Saturday, 29 April 2017

Steiner on the humanities

On the website of 'Standpoint', a review of a new book on George Steiner draws attention to one of the most eloquent self-destructive postwar voices that use the holocaust to finish its job also on the level of the humanities - i.e., claiming that the most abject evil is an organic, natural part of Western high culture.

So, where a concentration camp brute combines his daily murderous job with his love of classical music, it is the art form's failure to sensitize the psychopath which demonstrates music's culpability. But as we know, psychopaths have no difficulty with putting different experiences into different boxes and failing to comprehend what they are doing, feeling, thinking. That is why they are considered psychopaths. Steiner made his claim a Leitmotiv of his career, while defending the elitist attitude of the humanities, including high art.

The accusation that the humanities / the high arts are potentially capable of 'dampen' moral awareness, of 'making us bad', is based upon the misunderstanding that when elites fail to 'fight against barbarism', it is because the humanities are somehow culpable, because of somehow approving evil and destruction. The more obvious explanation is, that the practitioners - where they fail to raise their voice against injustice and barbarism - don't understand the humanities enough.

Also there is the distinction between levels: the humanities take place on another level than politics, and only when the real world threatens to intrude into the quiet study, elites may wake-up and often it is then too late. To make victims culpable is relocating the problem. Steiner's claim that evil and selfdestruction are at the heart of Western civilization, is plain ridiculous and utterly stupid. When you read Steiner's 'In Bluebeard's Castle' you realize he has built an enormous polemical edifice upon most feeble grounds, and it is self-defeating: he wants to defend high culture and is attacking it in the same time.

And his celebration of Jewry is quite nonsensical too: it is entirely irrelevant which ethnicity brilliant people have. Jewry being a combination of ethnicity and culture, gets into scrapes when confusing culture with race, the same mistake Wagner made. As far as culture goes, it is the liberation from orthodoxy, and the cultural training of text interpretation, that contributes to the skills of people of Jewish descent (something that the philosopher Brian Magee has already explained very clearly). The 'Jewish renaissance' that happened since the beginning of the 19th century was made possible because Jews got civil rights and could freely partake in society. It was this sense of liberation and no longer being locked-up, both physically and mentally, within a ghetto, that stimulated people from Jewish descent to develop and to achieve. This, together with the continuous confrontation with antisemitism - mostly based upon envy - made them 'fanatically' over-achieving. Once I talked with a refugee musician from the Soviet Union, who said about his Jewish family that they were raised with the continuous instruction 'to be better than anybody else', to fight for your place in the world because of 'being Jewish' and thus, being discriminated against all the time and everywhere.

Culture is something that can be absorbed and identified with by anyone, as people from Jewish descent have already proven extensively over the last ages. Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Einstein etc. etc. were Europeans through and through, and Steiner's inclination to give them special status as 'Jews', is misplaced and, basically, racist.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Krier on modernism

“Humanity lives by trial and error, sometimes committing errors of a monumental scale. Architectural and urbanist modernism belong—like communism—to a class of errors from which there is little or nothing to learn or gain. . . . Modernism’s fundamental error, however, is to propose itself as a universal (i.e., unavoidable and necessary) phenomenon, legitimately replacing and excluding traditional solutions.” The architect Leon Krier. Equally applicable to music.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The smell of the lamp

  • "I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms, or at least not much, even though I believe with all my heart that Music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. It’s just that I find the actual pieces — whether they’re old or modern, which is in any case merely a matter of dates — so totally poverty-stricken, manifesting an inability to see beyond the work-table. They smell of the lamp, not of the sun. And then, overshadowing everything, there’s the desire to amaze one’s colleagues with arresting harmonies, quite unnecessary for the most part. In short, these days especially, music is devoid of emotional impact. I feel that, without descending to the level of the gossip column or the novel, it should be possible to solve the problem somehow. There’s no need either for music to make people think! … It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty mundane troubles, and never mind if they’re incapable of expressing anything resembling an opinion. It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say, one that can’t be found on the map." A most striking remark that is as appropriate for today's new music scene as it was around 1900 - it was written by Debussy in 1901 in a letter to one of his collegue-friends, Paul Dukas. So much new music of today - be it atonal, or tonal, or multiculti, or hip or whatever - sounds contrived, rationally-constructed without much feeling going into it, without depth. And the 'smell of the lamp' has in itself nothing to do with the style or progressivenss or conservatism of the composer, but is simply a matter of emotional capacities. The best music has an emotional dimension, and that has always been the case, from Gregorian chant onwards. It is this dimension which garantees the survival of musical works of the passing of time.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Again, the Western crisis considered

Another attack in Paris.... and the extensive media coverage unintentionally helps the terrorists by sensationalizing the information, and treating such attacks as terrorism instead of crime. The aim of terrorists is, of course, to destabilize society by spreading fear and stimulate antagonism against immigrants and especially, muslem immigrants, so that jihadists can more easily recrute disenfranchized locals with their narrative of 'the West' being against 'Islam'.

