Monday, May 30, 2016


   I first discovered Shostakovich’s music when the Music Appreciation Club of Brooklyn Technical High School went to hear Toscanini perform the Leningrad Symphony, the Seventh, with the NBC Symphony. While I found out decades later that the composer strongly disapproved of that rendition, I was quite smitten. Many years later, I remember driving along on a highway, I don’t remember where, and hearing his Fifth on the car radio of what sounded like a particularly vital performance; the conductor turned out to be Bernstein. Since those days I have acquired recordings of all the symphonies, conducted by Mariss Jansons with quite an array of different orchestras. I have CDs of all the quartets and I have the scores for them. I got those scores when I asked the big wig of the Russian department at Northwestern—who frequently went to visit the Soviet Union—to bring me a copy of the quartet scores, thinking of inexpensive miniature scores of the kind I had quite a few. What I received instead were two large hard cover volumes, pulled out from the set of Shostakovich’s Complete Works that he talked some acquaintance to give up. I was embarrassed and reciprocated, guided by my colleague. A wonderful work I only discovered more recently, Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues for piano: Bach brought up to date.
   I haven’t read much about the composer beyond Solomon Vokov’s Testimony, but now I have just finished Julian Barnes’  The Noise of Time. He calls it a novel and I suppose that is what it is, but in effect it is wholly biographical, based on the best available sources, without the de rigueur scholarly trappings. He says nothing that does not reflect what I know and a great deal more that is utterly plausible. There are numerous reviews of this Barnes oeuvre to be found on the internet.
   There is no sign that Shostakovich was ever less than confident about his compositions or concerned about their appeal to audiences, but that was not enough in the days of Stalin. Shostakovich was subjected to severe criticism by Stalin (the great musical expert) for his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsenks and ever since worried that he might be eliminated, Stalin-style. Fearfulness was his way of life during those years, though throughout it, he was busy composing, about which Barnes doesn’t say very much. In effect, the book tells the story of Shostakovich as a citizen—though that’s not quite the right word—rather than of the composer.
   Under Khrushchev’s reign he was honored and dragooned to join the party. In a variety of ways, he was always on the outs with the country of his birth. I know of no other composer, certainly not of Shostakovich’s stature, who had to cope with what amounts to a hostile political environment, at times fiercely so.
   I suppose that as a composer, Shosti is most plausibly compared with Gustav Mahler. He probably comes in second between those two, certainly in appearance on the world’s concert programs. But unlike Mahler, he is remarkably versatile, with scores for ballets and films (Gebrauchsmusik?), several concertos, most of which are played, two operas, one of which, The Nose, (written when the composer was twenty-two years old) was recently—and flamboyantly—staged by the Met, fifteen symphonies, to fifteen string quartets, some of which are currently played.  I don’t know a twentieth century composer with as large and versatile an output. Certainly not one who can write music that is truly sardonic.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Mexico City and Beyond

