January 11, 2007

The Personal Factor (I): "Let Us All Become Artists unto Ourselves"

This will be the first in a series of essays in which I hope to make the connections among some of themes I have previously addressed clearer and more complete. To explain my general title, "The Personal Factor," I will excerpt part of the concluding essay in my series, On Torture. In that final essay, I wrote:
At the conclusion of the previous part of this series, I noted two types of person that almost no one seeks to explain: the man or woman who will refuse to inflict unbearable agony on another human being, even when that refusal ensures his or her own death; and the person who will engage in torture, even when he knows that torture does not work, and even if he senses in some vague form that he is engaging in sadism for its own sake. He knows there is nothing to be gained from his unforgivable cruelty, yet he does it anyway.

About both types of person, I asked a simple question: Why? Why does one person refuse to act cruelly, while another does so with an eagerness that horrifies us? Since last evening, I have been struggling to find another way of identifying the chasm that separates my approach from that utilized by someone like Andrew Sullivan. The difference is crucial, especially because Sullivan condemns torture in no uncertain terms. But as I explained, the entire perspective that informs his condemnation is profoundly different from mine. Therefore, identifying the difference in our outlooks with precision is of immense importance.

In the previous essay, I analyzed how Sullivan approaches the question of torture as a political one: he considers the legitimizing of torture in terms of its effects on the United States as a political entity. He discusses torture's ghastly effects on the victim -- but only in very abstract, impersonal terms, as if he were writing a textbook on political theory. And, very significantly, both Krauthammer and Sullivan -- even though they come down on opposite sides of this dispute -- exhibit the same blind spot: the reality of the person who will always refuse to inflict torture on another does not appear to exist for them. We are left with the sense that, in their world, if the order comes down to torture, the order will be obeyed. So the critical question for them is whether that order should ever be issued. Krauthammer says it should, and Sullivan says it must never be.

For me, the question is a profoundly different one. I recognize that the order will not necessarily be obeyed. So for me, the key lies right there: why will some people refuse, while others won't? Krauthammer and Sullivan never ask this question. They are both the victims that Miller describes. Obedience is the ruling principle that informs their approach -- and the only question is: obedience to what?


For me, the ultimate truth of any question is an individual one. Individual human beings are the ultimate components of all the questions that concern us, whether they are philosophical, political, aesthetic or of any other kind. Politics represents the summation of many individual actions. In all the heated debates about politics or foreign policy, we too often forget where the final consequences of our actions are felt: by individual human beings, by people who are happy or sad because of what we do, by people who all too frequently today live or die as the result of our actions. Obviously, this is why politics and foreign policy matter so much: the lives of countless people are affected because of the decisions we make. This is why I spend so much time on these questions myself.

But the final significance of all these issues is intensely personal: these questions matter so desperately because of how they affect me, and you, and all of us. And this is why, when I consider a subject like torture, the most critical question for me is the personal one: why are there some people who will refuse to obey the order?
I write a great deal about political issues, about the numerous and increasing ways in which governments oppress individuals and deprive them of their liberty, about torture and other acts of barbaric cruelty, and about war and peace. When we discuss such subjects, we tend to focus on the large forces in motion, as we must in significant part -- governments, nations, dominant political parties and the like. But at our great peril, we too easily lose sight of the ultimate component of all such concerns: the individual. But we know that if a critical number of individuals were to alter their behavior sufficiently, many of the problems that afflict us would vanish.

History provides us with stories of individual heroism from which we draw courage. We wonder: why did Hans and Sophie Scholl fight against the immense evil of the Nazi regime, even when they knew their actions would very likely lead to their deaths, as they did in fact? In our own time, we wonder: why does Ehren Watada refuse to participate in acts that he regards as evil, even when he knows the penalty for his refusal may be exceptionally severe? From what source does he derive his strength, and why is he willing to pay such a terrible price? As I noted in an earlier part of the series, On Torture:
But above all else, there is one fact that appears forever invisible to both Krauthammer and Sullivan, and one kind of individual who does not exist for them.

When the order comes down to treat a prisoner with unspeakable cruelty, to "waterboard" him, to electrocute him, to cut him, to hang him on hooks from the ceiling for days on end, or to commit any number of other unforgivable crimes, there is always the man or woman who will say -- without bravado, without show, without explicitly staking any particular moral claim, but as a simple, unadorned statement of fact:
No. I will not do this. You can torture me, or say you will kill me. I cannot and will not do this to another human being. I will not do this.

It is the person who says, "No," whom we must seek to understand. It is not melodramatic or engaging in overstatement to say that he or she is our salvation.

As a point of entry into a further examination of this subject, we can consider the case of soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who died last summer. Because I have been immersed in the world of opera and classical music for over four decades, I am compelled to comment first on a tangential subject.

