February 10, 2008

Applauding Maestro Fleisher -- With Both Hands

Leon Fleisher had been a child prodigy. By the time he was a teenager, he had become an internationally acclaimed concert pianist. When he was only 36, in 1963, the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand began to curl up whenever he played. He tried to "work through" the pain and to compensate for the problem in other ways. Those efforts only increased the severity of the disability; just a year after the onset of the problem, he had to give up performing. Fleisher turned to conducting and teaching.

In his typically elegant and illuminating new book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks discusses Fleisher's story in the chapter entitled, "Athletes of the Small Muscles: Musician's Dystonia." Sacks explains that the term "'dystonia' has long been used for certain twisting and posturing spasms of the muscles such as torticollis. It is typical of dystonias, as of parkinsonism, that the reciprocal balance between agonistic and antagonistic muscles is lost, and instead of working together as they should -- one set relaxing as the others contract -- they contract together, producing a clench or spasm."

In his concise history of the identification and understanding of this phenomenon, Sacks tells us that the affliction was described in detail in the nineteenth century. In Gowers' famous 1888 Manual of nervous system diseases, Gowers detailed "occupation neuroses," a category of problems "in which certain symptoms are excited by the attempt to perform some oft-repeated muscular action, commonly one that is involved in the occupation of the sufferer." Gowers' list of occupations included pianists and violinists, as well as "painters, harpists, artificial flower makers, turners, watchmakers, knitters, engravers...masons...compositors, enamellers, cigarette makers, shoemakers, milkers, money counters...and zither players" -- as Sacks notes, "a veritable tally of Victorian occupations."

Then the problem went underground for a century. Sufferers were extremely reluctant to discuss it, for acknowledgment meant the end of one's career, although the disability itself would almost certainly lead to the same, usually devastating loss. Sacks writes that the syndrome was very familiar to performing musicians -- and he cites a number that I first found startling: "perhaps one in a hundred musicians would be affected, at some point in their career..." But then I recalled the several years when I was a teenager when I studied the piano full-time, thinking I might pursue a professional career. I would practice seven or eight hours a day, and sometimes more. I remember the muscular problems in my hands and arms that would occasionally afflict me. If I rested for a day or two, they would go away. If I had continued that regimen for several decades, I might not have been so lucky, as so many are not. Upon further consideration, the number startles me no longer. (I gave up that particular dream when I realized that I wasn't good enough, and when my central frustration became overwhelming: there were no words. So I turned to another great passion, the theater.)

The secrecy surrounding this syndrome ended in the 1980s because, as Sacks writes, of the "great courage" shown "by two virtuoso pianists, Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher." Graffman went public first; Fleisher's acknowledgment quickly followed. Other musicians soon offered their own stories. And: "[Public acknowledgment] also stimulated the first medical and scientific attention to the problem in almost a century."

You can consult Sacks' book for the details of the vast amount of new knowledge about this problem that has been acquired. The source and and operation of the syndrome have been identified, and various treatments have been devised. But those treatments are not always successful, and they require unceasing discipline and effort over a long period of time. Even when they are successful, a return to performing (or whatever the occupation in question may have been) may cause the symptoms' return.

When he gave up performing, Fleisher went through "a period of deep depression and despair." But then he turned to teaching and conducting -- and in the 1970s, he discovered the works for left hand that had been commissioned from Prokofiev, Hindemith, Ravel, Britten and others, by Paul Wittgenstein, a Viennese pianist who lost his right arm in World War I. Fleisher returned to performing, but with a new perspective:
"Suddenly I realized that the most important thing in my life was not playing with two hands, it was music. ... In order to be able to make it across these last thirty or forty years, I've had to somehow de-emphasize the number of hands or the number of fingers and go back to the concept of music as music. The instrumentation becomes unimportant, and it's the substance and content that take over."
Yet Fleisher continued to believe that, one day, he would play with two hands again. He pursued new treatments as they became available, and constantly sought out additional experts. He finally succeeded in the late 1990s. Several years ago, he made his first two-handed recording in forty years: Two Hands.

(I cannot resist noting that Fleisher learned, through his own terrible experience, that "pianists...should not work through pain or other symptoms." At the time of the onset of his symptoms, and without the benefit of knowledge acquired decades later, "[h]e forced himself to work harder, and more and more effort was needed as other muscles were brought into play. But the more he exerted himself, the worse it became, until finally, after a year, he gave up the struggle." Denial and secrecy about a genuine problem are almost always immensely destructive, as the lost century of understanding about this problem attests. And seeking to overcome pain by denying its reality almost always achieves the opposite of the desired result, as I have discussed: see "When the Pain Can Be Borne No Longer," and the other essays listed at the conclusion of that piece -- especially, "'Suck It Up': The Denial Continues, and Kills Once More". Of particular relevance is one further article: "When Acknowledging the Pain Is a Weakness to be Condemned.")

For some years, I have deeply admired Leon Fleisher -- for the eloquence and emotional power of his performances, for his great courage, for his deep dedication to his life's passion, for the grace of his public persona. I did not expect to find still another reason to admire him, one residing in a different area of public life altogether.

The latest recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors were Brian Wilson, Steve Martin, Diana Ross, Martin Scorsese -- and Leon Fleisher. It would take me too far afield to consider in detail the advisability of government acknowledgment of artistic achievement -- although some might argue, and I would not disagree, that that is the issue: by such means, the government seeks to appropriate notable individual work to enhance its own carefully crafted image of a benevolent, enlightened and increasingly despotic state -- just as the state appropriates more and more aspects of its subjects' lives and, ever more frequently, those lives themselves. When it is so inclined, the state also disposes of those lives, usually as it murders still more people.

