With friends like these…

Poor Job: Among your sorrows, not the least
Your friends: Let ring their resonant toponyms
To the last age: Bildad, distinguished Shuhite,
Eliphaz, Temanite; Zophar the whatsit,
Ah yes, Naamithite. One does forget.
For one has seen more than a few of these,
From places less exotic. Like next door.

All gather, by consent, t’inspect your boils
And moralize upon them. Every kind
Of useless comfort, found in misplaced kindness,
Chapter on chapter they lay on, sententious,
Proverbial, gnomic, epigrammatical,
Folk knowledge by the cracker-barrelful.
And how they do go on, prosing away.
D’they ever even need to take a breath?

This is of course unfair to him who wrote
Or edited the book. He didn’t mean
To hold them up to ridicule. They speak
Wisdom, no doubt. Ecclesiasticus
And Proverbs much the same; and they’re astute.

Wise as they are, though, Job’s not comforted.
And no one would be. Where’d it all go wrong,
What ancient sin or trauma now pops up
In boils? The comforters are whole of skin.
What do they know? They haven’t got the boils,
Though they have explanations, each to each
A contradiction.

   Me, I think the guy
Who wrote, or edited this book, discovered
He’d bit off more than he could chew. Our man —
Job, with the boils – hijacks the tale. His friends
Were meant, I think, to give the answer. Job,
That bloody-minded unconsolable Job —
Spits in their face.

   (His wife is not much help
Either; “Curse God”, she says, or maybe “bless”
— Translators disagree; but then she says
“And die”. There’s really nothing doubtful there.)

Well, thanks my dear, and thanks, my comforters,
Says Job, who’s taken over from his scribe;
Character drives the tale now, and appeals
On high. And as we know he gets his answer.

It’s not much better: Where were you when I,
And so on, but it is undoubtedly
Authoritative. Asked for, must be taken.
God answers every question with a question —
A very Jewish God. Better His questions
Than Bildad’s answers, though. So Job shuts up.

May be another migration in the works

Blogs are so Boomer, and it’s difficult to set them up right, such that reasonable people can comment and trolls can’t. Rather a lot of work really. So I’m toying with migrating to Substack: https://anacharsis.substack.com/

For the moment, when the Muse visits, I’ll post the same content here and there. I’ve kept this thing going for some years now, and I have some psychic investment in it, so I’ll keep it up (as long as I can keep myself up) if only for historical interest. But I am wondering whether the Substack is a better way to get the word out, and also to encourage a kind of back-and-forth that seems to be difficult on this “platform”.

Interested to hear thoughts on the subject. Fervent thanks to those who have doggedly kept reading and commenting here.

Lord, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are

Terms like “PC”, “virtue signalling”, “SJW”, “cancel”, “woke”, and the various forms of “performative”, all originate, as far as I know, within the “left” – very broadly defined for the moment, in the American manner, to include liberals who think of themselves as Lefties. These terms were all either originally positive, or meant as critical commentary on a certain holier-than-thou mentality and practice which us old Lefties have seen among our comrades, or putative comrades, many times.

Now they’ve been adopted by the right wing, and it makes the libs mad as hell to have these brickbats flung at them from that quarter (or from any quarter, really). The reason for this fury is easy to understand; as the old proverb tells us, truth hurts.

The lib outlook has a certain social base – for the moment, let’s wield the broad brush and call it the professional-managerial class (PMC). And it has, consequently, certain values: enlightenment – which means knowing what you can and can’t say at any given moment; education – which means reading the New York Times, and believing what you read therein; virtue – which means an abstemious, priggish life-style. Except for travelling. Travelling is OK.

Apart from voting for Democrats, and urging this upon us all, with frothing lips, as an imperative moral duty, libs really have no practical politics except for the gestural stuff – a close attention to pronouns and capital letters, saying “enslaved person” rather than “slave”, and the low comedy of “Latinx” and its even more ridiculous plural, “Latinxes”.

