20 November 2014

I am a writer

I can no longer post anything of value to Facebook. They seem to stifle all expression.
I post it here, instead:

The essential, brilliant Ursula LeGuin tells us:
I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. … Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. … The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
My mom worries about me, because her heart is so, so huge, and, like me, she looks for the good in things; my father worries too; they worry because they love me and because I will always be their little boy--at 46 I still am their little boy, and this is a fate I have given up trying to escape. 

I live a life they don't entirely understand; I move in a world different from theirs. It worries them because it is mysterious to them. But I am happy. I am a writer. They made me so, somehow, in a way ineffable, as they made my brother a musician (I cannot speak to what they made my brilliant, beautiful sisters, here, for it is much more complex than a word, but at the very least I can say they gave them an enormous talent for parenthood). 

I am a writer, and it falls to us--and we are all writers, all of us--to think and see, to worry and wonder, to pick apart and put together, to--as my students used to accuse me--"over-think." There is no over-thought, no over thinking; that is the nonsense of people who neither like to think nor want you to think, anything. 

We writers stray into dangerous neighborhoods and territories because, it is eventually true, that you can't know good until you have at least met evil; hope without meeting hopelessness. It is an unpleasant enterprise. We stray to watch and learn, to see and know, somehow, something, to know anything. This is literature; this is art. It is our job to see, to watch, to learn, to know: The Terrifying Other; most especially when that Other turns out to be Ourselves.

Get close to lies and see the truth. See evil and know what not to do. This is the world of art and literature, which gives us a chance to provisionally try out other options and see why they are so awful. This is why art, history, and literature are so important: they are the lab of ethics and behavior. Do not fail these lessons because we are all writers, writing the world. Listen to Ursula LeGuin, who is so much wiser than I have ever been.

Thanks, Rosemary.

18 November 2014

Das Berliner Requiem: First & Second Reports on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch

From the classic, 1970s, DG recording by David Atherton and the London Sinfonietta, these are two of my favorite pieces ever and come from Kurt Weill's Das Berliner Requiem (1929), a cantata setting of poems by Bertolt Brecht, which itself, more than anything else, is about the German experience of the aftermath of World War I. As you will see....

As it is ever inappropriate to divorce the salt and pepper at the dinner table, I refuse to divorce the first Bericht, or Report, from the second, in this truly incredible one-two punch (a dreadful pun, here) of Weill-Brecht, in this strange and beguiling, this deeply upsetting and unsettling, this compelling piece. Its ferocity may surprise you. And so, first, The First Report on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch. All translations, which follow Brecht's original German, are mine, flaws and all.

IV. Erster Bericht über den Unbekannten Soldaten unter dem Triumphbogen

Wir kamen
von den Gebirgen

und vom Weltmeer,
Um ihn zu erschlagen.

Wir fingen ihn mit Stricken, langend
Von Moskau bis zur Stadt Marseille

Und stellten auf Kanonen, ihn erreichend
An jedem Punkt,

wo er hinfliehen konnte,
Wenn er uns sah.

Wir versammelten uns vier Jahre lang,
Legten nieder unsere Arbeit

und standen
In den zerfallenen Städten,

uns zurufend in vielen Sprachen
Von den Gebirgen bis zum Weltmeer,

Wo er sei.
So erschlugen wir ihn im vierten Jahr.

Dabei waren,
Die er war geboren zu sehn

Um sich stehend zur Zeit seines Todes:
Wir alle.

Und dabei war eine Frau, die ihn geboren hatte
Und die geschwiegen hatte, als wir ihn holten.

Der Schoß sei ihr ausgerissen,

Als sie ihn aber erschlagen hatten,
Richteten wir ihn zu, dass er sein Gesicht verlor

Durch die Spuren
unsrer Fäuste.

So machten wir ihn unkenntlich,
Dass er keines Menschen Sohn mehr sei.

Und gruben ihn aus
unter dem Erz,

Trugen ihn heim
in unsere Stadt und

Begruben ihn unter dem Stein,
und zwar unter einem Bogen,

Bogen des Triumphs,

Welcher wog tausend Zentner, dass
Der Unbekannte Soldat

Keinesfalls aufstünde
am Tag des Gerichts

Und unkenntlich
Wandelte vor Gott,

Dennoch wieder im Licht

Und bezeichnete uns Kenntliche

Zur Gerechtigkeit.

