Saturday, November 29, 2008

Economist Wilhelm Ropke: "It's the Soul, Stupid!"

(reflections upon reading WILHELM ROPKE: SWISS LOCALIST, GLOBAL ECONOMIST by John Zmirak, Library of Modern Thinkers, ISI Books, and P. J. O'Rourke's tongue-in-cheek article, "We Blew It" in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, November 17, 2008).

While I was reading John Zmirak's biography of economist Wilhelm Ropke (1899 - 1966), whose advice behind the scenes lifted Germany out of its post-war starvation to become Europe's economic miracle, I saw this from wise-guy conservative writer P. J. O'Rourke, writing about the failures of the Republicans and his dread of the Democratic regime to come:
What will destroy our country and us is not the financial crisis but the fact that liberals think the free market is some kind of sect or cult, which conservatives have asked Americans to take on faith. That's not what the free market is. The free market is just a measurement, a device to tell us what people are willing to pay for any given thing at any given moment. The free market is a bathroom scale. You may hate what you see when you step on the scale. "Jeeze, 230 pounds!" But you can't pass a law making yourself weigh 185. Liberals think you can. ("We Blew It," in the WEEKLY STANDARD, November 17, 2008, p. 33)
When Ropke advised dropping the price controls that both the new German government and their benevolent American protectors wanted to ensure against "chaos," there was indeed a brief period of outrageously high price jumps and panic. But, before the voices of socialists could prevail, prices righted themselves, and citizens were relieved at last to see products on shelves that had been horded because the prices they could fetch weren't even close to their true values. Up to then, cigarettes had been more acceptable currency than the German marks (140).

But, for Ropke, the value of the free market is not its efficiency, whether as a setter of prices or as a producer of consumer goods. Rather, he sees the free market as one guarantor of individual human freedom and dignity, measured not by the consumer goods one owns, but by the freedom one has to do meaningful work, to make choices for one's own life, and to have a positive impact in one's own small communities - family, church, town.

Smallness is the key, here. He deplored concentration of wealth, no matter whether it was concentrated in the hands of a few corporations, or in the hands of a swarm of government bureaucrats. So, while he was no Galbraith, he wrote his own critique of the affluent society in 1959:
Who can really be at ease in the presence of the growing concentration in economic life, which goes hand in hand with the increasing dependence of the masses? Who can fail to see that our civilization is being destroyed by the progressive commercialization of things that are beyond economics, by the obsessive business spirit that confuses ends and means and forgets that man does not live in order to work, but works in order to live, and thus perverts all human values, by the empty bustle and sterile excitement of our time? ...Who can fail to be shocked by the largely meaningless and uncultured extravagance of the rich, here in Europe as in America? (from Ropke's AGAINST THE TIDE, 1959, quoted in Zmirak, p. 53)
He courageously stood up to ridicule from the Left after the war, and explicit threats from the Right during the ascendancy of the Nazis. In 1933, he "committed career suicide" by speaking out in a forum in Frankfurt against all schemes for state control of the economy to benefit "the worker" or "the fatherland." To his audience of Nazi academics and those merely cowed by the Nazis, he called Hitler's movement "a mass revolt against reason, freedom, humanity, and [rules] that enable a highly differentiated human community to exist without degrading individuals into slaves of the state" -- after which, Ropke and his family had to flee into exile (36).

His opposition to planned economies didn't make him a fan of "laissez-faire" or "libertarian" capitalism, either, because he saw in his own country's history the cozy relationship between capital and government that led to monopolies and government interference on behalf of corporations, resulting in another kind of concentration of wealth in the hands of a few self-serving entities -- just as bad, to his mind, as concentrating it in the hands of a government bureaucracy.

With this goal of human dignity in mind, Ropke made room for occasional government intervention in his free market capitalism, so long as these were temporary and "compatible" with market forces that keep prices at their real value. When the Great Depression hit, Ropke advised government intervention "to preserve the social fabric that made a market economy possible"(p. 33).

He discerned the process by which concentration of wealth in the hands of monopolisitic big businesses "deprived many citizens of the chance to become their own masters, either as artisans, independent merchants, or small farmers." Naturally, they try to regain power through unions or the state. Concentration of the workers in mass production and in cities result in the "proletarianisation" of the masses -- making them easy marks for Marx. Ropke sees mass - produced "nihilistic entertainment products" as a by product of this undesirable collectivisation.