It’s really Pharisaical; a minute attention to the wiggly (and ever-changing) details of the comportmental Law. Hence the moody painting up top.

So libs hate it when the deplaaarables tell them they’re virtue-signalling, etc., because they are, and on some level they know they are. They need to believe, like the Pharisee in the story, that they’re “not as other men”, but their claim to this status rests on trifling ephemera and minutiae of diction and behaviour.

Recently a young friend of mine – I’ll obfuscate the details – was confronted with a substantive political choice. My friend is a great observer of pronouns and such, but I like him anyway. But a union, in a business he works in, was on strike, and was asking people to boycott the company – let’s call it Moloch Inc. My friend, who thinks of himself as union-friendly and surely is so, in principle, found himself in the awkward position of 1) complying with this request, with possible consequences for others besides himself, or at least a need to explain himself to these others, or 2) crossing a kind of moral, though not physical, picket line.

My friend, to his credit, grasped the moral quandary he was in. And he really meant, means, well. But there was a kind of grim fun in watching him tie himself in knots. Well, if the business doesn’t go to Moloch, it’ll go to places that don’t have unions at all! The union only represents a tiny number of Molochians! And they’re really doing pretty well! Much better than the places (Asmodeus and Mammon, Inc.) that don’t have unions!

This chap is very attentive to pronouns and so on, and he’s truly not a bad guy, but when something substantive was asked of him, he really didn’t know which way to turn. I applaud the positive side of his uncertainty, but I bet he had plenty of white-collar colleagues who spent two seconds thinking about it, crossed the line, and kept tinkering with pronouns.

Gradus ad infernum

I’m not up to date on the New School strike and its sequelae. As usual with labor struggles, the respectable media are a lot worse than useless. Last I heard from somebody who was actually a participant – yesterday evening, Sunday 11 December – the adjunct union’s management had accepted an offer from the school’s management, and sent the membership back to work – before ratification, I might add, which seems rather weak.

I suppose the idea is to avoid a railroad-type imbroglio.

My participant/informant told me that the interesting thing was that the students had joined the adjuncts eagerly, militantly. God bless ‘em; the day I stop saying the kids are alright, just shoot me.

But naturally, the students had a beef of their own, and it was all about grading, as far as I could tell. I’d like to know more about this, but we didn’t get a chance to discuss it in depth. So I don’t really know what they’re demanding.

Interestingly, the school’s management was also panicked about grading, and it seems that’s what brought them to the table. The grade, after all, is the school’s product, its commodity par excellence, and it seems that some of the parents were threatening to sue if the grade wasn’t in on time. This is a college in Manhattan, you understand, and I bet a lot of these parents are paying a lot for that grade.

I personally had an Edenic college experience. There weren’t any grades. You passed a course, according to the whim of the teacher, naturally, or you didn’t. If you didn’t, it didn’t appear on your transcript. No penalty for failure; and a point on the board if you scored. You could always go back again – perhaps with a better teacher.

Some years later, I did a stint as an adjunct in an ‘umble community college in New Jersey. I liked my students fine, and as far as I could tell they liked me, but the apple of discord between us was the grade. They always wanted to haggle about the grade.

As for myself, I would have happily given them all “A”s, even the assholes – and there were a few, admittedly. But you can’t do that. So the setup was that I had something to withhold that the kids needed. For some of them, the difference between a B and a C meant keeping or losing a scholarship. (In these cases, I’m proud to say that I conferred A’s indiscriminately.)

But it’s one of the reasons I gave up teaching. (Also, of course, you can’t support yourself on it; at the end of the day, I calculated that I made fifty cents an hour.)

Under the regimen of grading, a teacher is basically a poorhouse cop. What, the boy wants more?

Anti ** x

I’ve recently been accused of being anti-anti-Trump, and I plead guilty with a right good will. But let’s explore this “anti”. Is it just a multiplication by -1, so an anti-anti-Trump is a pro-Trump? This doesn’t seem right.

