Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Of utmost relevance for coming to grips with the fanaticism on the right is Richard Hofstadter's great essay of 1954, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." That this short work remains so important a half century later only testifies to a chronic condition lying deep within the American social matrix: the tendency for those of a long standing ideological discomfort to join others who are suddenly facing marginalization and/or dispossession, and then to divide the world into two. They see, on the one hand, that their troubles are caused by an enemy conspiracy (at one time or another, the Catholics, the Masons, the Jews, and now, the Liberals, who, present day believers claim are, in fact, dreaded Marxist Socialists), led by an agent of virtually apocalyptic evil, (in today's version, bent on centralizing and concentrating power in the executive branch of the federal government*). They see themselves, on the other hand, in a mirror image of their foe, this time, an in-gathering of the faithful, led a clarion caller** who will form them into an army of the righteous while announcing the coming if not arrival of a messianic deliverer** ready to lead them into an Armageddon-like struggle that will end in victorious reconquest of what was, and now again will be, "our America."

As Kurt Vonnegut would have said, "And so it goes."

*These very same persons, by the way, see no contradiction in their anger about supposed Obama-led concentration of power with their support for the Bush-Cheney idea of the unified executive. This latter would surely bring about a massive alteration of constitutional values,for it would place the president above the law. Why? Because the attorney general would no longer serve the constitution, only the president, and thus could never seek an indictment for presidential usurpation of power. And there goes John Locke, Jefferson, and the US Constitution.

**Today, an amalgam of Christian and American revolutionary imagry: Glen Beck, who thinks of himself as a modern Tom Paine, as Sarah Palin's John the Baptist; the faithful now organized into updated 1773 Boston Tea Party units, minute men-like patriots (some already armed), ready, in Beck's words, to "take back our America."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Decency on the Right: Andrew Sullivan

It is most useful to remember that right-populist demogogery has traditionally found enemies within conservative as well as liberal circles. Indeed, American conservatives whose ideas have their provenance in the writings of Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson are reacting to the cheapening and vulgarization of American political discourse by the demogogues about us. No finer example of the power of solid and authentic conservative thinking is Andrew Sullivan's. Please reflect on his heartfelt credo, "Leaving the Right," posted Dec. 1, 2009,on the Atlantic website.

For those on the Obama left, read Howard Kurtz's commentary on both Sullivan's and progressives' outlooks.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Politics of Polarization in America?

Is it possible that the vicious rhetoric and the threats of violence coming from demogogues such as Glenn Beck, and the organized mobs known as Tea Parties, are potential prelude to a politics of violence? John Naar, an artist and political activist for most of a century, has coined the term "Weimarization" to stand for just what might be happening to American society. The historian Fritz Stern, who lived through the Weimar era in Germany, saw the rise of Nazism but escaped to the US to survive into the present, has just published a letter in the November 9, 2009 New York Times to offer a similar point of view. The cleavages between the political parties are growing, with the Beck/Palin partisans ousting moderate Republicans and thereby pushing the Republicans, who are always more disciplined than the Democrats, into a unified position on the far right. Think of the many proto- and not so proto-fascist parties, e.g., the French Poujadistes; Le Pen's followers; the late Haider's in Austria; and so many others, that had a similar rightwing-militant lower middle class anti-tax, anti-immigrant, racist, outlook. History offers too many lessons about the formation of a social base of the angry, the disenfranchised, and the alienated, all set for a neo-fascist politics that leads by its very nature into mob violence.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Current Fiction

I’ve been reading some fiction, most current, most but not all with political tones or overtones:

Horacio Castellanos Moya, SENSELESSNESS
Ferenc Karinthy, METROPOLE
Jonathan Lethem, CHRONIC CITY
Kamila Shamsie, BURNT SHADOWS
Mario Vargas Llosa, THE BAD GIRL.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Realities within Realities/Comix

I've just finished Jonathan Lethem new CHRONIC CITY, which poses realities within realities, and is thus in clear resonance with, among others, Philip K. Dick's THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH and Paul Auster's NEW YORK TRILOGY. But where Dick was realistic in understanding how power manipulates and even "creates" reality, Auster and Lethem offer tours de force of puzzle making, detective work and puzzle solution (of sorts). Lethem, in addition, offers Pynchon-like wacko characterization and endless spinning out of plot. Why Manhattan as locus for Auster and Lethem's realities within realities? My friend JJ Penna offers as explanation the fact that a Manhattan dweller or frequent visitor (CHRONIC CITY takes place on Manhattan’s upper east side) is continuously shocked by the rapidity of turn-over of shops and sites – one’s bagel shop today is a GAP shop tomorrow. Second Avenue in Manhattan is in the throes of a cacaphonic excavation for the development of a new subway line that is uprooting cherished neighborhoods north and south. In other words, the visible and virtual commonwealth of civic life is overthrown: one finds oneself in foreign terrain. For upper east siders, this is especially tough because much of the old neighborhoods have withstood the changes that had engulfed so many others over the last decades.

But these changes are symbolic; metaphoric, only exemplary of other changes.

