Monday, January 27, 2014

A Major B Minor

Yesterday I took my eleven year old to see and hear Bach's Mass in B-minor at the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The performance was by the L.A. Master Chorale and its orchestra. I must say that I have come to love the Master Chorale, and I feel that its conductor, Grant Gershon, ought to be named a municipal treasure by the city so that he can never leave. His pre-concert talks are always entertaining and informative, his demeanor on stage, his love of the music and his ideas seem never to flag or fail. I have attended the Chorale's performances of the Verdi Requiem (one of my favorite pieces and, I think one of the most dramatic works of art ever produced), as well as their Carmina Burana (twice), which is simply the best rendition of this musical bacchanal I have ever heard. You rarely hear an audience laugh out loud at a classical concert, and afterwards I said to my son, "Now tell me that's not the most fun you've ever had in a concert hall". And so when I learned that they were doing the B-minor Mass, I bought tickets early.

It was well that I did; the performance sold out. Though I must say that I, and others, knowing this, were surprised at the number of empty seats. The answer came midway through the first half of the performance, when Mr. Gershon had to stop to allow a small army of latecomers to enter. "Typical L.A. audience," I whispered to my son. But the conductor was gracious, even genial about it, and no real harm was done.

Now I should say that I consider the B-minor Mass to be the most beautiful creation of Western Civilization. No, I do not blanch at such a statement, for I know I am not alone. Many years ago, I watched a debate between William F. Buckley and the philosopher, Mortimer Adler, on the question of whether Heaven will be more beautiful than the B-minor Mass. I don't recall what they decided, but for my own part, the answer is No, since the Mass exists and Heaven does not. Thus it is rather like asking whether a tree is more beautiful than the idea of a tree. Perhaps Plato would argue that the idea is superior, but certainly not on a hot summer day when shade is required, or when a storm whisks the branches and leaves. I described this debate to my son on the drive down to the Disney Center, and then I said to him: "You are about to experience the most beautiful thing you will ever experience; so enjoy it, because the rest of your life will be a disappointment." Of course, being my son, he made a face at the suggestion.

The B-minor Mass is a miracle of creation. It has so many colors, so many textures, such a wealth of meaning and emotion and insight, and all of it is so beautiful that, to my mind at least, it transcends any other work, even the greatest of Beethoven, Tolstoy and Shakespeare. For sheer drama, nuance, variety and spiritual and aesthetic power, it is unmatched, and rivaled only, perhaps, by Lear. The Master Chorale's performance lasted over two hours (with an unexpected intermission), and yet as we entered each section in the work, it was as if it, and the world, were being created anew. There is so much variety in the Mass, and all of it so perfectly balanced and profoundly executed (and in this case, wonderfully performed) that one's attention never falters; indeed, it grows and becomes more awestruck with each unfolding gesture of the work.

That said, I did take exception to some of Mr. Gershon's choices of phrasing in the instruments and voices, in which he consistently detached notes rather than treating them legato, but that was purely a matter of personal taste, and I am content to defer to his knowledge and judgment. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed and admired his decision to use members of the Chorale to sing the solos and duets, rather than relying on invited soloists. They did so very well, and while the process of moving them from the risers to a position downstage was a bit distracting, the effect was to make the piece seem more at one with the orchestra and chorus. This was Mr. Gershon's and the Chorale's B-minor Mass; they took possession of it and they did so with marvelous virtuosity, originality, devotion and elan, as they have everything I have seen them perform.

