MARCH 31, 2018
Song of the Day: Ciaconna (from "Partita in D-minor for Violin No. 2"), BMV 1004, is the last part of a five-movement partita (sometimes rendered in its French spelling as "Chaconne," each part corresponding to a dance of the time), written by German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born in 1685 on this date, at least according to the Gregorian calendar. One of the greatest composers of all time, Bach wrote music that was definitive of the Baroque period. This work has a special place in my heart, and I was able to track it down with the help of my friend Roger E. Bissell. The intensity of the piece is displayed by violinists Hillary Hahn and the great Itzhak Perlman [YouTube links]. It has also been played by classical guitarists Andres Segovia and Julian Bream [YouTube links]. Ironically, however, I was first made aware of the piece due to an extraordinary video posted on YouTube in memory of jazz guitarist Joe Pass. It was recorded at the Adelaide Festival S.A. (sometime between 1-8 March 1990). It is heard during a seminar that included Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco Pena, blues guitarist Leo Kottke, classical guitarist John Williams (not the film score composer, whose birthday we celebrated last month as part of my annual Film Music February series), and jazz guitarist Joe Pass. Beginning at around 2:15 in the 5:26 minute video, we are reminded that the classical masters were basically improvisers: they came up with a main theme and then "improvised" variations on the theme, which were written down. Guitarist Williams is obviously fascinated by the spontaneous improvisation of the jazz artist, and to illustrate the spontaneity and brilliance of the process, he lays down the basic melodic structure of the Chaconne, and invites Pass to improvise simultaneously over that melody. Pass throws in a few jazz licks that get a chuckle out of the audience, but the whole video provides us with a lesson on the universality of music. Check out the video clip here [YouTube link]. The piece can also be heard throughout the eerie 1946 film, with Peter Lorre, "The Beast with Five Fingers" [YouTube trailer].
MARCH 27, 2018
The title of this blog entry is a take-off on Anne Heller's biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. The reason for this will become apparent.
I've been having a conversation with a few friends, and among the issues we were discussing was why it seemed that the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand set herself up against so many on the left and the right, and burned so many bridges to folks across the political spectrum, who might have been her allies.
It is as if Rand and her acolytes created a world, a "Galt's Gulch" of their own, which became hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. Even as Rand warned against the fallacy of "thinking in a square," too many of her devoted followers have been incapable of stepping out of that box and critically engaging with the wider intellectual world.
This is not just a debate between those who have advocated a "closed system" approach, which views Rand's thought as consisting only of whatever she wrote or endorsed in her lifetime, versus those who have argued that Rand's philosophy is an open system: that is, we can agree on the fundamentals she set forth in each of the major branches of her philosophy, but that with intellectual evolution over time, there will be many additional contributions that will fill in the many gaps that were left by Rand and consistent with her fundamentals.
On this point, I've always had one major question for those on either side of the divide: Where do we draw the line as to what is "essential" or "nonessential" or "fundamental" or "not fundamental" to Objectivism?
o Her views on why a woman should not be President?
o Her views on the "disgusting" character of homosexuality and on the sexual roles played by men and women?
o Her views on Native Americans?
o Her very specific tastes in painting, sculpture, film, literature, and music?
And the list goes on and on and on. I've never quite heard a satisfactory answer to these questions. It is ironic, too, that so many advocates of the "closed system" approach almost always find a way to bracket out of that closed system the very real contributions made by both Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden---when Rand herself argued that the work of these individuals, prior to her break with them in 1968, were among "the only authentic sources of information on Objectivism."
And regardless of whether one ascribes to a "closed" or "open" system approach, what is the ultimate goal of those who claim to be Rand's intellectual progeny? To be consistent with "Objectivism" or to be consistent with reality? In one sense, the work of anybody influenced by Rand may not be consistent with "Objectivism" but consistent with a "Randian" approach to philosophy and social theory, broadly understood. To this extent, "we are all Randians now."
One thing I think is fairly clear, however: Over her lifetime, Rand definitely became more and more insulated and isolated, unwilling to engage those on the left or the right. And even though she clearly had no problem with "purges" during the days of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, today, those associated with the Ayn Rand Institute have turned such "purges" into an art form.