View from Mexico City: One Foot in the First World, One in the Developing World
       Soon I will have lived four years in Mexico City. I love it: it’s a great city, very worthy to be the capital of a country with population close to 129 million. The architecture of numerous of its buildings—not just those by “name” architects—is more interesting, more imaginative than that in any US city I am familiar with. The cityscape also benefits greatly from the fact that wherever you look it is green. There is no corner of the place that isn’t graced by trees, many very large in height and bushiness. And there is probably no place from which one does not see, in all directions, green hedges, just about always groomed.  Many, maybe most, of the small trees and bushes, everywhere, have undergone the treatment of the topiary art, with a considerable fraction of them made to assume humorous shapes, mostly of animals. I speculate that there are more gardeners in Mexico City than in any city on the globe. All this is true of the areas of the city I know. They stretch quite far, but certainly do not include the poorest parts of a very big expanse.
   What you also see quite often, as you walk or drive around the city, are works of sculpture, many of them quite large. Some are really interesting, some less so. In any case it is a distinction that these sculptures are so ubiquitous. To be sure, all of the above applies to the parts of the city that I have visited, and there are quite a few of those. However, I have not been to the poorer sections of the city or to whatever slums there may be in a city covering a very large area.
   What you also see most any time is a huge amount of automobile traffic that at certain times of the day (which is known by alert inhabitants) excruciatingly reduces the pace at which you move toward where you are going. But when you drive—which I don’t do myself, but I am a frequent passenger—you almost always find yourself on well-maintained roads. That is not so when you walk. Many sidewalks–indeed, most of them—go from uneven and full of hills and valleys to being impassable by any but very athletic people.
   I will not even try to give an account of what you might call the city’s “content” and just select a couple of categories by way of sample. “Mexico City is the city with the most museums in the whole world. According to the National Council for Culture . . . . In Mexico City . . . there are 141 buildings registered by Conaculta, where you can learn about its cultural, social, political and economic heritage.”1  I’ve sampled a few that are devoted to the visual arts and can attest to the interestingness of the permanent collections of some and to the adventurousness of others in mounting changing exhibits. A week of strenuous trudging from one museum to another might get you to all those devoted to the visual arts. 
   I might interject here that that a week devoted to visiting one establishment after another is much facilitated by the numerousness of taxis that will get you around town swiftly, traffic permitting, and quite inexpensively.
   Another place to which you might want to take a taxi is to one of the zillion restaurants in Mexico City, restaurants with every kind of food and in all classes, from simple to really posh. I might note parenthetically that in just about all of them you will find the service to be from good to excellent. Almost wherever you are, if you are hungry and don’t want to wait, stand still or walk a few steps, look around and you will surely find yourself in the presence of at least two three restaurants, since there are lots of them all over the place.
   There is much to do and see here; I’m not producing a guidebook; plenty are available and the internet is very generous with information. But one final point not always noted: the city benefits from the dual fact that it is quite a bit South of the US—which would suggest that it is quite hot; but it is also 7200ft (2200meter) above sea level, making it 1500ft (457m) higher than Denver. That location modifies the climate to almost always “pleasant.” It rains, but even in the rainy season, never for very long. The city is a great place to live—and to visit.
   And yet, it does not quite escape the taint of  Developing Worldishness. There is widespread talk of corruption about which, as an arrivist, I don’t myself have information and the city’s institutions seem to be cumbersomely bureaucratic. But what I do not know is whether those two traits, much mentioned by the inhabitants, are peculiar to Developing World countries or whether some of the First World (not to mention the Second) suffers from the same infirmities, if perhaps not to the same degree.
   There is one fact about the city that puts one of its feet squarely into the Developing World category. The water that comes out of the tap in one’s house is not potable. There is therefore a huge industry that supplies all households that can afford it with mega-bottles of drinkable water. That public transportation is not what it should be does not distinguish the city from many in the First World, but the inadequate water supply does so most surely. While the city really should get its act together and clean up its water, I’m not holding my breath. The Drinkable Bottled Water industry will use its political influence, probably including bribes, to see to it that things remain as they are.
     I will now plunge into major institution that requires me to classify the country (not just the city) as being of the Developing World. Mexico’s mail system is atrocious and if I could find a stronger disparaging word I would use it. The locals, I have been told, will never send a check by mail, addressed to whomever; that lack of confidence it the mails is well-nigh universal.
   My own experience is terrible. Things that were sent to me, mostly but not only books, never arrived, permanently made to disappear by the postal bureaucrats between there (wherever) and our house.
   The Mexican mail service has cost me quite a bit of money, in toto a couple of hundred dollars I estimate.  It would be a feather in the cap of any president who would prod the Mexican mail service into the 21st century. But I don’t think that will happen because the people—ordinarily people—fail to have enough clout to improve an institution that affects them. I’m 89 and an outsider and I don’t expect to live see a real improvement.
   One final point. There may be dubious aspects to Mexican governments at all levels, but that does not prevent non-governmental institutions from thriving. Two examples, both within walking distance from our house. One is a department store, Liverpool, that would be welcome in any US city. Stocked with merchandise on the several floors of the building, varied and well displayed, with excellent service to match. The second is a City Market, a model food store, quite compact but with an amazing variety in every category from cereals to ice creams, to cheeses to different breads and cakes and much more, again all cared for by excellent personnel, obviously well trained. City Market would do well on Madison Avenue, but given New York ordinances, it would have to leave behind its splendid selection of liquor and wine.
   All these remarks are based on my quite superficial acquaintance with Mexico City and very little experience with the regions beyond it. Still, these observations will give you an idea of the place.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