Another explanation: reality is for the most of us televised. But in what reality sit those who determine what is the televised? And behind them? And think of the Bush administrator who told Rick Perlstein that the White House and associates were creating realty. So reality exists within reality. And thus back to Philip K. Dick

Lethem is a minor master of the list -- names, for example, that make him and/or his characters seemingly au courant with literature, pop and high arts, politics, etc.; but each entry at best a clever synecdoche that alludes to something else, to which he does not go, but the reader comes to feel that he/she is making connections and is thus “with it.” As for the characters -- they are themselves two-dimensional. Of course the major protagonist, Chase Insteadman, is in fact self-confessedly two dimensional, admitting his own utter banal superficiality. But the other characters are as well comic book types. Which leads me to wonder about why, along with multi-dimensionality, has arisen a major contemporary theme, the comic book. Chabon writes about comics (or "comix" as I've seen it spelled); R. Crumb and Spiegelman write and draw them, as do legions of other graphic writers, illustrators and now, film makers. Can it be that the powers of graphic lit and film lie in their ability to take us back to our childhood, rooted as it was in timeless myth and wonder, thereby retrieving for each of us a vantage point of supposed innocence and naiveté from which we can once again engage and confront reality, this time with wonder, yes, but a wonder of the world weary variety that moves dialectically into cynicism and despair?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Contra Adam Kirsch

In a recent review in the Tablet Magazine and reprinted on-line in the August 21, 2009 issue of The New Republic, Adam Kirsch takes issue with my speculations (discussed extensively in Chapter 7 of my book) as to why Bernstein died frustrated over his self-confessed failure to compose a magnum opus of political and ethical significance. Kirsch quotes me: "Bernstein's compositional frustration had its roots more in the evolving American social fabric ... than in his supposedly limited talents, his idiosyncrasies, his habits, and his psychological dispositions." He then states his disagreement with me, arguing that Bernstein's failure cannot be blamed on external conditions. If Mahler, Stravinsky and Schoenberg could compose under adverse conditions, then, he asks, why not Bernstein?

Let me begin by noting that it is rather unfair of Kirsch to compare Bernstein to Mahler, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, not on grounds of comparative talent, but because Bernstein had a uniquely different job to fulfill than theirs, and that was to intervene at the political barricades. Whereas his predecessors did not need great insight into the motivations and outlooks of varieties of political groups in order to compose, Bernstein did, for during the last two decades of his life, ending in 1990, Bernstein sought to compose an opera that would awaken the conscience of Americans on the left who were fighting amongst themselves or even moving to the conservative right. For this effort, he searched for a text, a libretto on which to compose that work. Bernstein never found that libretto, and thus never got to compose that work.

I will elaborate on this by first dismissing something Kirsch claims for me, the simplistic proposition that Bernstein, in Kirsch’s words, was “let down by Ronald Reagan.” What I did claim is that for Bernstein, as for so many others on the progressive left, Reagan’s victory in 1980 was a culmination of a long disintegration of the old progressive and moderate left coalition, a breakup that had been developing over the course of the decades from the late sixties through the eighties, when so many liberals, including millions in organized labor, supported the war in Vietnam; as progressive and liberal Jews found themselves attacked by Afro-Americans with whom they thought were allies; as so many liberals moved to neo-conservative positions; and as white and ethnic blue collar voters, in reaction to the civil rights, anti-war, counter-cultural, feminist, gay and lesbian political movements, moved from liberalism to conservativism. As old alliances fell apart and former enemies lined up against former friends, Bernstein, like many other progressives, was thrown into despair. By the mid 1970s, he was struggling to find a means to express in musical-theatrical form his upset with these great electoral and ideological realignments, and to champion the causes of the disenfranchised. He subtitled an early version of his 1977 cycle Songfest – which touched on the new politics of identity -- “Notes for an American Opera.” He searched endlessly for a method by which to turn those “notes” into a conceptually clear operatic narrative, a libretto that would inspire his musical composition, that would appeal to what he thought was Americans’ innately progressive ethical and political outlook, and thereby to inspire them to overcome their mutual animosities and hostilities. But as the years rolled on, his search remained in vain: the conservative right gained in numbers and grew more confident about itself and toward the left, more derisive, while the left became increasingly weakened and virtually drifted from its ideological moorings. (Remember that in 1988, Bernstein turned to the op-ed page of the New York Times to address an American left that was so demoralized that it cringed at the mere mention of the word “liberal.”) Bernstein died in 1990, at the height of Reagan-Bush conservatism, like so many other progessives -- see the entries in this blog under American Politics and American Literature -- unable to explain how the conservative revolution had so altered the American scene. Thus his frustration that he had not composed that work of significance.

In sum, Bernstein's failure to compose what he thought would be his magnum opus was in fact due to what Kirsch denies, namely, “the confusions of the time.”

Let me conclude by noting that Bernstein’s problem has not gone away. Do we really need to remind ourselves that the struggles to understand the causes of, and find the remedies for, the various modes of political and cultural despair, are still very much with us today? The problems that made Bernstein and his generation so despondent did not go away with Clinton’s victory, nor have they gone away with Obama’s.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Alex Ross, The Bernstein Files

In his three part essay, The Bernstein Files, at the News Desk section of the August 14, 2009, New Yorker, Alex Ross discusses some of the important FBI files in the Leonard Bernstein dossier.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Arts and the Neanderthals

As a followup to my posting of February 20, 2009, "Homo Neanderthal in the US Congress," I cite an article in the New York Times Arts section of August 8, 2009 , "New Endowment Chairman Sees Arts as an Energizer for the Economy," where the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, is quoted as holding that "Someone who works in the arts is every bit as gainfully employed as someone who works in an auto plant or a steel mill."