How about an anti-anti-anti-Trump, like my distinguished accuser? Is that just the same thing as an anti-Trump — the two previous anti’s cancelling out? Well, no, that’s not quite right either, for the same reason. I’m sure my accuser is in fact robustly anti-Trump, in a way that I am not, but simply being anti-cubed doesn’t imply that.

Maybe anti upon anti has a kind of diminishing-returns effect: each successive anti is less and less consequential, until after twenty or so levels of anti you end up with nothing to twenty binary digits. Even the main term disappears; twenty anti’s prefixed to Trump come to nothing vis-a-vis Trump.

In fact I would say that two anti’s suffice (like four colors in the famous theorem). As noted, I’m proudly anti-anti-Trump, but this implies absolutely nothing about my attitude toward Trump; what it speaks of is my attitude toward people who are anti-Trump, I mean real team players, enthusiasts, people who hourly work themselves into a froth on social media about Trump. I’m really anti-them. I think they’re ridiculous, they’re fools, they’re expending their spirit in a waste of shame. I wish I could extend them a lifeline, but I fear they’re beyond help, and they wouldn’t take it.

They’re all about Trump, and I’m about anything but.

Musings on Music

So, the perennial question: Why do we care about music? Why do we take pleasure in it, and why do we find ourselves emotionally moved by it – not quite the same question, I think.

Of course there’s all kinds of music. There’s music with words, and music without; music with action (opera and dance) and music without; music that arouses childhood associations and music we’ve never heard before. There’s music made by human voices and music made by strings and acoustic resonators (clarinets, horns, organ pipes) and music made by things you hit with a hammer, like bells and piano wires.

There’s orgasmic music and intellectual music. The Wall of Sound and the quiet string quartet.

Amid all this variety, is there even a single thing we can call “music”? Aren’t there perhaps as many reasons for liking music as there are kinds of music? Or – reductio ad absurdum of this straw man – as many reasons for liking music as there are musical compositions or performances?

Then there are cultural complications. Even in European music, the idea that the minor mode is somehow “sad” is a pretty recent development, and even in Europe, there used to be a good many more modes, each with its own affect (if you believe the theorists, and you probably shouldn’t). Even now, you can hear these older modes if you visit a monastery that cultivates the traditional observances.

Go farther afield and you find music with intervals that European ears can’t even hear; music based on repetition with almost inaudible variation (but the variation seems to be important). Music that doesn’t have a scale, supposedly, and consists of pure rhythm; though to my ears most percussion instruments have something that it’s not too crazy to call “pitch”.

Broadly, all music, I’d suggest, takes place, on the surface at least, in two dimensions: The dimension of frequencies (pitch and timbre) and the dimension of time (rhythm and tempo). Coincidentally, or perhaps not, one could say the same thing of most human speech, though sign languages replace frequency with position in physical space.

I’m an amateur musician myself – not very good, but I do plug away at it, and take a lot of that weird pleasure in it, which we’re trying to explain. And many moons ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I studied linguistics. So perhaps it’s natural that I might want to look at both domains of experience in some kind of unified or at least connected perspective.

People often speak of the “argument” or “logic” or “rhetoric” of a piece of music. I had a teacher who insisted on the importance of “gesture” in performance. He didn’t mean histrionics on the piano bench, or the oratorio singer’s broad oratorical arm-sweep; he meant little details of the music, details smaller than the phrase; trills, appoggiature, little perturbations of tempo, conventional melodic figurations when the cadence draweth nigh. His analogy was a person speaking, and making gestures in the ordinary sense of the word: raising a finger to emphasize something important, brushing aside an irrelevant consideration with a testy little hand-wave. His pedagogical point was that just as such ordinary gestures might seem wooden or fluent, contrived or sincere, excessive or inhibited or, like Baby Bear’s bed, Just Right; so with gestures in music.

All this seems to add up to some long-recognized affinity between music and discourse. Long recognized but difficult to define.