His prescription is something that sounds like John McCain's "ownership society," making sure that the state work to put property and choice in the hands of individuals, not because it's efficient, but because it breaks the process of "centralisation in every connection" (175) and homogeneity. He thinks that stratification, "hierarchy," is a good thing, echoing Edmund Burke's critique of France's egalitarianism. He even hoped, like Jefferson, that every one could own a piece of land, though
He predicted the dangers of "suburbanization" -- the hours spent commuting, the resulting
pollution, the ever-wider physical separation of the work from home, and of rich citizens from poor -- in 1944, decades before urban sprawl would become a political issue (179).

This is what I like: an economist who says, "It's not all about money." Or, to paraphrase the words that Bill Clinton's advisors used to keep him on-message during his first campaign: "It's the Soul, stupid!"

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Couple of Issues of Poetry

(reflections on POETRY magazine, October and November issues, 2008)

Billy Collins is represented by a couple of poems in the November issue of POETRY, and these follow the same rough pattern that make many of his poems good for reading aloud. In "Her," for instance, he begins with the kind of depiction of a literal sensation or place that makes the audience think, "I've felt that." In "Her," it's the noises that are ubiquitous in suburbia. Then, he shoots off on a tangent. Here, it's a particularly quiet hour. In part three of a Collins poem, the tangent reaches some unexpected destination: Here, the overheard intimate conversation of two Spanish - speaking workmen.

Some of the seven poems of Sarah Lindsay in the October issue of POETRY share this tendency to set up something literal and clearly imagined, only to slip off into some unexpected direction that still somehow relates. All of them were interesting, and some were delightful.

"Tell the Bees," she writes, "they must know...." It's bad news, and the speaker wants everyone to hear. With a touch of whimsy, she writes, "Tell the water you spill on the ground, then all the water will know." But once the news has spread, "nothing has changed."

With scholars at some archaeological dig, she burrows in the questions raised by a finding about the "So-Called Singer of Nab," before she draws back to view the archaeologists themselves from an ironic distance.

Another poem asks the rhetorical question, "Who needs to hear a quagga's voice?" A quagga, she tells us, is a subspecies of zebra last seen in the South Pacific around the time that Krakatoa blew. She imagines that last of its kind, "curving its cream and chestnut stripes" when it "sank to its irreplaceable knees, when its unique throat closed with a sigh." Against the backdrop of an earth-shattering extinction, she touches us with her story of a very small extinction.

She describes the outdoor wedding of an apparently artsy and green couple: "No animals were harmed in the making of this joyful noise." She celebrates the music of the moment that could not and should not last, embodied by the Zucchini Shofar of the title. "What is this future approval we need; / Who made passing time a judge? / Do we want butter that endures for ages, / or butter that melts into homemade cornbread now?"

Finally, she has a small poem in which a fleeting feeling of contentment is compared to a moth -- implying that it will shortly flitter away in search of some new brightness.

Another poem in that issue is fun, Craig Arnold's "Uncouplings," taking off from the cliche, "There is no I in teamwork" with anagrams: "There is no we in marriage / but a grim area."

Many poems in the November issue strike me the sort that "you had to be there" to get, and I generally didn't want to be where they were taking me. Among all these was one very attractive gem by Philip Levine. He muses on why we worship mountains:

You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Doctor Atomic Staged Two Ways

(reflections on the opera DOCTOR ATOMIC by composer John Adams and librettist / director Peter Sellars, from primary source materials and poetry. Performed at the Metropolitan Opera and broadcast on HD two weeks ago, and staged for a concert performance in Atlanta's Symphony Hall at the Woodruff Arts Center this weekend. Photo from website of the music publisher Boosey and Hawkes,

I settled into the last unsold seat of the orchestra section of Woodruff Arts Center's Symphony Hall in Atlanta, smack in the middle of Row D. It was a great seat for counting every silver hair on the back of conductor Robert Spano's head, and for watching the intense concentration of the cellists. I watched them bow and pluck and occasionally use their bows to beat the strings, and noticed the subtle sound they made in the larger texture of sounds.

