Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Cynic?

M,

The news over Christmas is almost entirely comprised of stories about how busy it is at the mall. The tone of the pieces is a mixture of empathy with an "analysis" of what all this buying will do for the economy. The economy is usually portrayed as constantly near-death, and only the heroic efforts of consumers will save it from collapse. Not like an actual collapse, like a couple of years ago, but something...just go buy some stuff!!!

Interspersed with this were reports about the commemoration of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and it occured to me that the massive outpouring of generosity that happened back then was entirely a feature of the timing of the disaster. I mean, if it had happened outside of the buying/giving orgy of Christmas, it wouldn't have become what it did.

This disaster also gave rise to a spate of reporting on "donor" fatigue, that people had been giving and giving, and they just couldn't do it any more - their generosity was exhausted.

There is a self-congratulatory tone to all of it, and yet no one ever speaks of "buyer" fatigue, that people might be tired of going out and shopping. And yet, one only needs to spend 15 minutes in a mall before or after Christmas to see how unhappy people are, waiting in line to buy something that may or may not be less expensive. The sheer overwhelming obligatory nature of the time can be overwhelming.

So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that people experienced donor fatigue - after all, people might have felt a kind of resentment, that the season of forced generosity actually contained within it a moment of genuine need.

Then the world opened up - an entire world of need! My God, all these godforsaken people! Back to shopping.

There is a dissonance there, and I do not know what the resolution is.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Strange Dream

M-

Very strange, at least I think so. And kind of out of left field (All the best dreams are, aren't they?)

I spend hours begging and pleading the love of my life not to go away today. I have all kinds of reasons as to why she should stay, and I say them while she is packing, and we argue back and forth for what seems like an eternity. It seems hopeless.

She says she is going to leave, and that she's leaving forever. I do not know why, but I feel an intense need to stop her from leaving to a place that she is convinced is better for her, that I know is in fact better for her. I realise that I cannot convince her otherwise.

Then suddenly, she decides to stay. A miracle!

But at that moment, I realise two things - it was not my own reasons that changed her mind, but her own decision to stay. I was not a factor in her staying.

The other thing was that I asked the wrong love of my life to stay! The person who stayed turned out not to be the person I thought they were - I mean, it was literally the wrong person.

M, I read very little into dreams, but the possibility that I convinced the wrong woman to stay with me seems like an entirely plausible state of affairs, doesn't it? Existentially speaking, I mean.

Isn't this always the way? The moment you have what you need, the moment it stops being what you need and becomes what you have. I liked this dream because it illustrates just how we will try to desperately hang on to what we have when we fear losing it, but take little satisfaction in getting it back.

In other words, it remains all about the symptoms, and not about the disease itself. Or at least that's how it looks to me. Any other ideas?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Public Diaries, Private Letters

Via Russell Smith recently in Globe and Mail, a report on the unearthing of a Ted Hughes poem about the night his estranged wife, Sylvia Plath, killed herself.

I am not going to delve too deeply here in the poem itself, in part because I am not much of an expert on either of them. It is difficult reading, reading him trying to work through his cruelty toward his clearly distressed ex-wife. I do find it interesting that many of the articles speak of the fact that "feminists" hated him because of this, as though everyone else applauded him for leaving his wife and her tragic end...surely this poem expresses his own understanding and working through of the ways in which he was also responsible for her death.

There is a relationship here between the release of this poem, and the battle underway for the release of the remaining manuscripts of Franz Kafka, which was exhaustively and brilliantly written about recently in the New York Times magazine by Elif Bautman.

What do we share? What can we share about others? The battle to keep Kafka private is fascinating - he had instructed Max Brod to burn everything, but he knew also that Brod would not do it. Given we also know that Kafka burned much of his own writing, one can also presume that his request was a gesture of modesty (which Brod then used to build the myth of Kafka) and not a request. What is playing out now seems to be an extension of that very conversation, a case study in the subtleties of conversational implicature...

But what do we do with Hughes' letter? Someone was surely going to come along to find it, but Melvyn Bragg discovered it after learning of its existence from Hughes' ex-wife, so there is a sense that she, and perhaps Hughes himself, had wanted it to be published at some point.

Over the past while, I have been writing a lot of letters, and a lot of other things, and I have no desire to have them see the light of day, certainly not while I'm alive. However, I have written nearly everything online. And I have a public forum (here) to express things in the way I wish to express them.

If I'm hit by a bus tomorrow, does anyone have a right to crack open my account and read everything I wrote (not that anyone would!)? One can delete, but do things really get deleted? Should one be able to mark certain electronic letters as "confidential", or "to be destroyed"?

What do you think?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Acceptance

M -

I am really looking forward to the end of this year. Last year was not good, and at the end of it, there was a catastrophe I only saw as such when it was far too late to have done anything about it. Winter (among other things) will do that to a person.

If I were to take this event, in the final days of 2009, as an omen for what 2010 would bring, I would have plenty to point to in its favour. And such is the cyclical nature of my mind that I have been waiting for 2010 to end before starting “anew”.

The problem with this approach of starting anew with a new year is that it’s just a socially acceptable form of procrastination! Carpe Diem, you say? No, I would prefer to seize tomorrow, because there is always hope in tomorrow. And next year? Even better!

Then, when January 3rd rolls around, and the grand plans for the revolution have not come to pass, because I am tired and hung over, well...there’s always 2012!

I have learned a lot this year, about humility and pain (and my tolerance thereof), about how other people see me and about the kinds of things I expect from other people. I have also spent a lot of time wondering how those around me have managed to convalesce in the eternal shadow of a great castle, tended to by only the finest medical professionals, while I sit here in a cave with an Aspirin and some old gauze, which speaks to the fact that the most difficult thing I learned about myself recently is that I no longer have any hope.

“Wow, that’s really depressing!” you say (or not, maybe you have tuned out by now). You are quite right - it is depressing. However, isn’t hope a kind of misplaced nostalgia? Where we look at our lives, shake our heads, and wish for something better? Could no longer having hope also signify an embrace of the future and ones own ability to choose that future?

It is also moving away from a particularly pernicious form of fatalism toward something that resembles a sense of duty, to oneself, and to those one cares about, a sense that isn’t borne out of fear of failure or loss, but out of respect and compassion. But it's a big deal for me because I have always been an extremely hopeful person.

Given everything that has happened, and this will come as no surprise to you, M, of all people, but I have been thinking about Kafka, and in particular, Der Prozess. The standard Coles Notes version of the The Trial is that it’s about the existential emptiness of bureaucracy, or something like that (feel free to disagree!)