Bravo Mr. Landesman!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The American Novel and American Politics III

Among those lamenting the failure of American novelists to write politically significant works is the author Tom Grimes. Writing “On Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago" in the literary periodical Tin House No. 37 (Volume 10, No. 1, 2008; unfortunately not electronically archived), Grimes notes a common tendency in writers who came of age in the sixties to have moved away from interest in the larger forces that govern American life -- Mailer's forte -- to writers who looked close up, such as Raymond Carver, “whose unadorned prose was, according to literary critics, a reaction to our defeat in Vietnam." As storytellers,” Grimes goes on, “many of my contemporaries had moved from macro to micro, from prophecy to ambiguity, from revolution to revelation, from apocalypse to epiphany. But I didn’t have a choice.” For Grimes, the exception to the rule, what mattered was “ Mailer’s combination of concrete imagery and abstract speculation, his attempt to capture America on a grand scale.” (p. 109)

A novel that would bring American literature back to its heretofore serious engagement with living social and political reality would combine the macro and the micro. Jean-Paul Sartre back in 1947 in his What is Literature claimed that the writer must never lose track of “the importance of economic, religious, metaphysical and political factors in the constitution of the person.” (NY: Harper and Row, 1965), 86. Note this sentence carefully. Sartre is not arguing that we place the figure in his or her historical context; the figure is already constituted by those various axes that make up that context: language, custom, beliefs, etc. are present in the person, even though the decisions that person takes are formed within what the existentialist Sartre called the person's radical freedom. That is, one is not only the product of social forces and facts; one chooses one’s projects autonomously, and thereby transcends that facticity. In short, the macro and the micro are dialectical aspects of the living person. Thus a literature responsive to the age and responsible for clarifying life would be populated with figures who are formed within this dialectic of larger forces and the struggles to harness or oppose those forces.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Note on Criticism and Politics

Carol Iaciofano, a Boston-based writer, has written a very fair review, "Bernstein: the man, musician, his politics," published in the Boston Globe and on-line at, of my Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician. I've been getting some reviews, and noticing that some reviewers belabor me for not having written the book that they think I should have written. Ms. Iaciofano, on the other hand, has written about my book as I wrote it, and for that I am most grateful.

I especially want to quote a line of signal importance from Ms. Iaciofano's review: "This is a biography with a political focus, but it’s a full biography, one that knocks over caricatures of a celebrity musician who merely played at politics." Ms. Iaciofano has touched on a matter of central concern, the wrong-headed idea that anyone achieving celebrity status in areas outside politics, academia or business is politically mindless. Those holding this notion assume that actors, musicians, painters, poets and other writers are superficial, frivolous, unworldy, unable to think abstractly, to synthesize across disciplines, in short, unable to make critical judgments about what is going on in the larger public sphere. But anyone who understands artistic achievement knows the intensity of disciplined intelligence and exercise of critical faculties necessary for success. Of course an orchestral conductor who excels in the interpretation of the most complex musical scores, or an actor who excels in the interpretation of a script, may choose not to engage himself or herself in the political sphere; but only a superficial and thoughtless individual will claim a priori that conductors or actors are a disabled lot who cannot make informed judgments about the policies and decisions that determine the ethical life of the nation.

As regards Bernstein, Ms. Iaciofano has correctly read the evidence: he was a very well-informed citizen who understood only too well the drift and contradictions in American life, and for that matter, the cascading crises of the 20th and now 21st centuries.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

THE ECONOMIST on Leonard Bernstein: A Political Life

The Economist of May 28, 2009, has just published a review of my book, Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The American Novel and American Politics II

Apropos of my last posting (and accompanying comments), is this from Susan Sontag, writing in 1968 in her "Preface" to the English translation of Roland Barthes' 1953 Writing Degree Zero, translated from the French by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang). Wrote Sontag:

"Barthes book is a late contribution to that vigorous debate that has engaged the European literary community since the decade before the war on the relation between politics and literature. No debate of similar quality on that topic ever took place here [the U.S.]. Despite all rumors that there once existed a generation of politically radical writers in England and America , the question of the political-ethical responsibility of writers was never posed here in anything better than an embryonic, intellectually crude form -- a lone exception being the brilliant books published in the late 1930's by the young Christopher Caudwell." (pp. ix-x)

Why this debate has not happened; why American writers rejected the political and chose instead to fasten on the alienated individual, the family, the neighborhood, or on absurdism, will be subjects for future discussion.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The American Novel and American Politics I

Walter Benn Michaels has written an article, "Going Boom," in BookForum 15, 5 (February - March 2009) deploring the failure of the last quarter century’s American novelists to deal with the social forces that have so victimized Americans. What history American novelists have recounted has not served as forceful and robust criticism; novelists such as Toni Morrison, Colin McCarthy and Philip Roth have only been “caretaking,” that is remembering event of yesteryear, not depicting those events as on-going and/or recurring phenomena. Writes Michaels, we have had novels of family endurance and of breakdown, but none about the institutions that govern American life and that have caused the havoc of this contemporary crisis. Novelists, he argues, have avoided looking into the underlying conditions that bring a society that lives within the institutions of the free market principles and practices into such hardship.

