Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 fades ...

... what will 2010 bring?

The play's the thing

Carol Newsom's interpretation of the Book of Job as a "contest of moral imaginations" is a revelation, and shows a way of taking the book as a whole seriously without ignoring what historical-critical work tells us about its different tonalities. Where many other contemporary interpreters see the book as a composite of disparate parts of different and uneven authorship (which gives them permission to ignore those they think disruptive or banal), Newsom shows that the various parts work together "polyphonically" in a way an author might well have intended. By the time she has analyzed each of the book's several parts - the prose story, the wisdom dialogue, the hymn to wisdom, Job's final speeches, Elihu's intervention, and God's speeches from the whirlwind - on its own, and then shown how they work together, it's like moving from having heard the Book of Job by the hearing of the ear to finally seeing it. Indeed, she caps it all off with a brilliant visualizable dramatization:

Onto a semidarkened stage the actors walk. They are dressed in abstract costumes that evoke a vaguely medieval quality, as though they had arrived to play the drama of Everyman. The narrator takes his place to stage left, while Job occupies the center. As the narrator begins the story of Job—“A man there was in the land of Uz . . .”—Job and his children begin to mime the parts they are given. As they move into their tableaux, the scene of the council in heaven unfolds its role to stage right. Thus, the players enact the prose tale of Job. As they complete the drama of the prose tale’s chapters 1-2, Job’s three friends gather about him, sitting in silence.

Suddenly a light picks up an echoing group of four actors, situated toward the front left of the stage. They are clearly in the same postures of Job and his three friends, but they are costumed very differently, in the rich robes one might associate with a nineteenth-century Shakespearean performance. Job begins to speak, in accents and diction sharply different from the Job character of the morality play: “Damn the day I was born. . . .” Over the course of two hours, the friends and Job debate the issues of the wisdom dialogue: the experience of turmoil, the plausibility of the moral order of the world, the nature of God, and the possibility of justice. As their passionate and vigorous debate begins to falter, the audience is aware that all the time they have been speaking, the characters of the morality play have been continuing their drama. And yet, though the audience can see that the actors in the background are engaging one another, the microphones do not pick up what they have been saying.

At this same moment, at the end of the speeches of the wisdom dialogue, the characters enacting it freeze in their stance, with Job hostilely confronting his fellows. After several seconds of silence, a disembodied voice comes over the sound system: “There is a mine for silver. . . . But where can wisdom be found?” As this voice finishes its haunting poetic speech, the character of Job from the group of actors playing the wisdom dialogue gets up from that tableau vivant and moves across to the center of the stage. No longer talking to the actors who play the friends, he speaks directly to the audience with passionate sincerity: “O that I were as in months gone by. . . .”

As Job concludes his extraordinary oath to an audience that reacts with profound but not entirely unembarrassed silence, that silence is broken by a member of the audience who stands up and announces himself: Elihu Barachel. To the astonishment of the rest of the audience, this person refuses to sit down until he has finished a long and passionate, if not entirely comprehensible, response. The audience wonders—Was he scripted? Or was this a genuine bit of audience reaction? In either case, his evocation of a divine theophany provides the transition to the play’s climactic moment—God’s speech from the whirlwind.

Depending on the theater’s technical capacity, this is either an extraordinary tour de force or a bit of cheesy theatrics. But soon the audience is caught up in the verbal extravagance of the words themselves. The incredible, powerful speech seems to fill the entire theater, pausing only once, when Job speaks softly to refuse a reply. The divine voice resumes again with a crescendo of extraordinary poetry, concluding with the words describing Leviathan as “king over all proud beasts.” Job’s words of response come quietly, echoing the divine speech, weaving those words into his own. But just as Job says his final words, his voice becomes so quiet that the audience, leaning in to catch every word, realizes that it cannot quite hear what he has said.

Their intensity of focus is disrupted as the microphones, which have muted the dialogue of the actors in the morality play, now increase the volume so that everyone hears the narrator again. “After the Lord had spoken these words to Job . . .” And so, with the end of the narrator’s final description of Job’s restoration, old age, and death, the play of Job comes to an end. The lights come up and the audience departs, moving off to restaurants and wine bars, where they will debate what they have experienced.

In its
ironic way, this description captures the experience of the Book of Job with amazing insight.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Im Takt der Zeit

As we slouch toward a new year and the hope of a better decade, I'm enjoying a boxed set of recordings of the Berlin Philharmonic issued three years ago for their 125th anniversary. (I picked it up while in Berlin in September, and presented it to my parents for Christmas.) Against the backdrop of Germany's grim 20th history it's a heady mix, from Arthur Herz conducting an orchestral suite from Parsifal in 1913 (!) to Simon Rattle conducting Mahler's Sixth in 1987 and Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Bach in 2002 by way of Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Weber, Listz, Berlioz, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Suppé, Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Milhaud...

