Sunday, July 30, 2006

Original Intent: A Good Place to Start. but. . .

(Thoughts occasioned by an essay in The Claremont Review of Books (Summer 2006), "The Supreme Court v. the Constitution of the United States of America" by Michael M. Uhlmann, and the book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene by Bart D. Ehrman (Oxford Press, 2006). News and History | Religion )

So much of our political and religious strife comes down to one question about founders (of the USA, of Christianity): Do ancient texts have inherent authority that trumps any new developments in our understanding of the way we should live? My answer, in a word: No. Yet I believe above all in what conservatives call "rule of law" -- by which I mean, we go by procedures and guidelines created when calm people thought through a problem and came up with a solution. Much better that than the alternative, which would be rule by whim, rule by mass hysteria, rule by knee-jerk response. . .

The question has hit the blood-boiling point in two realms I think about often, in the Episcopal Church and in Constitutional law. The Claremont Review and other conservative groups -- and I! -- are worked up over the Supreme Court's recent interpretation that extends a municipality's "eminent domain" over property that could conceivably be a greater source of revenue in government hands. Then, in the Episcopal church, the appointment of a gay bishop a couple years ago and the more recent appointment of a woman to lead the House of Bishops has some parishioners in a tizzy.

Let's begin a discussion of "authority" with the historical observation that humankind made a great step forward when we learned to take original texts with a healthy dose of skepticism. That's what differentiated the Middle Ages from what followed, the notion that experience might be right when ancient texts (and, for that matter, present authorities in the church and state) were wrong. Petrarca, "father of the Renaissance," published a letter addressed to Cicero pointing out the ancient orator's errors and personal flaws that had been revealed in some recently-unearthed documents; Galileo used the telescope to demonstrate to those with an open mind that Copernicus had been right about the planets, despite what Scripture and ancient philosophers wrote. Martin Luther started the Reformation when he refused to accept the Roman Church's authority to tell him how to read what was plain in the text -- opening a can of Worms, one could say. The founders of the USA got their ideas and language from John Locke and others born in the English Renaissance who had to come up with a theory to justify decapitating King Charles I and later de-throning King James II, both of whom supposedly had Divine authority to rule.. . and they did it partly by giving new authority to something called Magna Carta they found in some trunk somewhere and by reading into it ideas about the common people that would never have occurred to the original authors, who were all self-interested aristocrats.

Let's say for argument that the founders were inherently authoritative, then we have the problem that they disagreed with each other. We have the Constitutional debate as proof, and disagreements among the heavy-hitters in The Federalist Papers, continued during Hamilton and Madison's days in early administrations, with fierce disagreement over the authority of the Constitution itself to bind states. A Civil War quelled the discussion, but it's still hotly contested in the limited realms of states' rights to limit abortion, for example. In Scripture, we see Paul v. Peter on Jewish law, Paul v. James on primacy of faith, and even Paul v. Paul on whether women should be leaders or just silent observers in worship. Does one person's inherent authority negate the others? Don't we still have to pick and choose?

Besides these, we possess dozens of writings -- gospels, letters, collections of sayings, apocalypses to rival Revelation -- that were once considered authoritative by at least some churches. By what authority did Church councils arrive at which ones of these to accept, and which to reject, five hundred years AD? Since those councils, other councils have picked and chosen some writings over others. During a parish meeting at St. James (Marietta, GA), one parishioner stood to accuse the bishops of betraying the faith by appointing the gay bishop: "you can't pick and choose which Scripture to follow." I was seated near the Rector, and we met eyes and whispered at the same time, "We've been doing that for two thousand years."

We also pick and choose which texts to read literally. Jesus and Paul state clearly more than once that the Kingdom of God would rise up within the life spans of their contemporaries. To insist that they did not err, one has to make allowances for either limits in their knowledge (i.e., Paul changed his mind), or some kind of rhetorical reason for exaggerration, or else they have to look at the loosely related congregations scattered throughout the Roman Empire and the persecutions of believers and call that "The Kingdom of God." Churches have long been embarrassed by the inclusion of The Song of Solomon in Scripture and have decided to read it as a ridiculously explicit allegory of Christ's love for his Church. In the Book of Job, "comforters" who spout the same ideas found in the Book of Proverbs come off looking like fools.

Lincoln was no originalist: he appealed to the Declaration and the Constitution, but he knew that others among the founders did not read these documents the way he was doing. Obviously, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt all read the words "All men are created equal" differently. Paul was no originalist: He interpreted literal stories as allegories whenever it helped in an argument, as he does in his discussion of "children of Abraham by faith" in Romans. Martin Luther wasn't an originalist: he advocated ripping James out of the Bible.