I have said 'seen' several times since one of the joys of their programs is watching Mr. Gershon, the singers and the orchestra. He transmits his personality to the group, a personality that is suffused with genuine love and respect for the music, with brilliantly original ideas and attention to detail, and with humor when possible and solemnity when called for. This is a truly marvelous ensemble, and the orchestra that accompanies it is of a very high quality. Though I have listened to the Mass many times, this was the first time I had seen it performed, and one of the most interesting things to me was to watch how beautifully Bach paired instrumental soloists with vocal soloists, a fact which Mr. Gershon emphasized by having the singers move down into the body of the orchestra, and having the instrumentalists stand as they performed together with them. This was music that was wonderful to watch. Bach's blending of instrumental and human voices is unerring, filled with variety, and moving both for its delicacy and drama. "That is genius," I whispered to my son, and this time, he nodded.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Apology Society

We have become an apology society. This obsessive need to flagellate oneself in public is being driven, of course, by political correctness, which has engendered the idea that there is an inherent right not to be offended, especially by speech. This runs directly counter to the First Amendment, which sanctifies the right to speak freely; but the denizens of PC are systematically undoing this sacred right for, as usual, the sake of political gain and their own egos.

Let me be categorial: There is no right not to be offended. There is, however, a fundamental right to express oneself, free from persecution. But in our society today, though one cannot be legally prosecuted for offensive speech, one's life can be made a hell for it. Those who are accused of offensive speech are subjected to pillorying in the media, and demands are made that they be censured, forced to apologize in public, and fired from their jobs. What makes this current malaise even more pernicious is that it is the bugaboo of one particular political ideology: liberalism. The left has made it abundantly clear that it favors tolerance and freedom of expression, but only for those who agree with it politically. And since it is the left that invented political correctness and defines and redefines and enforces it, the apology society is nothing but politically-driven censorship. "But," they will argue, "we do not demand that people be prosecuted for speech." No, you have your own methods of punishment. You will publicly humiliate the offender and engineer the destruction of his or her livelihood. And you will do so in the name of correctness. Unable to use the law as a bludgeon, you use publicity and economics, the effects of which can be just as harsh and destructive as prison.

We have recently been forced to witness the sorry spectacle of Duck Dynasty. I had never heard of Duck Dynasty and had never seen it and, having learned something about it, do not wish to. It is, as far as I can tell, merely another wart on the face of reality television, which is the latest derogation of the habitual unreality of television. However, its main character was thrust into the public view when he stated that the Old Testament teaches that homosexuality is abnormal. Now, while I do not believe that, just as I do not believe the Creation story, I know that many people do, and I would not demand that someone be dragged before the court of public opinion for having said it, humiliated for having said it, suspended from his program for having said it, clamor that he forfeit his career for having said it, or insist that the force of the government be brought to bear in order to stifle him.

As far as I know, you are free in this society to say that the Bible teaches against homosexuality, and that God created Adam and Eve, and no one should have the power to compel you to remain silent. I may disagree with what you say, but I will not insist that you be shut up; indeed, I might even welcome such assertions since they are so easy to refute. But this is not enough for the daemons of political correctness, who use the power of interest groups to pressure spineless politicians and corporate executives to muzzle any speech with which they disagree. The most troubling aspect of this sinister phenomenon, however, is that it is being mainstreamed in our culture, often with the eager collaboration of politicians and the media.

Now we have the Governor of New York declaring that people who disagree with the left on matters of abortion, gun ownership and the definition of marriage are not welcome in that state. (This scabrous declaration was then echoed by New York City's new mayor.) Earlier we had the Mayor of Chicago telling a restaurant chain that, because its owner contributed to traditional-marriage causes, his business was no longer welcome in that city. Whatever happened to the principle upon which our free society was based that declares: I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it! That was courageous talk; political correctness is craven censorship. The Governor of New York and the Mayors of Chicago and New York City are fools, but they are something worse (since foolishness can be forgiven); they are agents of mischief, because they are undermining the principles of liberty on which our nation was founded. They fail to see that the point is not homosexuality or gun rights or abortion; it is the future of free speech in America.

Every day on the news I hear references to "The N Word" as if it referred to some sort of blasphemy that dare not be uttered. Of course, this expression, which people use in place of the word itself, merely causes the listener to think of the word, producing the opposite effect to that intended; rather like telling someone, "Don't think of an elephant." The fact is that people have become so intimidated by the forces of political correctness that an entire vocabulary of forbidden terms has emerged in our society, and otherwise intelligent, well-educated people skirt fearfully around them as if they were ancient curses never to be invoked. We have seen this sort of verbal paranoia throughout history: Say the name of God out loud and you will be punished! Say the name of the devil three times and you will be punished! Let others know your real name and you will be punished! Now we have our own forbidden lexicon of which we have been taught to live in fear; and who gets to determine its contents? The political left.