But I think that at least with regard to Ayn Rand, too many people on either side of the "closed" or "open" system debate tend to be extremely ahistorical in their understanding of Rand's intellectual evolution, which sheds light on why she became more isolated and less ecumenical in her approach to her perceived opponents.
I have argued in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, that, despite her claim of challenging the ideas of 2,500 years of cultural and philosophic thought, neither she nor anyone could possibly extricate themselves from the culture in which they were embedded as they came to intellectual maturity. Every thinker---every person---is of a particular time and place.
On this point, it must be understood that there was always a genuine Russian streak in Rand insofar as she was both a novelist and a philosopher. Throughout the history of the Russian literary tradition, especially during the Silver Age, when Rand was born and came to intellectual maturity, writers were almost always considered both novelists and philosophers (or at the very least advocates of a certain set of intellectual ideas), and virtually all of these writers found themselves on the outskirts of power, using literature as a means to struggle against various kinds of social oppression. Dostoevsky comes to mind and Rand, of course, was a great admirer of Dostoevsky's methods, especially his penchant for using various characters as expressions of certain ideas.
It therefore comes as no surprise that when asked whether she was a novelist or a philosopher, Rand answered: "Both." She is also on record as saying that virtually all novelists are philosophers whether they wish to be characterized as such or not; it is just a question of whether they choose to express their philosophical ideas or assumptions explicitly or implicitly. Most, of course, were writers of implicit "mixed" premises. For Rand, the realm of ideas was inescapable for novelists. She was a master of projecting philosophical ideas in the context of fiction---a very Russian project. And like all the Russian dissident writers before her, those ideas were almost always opposed to the status quo, seeking to alter it fundamentally. In the end, Rand may not have become a full-fledged technical philosopher, but she was a fully radical social theorist, much like her Russian forebears.
Rand did say that the goal of her writing was the projection of the ideal man (and whether she meant it or not, the ideal woman as well). She realized that she had achieved at least a certain aspect of that goal in her creation of Howard Roark, the triumphant architect in The Fountainhead. But she turned to the larger social questions in Atlas Shrugged because, as she has written, there could be no projection of ideal men or ideal women without also projecting the kinds of social relations that such individuals required in order to fully flourish, to bring forth their talents and creativity in a social environment. Sociality was inescapable. Don't be fooled by all her comments about how "society" doesn't exist, that only individuals exist. She stated many, many times that "society" must be treated as a unit of analysis, insofar as it constituted the various social relations among individuals. These relations were expressed in organizations, institutions, and throughout civil society. So the reason she became such an unbending advocate of capitalism "the unknown ideal" was because she recognized that the fullest flowering of ideal individuals could not occur under social conditions that were anything less than free. Even in her essays on the conflict of men's interests, she says that in a less-than-free society, conflicts are a necessary part of the kinds of social relations that both reflect and perpetuate the various forms of statism that had so distorted the character of human social interaction.
Rand may never have wanted to become a technical philosopher, but she was writing nonfiction essays early in her career and the equivalent of philosophical tracts within every novel she authored. You can find these in Anthem, We the Living, The Fountainhead, and, of course, Atlas. Her first nonfiction book, For the New Intellectual, basically extracted all of the philosophical speeches from her works of fiction to show the kinds of ideas she was projecting, even if she had not yet reached the point of full integration. But it is there, right in her novels.
So many people from so many political persuasions were attracted to aspects of her thought. Even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama admitted to having gone through a "Rand" phase. But Rand would have had none of it. Over time, she had systematically demonized conservative, liberals, libertarians, and socialists. But she once stated that her appeal was ultimately to the nontraditional conservatives and the nontotalitarian liberals. I think that as she aged, she realized there were fewer and fewer representatives of those groups.
Among conservatives, she became increasingly frustrated by the ways in which they seemed to "water down" the defense of a free society: she watched as the conservative movement, so committed to the Old Right ideas of noninterventionism both at home and abroad, morphed into a group of rabid anticommunists, hell-bent on fighting a Cold War without end, endorsing everything from military conscription and the emergence of the National Security State to fighting in wars that she opposed (from World War II to Korea and Vietnam). And then there were those conservatives who embraced the Jim Crow laws of apartheid in the South as a means of perpetuating institutional racism, which utterly disgusted her. As the years went by, and her close relationships with those among the Old Right collapsed, she witnessed how conservatives increasingly embraced a religious defense of capitalism, while she was fighting for the idea that capitalism must be defended as the only rational and moral social system (an odd parallel with those atheistic, secular leftists who fought for "scientific socialism").