But picking and choosing makes originalists afraid. Most of all, they fear the "slippery slope," that we can't question part of the sacred text without questioning the other parts, and then, how will we stop a precipitous slide into the mud where nothing's sacred? And how do they know what to really believe?

"Slippery slope" is a logical fallacy that wouldn't earn points in a middle school debate. It makes no sense to say that A is okay but we must treat it as wrong because it might lead to D. Sorry, if A isn't wrong in itself, it's not wrong. Neither, for that matter, are B and C.

Originalists can relax. The authority of any text doesn't come from its being original or being somehow dictated by God. It comes from whether it feels right -- not to one person, not on a whim, but in a consensus of informed community, when experience, tradition, reason, and time have been used to make the decision. So, for example, the fourth-century council of Hippo didn't include in their Bible the ancient texts telling how boy Jesus struck an annoying neighbor dead and drowned his grammar teacher with a wave of his hand. That's not the Jesus that the Church was worshiping four hundred years before they'd had a Bible, so it didn't get into the Bible. In United States history, South Carolina claimed the right to nullify laws of the Federal Congress, and Andrew Jackson argued back -- with the threat of force. Eventually, force followed by reason prevailed.

On the plus side, there are other pieces of literature that do have this feeling of authoritativeness to them. My Bible would include St. Augustine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and C. S. Lewis, plus Shakespeare's KING LEAR, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and the complete stories of Flannery O'Connor. (An actor who is also an evangelist on the London theatre scene, speaking to a group of evangelicals here in Atlanta last year, cited Samuel Beckett as his favorite modern playwright: an atheist who wrote truth that a Christian can feel to be right).

As the Declaration of Independence wisely puts it, when a people decides to pick and choose which parts of an ancient authority to jettison, it should not be done "lightly," and reasons should be declared.

Let our disagreements over who can be a bishop or what "eminent domain" or "cruel and unusual" mean be decided the old - fashioned way: hash it out on the merits, taking into account what our predecessors thought, and what may have changed since then; let's follow procedures mapped out for making new rules, or for changing old procedures; and let's not let someone from centuries ago have the final word by default.

Original Intent: A Good Place to Start, but . . . | News & History, Religion

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fiction: Why You Shouldn't Study the Classics

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Don't study them: enjoy them!

I read Jane Austen reluctantly, to fill a gap in my education. The very first line told me, "This lady is fun to be with." She writes, "Any single man with 10,000 a year must be in need of a wife."

When all is said and done, the plot is basically, girls meet boys, girls lose boys, girls get boys. Two elder sisters are curious about two rich bachelors in chapter one, and are married to both by the end. The obstacles to both marriages are mostly social class. The girls' family the Bennets are afflicted by an eccentric father -- jovial, but distant as he can be from the mistress of the household, a histrionic and blatant missus. There's a serious old-maid-in-the-making named Mary who spends a lot of time in her room drawing moral pictures. Then there are two 18th century Valley Girls, Lydia and Kitty, frivolous and man-crazy.

Austen's method for developing her story is almost like the music of her day -- when "classical" was modern. That is, she introduces, repeats, and manipulates contrasting themes. The younger sisters contrast the serious Mary; Mrs. contrasts Mr., and the pair of them contrast the intelligent, gracious, modest Uncle and Aunt Gardiner. Mr. Bingley contrasts in his amiability to his friend Darcy in his aloofness. And, at center, Elizabeth's spirited wit and acumen contrast to her older sister Jane's quiet modesty and determined good opinion of everyone.

Occasionally I got impatient --Ok, already: Elizabeth loves Darcy, Darcy loves Elizabeth; they misread each other and were misled by pride and prejudice -- bring this charade to an end!-- I enjoyed it page by page and was satisfied overall as by a classical symphony. I felt a rush of goodwill when Elizabeth and Darcy in one of their walks finally confess their feelings.

All along, I had extra enjoyment from getting into life of the time: the rhythm of visits and meals and letters; how a three-mile visit is a major undertaking; how a cold becomes a two-week convalescence three miles from home; how everyone' income (all inherited, it seems) is everyone's knowledge and might as well be advertised; how conversation is frankly a kind of competition involving everyone as players and judges.

Also enjoyed extremely boring Reverend Collins, hate his worshiped "Lady Catherine de Bourgh," and marvel at how young teenaged girls of today are so much like Lydia and Kitty.