The headline of the Washington Post obituary is, "Renowned Coloratura Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, 90." I read the headline and the article when they first appeared on August 4, 2006, and the headline has remained unchanged for almost half a year. My head still shakes in dismay. Anyone with even a fair amount of knowledge about opera and the classical repertoire will tell you that Schwarzkopf was renowned and widely admired (and sometimes severely criticized) for many reasons; being a "coloratura soprano" was not one of them. The obituary itself places rather too much emphasis on her coloratura roles, of which there were only a very few and which she performed only in the very earliest stages of her career, before she became well-known. As the article makes clear if one reads it in its entirety, her reputation rested on her work in operas by Mozart and Richard Strauss (in roles that are not identified with coloraturas), and on her lieder performances, particularly of songs by Wolf, Mahler, Brahms and, again, Richard Strauss. This proves yet again what we all know to be true: whenever you read a newspaper story concerning an event or a subject about which you yourself are well-informed, you are dumbstruck by how many critical facts are mispresented and quite simply wrong. Keep in mind that this is an obituary of a woman who died at a very advanced age, which means that the Washington Post and its editors had plenty of time to get it right. They didn't.

But as I say, this is off the main subject that concerns me. That subject is the following:
Ms. Schwarzkopf's ambition was at the core of her most enduring controversy -- the extent of her Nazi Party involvement during World War II. She was a particular favorite of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and later dismissed her party membership as necessary for career advancement, "akin to joining a union."


Ms. Schwarzkopf had obscured her Nazi affiliation by the end of the war and was permitted by Allied military officials to perform abroad.


In 1981, a Viennese music historian published documents from the National Archives in Washington showing a greater involvement in the Nazi Party than she had previously admitted.

Although this stirred up a past that Ms. Schwarzkopf had kept deliberately sketchy, British musicologist Alan Jefferson published in 1996 his definitive account of her Nazi Party membership. He wrote of her appearances in German propaganda films, visits to troops on the Eastern Front during the war and what he concluded was the fast rise in her career through connections to German leaders, including Goebbels.


Her most personal statement on her wartime legacy came in a letter she wrote to the New York Times in 1983: "It was akin to joining a union, and exactly for the same reason: to have a job. Could it possibly be that some of us merely worked hard to become decent singers?"

She went on: "My father -- a victim of Nazi procedure himself, having refused to join and consequently having lost his position of oberstudiendirektor (principal) at the Cottbus Gymnasium (high school) -- urged me to join: Nothing was more important to him than my singing."

"Although it was never in my repertoire, I cannot help quoting Tosca: 'Vissi d'arte . . . ' ('I lived for art')."
I am not sufficiently familiar with Schwarzkopf's history to pass a final judgment on her behavior during the Nazi regime. While I am not prepared to completely condemn her, I do not find her behavior in the least admirable -- especially given her later attempts to minimize the significance of her actions. I view as especially wretched and ignominious statements such as the one comparing her involvement with the Nazis to "joining a union." As we know from the example of the Scholls and many others, a sizable number of people did not act in this manner; many of them paid the ultimate price for their convictions, which they were not prepared to give up simply to "become decent singers." Whatever else we might conclude, Schwarzkopf was not one of those who said, "No." It is precisely such people who empower evil, and permit its triumph. This is one lesson that history has taught us over and over, and many of us still refuse to learn it. For a related story of how evil comes to power, see my essay, "Thus the World Was Lost."

I also must comment on Schwarzkopf's recourse to the Tosca defense: "Vissi d'arte." If you do not know that opera, you will be unaware that a significant, and revealing, reversal is being perpetrated here. In Puccini's opera, the heroine is a successful singer in Rome in 1800. She delivers the opera's most famous aria, "Vissi d'arte," at a climactic moment in Act II, when she is being tormented by the viciously sadistic chief of police, Scarpia. Scarpia has just tortured Tosca's lover, a political enemy of Scarpia's, in Tosca's hearing, finally breaking her so that she reveals where one of her lover's compatriots may be found. When her lover is dragged away and prepared for execution, Scarpia tells Tosca that he will let both Tosca and her lover go free, provided that Tosca sleeps with him first. It is at that point Tosca sings, "Vissi d'arte," wondering why God is punishing her so viciously, when she only lived for art and love.

In brief: Tosca is the innocent victim of a particularly vicious oppressor, and her aria is a protest against the incomprehensible injustice meted out to her. Schwarzkopf appropriates this defense to explain her actions in siding with the Nazis. But Schwarzkopf's actions would make her Scarpia's ally, not his victim -- just as she became the Nazis' ally. As I say, it is a revealing reversal.