I think the title is ironic. The reality is that the process is irrelevant - it’s a ritual along the lines of a military parade in a banana republic - it’s meant to show something, just not the military.

Josef’s crucial error, which becomes increasingly apparent as the book progresses, is the hope that the bureaucratic process will save him, that there is a (this, any) process that will exonerate him. (Interesting fact - we don’t actually know which chapter is meant to follow which, so this progression is more of an editorial/reader affect than one of Kafka’s own design.)

Rather than being about the trial, The Trial is about judgement in a bureaucratic, managerial, capitalist society. It's all about the judgment - the judgment of an individual in a social space, a judgment one has very little control over, PR and marketing talk about personal branding aside...

We often focus naively on the fact that what bothered Kafka about bureaucracy was the mediocrity of his colleagues and the impersonal nature of it, because it’s what bothers us about it. But we are not Kafka! (I certainly am not, right? M?)

Looking at things this way, and taking some wonderfully loose and quite ungrounded biographical flights of fancy (this is a blog, after all!), his famous comment about there being hope, but not for us, is not merely a comment on the death of god (another piece of conventional wisdom), but a lamentation on the death of the aristocracy, the death of chance in human power relationships. Because everything we do now is mediated by "reason", where personal vendettas are settled gently, reasonably, by bureaucratic fiat.

By process.

Indeed, everyone I speak of tells me to have faith in the process of healing, that this is what will get your through everything. And I have spent the past while trying to work through a "process" when in fact what I had really been dealing with was the judgment in a trial that had already occurred.

I think what Kafka is getting at with this comment, and what I myself miss, is the idea that when one appealed to a lord or king, there was always the possibility of grace - the epiphanic resolution. There is no grace anymore, there is no hope.

This year, for me, has hung not on the hope for grace, but on the hope that reason might prevail - Impersonal personal reason. It hasn't.

And worse, I prefer resolution by grace. I am, truly, horrifyingly, a Romantic...

But that is no hope at all, is it? As we have seen, hope in the process, in people, is dangerous. The only hope worth having is the possibility of one’s own reinvention in the world, judgment be damned (this is also a Romantic solution, is it not?). And this isn’t to damn everyone else, but to acknowledge their proper place in one’s own desires.

Josef’s problem, and mine it seems, is that we let the judgments stop us from moving on (there are two words I hope never to hear again, and refuse to express in conversation any more!), we wait for the decision that never comes, but one that also stops us from making a decision ourselves. At the end of the day, this is our problem, not the judge's.

So you see, I spend a lot more time now working on being a Stoic, and less time on being like Josef. Because we all know what happens to Josef at the end...unless you read Der Prozess like Deleuze and Guattari, who suggest that the end of the book is really the beginning.

Actually, right now, putting the end of this trial back to the beginning seems like exactly the right idea to me.

But life is no book - not even Kafka could make that happen.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Inspiration

M -

I don't know if you know this (how long has it been since we had a conversation like that?), but I have not been very inspired lately. Is it cynicism? Ennui? I cannot say. (Well I could...but I won't here!)

So it was with delight to read Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books on the recent Facebook film. It was heartening to read someone write so beautifully about things I myself had thought around social media and the way we seem to look at, and relate to, each other.

I was so impressed by this piece that I picked up a copy of her novel On Beauty, which, interestingly, is a kind of period piece of the mid-decade that the Social Network is, although in a very different way. I enjoyed the book immensely, and in it rediscovered a love of reading I thought had disappeared (as it often does, and likely will again).

For right now though, things are good!

Although I don't get many commenters here, would anyone like to let me know what they've read lately that has reaffirmed their love of the written word?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Commencement

M -

This Friday already feels very much like when I landed in Germany this summer. I could not believe I was finally there, finally, but there was something out of joint. Something missing.

It is (and was) as though another history is playing out, an incessantly imagined future of the very recent past, where things were so very similar (Germany, graduation, school, work) but everything had shifted.

The last time I was in Convocation Hall was over two years ago, and it was to watch someone else walk across that stage. And here I am, about to walk across that same stage, closely retracing those steps (too closely, perhaps).

How different things were two years ago! My graduation, two years away, was anticipated as the final destination of a journey I had started far too long ago, but which was finally on my horizon. Now, I do not know what to think of it.

I did not see it then - that graduation was as pure a celebration of life and accomplishment as there could ever be. I wore a linen suit, this magical suit that made me look far more attractive than I really am. I remember not wanting to take a picture of my friend crossing the stage, in part because I didn't want to ruin my experience of this moment, this moment of transformation, by putting something in between myself and the event. What we gain in a photo and its permanence, we lose in our experience of the moment. Instead of looking straight ahead, we look through something else, preserving the moment while losing our moment to time itself.

I see now just how tightly everything had been bound up even then, my entire life a ball of yarn that had been wound so tightly that one touch with the dullest knife and the ball would explode, threads everywhere. Even worse when the knife is sharp, and wielded with both skill and rage...

So I sit here now, tying knots, but trying not to wind things too tightly again. I know that some of the threads I am joining anew are not the same ones they had been wound into, some of these threads will never find their way back to that moment in the loom when they had been spun into a long, thin and strong line. Even the strongest thread, under enough stress, threatens to break. You and I know this all too well, M.

But I will cross that stage on Friday, and it will have been worth it. I only wish I knew what the "it" was now. What I do know is that I will see those footsteps that came before me, wishing their eyes were there to see me retracing our path.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I actually agree with Malcolm Gladwell

About social media!

I say this because I rarely agree with anything else he writes. But I don't think he's doing his usual counterfactual mishmashy thing here - his example in the Clay Shirky book about a Wall Street trader getting his phone back by using the coercive powers of the Internet on a single individual is pretty telling - at the end of the day, you can shame individuals into action, but not countries, and this seems about right to me.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Something New

Until yesterday, in my 12 years in Toronto, I have never heard someone order an escort for an evening of debauchery on public transit.

Until yesterday.

Monday, October 18, 2010

In Defence of Don's Engagement

(Warning - if you like Mad Men, and didn't see the season finale last night, and want to avoid all the Internet commentary on said finale - don't read!)

Further to my previous post about the horrific realisation that I am a hopeless Romantic (yes, capital R), I would like to post my own thoughts on what is emerging as the overall consensus on Don Draper's sudden engagement to his secretary Megan during the season finale of last night's Mad Men.

The consensus? Don hit rock bottom this season, and he was just cleaning himself up, and then he goes and gets engaged to his young and pretty secretary(!) in a fit of recklessness, leaving his current girlfriend in the dust.

