January 20, 2017

289

The Age of Trump Begins!

January 10, 2017

The Final Act

Waferinos and Other Fellow Travelers-

I was going to post the following short essay on January 20th, but as the previous post was fast approaching the 200-item comment limit, I decided I might as well unload this now. Enjoy! (well, maybe not)

For those of us who were around at the time, it seemed beyond belief that Richard Nixon, little more than a two-bit hood and a red-baiter, could actually become president of the United States. And the damage he did to the country was immense: Kent State, Chile, Southeast Asia, Watergate, and so on. With Nixon, we became a different country, and hardly a better one.

And then there was Reagan. Who could have imagined that this knucklehead, as Philip Roth has called him, this B-movie actor, could accede to the presidency? But there he was, with a simplistic economic theory that dramatically widened the gap between rich and poor, and a budget that tripled the national debt and poured wasted billions into the military. As in the case of Nixon, he was another downturn from which we have never really recovered. His destructive legacy is with us to this day.

But with Trump: well, this is really our last gasp. The final years of the Roman Empire produced, as emperors, folks who were little more than bad jokes, including imbeciles and children. And this is where we too have arrived. Sitting now in the Oval Office is a cartoon character: a man who has no political experience or qualifications to be president; who touts an absurd haircut; who is a vulgar boor; and who is, nevertheless, the logical culmination of 400 years of hustling—what America is finally and nakedly all about. As the comedian George Carlin used to say, our leaders are representative; they don’t just descend from Mars.

In retrospect, it is clear that Nixon and Reagan were dress rehearsals for The Final Act. They too were unfit for the presidency, and the havoc they wreaked on America and the rest of the world is proof of this. But Trump is somehow in a different category, because he comes across as surreal, an error of a different magnitude than Nixon or Reagan, as grotesque as they were. This is Reality TV on steroids, and I think we can expect that as huge as was the damage inflicted on the nation by Tricky Dick and “the Gipper” (read: clown), the damage that Trump is going to inflict on it will be that much greater. The US will end, not with a bang or a whimper, but on a bad joke.

And it’s just as well. No civilization lasts forever, and our time is clearly up. What are we, really? A genocidal war machine run by a plutocracy and cheered on by a citizenry that has the political sophistication of a five-year old. A nation so cruel that in some states, it is a crime to feed the homeless, and where the police routinely gun down unarmed civilians. A place where torture is now legal, and where the government has the right to arbitrarily rub out anyone it dislikes—including American citizens on American soil. A country almost completely lacking in community and friendship, where no one trusts anyone else, and where daily relationships are of the dog-eat-dog variety. And where the focus of the left is not on the relations of class and power, as it had traditionally been, but on politically correct language, and the legalities of who has the right to use transgender bathrooms. What, indeed, remains of the US today, where “democracy” is but a façade, a hollow shell?

To put it another way, then, Trump is karma writ large, the perfect agent for our Final Act. He is clearly what Hegel referred to as a “world historical individual,” a lightning rod for the major trends of our time. It could well be the case that by the time he finishes with the US, there won’t be very much left to finish.

In the meantime, us Wafers just watch the drama and shake our heads. Who could have guessed that God, or History, or the Zeitgeist, would turn out to have such a perverse sense of humor?

©Morris Berman, 2017

December 23, 2016

Fa La La La La, La La La La

"Don we now our gay apparel..." Well, Wafers, I don't think Don will be putting on any gay apparel, but it's definitely the season to be jolly. Unless you're a prog, of course. Then things Don' (note the pun) look so good. If you're a Wafer, you look out over an infinite horizon, knowing you are the crème de la crème of the spiritual elite, and that the universe listened to WAF and finally delivered the US into our hands. Anything can happen now!

So I launch this thread in the spirit of a new year upon us. Business As Usual is a thing of the past. Botox will become less fashionable among the Beautiful People. We sail away into the sunset. I suppose Alexander Pope said it best (quoted on p. 71 of the Twilight book): "Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restor'd;/Light dies before thy uncreating word:/Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;/And Universal Darkness buries All."

Happy New Year, Wafers; the world is at our feet.

-mb

December 12, 2016

My Russia

Wafers-

So I thought I'd post my most recent essay, which is included in the collection I mentioned above, Are We There Yet? It's in a section devoted to questions of identity, and I was thinking that maybe my own experience might stimulate others to think about their own issues in this regard. As follows:

Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.—Russian proverb

Identity reaches back to the earliest years of life.