I refuse to be intimidated. I am a writer, the inheritor of a profession thousands of years old, whose practitioners have pointed the way to truth and pointed out hypocrisy when everyone else in their societies had gone either mad or corrupt or stupid. I do not fear language - any form of language - and will use whatever words I feel I must to convey to my fellow citizens what I esteem to be the truth of our condition. But, as always, with freedom comes responsibility. I will not use language gratuitously nor with the calculated intention to hurt, but I will use it, all of it that I have at my disposal, how and when it seems to me appropriate. For my colleagues, especially in the film business, who censor themselves and others for political purposes, I have nothing but disdain. The words, "You cannot say that," are to me a challenge to honor and perpetuate the sacred traditions of the writer and the writer's profession, for which many have given their lives, invariably at the hands of political bullies.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Gagging on Gadgetry

I have often said that I am most comfortable with things made of wood; I am a man of the Nineteenth Century. I was uncomfortable in the Twentieth, and am distinctly ill at ease in the Twenty-first. I do not care for electronic gadgets, and am trying my best to get them out of my life. Alas, I cannot. I use my computer to write, as it is far more versatile and efficient than my old typewriter, and my cell phone is connected to my home burglar alarm. Two Christmases ago, my older son gave me a Kindle, possession of which I had carefully avoided, but I must admit that I have read a couple of dozen books on it since. It is an excellent tool for research, which is half of what I do for a living, enabling me to acquire the text of a book (not the book itself) quickly and inexpensively. I read as much of it as my project requires, and then am not obliged to find shelf space for the rest of it. Nor does it collect much dust. As for all the other gadgets, I have successfully resisted them to this point.

Sixty years ago, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote that he was waiting for the rebirth of wonder. I am watching it die, having the life strangled out of it by high technology. Call it a kind of romanticism, if you will; and I suppose it is - a kind of nostalgia. It is nostalgia for a time when there was quaint charm in distance and piquant anxiety in not knowing; when curiosity was driven by that which we had trouble finding out, and mystery had an allure reserved only to Garbo: silent, aloof, and perfect in its inscrutability. Now all these things are fading like daguerreotypes from the American frontier, to be replaced with more and more pixilated images of anything and everything we want to know and don't need to.

Please don't misunderstand: I appreciate the fact that high tech has made our lives easier (though in the latter half of the Twentieth Century they weren't all that unbearable) but it has also made them more precarious. In prior ages, it took drought or disease or barbarians to destroy a civilization; now it can be done by a solar flare or a cyber attack. Take Target, for example: At a stroke, the identities of 40 million people were placed in peril by some mischievous kid in the Ukraine, and for the capital sin of Christmas shopping. I know... I was one of them. And so if high tech has made getting along easier, it has likewise made going under inevitable.

The irony, of course, is that, now that we can know virtually anything instantaneously by looking it up on a smartphone, most of us seem to know nothing much of anything worth knowing. We don't understand, for example, that all this convenience and its concomitant dependence have made us horribly vulnerable. Every day I witness my fellow citizens numbly trading their individual liberty for electronic connectedness. We are accepting the death of personal privacy for the promise of collective convenience. And as the vacuum of liberty deepens, the government, as our Founders warned us, is only too eager to step in and fill it. We watched, just yesterday, as the president offered token fixes for massive domestic spying, unable to specify how even those bandaids would be applied, thereby confessing both his personal ignorance of the true nature of the problem, and his servile acquiescence to the faceless forces that are threatening the very existence of liberty in this nation. And the media, faithful curs that they are, blandly nodded Yes.