Strangely enough, writes Michaels, the novel that touches closest to these issues and that points to the contradictions in American life – hyper profit-making and hyper commodification – is Ellis’s American Psycho. We need more “novels of manners in which the hierarchy of the social order is always at stake,” or television shows like The Wire, which is “about institutions – unions, schools, political parties, gangs,” about “the world neoliberalism has produced, rather than he world our literature pretends it has.” Michaels concludes that “The Wire is like a reinvention of Zola or Dreiser for a world in which the market is going out rather than coming in.”

Bravo! Mr. Michaels. But let us note that Dreiser, and another author Michaels mentions, Edith Wharton, novelists of critical inquiry into the intersection of American manners and the market system, have been dead for sixty or more years, not just a quarter century. In fact, the American authors who did write of the destructiveness of the free market system, including Dos Passos and Steinbeck, wrote their great social novels in the thirties; such writing barely appeared after the forties! The writings critical of the economic power system (which is a proper name for the market system) end with a few pages of Norman Mailer’s 1947 Naked and the Dead and Arthur Miller’s 1947 All My Sons and his 1949 Death of a Salesman. Saul Bellow, for example, never took on any of these issues. His 1955 Augie Marsh deals with close up relations and metaphysical ruminations. Nor do Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift or any other of his works enter into the mise en scène where the plays of power condition American life. And before one rushes to Bellow to find evidence to the contrary, let me quote him from an interview in the Nouvel Observateur by Fritz Raddatz of March 7, 2002, which I translated from the French, where he stated that “I have one regret that I am able to formulate very precisely: in all my novels, I have avoided speaking about the great events of the century. I have never attempted, even timidly, to make place in my work for those feelings that were in the air. It is in this, that I disappoint myself.”

The relevant novels of the sixties and seventies were largely concerned with the absurd, the feelings and sensibilities of persons affected by run-away technology and out-of-control technocracies, works written by Philip K. Dick, Joseph Heller and Barry Malzerg, and the shell shock and benumbing induced by war by, among others, Kurt Vonnegut and David Rabe. Nor did John Updike’s much celebrated Rabbit series -- Rabbit Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1970), Rabbit is Rich (1980) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) -- present a view of structure coming to bear upon the individual. The series traces Rabbit’s drift into despair over the course of his lifetime. The first novel was typical of the apolitical imagination of the American Biedermeier – the 1950s -- its protagonist living within his family and small town worlds, untouched by larger forces. In the second novel, Updike introduced the political into Rabbit’s life by having Rabbit listen to his fellow salesman speak against the war in Vietnam, and to a black radical to whom he listens with some growing comprehension – at least until white racists burn down his house and the black man moves on -- but in no way does Rabbit become radicalized himself. In the third novel Rabbit is one-third partner in his late father-in-law’s auto business, suffers through the oil crisis and now sells Toyotas, and is preoccupied with his son’s failures and his own love life. Nor does Rabbit come to grips with the larger social reality in the fourth and last book of the series. His life is virtually internal, reactive to family crises, to business, and to his lovers. Updike chronicles events, but for the greatest part they have no significance as regards Rabbit’s life. In short, the Rabbit series did not amount to the kind of imaginative literature developed by the older social novel writers who attempted coherent accounts of the social forces that shape the lives of representative types.

Think about Miller’s career. During the 1960s and beyond he wrote retrospectively, or about family breakdown. Or think of Mailer, whose 1964 American Dream seemed to make entrée into the place where deeper power and politics reside. Mailer was our best progressive novelist: think about his books on the moonshot and the CIA. But he never developed the themes regarding the supposed free market, monopoly power and neo-fascism that mark those few pages of The Naked and the Dead. Neo-fascism may be to the side in this era well past the McCarthy years, but the Patriot Act is still on the books. Today, a half –century later, the seeming contradictions between free market and monopoly power are not contradictions at all: managers of non-regulated mergers and financial packages that create new forms of wealth have wound us up on the present crisis. American Psycho may have lifted the lid on the psychosis below: how well we might have been served, indeed, must be served, by a relevant imaginative and contemplative literature! Any new social novelist out there?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Writing my book, Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician

Looking back to the post-war decades, one can understand why so many thought so highly of Leonard Bernstein as an artist and intellectual: music director of the New York Philharmonic and televised performer of Young People’s Concerts and the highbrow CBS show Omnibus; composer of symphonic works including one based on the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, an adaptation of Auden’s Age of Anxiety and a meditation on Plato’s Symposium; art song; an opera, Trouble in Tahiti with themes of suburban angst; musical score to the film On the Water Front with themes of urban angst; the works for dance, Fancy Free and – yet more angst -- Facsimile; and the Broadway shows On the Town, Wonderful Town, Candide, and West Side Story. His Harvard inflections only enhanced his reputation as a man of great artistic and intellectual cultivation. Small wonder that he was a virtual mentor to my generation of Americans.

I had seen him in performance over the years, but what has remains in my mind took place – I think it was 1959 -- at the City College of New York when, one afternoon, I came out of class to hear music across the street in Lewisohn Stadium, the wonderful amphitheater where we held gym classes during the semester but where the Philharmonic performed each summer. I ran over to the stadium and stood with a few other students within yards of the podium to see the visiting conductor, Josef Krips, rehearsing (again, if memory serves) the Beethoven Triple Concerto, with Bernstein in shirt and tie at the piano. It was noon, and the orchestral players were asking Krips for a lunch break. “Not yet!” said a heavily perspiring Bernstein, but Krips replied something like “Ach! Lenny, let them have lunch,” a cue for the musicians to put down their instruments and thereby preempt Bernstein’s attempt at rejoinder. When a few students approached him with pens and open notebooks in hand, a clearly irritated Bernstein barked “No autographs!” And that was that.

