Thursday, April 23, 2009

Genius Among Us

I was thinking today about genius, which is a word I use very sparingly. I have such great regard for genius, and believe so strongly that it is rare if it is anything at all, that I prefer to reserve it for a very select group of people. (Now, when I talk about genius, I refer only to genius as it has manifested itself in Western civilization. I simply know too little about other civilizations to have a meaningful view of the question.)

It annoys me when the word genius is bandied about thoughtlessly. I have heard it applied to virtually anyone in any field who does what he or she does better than most people. But what one means in such a case is that the person possesses a greater degree of skill than even others who share the same profession. I think it is possible for someone to possess a very high degree of skill indeed, and still not deserve the accolade of genius.

Mozart was clearly a genius - I doubt that many people would dispute the statement. But was Haydn a genius? Personally, I do not think so. Shakespeare was a genius beyond question. But was John Donne? My answer would be no. Yet Haydn and Donne did exhibit an extremely high degree of skill in their work. They were great artists whose contributions are of the highest importance. Yet there is, to my mind, something lacking in their work that places them beneath Mozart and Shakespeare.

In my view, the true geniuses of our civilization include Bach, whom I regard as the greatest musical genius of all; Beethoven, Mozart, Michelangelo, Raphael, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Leonardo. These men's genius is above all question. Beyond them, there are others who deserve the appellation, but a case must be made for each. Among these I would include Einstein, Dostoevsky, Sophocles, Schubert and perhaps Brahms and Wagner. But once again, I think that their position as geniuses can be disputed in an intelligent and meaningful way.

Conversely, I do not think for a moment that Ray Charles or Miles Davis or Ernest Hemingway or Tchaikovsky were geniuses, though they did possess a very high level of skill. Thomas Jefferson may have been a genius, and in his own homespun way, so perhaps was Lincoln. I admire both men greatly, but I would not put them into the same category as Bach and Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

Now you will say that I am mixing apples and oranges by comparing Jefferson to Tolstoy or Einstein to Ray Charles. But I am not talking about the category of the individual; rather, I refer to an evaluation of his contribution to humanity. It is possible to put both apples and oranges into a golden bowl, and that is what I am doing when I speak of genius as an attribute of achievement regardless of the nature of the achievement.

All of this raises the question: What constitutes genius? What is it that elevates it above even the loftiest level of skill? In order to begin to answer this question, I think it is useful to point out that not all human endeavors, and not even all artistic endeavors, are amenable to genius. To give some examples of what I mean by this: painting is an arena for genius but film and photography are not; music is certainly such an arena, but dance is not; the novel, poetry and drama are also forms which lend themselves to genius, whereas song writing, singing and, I think, even instrumental performance are not.

Martha Graham, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were consummate masters of the dance, but I would not call them geniuses. For their art was entirely a matter of performance, or of interpretation and of skill. Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan were not geniuses, but it is possible that John Coltrane was. Coltrane, to my mind, offers an instructive example of what may be genius in a popular art form, namely, jazz. His skill was of the highest degree, indeed, it would be difficult to name another virtuoso who achieved a comparable level of performance. But had Coltrane been only a performer, I do not think he could be considered a genius. It is in his compositions, coupled with his artistry, that something like genius emerges. And his compositions were characteristically ethereal, transcendent, spiritual.

This, I think, is what sets genius apart. Genius, in order for it to be authentic, must manifest itself in a form which enables creation as well as performance, and which offers the possibility for transcendence, not only of the art, but of the very experience of life itself. Genius puts us in touch with that which outlasts time and the mundane categories of existence in a way that nothing else can. It represents a direct communication among souls, and a connection between souls and the source of that spiritual reality which souls reflect. Bach surely did this, as did Beethoven and Tolstoy. Shakespeare revealed to us truths about the human condition that endure as revelation in every generation. All practiced their art to the highest possible degree, but all, also, transcended their art, taking us to a higher plane of existence. That is what makes them geniuses.

If genius does not reveal the existence and nature of universal truth, then it is not genius. If it is merely skillful rendering, no matter the brilliance or virtuosity of the performance, it is not genius. And another point is worth making: Genius is not acquired, it is inbred. This is so, I think, because genius is the transcendent expressing itself through the corporeal. And this, in turn, implies that the source of genius is some form of consciousness. To put it another way: because people are born with genius, the source of genius must lie outside of the mortal; that is, it must be immortal, eternal, transcendent.

