The art of the fugue


I don’t know whether I’ve mentioned, before, the miserable circumstances under which I spend my days, Monday to Friday.

It’s a sort of software sweatshop — we’re all lined up at benches, no privacy at all, and most horribly, no quiet. In my case the situation is even worse, because two Russian guys sit across the bench from me.

Now as everybody knows, Russians are great motor-mouths to start with, and these two are especially voluble and combative. They argue and scold each other nonstop in Russian — or almost nonstop; they occasionally take a break to argue with, and scold, somebody else, on the phone.

I know, or rather once knew, a little Russian, and so I pick up maybe one word in ten, and of course they drop a little English vocab into their conversation — nivitz gevizt mozhe buy superclass. VITZ?!

So it’s pretty distracting.

My never-sufficiently-to-be-praised wife bought me a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, and when it gets really bad, I plug them into my phone and try to find something to listen to that won’t distract me too much from what I’m doing but will drown out the Russians.

Debates in the British parliament are a godsend; nothing very demanding is being said but everybody seems to be having a good time. It’s like a sitcom. William Hague is actually quite likable, in a horrific kind of way, and Ed Miliband is such a pathetic damp squib that he brings out my inner sadist — the kind of person who would laugh at a blind guy slipping on a banana peel.

I also listened, recently, to some archived interviews, on NPR, with John Updike, a writer who was never in my pantheon — though I’ve read his stuff with more than slight pleasure. On the radio he was indescribably delightful; a bit arch, a bit fey, but very perceptive and always seemed to find the right word. He gave the impression of being a shy guy who had managed to assemble a suitably self-protective public persona, but without misrepresenting himself. I greatly envied his rather whispery, level, unemphatic voice. I too am a shy guy but my public persona has the plummy, orotund voice of Senator Claghorne.

Updike was a riot on the subject of that unspeakable monster Michiko Kakutani. I was laughing so hard the Russians stopped talking (mirabile dictu) and shot me a puzzled glance.

Ordinarily I can’t listen to music. Too demanding. I can’t think of anything but the music and I start to write the strangest, most disconnected Python code. But on a particularly bad day recently, Youtube offered up a complete Art of the Fugue, played on the organ. Out of curiosity, more than anything else, I fired it up, and from the first five notes of that apparently simple but Protean and ultimately spooky theme, I was, as always, putty in the hands of that sui-generis old sorcerer, Herr Kapellmeister und Kantor Johann Sebastian Bach, blest be his name unto ages of ages.

To paraphrase another spooky old gent, Dante Alighieri, very little Python code got written for the next half hour. Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately, if you take into account that the rent must be paid — the available data rate, in my corporate ziggurat, wasn’t enough to keep up with the old boy’s counterpoint. Maddening gaps and hiccups at last frustrated me so much that I tore the headphones off, with a muffled oath.

It’s been a while since I heard anybody play the Art of the Fugue. It’s not a crowd-pleaser. But a great deal of nonsense has been spread about this… this what? Not a ‘piece’. Not a collection of pieces. A secret garden? A labyrinth that somehow grows larger, that expands into new dimensions, as the visitor works his way toward the heart of it?

People say it’s music for the eye, or the head; bloodless, cerebral, ethereal. Very ‘great’, of course, whatever that means, but at the same time, somehow, a bit eccentric and dead-end.

Whether anybody will ever take up where old JSB left off, in measure 239 of contrapunctus XIX, is anybody’s guess, of course. So maybe it is a dead end, in some sense — or better, the living end.

But bloodless it is not. Every measure, as I hear it, is charged with passionate intensity — with feeling so deep it can’t waste itself in gesture and rhetoric, those usually charming and amiable attributes of the music we so oddly call ‘Baroque’. The KdF just speaks itself, in the plainest of terms; it follows its own thought to the deepest heart of its matter, and invites us — without persuasion, much less the hard sell, without any airs or graces — to come along if we like.

I came home from the job and dug out my old Dover edition and played, very slowly and haltingly, through the first two contrapuncti. To see the notes on the page, to feel all that godlike largesse unfolding itself under my own thick, unskilled fingers… if I try to describe it, I’ll just embarrass us both.