As we know, it is not religion turning people into killers of innocent people, but individual personal frustrations and psychopathological problems, which are then wrapped in religiously-informed myth (mostly entirely misunderstood) to enhance an abject criminal deed towards the level of heroism for a worthy cause.

As we also know, it is not religion making people religious, but the other way around: people have religious / spiritual instincts and needs, and finding a religious form to express them.

When, years ago, North-Irish terrorists tried, over long tragic periods, to undermine British society and politics with terrorist deeds, they were treated by the British media as crimes, thereby removing the political overtones of such deeds. It would be much better if the media today would follow that example and thus de-politicize the avelanche of these crimes perpetrated by entirely deranged individuals.

What we now see in the West is the rebellion of the disenfranchized masses, neglected by the political elites who seem to have mainly supported big business and globalization without providing enough protection for the 'losers' of what only can be called wild capitalism. The rise of populism, which finds expression in extreme rightwing parties entering governments, is also being stimulated by terrorist attacks, which - for the masses - seem to be the result of both immigration and globalization, the same causes of the wide-spread distrust and suspicion of 'the system'. All this results in a strong backlash towards nationalism, rekindling neofascist ideas and emotions, anticultural and anticivilizational movements, and will relate terrorism again and again to muslems - since most of the attackers claim to represent Islam. If borders will be closed to any immigrants, hoping to stop incoming terrorists, that is forgetting that most of the attackers are home-grown young petty criminals, finding in the jihadist narrative an 'ideal' which gives 'meaning' to their miserable life. Closing borders and condemning 'Islam' will not stop these people, as re-nationalization and the cultivation of 'das Volk', an entirely fake idea and loaded with destructive potential, will only offer more munition to attackers of Western / European society.

If, in Europe, nations of the European Union will leave the union (as the French Front National intends if they win the elections), this will not offer any solution to the problem. The only direction in which something of a solution can be found, is the Westernization of immigrants, and in Europe: Europeanization, with drastic educational programs which already happen in Germany, and the reinforcement of a European, not a national, identity. What could be done against these undermining attacks? I see only the necessity of at least doubling police forces everywhere, working together with the armies to protect public space, and an ever closer collaboration between nations on the points of information and policing, in the context of EU institutions. What is needed, alas, is a society that will look like a police state, where the presence of authorities is not there to suppress the people but to protect them. However unpleasant, it cannot be escaped, until the breeding ground of terrorism within Europe has been treated effectively. Also, freedoms will have to be restricted and limited, as already is happening in terms of self-censorship. (One would wish that the media would begin to censor their own coverage of terrorist attacks, as to stop helping terrorists with their sensationalism.)

If everywhere in Europe nationalism and rightwing politics win the day, this will isolate immigrant communities and add to the breeding ground of aggression and discrimination. It will set in motion a downwards spiral which will, if not stopped, end in civil wars all over the place and the breakdown of economies and the accessibility of public space. But if more rational ideas will prevail, this may help reform the EU, create a different momentum towards unification where social justice will undercut the instinctive but self-destructive movements of the masses who vote for the extreme right.

What does all this mean for culture? It underlines the strong necessity for culture to work towards a reinforcement of European, or/and Western, identity, towards civilizational values as expressed through mimetic art, reminding audiences of their humanity and the civilization they inherited. The West, including Europe, is in a crisis not only of politics (democracy underming itself), but of values and identity. This is something to be dealt with by all the thinking and artistic elites, to mobilize all the civilizational forces which are still there and embodied in the best of what Western civilization has achieved in the past. In political terms, this will have to include a thorough reform of aims, to begin with the awareness of the obligation to make sure that everybody in society has access to the basic assets which have been fought for over the ages, in short: a more socially-just politics instead of the wild capitalism we see today. That does not mean a totalitarian society but a free society with a strong legal system protecting civilians against both the inroads of economic exploitation and the regulation of the effects of globalization in such a way that there are no victims of what is seen as 'progress'.

At the heart of all these problems lies the strange fact, that Western civilization as it has developed over time, has reached a universal level of humanistic values, which can be implemented everywhere on the globe. Western, free, democratic, liberal, secular society however, merely creates an overall framework based upon universals that leaves most of culture untouched. Hence the possibility of people living in the West, well-adapted to these universals, and in the same time living in the style of a non-Western culture. Where these cultural values clash with the overall Western framework, they are adapted, simply because that makes life easier. And that is something that is happening all the time. This means that religion or culture are no longer part of the overal Western civilizational framework, but belong to the private sphere. In this direction, certainly a lot more research and exploration can be done and results formulated which can clarify, for both the Western locals who don't understand their own society, and for non-Western immigrants who need to understand and adapt.

The distinction between these two levels: the overall framework of universals and the cultural and religious level, is a key to understanding both the predicament of the West and of the process of globalization.