-from notes I wrote before blogs existed in February, 1996

[The late P.D. James set a murder mystery among Austen's characters.  Read my comments about Death Comes to Pemberley. ]

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Music: 30 Second Composer on John Adams

I stumbled across a blog called Mixed Meters with a fascinating premise. Its author, David Ocker, trained as a composer, found himself angry at his inability to get his compositions heard, despite some success getting pieces published. When he began to hate music itself, he quit for ten years.

Then the internet and a lap top computer made a difference. Sitting in his local Starbuck's, he composes music every week. He sets a couple of rules for himself: Each piece is thirty seconds long, and its title must be something he observed at Starbucks.

Now hundreds of people (well, maybe it's dozens) have downloaded his pieces. I left a comment at his blog, and he replied,
It boggles my mind how much fun 'm having writing music these days ... - I'm not worried about quality and I sort of enjoy trying to provoke or confuse the listeners. Each piece I post seems to get listened to about 2 or 3 dozen times - but no one ever says anything to me about them - people must be too confused.

What drew me to the blog was a connection to composer John Adams, to whom Ocker has a personal connection. Here's some of what he writes about Adams and NIXON IN CHINA:

Hey, I was in Houston at the premier of Nixon too. I've never quite come to terms with the third act - but that may be because the first two acts are simply wonderful - and Alice's libretto has always seemed deep and filled with unlimited allusions. I often find myself quoting lines.

Remember, as John's copyist, I spend a lot of time dissecting the librettos in strange ways - mostly syllable by syllable - but even now I'm impressed by the words in Nixon - one of my long delayed projects is the computerized full orchestra score to Nixon - so all the scores and parts are sitting on a shelf a few feet from my head. But I'm really working on A Flowering Tree - the opera premiering this fall...

I like the music to Nixon too. It would have been nice if more of the simple harmonies alternating rhythmically had survived into his current dramatic works. Not as a stylistic mainstay but as a foil to the newer ideas.

Music: 30 Second Composer on John Adams | Music

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Music: Jazz Pianist Eldar with Trio in Concert

">Eldar, a teen pianist, performed at Atlanta's Spivey Hall last night.

Eldar was wonderful. His hands were a blur on the showy stuff, but the highlights for me were two ballads: "'Round Midnight" played with a light touch, and a sweet take on "You Don't Know What Love Is." I enjoyed as well a couple of original pieces that would build to a nearly-chaotic trio free-for-all and suddenly drop to sprinkling of notes in unison -- when the drummer Todd Strait softly accented each piano note with a different sound made with brushes and cymbals, as if the bell-like sounds were built into the piano. The encore was a solo so virtuosic that everyone laughed: Eldar hid all the familiar riffs from "Take the A Train" like bright graffitti in a shimmering wall of notes.

Originally from Kyrgyztan, he seemed thoroughly Americanized. In blue jeans and casual shirt, he made me feel overdressed. But when he bowed, he had one hand on his heart, European-style.

Music: Jazz Pianist Eldar with Trio in Concert | Music

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Composer John Adams: Musical Landscapes

Music. Reflections on works by John Adams, occasioned by The John Adams Reader edited by Thomas May.

In a fine interview printed in The John Adams Reader, the composer describes his own music as driving (or flying) across a landscape: Once you start your motion forward, large objects pass by on the left and right, while others in the distance come into view, small at first, then large -- and others recede. Under all, there's the sound of the machine in motion. What a great way to think of a piece of music, an alternative to the sonata form that Haydn developed -- sort of the five - paragraph - essay of the music world -- followed or at least referenced by composers ever since.

Now thirty years into composing such pieces, John Adams' machine keeps working for me. Yes, there's a sameness to his work, and, yes, when he does something different, adding in some of very harsh sounds and awkward jagged edges, I don't like it as much as the more mellifluous and spacier 80s stuff.

On the other hand, a John Adams piece sounds like it's his, and Mozart's sounds like Mozart's, too, so that's not a bad thing in itself.

And, still on the other hand, many pieces of Adams soar, delight, and touch the heart, from the 70s "Shaker Loops" to the 80s vocal piece "The Wound - Dresser" (setting Walt Whitman's verse account of nursing Civil War soldiers) to the
millennial "Century Rolls" which I heard played by the Atlanta Symphony with the pianist for whom Adams wrote it, Emanuel Ax.

Finally, I'll go out on a limb and say that the opera NIXON IN CHINA has become one of my favorite works of art in any medium. Here, I have special authority, because I was at the premiere.

In 1987, I drove the ten hours to Houston to see the opera's world premiere. I admit that I got totally lost in the long bombastic scene with Nixon, Mao, Chou, Kissinger, and Mao's secretaries; that I was baffled (and bored) by the "ballet" in Act Two, and I had trouble staying awake in Act Three -- which shows us all the principals preparing to sleep after the final day of the summit, with six plain roll-a-beds, as if they're retiring to their cabin at summer camp.