That was one way in which the experience of seeing a modestly staged concert version of the grand opera DOCTOR ATOMIC in Atlanta Friday was more exciting even than the fully staged version at the Met viewed in closeup on HD two weeks ago -- even though the wonderful cast was exactly the same. This concert was their "original cast recording" session.

The stage was arrayed simply and effectively, staged by director James Alexander. Spano and instruments crowded right up to the edge of the stage. At the back, the chorus sat in everyday work clothes, in character, and some wore white coats suggesting scientists. Above them, the broad wall was a screen for still photos of the Manhattan Project and the Atom Bomb test site. There were also some animated computer graphics. Platforms set up between the chorus and the orchestra constituted the entire set. "Doctor Atomic" himself, Robert Oppenheimer, played by baritone Gerald Finley, sat at a 40s - vintage office desk, decorated with photos and cluttered with papers. There was a rocking chair suggesting a living room for Mrs. Kitty Oppenheimer, played by Jessica Rivera, whose martini glass told us how she spends her days while her husband works on his top secret mission. Other scientists and a general at the military base occupied a platform above and behind those two, with a couple of 40s - style office chairs (which I recognized from the old chairs at West Chemical and Engineering company -- formed around 1950, and bought by my dad in 1972).

I have to say that I didn't miss the Met's three storey beehive of office cubicles or the gigantic model of the "Fat Boy" (the bomb itself) during the action. The chorus, in work clothes and some white coats, made some trademark Peter Sellars' gestures in unison, and those were effective enough. For example, they turned in unison to face an image behind them, or they covered ears or mouths when the principles discussed the need for secrecy, or they simply reached their hands up at certain moments of indecision.

We gain by NOT having close up cameras trained on the singers' faces. Finley, as Oppenheimer, sits at his desk not singing much of the time, but sipping a martini and smoking, while his "good angel" Robert Wilson (tenor Thomas Glenn) and "bad angel" Edward Teller (baritone Richard Paul Fink) debate matters of conscience just upstage of him. That simple dramatic structure, made so clear here, was muddied by the camera's back-and-forth, in-and-out movements in the HD broadcast. Teller was charming and Wilson was earnest, but we got to see them in their off-camera moments, too, and these singing actors created characters that we enjoyed even when they weren't singing.

We gain by being able to see Spano keeping all the pieces of the composition together, and, aurally, we get some wonderful effects as when a figure in the double - basses spreads like a wildfire across the orchestra. Behind us, the "surround sound" effects were more effective than the HD transmission could be, especially as the moment of the big explosion approaches.

Then there are the voices. Finley is wonderful, and makes his highs and lows seem effortless, while he concentrates on his character's thoughts. Separated by a platform, he still suggests the erotic connection to his wife Kitty as soprano Rivers sings the long sinuous lines of a Muriel Rukeyser poem that the Oppenheimers evidently knew, "Am I in Your Light?" Eric Owens as the General gets the laugh lines for the show -- snapping at the meteorologist that he wants better weather, and remembering the brownies that wrecked his diet. The meteorologist was James Maddelena, whom I've seen in two other Adams premieres, as Nixon in 1987, and as the captain of the Achille Lauro at THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER production in Brooklyn, early 1990s.

This time around, the aria based on John Donne's "Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God" arrived at the end of Act One like the showstopping big hit of a Broadway show, and it thrilled. This time, I picked up echoes of that number in two or three places that follow in Act Two, a respectable technique that I've not heard in Adams' work before. Perhaps space helps me to pick up the sounds that I don't get when the opera comes at me like a wall.

So, the HD experience is wonderful. But I'm much more enthusiastic about DOCTOR ATOMIC now that I've seen it live.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Updike's Magic Revisited at Eastwick

(reflection on John Updike's novel THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK, and an appreciation of Updike called "A Fan's Note on Updike's Long Game," by Adam Gopnik at the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities at

Of Eastwick's trio of witches from Updike's 1983 novel (which was set in 1968), all three are now widows, but only Sukie is still on the youthful side of 70, and she's making her fortune as a writer of romances. Sukie sits unblinking at her laptop describing a widow served in bed (double-entendre fully intended) by a younger male slave who harbors deep resentments against her, when her male "wife" enters the room with groceries. He's the younger brother of a woman cursed and killed by the coven all those years ago, and he has sought revenge. Reflecting on the conflation of fantasy and reality, and how sexual relations require some theatrical and imaginative art, she thinks how cave painters thrust themselves through moist crevasses to paint their artwork, intended to bring their next hunt to fruitful climax. There you have Updike's big themes tied together in a single image: magic (here substituting for religion), sex, and art.