I was actually surprised at how many people took this to be something really dumb and out of character, but I think a case could be made for the fact that, rather than this revealing Don as slipping further into pathetic middle age, medicating himself with a new woman, as one commentator put it (I can't remember which!), this is a sign of his progress.

Yes, she is 25 and pretty, but why should those be strikes against her? I find it very interesting that the opinions of the other cast members (that marrying his secretary was an act of recovering his lost youth and could only end in tragedy) has been echoed quite consistently in the commentariat - and yet, thinking that he's made some kind of mistake because she's young and pretty plays into exactly the kinds of prejudices that feminists (male and female) have spent 40 years attempting to work away from? She couldn't be a good mate because she's young and pretty? What does that say about us that this is the first major problem people see in all of this?

I mean, from what little we know of her, they have tried to portray her as, for lack of a better word, deep. There appears to be a lot more to her than a young, pretty secretary - couldn't Don's desire also be traced to recognizing that if he is medicating himself with a woman, it should be someone who might actually be able to cure him? If everyone had to be perfectly whole before they got involved, no one should be in a relationship...

Ok, I'll admit getting engaged is impetuous, but having worked together, they have known each other for quite some time, and why shouldn't that count for something? Sometimes the gut is more accurate than the mind, and the show has certainly spent a lot of time trying to convince us that she's very special...without getting into the possibility of ironic narration in TV (now that's a interesting idea...how would one even know?), if we take her characterization seriously, we can see why Don is taking her seriously, and not merely because she is pretty and young.

It's also interesting that this happened in California - the show has consistently set California up as a place of healing for Don, where he can be "himself", and so asking her here seems also to be indicating his own willingness to bring together his divided self (Don Draper/Dick Whitman) into a single one, symbolized by his using Anna's ring to marry her.

Obviously, only time will tell if the show's creators will bear my feelings about this out, and I suspect the key will be when (or if) Don tells her about his whole identity thing, but I think there is a very plausible reading of Don's actions as being a sign of mental health rather than a sign of failure.

That they were seen roundly as a failure is interesting to me though, because it says more about where we are now as a society, and I think the best thing about Mad Men right now is what it reveals about us through the past, as this brief defence of Don's engagement reveals something about me!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Disbelief

Hey,

Do you ever think about how difficult it is to stop believing in something, even when the truth is staring you in the face?

I have a confession to make (and don't let small children read this!!!) - I believed in Santa Claus for far too long. There was a good reason for this - I was told something by an adult which implied that a gift I received for Christmas didn't exist yet in the stores, and so the logical conclusion as a child was that Santa must have created it - I mean, isn't that his whole bag? Being magical?

I held on to this experience and belief, despite all the evidence to the contrary, until my father finally put me out of my misery. I was pretty upset about it, but I see now how the tenacity of that belief resided in large part out of the lived experience that confirmed it. Some shopkeeper's mistake became a truth that I was unwilling to part with.

But the reality is that I must have also wanted to believe. I mean, I don't want to psychoanalyse my young self, but there must have been a deep desire on my part to believe that there was some magic in the world.

Part of growing up is recognizing that there isn't this kind of magic in the world. But it often feels as though we don't just give up on magic, instead we move away from magical creatures and onto something like, say, romantic love.

It was easy to believe in something ephemeral as Santa Claus, so how much easier it is to believe in someone real, especially when the person who loves you back confirms that belief incessantly! It is like a thousand incompetent shopkeepers telling you what you want to hear each and every day! Santa Claus is really real!

How much more entrenched this kind of magical belief becomes! Even when you are faced with the fact that this belief in someone is no longer real, it is that much more difficult to stop believing...like childhood, when you stop believing in that person, one often finds that it takes everything with them. So sometimes it seems to make more sense to keep believing.

Oddly enough, it was Revenge of the Sith that got me thinking about this. As I've mentioned before, my son has become a big Star Wars fan, and I have developed a form of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome from having viewed the most recent films a number of times.

Anyway, my son enjoys watching the opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith, with the space battle and the lightsabers and the robots. However, once we get past the first 20 minutes, he wants to do something else, like play. But it was in the DVD player a few mornings ago, so I decided to watch the whole thing.

(A warning - I know that analysing Star Wars seems ridiculous, but you take things as they come!)

Although George Lucas gets knocked around a lot, he described the whole series of films as a "domestic tragedy", and I think that's about right. And what separates this film from the other prequels is that we actually find ourselves identifying with Anakin's decision, because the entire movie revolves around Anakin's preoccupation with his wife.

His turn to evil centres on his love for his wife and desire to protect her. But I realised watching Anakin destroy everything to save Padme was that he was really doing was trying to save himself from his own pain.

This is the dark underbelly of sacrificing for our beliefs, is it not? That in sacrificing everything for love, one is also trying to end the possibility of their own suffering, their own loss? That the burnt offering you provide will ensure the gods forever look favourably on you? That there is selfishness in that selflessness?

It feels as though we exchange one kind of pain for another - the pain of the present, of what is there, to foreclose the possibility of pain in the future. But as life always demonstrates, things don't work this way, especially in love, because no matter how much one might sacrifice, it might be too much for the other - at the end of the day, no one can imagine Padme at the end of the film looking at Anakin and saying "sure, you've just killed a bunch of children, but I'll be OK with you raising mine".

Although we might not do what he does (obviously!), we understand his transformation, there is something human about it, as troubling as that is. We even understand why he cannot go back on his belief, terrible as it is. Once he is lost, he is lost, and although one might wish that we alone can rescue ourselves from our darkest thoughts, it is usually only with others, those who care about us, where one can find the space in which to heal ourselves.

Moreover, he has to keep believing because he is alone - who can he possibly let go to when the one person who might have saved him, his wife, is no longer there? And in trying to save himself from his own pain, he reifies it - indeed, the suit becomes the physical manifestation of his failure to control his own pain from the outset. He spends his life embodying the very pain he tried so desperately to avoid.

Nevertheless, does one remain alone in their lost belief, or barring the return of the object of that belief, do they sacrifice that belief in the hope that they might again believe? In the end it remains about believing, because the price of total disbelief seems much too high...

Or maybe it's just me. Although I bask in the cool light of the Enlightenment, I cannot escape the reality that I am probably at my core a Romantic...

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Più docile io sono, e dico di sì.

Do you remember the end of the last scene of the Marriage of Figaro?

It’s the point where Count Almaviva has discovered Figaro and Susanna’s tricks, and declares that he will never forgive them. And then the Countess arrives - she had pretended to be Susanna, and the Count had courted her in disguise, and the Count realises this. At this moment the Count realises the jig is up.