As I walked among national TV crews and even literally ran into the entourage of the "kid wonder" director Peter Sellars, his orange hair standing straight up four inches -- I was thinking that the music was never less than pleasant, but I wasn't all that excited. I also couldn't decide what I thought about several places where the orchestra was reaching for big, ominous climaxes while the stage action was extremely banal, as when we watch Pat Nixon put on her hat and gloves for a day of touring. That seemed like bad staging to me.

Through recording and a video of that same performance, I grew to appreciate even those parts that baffled or bored me at the time. If I was baffled by Mao and his strident secretaries, well, so are Nixon and Kissinger. (Mao makes an oblique pronouncement and relaxes, leaving Nixon -- the dogged student and striver all his life -- to interpret it as a statement of policy; Chou En Lai reassures Nixon: "It was a riddle, not a test.") If Madame Mao's propaganda ballet seemed to dissolve into chaos as Pat and Dick rush on stage to help the heroine with a glass of water -- well, I've learned to see this as an amusing theatrical trick that embodies the difference between Mao's hard doctrines about classes and systems and empathetic Americans' visceral response to personal stories.

Chou En Lai's toast (sung originally with a silvery yet warm tone by remarkable baritone Sanford Sylvan), is one of Adams' slow rides across a vast landscape, with text that mirrors his method exactly: "We have begun to celebrate the different roads that led us to this mountain pass, this 'summit' where we stand. Look down, and see what we have undergone. Future and past lie far below, half visible..." This aria succeeds like nothing else I know, sweeping us up in pulsing and colorful accompaniment, long lines of melody, and gradual build up to a vision of "paths we have not taken yet" where "innumerable grains of wheat salute the sky," and a toast to a time when our children's children will look back on this moment. I get chills thinking about it even now.

That soporific third act has become the one I think about most, especially two moments near the end: All wound up and unable to sleep after the summmit, Nixon reminisces about camaraderie during the War and the Nixons' early struggles ("those damn slipcovers" Pat comments), talking at Pat but never acknowledging her as she hovers behind him, sometimes touching him. She finally gives up and sits alone on her bed. Just then, Nixon gives her a little kiss on the forehead and says, lamely, "This is my way of saying thanks." A bit later, Chou En Lai remains awake while the others seem to have finally fallen asleep, and a solo violin suggests bird call and sun rise, and Chou sings of age, weariness, futility, and beauty of the world -- and the last words of the opera are his. Having not slept, he is resigned: "To work."

From Thomas May's book, I see that the collaborators did not work well together, and the librettist Alice Goodman was most miffed. But I give her a lot of the credit for what's right in this show. She tried, she said, to represent each character "as
eloquently as possible" in the way that the character would want to be portrayed.

As a writer and composer myself, I'm inspired by these two ideas: Let the characters speak eloquently for themselves; give the music movement and shape like the landscapes we drive past.

Composer John Adams: Musical Landscapes | Category: Music

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Updike's Terrorist: They just don't get it

(Reflections early in reading John Updike's Terrorist, with related thoughts about Graham Greene and W. H. Auden)

Haven't had to read far to give the lie to both professional critics such as Maureen Corrigan and to bloggers who all make the usual mistake of attributing the thoughts of a troubled or troubling character to the author. Shakespeare wrote both Edmund and Edgar in LEAR, and Regan and Cordelia, too. So Updike writes a conflicted teenaged boy both drawn to the warmth and good intentions of the "infidels" around him and also drawn to hatred of our culture, and feeling self-hatred, too. That doesn't make Updike the one who hates the US.

As usual, Updike has done his research. The boy's own reading of the Koran brings him conflicting passages of mercy and hatred.

The fanatically earnest young man draws the interest of an unbelieving Jewish man near retirement; both are disgusted with their world, and with themselves. Both are uncomfortably aware of healthier people around them. When Updike said in some interview that he was trying to "love" the terrorist, he's reflecting the same kind of thought that we get in Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter in which protagonist Scobie believes that, "if you get to the heart of the matter," every sin can be understood, if not forgiven - and that's how God must view us.

Along the way in Terrorist, we get into the minds of the Secretary for Homeland Security, an earnest man doing the best he knows how in a job that he knows is impossible to do successfully; we meet the boy's mother, and we read telling remarks from a high school choir girl who tries to connect to the terrorist-to-be, who says that the spirit "says 'no' to the physical world" : "The way I feel it, the spirit is what somes out of the body, like flowers come out of the earth. Hating your body is like hating yourself...."