While I enjoyed revisiting Eastwick and watching the witches deal with the long-range consequences of their past deeds, I was fascinated more by discerning Updike's process of writing the novel. He slightly augments the sub-titles of his original outline to become the Coven Reconstituted, Malefica Revisited, and Guilt Assuaged. He sets the exposition in faraway places that fit his theme, as Alexandra visits ancient tombs in Egypt and reflects on pharaoh's doomed attempts to hold on to life through priests' preservatives and artisans hopeful provisions. Then, after hooking up with Jane, the two visit the tombs of the first emperor of China, and the tomb of Mao, eerily similar. There are teases of magic, but Updike, like Hawthorne his model, always provides the reader a natural explanation for what seems to be a witch's spell. At last, Sukie joins the trio when her husband dies suddenly (Jane's magical doing?), and they make a trip together to their old home, Eastwick, in Rhode Island.

Once there, Updike's strategy is clear: to re-create the story line of the original novel in reverse. From chapter to chapter, this means re-encountering the coven's old nemeses and lovers, or their families. The central portion "Malefica" was about their curse on the woman they envied, and "Malefica Revisited" is about a curse going the other way. While the original novel begins with the arrival of satanic Darryl Van Horne (identified now with Jack Nicholson's cinematic embodiment of the character), and ends with his strong presence disintegrating, this novel builds up to an encounter with Van Horne by proxy. And, as the subtitle "Guilt Assuaged" suggests, these witches work magic to bring blessings to lives that they had once cursed.

To say that we can see Updike's efficient craft at work is in no way a complaint. Updike fancied himself a visual artist before he was a literary one, and this novel is simply a reversal of the patterns of lights and darks from the original, rather like Monet's identical views of a cathedral in different lights.

On his design, Updike hangs insights about our age, about aging, and his favorite themes. The visits to graves of long-passed empires occasions thoughts about the US and future decline. All references to magic bring up the idea that witchcraft simply takes advantage of processes in nature already at work under the surface -- like cancer, like giving birth, like electrons and their charges. At a funeral, he compares such ceremonies to blindfolds worn by prisoners before a firing squad, small comforts to help us get through big changes (p. 232). Repeated chores are lightened in youth by expectation of something to come (283). Revisiting an old home inspires opposing thoughts. One can suddenly recognize the "bliss" of living in a certain place that has been concealed by the "plod" of daily chores (p.234). On the other hand, aren't all places less magical than they are remembered (p. 288)? These elderly women don't relate to teens, even the ones who are related to them, and see them as strange and alien:
Eastwick's children, flaunting their growing power, ignoring the old woman sitting in a parked car, vying for attention from their peers with female shrieks and boisterous boyish jokes, testing freedom's depths... Little do they know, Alexandra throught, what lies ahead of them. Sex, entrapment, weariness, death. (235)
I recently read an appreciation of Updike at the NEH web site. There, self-proclaimed "fan" Adam Gopnik writes of Updike's long career. He writes that one wants to "triangulate" Updike...
with Richard Wilbur, for a stubborn graceful adherence to craft and finish in a time of improvisation and amnesia; with Wallace Stevens, for the intimation of the numinous in the ordinary Sunday mornings of the mid-Atlantic states; and with Shakespeare himself for the ability to get himself expressed fully, unimpeded, and for the desire, even in the face of time, to set down, for readers still unborn, all the sweetness of our common life.
So true. And Gopnik writes about Updike's constant theme:
And he is a moralist, too, of a surprisingly old-fashioned kind. Throughout all that varied work, one theme has risen and been repeated over and over. Updike’s great subject is the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. His subject is how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation.
In Updike's novels, those attempts to substitute the material for the spiritual are doomed; but the material, the spiritual, and the imagination are all closely interrelated, and that's the magic in both Eastwick books.