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The Said Symphony: Meditation / moves 10 and 11

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

[ 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


Move content:

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.

Links claimed:

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


Move content:
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.

Links claimed:

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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Barnett on Wikistrat’s Grand Strategy Competition and…well…Grand Strategy

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

From Thomas P.M. Barnett and Wikistrat:

Grand Strategic Competition Update (Week 2)

…As head judge, I assign points to teams based on their activity throughout the week.  In this second week, each team generated those two trajectories to the tune of about 10,000 words each, or close to 300,000 words across all the teams.  Naturally, a ton of interesting nuggets emerged, so here’s my hit list of provocative ideas.

1) US turns back toward Western Hemisphere as part of reduced global footprint, need to deal with drug/crime nexus, and desire to balance growing Chinese influence across region (BRAZIL1/Institute of World Politics 2)

Every new US president hits the ground running with the promise to pay more attention to the Western Hemisphere – and then promptly forgets the entire idea.  So far, Barack Obama has held to form, and yet the dynamics cited here make for a compelling argument.  A US that pulls back from the world and gets it own house in order must certainly look southward for some of its solutions – particularly on the disastrous drug war.  Brazil, as the IWP2 team points out, is the key dynamo of the region, so either the US recognizes that and accommodates Brazil’s ambitions, or it may find itself the odd man out throughout South America

Time’s Battleland: Future grand strategists: Russia will someday be forced to outsource its security

Hailing again from Wikistrat‘s International Grand Strategy Competition (30 teams of grad students/interns from elite universities and think tanks around the world), where I serve as head judge (and I get paid), I wanted to share the decidedly provocative vision of Russia’s long-term future security paradigm as crafted by the New York University team (find their national trajectory here). A certain segment of the US national security establishment got all jacked by Russia’s short war with tiny Georgia in August 2008, seeing in that raw display of power a “resurging” military superpower. NYU begs to differ…

Shades of Chet Richards and Steven Pressfield.

Mini-Reviews: Liddell-Hart and Keeley

Saturday, June 25th, 2011


The German Generals Talk by BH Liddell-Hart

War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley

The German Generals Talk

A must-read book for those interested in strategy, the history of the Third Reich or the military history of WWII. That said, The German Generals Talk as a text must be treated very cautiously due to the author’s lack of objectivity, the disadvantage of his interview subjects at the time of their captivity and Liddell-Hart’s well documented efforts to use his interview subjects for self-promotional purposes.  Nevertheless, the commentaries by major Wehrmacht generals and field marshals, especially Gerd von Rundstedt, Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, Hasso von Maneuffel, Günther Blumentritt and Heinz Guderian, are informative and at times, provocative. Liddell-Hart’s critiques of German military campaigns are often insightful, usually colorful, frequently sycophantic, but usually to the point – though they often used as a foil for advancing Liddell-Hart’s strategic ideas.

War Before Civilization

Two of the smarter, myth-debunking books I have read in the past year or so have been older, still in print, works by academic archaeologists. Much like Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, Lawrence Keeley overturns dogmatic archetypes about “primitive” warfare in prehistoric and pre-contact societies held by social scientists and military historians in War Before Civilization. Not only was prehistoric warfare more violent, more “total” and less restrained than modern warfare but Keeley argues that primitive “warriors” tended to best disciplined “soldiers” in wars when all other things were equal, except when the “soldiers” enlisted their own savage proxies (or adopted morally unconstrained  primitive tactics). It was a sliding scale; the barbaric Vikings terrorized “civilized” European and English men-at-arms, but were in turn themselves routed and expelled by the more savage Native Americans and Inuit warriors of North America.

New Blog: Fear, Honor, and Interest

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Fear, Honor, and Interest, judging by the list of contributors, has the potential to be a vibrant group blog. Preemptively endorsed.

Sacred Things

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

[ post  by William Benzon cross-posted from his New Savanna blog with Intro by Charles Cameron — nature, arts, the sacred ]




This strange category, the sacred, strikes me as important because it intensifies.

It gives rise to beauty, terror, repulsion, love.  It empowers whatever vision, ideology, mission, crusade, jihad, movement, or tendency it touches.  And our society has in some ways lost touch with it so completely that we think it is found in the outward forms of piety, and miss its secular manifestations, its manifestation in religions other than our own, and most significantly and disastrously the groundswell of feeling it gives rise to in unexpected places.

It is a haven for many in an unlovely or uncertain world, a dwelling-place for saints, idealists, artists and — who knows? — perhaps the mad. And it catches us up when we least expect it — when the lights go down low in a cinema or at the opera, the curtain parts, and we enter another world whose rules are not our own.

We need to understand this.


In my post on Sacred space and the imagination, I tried to give a feel for the sacred without focusing on places of official worship, where it may be so expected as to be missed elsewhere, and I headed that post “no mil/intel stuff” because “this blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits” — and my post clearly fell under the “other esoteric pursuits” part of the rubric.

But pattern pervades all, and the arts are prime sources for an understanding, a grasp, an accurate intuition of patterns in general. So we are not so far from strategy after all…

William Benzon responded to that post of mine, which he’d cross-posted on his own blog, with a post of his own, which I am cross-posting here. By way of introducing Benzon himself, then —

Benzon is a scientist (he led the information systems group at NASA in 1981, developing strategic recommendations about NASA-wide computer use and acquisition, and in conjunction with David G. Hays, published a series of articles in the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems covering the development of cognition in the brain from primitive vertebrates through primates and in human culture from the preliterate world through the development of computing) with wide cross-disciplinary interests (he’s played concerts with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and B.B. King), either the first or one of the very first independent scholars invited by the National Humanities Center to lead off a topic of his choice on their blog, the author of a brilliant book on music and the brain, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music In Mind And Culture, and my friend.