President Obama's Visit to Hiroshima


   President Obama is about to visit Hiroshima and has made it clear that he will not apologize for us having dropped the bomb. Emphatically, he is right not to do so. The war had been going on for four years and its next task would have been an allied invasion of Japan, mostly by American armed forces. Such an invasion, necessary to defeat Japan, would have been immensely costly in equipment and, especially, in human lives. Paul Fussell, a soldier in the war and later a distinguished professor of English, has vigorously defended the dropping of that bomb1 for saving the thousands of lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. I was in boot camp when the bomb was dropped and soon came to realize that instead of becoming an endangered cog in the wheel that would finish off the Japanese, I would have a peaceful career in the US Navy.
   Indeed, that’s what I had. It took me to China where I was able to visit several cities, but my ship made only one quick trip to Japan, to Sasebo. Even there I did not get beyond the harbor, not to mention to nearby Nagasaki, where the second, and in my view unnecessary, atomic bomb was dropped.
   But many years later, not as a teenager, but as a white-haired retired professor, I did get to Hiroshima, as a tourist on a boat, that stopped at many interesting Japanese sights. We visited Hiroshima, now sixty-something years later, a city elegantly reconstructed, with prominent features that memorialized its past as a victim of the most powerful explosion ever.
  One of these is a museum—not a big one, but not tiny either, the Peace Memorial Museum. I don’t remember all of its exhibits, but I remember the main theme that runs through just about all of them. What I found annoyed me to the degree that I started a lengthy discussion with my fellow travelers when we were all gathered back on the ship.
   Succinctly, the museum’s main theme, maybe its only one, is how we Japanese—and not only we inhabitants of Hiroshima—were victims during the Second World War, how in many different ways we suffered. The exhibits depicted the Japanese as victims, as sufferers. There is just one small reference in that museum that quietly declares that Japan started the war. Only a very alert and thoughtful Japanese visitor to the museum would become conscious of the fact that there would not have been all that Japanese suffering had Japan not brought the United States into the war by bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Needless to say, there is nothing about the fierceness of Japanese fighting, the murderous oppressiveness of Japanese occupations--think of the massacre at Nanking--nor about the cruelty of Japanese prisons.
   I know very little about Japanese history, nor about the country’s sociology, so that I have only a rather vague notion as to why the Japanese are so reluctant to recognize the sins of their past. Their attitude is very different from that of today’s Germans who for many years have acknowledged the evils of their Nazi history. Perhaps the difference in attitudes is rooted in an important difference in the postwar history of the two countries.
   Today’s Germany is in many ways discontinuous from its past of those dozen years ruled by Adolf Hitler. When German defeat was in sight, Hitler committed suicide and the leaders of the German government either fled the country or also committed suicide or they were arrested by the Allies and then tried at Nuremberg, though many quietly stayed in their jobs. At the highest governmental levels, the break was pretty sharp. After le deluge—Adenauer. As for the German people, they had the choice of either rejecting Nazism or of keeping their mouths shut.
   In Japan, the Allies—mostly the US under General MacArthur—insisted on installing a parliamentary government, a major change. But there was continuity nevertheless, importantly symbolized by the fact that Hirohito, who was Emperor of Japan throughout the war continued to be Emperor of Japan until his death in 1989.
   These political facts are by no means enough to explain the reluctance of many of Japan’s leaders to acknowledge the country’s past transgressions and leave it to students of Japanese civilization to provide explanations for this reluctance to face up to Japan’s history.
  I grant that a museum in Hiroshima is not obligated to exhibit the many Japanese actions that prompted their opponents to resort to that horrendous measure to win the war, of using a weapon that demolished an entire city in a thrice. But it would also be appropriate for such a museum to make it clear that if Japan had not started that war, Hiroshima would not have been destroyed.
   I hope that on his visit to Hiroshima, President Obama will make it clear that the destruction of their city was a response to Japan's horrendously aggressive role as our enemy in the second World War.    


Friday, May 13, 2016

US Politics in Ancient Days

   This OpEd was written in March, 2003, a decade and a half ago. My sloppy record does not tell me whether the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ever printed it. Can you think yourselves back to the pressing issues of those days? It's not an easy task, but try to do so, if only for the sake of finding out how far we have come--and how for better or for worse.