In the wonderful play "Marat/Sade," one of the revolutionaries exclaims: Don't believe them when they tell you that you've never had it so good; that is merely the slogan of those who have that much more than you! I would echo that warning to our gadget-dependent culture: Don't believe those who tell you that you've never had access to so much information; that is merely the slogan of those who know that much more than you - and are keeping it secret.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Surveillance and The Butler

The other day, I did something that I thought I would never have to do in this nation of ours. I took a post-it, reached over to my computer screen, and stuck it over the camera lens. I did this because of reports I had been reading that the FBI can and does monitor the activities of computer users through their skype cameras. I had only recently begun using skype, and so it was chilling and disheartening to learn that the government was taking advantage of the technology to spy on people. Coming on the heels of the NSA surveillance revelations, and the zombie-like reaction of most of officialdom, from the president on down, it was yet another blow to my confidence that anything like privacy might still exist in our society. Then, at the urging of my children, I replaced my archaic cell phone with an iPhone, only to learn a few days later that the NSA uses them as a sort of reverse GPS to track the movements of their owners. Again, the revelation seems scarcely to have raised an eyebrow among the powers sworn to protect our Constitutional liberties. Richard Nixon would have been thrilled.

There is no privacy in America any more. We must simply acknowledge the fact since those in authority seem determined to protect this new status quo, rather than our liberties, and the bulk of the population does not seem to care. I asked my older, computer-genius son why this should be and he had a simple and disarming answer: Young people today, he said, have no expectation of privacy. He took out his smart phone and demonstrated that Google knew that he was at that moment in a sushi restaurant in Pasadena, and it glibly offered suggestions on other businesses and points of interest in the immediate area. The disregard for privacy, he was saying, was the result of generational training in the convenience of technology: Young people would rather know where the nearest cinema or gadget shop is than know that they are secure in their privacy.

Another disheartening realization: Privacy is now a quaint relic of an earlier age. Technology has suffocated it under a blanket of easy access to information. And just as the powers that be are content to take advantage of the woeful state of public education in this country because ignorance serves their purposes, so they are taking advantage of the surfeit of pointless information because it kills privacy. And privacy is a great impediment to government control of individuals. Remember the old dictum of British Common Law that your home is your castle, and not even the King of England has the right to enter without your permission? Monarchs never dreamed that they would one day be eagerly invited in to the most intimate parts of our lives, like our health care, for example, for the sake of knowing where "The Butler" is playing tonight.

And on that score, may I offer my opinion that "The Butler," like Obamacare, is a massive fraud being perpetrated on the American public? It is nothing but another Hollywood liberal screed on American evil that is so simplistic and so politically biased as to be comical, were it not being taken so very seriously. As I watched it, I was alternately amused and horrified. The Civil Rights Movement? I was there; the Black power movement? I was there; the anti-Vietnam War Movement? I was there. And they were nothing like so simple as the movie portrays them. For example, the Black Panther philosophy is tossed off in a few canned sentences in one scene, and beyond that the movement is portrayed as consisting of young people with big hair, big earrings, black leather and bad attitudes engaged in pseudo-political posturing and pouting. This does service neither to the complexities of the historical phenomenon nor to the need of young viewers to form an intelligent opinion of it.

This is ice skating through recent American history, using clichés and stereotypes to make a point that has more to do with the political cant of the filmmakers than it does with the truth about those events. It is Hollywood myth making at its most despicable: propaganda meant to serve a tendentious agenda rather than art meant to educate and edify. Yet, knowing Hollywood as I do, the film and everyone connected with it will doubtless be nominated for all the major awards, and will probably win many of them. For this is how mainstream Hollywood sees history: as cheap drama concocted from convenient clichés and stereotypes that can be served up neatly in two-hour packages over popcorn and slurpees.