Relatively few people in any given generation are born with a potential for true genius, but that potential is not always realized. To do so requires a great deal of work, a great deal of sacrifice, and a great deal of opportunity. I have said elsewhere here that the true tragedy of the Third World, or of the fundamentalist Muslim world, is that, by simple statistics, there must be within them a few great, lofty geniuses whom we will never know because their genius was stifled by poverty, or disease, or early mortality or the ignorant prejudices of religious fanaticism. The loss of such genius is, to my mind, a matter for universal mourning. For genius is so rare, so unique and so needful to the human spirit that to destroy even one particle of it is a loss that may never be recovered.

Perhaps that is why the world is in the lamentable condition it is: because we have had so little care for the possibility of genius and for its role in elevating humanity that we have, in effect, performed a lobotomy on our race and an excision of our spirit for which we all suffer.

But there is genius among us, both past and present. And the hope that such genius will continue to nourish our souls and enlighten our culture must yet sustain us.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Life on Earth

Those of us who own gardens in Southern California know that the California live oak tree is a protected species. Because I live in a canyon in the foothills, I have several on my property. In recent years, I have taken to preserving live oak seedlings, and nurturing them to maturity. I have one in my driveway that I raised from a sprout two inches tall and that is now taller than I am.

We also know that, since live oaks are protected by state law, we are forbidden to trim or otherwise alter them where they grow. This is, of course, well-intentioned but wrong-headed bureaucratic nonsense. It is what happens when one tries to write an organic process into law. Live oaks, as any other form of vegetation, benefit from judicious trimming. But I recall about two years ago, a couple in Glendale were ordered by the fire department to trim their live oaks, and then were fined $300,000 by the city council for having done so. Such is the inanity of government when it tries to do that which is in the interest of any living thing.

My point is that, today while I was watering in my back yard, I brushed up against a live oak which I had nurtured from a seedling and which is now about three feet tall. Its spiky leaves grabbed hold of my shirtsleeve and would not let it go until I paid it proper attention. It was, as I had known for some time, in need of re-potting, having long since outgrown the clay bowl in which I had raised it. And for a moment it occurred to me that the oak was trying to tell me something; that it was communicating to me a basic need which it was experiencing and which it could not satisfy for itself.

Now this set me to thinking that there are two fundamentally different ways of looking at life on Earth. One is that life is merely a concatenation of events which have no deeper meaning than that which appears in the present. This is the view of the atheists and the secularists, which is invading and infecting our society more and more. According to this view, I ought simply to be more careful how I move about my garden. But there is another way of looking at life. This way assumes that the Earth is a living thing, a spiritual as well as a physical presence, and as such, all that lives on Earth cannot help but express itself, and express itself particularly to us humans as the summit of life on Earth. This implies both that all that lives has some need and ability to express itself, and that we, in our humanity, have a responsibility to listen and to understand.

Now, do I think that my live oak was trying to communicate with me? No, I suppose not. But can I dismiss out of hand, and in a rude and arrogant manner, that it, too, like me, has the need and ability to express itself? No, I cannot do that. Perhaps it was reminding me, in some primitive, self-assertive way, that, though I had nurtured it, I was neglecting it. Perhaps all that lives on the Earth, insofar as it shares life with me, shares consciousness with me as well. And perhaps, just perhaps, its lowly form of consciousness reached out to me, sensing that I was feeling guilt towards it and seeking to remind me of the basic organic connection between itself and me. And that connection is two-fold: my having saved it from extinction, and transplanted and watered and even talked to it. And it, in its latent glory as an oak, a true native of the sliver of the Earth that I inhabit, that it would provide shade and shelter and inspiration and even awe to me.

In this way, was that oak tree, in its nascent vitality and beauty, reminding me of my humanity, and of the responsibilities of my humanity - not only to be human, but to enhance my human-ness by being aware of that which, though it may not be human, is nonetheless as alive and worthy as myself?

Slippery Slopes

I have been very disturbed by two news stories in as many days. The federal government has, as I understand it, decided to convert its bailout money to the banks into stock ownership. This will, in effect, give the government the power to run the nation's largest banks. Also, the EPA has, apparently, consigned to itself the power to regulate (read tax) virtually every aspect of life in America in order to carry out its mandate to protect the environment. That the federal government should nationalize America's banking system, and that an agency of that government should have the power to impose taxes on its own authority in direct violation of the Constitution, is a telling and frightening prospect.

