particular time can only deepen as Watzman concludes his story – and I my move – with this rendition of the Bach Partita No. 5 in G major BWV 829, played by one Glenn Gould…
Meditation part 2 / Move 11
If the first part of this meditation relates to the game <as a whole, and to the fabric of grace of which, it seems, the universe as a whole is woven, this second part addresses the sense — as bitterly merciless to those who suffer it as grace is merciful to those who receive it — that the fabric of grace is itself picked at and torn by humans, in danger at any point (and perhaps in this moment more than most) of unravelling.
In my personal perspective, I should no more ignore the threat than ignore the grace — for love extends itself in compassion to the one, even as it extends in gratitude to the other.
Move 11: Auschwitz and Theodor Adorno
Theodor Adorno famously said: “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
Think of this move as a sort of metaphysical black hole, an anti-game.
To expand on this idea a little: Adorno was a musical advisor to Thomas Mann while Mann was writing his novel Doctor Faustus — a copy of which he inscribed to his friend Hermann Hesse with the words “To Hermann Hesse, this glass bead game with black beads, from his friend Thomas Mann, Pacific Palisades, January 15, 1948” – featuring a composer named Adrian Leverkuhn, whose intention in his final work was to retract — cancel, annul — Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony, and in particular its Ode to Joy with his own oratorio, The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus.
“I find,” he said, “that it is not to be.”
“What, Adrian, is not to be?”
“The good and the noble, what we call the human, although it is good, and noble. What human beings have fought for and stormed citadels, what the ecstatics exultantly announced — that is not to be. It will be taken back. I will take it back.”
“I don’t quite understand, dear man. What will you take back?”
“The Ninth Symphony,” he replied.
Herbert Marcuse — another modernist philosopher of the left — is quite clear on the power of this Faustian attempt, which he approves as liberating us from “illusion” and indeed “making us see the things which we do not see or are not allowed to see, speak and hear a language which we do not hear and do not speak and are not allowed to hear and to speak”:
The present situation of art is, in my view, perhaps most clearly expressed in Thomas Mann’s demand that one must revoke the Ninth Symphony. One must revoke the Ninth Symphony not only because it is wrong and false (we cannot and should not sing an ode to joy, not even as promise), but also because it is there and is true in its own right. It stands in our universe as the justification of that ‘illusion’ which is no longer justifiable.
To Wagner, because the mythology of blood and race which he promulgated so stirred one Adolf Hitler that the latter carried out the Shoah, in face of which Adorno finds poetry – hence Orpheus and the muses — speechless.
To Golgotha, because Christ is banished and beaten from the city, Jerusalem, whose name is The Abode of Peace — because there is no more despairing cry than his cry at Golgotha: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” — because the Descent of Mercy in human form is then brutally executed as a common criminal – because the very veil that protects the holy of holies in the JerusalemTemple is then torn asunder, as his body is broken – because all this marks the darkest moment in the Christian narrative – and because such desolation, felt by the Marys gathered at the foot of the cross, is nowhere so closely mapped in the history of the arts as by the silence of poetry and the arts before atrocity.
And to Watzman, because despite the Shoah — the Golgotha of my civilization and Hesse’s and Bach’s — and despite Adorno, there is poetry in his voice — an Israeli voice, speaking after Auschwitz, in an Israeli State, in Jerusalem.
As I was setting out the ground-rules for this game, my friend Lexington Green made what I’d like to call “the essential objection”. He wrote:
Pals send their teenagers to be suicide bombers. That is beyond dissonant. There is no symphony where one group of musicians is committed to a relentless campaign of murder and terror. Said was using this as one more way of playing make-believe, and claiming moral equivalence. In other words, it was a sophisticated move in an elaborate scheme to help disarm his opponents so his fellow Palestinians could kill them.
There is another point of view, which sees the Israelis enforcing a mutant form of apartheid with attendant horrors on an occupied population – indeed, I have Israeli friends who hold some version of this view — but Lex’s point is crucial:
There is no symphony where one group of musicians is committed to a relentless campaign of murder and terror.
This cuts to the heart of the work, as it cuts to the heart of our world. It is, in essence, the issue of theodicy, and which Lex’s permission I am addressing it in this meditation, within the work itself …
My linking of the cry of Golgotha –“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” – with the cry of Adorno – “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric” – is my presentation of the most godforsaken of despair of which we are humanly capable, and I present it within that opposite extremity of human possibility represented by Bach’s motto which I invoked earlier, Soli Deo Gloria.
It is precisely in the context of free will that both possibilities arise, and theodicy becomes an issue. Here, then, is the relationship of darkness to light as described by St John in the Prologue to his gospel:
the light shines in the dark, darkness does not blot it out.
I can say no fairer than that.
Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia tells the story of a Manhattan psychiatrist who lived immediately opposite the Twin Towers, and whose otherwise rich interior musical life went blank for months after he witnessed the 9-11 attacks:
My internal life was dominated by a dense and silent pall, as if an entire mode of existence were in an airless vacuum. Music, even the usual internal listening of especially beloved works, had been muted…
“Music”, the psychiatrist said, “finally returned as a part of life for and in me” after an absence of several months. The first music to return was Bach‘s Goldberg Variations.
Again, I must admit it was by no skill of mine but some grace of god or muse that I stumbled on Sacks’ book today, while searching my cramped and overflowing shelves for something else entirely.
There are, it seems true, periods of silence in the arts, while we absorb horrors of our human doing.
There is also a return from those horrors to the arts — even Marcuse admits this — and as forgiveness, mercy and compassion alike claim, to that great possibility, “a happy issue out of all our afflictions”.
Or so the mystics tell the realists — and time grinds all to dust.
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