Did I think him petty? Not at all! I admired him for his discipline, his dedication to his art.

Now I also admired Bernstein for his politics, or at least what was rumored about his politics, but never elaborated, that he was a man of the political Left. In those days, to be on the Left was for me a matter of great honor, maintaining the memory of the now mystical (and rather romanticized) Popular Front while the McCarthy inquisitions were victimizing left-wingers and the Eisenhower regime was cozying up to Franco and ex- (or not so ex-) Nazis. This was the era when the blacklist was in full force, and when American political debate between Democrats and Republicans was virtually bipartisan because no Democratic politician dared support, for example, full employment or universal medical care policies, for fear of being labeled a communist. (You hear shrill reminders of those illiberal debasements of discourse these days from those who would stop debate on Obama’s policy proposals by labeling them with the scare term “socialist.”)

Years later, with my academic career well established, I was searching for a topic to sink my teeth into. I had done some writing on matters of civil liberties and cultural politics when, in 1995, I learned that the Southern California Civil Liberties Union had obtained Bernstein’s FBI dossier, a file of hundreds of pages apparently loaded with information about his political life. A week or so and thirty five dollars later – to cover costs of Xeroxing and mailing – I received a copy of those hundreds of pages of dossier material and discovered that the FBI had been collecting data on Bernstein’s multifarious political activities since the early 1940s. I learned from other sources that the Truman administration blacklisted him and that the Eisenhower administration had withheld his passport but, back to the FBI documents, then released it only after he signed an affidavit that he was not nor had been a member of the Communist Party. In that affidavit, which has never been published and which until now has been buried within the FBI documents, Bernstein repented his sins, claiming they were only the product of his youthful naiveté, testified that he had voted only for Democrats or Republicans, and that he was religiously observant – all the benchmarks of the loyal American citizen as defined by the witch hunters. As I would learn from Bernstein’s correspondence – more of which in a moment -- the affidavit was kept secret save for its circulation by Bernstein’s attorney amongst the vigilante groups that had the power to give or withhold clearance necessary for him to work in the film industry. Even with that clearance, however, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, was convinced that Bernstein had lied about his communist party membership, and now charged his agents to find the evidence to get Bernstein indicted for perjury. Hoover also listed Bernstein for incarceration in a detention camp in the event of a national emergency.

All of this FBI material had not yet seen the light of day. And I was lucky in another way: the Bernstein family had made available to researchers the hundreds of boxes of correspondence and other materials at the Library of Congress. Between this archive and the FBI dossier was a goldmine of materials; interpreting these together now permitted me to understand Bernstein’s intellectual and political preoccupations; his life under blacklist; to form a good hunch about why he was away from the podium of the Philharmonic from 1951 to 1956; his terror of having to appear before the Committee on Un-American Activities; how he came off the CBS blacklist; how his career was helped by those enlisted in the so-called cultural cold war. I was also able to understand his choice of texts to set to music, and his political philosophy as he expressed it in his 1973 Norton lectures, in fact, too see these all of a piece, rather than so many disparate elements as presented by, ignored by, omitted by, or unknown to, previous biographers. In this fashion I came to see Bernstein not simply as the exuberant and larger than life individual and celebrity, but a man deeply committed to a progressive political position which found expression not only in his public addresses, but in his compositions: he even went so far as to far as to visit the anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan in Danbury (Connecticut) Penitentiary as he prepared to compose his 1971 Mass – an act that Hoover jumped on to link Bernstein to a supposed Berrigan-led terrorist conspiracy, and that, along with Bernstein’s well-known support for the Black Panther Defense Fund, led Nixon to put Bernstein’s name on his enemies list.

As I noted above, much of Bernstein’s life comes into focus with the reporting and interpretation of the materials heretofore secreted in the FBI dossier and the Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress. So too did I come to understand Bernstein’s championing of the works of Gustav Mahler; so too his greatest frustration, his self-proclaimed failure to compose a work of the highest significance, a matter very much on his mind when he was dying in 1990. What I write in the book is that Bernstein was, in the end, seeking to find a compose a tragic work, but searched in vain for a libretto or other text to inspire such a work. That he was unable to compose that highly significant American operatic or a multi-genre work lies, I speculate, less in his supposed failure to concentrate – an explanation offered by a number of critics and even his friends -- than in the flux of social forces that configured American political life. I suspected that the fault lay not so much with Bernstein as with the progressive imagination. I worked up a method to understand his predicament. It turned out that Bernstein was not alone in this particular frustration: Neither Arthur Miller nor Norman Mailer, men of very different temperaments but men whose political outlook was similar to Bernstein’s, was able to find a way to address the American population’s decades-long departure from American progressive ideals through the Cold War and its march to the right from the seventies and into the Reagan-Bush years. In earlier decades, progressive writers such as Dreiser, Dos Passos and Steinbeck had studied the effects of economic forces and deeply embedded political power on social classes. Mailer very briefly, and Miller in two works, continued in this vein up to, but not beyond the late 1940s. But by the 1950s, and though the decades into the 1980s, progressive writers turned away from these issues to explore instead erotic themes, family tensions and breakup; absurdism, e.g., how runaway technology rules life; or the benumbing effects of war. Touching on those earlier themes had become virtually taboo, considered naïve by the liberal but aesthetic modernists who set the tone for the creative imaginative work in the post-war and Cold War years, and who thereby abetted the McCarthyite blacklisters. What resulted was a political language that assumed every American to be a member of a vast middle class America, thereby classless, and therefore no longer needing discussion of those older progressive themes. These were now repressed, their reality rendered inexpressible. I think that Bernstein was trying to find a way back those repressed themes. These would provide him with that long sought libretto, but he never found it. In short, Bernstein’s frustration was due, not to personal idiosyncrasy but to the lasting power of those forces that inhibited the progressive imagination.

