Saturday, May 14, 2011


Over dinner with my older son tonight, to celebrate our respective birthdays (they are three days apart), I listened with barely concealed delight as he told me about the books he has been reading lately. They are all the books I could not induce him to read when he was younger: Maugham, Waugh, Tolstoy (of course), Dostoevsky, Joyce, Hemingway, and to my great satisfaction, Babel. I think Isaac Babel was the most talented of the post-revolutionary Russian writers, and therefore, the most tragic. A brilliant young Jewish intellectual, he served, incongruously, with the Red Cavalry in the Russian civil war (though he did not know how to ride a horse), participating in the invasion of Poland, which gave rise to his greatest work, the cycle of short stories entitled "The Red Cavalry."

I based my own book, "Lt. Ramsey's War," structurally on "The Red Cavalry," which is a work I admire very much. It is wonderfully made, expressive, moving, and profound. My son said that he had done a bit of research on Babel prior to reading him, and was dismayed to learn that he had been arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and finally executed in the Soviet camps. But that was inevitable. The Bolsheviks could not tolerate so lyrical and liberated a soul. They killed, tortured or silenced all of the great talents of the Soviet era, including Mandelshtam, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Tarkovsky and, perhaps most touchingly of all, Yuri Olesha.

Olesha, who is little known or read these days, was, after Babel, I think, the most talented of the Soviet writers. A chubby, spectacled little man, he was essentially a romantic of the 19th century who found himself in the nightmare world of communist Russia. His greatest work and his only novel is entitled "Envy," because he saw the new world, and the new "Soviet Man" who was to inherit it, and he knew he could never be part of that. That was what he was envious of: a new generation of super-men of the communist state, with their steely eyes and sledge hammers who served the state slavishly -- lived, labored, sacrificed and died in its service.

They were creatures of the new collective government, these New Men, its minions, its mice who ran its tortured labyrinth their entire lives, ceding to it their freedom, their individuality, their very souls. They gave their children to state orphanages to be raised in the principles of Marx and Lenin, married when they were told whom they were told, and devoted their lives to the greater good of the communist populace. They were, in short, the ants of Dostoevsky's ant hill, that massive, inhuman, impersonal collective of which he warned the Russian people in the 1870s. Fortunately he did not live long enough to see it come into murderous reality.

As I thought of Olesha, that timid, tender soul who also tried to warn the Russian people of the cliff over which they were rushing, and whose brilliant promise was cut short when he was warned by the secret police to write no longer, I could not help but think (forgive me) of our own nation in our own time. And so I feel moved to warn my fellow Americans, as Olesha did his fellow Russians, that we are in the process, very gradual but unmistakable, of selling our souls to the government. In return for what? "Free" health care, cheap prescription drugs, entitlements, and a phony sense of fairness.

My fear is that our children may be the last generation of what the world would recognize as Americans -- those unique people who created their own government, constructed their own nation, lived their own lives, possessed their own souls and died in the certain knowledge that their children would be better off for their having done so. Like Olesha, I envy those who came before me in my land, and I fear and despise those who are usurping it in the name of greater social justice, greater collective good, greater dependence on a government which even now has swollen to proportions that can absorb us all.

We must resist. We must reinvent ourselves. We must restore our nation to what its Founders intended: a land of opportunity, where great accomplishment is possible because great risk is inevitable. We must be free to fail even if that means some of us fail miserably. The goal of this nation was the greatest good for the greatest number, not a mediocre level of satisfaction and security for everyone at the expense of liberty and individuality. America was meant to be, as Jack Kennedy said, the last, best hope of mankind. We must not barter that hope away for a phony fairness and a false promise of security from cradle to grave. In short, we must once again begin behaving like Americans.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


I have been listening a good deal lately to the Cesar Franck violin sonata, which I have enjoyed for many years. It is, in some ways, perfect. That is, for at least one time in his career, Franck got everything right. The first two movements, taken together, are huge for such a small form, filled with colors and textures, and possessing great strength. The third movement is wonderfully inventive and modern-feeling, while the finale contains one of my favorite themes in all of music, beautifully crafted and balanced, irresistible in its lyrical delicacy and expressiveness. It is a great work of musical art.

This led me to reflect on other composers who got it right at least once. Bizet is an example, with 'Carmen.' It is a wildly successful opera, and stands almost alone in his body of work for its achievement. Everything is right; it is dramatic, entertaining, and contains some of the most famous melodies in all of music. Now, I admit that Bizet wrote one very good symphony (when he was 17 I learned recently), which among other things contains a wonderful oboe solo; and the suite from l' Arlesienne remains popular, but 'Carmen' stands apart as a magnificent anomaly.

I find as I get older that I appreciate more the work of Jean Sibelius, whom I now regard as one of the best composers of the twentieth century (I think Prokoviev is the best), and I listen more often now to his music. He was an enormously talented man, but, I think, he was limited by the fact that he rarely transcended the confines of his national character. Much of his music sounds vaguely like a Finlandic winter to me, although his work, especially the symphonies, contain themes of great beauty and power. The problem is that the listener has to wade through so much turgid and tedious development to get to them; rather like trekking across the tundra to reach a few wonderful resorts.