Is it coincidence that I was just reading the final chapter of a book on W. H. Auden's faith in his poetry, where the author focuses on Auden's ambivalence towards his own body, which sometimes seemed to him like a broken-down car in which his spirit was unhappily riding? Not a coincidence: it's central to being a thoughtful human.

Updike's Terrorist: They just don't get it | Category: Fiction, Poetry, News & History, Drama

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Superman Returns : Myth or Merchandise?

Before we get to the first frame of the movie Superman Returns, we sit through an inordinate number of grandly animated corporate logos for all who own a stake in the Superman franchise. It embarrassed me to see myself as a consumer of this seventy-year -old product yet again. Surely "Superman" is fast food for the emotions, with predictable thrills and predictable smiles, and with a guaranteed warm feeling generated by nostalgia? By the end of the movie, I was thinking otherwise: that these characters exist now independent of whoever tells their story. We all own them, and want to see moviemakers treat them with respect.

This movie satisfies expectations, and also stretches them. By now, "Superman" represents America at least as much as "Uncle Sam" does, making him a mirror of our nation. What do we see? Power, of course, and problem-solving. Also vulnerability, and willingness to turn back around and rush back into danger for others' sake. Once in the movie, through a montage-like survey of international TV screens, we hear commentators in German and French telling how Superman came to the rescue in their countries. The screenwriters have peppered the script with references to other myths: a "god in blue tights," Prometheus, and in a visual pun, Atlas -- all good images of technological giant USA with the world on its shoulders. Bringing back an element from the 1976 movie, there's also a good bit of talk about father, son, and savior.

There's more here, though, a post-9/11 iconography that also lifted last year's Spider-man movie: More than once, we see firemen, policemen, doctors, and they're not the helpless props of earlier movies. One pair of policemen, clearly fearful for their lives nonetheless step into the line of fire to stop a killer. In another scene, the emergency personnel are rescuing the Man of Steel himself. (The Spider-man movie's best scene was one in which the hero exhausts himself rescuing an out-of-control commuter train, and the people on board band together to defend him from the super villain.)

Now, some reviewers have said that all this is leaden and no fun. The fun stuff is there, too, along with good old-fashioned emotional movie making. All the old catch phrases are in there, including "it's a bird, it's a plane. . ." A vivid sequence early on shows adolescent Clark Kent joyously leaping dozens of yards at a time through a cornfield and in a great moment, discovering that he can fly.

The main thread of the movie isn't really the villain's plot, but the question about romance: Will Lois Lane take Superman back? He's been gone five years, and she's got a boy friend and a son, and she's "moved on." To make this difficult, the boy friend is likable, devoted to her and the son, and something of an action hero himself. One of the director/screenwriters' best touches in the movie is a pair of scenes. In one, Superman comes to the rescue of Lois's little family, and his romantic rival depends on him. But minutes later, the boyfriend risks everything to save Superman.

I checked reviews at Rotten Tomatoes where 75% of a hundred-plus reviews were running positive. The performers are appealing and natural. The effects don't look like effects, as on many occasions we see Superman just enjoying flight, passing out of the camera's range, blending in with a twilight shot of the skyline, as if it were no big deal, and that makes it all the more magical. Better yet, the special effects make sense -- when Superman must somehow land a plane that's spinning out of control, you can think through the problem with him, and when he has to go to plan "B," you're right there with him -- and then the director still manages to surprise and delight with one of those hair-breadth deliveries. In another sequence, in one of those situations we've grown used to seeing in dozens of movies, there's a whole city falling apart, a chaos of breaking glass, falling debris, a workman thrown through the air, gas mains blowing up all at the same time. Again, we get to watch Superman respond to these in a kind of triage-operation, and (evidently) not one person perishes.

The negative reviews all seem to remember the 1976 movie as wonderful. They forget how the first one clumsily interrupted a five-act Greek tragedy by Godfather novelist Mario Puzo with a jokey script by a couple of guys who wrote the musical comedy "It's Superman." In that movie, Christopher Reeve was funny and believable as Clark Kent, but just a pawn of the special effects guys in his blue tights -- not his fault, but the director's.

The bad guy is Lex Luthor again, who was played by Gene Hackman as a stand-up comedian in the 70s series -- all ego and casual cruelty. Kevin Spacey has all that going for him, but a much stronger presence, and something better: Thanks to good acting and good close-ups, we often see his eyes as he's watching events unfold. We see curiosity, dawning ideas, surprise, and vitality.

This version has it all over the 70s one, and retains the best thing about it, John Williams' themes.

Superman Returns : Myth or Merchandise? | Category: Religion, News & History, Drama