In the end, I understand Bernstein as a man who lived in what Bertold Brecht and Hannah Arendt called dark times. If he were unable to express in musical-theatrical composition his deep brooding over the crisis of his times, he did find another way to express himself, and that was at the podium, bringing to life and championing the music of Gustav Mahler. To Bernstein, Mahler’s music sounded deep areas of crisis and tragedy. Bernstein found in Mahler a man at the dark crossroads of politics and culture. But in this case Mahler was Bernstein's predecessor. Of course this was the case in terms of both as composers and former music directors of the New York Philharmonic. But Bernstein saw in Mahler a prophet of catastrophe; as surveys of Bernstein's essays and lectures will reveal, so Bernstein was himself.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

West Side Story in revival

West Side Story is back on Broadway, and is getting an extraordinary review by the New Yorker critic John Lahr.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Art of the Void at the Pompidou

Opening at The Pompidou Centre in Paris is an extraordinary show that is all about .... nothing! Is this a Cagean (as in John Cage) program, a show fit for family membership with those works that Susan Sontag wrote of in her essay of 1967, "The Aesthetics of Silence" ? Or is this project a curator's inspiration in the face of budgetary collapse? The answers to these questions, or at least a clue to them, may reside in the cost of admission. Will the Pompidou folks charge less because there's nothing to see in nine rooms? Or will they charge the usual rates, arguing that vacuity is artwork? Minimalists have promoted the disappearance of content. Others, and I think that Artaud was in the foreground, argued for the virtual nullification of the work of art. Has Paris thus taken back the lead in modern art that it had apparently surrendered to New York after W.W.II? That was the time when representation gave way to abstraction, and the center of gravity of the art world came to reside in New York's art galleries and the Museum of Modern Art. But we now live in crisis times. Is it now, then, that as goes Wall Street, so goes 53rd Street?

(Of course it can be argued that the real center of painterly activity over the last decades has been in Germany, but that's another story.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Homo Neanderthal in the US Congress

That cultural neanderthalism still abides in certain quarters of the US government was evident this week during the Senate debate over inclusion of arts funding in the new stimulus bill. As reported by Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times of Monday, February 16, 2009, in attacking the stimulus bill "Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, had grouped museums, theaters and arts centers with implied frivolities like casinos and golf courses."

Another representative of contemporary atavism, Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, stated that "'I just think putting people to work is more important than putting more art on the wall of some New York City gallery frequented by the elite art community.'" Kingston went on to suggest that the arts are "the favorite of the left," and added as justification for his opposition to funding the arts a populist-demogogic "Call me a sucker for the working man."

Countering Kingston was Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, who noted that "Arts workers ... have 12.5 percent unemployment" and asked his Republican colleagues if they were "suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn't real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance?"

I'm happy to report that the arts survived Republican hand wringing and made it into newly passed stimulus plan.

On the down side: the article noted that even as the arts were untied from casinos and golf courses these two latter institutions, along with zoos, aquariums and swimming pools, were excluded from the stimulus program. Don't casino, golf course, zoo, aquarium and swimming pool workers have rent and health insurance costs? Don't zoos and aquariums have high values within our educational and cultural lives? And as for their inmates, are we not alive to the fact that animals have rights, and, moreover, that at the least we have an obligation to those we hold captive?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

American Apocalyptic Literature

From the late 1960s on, Leonard Bernstein held a rather apocalyptic vision of America. How interesting to realize that a certain variety of Jewish-American authors writing in the sixties and early seventies, including Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, and Barry Malzberg, also wrote in apocalyptic terms. (Mailer called his particular outlook "existential," but it was in this vein.) Was this genre a secularization of the Jewish prophetic outlook now turned onto American civilization? Of course not all secular Jewish writers, e.g., Roth and Bellow, were of that outlook: Roth at that time epitomized the turn inward; and while Bellow later on was remorseful about not planting his novelistic characters within the forcefields of history and power, Mailer, Heller, and Malzberg certainly did so. So my question has to be somewhat altered: by writing about power and its multiform effects on human life, was the apocalyptic style inevitable?

I e-mailed Barry Malzberg about this, asking him about the theme of his 1969 short story “Triptych,” creeping madness amidst high-technology, as if there's an inverse correlation between instrumental reason and sanity: the more the former grows the more the latter regresses. He wrote back, ”Exactly right. You've got it. That's precisely my point. That story was written 40 years and a couple of months ago at a time when no one seemed to be cognizant of that paradox. Now of course it is deeply infiltrated in the culture (astronauts wearing diapers the better to drive cross-country on a murderous errand without bathroom break) and the stuff of comic strips and television comics' late night monologues.”