Crashing Through the Looking Glass
Rudolph H. Weingartner

            We’ve moved into a topsy-tervy world Alice never dreamed of.  If living in it didn’t have such horrendous consequences, that tale would be even more amusing than those of Lewis Carroll.  Our betters—the people we have chosen to govern us—seem to have imbibed of a potion that has them turn our world upside down.
            The majority of the federal appeals court in St. Louis, to begin our journey, ruled the other day that a deranged prisoner may be forced to take a drug that will, while it functions, make him sufficiently sane to meet the Supreme Court’s sanity requirement for being executed.  That’s like forcibly attaching a prosthesis to a one-legged captive so that he can be made to jump from the frying pan into the fire.  The fact that the “restoration” of the prisoner’s sanity would lead to his execution was irrelevant, the court’s majority declared, to the appropriateness of compelling him to be sane, at least while he remains alive.
            This ruling affects but one person now and probably not many in the future, but is nevertheless a good example of the wackiness that resembles nothing so much as an infectuous disease.  Many have made fun of the nuttiness that has urged us to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect our houses from chemically or biologically polluted air.  But I’ve not seen comments about the magnitude of that project.  I calculateed that my comfortable middle class home would require 422 linear feet of duct tape plus 430 square feet of plastic.  Given that we are a population of 290 million and assuming that on the average four people live in a housing unit and, further, that my own commodious dewelling has four times the barricading requirements of the average, the country would need about 7.7 billion feet of tape and approximately 7.8 billion square feet of plastic to keep all of the US breathing easy—at least at home, since I haven’t included places of business.
            Probably, this Homeland Security recommendation was just another effect of the disease that has been spreading through governmental circles.  But when the exhortation to buy was followed by the injunction not actually to use this gear, it is easy to become suspicious that the real point was to give a boost to the homewares industry.
            We do, after all, know that the economy needs tending to, even if we don’t think it should be done in the way that our infected Washingtonians have in mind.  The massive tax reductions that have been proposed have been much discussed.  But that plan has not been clearly enough juxtaposed with the desperate straits in which our states and cities find themselves—the worst in more than half a century.  What are these states and cities doing to alleviate their fiscal woes?  Both Democratic and Republican governors and mayors expect to raise taxes in order to pay unavoidable bills, in the absence of adequate help from Washington.  Alice would have a clever verse to describe this nuttiness.  I can only fall back on two clich├ęs: money is being taken from Peter to pay Paul and we know full well who is at what end of the stick.
            How Washington is infected by topsy-tervyness in international affairs has been consuming hours of television time and acres of newsprint.  Our betters come close to shirking their responsibility concerning a present danger while obsessively pursuing a future possible one.  North Korea actually possesses nuclear bombs plus the capacity to send them overseas, while Iraq, which we threaten with immanent war, has not yet managed to get that far.  Our government is rightly concerned about the lack of assurance that Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons have been destroyed.  No doubt, that lethal material is being stored in hard-to-detect bunkers.  Yet at the same time, a war is in preparation that, if it breaks out, will surely bring those weapons out of their hiding places—to be used on us and our friends.
            Our friends—that is, if we still have any.  Perhaps the deepest sympton of the upsidedown disease that has conquered Washington is its attitude toward the nations with which we share this planet.  Globalism is our policy Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  At bottom, there is but one economy, we insist, that transcends all national borders.  Togetherness is the watchword on those days of the week.  But when the occasion arises to do something together—prevent global warning, create a court that encompasses that globe, or prevent a vicious dictator from acting up, it is Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday.  On those days, Washington is for going it alone and unilateralism wins out. We are prepared to turn all of our friends into antagonists so as to avoid the compromises that are inevitably exacted by cooperation. This is a unilateralism that will be isolated from all who matter on this globe for countless years to come.
            Reality is not where Washington sees it. We badly need an antidote that will reverse the disease that has gripped the city from which we are governed.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The World of Lucretius

