I’m not really sure how to start. Today has been long and harrowing, and anything I am about to write feels like it can’t be more than additional white noise among the incessant static of our collective catatonia.
Like many, I watched election returns Tuesday night as my unease slowly metamorphosed into a spellbinding horror. I am afraid. A dread which had been unknown to me has wrapped its chilling grip around my heart, and I have many fears for the future — when the jurors of history don their robes, when they set us upon the scales of worth, what will their discerning eyes perceive? What is the measure of a people? What is the weight of morality? When our children look back to find where things fell apart, upon whose countenance will their scrutinizing gaze settle? Will the scars be indelible? Will we, ultimately, be found wanting?
I want to believe that America is fundamentally good at heart, but this morning, I was angry. I still am, but after half a day the numbness set in. I’m still afraid. But more than anything, I’m tired.
I’m really tired, but I’m unable to sleep. It’s 7 a.m. on November 10, which means that this article is due in a little over 10 hours and I haven’t slept in 22. After everything, the globe still spins. And right now it’s my job to say something about classical music. It’s what’s expected of a classical music columnist, after all. So this isn’t about what just happened. This isn’t my “J’accuse.” It’s not about how we got here. We’re not really going to talk about this. We’re going to talk about music and poetry and art and meaning — but also this.
Let me tell you a story. I worked from 11 to 5 today —with a half hour lunch break, which I used to sign a lease rather than to eat — and when I got off I walked across the way to the Diag, where there was a protest going on.
I walked around the periphery, neither joining in nor really paying attention. I had headphones in (I was listening to the Benjamin Britten “War Requiem”) and was looking at the ground, where people had chalked messages of encouragement like “You Belong” or “Love Trumps Hate” or “This is Still Home,” or the more damning “We Let This Happen.” I felt like crying and did not. At around 6 p.m., I caught a bus to my apartment near North Campus, where I set down my bags and sat for a moment. I thought about eating dinner. Instead, I got up and went out the door, and I walked and walked for a few hours, with no particular destination in mind.
It was cold and I forgot a jacket. I thought a lot about what we, as artists, can do about the hatred in the world, and worried that perhaps the disease had already metastasized, that the sickness was fatal. When one wakes up to find that Hell is empty, and all the devils are here, what’s to be done? In terms of both music and words, I knew that I had to write — it wasn’t just an emotional necessity, it was a moral imperative. I recalled artists who had grappled with similar questions in the past, and by the time my wandering brought me to Literati I already knew exactly the poem I had to read.
“ …Uncertain and afraid / As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade / Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth, / Obsessing our private lives … Accurate scholarship can / Unearth the whole offence / From Luther until now / That has driven a culture mad, / Find what occurred at Linz, / What huge imago made / A psychopathic god: / I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return … ”
Those lines come from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” a title which references the German invasion of Poland, and thus the beginning of the bloodiest conflict humanity has ever known. It’s uncanny how apt the words feel still — he wrote it in the few days following the outbreak of the war in Europe, before most of the paroxysms of violence had shaken the continent, but he could see what was to come.
While it was a far darker age than today’s epoch when Auden wrote it, there are certain similarities which bear consideration. When Auden sat down to pen his poem he saw a world which was red and bleeding, and he wept tears of ink, ink which formed itself into words and into thoughts. And the thoughts that came out were beautiful, and heartbreaking, and accusatory, and fearful, and angry, and optimistic and affirmational — and ultimately, more than anything else, they were deeply, emphatically human.
And maybe that’s what art is for. Maybe it’s to remind us all of our own humanity, to hold a mirror before our face and say “See, this is what you are.” And sometimes what we see might be painful, and it might be ugly. We might find that we live in a “fun” house, and the twisted mirror shows us only the worst distortions of our character. But by contrast, sometimes what we see might be beautiful, and as artists part of our job is to make that beauty something which is attainable. Our job is to bring people together into the oneness of human existence.
About a year ago, following the terror attacks in Paris, there was a quote by the great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein which garnered a great deal of attention, and I feel that in some ways it is apt to mention it again now. “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Now, Bernstein was originally speaking a few days after the murder of President John F. Kennedy, but his advice is no less sage now than it was then. Music has the power to gather disparate groups together, to bridge ravines and to sway the hearts and minds of humankind.
Composers have been doing this in little ways forever — there are, of course, the great examples of pacifist works of the 20th century, such as Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Dona Nobis Pacem,” but even earlier, people were doing this. Verdi’s magnificent “Requiem” was composed in memory of the great Italian nationalist poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, and to bring their young nation together in mourning. Chopin wrote an etude in solidarity with the Polish independence movement. Even Beethoven — deaf, angry, misanthropic, cynical Beethoven — strived in his music for peace between humankind, and for common brotherhood.
Perhaps more famous than any other work in the cannon, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the 9th Symphony (now fittingly the anthem of the European Union) is a plea for unity and shared humanity. Schiller’s original poem takes on new significance through the music, and after living through the Napoleonic Wars and having his democratic hopes shattered with the failure of the French Revolution, Beethoven poured his soul and his very essence into this last symphony, a masterwork which is a breathing testament to the endurance of the human spirit, one which has resounded through centuries.
And so, perhaps in times like these, when you start to wonder if the Bard was right, if life really is, after all, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing, the most we can do is to cherish our art and to cherise one another. In Auden’s words, “We must love one another or die.” And following his example, and that of countless others, we must lend our voice to the chorus of light, to sing more powerfully than the noise of hate and darkness. We have a voice, and that must be enough — the rest is silence.
“All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie, / The romantic lie in the brain / Of the sensual man-in-the-street … And no one exists alone; / Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police; / We must love one another or die.
“Defenceless under the night / Our world in stupor lies; / Yet, dotted everywhere, / Ironic points of light / Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages: / May I, composed like them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.”