As to my question about the apocalyptic, Malzberg wrote, “It is of course the question with which my work was engaged … and my answer was at least a qualified ‘yes’.“ He went on: “Bellow, great writer, was working corners...his best novel, Humboldt’s Gift, is a joy to read and I wallowed in its pages in sheer pleasure long ago but it's trivial, utterly unengaging and Herzog turns angst and the apocalypse into absurdity and impotence the way that the Roth of Portnoy turned the entire horrific Jewish odyssey into whacking off. (He opened the argument somewhat later.)”

Malzberg then referred me to an essay he’s just written in response to my question:

"At the time (1968-1971) I was writing my three Crazy Astronaut novels [The Falling Astronauts; Revelations; Beyond Apollo] (there were about ten short stories, I didn't feel like a visionary at all. What was going on, the human dehumanization of space, the asepsis of the overwhelming, seemed absolutely clear and so did the outcome. Any dummy could have seen this coming, I thought. The Apollo Program was oxymoronic; it was an exercise in institutionalized denial. Also it had been funded and propagandized by the government as a distraction from the increasingly unpleasant and unpopular business of Vietnam. When our Vietnam involvement inevitably ended, when the Moon had been "conquered", when the distractive purposes had been solved, the Moon was certain to be abandoned and Apollo would collapse. In thrall to the Government it had been meant by the Government to be about power, not exploration. The astronauts had to know that too. There had to be a little crazy as they perceived that fundamental contradiction.

"Seemed clear enough to me and overseas to J.,G. Ballard who was (in The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, "The Terminal Beach") working similar territory; the mad incapacity of our culture to deal with the maddening implication of uncontrollable technology. The increasing gap between human motive and sprawling technological capacity could lead to collective insanity. Certainly Ballard's "condensed novels" limned that and in the colonies I was reaching the same conclusions in my humble work.”

"After Apollo 13, after Watergate, after the flight from Saigon, I made an assessment in an Afterword to the 1976 reissue of my 1972 novel, Revelations. … the middle novel of that Crazy Astronaut Trilogy) … and in some ways the most ambitious, dragging in confrontational television as the laboratory for my crazy astronaut. … This was how it looked to me 32 years ago:

"How right I was in seeing that the structure of the program and its administration would drive many astronauts crazy we have only been inferring in recent years...because I _was_right about that. I knew from the beginning that my insights were correct, I knew that the men going into those capsules, ostensibly as operators, actually as cargo, would be forced to come to terms with the devastating fact that they could serve only by being machinery and that many of them, sensitive and reflective in our better moments would wish them to be, could not easily deal with this. Only years later did we learn of the divorces, the breakdowns, the lurches into mysticism, the scattered children, the pain that the bureaucracy had inflicted on some of those astronauts.

"The Apollo program, in the hands of a venal, cynical government, was made absurd. It did not want to be absurd, it had serious purposes, millions of dollars was budgeted for the public relations which would make clear how very serious it was. We were after all embarked upon the greatest of human odysseys, one which Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles had called the justification for our existence. That little clock which ticked inside us was our signal to carry to the stars. Kennedy had said, "We will go to the Moon." Agnew had said, "We Will Go To Mars." John Campbell had written in 1945: "First sale of Astounding on the Moon in 1960!" In the tent of our fathers, all mysteries were to be explained.

Malzberg continues:

"But meanwhile, "There is to be no cursing in space" Control advises the three astronauts in one of my earliest stories ("Triptych", 1969). The transmission is on all the time, control your language." No cursing in space! If the War On Pornography was to be carried from the offices of the Citizens For Decent Literature to the spaceways, if the spaceways were an Interstate to the suburbs of the Moon, if the Reverend Donald Wildmon and his good citizens could sanitize the limitless and if no one in the National Aeronautics and Space Agency or the United States Government could state that this was absurd...then the program was doomed. Devoid of humility or realism, it would end in an ash heap of motive. The astronauts and engineers trapped by this mad oxymoron would be either insensible or driven toward madness. Pass the diapers; pass the mysticism please. John Glenn went into space a second time at the age of 75 but he had nothing to say that time, either. That was perhaps the only way to deal with it: say nothing.

There’s a lot to digest in what Barry Malzberg has been writing over these decades, something in the makeup of such otherwise disparate personalities as Norman Mailer and Malzberg that gave their writing in that period that sense of apocalypse. Of course there was the War in Vietnam (and think of the film Apocalypse Now) that more than anything else showed the madness of imperial thinking that was manifest behind the grandiosity of American financial, expansionist, and military policies, a grandiosity and hybris that so belied, and were on collisions courses with, the norms and values that we thought we prepared to follow. It took a generation to repress the horrific implications of these imperial assumptions; and then they came roaring back via the works of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, and the financial barons. Now we stand face to face with the slouching beast.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Emotional or Cooler Mahler?

In an earlier posting I raised the question of why in some periods audiences and other listeners will prefer a more emotional performance of a Mahler symphony, say, by Bernstein, and why at other times a cooler variety, say by Boulez, takes preference.