There have been many such examples of this usurpation of Constitutional authority by the government in recent years, forming a pattern of increasing federal control of American institutions, American life and American liberty. The response, on the other hand, has been predictable. The left actively lionizes and promotes this usurpation, given its hysterical confidence in the power of big government to solve individuals' ills, and the right has failed miserably to mount a coherent counterattack based on Constitutional principles. The poet W.B. Yeats might have been describing our current condition when he wrote that 'the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.'

But the truth is that, to the left, the Constitution is merely a quaint artifact of the eighteenth century, for which it is increasingly lacking the shame to express its disdain. Some on the left still pay lip service to the Constitution, but more and more the purveyors of collectivism are making it clear that they never really respected the Constitution to begin with. It was, in their minds, the product of bourgeois, slave-owning male chauvinists who pursued self-interest over liberty and their fortunes over the nation's future.

This point of view is pernicious ideological nonsense, of course, but there are few left in our society, either in politics or in the media, who will say so. And now, with the nation's first mixed-race president in office, any attempt to stem the tide of anti-Constitutional usurpation of power by the Executive can be, and is being, denounced as racist. Indeed, just last night I heard a left-wing spokesperson declaring that the only reason that anyone opposes the federal government's increasing centralization of the nation's economy and its growing regulation of its citizens' behavior is 'because there is a black man in the White House.' (Leave aside her slap at the president's mother, who was white.) This woman might as well have labeled those of us who oppose the Administration's policies as 'filthy Zionists,' or as 'cosmopolitan anti-proletarian agitators.' She would have fit in very well as a hack spokesperson for the fascists or the communists.

In the same broadcast, someone pointed out that in the previous Administration, opponents were called unpatriotic; today, opponents are being called racist. Both positions are misguided and harmful to the national debate. What is needed, in my view, is a return to an understanding that the Constitution is not a mere historical artifact, but a statement of the nature of the nation which was founded upon it. It is a vision, a set of beliefs and principles, which were meant to reflect the yearnings, not of a class of people, but of the human spirit. And this was so because those principles were ascribed not to human will, but to divine will. And whether you believe in god or not, the underlying point is that the nature of the human soul demands, and the nourishing of the human spirit requires, the maximum of personal liberty. This is what the Founders understood, and what they endeavored in brilliant prose and profound political and social terms, to guarantee. But that maximum of personal liberty necessarily implies a minimum of governmental power. And to the extent that the left refuses to accept that principle, and, indeed, stands it on its head, its views and policies are in direct conflict with the Constitution and the spirit in which the nation was created.

If this is so, let them admit it publicly; let the left say that the Founders were wrong, that the historical traditions of this nation are at fault, and that they, and only they, know what sort of a society we should live in. Let them declare that the Constitution is nothing but a blueprint for a structure that should never have been built, and that, having been built, has outlived its usefulness. In short, let them be honest with the American people about their ends and means. And let them tell us exactly what sort of socialist paradise they have in mind for us, rather than try to implement it through extra-Constitutional means, gradually, using courts and bureaucracies which have no accountability to the people. At least then we will know exactly where we stand, rather than having to figure it out by reading between the lines of legislation and court decisions which the people's representatives themselves do not read.

We have, I fear, started down a path from which it will become increasingly difficult to turn back. It is a path that leads to the diminution of individual liberty and the crippling of the human spirit. It is a path away from Constitutional principles and traditions in the name of free health care, free insurance, free what-have-you, none of which, of course is free. At the very least it must be paid for by increasingly onerous taxation, and at the most, by our birthright as a free and self-reliant people.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Musical Moments

I am nearly finished reading a wonderful book entitled 'A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Search for the Perfect Piano.' I have admired and enjoyed Gould's recordings of J.S. Bach's keyboard works my entire adult life, and though I knew that he was eccentric, I did not understand until now how deeply odd he truly was. That he was a sort of genius is unquestionable, but that he was neurotic almost to the point of social paralysis is also clear. Nonetheless, his piano recordings, especially of the Goldberg Variations and the Inventions, have given me more pleasure for more years than almost any others I possess.

Reading the book has made me realize how many of the most precious memories I have are wrapped up in music. And, indeed, music has been a continual source of pleasure, of inspiration, of consolation and of provocation in my life. I will relate three such moments here, in the hope that you, too, may take some enjoyment from them.