Although creating the sublime was, for Mozart, something like breathing is for the rest of us, I’m not sure he achieves it more fully anywhere than this moment where the music stops after Count Almaviva says:

“Contessa, Perdono”

We sit and we wait, and it feels like forever, because we do not know if the Contessa will say "I forgive you", we do not know if she, who has just been seduced by her husband while pretending to be another woman, will forgive him.

We have spent nearly three hours watching him try to seduce Susanna, and basically be a terrible asshole to everyone, especially his wife, who, on our first encounter, is on the verge of suicide over her husband’s conduct - Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro!

The very idea of forgiveness seems problematic to our modern eyes and ears - how awful it is to ask for forgiveness, when forgiveness is no longer a gesture that acknowledges a human relationship, but is a matter before the courts. The acceptance of responsibility now is as much a material gesture as it is an emotional one.

Yet to forgive! What other event heals us so quickly, so fully, as to see someone, on bent knee, asking us to acknowledge them, and in that very moment, the moment when you have all the power in the world over this person, you dissolve it? And in that moment of forgiveness, when all might be lost, everyone is redeemed - how this flies in the steely bureaucratic resolve required of modern life!

So we are stuck, afraid to ask for forgiveness and afraid to give it. And the comfort that our new “social” world gives to this fear - safely ensconced at our computers, in our vaunted privacy, we can lash out at those without fear of the possibility of that face staring back at you, those tears, the moment when you realise that you must accept their apology, because, despite everything, they mean something to you. Not their words, but them.

The Count begs for forgiveness.

The Countess replies, and as she does, we cannot help but imagine that, through all the pain the Count has caused her, the Countess cannot forgive him - how can she? How can she, even though she loves him? Indeed, because she loves him, how can she forgive him for this, the betrayal of their covenant?

But she does. She forgives him.

Is this not everything we want in life?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Bildung I


Schwarze Röcke, seidne Strümpfe,
Weiße höfliche Manschetten,
Sanfte Reden, Embrassieren –
Ach, wenn sie nur Herzen hätten!

Herzen in der Brust, und Liebe,
Warme Liebe in dem Herzen –
Ach, mich tötet ihr Gesinge
Von erlognen Liebesschmerzen.

Auf die Berge will ich steigen,
Wo die frommen Hütten stehen,
Wo die Brust sich frei erschließet,
Und die freien Lüfte wehen.

Auf die Berge will ich steigen,
Wo die dunkeln Tannen ragen,
Bäche rauschen, Vögel singen,
Und die stolzen Wolken jagen.

Lebet wohl, ihr glatten Säle!
Glatte Herren! glatte Frauen!
Auf die Berge will ich steigen,
Lachend auf euch niederschauen.

I had said I was going to post more this month while in Germany, but the motivation I thought would magically appear never came.

I have been very busy since arriving. I'm in class, and desperately trying to finish up some work that was supposed to have been done before I left, but which, for many reasons, remained unfinished at the time of my departure.

That things remain unfinished could be my epitaph, for this blog, and for my life over the past 5 years. This can be a good thing, and in the case of my son, who is as yet "unfinished", it is indeed delightful.

I have tried to be very careful about writing about "my life" on this blog and my life. The main reason for this has been professional, but walking a fine line between concealment and disclosure lent itself to a playful distancing which suited me just fine. I could talk about "my life" comfortably, while leaving my life somewhat untouched.

However, the reality is that in playing this role, it gets harder and harder to write when the day-to-day of one's life so completely consumes you that the idea of writing anything, be it a blog post, an essay or an e-mail to a friend for coffee, becomes too much to bear. Suffice to say that my life has become nearly unwritable under the terms I've tried hard to write under. More clearly, I have had a really, really awful year.

And unfortunately, I am nothing like Kafka, for whom writing became an escape from the pain he felt about himself and the world around him. Or maybe I should say, it is no longer an escape.

So I am sorry that this "vacation" post from Germany begins on such a sour note, but it would seem strange to pretend that all those things are not in the background and stopping me from writing. I am hoping instead that by writing with this out there, it will be easier for me to write about the good things, like the fact that I find Goettingen very charming, and the university a very nice place to hurriedly finish something that should have been done long ago but for which there was very little space in my world to get to.

The same could be said for blogging - work and my personal situation (I leave what that might entail as an exercise to the reader, except for those readers who already know, or who think they know but don't) have made it difficult for me to enjoy the things I, uh, enjoy doing, like writing on this blog and reading German literature.

Am I blaming these things for my misery? Well yes! Am I absolving myself of any responsibility? Well no! But all this weighs upon me nevertheless.

Ok, enough. The next post will be more interesting and less personal, or more personal and more interesting. Hopefully.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Problem with Blogging

I recall, at some point back when blogging was talked about and not actually just part of the world, like when I started this blog, that part of the whole idea was being a part of a community.

I've been pretty lousy at that. I've also been pretty lousy at posting anything, maybe because, in the back of my head, posting too much was somehow like succumbing to the instinct that posting too much meant that I was a slave to page views, to rank, and ultimately, to the possibility of "monetizing" my blog.

I look back at this and wonder how the hell I could have thought any of this. If this blog is to live, then I suppose I must also be alive, to my readers, and to those who I read.

Here's to hoping.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Compassion

The ways things conspire to bring forth small epiphanies...

Yesterday, I get a call from my former partner, who tells me that my son has fallen at the park and needs to go to the hospital. The park is nearby, so I go and pick him up from her. As I'm walking toward Dundas Street, I realise that in my haste I forgot my buss pass. A streetcar approaches, and the hospital is just two stops away. My son says that he hopes the driver will let us on anyway.

He does, without fare, and he takes us over to the hospital. We arrive, and sit down with a group of other people - there are four people ahead of us. My son is still sobbing and screaming. Everyone ahead of us goes into triage and comes out, except for a man, dressed as a woman, who tells us to take their place. I say, "are you certain?", and he replies that "it's fine, I'm alright."

So we go in, get registered, and he is behind us. The other two ahead of us are there for an eye problem, and to get a broken wrist checked again. As we are waiting, the man who had graciously offered up his place in Emergency for my son is ushered in and seen immediately. I note the irony.

We are finally sent in to see the doctor, and I am placed across from one of the people who had gone before my son. It turns out that the only reason he is there is that he wanted a second opinion on something that wasn't really bothering him at that time, and to which the emergency doctor basically told him to go back to his physician because there was nothing to do, no emergency.

So you can see how one's thoughts would naturally to the idea of how we, here in Toronto, treat each other (I'm not going to extend this to anywhere else, although I'm pretty sure it's similar) and how supremely bizarre it is. The person most in need of assistance is the only one who offers to switch places with my son.