One obvious problem is that while discourse has meaning (“cold day today” is either a true observation or not) and generally some interpersonal purpose (to persuade or at least to convey a thought or experience) it’s not clear how either of these essential aspects of discourse applies to music. Yes, there’s music with words; but the music brings something to the party that the words themselves don’t – or why bother?

And yes, there’s tone-painting, an idea beloved of European Renaissance and Baroque theorists – the music supposedly depicts what the words mean. Handel is yer man for this stuff; to take a well-known example, the chorus “All we like sheep” from Messiah. And it is lots of fun, a total romp really, but it also feels a bit like getting an in-joke, and doesn’t really go very far to account for why the music ravishes us away. And even in Handel, some of the most powerful stuff isn’t tone-painting at all; consider another great chorus, “For unto us a child is born”. The initial declamation is foursquare four/four; if you want to be allegorical, the doctor announces, It’s a boy; and then the thing erupts in ecstatic fioriture on the word “born”, which don’t seem to depict anything I have ever observed or heard tell of about childbirth.

And then there’s the stuff without words. Take the Brandenburgs — and then take them again, and again; you’ll never get to the end of them. B Five, the big harpsi solo, totally manipulative in old Johann’s characteristic way; oh let’s just modulate a few times, the good old circle of fifths, amazing how well that still works, though Corelli beat it to death; and then there’s a dramatic, gestural cadence; and then that rather flat-footed Vivaldian main theme again, and there’s not a dry eye in the house. Oh how he made us want it!

And then there’s B6. Why, how, is the rondeau obviously about leave-taking? But this gets me a bit ahead of myself. Let’s leave B6 and the rondeau for a moment and go speculate.

My speculation: We have an inborn syntax and logic and rhetoric thing in our heads and we usually have it in harness, serving our discursive/rhetorical/persuasive social requirements. But it’s a faculty of its own, a capacity our brains developed, and like old Dobbin the cart horse, unhitched from the cart and free to run in the fields, it loves to just stretch its limbs without the burden of meaning. Syntax escapes its bondage to semantics, kicks over the traces, and runs wild.

Why do we enjoy this? Isn’t it a bit dangerous? Well, yes, it is, and lots of social-controllers over the years have had their doubts about it. The dangers of music are a favorite theme of prudes.

Isn’t the exercise of all our capacities intrinsically pleasurable? Don’t we like to flex the arm, see and feel the muscle move under the skin? Even if there’s no particular immediate need to do so. To get a bit Freudian about it – in a good way – we have a cathexis in our faculties, an emotional or even erotic investment in all the things we can do, and it’s not arms-length either. The payoff is immediate. It comes right with the flex. It doesn’t take a detour through self-regard or self-conception. It’s right there.

So I might stop there. But I think there are other elements too, especially the element of feeling as distinct from pleasure. and so I’ll tell you a mescaline story.

I’ve always loved Bach’s Art of the Fugue (KdF), which has a rep as the dryest, most intellectual music ever written. I personally think this rep is absurdly undeserved and I find KdF deeply moving, for some of the reasons I’ve tried to suggest here. But the present story is about 20-year-old me, in college, in the late 60s, and taking a lot of drugs, as we all did. Most of the dope was pretty bad, and I finally gave it up for that reason, but on the night I’m remembering here, I got something represented as mescaline which actually turned out to be the real deal, and I was a very happy man.

Wandering around the campus, I found myself outside another student’s room, and he was playing KdF on what we quaintly called, in those days, his “stereo”. He had a good setup and the music sounded great. I must have stood there for half an hour, rapt. But what I mostly remember are the hallucinations: all those writhing voices, bass and tenor and alto, became mighty sea serpents and Leviathans, intertwining and then parting, giving a curious twist with a double-sharp; majestic, utterly inhuman creatures, not malign but completely themselves, without the least regard for me, playing in depths I could never hope to fathom. Yet I could glimpse, and admire – or no, that’s feeble; not admire, but adore. So somehow, as the poet says, one deep calleth to another.