When I was a penniless playwright living in Philadelphia, I found myself drawn to the music students in the city. Now one of the few advantages of growing up and living in Philadelphia is that there is no shortage there of fine music and great musical performances, many of them, I gratefully found, free of charge. And so I spent more and more time among music students, people of my own age who were enrolled either at the world-famous Curtis Institute, or at the rather more humble New School of Music. I got to know many of these young people - all of them classical musicians - and much of my musical education is due to them.

One evening I attended a concert at the old Academy of Music on Broad Street given by the orchestra of the Curtis Institute, at which the soloist was the Institute's director, the great pianist, Rudolph Serkin. They played the Emperor Concerto of Beethoven, one of my favorite pieces, and the youth and exuberance of the orchestra, coupled with the elderly Serkin's famous bravura (in which, as one student remarked, he missed whole handfuls of notes, but who the hell cares) was thrilling to me. I heard things in the concerto I had never heard before, and I learned things about it and from it that I had never known from the recordings of the world's venerable orchestras. But the young musicians brought a freshness and vitality to the work that transformed it in my mind.

After the concert, I went with several members of the orchestra, all students, all in their early twenties, to a local watering hole called The Piano Bar, which was, I recall, a basement restaurant and bar with no piano in sight. It was a Saturday night and the place was crowded to the doors. Nonetheless, the students and I muscled our way to a table, and, as usually happens with young musicians after a big concert, everyone was determined to get drunk. I did not (and still do not) drink liquor, and so I alone remained sober.

About three or four drinks into the evening, the cellist who was sitting next to me, asked me what my favorite cello piece was. Now at that time I was romantically involved with a little work by Faure called 'Apres un Reve' or 'After a Dream,' and I told her so. The cellist, an attractive young woman named Wendy Tomlinson, then reached over, opened her cello case, took out her cello and proceeded to tighten her bow and tune. I had no idea that she intended to play whatever piece I named, and, indeed, all of us at the table were taken by surprise. But Wendy was a fey, spontaneous sort of person, especially after a few drinks, besides being one of the best cello students at Curtis.

She then started to play the Faure piece from memory, the whole time smiling beatifically at me. The result was immediate. Everything stopped, all conversation, all movement, all rattling of glasses and dishes. Everyone was listening as the dreamlike melody filled the congested room. But it was as if she was playing for me alone, and I felt, at first uncomfortable, but, after a few seconds, deeply moved and flattered. She played beautifully, soulfully, with great feeling and love. It may not have been technically perfect, but it was heart-rending. I still recall the mood in that stuffy little bistro, the looks on the patrons' faces, and the fact that the entire kitchen staff came out in their white aprons and tall hats to listen.

For the two or three minutes the piece lasted, the restaurant was transformed into a magical space, in a way that only music can do. When Wendy finished, still smiling, there was a breathless silence, and then everyone broke into applause. And as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, she put her cello back into its case and resumed getting drunk. It is a moment which I shall remember as long as I live; one of the few in which I felt truly special.

The second incident occurred in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. I was in the habit of hitch-hiking to this suburb of Philadelphia to visit the lovely cathedral, which was the headquarters of the Swedenborgian religious cult. The cathedral, a graceful Gothic structure, is surrounded by acres of rolling hillside grounds overlooking the peaceful Montgomery County landscape. I often went there in the warm weather to read or to study, lying on the grass below the church, enjoying the quiet.

One afternoon - I think it was a Saturday - I heard organ music in the cathedral. Now I had long been a lover of J.S. Bach's organ music, and I made a point of attending organ recitals whenever they occurred. So I closed my book and went into the church.

The place was deserted, but someone was playing, rather skillfully if not entirely professionally, up in the loft. I took a seat among the pews and listened. When the organist finished, I applauded. A face appeared over the edge of the choir loft railing. It was a young man, not more than a teenager, rather thin and pale. "I didn't know there was anyone there," he said.

I told him that I had enjoyed his playing, and he demurred, saying that he was merely practicing for the Sunday service. I asked if he intended to play any Bach, and he offered to do so. I thanked him and sat down again, but, to my surprise, he asked if I would like to come up into the loft.

I climbed the stairs and found him seated at the console. He invited me to sit down. There were no chairs or benches, so I asked him where. He patted the bench beside him. And so I sat down at the organ next to this rather earnest if shy young man, whose name was Kenneth Coy. Though only eighteen, he was the cathedral's organist, and had been playing for years. He asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to hear.

I told him that my favorite Bach piece is the Prelude and Fugue in A minor. He said he had never played it, but he thumbed through the thick book of music on the stand until he found it. He glanced through it, remarked that it was interesting if difficult, and began to sight read it.

