September 29, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good: Dmitri Hvorostovsky is a much-loved operatic baritone. He's a fine artist, with a beautiful voice. Earlier this year, he announced that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He immediately began treatment, and he cancelled all his engagements for several months.

He was supposed to perform in the Met's current revival of Il Trovatore, but most people expected that he would not be able to take part. But he and the Met announced about a month ago that he would do the first three performances; he was originally scheduled for several more, but after the third performance, he will return to London to resume treatment.

So when he took the stage at the Met last Friday night, the audience gave him a warm ovation when he first appeared. Then, during the final curtain call, something wonderful happened. You can see it here; Hvorostovsky is the very attractive man with his trademarked white mane, who first appears at 0:32. You might want to watch the whole sequence to get the full effect (it's only five minutes long), but the wonderful thing starts at about three minutes in. A lot of people in the audience and on stage cried; I did, too. (The curtain call is described here.)

I fervently hope that Hvorostovsky enjoys a full recovery. It's just too awful to think these performances might be the last ones he does at the Met. He's 52 years old.

And here's a special treat for all those interested: the second performance of Trovatore, with Hvorostovsky, will take place tonight. It begins at 7:25 pm EST, and you can listen to it on the Met's free audio stream: right here.

The Bad: From time to time, I mention that I frequently challenge myself about the truth of the ideas I regularly discuss, and whether those ideas do, in fact, explain certain phenomena in the manner I claim. I am convinced that anyone who takes ideas at all seriously, and certainly anyone who writes about politics and culture with any regularity, must do this. I could say I exaggerate when I remark that I say to myself, at least once a week (and more commonly, at least once a day), "Arthur, everything you think is wrong." But I'm not exaggerating: that's exactly what I say to myself. If more people followed this practice, we wouldn't read as many pathetic. exhausted, moth-eaten explanations and defenses of people's views as we unfortunately do.

I submit to this self-imposed challenge with regard to one subject more than any other: my view of the crucial nature of Alice Miller's work. A critical part, indeed the critical part of Miller's thesis is the devastating impact of parents' major lesson to their children: the primacy of obedience to authority. All of us are subjected to this lesson. It is most commonly delivered by our parents; if by some miracle, we escape that lesson at home, the idea that obedience is the primary virtue is reinforced by teachers (and by "education" in general), and by numerous factors in the culture at large. In many essays, I've traced the development of this pattern and how the lesson is taught. I've also described the immensely destructive consequences of this lesson, personally, politically, culturally, and in just about every way you can imagine. (The opening sections of this essay provide a good overview of my argument.)

But as I say, I often ask myself if I claim too much for this thesis. Yes, to insist on the critical importance of obedience is bad, even terrible, but perhaps it doesn't explain all that I say it does. I usually have to reflect on the matter only for a few minutes, before convincing myself once again that the situation is at least as dire as I say, and perhaps even worse. And then there are times when I read passages similar to the opening two paragraphs of this New York Times article about the Volkswagen scandal. Take a deep breath (which is not a warning I myself received when I innocently began reading the article, completely unprepared for the horrors that awaited me), and consider this:
BERLIN — As Germany has emerged as the dominant actor in Europe, it has lectured Greece and other debtor nations on the virtues of thrift and lately wagged its finger at countries that balk at receiving a share of refugees from the killing fields of Syria. Its right to lead, based on a narrative of self-sacrifice and obedience to rules, was generally acknowledged.

That is one reason the Volkswagen scandal has shaken the country’s very core. More than just a tale of corporate misdeeds, the disclosure of systematic cheating by one of Germany’s most iconic companies has delivered a sharp blow to its conception of itself as an orderly nation and tarnished its claim to moral leadership of the Continent.
The reporter returns to this theme later in the article; it is clear that she means it.

The idealization of "obedience to rules" and "order" is breathtaking; such qualities are not only virtuous in themselves, but legitimately constitute the basis of the "right to lead." For writers of this kind -- and the overwhelming number of such writers is too hideous to contemplate -- history appears not to exist, including the recent history of Germany itself. It seems that the twentieth century is utterly irrelevant to understanding political and cultural events. One might have thought that "obedience to rules" and "order" were qualities that Germany in particular had learned could lead to destruction and death on a world-horrifying scale. As usual in these matters, one would be wrong.

There is more to be said about this article and its meaning (particularly for those not familiar with my many articles about Miller's work), and I would already have gotten to it -- but that brings me to ...

The Ugly: "Ugly" is perhaps too strong a word; extremely unpleasant is more accurate. Despite my plans to publish at least several posts in September, this month was lost to me. The excessive heat leaves me completely exhausted; even when it gets a little cooler, it takes me several days to get my bearings back. And the heat in September has been truly awful and ghastly. It was frequently in the mid-90s, and it rarely went below the high 80s. The effects on my already bad health have been horrible. Add to that the ongoing intestinal discomfort (not as bad as it was, but still not great -- probably another malady that requires examination, which I won't be able to manage until it gets permanently cooler), and the month was barely survivable. My apologies for the lack of new writing. But as I hope even the brief items above indicate, I'm anxious to get back to posting regularly. There are even more "good" items that I want to share with you. And of course, we continue to be subjected to a full menu of the horrors with which we are all too familiar.

And now we're at the end of the month. As is almost always the case, funds are low. I'm short on the rent, and have no money at all for internet service, and so on. As is always the case, I am profoundly grateful for donations, without which I cannot keep going at all. I've begun sending thank you notes! Yes, I have; I can provide witnesses if required. If you haven't received a note from me yet, you should be receiving one in the near future. I'm determined to learn a few new tricks, even in my aged, decrepit state. If we can't learn some new tricks, we might as well die and decrease the surplus population, as someone observed.

My deep thanks, as always. And now, while we have a somewhat cooler day (they claim that cooler weather arrives more permanently starting next week), I'll return to looking over my numerous notes for new posts, to see where I might begin again.