Schwarzkopf is hardly alone in availing herself of this tactic. This tactic and similar ones have been utilized by many people to excuse their actions in service of evil after the fact. And my ultimate objection to this particular avoidance of responsibility and this refusal to acknowledge the significance of our individual acts is much broader and all-encompassing. Our devotion to art, indeed our devotion to any field of work, does not relieve us of our wider obligations as human beings living in a particular society at a particular time. As discussed above, the actions of a culture or a specific country are the sum of the actions of countless individuals; if enough of them made different decisions and acted in different ways, the society itself would alter. It would act differently. The horrors of the Nazi regime were not inevitable and preordained, just as the horrors of our world today are not unavoidable. We permit them to continue because not enough of us act to stop them in ways that matter.

One of the best and briefest refutations of Schwarzkopf's approach can be found in some remarks offered by Harold Clurman many years ago. Those remarks appear as the final entry in a collection of Clurman's theatre essays, The Divine Pastime. It is titled, "Envoi: To the Young," and it is a brief speech Clurman gave when he received an honorary degree from Boston University. It is dated November 19, 1969. I will be presumptuous enough to note that I would add two words to the title: "Envoi: To the Young in Spirit." I suspect that was Clurman's deeper intention. I first read this several decades ago, and I find that it carries greater meaning for me as I grow older. It also reminds me of one of my favorite lines, spoken by one of my favorite characters in all of theater literature, the Marquis of Posa in Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos:
Tell him that
When he becomes a man he should retain
A reverence for the visions of his youth.
I plan to write more about Schiller's altogether remarkable and genuinely great play in the next few weeks, and its relevance in certain respects to contemporary events may surprise you. I do not know of any play that more effectively dramatizes the conflicts between personal loyalty and political idealism, between political power and individual liberty, and between the State and the Church. I offer my strongest recommendation for the play, and encourage you to read it whenever you have time and interest.

Clurman was a personage of singular importance in the theater of mid-twentieth century America. The Wikipedia entry contains an accurate and fairly thorough overview of his work. Among other achievements, Clurman was one of the founders of the Group Theatre (with Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg), and he was the director of the original productions of Awake and Sing!, Golden Boy, The Member of the Wedding (with Ethel Waters and Julie Harris), and A Touch of the Poet (which starred Helen Hayes and Kim Stanley).

I was briefly enrolled in the graduate theater program at Hunter College in New York in the mid-1970s, when Clurman taught there. I was enormously fortunate to take one of his courses. Clurman was an illuminating and inspiring teacher. I now often wonder why I did not forcibly detain Clurman after each class, and demand that he recount all his experiences in the theater and tell us about the extraordinary people he had known and worked with. Aside from the questionable nature of such conduct on my part, I have no answer. I was young; I thought there was plenty of time for all that, and I was busy with my own concerns. You might remember that in your own lives: when your path crosses that of someone of remarkable knowledge, experience and perceptiveness, learn all you can as soon as you can. The opportunity may not come again.

In terms of Clurman's remarks below, I can tell you that, based on my own experience with him, Clurman meant and lived every word of this. I have never known anyone who embodied and communicated pure joy in living with more passion and love. Life was an unending source of pleasure, delight and surprise to him. Clurman knew how to "have fun," as he described it, as well as any person I have ever known, and better than most.

So, to conclude this introduction to these essays, here is Mr. Clurman:
I am most grateful for the honor you have conferred on me today. It is called "Doctor of Fine Arts." It has a splendid sound even if it does not cure all ills.

I cannot say like Puccini's Tosca in the aria "Vissi d'arte" that I have lived for art; my own belief is best expressed in the Brechtian aphorism "Every art contributes to the greatest art of all: the art of living." For me life is enough.

The arts may be described in many ways: they are antennae in the world's maze; they are the recorders of the earth's quakes; they are prophecies in the darkness of our ignorance; as play they are also a testimony of our soul's freedom, the superfluous, as Voltaire said, which is so needed. They are surely the flowers of existence.

The purpose of the so-called humanities is to render us more human, more aware of the adventure and challenge of being men and women. We know only too well these days how difficult it is to make whole persons of the beast in us. The artist is engaged in that effort.

For the greater part of my life I have devoted myself to the discipline of the arts--I do not speak of the theatre alone--and I have always resisted the idea that the arts exist apart as a separate entity in the world for a special breed of people. "Nothing comes from nothing." The arts are rooted in the very stuff of life. They are not meant to make us aesthetes, connoisseurs or critics. Only through the pleasure, the probing experience of contemplating and dealing with the constant drama of living do we achieve full stature as humans. That is the action and function of art.

At certain moments I have been inclined to call this quite simply and plainly "having fun"! It is not a goal reserved for the professional artist. It is something we must all aspire to, teach ourselves to do. It is a capacity we may all attain.

In return for the tribute you have paid me this morning I offer you my own rallying cry: let us all become artists unto ourselves; let us all think of our lives as works of art. It is a prescription to heal many wounds.

Thank you.