As with Wendy's performance, it was a thrilling experience, all the more so since we were the only people in the church and I was sitting next to the performer. For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to watch an organist at work, and I was amazed. Playing the organ is monstrously hard work, involving both hands and both feet on the maze of keys, stops and pedals. He threw himself into the piece, literally, moving from side to side, working his arms and hands and legs, playing over the three ranks of keys, opening and closing the stops, and working the pedals with both feet like a dancer.

Because he was unfamiliar with the piece, his playing was tentative, but what I have always valued in that work, especially in the fugue, is the sheer joy which it exudes. It is, in fact, the most joyful and uplifting piece of music I have ever heard, and on more than one occasion it has saved me from depression and despair. And to see it played as well as hear it, and played by such a young spirit, overwhelmed me with joy. I was transported in that deserted cathedral, in which the music swirled and echoed, and I wished that it would never stop.

When Kenneth came at last to the end and lifted his hands and feet from the instrument, the final chords reverberated for many seconds, dying away finally into the Baroque emptiness of the church. I don't remember what if anything I said to him. I am sure that I thanked him, and he assured me that he was glad for the company and the audience.

After that I hitched to Bryn Athyn every Saturday to sit on the bench next to Kenneth while he practiced. I learned a great deal about organ music, as well as having a visceral experience of its performance. I also learned that Kenneth was torn about his future. His parents wanted him to attend the college run by the church and enter the ministry, but he had his heart set on going to music school. I felt I had to say something to him. I told him that he was right, and, hard as it was to contravene his parents, he had to pursue his music. He replied that his parents' argument was that as a minister he could contribute to the community. But I had to reply that, as a musician, he could give much more - he could give the gift of his talent, he could fill the church with music that would uplift and inspire countless people, and bring enlightenment and joy to their lives.

I do not know what happened to Kenneth Coy. I stopped going to Bryn Athyn at summer's end. But I hope that he followed his instinct and studied music, and that somewhere in the world today he is lifting the hearts of strangers, as he did mine on those magical Saturday afternoons.

Like the others, the third moment was entirely unexpected. After graduating from film school in Paris, I went to New York City to try to get into the business. Through a series of accidents, I paired up with two young filmmakers, one Israeli and the other Egyptian, and together we formed a company called Elektric Films. Somehow (I don't remember how) we secured a contract from the U.S. Department of Labor to make a documentary about two sculptors who were designing and building playgrounds for underprivileged kids in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. The filming would take several weeks, and one of my partners managed, through friends, to arrange for us to stay in the guest cottage of a vacation house belonging to the great soprano, Phyllis Curtain, near Great Barrington.

Now it just so happened that I had recently heard Ms. Curtin perform at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, singing songs by the American composer Ned Rorem, with Rorem himself at the piano. She was wonderful, and I looked forward to the chance of meeting her. But my partner informed me that the only reason we were using the cottage was that Ms. Curtin was in New York, and had no plans to come to Great Barrington.

About halfway through the shoot, I was awakened one Sunday morning by a quiet knock at the front door. It was early, I was exhausted, but I dragged myself downstairs and opened it. It was Phyllis Curtin. She explained that she had come up to retrieve something from the house, but that she had forgotten her key and was locked out. She said that the kitchen window was unlocked, and asked if I would be kind enough to climb through and open the door for her. Of course I said yes.

I went with her to the back of the house, opened the window over the sink and climbed up onto the sill. I put my knee down only to find that the sink was full of dirty dish water. The leg of my jeans was soaked. I went to the front door and opened it and found Ms. Curtin waiting on the stoop. She saw at once what had happened and apologized, asking if there was anything she could do. Without really thinking, I said yes, and I asked if she would sing the aria 'I Know That My Redeemer Liveth' from Handel's Messiah. And she did, standing there on the stoop, to an audience of one. Again, it was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.

Just yesterday, I was listening to the Beethoven piano sonata op. 109 in the car on the way to work, and though I don't particularly want to be alive these days, I found myself saying that I do want to remain alive to listen to this music. Music, truly great music, not the distracting nonsense that passes for music in our culture, has the power to transform our lives, to fill them with joy, uplift them, and make them worth the living. This, together with my work and, above all, with my children, is what I live for, what nourishes my spirit, what keeps me alive. And when the work is done, and when my children are grown and gone away, I will still have the music, and, perhaps, more of those magical moments that only it can bring.