I once conducted a poll on the Mahler List as to why the Mahler boom had occurred, and the majority of respondents, I think maybe 20 people, said it was the advent of the LP and the new high fidelity and stereo sound systems. But the advent of the new technology would not fully suffice, because then any composer whose works appeared on LP and were playable on a terrific stereo system should have had his/her boom as well. No, something more than technology was behind the sudden popularity of Mahler. I think that in the decades of the 60s and the 70s, the emotional interpretation caught the imagination of a listening audience for whom the horrific tragedies wrought by the Nazis during WW II had immediacy, a people desperate to find expression for the traumas of mass murder, genocide, and the crushing of European humanism. The Mahler boom took off because, Mahler, even though he died in 1911, was victimized by anti-Semitism and could represent in music the victimization of millions during the European catastrophe. For Bernstein, Mahler's music in toto became a vast musical work in which the Knabenwunderhorn songs, the Wayfarer Songs, the symphonies, the Ruckert Lieder and the Kindertotenlieder, and Das Lied von der Erde, especially Der Abschied, all form a great work, at once, Mahler’s autobiography, at once, European Jewry's Great Memorial and Requiem, at once, a 20th century European tragedy. I think this is what drew so much attention in the 60s and 70s. What compelled audiences in those decades was the great emotional, tragic power that was realized by Bernstein and by Walter, Mahler’’s protégé, and others, among them Haitink, who, conducting the (as it was known then) Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in its great concert hall, provided the Dutch with their own historic references to a great pre-war Mahler tradition and their own memorial to their horrors under the Nazi occupation.

Now as to Boulez: As time went on, the generations that had sought and attended this Mahlerian musical tragedy had perhaps exhausted their own needs for powerful cathartic release. Mahler's music had been long enjoying its high place in the canon, and audiences, older as well as younger members, were seeking new ways to enjoy Mahler. And so the less emotional, cooler Boulez and similar interpreters.

To conclude: Bernstein was a great tragedian who realized the tragic powers so manifest within Mahler's music. Boulez and the cooler approach satisfies others who for whatever reasons have less investment in the historical, tragic Mahler.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hanns Eisler and the FBI

Apropos of the posting regarding Hanns Eisler, there is a very fine article by Jame Wierzbicki, "Hanns Eisler and the FBI," in the latest edition of the on-line journal, Music and Politics.

This issues contens include:

  • Michael Beckerman, “The Dark Blue Exile of Jaroslav Ježek“
  • Jame Wierzbicki, “Hanns Eisler and the FBI“
  • Brana Mijatovic, “’Throwing Stones at the System’: 
Rock Music in Serbia during the 1990s“ 

  • Damien Sagrillo, translated by Lee Rothfarb, “The Notion of Humankind According to the Music-pedagogical Conception of Former Socialist States, Exemplified in the Former German Democratic Republic“
  • Dard Neuman, “Music & Politics in the Classroom:
 Music, Politics and Protest
  • Eunice Schroeder, ”Recent Books on Music and Politics”
Regarding this journal, the editors write:

Music and Politics welcomes submissions of any length that explore the
interaction of Music and Politics. Areas of interest include, but are
not limited to, the impact of politics on the lives of musicians,
music as a form of political discourse, and the influences of ideology
on musical historiography. In addition, we seek articles that examine
pedagogical issues and strategies pertaining to the study of Music and
Politics in the undergraduate classroom. We also welcome suggestions
and/or submissions of articles on Music and Politics that have already
been published in another language and that would benefit from
dissemination in English translation. Submissions are encouraged from
both established scholars and graduate students. Because Music and
Politics is an on-line journal, authors are welcome to take advantage
of the media capabilities of the web (sound files, hyperlinks, color
images, and video).

Friday, January 2, 2009

Alex Ross versus Tom Wolfe on Bernstein

In his December 15 New Yorker article, “The Legend of Lenny” (cited and linked in a posting below), Alex Ross criticized Tom Wolfe’s 1973 "Radical Chic" characterization of Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia as socialites patronizingly dabbling in the civil rights movement. (The occasion was a party held by Felicia Bernstein to support the Black Panthers’ defense fund.) Ross goes on to write about the FBI’s criminal Counter Intelligence Program attempt to exploit the issue and destroy Bernstein and his wife Felicia’s reputation. In a letter published in the January 5, 2009 New Yorker, Re: The Legend of Lenny , Wolfe responds to Ross by reiterating his claim that the episode was “hysterically funny.” Ross in reply writes that “A ‘sensitive reassessment’ is needed not least because of the damage that ‘Radical Chic’ did to Bernstein’s image.”

Ross is indeed right: Bernstein was terribly hurt by Wolfe’s mean-spirited attack and the subsequent FBI harassment, and right in calling for a reassessment of Bernstein’s record and beliefs. Such a reassessment will be helped by my forthcoming book, which documents Bernstein’s activities in support of the civil rights of black Americans that were underway back in the 1940s, when such activities could fill one’s FBI dossier – which is exactly what happened in Bernstein’s case. Nor were those activities the end of Bernstein’s engagement with the civil rights movement. In 1965, he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to greet those who had marched from Selma to Montgomery, knowing full well that that he could have been in the cross hairs of a Klansman’s rifle telescope sight. Nor were his activities extra-mural: one should pay some attention to Bernstein’s 1977 “Songfest” where he sets music to, among others, Langston Hughes’ “I Too, Sing America” and June Jordon’s “Okay, ‘Negroes” -- both angry statements about racial discrimination. Nor does the record stop there. Bernstein was outspoken in support of civil rights in the 1988 election when, it will be remembered, the Republicans were running their racist "Willy Horton" television ad and attacking American liberalism. Bernstein's defense of the liberal record on civil rights was, and remains, stirring.

In short, Bernstein was no dabbler: he was committed to the protection and advancement of civil rights and civil liberties all his life.