As for the libertarians, I think a lot of Rand's falling out with that group was due to her experiences with folks from the Circle Bastiat (Murray Rothbard chief among them). I think she was so appalled by the idea of anarcho-capitalism (as both ahistorical and acontextual) that she ended up branding all libertarians as anarchists, something she did not do in the late 1940s and early 1950s (when she even referred to Mises as a "libertarian" and was apt to consider herself a libertarian strictly in terms of her politics). But she lived during a time when, to her, "libertarianism" was as much of a mixed bag as conservatism. And when Rothbard became Mr. Libertarian, she became increasingly hostile to a group of fellow travelers in politics (most of them advocates of limited government rather than of anarcho-capitalism). She repudiated libertarians as "hippies of the right," who then turned around and attacked her with as much ferocity as the religious and traditional conservatives.
Finally, I should add that Jeff Riggenbach has made a persuasive case that Rand had a decisive impact on those among the New Left, those he termed the "disowned children of Ayn Rand," but who were, at various points in their lives, inspired by her call to individualism and to activism (and this included an impact on the emergence of individualist feminism and the gay liberation movement). But, of course, Rand was just as adamantly opposed to the New Left as she was to the conservatives and the libertarians.
So what are we left with? We're left with a woman who wanted very much to reach the minds of people on all ends of the political spectrum, in the hopes that she could decisively alter the trajectory of American politics. And in the end, she had made so many enemies on the left and the right that it became almost impossible for her---or any of her acolytes---to truly engage their philosophical opponents. And those opponents became so hostile to Rand that they sought to remove her from the canon as a thinker worthy only of disdain and dismissal.
Rand's acolytes have only dug-in their heels in response to such attacks, clinging to a siege mentality that cultivated isolation from the wider world. Either you were for Rand in toto or opposed; either you were among the Chosen or the Damned.
For those of us who are so inclined, I think it is essential to address those on the left and the right in a spirit of critical but respectful engagement. That has been the strategy of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. This was a woman who fought the Welfare-Warfare state, who battled on the front lines against U.S. entry into World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and who understood the institutional workings of the warfare state---as much as she fought against the regulatory state that enriched certain business interests at the expense of others and a welfare bureaucracy that became inevitable.
Rand reminded us that those who fight in the future must live in it today. She fought for that future and advocated the kinds of ideas that she believed were essential to the fundamental social change that was possible---and necessary---to the survival of the human species.
MARCH 09, 2018
With Easter fast approaching (though you'd never know it in New York City, given that Ol' Man Winter is still hanging around), I have contributed to a couple of Facebook threads with regard to the differences between the Western Christian versus Eastern Orthodox Christian dates for both Easter and Christmas. I decided to put this on my Notablog because it has sparked some discussion.
I was baptized Greek Orthodox. In fact, my grandfather, the Rev. Vasilios P. Michalopoulos, was the first pastor of one of the first Greek Orthodox churches in Brooklyn, the Three Hierarchs Church on Avenue P and East 18th Street. A monument to him can be found in this Google pic; it is the concrete monument in-between the two trees on the right side, outside the front of the church building.
I was asked on one Facebook thread about the significance of Midnight Mass on Christmas, and I remarked that I had never attended a midnight service in the Greek Orthodox church for Christmas, though I had attended a midnight "divine liturgy" for Easter Sunday. Midnight Mass is a practice that apparently began in the 400s.
There are certain differences with regard to the dates on which both Christmas and Easter are celebrated among the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches in the Western tradition versus the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy. First, with regard to Christmas, the Greek Orthodox celebrate the day on December 25th, along with Western Christianity. There is a difference in dates, however, between the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox celebrations of Christmas. The Greeks follow the revised Julian calendar (which corresponds exactly to the modern Gregorian calendar, adopted by Western Christians), while the Russian Orthodox celebrate Christmas Day on January 7th, the date of the old Julian calendar.
