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.

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