Now I am sure some of you who read this are thinking, "why should they switch places with a little boy who is crying? They got there first!" But what I am asking is, why is that instinct so prevalent, that this other person, in that moment of compassion, feels utterly compelled to suppress it?

We see this all the time - how often have I sat on a streetcar as a pregnant women steps on, and no one offers her a seat, until I, who prefers to sit near the back, offers. Or that the people who usually offer to stand are themselves old and infirm? And why is there a peculiar universality to this suppression of compassion?

***

One of my favourite "academic" bloggers, Ads Without Products, has written recently around a similar strain, which turn around mindfulness and compassion.

His first piece, which happens to be the more recent one, discusses Raymond Carver. I haven't read any Carver, so I am just going to note a peculiar aspect of my own reaction to that post- the literary critic in me agrees with Ads that the revised version of Carver's story is the better one, but...given my experience last night, there is something about the parents' encounter with the baker, that exposure of the petty injustices we all perform for the sake of our own "skull-sized kingdoms", as David Foster Wallace puts it in a quote from the latter.

But here's the thing - the baker didn't know the boy had died. He saw his own labour evaporate on the whims of some bourgeois couple, and it spurred him to action, to call, to vent. The good thing, and the problem with the original ending of the story is that it settles on the basic decency of people to change their perspectives when confronted with the truth.

The people in emergency yesterday sitting next to a screaming child, and the people on the streetcar in front of the pregnant woman who stare into their Tom Clancy novel or change the song on their iPod, they did know, didn't they? And I ask you why your first response is to think "why shouldn't they go first?"

***

This all ties together in my sleep-deprived mind to Toronto's mayoralty race, and the fact that the current leader is the right-wing populist Rob Ford. In him and his popularity I see the general mood of the city, one which, when pollsters ask them about what's important, they say "taxes and city finances", I think what they really mean is something closer to "I want a guy who doesn't make me feel guilty about keeping my seat on the bus".

Sound nuts? Hear me out. Last year, Toronto experienced a long, drawn-out garbage strike, the 2nd since I've lived here. By my own reckoning, the city was vastly more prepared this time to starve out the union. Local parks that got pretty disgusting last time had their garbage mysteriously picked up, and there was an overall efficiency and orderliness to the strike that was in stark contrast to the rotting piles of garbage of the last strike.

But the anger around the 2nd strike was far greater. Forced to collect their own garbage, to be responsible for a task usually left to others, Torontonians acted with an irrational, universal rage that I cannot recall ever seeing before.

City garbage collectors became pariahs (they were not the only workers on strike, but they were the near-total focus of the rage). Our current mayor, David Miller, decided not to run again. The rage was so great that one felt that it was existential, that people were, as the old saw goes, mad as hell and not taking it anymore.

But what, or who, were they mad at? The garbage collectors, or more accurately, their benefits. What most of it centered around was the ostensibly appalling idea that garbage collectors might have dignity, and history has allowed them to fight for it through collective bargaining. That people would prefer see private garbage collection to keep their taxes low is a ominous, as well as All the vile, nasty things people said about the people who collect their waste for them as they attempted to stave off further roll backs because those same people don't want to believe that their taxes go to anything but lavish lunches and cushy jobs.

Toronto is becoming more mean-spirited, and this new mean Toronto wants Rob Ford as its standard bearer.

This I believe is the key to the fact that the people least in need to treatment felt perhaps most justified in walking past a screaming child, a look of pity in their mouths, but with the self-righteous countenance of the consumer everywhere else. The triumph of Rob Ford is the triumph of a citizenry no longer experiencing a political or ethical relationship with their peers, only an economic one.

But why I don't end with this, but with a reminder of the man who let my son go first, is that, like Carver, I recognize the need to unceasingly push back, even though there seems less and less point. The literary quality of indeterminacy is matched only by its insufficiency in everyday life.

To supress the urge to be mindful, to be compassionate in those most banal of situations, is to accept that the uselessness of modern life also entails that we behave inhumanly. It is also to recognize that mean-spiritedneess has a place, just perhap not on the political stage (I say this because I am also one of the nastiest people I know)

Such is the reality of my own skull-sized kingdom.

Friday, June 11, 2010

C'mon, everyone else is doing it!

Canada is in full finger wagging mode on the "issue" of government debt. If one read today's Globe online, they would find themselves confronted with a column about how France is "afraid" to make massive public sector cuts, presumably because they did so badly in World War II or some other reason, while all these other countries have jumping off the cliff because some investors may, at some point think that all this debt it a problem, you know, the debt that's in part there because of governments giving money to a bunch of banks who are now concerned about government debt...

And then there's this. I'm not really sure how this guy gets away with this - if countries don't cut spending on whatever it is they spend their money on (read poor people) then the markets will react angrily. This lecturing comes from a man who reminds us that Thomas Jefferson was a Republican.

With this kind of historical sense, who could possibly bet against him? Note to the rest of the world - Canada got lucky, please stop listening to us now on this issue, although feel free to continue to listen to us about gay marriage and other things.

Apologies

In taking a look at the new Blogger templates, Blogger somehow made it impossible for me to go back (Note to Blogger, I did not click apply to blog and my blog still wond up different - why is that?).

Expect a lot of fiddlng around for the next little while as I settle on something that suits the new space!

In the News, plus Kant and Rousseau!

Air Canada snaps Professor's Lute in half.

This is horrible. As a lute owner (note I don't say player...) I can totally understand how horrible he must feel. I think something people often don't understand about musicians is that they develop rather strong attachments to their instruments. This intuitively makes sense, but I many of those commenting I think see this as something easily replaceable - it's not.

One can talk of essences here, where losing an instrument you have gotten to know, to love, has a massive impact. Suddenly, all those zen-like aspects of one's playing, the way in which one knows how to produce a particular sound without knowing how, is suddenly lost, and one must relearn, develop a new relationship.

Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of our consumer culture is that we greatly desire things, but we remain deeply alienated from them.

***

Toronto is slowly becoming a police state in preparation for the G20. Although media focus has been almost entirely on the cost, Rick Salutin today reminds everyone of the real costs (you mean economic costs aren't the real ones?) . It seems that pretty much everywhere around me is slowly, inexorably being locked down.

I now go through a number of security checks, all designed I guess to make sure that the same pass I show the first person doesn't morph into something else when I get to the second one...when you ask security, they, like nearly everyone it seems, shrugs their shoulders and says I don't make the rules...

We are all instruments of the law now. This struck me forcefully last night as I read Dieter Henrich's Between Kant and Hegel, based on a suggestion from here.