I found that I wanted to shed all my Early Music habits; to indulge in rubato like a highwayman; to play some notes loud and others soft; to put it over, in fact. A thing I don’t usually do much of, beyond a very modest level.

This seems wrong. But I don’t want to be robotic about it, either.

Because I now have my mission. Before I die I want to learn all the contrapuncti. They’re nearly all pretty manageable on manuals and pedal, though there are a few spots that want a terza mano.

I wonder what my captive Episcopalians will make of this, when I get to bestride the bench. Perhaps some will think the contrapuncti dull, though clearly most respectable.

Others, better informed, will think I’m being self-indulgent, and of course they’ll be right.

Perhaps the best I can hope for is that somebody will have the experience I had, fleeing from the world of my quarrelsome Russian friends, and re-discovering the strangeness and wonder of a country I thought I knew.

The trans-sex perplex

[Pentimento: Reading this again, ten years later, I greatly regret its unkind and dismissive tone. I’m not going to clean it up, since I think that would be a bit dishonest — sanitizing one’s own history. This is what I thought then; it’s not exactly what I think now. In particular, my harsh words about transsexuals in their social capacity seem grossly unfeeling. I continue to believe that gender theory is nonsense, but I could have been more sympathetic to people caught up in it; experiencing deep distress and trying to find their way out of it. I offer a most sincere mea culpa.]

All the transsexuals I’ve ever met have been crashing bores, and very bad company. Admittedly, it’s a small sample — half a dozen or so — but the lineaments of tediousness have been pretty consistent. The level of self-absorption is extraordinarily high — approaching, or even exceeding, adolescent levels. The range of interests very narrow. Transsexuals don’t flirt like girls and they’re not chummy like guys and no matter what you say or do, you end up feeling you’ve put a foot wrong. They’re like 70s feminists, except with big feet and hoarse voices, and wardrobes that aren’t at all butch but don’t quite make it as femme.

If I were Sex Commissar I wouldn’t ban it, of course. Liberty Hall, that’s my motto. Get the hormones and the surgery if you like, and good luck to you.

These ruminations got started in my head by Chelsea, nee Bradley, Manning, a great hero of mine, and the subject of a very fine piece by Jacob Bacharach, the former IOZ.

Chelsea is fully entitled, as a matter of courtesy if nothing else, to the name and pronouns she prefers. And in spite of her somewhat dismal choice of given name, my admiration for Chelsea remains entirely undimmed. If I were President, I would pardon her, give her the Medal Of Freedom, and pay for her surgery out of my own pocket.

In all fairness, it must be said that Chelsea, in the photo above, looks a lot foxier than any fait-accompli transsexual I have ever met. Of course when the picture was taken, I suppose she was, technically, a transvestite rather than a transsexual(*). And everybody knows how fabulous transvestites are.

Perhaps this is partly because transvestites are still navigating the shadowlands of gender — they have, so to speak, a foot in both camps. Their answer to the ‘identity’ question is, in effect, ‘None of the above’. Which is almost always the right answer to any multiple-choice question.

This American Life — I believe that’s an NPR show, right? — is one lockdown after another: day care, school; the office, or prison, or the army; and finally the old folks’ home or the ironically-named ‘hospital’.

We’re an institutionalized nation. No wonder we dream wild dreams of a wholly other life; some fence we can jump and find lusher, greener pastures on the other side. Of course the fences we might jump are laid down by the culture we live in, and the far-side pastures are as fenced in as the hither-side.

Perhaps the transsexuals I have known are so grumpy because they’ve realized that being a girl in America is no improvement on being a guy, although it may sometimes seem so to us guys.

Lemma, for you girls: Being a guy is also not much of an improvement on being a girl. We’re all fucked, more or less. Okay, you rather more than us. Fair enough.

There were some sourly funny sequelae to Chelsea’s self-revelation. The Nation magazine, for example, tried to crank up a campaign to get the prisons to provide ‘hormone therapy’ and indeed — they’re very radical at The Nation — sex-change surgery, for the Incerceration Sector’s long-term guests.