The exception in Sibelius is the Violin Concerto, which, like the Franck sonata, is perfect. In that one work, everything comes together, everything is right. The piece has all that a great violin concerto should have: a big, powerful first movement, a lyrical, moving second, and a wonderful, exuberant thrill ride of a third. I love the Sibelius Violin Concerto, indeed, it is one of my favorite pieces of music, and it represents, to me, the best example of a composer getting it all right at least once in his career.

Vivaldi wrote a large number of pieces, some of which are wonderful, many of which are virtually indistinguishable from one another, but in the Four Seasons, he created one of the icons of Western music. Carl Orff was an important musicologist and pedagogue, but he is primarily remembered for one work, the oratorio Carmina Burana, which is absolutely brilliant. Biber's great accomplishment is the Mystery Sonatas (the pasacaglia from which inspired Bach's great Chaconne in D minor for solo violin, my favorite piece of music), and Guillaume de Machaut is remembered for his Messe de Notre Dame, which is one of the jewels of the pre-Renaissance.

There are other examples that I could cite, but the larger point is that such unique outbursts of brilliance serve to remind us of those composers who got it right over and over, year after year, in masterpiece after masterpiece. Bach is the greatest example of this. The sheer of volume of his masterworks is almost incomprehensible. That one man could produce works of such genius over so long a period defies imagination. Mozart is another, and Beethoven, too, of course. Brahms produced a very large body of masterful works during his lifetime, as did Schubert, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and, to a lesser extent, Prokoviev and Ravel. For such composers, 'getting it right' was the norm, and the occasional misses were the exception.

All this leads me, in turn, to reflect that there are two modes, if you will, of genius: sustained and punctual. Some artists are capable of moments of genius, while a few, a very few, seem to dwell in genius as a nearly permanent condition. Where, I wonder, in our own time, are the latter kind of artist? I don't see any. Perhaps some of you can suggest them.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Posting Redux

I have been absent for a while because I have been struggling with illness, work, and depression, but I shall make an effort to resume posting.

Someone asked recently why I was silent during "the most deplorable period in American history." While I do not think this period is our most deplorable - I would have chosen the period immediately preceding the Civil War for that distinction - I remain deeply concerned about the current condition and the future of the nation. I heard recently that the International Monetary Fund had informed the European Economic Union, by way of warning, that the United States has "no viable plan" to deal with its debt, and that China would overtake us as the world's leading economy within five years. I fear this is true, and it means, among many other things, that we are witnessing our nation's deterioration into a second-rate power, and that we will leave our children and grandchildren a country less prosperous and dynamic than the one we inherited. The great irony of course is that China is succeeding by adopting the methods which we are abandoning as we seek to become more like the nation that China no longer wishes to be - centralized, collectivist, socialist.

This is a sad state of affairs, and I feel that I must take a bit of the blame for it, since I was a leader in a generation of youth that believed that government was the solution to the nation's inequalities, and that socialism was the cure for its economic injustices. And while I think we were right insofar as the Civil Rights struggle and the campaign to end the war in Vietnam were concerned, we were wrong in just about every other regard. Nonetheless, through our strident activism, we left a legacy of the growth of government and the corresponding diminution of individual liberty, and of reliance on the power of government as a first and not as a final resort.

We now see the effects of that philosophy: More Americans are dependent on government assistance than ever before - fully 20 percent by some estimates - and government is the single biggest employer in the nation; the tax code in its baroque illogic punishes achievement, enterprise, and the desire to excel, while making it impossible for the middle class to accumulate wealth; our health care system is being collectivized and nationalized under a bureaucracy infamous for waste, incompetence and indifference; the public education system, which is the prisoner of the teachers unions and their servile cronies in the Democratic Party, is a disgrace (I heard yesterday that 47 percent of the people of Detroit are illiterate!); the nation's infrastructure is decaying at an alarming rate; and mediocrity and cynical self-interest have become the chief virtues of our political system.

It is no wonder that we are in the dire condition in which we find ourselves. And all this in pursuit of a phony ideal of fairness which exists only in the minds of the left-wing elite, and which they use government to impose on the rest of us whether we agree or not. Has it not become amply clear that this "fairness" is always purchased at the price of freedom? And while we, in my generation of youths, fought for fairness in race relations, we never intended, indeed, never even imagined, that that goal would one day be so inflated and distorted as to result in such atrocities as the government rationed health care and the death panels of the new health care law. For if everyone is guaranteed the freedom to live by the government, under the liberals' fairness doctrine, we must all also accept the responsibility to die when the government decides that our lives are no longer of any value. That is the ultimate form of leftist fairness: The right to life, liberty and happiness, so long as the government bureaucracy decides it makes actuarial sense for us to possess it.

The Constitution is being stood on its head by the left, for whom Cuba is a better model of fairness than America. Now the rights which the Founders declared came only from God are depicted as coming from government, in which God no longer plays a part. The left in this country has succeeded finally in doing what the Bolsheviks did from the start: secularize the nation's public life, substituting their own ambitions, values, and power for that primary source of power from which all rights flow. It is the collectivist inevitability of which Trotsky, of all people, warned - the substitution of central power for popular sovereignty - and, excuse me my friends, but President Obama is the convenient stooge of that ideology.

The left has now succeeded in realizing the socialist vision which we, as twenty-year-olds in the '70s intoxicated ourselves with, and the result is that our system is poorer, more unfair, less dynamic and productive, less innovative and entrepreneurial, more unequal, more destructive of the human spirit, and makes far less sense politically, socially, and economically than did the one against which we were struggling. My generation has won, and I apologize for it.