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

   I just finished reading it. As a winner of a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, it has been conspicuously recognized as mega-worthy.1 Well, after reading it, I agree with that judgment: it’s a very good book, engagingly written. I do have a couple of criticisms, one of commission and another of omission. I’ll explain briefly, but I want to make it clear that these remarks should discourage no one from reading The Swerve.
   Swerving is what atoms do in Lucretius’s Latin poem that expands on the picture of the world put forward by the Greek writings of Epicurus  two and a half centuries earlier;2 only fragments survive of Epicurus’s works. The world, to say a sentence about Lucretius, and everything in it is made up of atoms and their swerving consists of the unpredictable motions they make. The main character of the narrative is Poggio, a passionate book hunter, living in the 15th century, digging up ancient manuscripts in libraries, mostly of them belonging to monasteries. It is he who finds De rerum natura and copies it in the beautiful script for which he was known.
   Poggio’s career is the continuo that holds the book together. In my view, however, that did not call for an elaborate depiction of the establishment of the Vatican, where Poggio was for a time employed, with downright lurid passages about the corruptions of its denizens. I see those passages as a come-on for readers not so interested in the main themes of the book.  As I see it, those “entertaining” pages are an unnecessary diversion.
   My second critique might be considered a “professional” reaction of a long-retired professor of philosophy. Greenblatt’s depiction of the way in which Lucretius’s worldview is “modern,” is to contrast it to the beliefs as to what the world is like at the time of the poem’s “discovery”—in the 15th century, with a few references to somewhat later thinkers.
   Most of the differences that are spelled out between the world of Lucretius and that of Poggio focus on Christian doctrine or, more specifically, Catholic beliefs at the time just before the Protestant reformation. Lucretius’ atomism will have nothing to do with a separation of body and soul, with the latter living after the death of the flesh. But not only the afterlife, basic to Christianity, is denied, but the conceptions of sin and guilt are wholly undermined. Finally—one might say “last but not least”—On the Nature of Things depicts a universe that is, for practical purposes, without God. That’s not quite true, since Lucretius states that there indeed are gods but that they have nothing to do with us or with the world we live in.  It’s a kind of backhanded lip service to conventional beliefs.
   Now the world that Lucretius rejects, to come to my quasi-professorial comment, is not only depicted in the Christian doctrine that Greenblatt discusses. The atomism, rooted in Epicurus, is also radically distinct from the world that Aristotle depicts and that is adapted to Christianity by Thomas Aquinas (1215-1274) who lived and worked well before Poggio rediscovered Lucretius’ hymn to a world so radically different. Without trying to give an account of this “predecessor” of a world consisting entirely of undifferentiated atoms, let me simply say that this “older” world consists of  countless substances each of which has its own characteristics, related to each other by a great variety of bonds that create a world that one might say is organic, indeed, resembling an organism—a world sharply distinguished from that depicted by Epicurus and Lucretius. One might rightly be critical of my glib characterization of the world of Aristotle and Aquinas, but still recognize that that is a world radically different from a world of undifferentiated atoms swerving in unpredictable ways.
   My criticism: a bit of a discussion of this world within which, so to speak, Christianity functions would have been an appropriate addition to Greenblatt’s admirable book. In the course of such a discussion, the author might also have been both more expansive and specific as to just how, in this way, the world became modern.
 1I may later read some of the many reviews of the book, but at this point I haven’t looked at any of them.
Fyi: Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  New York, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2011
 2Epicurus: 241 BCE – 270; Lucretius: 99 BCE – 55.

Monday, May 2, 2016

On Being Jewish--Yet Again

   You have surely noticed that quite a few posts on my blog pertain to Jewishness—mostly mine. I have only lately become aware of this fact and am unclear why that has become such a theme for me. While three of the four people I live with here in Mexico are Jewish—my daughter and my grandchildren (who were bar- and bat-mitzvah)—none of us is seriously observant. (While I have been much more so in the past—when still under the influence of my fairly strict father, but shrinkingly so as time went by.
   But then, you can be Jewish without practicing or believing what is prescribed for Jews: to be a non-observant Jew is not a contradiction. We are not inclined to refer to a non-observant Catholic, but would rather say that a person was born a Catholic but has left the church. You don’t really get away with saying that a Jew who was baptized, like many German Jews in the 19th and early 20th century, is no longer Jewish. Felix Mendelssohn, born into a Jewish family was baptized at the age of seven and remained a Jewish composer until he died. Just check out Richard Wagner’s outburst! (See my blog post of December 29, 2015.1)
   Why has Jewishness recently become such a theme for me? I chalk up a lot of what has been happening to my mind to old age—not just the weakening of my memory. I have not spoken German regularly (it had been my only language until I was twelve when we left Heidelberg for New York) since my mother passed away about thirty years ago. But recently, German phrases have been popping into my head, together with simple German songs from my childhood, inadequately remembered. This may not be a symptom of old age, but it certainly is not nostalgia. While I did not particularly suffer under Hitler, my parents certainly did. In any case, I am sharply aware of the fact that my being Jewish characterized all of my life, from that Nazi period on.
   I was appointed dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University in 1973. That made me the first Jewish dean, indeed, the first Jewish administrator above the departmental level. While I noticed and a few others did, no note was really taken of that fact. The president and provost who hired me had been leaders, in their previous roles, of the revolt against a Northwestern admissions officer who was known to have opposed Jews to come to Northwestern. “New Yorkers” was then the euphemism.
   I was dean for thirteen years and being Jewish seemed to make no difference at all. I’ve now gone from Northwestern for almost thirty years and am still in touch with six former NU colleagues, an economist, a philosopher, a chemist, and a professor of English literature, plus a retired dean’s office denizen whom I had hired in 1974, plus my biggest faculty catch and become friend, Garry Wills.  All except for the last two, I’ve belatedly come to realize, are Jewish!  Two of them had been appointed by me to serve as associate deans in the College’s office.
   Until now, I was completely unaware of the commonality of their Jewishness. While I am in no way an ideologue pushing Jewish causes, at least not consciously, I find these facts to be a startling post-fact revelation.
   That’s the story. I’m always grateful for comments.
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