Here, then, is his response to my post. Take it away, Bill…

Sacred Things



… that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;–that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.

— Coleridge, This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison

This post began, I suppose, when, upon reading Charles Cameron’s post, Sacred space and the imagination, the “graffiti!” light went off in my brain. Not just any graffiti light, but this one:

westward ho.jpg

Well, not that exact one, but it was a photograph of that same arch, a different photograph. This one shows the graffiti a little more clearly, but it’s not the same graffiti, as graffiti often changes over time, in some places more rapidly than others.

If you look back over Cameron’s images, you’ll see that it’s of a piece with them. And I’ve got dozens of photos of that arch: different times of the day, different seasons, different years, different graffiti, different angles. And that’s not all.

Graffiti and the sacred is a natural, one that hadn’t quite hit me full-on until I’d read Cameron’s post. You see, my first post about graffiti (the images, alas, are gone) was about this piece, which I called the Shrine of the Triceratops:


It’s not that I believe, mind you, that there’s a triceratops cult in Jersey City and that this is where they meet. Nothing like that. Rather, that that image seemed to embody of the spirit of the place, the Japanese word is kami. (That triceratops is now gone. First, eroded by the weather, then other writers went over it.)

I could go on and on about graffiti, but I won’t, because this post isn’t just about graffiti. But I’ll leave you with one last graffiti thought. Graffiti is often likened to cave art. Well, cave art, some of it, perhaps all of it, is sacred art. Not mere pictures, but spirits bodied forth on walls.


And then there’s my current film project, Apocalypse Now. And that is deeply intertwined with the sacred. Not that it presents itself as a sacred story, nothing so straight-forward, but that it deals with ultimate things in a secular way.

Ultimate things in a secular way! – now there’s a fine kettle of fish for you. Just what does that mean? I suppose, for example, that that physicist’s dream, the grand unified theory, is a secular run on ultimate things. But is that secular the same secular as is appropriate to Appocalypse Now? I think not. Are we then confronted with the varieties of secular experience, mingling next to the varieties of religious experience? And where’s the boundary?

But, no, the film doesn’t present itself as religious in the way that Tree of Life presents itself as religious. But the caribao sacrifice at the end, that’s a real sacred ritual, not an enactment. Coppola shot the real thing, not that you’d know that from watching the film, though you could see that the caribao was really hacked to death. And the final third of the film takes place in a liminal no man’s land. It’s sacred territory, for some (nontrivial) meaning of sacred.

Anyhow, it looks like I’m going to argue that Apocalypse Now is an ontological text. That it is about the moral structure of the world rather than conveying this or that moral (or immoral) action. It’s about how things are through the ends of time, not about how this or that person gets from here to there.


And that certainly seems to be what’s going on in Malick’s very different The Tree of Life. We have the trials of the O’Brian family, daddy’s something of a dick, though a music-loving dick, mommy’s kind but a flake, and one kid dies – whether by suicide or not, that’s not clear from the film itself (I’ve seen it only once — shouldn’t have to see it more than once on such a plot point). But god’s creation is magnificent. As if that had anything to do with the O’Brian’s afflictions. Well, it does. It doesn’t.

In any event, it seems that this film, that as a film must unfold in time, minute by minute by (often tedious) minute, blasts time to smithereens. It opens with a verse from Job and then a flickering shimmering light that’s supposed to be, I guess, a Supreme Something Or Other in the Universe, but isn’t this dew-flecked dandelion more elegant?


And then, I think, some story in the more or less present. Yes, that’s it, she gets the telegram. The news is not good, not good at all. Things fall apart. A plane. At the airport. And somewhere in there not too far into the film we get this sequence in which the world and all the life in it gets created, ending with some dinosaur killing some other dinosaur. Live action and CGI special fx. Wonderful imagery. Wonderful.

And slices of that imagery get cut into the rest of the film as life goes on, backwards and forwards. It’s as though the world didn’t get created by once, but always and ever, created and recreated, recreating.


And behind it all there’s Uncle Walt. Uncle Walt’s the first one who gave us a vision of the creation of the world, a cinematic vision that is, one we can see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. All in less than half an hour. And it’s got dinosaurs!

I’m talking, of course, of “The Rite of Spring” episode in Disney’s Fantasia. He got the science wrong, even then they knew that the T. Rex and the Stegosaurus never co-existed, but he showed us the whole solar system, and seismic activity, and crashing dashing oceans, then life originating in the ocean, coming on land. And dinosaurs!


Disney’s the one who had the genius to visualize THE WHOLE THING. We who’ve grown up in the shadow of Disney now take it for granted that such things are seeable, but Disney was there first. If Disney hadn’t done it, Malick would have had to figure it out from scratch. As it is, Disney’s imagery has so permeated the culture than one can do (and see) a film like Tree of Life without once thinking of Fantasia.

In fact, the cultural coding against cartoons is so deep that I hesitate ever so little to put Fantasia in the same paragraph with Tree of Life. How could these films possibly have anything in common much less be the same thing: entertainment. Yikes! I mean, Tree of Life is so freakin’ serious. And Fantasia is so, well, gorgeous, and rather annoyingly cutesy at times.

And it ends in a forest glade:

ave maria

The music is a rather fruity arrangement of Schubert’s Ave Maria. The motion: slow, stately, rigorous, restrained, austere.

— Bill Benzon.

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