This struck me as a classic example of crackpot realism. Take it as given that the jailers will have a shocking number of us in their charge, for ever and ever, amen. Let’s make them kinder, gentler jailers.

(*) Lord, how dismal this bastard Latin-Greek vocab is.

Reculer pour mieux sauter


Over the last few days, it’s been fun, in a sour sort of way, to watch the Obama administration’s efforts to hedge and undercut the remarkable process that unfolded after Kerry’s ‘gaffe’.

Maybe it really was a gaffe, or maybe, as has been suggested, a deal was already in the works. I dunno, personally; they don’t invite me to these meetings.

Gaffe, or no gaffe, it provided a relatively un-humiliating way for Obie & Co. to climb down off the war wagon, once it became clear that the Israel lobby doesn’t have quite such tight control over the American and European public, or even the American and European political class in general, as it does over the White House, and Downing Street, and the Palais des Elysees, and of course the congressional ‘leadership’ — Boehner, Feinstein, Pelosi and so on.

I don’t think they’ve given up. There are plenty of indications: If the Syrians don’t do — or if Obama says they haven’t done — what they’re supposed to do, then the US ‘reserves the right’, etc., etc. (How can you reserve a right you never had?)

I almost never make predictions, but I would bet the farm that we will hear the war drums beating again about Syria before this tiresome administration folds its tent and grumpily steals away.

Nice piece by Diana Johnstone, a great favorite of mine, and Jean Bricmont, on Counterpunch. Read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

For now, the threat of war has been avoided, or at least “postponed”. Let us not forget that Iraq and Libya also gave up their weapons of mass destruction, only to be attacked later.

Syria is likely to abandon its chemical weapons, but without any guarantee that the rebels, much less Israel, won’t retain such weapons.

The popular mobilization against the war, probably the first one in history to stop a war before it starts, has been intense but may be short-lived. Those whose war plans have been interrupted can be expected to come up with new maneuvers to regain the initiative.

The crusader


We now now what really matters to Obie, don’t we? (If we didn’t already.)

The guy who laid down and rolled over on public-option healthcare (not to mention single-payer); the guy who made no effort to close Guantanamo; the guy who stayed in Iraq until the Iranians chased him out; the guy who didn’t pick up the phone and put a stop to the torture of Bradley Manning; the guy who hasn’t sicced his Attorney General on George Zimmerman; that same guy — that apparently feckless guy — has become a balls-to-the-wall zealot for war with Syria. He’s willing to put his ‘Presidential legacy’ on the line for it, as all the bigfoot media solemnly intone.

Of course, one might observe that qua legacy, it’s pretty pathetic, so why not?

One wonders why he decided to involve Congress. Did he want company in the dock, at some possible future Nuremberg trial?

Whatever his reason, it was a disastrous error. The congressional ‘leadership’, of course, is solidly behind this crusade, but even with the Israel lobby at full throttle on the topic, rankanfilers are reluctant.

Presumably the reason is that the US public isn’t buying it at all. Never let it be said that the human capacity for pattern recognition is entirely atrophied.

Even the British Parliament seems to get it. Amazing. The only thing not to like about Cameron’s stunning rebuff is that it makes that querulous runt, Ed Miliband, look like a political genius.

Meanwhile, in France, the ‘socialist’ Francois Hollande, like his Tory cross-channel counterpart, has become a figure of fun for his lapdoggery towards the Bombardier-In-Chief. A kind of bipartisan abjection.

Entertaining times.

Among other sources of pleasure it’s amusing to see the cliche mill operating at max RPM. The whole plant is vibrating, the overheated bearings shrieking at near-supersonic pitch.

My favorite cliche product of the moment is the shocked observation that Assad (*) ‘used chemical weapons against…’ — wait for it — ‘his own people’.

Hmm. Would it be better if he had used them against somebody else’s people? Better if he had blown them up rather than gassed them? Why?

I’ve always suspected that the great powers’ disapproval of chemical weapons is based on the fact that they might be a field-leveller for small powers against large ones. If one well-placed rocket could wipe out an armored division, then the big battalions don’t count for quite so much any more. Same reasoning as with nukes, really.

(*) Supposedly. The whole business smells a lot like the Gulf of Tonkin to me.