Suffice it to say that, at its most clichéd and comical, the film ultimately reveals itself for what it truly is - a racist cavalcade conflated from liberal guilt and elitist daydreaming. In the final scenes, the two main characters, played by Forrest Whitaker and no less an icon of media hype than Oprah Winfrey, suddenly, after a generous time cut, turn into stereotypical aged Negroes. They are transformed into what they are in the white liberal imagination - Amos and Andrea. They slur, they fumble for language, they actually shuffle. This is what wealthy white liberals really think of blacks, and even on a thirty million dollar budget with the whole world watching, they cannot restrain themselves from saying so.

I was for decades a liberal and an activist. I marched for Civil Rights and Student Rights, I met with Dr. King, I camped in Resurrection City during the Poor People's campaign, and I know that for most hardened, guilt-ridden white liberals, raised in privilege and indoctrinated in progressivism, the Civil Rights Movement was nothing but a tool - a tool to assuage their guilt and make them feel better about themselves. They used blacks in very much the same spirit as the slave owners had - to do the dirty work, of their souls if not of their hands.

And now that we have had our first black president for five years, no one in the mainstream seems to notice that the condition of black people in this country is the worst it has been since the Civil Rights days; that black unemployment is over 15% (among young blacks, over 30%), that the murder rate in black communities has soared, that more black people (and Americans at large) live in poverty and subsist on food stamps than have since the mid-Sixties. Meanwhile, the president luxuriates in Paradise playing six-hour rounds of golf, the mainstream media continues to lionize him, cover for his incompetence and swallow his lies, and the rest of America shivers under a frozen blanket of deceived expectations and false hopes.

Monday, January 6, 2014


I said to my eleven year old recently: "Poetry is the most important thing in life." His response: "No it isn't." He is probably right, but poetry is certainly among the most important things in life; and the lives of those who lack it in their souls and in their education are the poorer for it. However, I think they are in some sense fortunate in that they do not know what they are missing.

Poetry, as I have said, is the highest form of literature because it is closest to music, which is the highest form of art. Only poetry - great poetry - can come close to great music in its ability to frame truth and reflect the spiritual essence which lies behind art. I cannot imagine living without poetry in my life; I read, recite, listen to or think about poetry every day. It seems to me very important to understand how poems work, and what separates bad poetry from good poetry, and good poetry from great poetry. Poetry is the music of the soul in words and rhythm and rhyme (though rhyme, which is normally thought to characterize poetry, is not indispensable to it, and often degrades it to the point of vulgarity).

I have said earlier that, to my mind, the essential qualities of poetry are rhythm, intensity, and meaning. The more highly these qualities are developed, the greater the poetry. All are inter-related, and none can be dispensed with if a poem is to rise above the ordinary and merely charming. Now, there is nothing wrong with poetry that is merely charming - much of Robert Frost's work possesses this quality to a very high degree. But, while pleasing, even delightful, such work does not attain to the level of great poetry, just as the program music of, say, Grieg or Mussorgsky, while very good, does not approach the pure music of Bach or Beethoven. And while rhythm, intensity, and meaning are the chief characteristics of all good poetry, the essential quality of great poetry is its proximity to truth. To the extent that it transports the reader to those realms in which truth resides, as Beethoven's late string quartets do, poetry may be identified as being great.

With all this said, I have been thinking lately about twentieth century poetry, in which there is a great deal of good work and rather less of great. And that, naturally, led me to wonder which are the greatest poems of the twentieth century. I have thought a good deal about this, and I have devised a list, which I offer for your comment.

To me, the greatest poems of the twentieth century, in roughly descending order, are:

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot,
"Exposure," by Wilfred Owen,
"The Lake Isle of Innisfree," by W.B. Yeats,
"Fern Hill," by Dylan Thomas, and
"As I Walked Out One Evening," by W.H. Auden.

I may be overlooking something blazingly obvious, and if I am, I hope someone will come to my aid. But these poems, to me at least, stand alone in their beauty, craft, and proximity to truth. I love them as I have loved few things in my life, and I keep them always in my mind.

And so, one of my new year's resolutions being to keep my blog postings as short as possible, I will leave it there for you to puzzle at if you are not inclined to poetry, and to mull over if you are.

Happy new year to you all.