IV. First Report on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch

We came
from the mountains

and the oceans,
To strike him dead.

We caught him with ropes, strung
From Moscow to the city of Marseille

And aimed cannon, so as to reach him
At any point

to where he should flee,
When he saw us.

We gathered for four years,
Laid down our work

and were
In the ruined cities,

calling to each other in many languages,
From the mountains to the oceans,

Where he was.
So we killed him in the fourth year.

It was to be
That he was born to see

Standing before him at the time of his death:
All of us.

And there was the woman who bore him
And who was silent when we got him.

Let her cunt be ripped out.

And when we had slain him,
We turned on him so that he lost his face

Through the traces
of our fists.

So we made him unrecognizable,
That he was no man's son, anymore.

And dug him out
from under the steel,

Carried him home
to our city and

Buried him under the stone,
and indeed under an arch,

called the
Arch of Triumph,

Which weighed a thousand talents, so that
The unknown soldier

Under no circumstances
should rise on Judgment Day

and, unrecognizable,
Walk before God,

Yet again in the light

And call us the knowable

To justice.

Great poem: Bertolt Brecht, 1919
Serviceable translation: Attributed to L. Steve Schmersal, November 2014

The reason I am thinking about this now--and writing about it at all, here--is because this second (or fifth) movement, this Bericht, this Report, this recitative, this solo, sung, here, by the wonderful Benjamin Luxon, is sung almost entirely over a Hammond organ, and my friend, the composer, Gordon Beeferman, has just acquired a Hammond, which required me to regale him about this piece for not a little while. Gordon, I write this for you.

In Settling the Score, Ned Rorem writes about how some composers are constitutionally fast or slow (off-topic, but I feel the need to share, Rorem also says that one can hear Weill in Bach but not the other way round--a fascinating and paradoxical assertion) and that Weill is of the fast variety, that even in his slow music you hear the stillness of atoms spinning, spinning, spinning.

This observation is nowhere more legible than in his setting of Brecht's great poem to--or "report on" but always very much report to--the Unknown Soldier, in which Weill makes the Hammond sound like a squeezebox, devolving, dissolving in its own solution, into a single note repeated figure before the woodwinds take over. The suspense of the stillness of atoms spinning. The master at work.

Rorem also suggests Britten's War Requiem owes a certain allegiance to this uncategorizable, ineffable, nearly inscrutable work. Don't think. Just ride the sounds and the meanings dissolving into sounds, vocabularies, and histories to which we have almost no real access, except through imagination. Just try to be quiet. Amen!

V. Zweiter Bericht über den Unbekannten Soldaten unter dem Triumphbogen

was ich euch sagte
Über Ermordung und Tod
des Unbekannten Soldaten

Und die Verwüstung
seines Gesichts,

Auch was ich euch sagte über die Bemühung seiner Mörder,
Ihn zu hindern am Wiederkommen,
Ist wahr.

er kommt nicht wieder

Sein Gesicht war lebendig wie das eure,
Bis es zerschmettert wurde und nicht mehr war.

Und er ward
Nicht mehr gesehen auf dieser Welt,

Weder ganz noch zerschmettert,
Weder heute noch am Ende der Tage

Und sein Mund
Wird nicht reden

am Jüngsten Gericht.
Es wird kein Gericht sein,




Ist tot

und tot

ist der Stein

über ihm,

Und ich bedaure

Jeglichen Hohn,

und ziehe zurück

meine Klage.

Aber ich bitte euch,
da ihr ihn

Nun einmal erschlagen habt,

Fangt nicht von neuen an
Zu streiten, da er doch tot ist.

Aber doch bitte ich,
da ihr ihn also

Erschlagen habt:
Entfernt wenigstens

Den Stein über ihm,
Denn dieses Triumphgeheul

Ist doch nicht nötig
und macht Mir Kummer,

denn mich,
Der ich den

Schon vergessen hatte,

erinnert er

an euch,
die ihr noch

Lebt, und
die ihr

Immer noch nicht
erschlagen seid.

denn nicht?