Here's another piece of religious trivia: I was always puzzled, growing up, why the Greek Orthodox commemorated Christ's crucifixion on the evening of Holy Thursday, with the Twelve Gospel readings pertaining to the events that Western Christianity commemorates on Good Friday. On Friday afternoon, however, the Greek Orthodox commemorate the taking down of the body of Christ and its placement in the Epitophios (signifying Christ's tomb).
I later learned that the reason the Greeks begin their commemoration of the Passion on Thursday evening is that, following the Jewish tradition, the new day begins after sundown; so Thursday evening is treated as Good Friday, and the taking of Christ's body down from the cross takes place on Friday, before sundown (which would have been the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, a day on which the body could not have been removed from the cross).
Also, another important fact: the Orthodox Easter almost always follows the Jewish Passover, because tradition holds that Christ came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover; the Last Supper is treated like a traditional Passover Seder. Every so often, the Eastern Orthodox, Western churches and the Jewish Passover all fall together, but typically, you'll always find the Eastern Orthodox Easter following Passover. So, take this year as a perfect example: In 2018, the Jewish Passover takes place from Friday, March 30th to Saturday, April 7th. The Western churches, however, celebrate Easter on April 1st. But according to the Greeks, April 1st would have been Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus came into Jerusalem during the Jewish High Holy days of Passover. And he is resurrected on Sunday, April 8, after the conclusion of Passover (and the end of the Jewish Sabbath).
So if you treat Thursday evening as the beginning of Day 1 and Friday evening as the beginning of Day 2 (and the onset of the Jewish Sabbath), then Saturday evening is the beginning of Day 3. In some churches, the resurrection is celebrated at midnight, while in other churches, it is celebrated at dawn---but in each case, it is meant to signify the Third Day. Having attended the midnight liturgy in the Greek Orthodox church, I can attest to the moving symbolism of the service: It begins with the lighting of a single candle from the altar, signifying the light of the resurrection, and that light is passed from the priest to a member of the congregation, who then passes it to another and another, until the whole church is lit up with the candles of the faithful to celebrate the resurrection. And the congregation sings the hymn of "Christos Anesti" or "Christ is Risen." "Anesti" is "of the resurrection", which is why people who are named Anastasiya or Anastasia, celebrate their "name day" on Easter Sunday, the name being a derivative of the resurrection. Ironically, my mother was named Anastasiya; she passed away during the Greek Holy Week in 1995. At her funeral, the priest remarked that it was just like my mom to have passed away on the Greek Orthodox Good Friday so that she could be resurrected with Christ on Easter Sunday, her name day.
My name day is, of course, Christmas---my actual name is just Chris, but in Greek, it is pronounced "Christos", which is the "annointed one", the word from which Christ is derived.
I have always found these subtle but important differences in the cultural and religious traditions to be of historical interest.
Now I just have to finish up that essay I've been promising for a few years comparing the 1959 version of "Ben-Hur" to the 2016 version. Oy vey.
Song of the Day: When You're Smiling/The Sheik of Araby is a Tin Pan Alley duet made famous by the rip-roaring pair of Louis Prima and Keely Smith. Keely Smith would have been 90 years old today. "When You're Smiling" was written by Larry Shay, Mark Fisher, and Joe Goodwin in 1928; "The Sheik of Araby" featured the music of Ted Snyder and the lyrics of Harry B. Smith and Francis Wheeler, and was a response in song to the popularity of "The Sheik," which starred the smoldering silent screen star, Rudolph Valentino. Greatly influenced by Louis Armstrong, trumpeter and vocalist Louis Prima, a native of New Orleans, brought a spicy touch of Sicily to the popular sounds of jazz and early rhythm and blues. In fact, it was in the largely Italian-owned social clubs of the city that Prima learned much of the vernacular of early jazz. But it was in the magic pairing of Prima with jazz singer Keely Smith that the two would launch one of the earliest and most successful lounge acts on the Las Vegas strip. Though the pair divorced in 1961, their studio and live recordings were legendary. Prima died in 1978 at the age of 67, and Smith died at the age of 89 in December 2017. But at their height, they were selling out five shows a night at the Sahara in Vegas. Check out their duet of this classic medley (with smokin' saxman Sam Butera) and Smith's own 1958 live recording of it as well [YouTube links].