An admission - despite the fact that my interests as a Germanist span the period between Goethe and Heine (with DDR film as a kind of randomizing interest), my background in German philosophy of the period is sorely lacking. Indeed, it is the one significant lacunae in my philosophical schooling, and I find myself struggling to immerse myself in part because I'm not sure if there is another time where the literature of the day is so entirely steeped in the philosophical issues of the day - it would be as though Zadie Smith et al. were writing books on vagueness, and Saul Kripke were reading them! Utter madness!

Anyway, I am really enjoying this book so far. His philosophical readings of the texts, as opposed to the ahistorical overview one often finds in introductory works, is illuminating.

Henrich points out at the Kant's deep, deep indebtedness to Rousseau. In courses I took, Rousseau was mentioned as an influence, but it was always Hume's influence that was emphasized. Hume is presented as the philosopher who transformed Kant from a neo-Wolffian rationalist into uh...Immanuel Kant.

On Henrich's account, it is Rousseau who really turns the knife into Kant's philosophical back, forcing him to rethink the entire aim of his philosophical program. Fascinating stuff, if for no other reason that one can even espy here the analytic/continental divide that no one thinks exists but that we can all pretty much discern.

So, back to Toronto - when I read Kant's desire to ground humanity's freedom, and I note our current total lack of desire to build a movement in Canada that strives to emancipate ourselves from our own benevolent consumerist/barely democratic despotism, it is difficult for me not to conclude that the Romantics did indeed win the political struggle, and that this is not a good thing...

To the barricades, then? Or perhaps, at least, to the coffeehouses?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

World Cup Selections

The World Cup is probably the only sporting event I pay attention to, or dare I say it, get involved with. Don't ask me why, although I think it has something to do with living in between Little Italy and Little Portugal, and that the area turns a little bit crazy.

Not an angry crazy, more of a gentle insanity, medicated by live sports and alcohol. It's also summer, and the fact that it's focussed on one sport (unlike the Olympics) makes it easier to feel for a team as they make their journey towards the final match.

This year, I've decided to root for a team in each group, and see where that leads me. The choices are partly arbitrary, of course, but I basically looked at each group and went with my gut. Whether any of them stand a chance at winning is another story, although the inclusion of Spain on the list is pretty much a hedge against some of my other choices.

In that spirit, here's my list:

South Africa
North Korea
Algeria
Germany
Denmark
Italy
Portugal
Spain

The Day So Far

I wondered if anyone else thinks that if the Federal Liberal and NDP parties merge, it is due not to the triumph of social democracy in Canada but to its death.

I spent the morning listening to Elanor Watchtel interview Isabel Allende discuss her family and Chile, and, when I arrived to work, turned it off and overheard recommendations of moisturizers and belts.

I wondered if Heinrich Heine, if he lived today, would have made an excellent blogger. I decided the answer was yes, but that he would have a tab page, and that he would likely move to a country where libel laws were weak. I would definitely read him.

My son told me that they listened to Beethoven's 5th Symphony in his music class yesterday, but he was upset that he'd told the teacher that it was Beethoven's 1st Sonata. I told him not to worry about that kind of stuff.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Question

Is Apple leading well-off technocrats back to the days of AOL? Never let it be forgotten that people desire their own repression.

Kind of seems that way to me.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Catharsis

I have deleted 4000 e-mails today. I somehow feel lighter. If only I could do this with actual paper...

Follow Up

You all know I wasn't going to follow up on my last post, didn't you? It really didn't need following up, truth be told.

This blog is getting pretty stale. I have no one but myself to blame, except my muse, curse her! But she hasn't been around, no, or maybe it's that I haven't been around her. Anyway, I am not following up, no, I am moving forward instead!

In August, I will be in Germany, and we can finally get this blog off the ground. Deep down, I always wanted to blog Mitteleuropa, and now I'll finally get my chance. Beyond that I have little to say...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Theory, New York Times, Stupidity

I don't really have time to actually get into this, but there's a really terrible bit of satire on literary Theory in the New York Times. If you still think the Sokal hoax is a cutting-edge salvo in the culture wars, then you might find it amusing.

As someone in literary theory, I just find it ridiculous, especially coming from a philosophy professor, who really should have something better to do than to fight a turf war with those Snowballs in the English departments.

Note to Professor Goldstein - go out and read some recent literary theory.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Reminder

The same people who are downgrading Greek bond ratings are the same people who polished the turds that led to the global financial crisis...

A Great Thought

Who doesn't want to believe that they, for at least one moment, thought of someone no one else had? It seems to me that William Hazlitt had a great one - disinterest.

Basically, Hazlitt argued that we bear the same relationship to our future selves that we do to others. The implications of this for identity, as well as ideas like economic self-interest, are actually pretty profound, and it's perhaps surprising that we still live in a world that believes that most human agency revolves around people having their own long-term interests in mind when they act.

All of us should know that nothing could be further from the truth. At least Hazlitt give us a decent reason why, a moment to liberate ourselves from the guilt of our past and to hope that we can be as charitable to our future selves as we have been abusive of our pasts.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Turning Worm

For a nation that still mocks the fact that our southern neighbours have elected actors to high office, it is not without some irony that I note the popular movement to make William Shatner our Head of State.

Before anyone makes the usual pronouncements about the state of politics and qualifications, I'm not saying that the man who played T.J Hooker wouldn't make a good GG, I'm just saying that we appear to be really trying to beat the Americans at the game we always watched but have refused to play with them, except we've been playing all along.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My Lacrosse Predictions

I read Declan's hockey prediction post today, and thought, for a spot of fun, I would do my own.

For anyone who reads this blog and doesn't know me, I do not really follow hockey. I grew up wacthing it, obsessed even, but as I grew up I lost interest in it. However, as should be expected, I have a lot of friends who take hockey very seriously, which has lead me to take it even less seriously.

As a result, one of these things I've developed over the years is the role of the hockey ignorant cultural snob. It's an easy role for me - most people who talk to me about my interests quickly assume this of me, and so displaying a mocking ignorance of Canada's national sport has become an entertaining way for me to include myself within my friend's interests without adopting the various cultural roles associated with liking sports.

There are also some valid reasons for this- I really hate sports criticism. It drives me nuts.

With that, I present The Transcontinental's First ever Hockey Playoff Predictions. Enjoy, or don't, but remember that it's all in fun!

Washington vs. Montreal

Surely this will go to Montreal if for no other reason, they have a goalie who can work the shit out of the puck. Although Washington will give it everything they’ve got, it will not beat Montreal’s 110%, so it’s going to Montreal in 5.