V. Second Report on the Unknown Soldier under the Triumphal Arch

I told you
About the murder and death
of the Unknown Soldier

And the devastation
of his face,

Also what I told you about the effort of his murderers,
To prevent him from coming back,
Is true.

he will not come back

His face was alive like yours,
Until it was broken, and was no more.

And he was
Not seen in this world,

Neither whole nor crushed,
Neither today nor at the End of Days,

And his mouth
Will not speak

on the Day of Judgment.
There will be no judgment,




Is dead

and dead

is the stone

above him,

And I regret

Any scorn,

and withdraw

my complaint.

But I ask you,
because now that

You have slain him:

Do not start anew
To argue, because he is dead.

But I ask, because you
Have so slain him:

Remove, at least,
The stone above him,

For this howl of triumph
Is unnecessary and makes

Great sorrow
for me,

The one
who had the slain man

Forgotten, it reminds
Me daily

of you
who still

Live, and who
Have still

not been


Great poem: Bertolt Brecht, 1919
Serviceable translation: Attributed to L. Steve Schmersal, November 2014

16 November 2014

Mrs Stechschulte

/MISS iz SHTEK shuhl tee/

O Mnemosyne! I
Cry unto you! Mother
Of the nine Muses, the
Titan of Memory!
Help me, help me, help me
To remember, in these sixes,

Mrs Stechschulte, the
Teacher of my Second
Grade! In the grocery
Store, I walked past her, my
Mother asked why I did
Not say hello. "To whom?"
I replied. "To Mrs Stechschulte,"

My mother said, "She just
Said 'Hi' to you." I looked
Around, but my teacher
Had vanished. Even then,
My facial recognition
Software was faulty. O

Mrs Stechschulte! I
Still look for you, in store
And street, home and soul, in
The vast plain of my mind,
Yet, lo, you are never
There. It is only me,

Hoping to say hello.

L. Steve Schmersal, /MISS iz SHTEK shuhl tee/, November 2014

12 November 2014

That Great, Unexorcised Demon of the American Soul

The NY Times reports on the idiocy of the American voter in this 5 November 2014 article about the disconnect between individually-held values and temper-tantrum-style revenge voting, as revealed by 2014 Midterm exit polls. 
More than a third of people voting for a Republican House candidate said they were unhappy or even angry at the Republican leaders in Congress, according to exit polls, but they did so anyway, producing a House that is even more right-wing than the current one. On a day of Republican triumph, a majority of voters said they wanted to find a way to allow immigrants to stay in this country, even if they are here illegally. That position could not be more at odds with the one held by most of the new senators elected yesterday.
Though the piece in no way entertains the notion that voters' desire to express their unhappiness with President Obama by stacking the Senate with Republicans diametrically opposed to their own values hints at a dark, reactionary motivation rooted in Racism--which should surprise no one given the surpassing general silence on this question--the absence in the piece of the exact causes of this wounded, flailing unhappiness is the very thing that gives the obscene, vindictive, irrational reaction in question the familiar structural shape discoverable ad nauseam in the obsessive, gleeful, racist resistance to and confounding of all things Obama--a more or less open revolt--by Congress in particular and Republicans in general. 
They did it in order to send a message of deep disappointment and frustration to President Obama, but the message didn’t really contain much content beyond that. “I’m just tired of all the fighting and bickering,” Jeffrey Kowalczuk, a Wisconsin voter, told The Times yesterday, explaining why he voted for Republicans.
It is not necessary to have a rational or consistent reason to oppose any of the motions, nominations, proposals, or actions of Obama because our Republican brothers and sisters oppose all of them, before they even know what they are. This is not the evidence of a reasoned, principled opposition to policy or thought but the betrayal of a cocky, condescending, disrespectful, mocking, dismissive opposition to a man. The mysterious, unarticulated root cause of this unhappiness with Obama--when there is no reasonable reason that could ever account for such a confident, childish, consistent, universal, and unyielding stance--could only be that great, unexorcised demon of the American soul, called Racism, for it bears its classic shape and markers. It is the only thing that could allow both our legislature and electorate to behave in such embarrassingly and unselfconsciously stupid ways. 

You may read the NYT article in its entirety in "The Tornado Election."