A short while ago, a fragment of a song popped into my head, seemingly out of nowhere. "Vykhozhu odin ya na dorogu..." It was a tune that my grandfather used to sing to himself, late at night, when he was babysitting me at age five or so. "I set out on the road, alone." I transliterated the words in my memory into Roman characters, and plugged them into Google. Much to my amazement, the whole thing came up in Roman and Cyrillic. The line was the beginning of a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, who died in 1841. Twenty years later, Elizaveta Shashina set the words to music, and YouTube now provides various versions of it online. My favorite is the one by Anna German, who is Polish, but who knows Russian well enough. The melody is haunting, melancholy, the song of a man who walked the road of life by himself—like Lermontov. Or like my grandfather. Or perhaps, like me.

In any case, the incident sparked a realization that there was a very Russian part of my life, one that I hadn’t taken much notice of up to that point. But I believe my mother also sang Lermontov to me as a child, his Cossack lullaby called “Bayushki Bayu”; and although my grandfather wasn’t a communist, he taught me the Internationale, in later years, which I still remember. I’ve also had a Russian statuette on my bookshelf for many years, probably given to me by my mother, that has a Cossack theme. It consists of two figures. One is a woman, standing, wearing a colorful dress; the other is a man in a Cossack outfit, kneeling next to her on one leg, in a position one would take for dancing the kozotsky. This is the famous Cossack “kick dance,” which I had in fact seen performed at various Jewish weddings I was taken to as a child. The statuette always fascinated me; Cossacks had played a very dark part in my family’s history, yet there was something about peasant life that I found intriguing.

Then there was the music. I think the first classical piece I ever listened to, at around ten years of age, was Pictures at an Exhibition, by Mussorgsky. Maybe earlier. My parents had a collection of old 78s, and it included Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, and others. Shortly after, I developed an interest in fairy tales, and this included the wonderful illustrations of Ivan Bilibin, and stories such as that of Baba Yaga, the witch who lived in a hut that moved around on chicken legs. A bit later, I began studying Russian at Cornell University, having missed Vladimir Nabokov by only four years. (Later I read his novel Pnin, based on his time at Cornell, and loved it.) It was pretty rigorous: we read Pushkin, Chekhov, Lermontov, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and it all seemed oddly familiar to me, even though plowing through all that Cyrillic wasn’t easy. I had the same sense of “having been there” when, in later years, I read Orlando Figes’ fat tome, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. This history was my history, or so it seemed, even though my parents’ first language was Yiddish, not Russian.

Despite the dark (ignorant, cruel, anti-Semitic) side of the Russian peasantry, there is something vibrant about that life as well; and like a number of other historians, Figes picks up on the theme of a dialectical tension between the Russian “mainstream” (heavily Europeanized) and the Russian “other” (Cossack, Mongol, and Asian heritage). This tension finally generated a galaxy of talent between 1820 and 1920, serving as the creative basis of the authors cited above, in addition to Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Marc Chagall. As Figes tells it, the tension never got resolved: Russian writers, artists, and musicians just lived with it, and the “alchemical” result is there for all to see. I had written about this particular style of creativity in a book I wrote some time ago, Coming to Our Senses, in which I said that the tension of holding polar opposites close together often issued out in brilliant creative work. But I didn’t, in that book, refer to the Russians, or see the dynamic as involving a peasant heritage. Reading Figes, I couldn’t help wondering how much this peasant heritage had unconsciously influenced my life—a kind of genetic memory, as it were.

As for Pictures at an Exhibition, for some reason I remember this work not in the form of a pile of 78s, but as a single vinyl LP. I was probably attracted by the jacket, which showed a painting consisting of brilliant colors. I listened to it many times, although at age ten it’s not likely that I had any real musical understanding of the work. Rather, it represented itself in my mind as a series of stories, which created a pictorial narrative in my head. (It was only decades later that I realized that this was something very difficult to do with purely Western music, such as a sonata by Mozart.) And so I imagined a dusty road in the Polish countryside, with cattle pulling a giant cart (“Bydło”), or a witch’s hut in the woods standing on chicken legs (“Baba Yaga”), or the gate of Kiev. Children like stories, and I was no exception.

Mussorgsky composed the work in 1874, died in 1881, and it was published in 1886. Serge Koussevitsky commissioned Maurice Ravel to do an arrangement of it in 1922, at which point it became very popular. The motivation for it was the death of Mussorgsky’s close friend Viktor Hartmann, an extremely talented architect and painter, in 1873, at the age of thirty-nine. Mussorgsky was devastated; his “career” as an alcoholic dates from this time. But his grief was mollified somewhat by the decision of the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg to mount an exhibition of Hartmann’s work, which took place in 1874. Mussorgsky attended the show and was deeply moved by it; the pictures rendered musically in Pictures are from that exhibition (most of them are now lost).