I'm flabbergasted that its 13 hours of live recordings include four Beethoven symphonies - the fifth (Furtwängler, 1943), the first (Furtwängler, 1954), the ninth (Karajan at the opening of the new Philharmonie, 1963) and the eighth (Barenboim in East Berlin right after the fall of the wall, 1989) - but no Brahms, though less surprised at the absence of the second Vienna school, Stravinsky, Bartok and newer music. Otherwise I'm delighted by the selections, which are both historically and aesthetically satisfying. For instance Erich Kleiber's 1935 recording of Schubert's unfinished symphony would be moving even if one didn't know that it was his last recording after resigning in disgust at Nazi hostility to modern music, but takes on a whole new symbolic power when you know that.

What's giving me goosebumps is a recording that almost finishes what was unfinished: Kurt Sanderling conducting Shostakovich's exquisite 15th symphony in 1999. I confess I wasn't even sure who Sanderling was before this. Born in 1912 in East Prussia, Sanderling was involved with the Berlin opera until Nazi antisemitism forced him to flee. He fled east in 1935, and spent 25 years in the USSR, where he became a music director of the Leningrad Philharmonic and a friend of Shostakovich's. Returning at the request of the DDR in 1960, he built up the (east) Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester, the eastern analog to Karajan and the (west) Berliner Philharmoniker.

Another quarter century later Sanderling conducted the Berlin Philharmonic's official reunification concert in 1990, reuniting more than just the divided history of Berlin. An amazing Lebenslauf, and, here at 77, an amazing performance of Shostakovich.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Last full moon of the - decade!

Monday, December 28, 2009

As the Red Regime sinks

My father bought us tickets to see a spectacular show of classical Chinese arts, performed by Shen Yun Performing Arts, at the San Diego Civic Center. I've always wanted to go to one of these, having seen them advertised in New York and Melbourne. At some point I think I also noticed that they were presented by Falun Dafa. Interesting! Well, I had no idea. Shen Yun (founded in 2006 as Divine Performing Arts in New York) presents an evening of "classical Chinese dance" and some ethnic dances (we were treated to dances from the Miao, the Dao, the Northwest, Mongolia and, yes, Tibet), all against lovely candy-colored landscapes of ancient China. But there's more: dramatic episodes from the mythic past and from the present. In fact the show starts in heaven, where a celestial king leads his court to go with him to earth to save suffering beings and establish China's "Divinely Inspired Culture." We end in T'ang China, as the emperor opens his gates and his empire to the Buddhist teachings brought from India by the monk Tripitaka. Along the way we've twice seen elegant celestial figures and Buddhas in saffron robes with blue nubby hair come to the aid of people today. A woman Falun Gong practitioner beaten to death by black-clad thugs, as her young daughter watches, has her spirit transported to heaven by a glorious entourage. A man, tortured and maimed by goons for daringly displaying a banner saying "Falun Gong is Good" on Tiananmen Square, has his paralyzed limbs restored by a line of Buddhas. (In each case, the thugs are attended by roiling dark storm clouds, which are dispelled - and their dungeon-like buildings destroyed - by the arrival of help.) Other mythological episodes narrate the overcoming of dangers - killing a tiger after dulling one's terror with alcohol, and freeing a goddess who had been imprisoned in a mountain by her wicked brother for having fallen in love with and started a family with a human being. The most didactic part of the evening comes in three concert arias, the text broadcast overhead - here's the text of one (from the program, whence also the photos). What to make of it all? It felt like a pageant by a new religion - which of course it is, a bit of a bait and switch. It was reminiscent also of the cultural politics of the cold war, when Taiwan presented Chinese culture as endangered by fanatically uncultured Communists. But most of all it reminded me of the Yang Ban Xi, the eight "model works" permitted in the PRC when all other arts were suppressed by the Cultural Revolution (see the splendid documentary). I don't know a lot about classical Chinese dance or about Falun Gong/Falun Dafa, but the combination - presented in high gloss and in prestige venues like Radio City Music Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, etc. - is an achievement of some sort, not-so-skilful cultural means from a novel antimodern religious configuration.