New Jersey vs. Philadelphia

Philadelphia in 7. Philadelphia’s defense will keep those Devils on the boards, but not enough to to stop them from nearly scoring more goals, leading to an exciting 7th game where Philadelphia wins 5-1 with the 1st 4 goals scored within the 1st 8 minutes of the 1st period.

Buffalo vs. Boston

Buffalo in 6. Although Boston has been around for a long time, I think it’s Buffalo’s turn to give 120%.

Pittsburgh vs. Ottawa

I think it’s unfair that two cities in Pennsylvania could make it past the 1st round, so Ottawa in 7.

San Jose vs. Colorado

Although San Jose has a better team, Colorado has a higher altitude, and their forwards can work the shit out of a puck on those boards while those Sharks gasp for air with their scrawny sea-level lungs. Colorado in 6.

Chicago vs. Nashville

(holy crap, Nashville has a team? How many teams are there now in the NHL?) Chicago in 5, because why the hell does Nashville have a hockey team?

Vancouver vs. Los Angeles

Canucks in 7. Why? Beats me. Oh, uh, how about Olympic Spirit! Own the Cup! The shiny metal one and not the one you wear! Not that I recommend renting that cup…

Phoenix vs. Detroit

Again, why the hell does desert-torn Phoenix have a hockey team? I say Detroit in 7 just because I think anyone who has to live in Detroit for half the year when they aren’t golfing or on the road playing hockey has to have a lot of heart, and we all know that guys who have a lot of heart know how to work the shit out of the puck on those boards and give 130%.

Friday, April 09, 2010

A Query

How is it that the greatest challenge facing many of us today is which cell phone to buy? It's an issue fraught with peril - does one get a "smart" phone and reach into the future of complete social connection coupled with physical alienation, or does one stick with the cell phone?

Am I the only one who finds this a task of surprising difficulty? Of course, here at The Transcontinental, the question is never really these ones, but why is it such a challenge? I'm at a loss. Any suggestions?

Thursday, April 08, 2010

On Getting Derrida (and Adorno) Right

A beautiful essay by Marco Roth from N+1 on Jacques Derrida, which includes a wonderful defense of Adorno through Derrida:

Derrida's seminar was on hospitality. It was his usual touch for the relevant without engaging in the actual politics of the moment. Every session he fended off questions from students anxious to know how reading Lévinas or the orientalist and anthropologist Louis Massignon linked to the issues of hospitality facing France. He told them that he'd signed the petition supporting the sans-papiers and had marched, but his intellectual method seemed designed to evoke a present social situation and frustrate his students' desire for arguments to use on the barricades. It's important to know what's happening, but that means we should read Hegel or Lévinas or even the Catholic pornographer Pierre Klossowski with more care and slowness than before. You could imagine frustrated radical students pelting Derrida with flowers and baring their breasts.


My bolded italics. It is so easy to caricature, and so very difficult to characterize. It also makes me wonder why it is so important in intellectual circles, and especially in philosophy, to have enemies...

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Philosopher's Stone

I must admit, it's pretty rare these days for me to find enough self-interest to blog, much less recommend the another's blog. Although I have settled into a neat little rut when it comes to the blogosphere, but I must recommend, via Brian Leiter, Robert Paul Wolff's The Philosopher's Stone.

Delightful stories and thoughtful analysis, well worth your time. It doesn't hurt that I am highly amenable to his politics. However, I leave what that actually means as an exercise for the reader.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Friday, March 05, 2010

China to become more Socialist

Or something like that - doesn't this headline sound really strange given where it's coming from?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

My goodness, the dust!

I suppose one could find a correlation between my disappearances and the winter solstice (they wouldn't be wrong to do so) , but among the various things I do, this blog rises and falls in importance.

So what have I been up to? Mainly rediscovering my childhood through my son. You see, he is a big Star Wars fan:



When I was little, I was a pretty big Star Wars fan. Coincidence? Not really, I've certainly stoked his interest, but his interest seems genuine nonetheless. That being said, I hope he doesn't do what I do and grow up resenting liking Star Wars for years because I associated it with "being little".

Although this insulated me from a lot of the Star Wars "extras" (what do you call the entire culture out there that lives this stuff?), it also insulated me from looking back fondly on my own childhood, which was, as far as I can recall, pretty good.

Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of saying that I think a lot of the criticism around the prequels is very much related to the fact that there are a lot of people out there who grew up feeling a similar way to me about the original films, and discovered that being grown up doesn't offer the same experience of the "new" that being a five year old does.

That is also why I think the recent, and very popular film review of Phantom Menace, while funny (and disturbing - not for kids!) is still very much in the vein of "why couldn't George Lucas make me a kid again" style of Star Wars criticism that has characterized (or plagued) the past decade since the prequels were released.

I think the review makes a lot of salient points, but I also think it's couched in the same kind of anger that is fuelling the
People vs. George Lucas
, an upcoming documentary on people's complex psychological relationships with Lucas.

If we can agree with Adorno that popular cultural products are a mirror of the culture in which we live, then I think it's safe to say that there are a lot of people out there who view George Lucas as the father who raised you really well and then once you'd grew up, dumped your mom, bought a Ferrari and took off with the waitress from another bar.

Am I (over)psychologizing Star Wars criticism? Perhaps, but then, LOOK AT THE CRITICISM. Doesn't a lot of it scream out "Father Issues"? And isn't this rather ironic, given the Saga of Anakin Skywalker is all about father issues?

He lacks a father, spends the prequels looking for one, finds one, and only begins to seriously question his life path once he discovers he himself is now a father? Should it surprise us that so much of the critical relationship models the movies' themes?

Perhaps the documentary attempts to address this - the trailers suggest that it doesn't, favouring instead a sequence of futile catharses, but given I haven't seen the film I can't say! However, I do think that a lot of this clouds our ability to look at the films aesthetically, or as cultural artifacts of some lasting significance.

But then, who am I to talk, as a father whose son has drawn him back into thinking about these father-son films? Perhaps I am in more need of psychologizing...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Glimpse Into What My Colleagues Must Endure

Colleague: Hey, does your son use Play-Doh?

Me: No, he's really more of an Aristotelian.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More Fraktur For Me, Suckers!

It seems that one of my local university libraries is disgorging itself of Fraktur-fonted texts. For a mere $1.50 I now own the complete works of Ludwigs Tieck and Uhland. Except in Fraktur.

It's odd, but I think that people still somehow associate Fraktur with National Socialism, even though from what I know, the Nazis didn't like Fraktur. Nonetheless, the stain of its germaness remains and so there appears to be a push to "modernize" by eliminating Fraktur texts from today's libraries (google books excepted!)