Tragically, however, this is where we are. Except for a very few disaffected souls like mine, almost no one will tell the state what it can do with its "honors." Almost everyone believes that the state should be in the business of setting national goals in every area of life, of guiding its subjects' paths, of reordering their lives and the world. Most people argue only about particular choices and the degree of control involved. Almost no one will challenge the principle itself. So for most people, if they are so "honored," the only options concern their response.

Fleisher found the event commemorating the Kennedy Center Honors to be "a deeply moving and gratifying tribute to the performing arts and artists in America," and he "was flattered to be included in so distinguished a group and to be recognized for whatever contributions I may have made to American life." But that is not all he felt, as he writes in the Washington Post:
What made me unhappy and continues to trouble me was that I was required to attend a White House reception on the afternoon of the gala. I cannot speak for the other honorees, but while I profoundly respect the presidency, I am horrified by many of President Bush's policies.

In the past seven years, Bush administration policies have amounted to a systematic shredding of our nation's Constitution -- the illegal war it initiated and perpetuates; the torturing of prisoners; the espousing of "values" that include a careful defense of the "rights" of embryos but show a profligate disregard for the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings; and the flagrant dismantling of environmental protections. These, among many other depressing policies, have left us weak and shamed at home and in the world.

For several weeks before the honors, I wrestled with this dilemma, deciding in the end that I would not attend the reception at the White House. That decision was met with deep, if understandable, disapproval by the powers that be. I was informed that I was hardly the first honoree to express such reserve; cited to me, among others, were Arthur Miller and Isaac Stern during the Reagan years and several during the present administration. I was asked to attend all of the scheduled events and to follow the well-established protocol of silence.

While this might have made for a glamorous experience, it also presented a profound irony. Turning a blind eye to the political undercurrents of the event dismantles the very force of art in this country that the honors celebrate: the freedom, nay, the obligation to express oneself honestly and without fear. Ultimately, there is no greater honor than that freedom.

In the end, I decided to attend wearing a peace symbol around my neck and a purple ribbon on my lapel, at once showing support for our young men and women in the armed services and calling for their earliest return home. My family did the same, as did a number of fellow attendees who, over the weekend's various events, asked me for ribbons of their own.
Since I do not expect the great majority of people to question the most fundamental assumptions underlying the ongoing collapse of our republic (in slow motion or on a faster schedule, depending on events), I view this as an entirely honorable choice -- made still more honorable by Fleisher's decision to discuss his concerns publicly.

About Fleisher's actions and his article, Mona Charen -- one of the most predictable, completely conventional and unoriginal inhabitants of The Corner -- writes:
This is the most graceless stunt I’ve seen [in] a while.


Listen Maestro, if your feelings were so strong you could have declined the honor. Instead you basked in the event ("I was pleased to be part of an event that raises money for the Kennedy Center and to be with my family and to see their joy at the ceremony") and now you shoot over your shoulder at the president who feted you.

Obviously, Fleisher, like every American is fully within his rights to express his views on anything in the world. But to do it in this way, at this moment, is quite a shameful performance. Booooo.
As indicated above, I don't disagree with Charen that an unmistakably strong message would have been sent if Fleisher had refused the honor altogether. One can only imagine the terms in which Charen would have condemned that. However, as I also said, such an action would be highly unusual in today's world. The fact that such things almost never happen explains in very large part why our world is the way it is -- but I will not criticize Fleisher for his choice.

To repeat: almost everyone accepts that the state should be in this kind of business. Charen doesn't question that; neither does Fleisher. Given this axiomatic view of the way the world works, and the way the world should work, to make known one's disapproval in the manner Fleisher did requires a considerable degree of courage. Since the state seeks to use its subjects' accomplishments to burnish its own image, it is precisely when the state seeks to use you that you must make your disagreements known. This is what Fleisher did, and I applaud him for it. (This question raises a series of very complex related questions; I began to deal with some of them in, "The Honor of Being Human: Why Do You Support?" In many situations -- although certainly not all -- it is a grave error to demand that others act in a manner that proceeds from your understanding of the principles involved. You first must try to identify what their understanding is, and to what extent they act with integrity and honor given the context of their understanding, not yours. In the earlier essay, I indicated that this limitation on judgment does not apply, for example, to torture or to the murder of inhabitants of a country that never threatened us, where the relevant principles are apparent to any basically functional adult, if only they will think about them honestly for a few minutes. Yet this is a complex subject, so I will discuss it further in future essays.)

Leon Fleisher's life story, with this latest chapter involving the Kennedy Center Honors and his article in the Washington Post, reminded me of the wonderful Harold Clurman speech that I noted in the first of my series on "The Personal Factor": "Let Us All Become Artists Unto Ourselves." (The second part of that series, "You're Either with the Resistance -- or with the Murderers" -- makes clearer those situations in which it is entirely just to demand that people say, "No.") Because Clurman's remarks are crucially relevant and resonate so deeply for me, and because they express this idea with eloquent brevity, I repeat them here:
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.
When you listen to Fleisher's Two Hands -- in particular, to his performances of Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" or Chopin's D-flat Major Nocturne -- you are struck by the marvelous sense of unending line, the joyous submersion in complex sonority and texture, by the feeling of unutterable beauty, so overwhelming that it leaves one breathless. And you are struck by an additional quality: a feeling of quiet, luminous serenity.

Fleisher is almost 80 now. He has seen early triumph, despair and loss, years of dedication and courage, and triumph again. If he enjoys such serenity today -- and I deeply hope he does -- he has earned it.

Bravo, Maestro. I applaud you with both hands -- and with a full heart.