MARCH 05, 2018
Song of the Day: The Champion features the music and lyrics of Chris DeStefano, Brett James, Christopher Bridges, and Carrie Underwood, who recorded this song to open NBC's coverage of Super Bowl LII, but it was used by NBC throughout the 2018 Winter Olympics, which ended on 25 February 2018, and is an appropriate post-Oscar tribute to all those who took home statuettes last night. Check out the Champion vocal pipes of Underwood in the Super Bowl opening and in the official video, which features a rap by Bridges (aka Ludacris) [YouTube links].
MARCH 04, 2018
Song of the Day: Star Wars: The Last Jedi ("A New Alliance") [YouTube link], composed by John Williams, constitutes proof that a Jedi master composer can continue to provide new thematic content to a long-time Star Wars franchise with which he has been associated since 1977. In this cue from one of this year's Oscar-nominated scores to the latest installment of the franchise, we hear a familiar theme, but The Maestro takes us in other directions, transporting us into a galaxy, far, far away, as our annual film music tribute comes to a conclusion. At 86 years old, Williams earns his 51st Oscar nomination with this score; he is only four years younger than the Academy Awards. So, until next year's Film Score February, enjoy the 90th Annual Academy Awards, hosted for the second consecutive year by Jimmy Kimmel. And May the Force Be With You!
MARCH 03, 2018
Song of the Day: The Omen ("Ave Satani"), composed by Jerry Goldsmith, whose birthday we celebrated on February 10th, is the theme that opens the devilishly scary original 1976 film, "The Omen," starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. The film would spawn two sequels, and a 2006 reboot. This song actually received an Oscar nomination in the Best Original Song category, the only song sung in Latin to ever be so nominated---though it would lose to "Evergreen" from the Streisand version of "A Star is Born". Goldsmith still walked away with a well-deserved Oscar for Best Original Score, because it did everything that could ever be asked of a soundtrack: contributing to and augmenting the things we see on the screen. And that it does quite well! Now, let me be clear about one thing; I've been called many things by many folks: a Hegelian, a Marxist, even a nutjob, but one thing I am not is a "Satanist," even if I'm highlighting this song on this day. I am a fan of many film genres and their corresponding scores---horror films among them. And this is certainly one of the most eerie soundtracks to ever be honored in this category---definitely not something to listen to before you go to bed, unless you want 666 nightmares before dawn! Check it out on YouTube. Don't say I didn't warn you! Now here's a bit of ironic horror cinema trivia: On this date, March 3rd in 1692, Elizabeth Selwyn, accused of being a witch, was "Burned at the Stake in Whitewood, Massachusetts" [a metal track from "Horror Classics and Other Tributes to the Darkside" by Those Left Behind]. Before the flames consumed her, she cast a Satanic curse on the town to last for all eternity (spoiler alert: nothing lasts forever). Well, that's how the 1960 British film "City of the Dead" [YouTube film link] opens. It is known to some horror film fans as "Horror Hotel" (which was slightly edited for its American audience) and scared the daylights out of me when I first saw it as a kid. As did "The Omen" [YouTube film clip]. All the more appropriate then to feature this selection from Goldsmith's Oscar-winning score on this devilish date (called "The Witches' Sabbath" in "The City of the Dead")!
MARCH 02, 2018
Song of the Day: Ferdinand ("Home") features the words and music of Justin Tranter, Nick Monson, and Nick Jonas, who sings the lead from this song, which was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, but is not among the nominees for this year's "Best Original Song" Oscar category. It is, however, a highlight from the 2017 3D-animated flick, "Ferdinand." Check it out on YouTube.
MARCH 01, 2018
Song of the Day: Me, Myself, & Irene ("Totalimmortal") was originally recorded by AFI, and featured on their extended play album, "All Hallow's E.P." The song was subsequently covered by The Offspring, and heard over the closing credits for this "black comedy," released in 2000, starring Jim Carrey and Renee Zellweger. Check out the original and its Offspring [YouTube links].