Mind the gap

Working with ancient texts is not something I know how to do. I remember Bruce Zuckerman likening the surviving record to the buttes of Monument Valley. Most things are lost, and those which survive have survived for reasons which may have little to do with their quality or significance or representativeness. So how can you say anything about these periods? I haven't had to before, but I need to say something about the context of the Book of Job. The main point is that we know very little, and that there are no other surviving texts which are sufficiently like it that we can see it as part of a genre. And yet it's not as simple as that. One can learn quite a lot (for instance from Carol Newsom's brilliant generic analysis of Job as a polyphonic text) by looking at other surviving texts. Above is part of one, the so-called Babylonian Theodicy, in which a sufferer invokes the comfort and help of a wise friend. It's one of the gappier parts: so tempting to see the gaps as unintentional insight, a Monument Valley in the desert of humanity's wanderings in search of meaning. But I must resist the temptation, somehow. With respect to Job, too.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

in the

in the

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Things beyond me

Presuming to write something about the Book of Job can fill one with fear and trembling - and not only because one can't read the Hebrew.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Panoramas past

For Christmas I got a stash of old photographs scanned, including some panoramas from the early 90s: from Hadrian's Wall to Walden Pond, from Japan Sea to Saturn (my first and only car!). I miss the horizontality!
(Karuizawa faces; Hadrian's Wall, complete with Romans; wintry beach at Takaoka; Oxford spires; Castlerigg Stone Circle; my car, still with the dealer's plate; Blenheim Palace; Walden Pond; Oxford; Toyama Bay; my friend A in the Lake District; Japanese suburbia; shadows at Castlerigg.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Well set

Some of the grandest sunsets seem to end before they return, in even deeper colors... And by the way: merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Sunset-stained mineral colors on warm wintry Torrey Pines State Beach.

Make way

Christmas is coming! (It gets to Australia first)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Memory lane

It's an amazing thing. After just a few pages of The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk's new novel (which I started on the flight to San Diego today), the whole world of Pamuk's tribe in Nisantasi was as real to me as when I was physically in Istanbul this summer. Something to do, I suppose, with the fact that I was weaving my way through the lines of his earlier book The Black Book while there, building on a foundation of the earlier Istanbuls of My Name Is Red and The White Castle - secret... longed for... imagined... forgotten... invented...

Is there any contempo- rary who writes as compellingly about memory, about objects saturated with it, irradiated by history, personal and generational? Apparently Pamuk's opening an actual museum displaying the objects around which (or from which) The Museum of Innocence weaves its tale. Next time I'm in Istanbul - and it's feeling inevitable again that I shall go - will I go there and feel it is a museum of my own memories, a memorial to my own innocence?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Beyond bizarre

Do you know Eugene Ionesco's play "The Bald Soprano" ("La Cantatrice Chauve")? I saw a production of it at Highlands University in Las Vegas, NM in 1983 or 1984 which I've never forgotten. There's a scene in which (at least as I remember it) two strangers meet in a train and make small talk. To their surprise, they discover that they live in the same city. C'est bizarre, quelle coincidence, both duly exclaim. Probing a bit further, they find they live in the same part of town. Quelle coincidence! The same street. Bizarre! The same building, the same floor. Quelle coincidence! And it goes on: same apartment, which they share with their spouse. C'est bizarre! They sleep in the same room - quelle coincidence - and even in the same bed. Bizarre! The absurdity of the scene is not just that these people were, as it emerged, a married couple, but that the characters register no more surprise at the first mildly disengaged c'est bizarre! than at the last.

I had an experience almost like that this evening at a holiday party at my friend J's. Earlier in the evening another friend had told me he was flying out of JFK tomorrow, too, but while he's leaving in the morning, my flight is at 4:30. J's husband overheard that conversation, and remembered it later, while talking to another person, S, whose flight was also, it turns out leaving at 4:30. Quelle coincidence! It turns out it's the same JetBlue flight to San Diego. C'est bizarre! Both going to visit our parents. Quelle coincidence. We both grew up in San Diego, it turns out; indeed - c'est bizarre - in the same part of it, Del Mar, indeed both off a street named Crest. After a few predictable differences (she's a bit older than me, and rode horses and dated surfers) and some pleasingly ordinary coincidences (she knew the older brother of one of my friends, and babysat my sister's best friend) it was back to Ionescoland. In some connection I mentioned that we used to go to Europe every other year, and often had relatives visiting, since my mother's German. So is mine, says S - indeed both her parents are. Beyond bizarre! And where in Germany? Nordrheinwestfalen, I reply. Really! Münsterland, I added, sure this would be the end. But no, her parents are from Münster! Quelle coincidence. This was too weird. We're continuing our conversation at the terminal tomorrow. But if we end up sitting in the same row in the plane, we're not sure what we'll do.

(The pictures - unrelated, but I took them today, too - are of the brilliant Christmas tree at the Chelsea Market, which offers a dazzling break with prerecorded Christmas tradition - literally: it's made of broken CDs on a bed of unspooled videotape!)

Snow at last!