I’ve thought about it a lot, since then, and the feeble (perhaps obvious) conclusion I’ve come to is that our brains have no watertight compartments. Intellection and emotion flicker simultaneously over the same flesh, and music, if you’re receptive enough, can bypass our usual instrumental-reason filters (“What’s this in aid of? What’s it for?”) and get them both going in some kind of unsuspected pre-ordained harmony. And music can even evoke real brain-stem stuff, the part of us that recognizes a snake without thinking.

And also the part that has always seen a snake as a fearsome yet thrilling envoy from the Underworld.

Musk derangement disorder

Trump is history — unless of course the Biden administration and its various acolytes (including the largely useless Squad) succeed in breathing new life into him, which, come to think of it, is perhaps not such a remote prospect. (If they do, they have only themselves to blame.)

But like some sullen autoimmune condition erupting in pustular inflammation after a nervous shock, it appears that Trump Derangement Syndrome, that occupational disease of liberals and closet liberals on the Left, has recently reappeared as Musk Derangement Disorder, after Musk mischievously made public all the conniving the former Twitter management did with the Biden campaign to suppress the Hunter Biden story — which, of course, is not just about Hunter, but about Biden Inc., in general, just as any story about a Kennedy is a story about the Kennedys, and any story about a Clinton similiter. Or, of course, any story about a Trump.

One of the key symptoms of MDD is a genius for missing the point. The libs have raised a great lamentation about how everybody knows Hunter is a poor wretched inept con man, so why belabor it? Hasn’t he suffered enough? What fiendish sinister scheme does Musk have in mind?

But who cares what Musk has in mind, or what whimsies motivate him? The interest of the Twittergate correspondence lies precisely in the collusion between the gnomes of Twitter and the kobolds of the Biden campaign. Lib fury reflects the fact that the right-wing conspiracists were in fact, in this case, correct in their assessment of this squalid liaison, and the libs, who presumably really believed that Twitter was acting in a nice socially responsible objective nonpartisan way, are revealed as the naif nincompoops they are.

All these guys who caved in and voted for the loathesome Biden, because Trump, now own the debacle they strove to create — while those of us who stayed well clear of this smashup can lean back on our elbows and laugh. Biden shareholders are seeing their market cap evaporate, and their one recourse is to say, coplike, Nothing to see here, folks. Move along

Real housewives of Ithaca

No disrespect to Tennyson’s famous poem, so beloved of high-school valetudinarians, I mean valedictorians, but I always suspected there was a domestic angle.

Penelope, at the loom, did truly pine for you;
Forgetting, in your absence, what a jerk you are;
Wove, unwove; dis-, or mis-remembers your bizarre
Tastes in the sack. The noisy unsalubrious crew

Of suitors, by comparison, give her a clue
Just what’s out there; mind’s eye, you’re steering by a star,
Not frolicking with nymphs and whatnot. At the bar
— Your open bar – the suitors swill your house’s brew.

Then you get back, dispatch the suitors, draw the bow.
You’re real now. Not potential; not imagined; and you snore.
Your tastes have coarsened since you went to Troy. You smell

Of garlic, bilge, and fish, and nymph. You’re not the beau
She thought you; really never were. And what a bore
Your tales of Troy. She thinks: It’s time to say farewell.

Bring on the nekkid ladies

Depressing convo with a couple of young people. They both agreed that Gauguin and Modigliani are “porny”, said of course with a strong tone of disapproval. In fact the Metropolitan Museum was censured as a place of “titillation” – too many nekkid ladies. Gets people worked up. Especially dudes.

I admit the titillation but unlike my young friends, I strongly approve of it.

In the same exchange “cultural appropriation” was greatly deplaaared. Picasso’s use of “African” masks (where in Africa, exactly?) was somehow mixed up with the painter’s own well-known oafish womanizing. It all added up to him being a bad guy and his work anathema. I’ve never been a big Picasso fan myself, so this is no skin off my neck, but the basis seems all wrong.