Of course, it is very difficult to talk about the feelings generated by music; I can only urge the reader to buy the CD of Pictures and listen for him- or herself. But let me say this: Western polyphonic music, i.e. post-Gregorian chant, is characterized by harmonic lines or part-songs, and in general by a structure of tension and resolution. In its most basic form, you start with a melodic line, then go a few notes higher, then a few notes lower, and then return to the starting point (thereby resolving the tension). It’s very predictable, and what Western audiences have come to expect. Most of these audiences, for example, are not comfortable with, say, Schoenberg or even Bartok.

Well, Mussorgsky’s music doesn’t follow the classical Western symmetrical pattern. Rather, it is grounded in the melody and rhythm of Russian folk songs and oriental styles. The meter is asymmetrical; the music often lurches around unpredictably. In the piece called “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle” (a rich Jew and a poor one), Mussorgsky employs something similar to the Phrygian dominant scale, which is characteristic of Indian ragas and the music of the Near East; one also finds it in Hebrew prayers and in klezmer music. Part of “The Great Gate of Kiev” is based on a hymn of the Russian Orthodox Church (the chant of Znamenny). Hartmann was one of the first artists to include traditional Russian motifs and folklore in his work, and Mussorgsky picked up on this. Indeed, Orlando Figes writes that Pictures “created a new Russian language in music.” Shifting tones and uneven rhythms are the distinctive features of peasant chant, and this went on to characterize Russian music from Mussorgsky to Stravinsky.

The musicians seeking to break with the conventional Western pattern founded the Free Music School in 1862. They incorporated elements of village songs, Cossack and Caucasian dances, and the tolling of church bells—very different from the sound of Western bells, in that it contains a lot of counterpoint and dissonance. As Figes explains it, Russian folk music shifts keys and lacks a logical progression, thus generating “a feeling of elusiveness.” The Free Music School also employed the whole-tone scale invented by the composer Mikhail Glinka, which conveyed a feeling of spookiness (a technique adopted by Debussy and also, later on, by composers of scores for horror movies). There were other devices as well, all contributing to a loose structure that is quite apparent in Pictures. Mussorgsky, says Figes, “played the Holy Fool in relation to the West.” A raving alcoholic with almost no schooling in musical theory, Mussorgsky was interested in the “content” of music, its visual descriptions, not its formal laws. Pictures is not a theoretical work; rather, it reflects a direct approach to life. “At its heart,” writes Figes, “is the magic reach and power of the Russian folk imagination.” The closing sketch, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” is rooted in the sounds of Byzantium, and concludes with the glorious ringing of heavy church bells—“a picture of all of Russia drawn in sound.”

Glory and magic: these are things a child of ten can understand. To this day, I know this world—the world of the Cossacks and Lermontov and Chekhov and Mussorgsky and Tolstoy—in my bones.

Identity is the spine of our existence.

(c)Morris Berman, 2016

November 26, 2016

3rd Interview with the Geopolitics Institute, Guadalajara

Here you go, Wafers: a recent, short interview with these folks once again. Hope you enjoy it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emZS4lwgTZ8

November 23, 2016

Availability of Neurotic Beauty

Hello There, Wafers-

About a month ago, I noticed that the most recent edition of my book on Japan, Neurotic Beauty, by Water Street Press, was no longer listed on Amazon. I contacted WSP about it, asking if it was out of print, for some reason, and the publisher assured me it was not. What had happened (she said), was that the company had changed distributors, and this had apparently generated a glitch in the Amazon listing (this happened with other WSP books as well). The WSP edition would be back online fairly soon.

Well, one month later, the WSP edition is still not listed on Amazon, so I'm unsure as to what is going on, or when I can expect it to be back online. However, it turns out the book is available from the Seattle Book Company (which I'm guessing is WSP's distributor):

http://www.seattlebookcompany.com/neurotic-beauty/

Which is great, but which of course doesn't have the visibility of Amazon; most people have never heard of the SBC, and wouldn't know to go there if they wanted to buy the book. I'm hoping that WSP and Amazon will be able to straighten this glitch out before too long, but in the meantime, I wanted to draw your attention to the book's availability. If any of you guys want to buy a copy, or if friends of yours might be interested, this SBC web site is the place to go, for now. More trials and tribulations for a writer, I guess, and thank you for your support.

-mb