That big blizzard making its way up the Atlantic seaboard passed through here yesterday, but had left much of its load farther south. The radio says we got a foot - someone spoke of fifteen inches... looking out my window I wasn't convinced. But once I headed out onto the wind-protected street I found wintry wonders!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

End of belief

The New York Times' "Beliefs" column is coming to an end! Today's column looks back over 486 columns over 20 years, describes some common "threads" or "themes," then ends with a shocker: The next Beliefs column will be the last.

Here are six themes column anchor Peter Steinfels identifies, six of the "convictions" which have "animat[ed]" the series:

First, the great world religions are complex and multilayered; they are rich in inner tensions and ambiguities that allow beliefs and practices to evolve over time as the faith is tested by new circumstances and insights. The great religions cannot be equated with the diminished and frozen fundamentalisms that they periodically spawn....

Second, religions encompass claims about truth and rules of conduct but cannot be reduced to doctrinal propositions or ethics. Religions involve orientations toward reality handed on in stories, rituals and paradigmatic figures as well as in creeds. Religions are embodied in communities and shape distinct ways of life.

Third, intelligence and critical reasoning are essential to adult approaches to faith. In short, theology matters. It is curious that so many otherwise thoughtful people imagine that what they learned about religion by age 13, or perhaps 18, will suffice for the rest of their lives. They would never make the same assumption about science, economics, art, sex or love.

Fourth, at least partly because of that assumption, a contemporary abundance of serious thought and scholarship about religion is marginalized. Thinkers and scholars who should have a presence in the intellectual and cultural landscape — whose books, for example, might well be noted in the annual “holiday” listings — are instead known almost entirely in their own religious circles or academic specialties. That is a loss this column has tried to counter....

Fifth, if this column has neglected popular religiosity, it has not dodged the great challenge to faith — and to the systematic examination of faith that is theology — posed by the existence of evil. The response of religious thinkers and leaders has been a recurrent topic, whether after events like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, where religion itself was a source of the evil, or the great tsunami of 2004, where nature, that great mother and serial killer, went on a murderous rampage.

Sixth, a major concern threading its way through these columns is protection of conscience. From its Protestant and Enlightenment origins, American society has tended to honor the personal conscience of the dissenting individual — at least in principle, although, as any atheist running for public office can testify, not necessarily in practice.
But what is applauded in individuals can seem intolerable in groups. Faced with religious bodies that resist prevailing opinion and hold to beliefs that either the majority Christian population or influential cultural elites consider retrograde, the nation has often balked.
Should these groups be allowed to maintain distinct identities, to set their own standards for their institutions, to propagate their views and to be active in civic life? Should any modifications of their views be left to evolve or not (see above) from internal debate — or be forced by legal or economic pressure? The presupposition here has been that freedom of conscience for individuals cannot be detached from freedom of conscience for communities of belief.

It's an interesting raft of convictions, and helps explain some of the preoccupations of the series over the years. These aren't the only lacunae in media coverage of religion, but they're among the most important. The "Beliefs" column performed a valuable public service - I don't know what will fill its gap. (Certainly not the other religion reporting in the Times, let alone the tabloid religion coverage in the Times Sunday Magazine.) I'm sure I'm not the only one who will miss it.
Sometimes The Onion is sublime.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Moral vertigo

Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?Recognize the quote, recognize the view? It's from one of the all-time great films, showing at Film Forum in a new 35mm print for its 60th anniversary: Carol Reed's "The Third Man." The question is posed by a character played by supremely shady Orson Welles from one of the cars of the giant ferris wheel of Vienna's Prater. I know "The Third Man" well,as it used to play all summer in the Burgkino in Vienna. Once upon a time I knew where every scene was shot (the film was shot largely on location), from the Josefsplatz (above), where Harry Lime's apartment lies, to a lane above the university, St. Ruprecht and Maria am Gestade. The scene below is one of many shot near Am Hof (and on an angle). The last time I watched "The Third Man" - nearly a decade ago - I noticed a shot in the opening scenes of St Stephen's cathedral without its roof - one of the many casualties of war. But I didn't notice that the mountain of rubble of the final chase is on the Hoher Markt, site now of a 50s-era building with an exhibition of Roman ruins in the basement; perhaps they discovered the Roman remains when rebuilding? In any case, the film is a marvel of plot, visual wit, and moral murk - the screenplay was written by Graham Greene, after all. It raises hard questions about the adequacy of the morals - and the estimate of human nature - of the modern (American) age. In the final scene, Holly Martins, our American protagonist - a writer of pulp western novels with clear heroes and villains - waits for the complicated European woman he's fallen in love with to join him after the interment of her morally bankrupt lover at the Zentralfriedhof. She walks right by.