I admit the cultural appropriation and applaud it. Culture is all about theft. Steal away!

Speaking as a child of the Sixties, I really wonder how we got ourselves into this priggish, puritanical, pleasure- and play-hating frame of mind. So what if I emerge from the Met with a boner? What’s wrong with a boner? At my age, they occur about as often as lunar eclipses, but for just that reason I don’t take them for granted.

We seem to have a rather uncomfortable relationship with our ordinary human bodies and their humble but sometimes urgent needs.

Where on earth does this come from? Why do we have to do this to ourselves?

For my young interlocutors, it seemed to be connected somehow with feminism. Modigliani exploits women, so away with Modigliani.

I was around for the blossoming of “second-wave” feminism in the 1970s, and even then there were sex-friendly and sex-inimical tendencies. The latter seem to have won out, at least at the level of respectable culture, and maybe this is because the urgent need of bourgeois society is, precisely, the repression of human nature and its weeping anarchic impulses.

In aid of productivity or some shit.

The theory of everything

I think of myself as a Marxist – in much the same sense as I think of myself as a Darwinian, a Freudian, a Newtonian, etc. These guys were all brilliant and remain, always will remain, indispensable.

But none of these theories is a Theory of Everything. Freud doesn’t even try, but the others have been badly abused by their admirers. Darwin becomes sociobiology, Newton becomes the Clockwork Universe, and Marx – well, Marx is the burden of my song.

Let’s step back for a moment. All good theories have a scale at which they apply. Newtonian mechanics is really good for predicting, say, the trajectory of a comet, just from one or two observations, or the motions of the planets. It’s not good at predicting, or explaining, the shape of the little whirlpool in your bathtub drain, or the weather, or the movement of dust motes in the late-afternoon sunbeam shining palely through your wintry window.

Freud gives us a good, or at least highly suggestive, account of how neurosis happens. He can’t explain in principle why Sam becomes neurotic and Steve doesn’t, even if their life histories are very similar – though as a clinical practitioner he might suss it out, if they both came to him for analysis. This doesn’t mean he was wrong, you understand; it just means that a theory describes phenomena at some particular level of scale, or of generality, and not above or below it.

Darwin gives us a general theory of how organisms evolve, and no reasonable person thinks he was wrong; but notoriously, the theory of evolution throws up its hands in particular cases, except for brilliantly obvious ones like Darwin’s dear little finches. Evolution is the explanatory framework for things like the development of the eye but doesn’t explain it, in any substantive way. An explanation would involve setting out the steps – it would be, in fact, a closely connected narrative – and we don’t have that and never will, probably.

Which brings me to our man Marx.

Too many Marxists want Marxism to be a theory of everything. Brilliant as Dr Marx was, this is asking too much of him. As with Darwin, our great man provides an explanatory framework for certain aspects of human history (and not for others; I’m not aware that he tried to explain Grimm’s Law). If our man is right, and I think he is, then every actual particular explanation needs to fall within its ambit – no lusus naturae, please. But at the smaller level of scale, Big Theory doesn’t apply. That’s not to say Big Theory is wrong, or has failed; it’s to say that Big Theory is talking about something else.

Marxism doesn’t explain why Capitalist A fails and Capitalist B becomes Jeff Bezos. Doesn’t try to. Marx leaves plenty of scope for the chapter of accidents, the random event, the butterfly’s wingflap that causes the hurricane.

Years ago, when I was trying to make sense of the First Transition – from late antiquity to feudalism, in Europe – I was very puzzled about why the Visigoths became Arians rather than orthodox Christians. There must be a reason, surely? Doesn’t Marx shed some light on this?

I mentioned this perplex to a seasoned old mediaeval historian. His response: “Well, the Arian missionaries got to them first, I guess.”

Chapter of accidents; too small-scale for a Big Theory explanation. We need to keep this idea in mind.