The editions are part of the Meyer Klassiker-Ausgaben, a 19th Century "Great Books" Series that reprinted the critical editions of major German authors. As Library copies, they bear the markings of administration, if not of use. Most of my colleagues in the German department tend to shy away from texts in this font, however, I've come to realise that where there's disinterest, there's cheap books to be had!

I wonder how difficult it would be to collect an entire set of this series? Perhaps even more interesting, thanks to the power of the Internet, if turns out that Arnold Schoenberg had the Meyer editions! So by buying these old books, I'm allowed to remain on the cutting edge of musical innovation, unless you read Greg Sandow, which I'm sure none of my audience does, right? Yes, his blog bothers me mightily, and I do intend to write more Adorno-inspired thoughts on what he and his ilk are doing to "classical music". Suffice to say that I'm on Schoenberg's side.

Let the collecting begin!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

K. 310

Waking up this morning, and feeling dislocated from reality (OK, more dislocated than usual), I went through my usual routine - a homemade latte, some toast, and their quiet, if brief, consumption.

When I returned from walking my dog, I realised just how little I was feeling anything today. So I took out the only piece of music that affects me, that wakes my out of my waking slumber - Mozart's Piano Sonata no. 8 in A minor.

As I'm sure many of you know, Mozart wrote this piece in an around the death of his mother, and so we, desperate to read life into abstract music, have surmised that the minor key and the pathos of the work are connected to his loss.

Without delving too deeply and finding myself committing myself to the intentional fallacy, I will say that, for me, feeling something is central to this work, and I would very much like to think that Mozart intended this, not necessarily for the listener, but for the player.

I would like to imagine that he, or anyone else, can open this up, and play through the dark march of the exposition, only to find themselves in the development in a nice, bright C major. One almost feels relieved at this point, that the gleeful Mozart that we're all raised on, you know, the one that makes babies smarter, will carry us through and make this a minor a jovial, ironic work.

We all know how this winds up.

He doesn't just use dissonance, he hammers us. He does this for a while, very elegantly and sequentially, simultaneously unnerving, jarring. When Mozart lets us loose, releasing us from these semitones, instead of giving us a moment to breathe, and I believe that this is the key to the whole first movement, he unleashes what I can only imagine is fury. Sixteenth notes in the right hand, painting the harmony while the left hand plays these remarkable leaps and defiantly trill their way to resolution (this is not the best the much-maligned left hand gets in this work).


And then he winds us up chromatically into the recap in A minor. But we are not home free, on our way to a nice, if dark, martial recap of the 2nd theme in A minor. No, in a move that moves this work from the pathetic (old sense) to the sublime is when he drops the opening theme into the left hand, this dissonant right hand accompaniment reminding us of the development we just thought we'd safely resolved.


There is no resolution in this first movement, or if there is, it's a Phyrric one, reluctantly playing out the formal constraints of the day before Beethoven would come along and really throw them all aside.

There is no other piece of music I play that wakes me up to the world the way this one does. If it didn't, I certainly wouldn't have written about it today.

I wouldn't have written about anything today.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Frankfurt School on BBC

In an effort to continue my love-in with Adorno et al. I'm pointing you to the latest broadcast of BBC's excellent In Our Time with host Melvyn Bragg. This week they're discussing the Frankfurt School, so if you're interested in hearing more about Adorno beyond the fact that he hated jazz, this is a good starting point!

You can listen to it here, and if it's gone, it's sure to be in the archives.

Also, will I return to regular blogging on matters that matter (or not, depending on your point of view)? We'll see!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Travails of Habit - Beethoven Edition

I have been noodling around with Beethoven's 2nd Piano Sonata for about a year now, and have finally settled down to try to actually learn it by practising.

As many musicians know, there's an upside and a downside to playing through something - on the one hand, there's the whole sight-reading thing, that exhilarating sense of that first encounter of "playing" a work, which, especially for an amateur like me, typifies much of my playing. I have no concert to perform, so I have the luxury of screwing up and not worrying too much about it.

The problem with this kind of playing though is that by the time you sit down to actually learn a work, clean it up and make it performable, you find that all the little habits you've accumulated over time have become the barnacles that get in the way of a clean, thoughtful performance.

So it is with Op. 2 No. 2. For reasons that will remain mysterious, I have been playing (or more accurately, trying to play) the following with only the right hand (image taken from this score on the IMSLP:



This image happens to be the 1st edition of the sonata. If you take a look at the whole score, you'll see that this happens to be one of the few places where fingerings are marked, which is a pretty sure sign that those fingers come from Beethoven himself.

For some reason, I took these fingerings to mean that this was meant to be played with the right hand. After all, the marking are all above the stave, so they're for the right hand, right? But then it occurs to you that this is really, really difficult to pull of cleanly. So I practise and practise and it never really comes together.

Then it hits me - my left hand sits limp on my lap while I try to execute these octave arpeggios with the right hand! And then I take a good look again at my own score (the Henle), and realise that they've got some of the fingerings below (indicating use of the left hand), while also preserving Beethoven's own fingerings.

My apologies if this is too much inside baseball, but seeing this, I decided to grab my dvds of Daniel Barenboim playing all the Beethoven sonatas to see what he does - to my absent surprise, he uses both hands!

This takes quite a load off then, doesn't it? Playing these arpeggios over two hands makes them a lot easier, doesn't it? But there is a problem, and it's right there in that image of the 1st Edition:

Beethoven wants you to play this with the right hand alone!

Or does he? One could see this as economy on the part of the publisher, but knowing what I do about Beethoven, it seems pretty clear to me that he's taken the time to write in the fingerings because this is how Ludwig van frickin' Beethoven wants you to play this. If he wanted it played partly with the left hand, he would have pointed that out in addition to the fingerings, especially when this is the only time in the entire movement where he indicates fingerings.

So he wants it rough and tumble, maybe a bit insecure, but definitely with the right hand. Or does he? What do any of you think?

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Winter Olympics as State of Exception

Supposedly some people are upset that the season premiere of the tv show "Lost" could be interrupted the US State of the Union address. Michael Rolston does a nice takedown of the banality of this position.

But this story would be so much funnier to this smug Canadian if I didn't have to say to someone, like oh say those Americans we Canadians love to mock, that our Prime Minister shut down the entire federal government so that we could all watch the Olympics?

I suppose that given our transition to democracy was gradual and peaceful, it shouldn't come as a surprise that our transition to some kind of benign despotism wouldn't be the same way, but still...the Olympics?

I know that's not the real reason he did it, but seriously, that it's even a plausible talking point just blows my mind because a lot of people probably think that shutting down something they don't pay attention to would have gotten in the way of something they may pay attention to, because governments are always getting in the way of stuff!